Church: What does the word mean?

If I were to survey 100 Christians and ask them to describe the term “church”, that description would still include a building, what we do on Sunday morning (or some other time), an organisation or a more cultural interpretation; whatever that might be in the context.

The New Testament word that is translated church is ekklesia which means ‘out from and to’ and originally meant assembly, a gathering of people united by common identity and purpose. In the time of Jesus ekklesia was used in a variety of ways.

It was one of the Greek words used for what we today translate as synagogue. In Acts 19:32,39,41, ekklēsía is used for the crowd and for the town council: a civil assembly in Ephesus. For Paul, ekklēsía had overtones of a family. The context in which it appears must always supply the specific reason one is called out or assembled.

From the third century when Constantine legalized Christianity, ekklesia gradually ceased to be a movement and became more institutional. Eventually a German word, kirche (from the Greek word kuriakos), was substituted for ekklesia. ‘Kyriakos’, which originally meant ‘belonging to the lord’ usually designates ownership and was often used for buildings or structures

In 1522, William Tyndale began translating the Greek New Testament into English. He translated the Greek word ekklesia as “assembly” or “gathering” attempting to set the record straight. Tyndale lost his battle over this term, and others; along with his life. Ekklesia which is used in the scriptures more that 100 times was replaced by the word “church”.

Tragically the Germanic notion has endured to today and when we talk about church the immediate and nearly universal response is to associate it with a building, a structure, a location or an address. What does all this mean for those of us called to lead and shape the twenty-first-century ekklesia of God? It means we need to look around our kirches and ask some unsettling questions:

  • Are we going or simply coming (to meetings)?
  • Are we making a measurable difference or simply conducting services?
  • Are we ministering to the current generation or are we organised around an antiquated ministry model inherited from a previous generation?
  • Are we ekklesia or have we settled for kirche?

The apostles, when they wrote the books of the New Testament, could have used kuriakos, but it appears only twice in the Bible: in I Corinthians 11:20 (Lord’s supper) and Revelation 1:10 (Lord’s day). Neither usage contains any reference to “church.” Instead, the apostles used the word ekklesia 112 times. The apostles used ekklesia because they had a more specific meaning in mind.

The first time the word ekklesia appears in our English bibles is Matthew 16:17-18 where Jesus says to Peter: “… and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” I know we have to somehow prove a theological point with this verse but what if we looked at it in a different way. “… and on this rock I will build powerful gatherings of people who are united by identity and purpose and the gates of Hades will not overcome that.”

Perhaps you haven’t yet picked up on the bad news that Church is becoming less popular, especially for the current postmoderm generation. They see institutions as controlling, disempowering and not based on relationships. Is it time to rediscover ekklesia?

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