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Let’s take a brief look into the history of how the Greek word ekklesia (which refers to the “called out ones” of God) came to be replaced by the word church (which is commonly understood to refer to a “building”) in the Bible.
Let’s start with a bomb shell. The word which has been translated in the Bible as “church” does not appear anywhere in the entire Old Testament. It is very important to note this because the manner in which people related to God under the Old Testament could not contain what He had in mind for His glorious Bride after the cross. The law based system of control which Israel lived under rendered them incapable of being the Body of Christ that manifested God’s life in this world.
Furthermore it’s remarkable to note that the Greek word which has been translated as “church” in the Bible doesn’t really mean “church” at all. Unfortunately the translators messed this one up quite badly and as we will soon discover, they did so on purpose. The first reference that we have to this word in the entire Bible is where Jesus addressed Simon Peter in the Gospel of Matthew:
Matt 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (ESV, emphasis added)
The foundation of the entire Roman Catholic movement hinges on this last verse. It is believed in this instance Jesus was telling Peter that God would be building His church on Peter himself, which is why Peter was also labeled as supposedly being the first Pope, the head of God’s church on earth, with Christ being the heavenly Head. The irony in this is that Peter was the disciple who was most prone to losing his temper and the one who denied Jesus three times. He was also the one who was reprimanded by Paul for acting contrary to the truth by refraining from eating with the gentile believers when certain Jews came to visit them in Antioch (Galatians 2:10-16). All in all Peter was actually a very unlikely symbol of stability, far too unsteady for God to build His church on. The only person who ever lived a sinless life and qualified for this honor was Christ Himself, the chief corner stone (Ephesians 2:20, 1 Corinthians 10:4).
So what was Jesus actually telling Peter in this passage of scripture? He was saying that He (Jesus) would be building His own church on the revelation that He is the Son of the living God (Peter’s words in verse 16); Jesus Christ is the Rock Himself. This is the cornerstone foundational revelation of the Christian faith and the underpinning truth of the entire church, a truth that people could only hear uttered by the prophets in the Old Testament.
In order to help us gain better insight into what the word “church” really means in the Bible and to understand what the writers actually meant when they penned this word, we need take a look at the Greek. In every single instance the Greek word that appears in the Bible for “church” is the word “ekklesia”. We will first look only at the literal meaning of the word and then at the interpretation of the translators who added their own views and convictions into the meaning as well. For starters let’s read only the first bit from the Strong’s Greek dictionary”:
G1577: From a compound of G1537 and a derivative of G2564; a calling out…
So let’s take a look at these two Greek words (G1537 and G2564) that make up the word Ekklesia:
G1537: A primary preposition denoting origin (the point whence motion or action proceeds), from, out (of place, time or cause; literally or figuratively; direct or remote): – after, among, X are, at betwixt (-yond), by (the means of), exceedingly, (+ abundantly above), for (-th), from (among, forth, up).
So it’s accurate to conclude that this preposition means “from”, “out” or “out of”. Let’s take a look at the second one:
G2564: Akin to the base of G2753; to “call” (properly aloud, but used in a variety of applications, directly or otherwise): – bid, call (forth), (whose, whose sur-) name (was [called]).
The proper meaning of ekklesia therefore means to be “called out” or “called forth” or “called from”. The church of God is therefore made up of people around the world who are the “called out ones”. The mindset behind this interpretation is a far cry from what the average modern day Christian has in mind when they hear the word “church”. The most common interpretation would be that it is the building where church goers get together every Sunday to sing some songs and listen to a sermon.
With all this in mind, here is the full Strong’s translation (we only looked at the first part earlier) of the word ekklesia:
G1577: From a compound of G1537 and a derivative of G2564; a calling out, that is, (concretely) a popular meeting, especially a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both): – assembly, church.
We can clearly see how the translators added their own definitions and opinions to the meaning of this word. By the time that they translated the King James Bible into English in 1611, their view of the word ekklesia had been heavily influenced by the existence of formal, purpose built church buildings which had been around since the third century, leading them to even insert the words “popular meeting” and “religious congregation” into their rendering of the interpretation. Note that by simply combining the two individual words “called” and “out” it’s nearly impossible to arrive at “religious congregation” without adding some serious prejudice to the mix!
The early church apostles had something much bigger in mind whenever they used the word ekklesia in their writings. They were referring collectively to Christians, to people (to those who had been called out from the world and set apart for God through the mighty indwelling of the Holy Spirit) and not to buildings or “religious congregations” at all. “Church” is not a building, a place or a weekly event and God certainly never meant for His children to be called “religious”. On the contrary, Jesus was involved in many disputes with the religious groups of His day, calling the Pharisees and the Sadducees “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27) and “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7).
In Pt2 of this study we will take a look into the 16th and 17th century history of how the word “church” came to be inserted into the Bible. As it turned out, it wasn’t pretty…
Andre van der Merwe
Download article as PDF file. Right click and select “Save target as” (Internet Explorer) or “Save link as” (Firefox): How did the word Church make its way into the Bible Pt1