Why study this word?
In the context of Luke’s description of the events in Acts 11, ἐκκλησίᾳ or church carries significant weight regarding the interpretation and application of the passage. The term is significant because it locates the context of the actions of Saul’s and Barnabas’s ministry. In Acts 11:26, this word describes where or with whom Saul and Barnabas gathered for an entire year and whom Saul and Barnabas taught. Luke’s use of this term potentially addresses for us both the setting of the teaching (i.e. a public gathering versus a small group or individual setting) and thus the aim and purpose of the teaching (i.e. primarily evangelism for the lost versus instruction for the redeemed).
What can this word mean?
Many words have a range of possible meanings, so the first step in determining what a word means in a given passage of Scripture is to determine all the things that the word can mean. In the case of ἐκκλησία, this word has one overarching meaning in the New Testament: an assembly. Ecclesia has in view both formal assemblies such as a legislative body and informal assemblies such as a casual gathering, as well as very exclusive assemblies such as communities or congregations (i.e. “church”). When specifically referring to a “Christian” assembly, the term can have in view both aspects of the church: the church universal (such as in Matt 16:18 and Acts 9:31) and the church local (such as in Acts 20:17 and 1 Cor 1:2), although the majority of the uses in the New Testament seems to refer to the later and not the former.
What can’t this word mean?
In the case of ecclesia, because of the misuse that often stems from the misunderstanding of word etymology, we need to ask, “What can’t the word mean” before we determine the term’s use in the context of our passage. Ecclesia is the compound of the two Greek roots ἐκ or “out” and καλέω or “to call.” Therefore, the logical assumption would be that the term means or is best understood as “the ones who called out” or “the called out ones.” This translation would seem to take the term as a distinctive Christian or New Testament word. Therefore, in this approach the word distinctively refers to the collection of Christians or those who have been “called” or “called out by God” for a special purpose. However, we must determine development, meaning, and usage based on the range of meaning of a term first by its regular and common use at the time. Much like with a biblical text, a word cannot have a meaning that is separate from its common meaning. Ecclesia had a common use at the time of its usage in the New Testament that identified assemblies beyond the people of God. This is seen clearly by its use in the New Testament itself. The term is used within the Bible to refer to the assembly of legislative bodies (Acts 19:39) and general gathering of a populace (Acts 19:32) not constituted by believers only. Furthermore, Carson addresses this issue by using the examples of a butterfly and a pineapple. No one would make the argument that a butterfly is a fly made out of butter or that a pineapple is an apple of pine. Neither can we take this approach with Greek terms. He refers to this as the “root fallacy.” “One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word. . . . All of this is linguistic nonsense.” Therefore, placing a divine or distinctively “Christian” designation on ecclesia is not the best practice that will yield the most precise or accurate understanding of the term. Better to understand that in the New Testament it always refers to “an assembly” and to ask what type of assembly the context suggests or who the assembly is made up of. When it is used to refer to the church, ecclesia refers to an assembly of believers or of the redeemed (Acts 20:28).