Through the years raising our children, Jenny and I tried to be careful with our words. We were aware of their power and how their impact could affect them for life. This was not only true about them personally but also how we talked about God. One area where we were very careful was our use of the word “church”. You may think that strange, but let me explain.
“Church” is not a word Jesus ever used – that’s because it’s an English word. But, as far as we know, he never used its Greek or Aramaic equivalent. According to the Oxford Dictionary the word “church” comes for the Old English “cyrice” which is related to Dutch kerk and German Kirche. It is based on Greek kuriakon meaning “Lord’s (house)” which comes from the Greek kurios meaning “’master or lord”. Surprisingly, the word from which the word “church” is derived only occurs in 1 Corinthians. 11:20 and Revelation 1:10.
“Why then,” you may ask, “does the word ‘church’ occur so many times in our English Bibles?”
The reason is because the translators have chosen to translate another Greek word ekklesia as “church”. This word, ekklesia, is a Greek verb that means “to summon forth,” or “to call out from.” It was often used to indicate an assembly of citizens, such as a town meeting.
In an attempt to be accurate the early English Bibles never used the word church and the first complete English Bible by William Tyndale (1524) used the word “congregation” instead.
Tyndale was subsequently arrested, tried and condemned because his translation was a threat to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchy. So it is not surprising that when King James endorsed an “authorised” English version, the Bible translators preferred to translate ekklesia as “church” not “congregation.” Sadly, centuries of confusion within English speaking Christianity has occurred ever since.
Words matter, and the way we use the word “church” is important. If our understanding is different to what Jesus had in mind, it can only be a stumbling block to us.
When our children were growing up we tried to avoid calling anything “church” that wasn’t Jesus’ idea of church. Sunday morning was “worshipping together,” the building we gathered in was the “church building” and what we did together at home group in the middle of the week was as much church as anything else we. Jenny would modify the little rhyme so it became, “Here is the church building / Here is the steeple / Open the doors and there is the church!”
Today, on occasions when I am asked which church I go to, I sometimes bring out one of my more provocative responses and say, “I don’t!” For some this is quite perplexing particularly when they know I am a Christian. After a moment of awkward silence I generally relieve their confusion by saying, “I don’t go to church, I am church.”
It is one of my small attempts to help us rethink what we mean when we use the word “church.”
Stephen L Baxter