Democracy, 'ekklesia' and the church: a movement for change

By Simon Barrow
December 19, 2014

From time-to-time, unsurprisingly, people ask us about the name 'Ekklesia'. We have an FAQ on that, which you can find here (, but it is something that we should probably talk about more.

As Steve Simms from Nashville Tennessee in the US has recently pointed out ( "An ekklesia was the governing body of an ancient Greek city-state and the world’s first expression of democracy. It was made up of all of the adult, male citizens in a particular city-state and met 40 times per year to discuss issues and to directly make policy decisions by each person having one equal vote. Everyone was considered equal in the ekklesia and any citizen present could participate and share his ideas, opinions, and concerns."

Of course, this also points to the inherent limitations of the secular concept. The Greek city-state was a slave-owning patriarchy, and flawed in many other ways too. A proto-democracy, you might say. But as feminist scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza ( points out (and as Rachel Mann from Manchester Cathedral reminded us again recently), in the Gospels a true, ground-up "ekklesia of equals" becomes a possibility in the new society initiated by Jesus. The Beatitudes in Matthew's Gospel (, from which many of our Anabaptist and Mennonite friends draw their understanding of the mission of the church, is a clear case in point.

Simms again: "In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: 'I will build my ekklesia.' (Jesus’ ekklesia, unlike the Greek ones, was made up of fis followers, both male and female.) Unfortunately, the early English translators put it this way: 'I will build my church'."

The mistake is to substitute an institutional vision of 'church' centred on 'religion' for a levelling vision of God's people in the public square seeking to transform the whole agenda of life (not creating a walled-off 'spiritual' realm).

“The New Testament ekklesia was an extended family unit and communitarian, where everyone shared everything with everybody”, comments Victor Choudhrie.

The Roman version of the word, ecclesia, is more associated with hierarchical, Christendom forms of church, whereas Ekklesia -- in adopting the different trajectory of the Greek word -- is seeking to explore post-Christendom possibilities for Christian community, purpose and witness.

Says Simms: "Around the world, the traditional, institutional church is in decline. However, millions of people are discovering the ekklesia. This movement goes by several names: organic church, simple church, fresh expressions, messy church, house church, non-traditional church. It is revolutionising the body of Christ by releasing believers to show and tell what God has done."

Equally, one might add, movements for change ranging from Catholic Worker to Occupy embody many of the characteristics of ekklesia reframed by the Gospel commitment to a movement of people rather than "organised religion".

Simms also adds a reference from early twentieth century biblical scholar Adolf Deissmann: “Throughout the Greek world and right down to New Testament times ekklesia was the designation of the regular assembly of the whole body of citizens in a free city-state, ‘called out’ by the herald for the discussion and decision of public business.”

A people's church and a people's politics (in which, as Christ put it, "the last shall be first") continues to lie at the heart of Ekklesia's commitment as a think-and-do tank rooted in radical Christian commitment, but openly engaged with those of other faith and good faith in the task of seeking a very different way of living together peacefully and justly.

Also, as Kevin Snyman has reminded me, Wes Howard Brook and others emphasise the 'come out!' (of Empire) aspect of Jesus' use of ekklesia language. .

Good to see a reference to Deissman, by the way. In scholarly terms he is somewhat 'old fashioned', but in his life and work he held together what he spoke and wrote about in his exploration of the biblical witness. Professor of theology at the famous Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg in Germany from 1897 to 1908, he was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Deissmann's academic focus eventually began to shift from Greek philology to the ecumenical movement, church reform and, significantly, international Völkerverständigung (which we might understand as the promotion of peace and mutual understanding between nations and cultures). From 1914 until 1922 he produced a regular international communiqué of both religious and political reflection, entitled the Evangelischer Wochenbrief.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, a Christian political think tank exploring the interaction of beliefs and values with politics, economics and culture.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.