In the 1950s and 1960s, we saw the heyday of the “Theological Dictionaries.” These were examinations of the Greek (and Hebrew) words used in the Bible with a theological eye, looking at earlier usages in classical literature and in various Bible verses with the goal of understanding some sort of theological value behind these words. There were several problems with this approach. First, word meanings change over time, so looking at how Plato used a word might be interesting, but it does not necessarily indicate how Paul might have used the word 500 years later. Second, linguistics has taught us that words have no meaning without context, only potential meaning. Etc., etc. This dictionary angle has survived in the “word study” approach to exegesis, which teaches students to use the theological dictionaries and other sources.
There are legions of examples of someone who has uncovered a meaning of a Greek word that is thought to unlock some type of hidden meaning. In this blog, I will point out some of these from time to time, for they lead to theological mistakes (although these are sometimes more humorous than serious).
One of these is the Greek word ekklesia, which is usually translated “church.” Long ago, some bright Greek student noticed that this is a compound word in Greek, ek + klesia. “Ek” is a preposition meaning “out” or “out of.” “Klesia” comes from a root that means “to call.” Thus, it is reasoned that ekklesia means “the called out.” One more logical step leads us to understand the church as “the called out ones,” presumably those called out of the world.
Now, the word did mean something like this originally. It was used for the calling of the people of a Greek city to an assembly point outside the city for a town meeting. By the time of Paul, though, no one was thinking of “the called out” when they heard this word. They were thinking “assembly.” Ekklesia was the word the early Christians chose to refer to their assembly, similar to the Jewish/Greek word synagoge (which means “the gathered”). Thus ekklesiai tou Christou could be translated “churches of Christ” or “assemblies of Christ.” (Romans 16:16). The latter is more accurate, though.
This wouldn’t be a big deal except some folks have derived theology from this misunderstanding, teaching that the church is made up of those called out of the world. Not only is this an exegetical mistake, it leads to questionable doctrine. While we are taught to be “unstained from the world” (James 1:27), I don’t think the New Testament teaches us to withdraw from the world. Jesus didn’t. Paul didn’t.
When the infamous Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he reputedly said, “That’s where the money is.” Well, how do we reconcile being the “called out ones” with the Great Commission? Isn’t the “world” where unsaved people are? Isn’t the world where the orphans and widows who need justice are? We are not called to be hermits, but ambassadors of Christ.