You are most likely aware the New Testament was not written in English. It was written in Greek and therefore must be translated into English. Translators have always had a very difficult job deciding what English words to use in place of Greek words. The Greek word, “ekklesia” is the word most commonly translated, “church.” But given where the English word “church” comes from, it is probably not the best word for us to use when talking about the people of God.
What is the Etymology of the English Word “Church”?
Our English word “church” is derived from the Greek word, “kyriakon,” which means, “of the Lord.” Although it was never used this way in Scripture, this word was used to refer to buildings of worship (i.e. “house of the Lord”). The word eventually evolved into the Germanic word, “kirika” and then eventually into our English word, “church.”
So you see, it’s kind of funny when we say, “The church isn’t the building; the church is the people.” Which is something I’ve been told and repeated my whole life. But technically speaking, the English word, “church” has always referred to a building.
What we really mean is, the “ekklesia” isn’t the building; the “ekklesia” is the people. So I think it’s a shame that English translators chose a word which historically refers to a building and used it to translate the Greek word, “ekklesia,” which referred to Christians collectively.
What is Ekklesia?
The word, “ekklesia” always refers to a group of people. Some have suggested that it is a compound word meaning, “called out.” This may be where the word came from, but when it was used the emphasis was not on being “called out,” but on coming together.
In Acts 7:38, “ekklesia” refers to Israel and is translated “congregation.” In Acts 19, “ekklesia” refers to a group of citizens gathered together and is translated “assembly” (vs. 32, 39, 41). Both of these English words capture the meaning of “ekklesia” very well. When we hear the word “assembly,” we know we are talking about a group of people who “assemble.” And when we hear, “congregation,” we know we are talking about a group of people who “congregate.”
We often use the word “congregation” to refer to the local “ekklesia,” but have you ever thought about the fact that the universal body of Christ could accurately be called “congregation”? We are the great world-wide congregation of the saved. The same is true with the word “assembly.” The Lord’s church – the saved throughout the world – are an assembly of the redeemed.
Why does it matter?
I’m not saying we should never use the word, “church.” It has become a part of our vocabulary over the last several hundred years and it’s not going anywhere. But this is an important discussion for a least a couple of reasons:
1. Don’t be so quick to play the role of semantics police. When we correct people about things like calling the building a “church,” we may find out that they were technically correct all along. But beyond that, we forfeit many good opportunities to teach people about Jesus when we care more about correcting their use of the English language.
2. Realize that “ekklesia” is about being an assembly. The most important reason this issue must be discussed is because we have come to a point in our culture where many Christians see no need to come to the worship assembly. They believe they can be “members of the church” without ever assembling. But if we started thinking of the church as the “assembly” then we might realize that an assembly assembles!
And even when the assembly is not assembled, we should still think of ourselves as a member of the assembly of Jesus Christ (both locally and universally). The rest of the assembly should be on on our hearts and our minds as we go throughout our day. We should pray for the assembly, look for every opportunity to assemble with them, and encourage them “all the more as [we] see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25).
Jesus died to save His assembly. Someday He is coming back to take His assembly home to heaven. On that day, the great assembly of Christ will be assembled around the throne of God and we will praise His name forever and ever.
Here’s a sobering thought: If you don’t appreciate the assembly now, what makes you think you’ll appreciate it – or even be a part of it – for eternity? Think about it.
I love you and God loves you,