Church, Kingdom, Liturgy: The Political Language of the New Testament

This article developed out of my reading of, in particular, Aristotle. I noticed that the word used in the New Testament, ekklesia, had a particularly charged political meaning in Greek. That led me to look for other words pertaining to the church and how they were used in other contexts in the original Greek. This article is the result. The terms indicate that the New Testament’s idea of the role of the church is anything but quietistic and privatized; in fact, the church is something of a shadow government on earth, reflecting the realities of rule in the Kingdom of God.

Church, Kingdom, Liturgy: The Political Language of the New Testament

Ruben Alvarado

Copyright ©1994 Ruben Alvarado

This edition published in 2013 on

Originally published in Contra Mundum, No. 12. Summer 1994

What is the place of the Church in the Kingdom of God? His Kingdom – we all know it – is His rule over the entire cosmos and all that is in it, both in heaven and on earth. The Father has given this Kingdom to His Son, Jesus Christ, by virtue of His resurrection from the dead. Jesus is King of Kings, Ruler of the kings of the earth. All things are subordinated to Him, including earthly cultures, kingdoms, civilization. He rules these invisibly and insensibly, yet inexorably; for eternal ends, not temporal power and glory. The Church, according to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is the body of Christ, and He is her head (e.g. 5:23). A head acts through its body; it follows that Jesus acts through His Church. She is the instrument by which He administers His Kingdom. “And He [the Father] put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all” (ch. 1, vv. 22-23).

The saints reign with Him in His Kingdom, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel, which speaks of the destruction of the kingdom of Man as represented by the power of earthly empire, and its replacement by the Kingdom of the Messiah, which is given to the saints as their possession: “But the saints of the Highest One will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, for all ages to come…. then the sovereignty, the dominion, and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One” (Daniel 7: 18, 27a).

The very name for ‘church’ used in the New Testament, ekklesia, reflects the authority it possesses. Ekklesia is the Greek word for popular assembly. In the Greek polis, the ekklesia was the citizen-body gathered together to conduct public business. One sees an example of an ekklesia in action in Acts 19:23 and following, when the ekklesia of Ephesus meets at the instigation of that city’s idol industry.

Origen, for one, was alive to the meaning of this word. See how he compared the church-ekklesia with secular ekklesiai, in his Contra Celsus:

For the ekklesia of God, e.g., which is at Athens, is a meek and stable body, as being one which desires to please God, who is over all things; whereas the ekklesia of the Athenians is given to sedition, and is not at all to be compared to the ekklesia of God in that city. And you may say the same thing of the ekklesia of God at Corinth, and of the ekklesia of the Corinthian people; and also of the ekklesia of the God at Alexandria, and of the ekklesia of the people of Alexandria. And if he who hears this be a candid man, and one who investigates things with a desire to ascertain the truth, he will be filled with admiration of Him who not only conceived the design, but also was able to secure in all places the establishment of ekklesiai of God alongside of the ekklesiai of the people in each city.[1]

Jesus ascribed the status of ekklesia to His followers (Matthew 16:19, 18:17). He obviously did so for a reason. For one thing, the word indicates the superior position of the New Testament Church over against Judaism. Jews gathered in synagogues. In Greek, synagogue is a rather nondescript term for gathering. It says nothing about the significance of the gathering. In fact, one possible translation of synagogue is herd, as in a herd of cattle: obviously no political significance is attributable to that kind of gathering. Ekklesia, on the other hand, is rich in political connotations, denoting public authority.

The real significance of the choice of ekklesia and its relationship to kingdom, basileia, only becomes apparent when one examines how the words for kingdom and church, basileia and ekklesia, figure in Greek political theory. We cannot lose sight of this fact: the New Testament was not written in a vacuum. Jesus visited His people and established His Church when “the fulness of time” (Galatians 4:4) had come, when Hellenistic, polis-based culture had been established across the Mediterranean world and the Near East. The language of the polis, politics, had thus also become common coin. That language was comprehensively summarized by the encyclopedist of polis civilization, Aristotle, in his politikei, “Politics.”

A look at how Aristotle used the words basileia and ekklesia is quite instructive. In fact, the two terms are pretty much mutually exclusive, in keeping with the tradition of the polis, whose distinguishing characteristic was self-sufficiency and thus independence from monarchical rule. Basileia meant exclusion from political decision-making, and even though a basileus could provide justice, this form of government was undesirable for a free people, who made their own decisions, and more desirable for slaves unable to make responsible decisions.

The form of government in which the mass of free people participated in government, and thus did make their own decisions, Aristotle termed a politeia. Central to a politeia was an ekklesia. The ekklesia was thus symbolic of the status of a free people, a people released from the yoke of a basileia. Furthermore, a politeia is the constitution of a polis : it is thus descriptive of city government.

What form of government did Old Testament Israel possess? According to Paul, a politeia (Ephesians 2:12). Thus, a free government, a city government. How does this rhyme with Old Testament realities? Israel started as a confederation of tribes unified by the tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant. In times of need, judges arose to deal with external enemies and internal conflicts. That dispensation gave way to a kingdom, fulfilled in the Davidic kingship. Was this a move away from self-government? Consider this paradox: Davidic kingship was paired with an increasing focus on a particular city – Jerusalem – which came to embody the prophetic hope. Add a third element to this progression: empire, rule over the nations. These three strands combine in Isaiah, where the Davidic king rules from the royal city, Jerusalem, holding sway over the nations. Daniel completes the image: the citizens of the royal city share in the imperial rule of the king. Daniel should know about imperial rule. He himself participated in such rule on an earthly plane, in Babylon.

This is prophetic of the New Testament dispensation, as is evident from the way in which New Testament writers speak of the greater participation in heavenly rule held by New Testament saints over their Old Testament counterparts, so much so that by comparison Old Testament saints were, with a few exceptions (Abraham, Moses, David) of the status of slaves, left out of the counsel of God and fearful of face-to-face dealing with Him. This is the status Paul attributes to Old Testament Israel in Galatians (cf. 4:22-5:1). And the writer to the Hebrews is quite clear on this point (cf. 12:18-24). Sinai put fear in the hearts of Old Testament Israel; by contrast, the New Testament believer is brought to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, to the festal assembly and the ekklesia of the first-born.

This is political language, telling us the kind of relation between subject to King. With Old Testament Israel, there is fear because one is subject to the counsels and disposition of a King one does not know, with whom one cannot relate, and who is mad at you anyway; with the New Testament Church, there is trust based on true reconciliation, an intimate relationship, one in which the subject is not simply a subject but a citizen, a fellow decision-maker.

This becomes especially clear when one sees how Jesus spoke to His disciples at the Last Supper (John 15:13-16). He calls His disciples friends; no longer are they slaves. “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master does.” That is the difference: a slave is the object of decisions from the master over which he has no control, while a friend participates in the counsels of the master. “But I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.” Jesus’ friends are granted the favor of participation in the heavenly counsels of Father and Son, through the Holy Spirit, the Comforter whom He would send them.[2]

In chapter 2 of Ephesians Paul goes on to explain the special significance of membership in the Hebrew politeia. Through Christ, the Gentile saints are now “fellow polites” (v. 19), participants in the life of the politeia of God, together with the Jewish saints. They are citizens of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city which reigns over the kings of the earth, the seat of royal messianic rule.

As he explains in the third chapter of Ephesians, Paul’s God-given mission is to preach this gospel of reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, “in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the ekklesia to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (ch. 3, v. 10). This heavenly assembly is to display the wisdom of God to the world, just as Old Testament Israel displayed that wisdom.

Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you should do so in the land where you go to possess it. And you shall keep and do [them], for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For who is a great nation whose God is coming near to them, as Jehovah our God [is], in all our calling on him? And who is a great nation whose statutes and judgments are [so] righteous as all this law which I set before you today? (Deut. 4: 5-8, MKJV).

These are public judicial proceedings, calculated to leave foreign powers spiritless, as with the Queen of Sheba: “And the queen of Sheba saw the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built, and the food of his table, and the sitting of his servants, the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers and their apparel, and his burnt offerings that he offered up in the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her” (II Chronicles 9: 3-4), This testimony disarms the powers that be; it is the heavenly Kingdom’s chosen means of conquest over the powers behind the thrones, especially the demons at work to control public authorities (cf. Daniel 10:12ff.).

God, says Paul, displays His wisdom through the Church to the demonic powers behind the throne in order that they will be exposed and be relieved of their unlawful occupation of the public square. Christ nullified their legitimate right to enslave the nations when He died on the cross and rose again. A public act with public consequences: “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (Colossians 2:13-15). A public display, and not simply of private significance; it effected the transfer of political power from demons to the King, and to the saints by virtue of His blood.

Jesus Christ has thus gained the legal right to rule over the nations. He is now King of kings and Lord of lords, “the first-born from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth;” and the ekklesia reigns with Him: “To Him who loves us, and released us from our sins by His blood, and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:5-6a).

This King, therefore, does not rule apart from His ekklesia. This is the reconciliation of Aristotle’s opposition of ekklesia and basileia. Jesus Christ rules as basileus, but shares authority with His ekklesia, in fact rules through it. As the New Testament repeatedly affirms, the ekklesia is nothing other than the King’s body. Is this anything other than a king in parliament? If so, what an exalted position the Church occupies! When the Church meets, it is as the public assembly, the gathering of the estates of the realm. And when the Church worships, it is simply this public assembly making way for the King, to come and meet with it, to seek advice and counsel, to deliberate, to hold court. This King first deals with his ministers, the ekklesia, holding court to hear disputes, to admonish, to encourage, to forgive. He declares His will: His vassals bow the knee and humbly submit, declaring their eternal devotion. Attention is then turned to public affairs, how to deal with the Kingdom over which the assembly rules. Thus the world, thus the nations, thus public affairs. Upon dismissal, the ministers of this Kingdom, by the grace, the unmerited favour of the King lifted up into His deliberations, partners in policy and rule, go out to enforce His will on the subjects.

It is first and foremost in liturgy, the corporate worship of the Church, that this takes place. Wouldn’t you know it, here is another Greek word loaded with political connotations. Guess what liturgies [leitourgia ] were in the polis? Taxes! In Athens, citizens worth three talents or more were charged with paying for public festivals and ceremonies and also had to pay extra war taxes. These were called liturgies. Later, the word came to take on broader connotations, of public services in general.

In the Septuagint, liturgy is used to describe temple worship – thus, public homage rendered to the Divine King. The New Testament maintains this Septuagint usage (cf. Luke1:23; Hebrews 8:2,6, 9:1, 10:11). Paul uses the word to describe the ministry of the state, and so defines and, in doing so, legitimates this work as service rendered unto God. Furthermore, Paul describes as liturgical the material benefits provided by Gentile churches both to himself and to the church in Jerusalem. In this context he seems to emphasize the subordinate position of these churches and the obligatory nature of such service: they owe it to Paul and to the church in Jerusalem, as in Romans 15:27: “Truly it has pleased [the church in Jerusalem], and they are their debtors. For if the nations have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister [leitourgeo ] to them in carnal things.”

It is in Acts 13:2 that liturgy is used for corporate worship, and thus takes on the specific meaning that it came to hold in the early church. As Dom Gregory Dix points out, the worship service is so described in the very first description of such a service now extant, the letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthian church, dating from 96 AD: “Unto the high-priest (=celebrant-bishop) his special ‘liturgies’ have been appointed, and to the priests (=presbyters) their special place is assigned, and on the levites (=deacons) their special ‘deaconings’ are imposed; the layman is bound by the ordinances for the laity. Let each of you, brethren, make eucharist to God according to his own order, keeping a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of his ‘liturgy.'”[3] The ekklesia preserves an order within its deliberations, and this order is liturgy. Is this not that of which Paul spoke in I Corinthians 14?

This short survey should make one thing clear: the New Testament’s adoption of the language of the polis to describe the nature and ministry of the Church means that the contemporary privatized view of the Church is erroneous. From the beginning the Church’s ministry has been public, even when it has gone unrecognized. We moderns have accepted the lie that the church is not and cannot be a public institution. But like it or not, that is what she is.


[1] Origen, Contra Celsus, in vol. IV of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by the Rev. Alexander Roberts, D.D., and James Donaldson, LL.D. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmanns Publishing Co., 1989 [reprint]), p. 476.

[2] Not unexpectedly, the political distinction of friend vs. slave has its precedent in Aristotle. Cf. his Nicomachean Ethics, ch. 8: “On Friendship.”e;

[3] Quoted in Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: A & C Black, 1986 [1945]), p. 1.