When you think of the word “church,” what springs to mind?
The first thing that pops into my mind is a building, a physical meeting place where Christians gather for worship. You know, some place with a cross on the outside, a steeple on top, surrounded by a black asphalt parking lot, and with lousy coffee inside, right? But a closer look at the Bible and the history or our word church reveals a different story.
The word church actually has a Germanic root to it, etymologically. It stems back to the German kirche, which probably goes back to the related Greek word kyriakon, which means “of the Lord.” In Germanic based cultures, the “house of the Lord,” where Christians gather for worship, began to acquire the meaning of the word kirche, which reasonably explains why we often think of a church as a building. However, the original usage of church in the Bible has a more specific meaning.
The original Greek word for church is “ekklesia.” In ancient Greek, prior to the writing of the New Testament, ekklesia had essentially a secular meaning, that of an “assembly,” or specifically “a gathering of people called out of their homes into a some public place.” In the New Testament sense, the ekklesia is the assembly of people who come to worship Jesus. The emphasis is on the community of the people, and not where those people meet. For example, the Apostle Paul uses the term ekklesia, or church, several times in the last chapter of the Book of Romans, to refer to a community or communities of his believing friends in different localities.
By the time we get to the late medieval period in Western Europe, the word church had taken on a more formal meaning. The church was not merely an assembly, but rather it was an institution, namely the church as an organized social structure.
When William Tyndale took upon the task of translating the Bible into English during the 16th century, he rattled people in the church institutional establishment by translating the word ekklesia into the English word congregation, such as in his rendering of Romans 16. The word congregation retains more of the local, “assembly” meaning of the term, and this upset those who were more concerned about maintaining the church as a national or global institution. For example, some years after Tyndale’s death, the legendary King James Version of the Bible was translated, guided indirectly by the King himself. The King sought to make sure that this translation was sympathetic towards the Church of England, for which he was the official head. So, for the word ekklesia in the New Testament, the translators opted for the word church, never using Tyndale’s congregation (see the KJV relevant verses in Romans 16).
In contrast, the 17th century Quakers took the more literal approach to ekklesia and adopted the word meetings to describe their decentralized church structure, much to the chagrin of those who saw the church as having a more hierarchical structure. Who would have thought that such a single Greek word, ekklesia, would cause such controversies!!
Modern Bible translations are less beholden to the concerns of monarchs in the 17th century. But neither do they always stay away from the word church. Broadly speaking, the church in the Bible can mean both a local assembly of believers, as well as the universal community of all Christian believers across the globe, and down through the centuries. The specific meaning of church depends on the context of where it is found in the Bible. A good example of church in the universal sense can be found in Ephesians 5:25-30, which speaks of Christ’s love for the ekklesia, or the church body as a whole.
Nevertheless, new concerns about the meaning of church provoke lively discussions among Christians today, as we shall see in our next post.