Doing Away with the Translation, “Church”
“Church” is, I believe, an anachronistic translation of ekklesia. It came to us through various languages which ultimately derived from kyriakos (“the Lord’s). This seems to have been used since AD 300 and onward, and when we think of the “church,” we ultimately envision the building wherein we meet. “Church” being used of the building in which we meet is accurate, and sometimes well-meaning Christians admonish that we “be the church and not simply go to church.” The sentiment is that as a living body, we should be active and not stationary—something with which I can agree. However, to describe our meeting places as churches—the word itself having derived from the German Kirche—is not altogether wrong. What many may be unaware of is that English is a Germanic language. We often think of it as based in Latin, but in truth, we use many loanwords from Latin and Greek, but our language itself is Germanic.
Ekklesia is often broken down by its compounds to define it in older scholarly works and many modern favorite tomes: ek meaning “out of” and kaleo meaning “call.” Hence, the church is often described as the “called out,” but out of what are we called? The world, so we’re told. Since most languages do not define terms based on their compounds, I favor looking at the language the way an ancient audience might have understood it rather than loaded with a theology which may have evolved later on. For this reason, I take a classical approach. The term, then, would have simply meant “assembly.” Doesn’t sound very spiritual or unique, does it? A term doesn’t have to be used with theological meaning for it to have a special significance as God may have used it. William Tyndale in 1526 produced the first English Bible translated from the Greek and translated this term as “congregation.” Wycliffe’s translation as earlier, but it used the Vulgate.¹
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promised to build (architectural language) His “church,” or “assembly.” How should we understand this? “Assembly” referred to what was done and not where. It was often used of the assembly of citizens of a Greek city who made decisions for the city-state. It’s used in this vein in Acts 7:38 and 19:32, 40. To the Greeks, it was a noble word and denoted the activities of the Greek civic life.² The way that Matthew likely intended to portray it was in continuation of Israel’s history. Ekklesia and sometimes synagoge replace the Hebrew term in the LXX that denoted the people of God. Furthermore, the Semitic paradigm of Matthew’s account is evident in a few ways:
- The blessing of Peter is an Old Testament style.
- Addressing Peter by his father’s name—Bar Jona.
- The play on words with Peter’s name in Greek.
- The expressions “flesh and blood” and “bind and loose.”³
These each suggests a Jewish reading of the term and concludes that it must be understood as “assembly” as such that appeared at the base of Mt. Sinai when all Israel was assembled before God (cf. Deut. 4:9–10; 9:10–11; 18:15–16 LXX). They did a few things that Jesus’ disciples would have likely paralleled to His statement:
- They consecrated themselves before assembling (Exod. 19:10).
- They assembled before God (Exod. 19:17).
- They heard God’s law (Exod. 20–23).
- They were instructed in the covenant and heard it read (Exod. 24:3–4, 7).
- A meal was eaten to partake of the sacrifice that ratified the covenant (Exod. 24:4–11).
- Offerings were collected for the tabernacle (Exod. 25:1–8).
We can see similarities between Israel’s and the Christian assembly. We too are consecrated by faith in baptism (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–4), we assemble each Lord’s Day where we hear God’s Word read and are instructed in it, and we also partake of the Lord’s Supper and collect offerings. Whether it is a stretch or not to make those comparisons I’ll leave up to the reader with the one notable missing element being the singing of praises. All in all, when Christ promised to build His assembly, this is likely what His disciples envisioned.
¹ Jennifer Eyl, “Semantic Voids, New Testament Translation, and Anachronism: The Case of Paul’s Use of Ekklesia,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26, no. 4 (May 2014): 315–39.
² Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 129–33.
³ Benjamin L. Merkle, “The Meaning of ‘Εκκλησíα in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17,” Bibliotheca Sacra 167 (July–September 2010): 281–91.