In the NT, ekklēsia is used in two senses: the church-universal and the local congregation. These parallel the use of ekklēsia in the OT to refer to all of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai or in Jerusalem for worship, the reading of the Law, or the like, or to refer to those Jews who live in a particular city, as in Ezra and Nehemiah.
When Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt under the leadership of these men, most Jews remained in Babylon or otherwise scattered across the Ancient Near East. Even during Jesus’s day, more Jews lived outside of Judea than in Judea — and yet the Jews called to meet with their leaders were the ekklēsia.
Where we miss an important turn is our tendency to equate a modern congregation with the First Century notion of a city’s ekklēsia. You see, in the First Century, there was only one ekklēsia or congregation per city. This fact is often obscured by translations that speak of a “congregation” or “church” that meets in someone’s house. Recent Greek studies reveal that these passages are actually speaking of the part of the church that met in a given house.
Now, the early church certainly met in houses, as we read in many passages, but each house was not a house-church. Rather, the church couldn’t meet in larger spaces because they were generally banned by the Jews from the synagogues and by the Romans from public spaces — and so they met in houses. But it was more like what we call a zone meeting or a small group meeting. Or even more exactly, it was like a modern multi-site congregation with each site being someone’s home. They had a single eldership over a single church that met in multiple locations.
Congregational autonomy as we practice it is not found in the scriptures. Our practice of having multiple congregations in one town, each independent, even isolated, from the others, isn’t how the early church operated. And while God grants great freedom in this area, I think we’ve gone beyond the realm of the permissible.
Allow me to explain. Well, let Gregg Allison explain –
[W]hile it is true that a meaning of the word ekklesia is “assembly,” it is only one of the meanings of that word. An assembly is certainly in view when Paul addresses celebrating the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and regulates the exercise of speaking in tongues and prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:26-40) when the church is gathered together. But ekklesia cannot mean “assembly” in Acts 8:1, for example, when Luke’s point is that the church was “scattered”—not assembled—because of persecution. In fact, the word church can refer to meetings of Christians in houses (Acts 12:12), the church in a city (1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1), all the believers in a region (Acts 9:31), the universal church (1 Corinthians 10:32), and even the saints already in heaven (Hebrews 12:23). Saying that the word ekklesia means “assembly” commits a lexical error.
Accordingly, the church of Corinth would gather regularly for worship in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19), “the house of a man named Titius Justus” (Acts 18:7), the home of Crispus (Acts 18:8), the house of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 16:15), and others. These “church gatherings” distributed among the houses stood in contrast with the “whole church” assembling together, probably in the home of Gaius (1 Corinthians 14:23;Romans 16:23). Importantly, “each of the home-based groups included only parts of the church, i.e. a subset of its membership.” Still, each home-based gathering was a legitimate gathering of the church of Corinth.
In 37 Neotestamentica 1 (2003), Bruce Button and Fika Van Rensburg conclude (first link is to an abstract, but the full text is online as an 8.5 MB download) that Paul refers to the church meeting “in the house” of someone (as usually translated) several times, but “in” translates not en (meaning in) but kat (having a wide range of meanings, including “according to”). It’s not the natural preposition for “in” at all. It’s also used in such verses as –
(Act 2:10 ESV) Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome,
(Act 2:44-47 NAS) 44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
(Act 5:42 ESV) And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
Thus, they conclude that the preposition really refers to the portion of the church distributed to the house, rather than a single, autonomous congregation meeting in a house. The indivisible unit that Paul insists on throughout his writings is thus not the group meeting in a house but the singular church in that community.
(Rom 16:23 ESV) Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.
(1Co 14:23 ESV) If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?
References to gatherings of the “whole church” imply that there were also gatherings of less than the whole.
For a detailed study of kat’/kata as prepositions in the New Testament, see Pamela Margaret Bendor-Samuel, “The Exegesis and Translation of Prepositional Phrases in the Greek New Testament: A Semantic Role Analysis” (Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, April 1996), beginning at page 197.
[to be continued]