What Does It Mean?

Jack M. Lane

Few of us understand the Greek language. But there is one particular Greek word many of us have learned over the past few years. This one word has become a line drawn in the sand in many church congregations. What does it mean? And how does it affect our relationship with others in our congregations?

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gave His disciples the grievance procedure to be used when a brother in the church sins against another. The instructions are rather plain, yet it seems disagreements can arise over what the Bible actually teaches here.

The disagreement begins when a church member points out what he sees Christ has said, but then the pastor tells the member that Christ actually said something different. This has led to confusion in some church congregations, and an on-going deterioration in the relationship between the clergy and church members.

Controversy surrounding one verse has become a serious problem in some congregations. Let's review the three steps Jesus gave and see what is really being taught here.

Step One

If "your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother" (Matthew 18:15).

The situation here is one of sin, not just if someone offends us or makes us angry about something, or seems to be doing something the wrong way. If someone actually sins against us, we should of course be forgiving in our own attitude, but we should also be afraid for the well-being of the one who sinned against us! That person's eternal life could be at stake if they are in a sinful, rebellious attitude. Jesus said to go to that person privately, and try to win him or her back, not so much to keep a friend, but to regain our brother or sister in Christ.

The Second Step

"But if he will not hear you, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established" (verse 16).

In order to give the sinning brother or sister another opportunity to repent, Jesus recommends going right back to the errant one, this time taking along a witness or two. If it is possible to take one or two people who actually witnessed the sin being committed, that would be helpful. However, since it isn't always possible to find witnesses to the actual sin, the intended meaning here is to have one or two people along to witness the earnest conversation we are to have with the wayward church member, as we attempt to convince them of the error of their way, to save their soul from the Lake of Fire! The other one or two people can also help to persuade the member of the seriousness of their actions in rebelling against God and their church brother.

The Third Step

"And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church [Greek: ekklesia]. But if he refuses even to hear the church [ekklesia], let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector" (verse 17). The third attempt to help the church member is to bring the matter directly to the church, with the offended party and the two witnesses testifying as to the matter. If the person remains unrepentant after these three attempts have been made to help, the church must assume that the person is unrepentant.

The unrepentant person is then to be treated the same way church members treat any other heathen or tax collector. How? By lashing out at them emotionally, by deliberately shunning the person, by vilifying the person in public? Certainly not. How are we to treat a heathen today? With contempt? No, with Christian love and kindness.

What does it mean to be a "heathen"? The word is similar to the word "Gentile." A heathen or a Gentile person is simply not a member of our church or congregation. They may be irreligious or an infidel, but are not evil simply because of that. The same applies to tax collectors. We may not like tax collectors (or, more precisely, we may not enjoy it when taxes are collected!), but tax collection is a fact of life, and we treat tax collectors with the same dignity and respect anyone else is due. This is how Jesus was telling us to treat someone we thought was a member of the church, but who was apparently unrepentant.

There is also no direct reference here to excluding the guilty party from services, although other scriptures tell when that course of action is appropriate. Under some circumstances, the person may be just as welcome at services as before, but the congregation is aware that the person is to be treated like anyone else from the world, rather than a converted Christian.

What Does Ekklesia Mean?

The Greek word ekklesia simply means a group, crowd, congregation, assembly, church congregation, or meeting of a city's population. That's basically it. In a religious context, we say that ekklesia means "called out ones," in the sense that God called us out of the world and into His Family. The word is frequently translated "church" in the KJV; other translations may use the word "assembly" or "congregation." In any event, the meaning of ekklesia is clear -- to most people.

The ministry of the corporate Church of God organizations in many cases have been trained, and have taught others, that in Matthew 18:17 Jesus said, "take it to the ministry. But if he refuses to hear even the minister...". There have been numerous occasions, in many areas, where someone will attempt to point out the correct meaning to the minister, and the minister will say, "Yes, that means 'ministry' there." No, the person may respond, ekklesia doesn't mean "ministry," at that point or anywhere else in the Bible. It means the congregation, the assembly. The minister will hold his ground, insisting that "minister" is what the verse means.

Have you had this conversation? More than once, with more than one minister? It's an interesting experience. If you haven't experienced this, you probably know someone who has. While the minister stands there, unable to show the church member where he or she is wrong and the minister is right, even though the true meaning can be demonstrated from a variety of sources, the minister will not let go of his belief that ekklesia means the ministry, and in particular, themselves!

No dictionary, no lexicon, no Bible help of any kind can be produced which shows that ekklesia means the ministry. No explaining away, no generalizing will excuse the fact that the ministers have been taught a lie, and they continue to believe it and propagate it!

A very good principle of Bible study has always been, "Let the Bible interpret itself." If the Greek word ekklesia means "minister" in Matthew 18:17, does it mean "minister" in any other verse where the word is used? If so, the ministers may be right in what they believe. If not, where does that leave the idea? What do you think? Does the word ekklesia appear in any scripture where it means "minister"?

Ekklesia in the New Testament

We present here the complete list of every occurrence of the word ekklesia in the Greek New Testament scriptures. You will be able to compare, and decide for yourself, if it is ever appropriate to read "minister" or "ministry" into this word. If ekklesia means "ministry" in Matthew 18:17, it should also mean "ministry" elsewhere.

Some of these verses, taken out of context, may seem to make sense, either grammatically or theologically, when substituting the word "ministry," especially for someone with the hierarchical mind set held by so many, but in most cases it will become obvious that "ministry" is not the appropriate understanding for these verses, and in fact sounds silly in the context of scripture.

Go through this list, substituting in your mind the word "ministry" for ekklesia. Does it fit? Then go back and read the list again, this time substituting "assembly," or "congregation," or even "children of God," and let God open up your understanding of the function of the church members and the church congregations in God's plan. You will find it eye opening!

These scripture references are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version.

Matthew 16:18: "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."

Matthew 18:17: "If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

Acts 2:47: "praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number [ekklesia] those who were being saved."

Acts 5:11: "And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things."

Acts 7:38: "He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living oracles to give to us."

Acts 8:1: "And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria."

Acts 8:3: "But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison."

Acts 9:31: "Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers."

Acts 11:22: "News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch."

Acts 11:26: "and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called 'Christians.'"

Acts 12:1: "About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church."

Acts 12:5: "While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him."

Acts 13:1: "Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul."

Acts 14:23: "And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe."

Acts 14:27: "When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles."

Acts 15:3-4: "So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them."

Acts 15:22: "Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers,"

Acts 15:41: "He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches."

Acts 16:5: "So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily."

Acts 18:22: "When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch."

Acts 19:32: "Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly [yes, ekklesia is used here for an unruly mob of townspeople!] was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together."

Acts 19:39: "If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly [the regular ekklesia, not this scene of mob violence!]."

Acts 19:41: "When he had said this, he dismissed the assembly."

Acts 20:17: "From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him."

Acts 20:28: "Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son."

Romans 16:1: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae,"

Romans 16:4-5: "and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ."

Romans 16:16: "Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you."

Romans 16:23: "Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you."

1 Corinthians 1:2: "To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:"

1 Corinthians 4:17: "For this reason I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church."

1 Corinthians 6:4: "If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church?"

1 Corinthians 7:17: "However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches."

1 Corinthians 10:32: "Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God,"

1 Corinthians 11:16: "But if anyone is disposed to be contentious -- we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God."

1 Corinthians 11:18: "For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it."

1 Corinthians 11:22: "What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!"

1 Corinthians 12:28: "And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues."

1 Corinthians 14:4-5: "Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up."

1 Corinthians 14:12: "So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church."

1 Corinthians 14:19: "nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue."

1 Corinthians 14:23: "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 mind?"

1 Corinthians 14:28: "But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God."

1 Corinthians 14:33-35: "for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

1 Corinthians 15:9: "For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God."

1 Corinthians 16:1: "Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia."

1 Corinthians 16:19: "The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord."

2 Corinthians 1:1: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia:"

2 Corinthians 8:1: "We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia;"

2 Corinthians 8:18-19: "With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news; and not only that, but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us while we are administering this generous undertaking for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our goodwill."

2 Corinthians 8:23-24: "As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker in your service; as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ. Therefore openly before the churches, show them the proof of your love and of our reason for boasting about you."

2 Corinthians 11:8: "I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you."

2 Corinthians 11:28: "And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches."

2 Corinthians 12:13: "How have you been worse off than the other churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!"

Galatians 1:2: "and all the members of God's family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:"

Galatians 1:13: "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it."

Galatians 1:22: "and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ;"

Ephesians 1:22: "And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church,"

Ephesians 3:10: "so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places."

Ephesians 3:21: "to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen."

Ephesians 5:23-25: "For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,"

Ephesians 5:27: "so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind -- yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish."

Ephesians 5:29: "For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church,"

Ephesians 5:32: "This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church."

Philippians 3:6: "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless."

Philippians 4:15: "You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone."

Colossians 1:18: "He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything."

Colossians 1:24: "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."

Colossians 4:15-16: "Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea."

1 Thessalonians 1:1: "Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace."

1 Thessalonians 2:14: "For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews,"

2 Thessalonians 1:1: "Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:"

2 Thessalonians 1:4: "Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring."

1 Timothy 3:5: "for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God's church?"

1 Timothy 3:15: "if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth."

1 Timothy 5:16: "If any believing woman has relatives who are really widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it can assist those who are real widows."

Philemon 2: "to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:"

Hebrews 2:12: "saying, 'I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.'"

Hebrews 12:23: "and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,"

James 5:14: "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord."

1 Peter 5:13: "Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark."

3 John 6: "they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God;"

3 John 9-10: "I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church."

Revelation 1:4: "John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,"

Revelation 1:11: "saying, 'Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.'"

Revelation 1:20: "As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches."

Revelation 2:1: "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:"

Revelation 2:7-8: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:"

Revelation 2:11-12: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:"

Revelation 2:17-18: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:"

Revelation 2:23: "and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve."

Revelation 2:29: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."

Revelation 3:1: "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: 'I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.'"

Revelation 3:6-7: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens:"

Revelation 3:13-14: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God's creation:"

Revelation 3:22: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."

Revelation 22:16: "It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."

The Results of Misunderstanding

As you can see, only a few of these verses would even make sense if we read "minister" instead of "church." The vast majority would sound silly, and point out that "minister" is obviously not an acceptable translation for ekklesia.

Members of the clergy who hold to this misunderstanding of Matthew 16:17 cite various reasons why the church congregation should not hear the case of an unrepentant sinner in their midst. These arguments, however well-intentioned, do not overcome the simple fact that Jesus Christ, the Head of the true church, said, "Here's what you do." That takes precedence over anything else!

Why do you suppose Christ would want matters of judgment to be brought before the people of the congregation? Wouldn't it be simpler just to run to the pastor and tattle, and let him go over to the offending party and "handle it" himself, with all the power and authority he can wield? Yes, it would be simpler. But that's not what Christ wanted.

In fact, that's how things were done in one large Church of God corporation. That is how things are still being done in some of its off-shoot organizations! People are still being trained to tattle and spy, be suspicious of each other, and report things to the minister. The abuse continues. The festering sore goes unhealed.

In future articles, we will discuss various aspects of this topic. Who and what are the ekklesia? What does God want them to do? How are they to conduct themselves on Sabbaths? How do the children within the assembly fit in? These and other questions will be addressed in future issues of "The WAY."

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Sidebar Article:  Why Two Witnesses?

Why take two witnesses when you go back to the brother who is sinning against you?

"Whoever is worthy of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses, but he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil person from among you" (Deuteronomy 17:6-7).

"One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established" (Deuteronomy 19:15).

It was a law in Israel, and Jesus specifically reinforced it as a law in His church.

"The Pharisees challenged him [Jesus], 'Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid." Jesus answered, 'Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no-one. But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me'" (John 8:13-18).

Other New Testament references to this principle are found in 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 10:28; and Revelation 11:3.