We wrongly use the word church. And it keeps us stuck in unbiblical and unhealthy mindsets in regards to what the church is and what it does. We need to kill the modern usage of the English word church.
First, just a little bit of history of the English word church.
The word comes down to us from the Greek, kyriakos, which means "from the Lord" or "pertaining to the Lord" The actual Greek word in the New Testament that references a gathering of Christian believers is ekklesia, which literally means, "an assembly of people."
This begs the question of how the English word church, which does not mean an assembly of people came to be used as a translation for ekklesia. I suppose it's difficult to know with certainty how this happened, but it appears that some of the first English translations, such as Tyndale's (1526) and Coverdale's (1535) used the English word congregation, rather than church. However, the popular Geneva Bible (1560) and then the King James Bible (1611) used the word church. Such an obvious mistranslation strongly implies that a pretty strong agenda lay behind it.
The best explanation seems to be that the word church was better for emphasizing establishment. The church was the institution whose existence and purpose was to be understood as "pertaining to the Lord." What this ambiguous and confusing label did was lend itself more to an institutional and authoritarian sense, rather than the original sense of a gathered assembly of people. Unfortunately, it became common place in English, and translators since the KJV have been stuck with it. The consequence of this has been profound. Today, we use the word to mean just about everything but what the New Testament word ekklesia actually means.
Today, when you hear the word church being used it is typically an unbiblical usage. Most often people use it to reference the organization and it's location. If someone asks, "Where is First Baptist Church?" another will answer, "It's on Main Street," referring to a building that is empty most of the time. Often you'll hear a church being referred to as "pastor Smith's church," as if it is the business that he runs. Then you'll hear many ask, "where do you go to church?" This usage has a double meaning. Such a question reveals that the one who asks it thinks of church in the framework of a meeting that happens in a certain place by a certain religious organization. Going to church means attending worship service. We even say, "It's time to go to church." In this way, church is conceived as something you attend.
Of course, the word church is also conflated with all our denominational labels - the Baptist church, the Presbyterian church, the Pentecostal church, the Methodist church, the non-denominational church, or the community church. Again, this reinforces the idea of institution because now we have to ask, "What kind of church?"
I'm so confused! How about you? The word has come to be used in so many ways that it really doesn't mean much at all. It typically is used in ways that only reinforce the wrong ideas. This reality has left us with many unhealthy misunderstandings, which have been embedded into many bad practices. Words, in the end, really do matter.
The Greek word in the New Testament for what we call church, ekklesia, was a common term used primarily in regards to a called out group of people for a specific task, usually in regards to civil and public service. But in its basic sense, the word just referred to a group of people congregating together for some purpose.
Jesus is recorded using the word ekklesia twice. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus declares, "...I will build my church..." Jesus was simply saying He would gather and build a people for Himself, an ekklesia, not an institution or a campus. In Matthew 18:17, Jesus uses the word in the context of the church exercising church discipline. The last step of attempting to correct a wayward brother is to tell the matter "to the church." In other words, get the whole congregation in the know and involved.
In Acts and the letters of the New Testament, the word church is typically used in reference to a group of Christians in a certain location. However, there is also a sense of a universal church that spans the ages and will be fully realized at Christ's second coming. In either sense, the meaning of the word church (ekklesia) is a gathering of people with a shared purpose.
The Christian movement used a common Greek word in a new way. Jesus called what He was building a "called out assembly of people" that would follow Him. The early church clearly understood this. However, once the church became an institution, patterned after the Roman Empire in the fourth century, this meaning began to be lost. By the time we get to English translations of the Bible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we see this institutionalization embedded in the mindset of translators. A few astute individuals, like Tyndale translated ekklesia with the English word congregation - which is a much better word! Regrettably, establishment mentality won out in the end and English translations established the word church.
What to do? I think we must shift our understanding and our usage of the word church. For example, when referring to the building where the church gathers for various activities, let's use a term like meeting house. When we are referring to the time of gathering for corporate worship, then let's be mindful to use the word worship. And when we are really talking about the people who make up the church, then lets use the term congregation. It's more than just words. Words shape and reinforce our understanding.
If we can train up a new generation to use these words biblically and accurately, then we may be able to reverse some of the institutionalized, corporate, entertainment driven "church" mentality that pervades evangelical Christianity today.
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