Volume 19, Issue 38 (September 17, 2017)
Why Do We USe the Word “Church”?
By Kyle Pope
Sometime back I got an email from a gentleman who had read a study I did on the use of the Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), usually translated “church” in our English Bibles. The gentleman appreciated the study but posed a question to which I did not have an immediate answer—“Why do we use the word ‘church’?”
That was an interesting question. Many sermons have been devoted to explaining the biblical concept of the church. We emphasize that in Scripture the church is not a building, but people in a saved relationship with God in Christ (Acts 2:47, KJV, NKJV; Eph. 5:23). Much like the word baptism, we must help people wipe away centuries of misconceptions about its nature and embrace the pure and simple meaning taught in God’s word. Yet unlike the word baptism the word “church” is not a transliteration (brought into English without translation), but neither is it a literal translation of the concept inherent in the word ekklesia, which is a political term referring to a “called out” assembly (often of the citizens of a city-state). That means we must first define the very word used to translate this word in order to help people truly understand its meaning.
So why do we use the word “church”? The gentlemen who asked this question had concerns that its origin may go back to the name Circe (Κίρκη), the witch from pagan Greek mythology (such as Homer’s Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony). If so, could a pagan origin of this word contribute to false concepts that have become attached to it? While there are similarities how some ancient forms of the word “church” were spelled, no sources that I consulted claim that our word is derived from the name Circe.
Instead, all of the sources I have consulted claim it is derived from the Greek word kuriakos (κυριακός) meaning "belonging to the Lord." This word is used twice in the New Testament of the “LORD’S day” (Rev. 1:10) and the “LORD’S supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). In Greek the word kurios (κύριος) means "lord" and is used throughout the New Testament in references to Jesus (God the Son) and God the Father. Scholars tell us that fairly early on Christians began to speak of the ekklesia, the called out body of Christ’s disciples, as the “LORD’S household,” using the word kuriakos (Patristic Greek Lexicon). This is much the same way Paul speaks of Christians as “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:10). Early Christians also began to call the place where the ekklesia met the “LORD’S house” (also using the word kuriakos) and eventually kuriakos itself came to be used of the assembly of disciples (ibid.).
The earliest translations did as we do with the word baptism—they didn’t translate ekklecia, they brought it into their own language. For example in Latin translations ecclesia, the Latin transliteration of the Greek word ekklesia was used to translate references to assemblies of Christ's people. The first Germanic translation, the Gothic translation also transliterated this to aikklesjon. At some point, however, in Germanic Languages the emphasis shifted to the use of kuriakos, meaning “belonging to the Lord” in reference to the people who belong to the Lord. In German this became the word kirche, in Anglo-Saxon it became the word cirice (also spelled cyrce or cyrice). In Wycliffe’s first translation of the Latin Vulgate into English (1395) it was chirche. William Tyndale, the first to translate the New Testament from the Greek (1526) actually translated ekklesia and rendered it “cogregacion” (the archaic spelling of the word “congregation”). The Great Bible (1539) and the Bishop’s Bible (1568) did the same, but the Geneva (1557), Rheims-Douay (1582), and King James (1611) for some reason followed the approach taken by Wycliffe, rendering this “church” (as have virtually all English translations since then).
By using the word “congregation” instead of “church” Tyndale may well have been trying to cut through the misconceptions of his own day about the church. If I could have it my way I would prefer a more literal translation of ekklesia to make it clear it’s not a building or a superstructure many think of when they see the man-made organizations that speak of themselves as a “Church.” Does that mean that it is wrong to use this word? No.
For whatever reason English did not bring the word ekklesia into it except in references to “ecclesiastical” matters. It did, however, bring the word kuriakos, “belonging to the Lord” into it. Over time this evolved into the word “church.” The background of this translation of the word ekklesia rests in the concept that these are the people who “belong to the Lord.” That is a biblical concept. It is true that today many people hear the word “church” and think of a building or a man-made institution. This makes it necessary to help people see what the Bible means by the ekklesia (or “church”). That doesn’t mean we must object to the use of the word “church”—we must clarify its meaning and help people understand how the Bible uses these concepts.