Why the word ekklesia for church?

 The Greek word for “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia (pronounced ek-lay-see-ah), as in Acts 11:26, when “for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church (ekklesia).” 

Ekklesia was in use, however, long before the Christian church came into existence. It described the citizens of a city being called together by the local council to a public place to deliberate legal, political and business matters relevant to their city. In other words, an ekklesia was a wide open communal discussion on very practical matters. It was not a religious word at all, and yet this word was used for (and by) the church. 

Why? Well, the two root words of ekklesia ek meaning “out of,” and the verb kaleo meaning “to call” – nicely fit the description of Christians being called out of the world. And being called out to meet together in a public place also fitted in nicely with meeting together as Christians. 

But there was more to ekklesia than that, because in its original and familiar Greek meaning it described people in a community being summoned from their homes to assemble in a public place for – note – open discussion and debate on important and relevant issues. 

And it wasn’t just discussion and debate among the leaders either; it included everyone in the community. Which is what we find the church doing in Acts 15. A “sharp dispute and debate” had arisen over whether Gentiles should be circumcised” (verses 2-3), so the church assembled together, heard the evidence, after which “the whole church” (verse 22) agreed on what to do.

This was ekklesia in its full Greek sense in action. It includes lots of open discussion on relevant issues covering a wide range of different opinions and perspectives, and coming to conclusions that satisfy all involved. 

Compare that to churches today, where denominational tradition and denominational hierarchy rather heavily decide what’s what, with little to no input asked for from the members. I doubt the Bereans in Acts 17, however, would have put up with that. When Paul and Silas arrived in Berea with their interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures, the Bereans “with great eagerness examined the scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (verse 11). They were all for open discussion and debate to get to the truth of Scripture they could all happily agree with. 

In ekklesia, then, the early Christians found a word that reflected what we as Christians are called out of the world for. It’s to meet together to learn, discuss and debate what Scripture says and how it applies to us personally in the world we find ourselves in.

3 thoughts on “Why the word ekklesia for church?

  1. ENCORE from January 26, 2023, by request:

    Traditions are just that—traditions—the “traditions of men.” Nowhere in the Bible does it say we are to keep the formulas, customs and practices of the “church”—the traditions of the elders, so to speak. This is what is commonly called “churchianity” and is considered a form of bondage. Jesus actually warned against that by saying that the elders have made the commandments of God of none effect by their traditions. (Matt 15:6)

    The word “church” is actually a mistranslation. The original Greek word for “church” is “ekklésia” which means “the called out ones” or the “called out assembly.” According to HELPS word studies, “ekklésia” is “the universal (total) body of believers whom God calls OUT from the world and INTO His eternal kingdom.” In other words, it’s the spiritual “body of Christ.” It has nothing to do with “going to church,” the external form of what is supposed to be an internal calling.

    The source for the word “church” is a bit sketchy. The most probable etymology of the word would be from the Greek phrase “kuriakon oikia”—{kuriakos: belonging to the Lord (kyrios); oikia: house}—thus, “House of the Lord” or “Lord’s House.” So, it’s not the same word as “ekklésia.”

    Another probable source is from the Old English “cirice,” “circe” or “cyrce,” meaning: “place of assemblage set aside for Christian worship; the body of Christian believers, Christians collectively; ecclesiastical authority or power,” from Proto-Germanic kirika (source also of Old Saxon kirika, Old Norse kirkja, Old Frisian zerke, Middle Dutch kerke, Dutch kerk, Old High German kirihha, German Kirche); (the Old Church Slavonic criky, Russian cerkov; Finnish kirkko, Estonian kirrik are from Scandinavian); the Scottish for church is “kirk.” The *PIE (Proto-Indo-European) root is “keue” meaning “to swell” (“swollen,” hence “strong, powerful”), also “vault, hole” (etymonline.com). This PIE root gives the sense of “being puffed up,” if you catch my drift.

    In any case, the Greek adjective “kuriakon/kyriakon” (of the Lord) or “kuriake/kyriake” (Lord’s) was used of houses of Christian worship since about 300 A.D. So the English word “church” more often refers to the building where Christians meet. It’s “an example of the direct Greek-to-Germanic transmission of many Christian words” (etymonline.com) that came to us by way of the Gothic migrations of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries A.D.

    What I find particularly interesting is that the Old English “circe” for “church” is the same word as “Circe” of Greek mythology. “Circe” was the name of the Greek goddess of sorcery or magic. This name is the Latin form of the Greek “Kirke.” The similarities are too striking to miss.

    Another similar word is “circle” or “circus (ring, circular line).” “Late Old English used circul, from Latin…..of things felt to be analogous to a circle: The meaning ‘group of persons surrounding a center of interest’” (etymonline.com).

    Circles were often used in pagan culture as a protective barrier against evil spirits, and are still used by practitioners of paganism today, such as the magic circle or the prayer circles. Oh yeah, the prayer circle is pagan in origin, and all paganism is Babylonian in nature. Nowhere in the Bible does it say Christians are to form a circle to pray. But like so many other modern “traditions of men,” it can be traced back to the early “apostate church” which has adopted a lot of the pagan rites, rituals, and ceremonies.

    Having said all that, we are to “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive any of her plagues” (Rev 18:4). We are to turn away from the binding and blinding “traditions of men,” and to follow the Lord, Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth wherever He goes. I find letting go of the many “church” traditions, one by one, extremely liberating.

    Then Jesus said … “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31-32)



    Regarding circles, I thought it might be of interest to mention that God used circles as well. For example, the seven “churches” were located roughly in a circle around a major trade route with Ephesus as the focal point. However, we have to remember that these were pagan cities, and the seven “churches” were located in the midst of paganism. We need to be able to differentiate between that which is of God, and that which is of Babylon (or paganism).

    Here’s another one—GILGAL in the Old Testament: Gilgal means “circle of stones.” It was the first stop in the land of Canaan after the Israelites crossed the Jordan. Israel was called the “CHURCH in the wilderness” by Stephen in the Book of Acts (7:38). Some translations say “congregation,” or “assembly” instead of “church.”

    “Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in GILGAL on the east border of Jericho. And those TWELVE STONES which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in GILGAL. Then he spoke to the children of Israel, saying: “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these STONES?’ then you shall let your children know, saying, ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land’…..which He dried up before us until we had crossed over, that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Lord, that it is MIGHTY…..” (Joshua 4:19-24, NKJV).

    It was also the place of which the Lord said: “All their evildoing began in GILGAL. It was there that I began to hate them. And because of the evil they have done, I will drive them out of my land. I will not love them any more; all their leaders have rebelled against me.” (Hosea 9:15, GNT). Sounds a lot like the corporate “churches” of today whose apostasy began in early church history.

    Gilgal with its “circle of stones” brings to mind another place with its “circle of stones”—Stonehenge. Theories abound as to the purpose of this giant monument, but the overriding consensus seems to be that of pagan origin and use. There are hundreds of such monuments throughout the world, generally thought to be of pagan origin also.

    In spite of all that, at the dawn of creation, God caused everything in the universe to operate in “circular motion”—from the galaxies, to the planets and their moons, to the tiny atoms. And He sustains everything by the “MIGHT of His hand.” How incredibly AWESOME is our God!!


  3. Hosea 9:15 probably refers to the incident recorded in 1 Samuel 13 when king Saul, because of the threat of the Philistines and being pressured by the Israelites to do something besides waiting for Samuel the prophet, offered a burnt offering himself, for which he was reprimanded by Samuel and informed that he would lose his kingdom as a result of his disobedience. This happened in Gilgal.


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