In Part 1 of this study we took a look at the true meaning of the Greek word ekklesia, which has been translated as church in our Bibles. We will now delve into the history of how the 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.
Some may ask: “So why write so much about the interpretation of a single word?” Because our interpretation of a concept will significantly influence the way we live out that concept. If we view “church” as a building where we go to on a Sunday, we might miss out on the indescribable riches and depths that there are to be explored when it comes to being a living, breathing carrier of the presence of almighty God.
A Dark History
At the start of the 4th century the church was joined to the state under the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine. He was responsible for building the first church buildings, thinking that Christians, like the heathens and the Jews, also ought to have their own places of worship. He also inherited a system of church government from the first and second centuries (more on this in the next chapter) which had politically influential figures called “Bishops” and their delegates called “Presbyters” lording over each of these church buildings. The most powerful Bishop also eventually became the first Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This state of affairs carried on virtually unchallenged right through to the Reformation of the 16th century, for a staggering period of nearly 1,200 years.
The illegal spread of Wycliffe’s Bible (written in middle age English during 1382 to 1395) which rejected many of the Roman Catholic teachings, resulted in a death sentence being issued for any unlicensed possession of Scripture in English.
In the late 1520’s King Henry VIII of England wanted to annul his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Bolyn, hoping to get a male heir. The Pope refused to go along with this, so Henry VIII kicked the Pope and the Catholic Church out of England, which also enabled him to take over all of the Catholic Church land and buildings, greatly increasing the royal coffers. He appointed himself as the head over the church in England which also made it very easy for him to divorce Catherine.
In 1525 William Tyndale (an English scholar inspired by Martin Luther) undertook an English translation of the New Testament and also embarked on translating the Old Testament shortly thereafter. He was arrested and jailed in 1535 and convicted in 1536 for heresy. He was executed by strangulation and his body burned at the stake afterwards. His manuscripts rendered the word ekklesia as assembly or congregation. This work also became the basis for the Great Bible, published in 1539 by King Henry VIII.
The only surviving child from King Henry VIII’s first marriage, Mary I, took to the throne in 1553 (after her younger half-brother Edward VI died from disease) and returned the Church of England to the communion of the Roman Catholic Church, causing many English reformers to flee the country. Her brutal burning of Protestants at the stake caused her enemies to assign her the nickname of “Bloody Mary”. Some of these refugees established a colony at Geneva (lead by John Calvin) and they embarked on a translation which in 1560 became known as the Geneva Bible.
In 1558 Elizabeth I (the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Bolyn) took to the throne after having spent nearly a year in prison under the reign of her half-sister, Mary I, on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels. She established the English Protestant Church (which later became known as the Church of England), appointing herself as its supreme governor. Under her rule the need for a new translation was identified that correctly exemplified the existing episcopal (leadership) structure of the Church of England, its ecclesiology (the church’s character, belief system and origin) and its convictions about an ordained clergy. This led to the publication of the Bishop’s Bible in 1568.
In 1603 King James I of England took the throne and in 1604 convened the Hampton Court Conference between himself and representatives from the Church of England. Maintaining that the Bishop’s Bible had to be used as the primary guide for the translators, he pronounced fifteen specific decrees that were to be followed for the translation which in 1611 would become known as the Authorized King James Version. The third item in this list of decrees was that certain Greek and Hebrew words were to be translated in a manner that conformed to the ecclesiology of the Church of England. Ekklesia had to be translated as church (where appropriate) and not as assembly / congregation in order to reflect what had come to be the “traditional usage” of the word at that time.
Because King James I had full jurisdiction over the buildings of the Church of England at the time, his control would be amplified if the Bible reinforced the idea that the Church was a building.
Ekklesia in the Bible
Originally the ekklesia was the primary gathering of the democracy of the ancient Greeks in Athens. It was open to all male citizens with two years of military service. The assembly was responsible for declaring war, military strategy, and electing magistrates and other officials. It originally met once every month, but later it met three or four times per month. Votes were taken by a show of hands. In the 5th century BC their numbers amounted to about 43,000 people. A minimum of 6,000 was required occasionally to make a decision.
By the first century the term ekklesia had adopted somewhat of a mixed meaning. It was still used by the Greeks in the sense stated above, but it was now also used by the disciples and apostles to refer to the Christians who met together in the different regions. And as we know, the Christians were oppressed by both the Jews (for preaching a message that contradicted their laws) and by the Romans (who suspected them of plotting against the Roman rule). So in the first century ekklesia could refer to a group of people who gathered together to make political and civil decisions or to the victimized group of people (Christians) who were scattered throughout the different provinces, but who were turning the world upside down through their exploits. It certainly wasn’t for no reason that these Christian rebels were persecuted for their faith, since they were causing great damage to the rule of the emperor by challenging conventional thinking and demonstrating the power of a kingdom that was not of this world!
So it would not be too big an inference to assume that the term ekklesia in the first century, when referring to Christians, carried with it the connotation of a group of rebels or renegades, especially seen through the eyes of the Romans and the Jews. Note that the disciples had several other words to choose from to describe the Body of Christ, but they intentionally used this one.
The Greek word ekklesia is used 114 times in the New Testament and in every instance is translated as church (in most Bible translations), except in Acts 19:32, 39 and 41 where it was more accurately translated as assembly. Acts 19 is possibly the only reference that we have in the Bible where this word could not be mistranslated, since the assembly referred to in this chapter had nothing to do with a church meeting. In this instance it was referring to an angry mob in Ephesus and here the translators of the Bible were forced to abandon their agenda.
Paul had been sharing the gospel and demonstrating it with such power in Ephesus that a great multitude of people came to Christ. A wealthy silversmith named Demetrius had a business that made silver models of the temple of the goddess Artemis. Those who worked for him also earned a lot of money. They had been suffering great losses since Paul started sharing the gospel in Ephesus and throughout the entire Asia. Demetrius then caused an uprising in the city, accusing Paul of saying that gods made by hands were not gods. Here is an account of what happened on that day. Note all the different words that were used to describe this illegal horde, a rioting mob of angry people who wanted to kill Paul and his companions:
Act 19:29 So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. 30 But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd (demos), the disciples would not let him. 31 And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. 32 Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly (ekklesia) was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together (sunerchomai). 33 Some of the crowd (ochlos) prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd (demos). 34 But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 35 And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? 36 Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. 37 For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38 If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular/lawful assembly (ekklesia). 40 For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion (sustrophe).” 41 And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly (ekklesia). (ESV, annotations added)
From G1210; the public (as bound together socially): – people.
From a derivative of G2192 (meaning a vehicle); a throng (as borne along); by implication the rabble; by extension a class of people; figuratively a riot: – company, multitude, number (of people), people, press.
From G4862 and G2064; to convene, depart in company with, associate with, or (specifically) cohabit (conjugally): – accompany, assemble (with), come (together), come (company, go) with, resort.
From G4962; a twisting together, that is, (figuratively) a secret coalition, riotous crowd: – + band together, concourse.
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.
It should be clear to any unprejudiced person that the only thing which seems out of place in the above context is the rendering of the word ekklesia. There is evidently some serious bias that has been added to the mix. This is one of the few occasions where we can gain a better understanding of what ekklesia really means and clearly we can see that it is not a church building. A rebellious crowd or a defiant gathering would be more accurate.
Another shining example is Hebrews 2:12, a New Testament verse which is a direct quotation from the Hebrew language used in Psalms 22:22. Note how the translators changed the scripture in the New Testament:
Psa 22:22 I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. (KJV, emphasis added)
Heb 2:12 Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee. (KJV, emphasis added)
Another interesting phenomenon is the fact that even in Latin, one of the most inluential written languages of the middle ages, the word for ekklesia was retained as ekklesia. It is still retained to this very day. It’s therefore definitely worthwhile to try and dig up where the word church came from in the English language. And what does it even mean?
Church was a word that wriggled its way into the English language, originally derived from the German and Old English word pronounced kirche. In Scotland it was called kirk. The Oxford Universal English Dictionary defines it as follows:
Church: Old English cirice, circe; Middle English chereche, chiriche, chirche; whence churche, cherche, etc.: -Greek Kuriakon…
Kirk: The Northern English and Scottish form of church, in all its senses.
In the earlier Greek It was pronounced ku-ri-a-kos or ku-ri-a-kon.
Easton’s Bible Dictionary gives a noteworthy perspective on how the word church came to be generally accepted into the English language: “
Church: “Derived probably from the Greek kuriakon (i.e., “the Lord’s house”), which was used by ancient authors for the place of worship. In the New Testament it is the translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which is synonymous with the Hebrew kahal of the Old Testament, both words meaning simply an assembly, the character of which can only be known from the connection in which the word is found. There is no clear instance of its being used for a place of meeting or of worship, although in post-apostolic times it early received this meaning.”
Clearly there is something seriously wrong here! The translators badly overstepped the boundaries when they inserted the word church into the English Bible. We can concede that church would have been an acceptable translation for the Greek word kuriakos, but they were not translating the Greek word kuriakos at all. No, they were substituting an entirely different Greek word! Not by the lowest standard of the worst translator can church ever be an acceptable translation for ekklesia.
The word kuriakos only appears twice in the entire New Testament and both times it means “the Lord’s”:
1 Cor 11:20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s (kuriakos) supper. (KJV, emphasis and annotations added)
Rev 1:10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s (kuriakos) day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, (KJV, emphasis and annotations added)
This concludes the questionable history of the word “church” and how it came to be the generally accepted term when referring to the called out people of God.
In light of all the above, wouldn’t it be a giant step towards recovering the truth (which has been squandered through the centuries) if we started using the word church in a more responsible manner? The epistles of Paul are full of references to the ekklesia:
1 Cor 1:2 To the church (ekklesia) of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours (ESV, annotations added)
Gal 1:1 Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), 2 and all the brothers with me, to the churches (ekklesia – note that the plural form was added by the translators, the original language only says ‘ekklesia”) of Galatia. (ESV, annotations added)
1 Thes 1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church (ekklesia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
It would be a great start towards recovering the truth if we started thinking of the ekklesia as a group of called out, world conquering, miracle doing, disciples of Christ, instead of a building where people go to once a week to watch a religious performance.
Andre van der Merwe
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