A group of people gathered together for a particular purpose or activity. The Hebrew word usually rendered “congregation” in the New World Translation is qa·halʹ, which is from a root meaning “call together; congregate.” (Nu 20:8; De 4:10) It is frequently used for an organized body, being found in the expressions “congregation of Israel” (Le 16:17; Jos 8:35; 1Ki 8:14), “congregation of the true God” (Ne 13:1), “congregation of Jehovah” (De 23:2, 3; Mic 2:5), and “Jehovah’s congregation” (Nu 20:4; 1Ch 28:8). Qa·halʹ designates various kinds of human gatherings, as for religious purposes (De 9:10; 18:16; 1Ki 8:65; Ps 22:25; 107:32), for dealing with civil affairs (1Ki 12:3), and for warfare (1Sa 17:47; Eze 16:40). In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is identified as “the congregator” (Heb., qo·heʹleth). (Ec 1:1, 12) As the king, he congregated or assembled the people to the worship of Jehovah, one notable instance being when he gathered his subjects to the newly constructed temple in Jerusalem.—1Ki 8:1-5; 2Ch 5:2-6.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures the Greek word rendered “congregation” is ek·kle·siʹa, from which the English word “ecclesia” is derived. Ek·kle·siʹa comes from two Greek words, ek, meaning “out,” and ka·leʹo, meaning “call.” Hence, it pertains to a group of persons called out or called together, either officially or unofficially. It is the word used with reference to the congregation of Israel at Acts 7:38 and is also employed for the “assembly” stirred up by the silversmith Demetrius against Paul and his associates in Ephesus. (Ac 19:23, 24, 29, 32, 41) Most often, however, it is used with reference to the Christian congregation. It is applied to the Christian congregation in general (1Co 12:28); to a congregation in some city such as Jerusalem (Ac 8:1), Antioch (Ac 13:1), or Corinth (2Co 1:1); or to a specific group meeting in someone’s home (Ro 16:5; Phm 2). Accordingly, individual Christian congregations or “congregations of God” are also mentioned. (Ac 15:41; 1Co 11:16) Some English versions use “church” in texts pertaining to the Christian congregation, as at 1 Corinthians 16:19. (AS; KJ) Since many persons think of a church as a building for religious services rather than a congregation engaging in worship, the rendering “church” can be misleading.
The Greek word ek·kle·siʹa is usually employed in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word qa·halʹ, as at Psalm 22:22 (21:23, LXX).—Compare NW ftn.
The Congregation of Israel. From the time of Moses onward, the nation of Israel was referred to as a congregation. Jehovah arranged for the congregation to be ruled, not democratically by the people, but theocratically, by God himself. To that end the nation was taken into the Law covenant. (Ex 19:3-9; 24:6-8) As Moses was the mediator of that covenant, it could be said: “Moses laid as a command upon us a law, a possession of the congregation of Jacob.” (De 33:4) Jehovah was their Judge, Statute-Giver, and King. (Isa 33:22) Thus, the nation was a congregation of God and could be referred to as “the congregation of Jehovah” and “Jehovah’s congregation.”—Nu 16:3; 1Ch 28:8.
At times, the Hebrew word qa·halʹ (congregation) is used in conjunction with the Hebrew word ʽe·dhahʹ (assembly). (Le 4:13; Nu 20:8, 10) ʽE·dhahʹ is from a root meaning “appoint,” thus signifying a group assembled by appointment, and is frequently applied to the community of Israel, as in the expression “assembly of Israel.” (Ex 12:3) In the nation of Israel those who actually constituted the Hebrew population made up the congregation (qa·halʹ; Nu 15:15), whereas the assembly (ʽe·dhahʹ) seems to have embraced both the Israelites and alien residents associated with them. (Ex 12:19) So membership in the congregation, in an extended general application, seems to have included circumcised alien residents.—Nu 15:14-16.
However, there were exceptions as to membership in “the congregation of Jehovah.” No castrated man or one “having his male member cut off” could enter it; illegitimate sons, male Ammonites, and male Moabites were barred therefrom “even to the tenth generation.” But sons born to Edomites and Egyptians “as the third generation” could “come for themselves into the congregation of Jehovah.” (De 23:1-8) The exclusion “to the tenth generation” of the sons of one who was illegitimate upheld Jehovah’s law against adultery. (Ex 20:14) And though the sexually mutilated were excluded from “the congregation of Jehovah,” such ones could draw comfort from words recorded by Isaiah, as found at Isaiah 56:1-7. Of course, individuals excluded from “the congregation of Jehovah” in ancient Israel had the possibility of coming under provisions and blessings Jehovah made for people of the nations in general.—Ge 22:15-18.
Persons who were members of the congregation of Israel were shown mercy if they sinned by mistake. But they were cut off in death for doing something wrong deliberately. (Nu 15:27-31) For instance, an individual would be cut off from the congregation, and from life itself, for refusing to purify himself when he was ceremonially unclean, for eating some of the flesh of the communion sacrifice while in that condition, for partaking of fat of offerings or blood, or for eating holy things while unclean. (Nu 19:20; Le 7:21-27; 17:10, 14; 22:3) Persons were also cut off for working on the Sabbath day (Ex 31:14), for giving their offspring to Molech, for turning to spirit mediums and professional foretellers of events, for certain kinds of sexual immorality, and for not ‘afflicting’ themselves on the annual Atonement Day.—Le 20:1-6, 17, 18; 23:27-30; see also Ex 30:31-33; Le 17:3, 4, 8, 9; 18:29; 19:5-8.
While individuals made up the congregation of Israel, the nation itself was comprised of tribes, families, and households. The incident involving Achan seems to show this organizational arrangement, for in this case Israel came forward, first tribe by tribe, then family by family, next household by household, and finally able-bodied man by able-bodied man, until Achan was picked as the wrongdoer.—Jos 7:10-19.
In Israel responsible representatives often acted in behalf of the people. (Ezr 10:14) Thus, “chieftains of the tribes” made presentations after the setting up of the tabernacle. (Nu 7:1-11) Also, representatively attesting by seal the “trustworthy arrangement” of Nehemiah’s day were priests, Levites, and “the heads of the people.” (Ne 9:38–10:27) During Israel’s wilderness trek, there were “chieftains of the assembly, summoned ones of the meeting, men of fame,” 250 of whom joined Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On in congregating themselves against Moses and Aaron. (Nu 16:1-3) In keeping with divine direction, Moses selected 70 of the older men of Israel who were officers to help him carry “the load of the people” that he was unable to bear alone. (Nu 11:16, 17, 24, 25) Leviticus 4:15 mentions “the older men of the assembly,” and it appears that the representatives of the people were the nation’s older men, its heads, its judges, and its officers.—Nu 1:4, 16; Jos 23:2; 24:1.
In the wilderness, two silver trumpets were used to convene the assembly and to break up the camp. The assembly would keep their appointment with Moses at the entrance of the tent of meeting if blasts were blown on both of these trumpets. If just one was sounded, “the chieftains as heads of the thousands of Israel” would put in an appearance there. (Nu 10:1-4) Sometimes kings convened gatherings (1Ki 8:5; 2Ch 20:4, 5), Hezekiah using runners to summon the people to Jerusalem for the grand Passover celebration of his day.—2Ch 30:1, 2, 10-13.
In later times, considerable power was wielded by the judicial body known as the Sanhedrin, composed of 71 members—the high priest and 70 other principal men of the nation, “the assembly of older men.”—Mt 26:59; Lu 22:66.
During the Jews’ Babylonian exile, or shortly thereafter, synagogues came into general use as buildings where the Jews congregated. In time, synagogues were established in various places; Jesus imparted instruction at the synagogue in Nazareth, for example. (Lu 4:16-21) Synagogues were actually schools where the Scriptures were read and taught, and they were places of prayer and for the giving of praise to God.—Ac 15:21; see SYNAGOGUE.
The congregation of Israel was in a unique position. Moses reminded them: “You are a holy people to Jehovah your God. It is you Jehovah your God has chosen to become his people, a special property, out of all the peoples that are on the surface of the ground.” (De 7:6) But the Jewish congregation ceased to be the congregation of God, being cast off because of rejecting his Son.—Ac 4:24-28; 13:23-29; Mt 21:43; 23:37, 38; Lu 19:41-44.
The Christian Congregation of God. Prior to the rejection of the Jewish nation and the end of its position as the congregation of God, Jesus Christ identified himself as the “rock-mass” upon which he would build what he termed “my congregation.” (Mt 16:18) This is as Peter, to whom he spoke, understood matters, for the apostle later identified Jesus as the figurative “stone” that was rejected by men but was “chosen, precious, with God” and as the “foundation cornerstone” on which a person could rest his faith without disappointment. (1Pe 2:4-6; Ps 118:22; Isa 28:16) Paul also definitely identified Jesus Christ as the foundation upon which the Christian congregation is built. (Eph 2:19-22; 1Co 3:11) And, belonging to Jehovah as it does, it is appropriately referred to as “the congregation of God.”—Ac 20:28; Ga 1:13.
This Christian congregation (Gr., ek·kle·siʹa), founded on Christ, also has him as its head. Thus it is stated: “He [God] also subjected all things under his feet, and made him head over all things to the congregation, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills up all things in all.”—Eph 1:22, 23; see also Col 1:18.
The Christian congregation of God took the place of the congregation of Israel at Pentecost of 33 C.E., when holy spirit was poured out on Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. The first prospective members of that congregation were chosen shortly after Jesus’ baptism, at the beginning of his ministry on earth. (Ac 2:1-4; Joh 1:35-43) From among his early followers Jesus selected 12 apostles (Lu 6:12-16), and later he chose Saul of Tarsus, who became “an apostle to the nations.” (Ac 9:1-19; Ro 11:13) The 12 faithful apostles of the Lamb Jesus Christ, including Matthias who replaced Judas, constitute secondary foundations of the Christian congregation.—Ac 1:23-26; Re 21:1, 2, 14.
This congregation is referred to as “the congregation of the firstborn who have been enrolled in the heavens,” the full number of which, under Christ the head, is 144,000. (Heb 12:23; Re 7:4) These called-out ones are “bought from among mankind” to carry out a special work here on earth and then to be with Christ in heaven as his bride. As there were requirements for membership in the Hebrew congregation of God, so there are requisites for membership in the Christian “congregation of God.” Those making it up are spiritual virgins who keep following the Lamb, Jesus Christ, no matter where he goes, “and no falsehood was found in their mouths; they are without blemish.”—Re 14:1-5.
The members of the Christian congregation of God are selected by Jehovah. (Ro 8:30; 2Th 2:13) The first members thereof were called out from the rejected Jewish congregation, which had not accepted God’s Son as their Messiah. However, beginning with Cornelius in 36 C.E., members of the Christian congregation were also called out from the nations in general, so that Paul could say: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one person in union with Christ Jesus.” (Ga 3:28; Ac 10:34, 35; Ro 10:12; Eph 2:11-16) Whereas the Law covenant mediated by Moses and under which the congregation of Israel was regulated was fulfilled by Christ and was taken out of the way by Jehovah God (Mt 5:17; 2Co 3:14; Col 2:13, 14), members of the Christian congregation of God partake of the benefits of the new covenant mediated by the Greater Moses, Jesus Christ. (Mt 26:28; Heb 12:22-24; Ac 3:19-23) Also, while the priests and kings of Israel were anointed with oil (Ex 30:22-30; 2Ki 9:6), those chosen by God to be members of the Christian congregation are anointed with holy spirit (2Co 1:21, 22; 1Jo 2:20) and are adopted by Jehovah God as his sons.—Eph 1:5.
Basically the Hebrew congregation was composed of natural Israelites. Persons comprising the anointed Christian congregation of God are spiritual Israelites, forming the tribes of spiritual Israel. (Re 7:4-8) Inasmuch as the majority of the natural Israelites rejected Jesus Christ, “not all who spring from Israel are really ‘Israel,’” that is, spiritual Israel. (Ro 9:6-9) And, regarding the Christian congregation of God comprised of spiritual Jews, Paul stated: “He is not a Jew who is one on the outside, nor is circumcision that which is on the outside upon the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one on the inside, and his circumcision is that of the heart by spirit.”—Ro 2:28, 29.
Usually when the Christian Greek Scriptures mention “the congregation” in a general sense, reference is being made to the 144,000 members thereof, the anointed followers of Christ exclusive of Jesus himself. (Eph 5:32; Heb 12:23, 24) However, the inspired application of David’s words recorded at Psalm 22:22 to Jesus Christ at Hebrews 2:12 shows that the term “congregation” can be applied to include the head thereof, Jesus Christ. Partly quoting David, the writer to the Hebrews stated: “For both he who is sanctifying and those who are being sanctified all stem from one, and for this cause he [Jesus Christ] is not ashamed to call them ‘brothers,’ as he says: ‘I will declare your name to my brothers; in the middle of the congregation I will praise you with song.’” (Heb 2:11, 12) Like David, who was a member of the congregation of Israel in the middle of which he praised Jehovah, Jesus Christ can, in this instance, be viewed as one of the spiritual congregation, the others in it being called his “brothers.” (Compare Mt 25:39, 40.) David belonged to the Israelite congregation of Jehovah God, and Jesus Christ was also a member of it while on earth, preaching amidst its members. A remnant of that congregation became part of Jesus’ congregation.
Organization of the Christian Congregation. While Christian congregations of God were established in various places, they did not function independently of one another. Instead, they all recognized the authority of the Christian governing body at Jerusalem. This governing body was comprised of the apostles and older men of the Jerusalem congregation, there being no rival bodies elsewhere seeking to supervise the congregation. It was to the faithful Christian governing body of the first century C.E. that the issue of circumcision was submitted for consideration. When the governing body made its decision, as directed by the holy spirit, that decision was accepted and became binding upon all Christian congregations, these willingly submitting to it.—Ac 15:22-31.
The Christian body in Jerusalem sent out traveling representatives. Thus, Paul and others delivered the governing body’s decision just mentioned, it being stated: “Now as they traveled on through the cities they would deliver to those there for observance the decrees that had been decided upon by the apostles and older men who were in Jerusalem.” Concerning the effects produced, it is said: “Therefore, indeed, the congregations continued to be made firm in the faith and to increase in number from day to day.” (Ac 16:4, 5) Earlier, when the apostles in Jerusalem “heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they dispatched Peter and John to them; and these went down and prayed for them to get holy spirit.”—Ac 8:14, 15.
The individual congregations adhered closely to the direction of the Christian governing body, which supervised the appointment of older men. (Tit 1:1, 5) So it was that, as directed by the Christian governing body under the influence of the holy spirit, overseers as well as assistants, ministerial servants, were appointed for each congregation. The men placed in these positions of trust and responsibility had to meet specific qualifications. (1Ti 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9) Traveling representatives of the governing body, such as Paul, followed Christ and set a fine example to be imitated. (1Co 11:1; Php 4:9) In fact, all of those in the position of spiritual shepherds were to become “examples to the flock” (1Pe 5:2, 3), were to show loving concern for individuals within the congregation (1Th 2:5-12), and were to be of real assistance to those spiritually sick.—Ga 6:1; Jas 5:13-16; see OLDER MAN; OVERSEER; MINISTER.
Hence, just as Jehovah organized the congregation of Israel under older men, heads, judges, and officers (Jos 23:2), He saw to the supervision of the Christian congregation by having older men appointed to positions of trust therein. (Ac 14:23) And, as responsible men sometimes acted representatively for the entire congregation of Israel, as in judicial matters (De 16:18), God arranged for each individual Christian congregation to be similarly represented in such matters by responsible men placed in positions of authority by the holy spirit. (Ac 20:28; 1Co 5:1-5) However, should difficulties develop between members of the Christian congregation of God, the words of Jesus Christ recorded at Matthew 18:15-17 (spoken before the Jewish congregation of God had been rejected by Jehovah and thus initially applicable to it) served as a basis for settling or handling such problems.
Jehovah God has set the members in the spiritual “body” of Christ “just as he pleased.” And Paul stated: “God has set the respective ones in the congregation, first, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then powerful works; then gifts of healings; helpful services, abilities to direct, different tongues.” Not all performed the same functions, but all were needed by the Christian congregation. (1Co 12:12-31) Paul explained that the supplying of apostles, prophets, evangelizers, shepherds, and teachers for the Christian congregation was “with a view to the readjustment of the holy ones, for ministerial work, for the building up of the body of the Christ, until we all attain to the oneness in the faith and in the accurate knowledge of the Son of God, to a full-grown man, to the measure of stature that belongs to the fullness of the Christ.”—Eph 4:11-16.
The congregation of Israel was provided with the laws of God and was made to appreciate that “not by bread alone does man live but by every expression of Jehovah’s mouth does man live.” (De 8:1-3) Jesus Christ also recognized that man could not live on bread alone “but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth.” (Mt 4:1-4) Hence, adequate provision has been made for the Christian congregation to have needed spiritual food, Christ himself mentioning the “slave” through whom such food is dispensed to Christian “domestics.” Jesus, as part of his prophecy concerning his own presence and “the conclusion of the system of things,” showed that, on arriving, the “master” would appoint this “faithful and discreet slave” “over all his belongings.”—Mt 24:3, 45-47.
Gatherings for the worship of Jehovah and a consideration of his law were important in the congregation of Israel. (De 31:12; Ne 8:1-8) Similarly, meetings for the worship of Jehovah and a study of the Scriptures are an essential feature of the Christian congregation of God, the writer to the Hebrews admonishing the recipients of his letter not to be forsaking such gathering of themselves together. (Heb 10:24, 25) Activities in the synagogues of later Jewish history included the reading and teaching of the Scriptures, the offering of prayers, and the giving of praise to God. Such features were carried over into places of Christian assembly, though without the ritualistic accretions that had eventually developed in synagogue services. In the synagogue no sacerdotal class was set apart, sharing in Scripture reading and exposition being open to any devout male Jew. Comparably, no clergy-laity or similar division existed within the early Christian congregation. Of course, neither therein nor in the synagogue did the women teach or exercise authority over the men.—1Ti 2:11, 12.
The maintaining of proper order at meetings of the Christian congregation of God harmonized with the fact that Jehovah, who made provision for the congregational arrangement among Christ’s followers, is a “God, not of disorder, but of peace.” This orderliness also worked to the great spiritual benefit of all in attendance.—1Co 14:26-35, 40; see ASSEMBLY.