Translating Ekklesia: What is Church–Part 3

Translating ekklesia can be a puzzle.

Translating ekklesia can be a puzzle.

It turns out translating ekklesia is not as easy as it seems. In part 1 of our series we saw that the English meaning of “church” has to do with a building, even though most followers of Jesus recognize this is not what it means in the Bible. We also saw that 1st century Greeks used the word in a political context.

In part 2 we examined how ekklesia was used in the Greek Old Testament or Septuagint, quoted by Jesus and the New Testament authors. We saw that Jewish readers understood ekklesia not as an assembly of Israel upon some particular occasion, but the people of Israel as God’s people distinct from everybody else.

Since the English word “church” does not normally convey either of these ideas, our task here in part 3, is translating ekklesia into an English form that conveys the 1st century understanding.

Is re-translating ekklesia necessary–Why not keep using “church?”

Hoskyns and Davey (see part 2) hold that “church” is a perfectly good word due to its lack of cognates in English. They believe we only need educate people on its New Testament usage. I am not comfortable with this for at least two reasons; first, it is most commonly associated with a building; secondly it leaves those who do not understand Greek completely dependent on their teachers and not the Bible itself. Most importantly it is devoid of the political/national significance that Hoskyns and Davey so clearly point out.

So what are we to use instead? “Citizens” certainly comes close, but being plural cannot fill in grammatically for the singular ekklesia. “Citizenry” comes closer, but sounds somewhat archaic. “Electorate” has a nice ring to it, and I especially like its linkage to the fact that we are the elect of God. Finally there is the fact that we have not mentioned before: In at least one New Testament reference, ekklesia clearly refers to a group of people antagonistic to our king’s people. This tells me that the classical Greek idea of “assembly” was still present, at least vestigially, in the minds of the New Testament authors.

My suggestion for translating ekklesia…

As a result of these considerations I tentatively submit that “assembly of citizens” be used in place of the English word “church.” It has the advantage of being a singular entity that retains the Ambassadors’ sense of a group, and at the same time emphasizes the group’s political/national nature. The only thing that is not entirely pleasing is the lack of economy in replacing one Greek word with three in English.

To test our hypothesis let’s try it out on a few passages to see if we get any value added over using “church.” First let us look at an extended passage where the use of ekklesia is singular and not clearly referring to any individual local assembly. In this passage I am simply cutting and pasting “assembly of citizens” for each occurrence of ekklesia, and “king” for each occurrence of christos. (For a full understanding of my translation of christos please see the book, The Problem with Christ.)

One further note is that verse 21 is integral to understand this passage even though it is often not included. For this reason the NASB, and other translations often find it necessary to add an italicized “be subject” following “wives” in verse 22. The italics indicate that these words are not found here in the Greek text. I have removed this in the rendering below to show the ambassador’s actual wording:

…and be subject to one another in the fear of a king. Wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as the king also is the head of the assembly of citizens, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the assembly of citizens is subject to the king, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as the king also loved the assembly of citizens and gave Himself up for it, so that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the assembly of citizens in all its glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the king also does the assembly of citizens, because we are members of His body. FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to a king and the assembly of citizens. (Ephesians 5:21-32)

Next we provide the same treatment to a passage clearly referring to multiple local assemblies. This is my translation:

Paul, an ambassador (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through King Jesus and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, To the assemblies of citizens from Galatia.–Galatians 1:1-2

It seems that we have indeed accomplished our goal of finding an English equivalent for translating ekklesia that conveys the intention of the authors of the New Testament. In fact, we may have gotten even more than we bargained for. It is uncommon to find words that have a one to one correspondence when translating from one language to another. In the case of ekklesia it is usually translated as “church” but in three cases this is impossible. In Acts 19:32,39,41 it is almost always rendered as “assembly.” Here we find that “the whole city was in an uproar” (Acts 19:29) due to Paul’s proclamation of the good news of King Jesus at Ephesus. Look what happens when we modify these three verses with our new understanding:

So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly of citizens was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together… But if you want anything beyond this, it shall be settled in the lawful assembly of citizens… After saying this he dismissed the assembly of citizens.–Acts 19:32,39,41

Our rendition actually gives a fuller understanding of the event. It now becomes clear that Paul’s opponents were trying to take spontaneous political action against him. It was not simply a mob, but they were clearly following the Greek city-state model and gathered at the standard meeting place, where the dually appointed city clerk executed his office and told them they needed to reconvene a “lawful” ekklesia. It would seem that our hypothesis holds even better than we had hoped.

Next week I hope to conclude our series on “What is Church?” by looking at its opposite. Until then why don’t you try to come up with a simple word or words that conveys the opposite concept of ekklesia. You get extra credit for finding the word the New Testament authors used. :-)

Win a free copy of The Problem with Christ

In order to make things a little more interesting, and encourage more involvement in the comment section below, I am offering a free copy of The Problem with Christ. To win you must comment below and share what you think the word is that New Testament authors used for the opposite of ekklesia. If the winner is in the U.S. or Canada, I will send a hard copy. Due to postage, others will receive a copy of the PDF (unless they want to pay postage). The winner will be the first person to submit the correct answer.

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23 thoughts on “Translating Ekklesia: What is Church–Part 3

  1. I think what you have written is spot on, but I am not sure if we need to get rid of “church”, but just redeem it. My church was made an effort to redefine “church” just like you have suggested without getting rid of the word. We have made a concerted effort to teach that “the church is who we are and not the place we meet”. One of the ways of doing this making our building a hive of activity all the time and making it a public space. I think churches teaching “church” as being a gathering in all of its political and communal meaning is the best way to go. I think using your terms are a great way to spark the imagination which the Church needs to recover in this epoch.

    • Thank you Patrick for your thoughtful reply. I hope you are right about our ability to redeem the word “church.” As I noted in the blog, you are in good company on this point, and I think it likely that more people will agree with you than with me.

      For my part I think a fight with the dictionary is bound to be lost. Recognizing that the “church” is the people rather than the building is only one small step in reclaiming the biblical intent of ekklesia. It does not say anything about the nature of the group. Is it a group of friends, a club, a business, a charitable corporation, a tribe, or something else?

      I believe it is the nature of the group that is at the heart of the choice of the word ekklesia by the biblical authors, and it is that nature that needs to be revealed in our choice of words. It may be that peppering our language with other terms, as you note in your last sentence, may help correct our thinking. It is at least a step in the right direction.

      Again thank you!

      • The redemption of the word “church” implies a re-defining of that assembly, its politics, its economy, and its mission. I don’t think you can separate the one from the other. All this must also be in the context of its local place.

  2. My Greek is quite inadequate for your challenge, but I did want to tell you how much I enjoy and am encouraged by your articles. Many of us struggle to apply New Testament teaching to life in the 21st century.

    Living in the Bible-belt, I’ve found the question of where I go to church almost as obligatory as the use of y’all. My typical response, “Define ‘church?'” is usually met by a shrug and the admission that yes, church is or should be something more than a building. But why the constant misuse?

    On my part, when not using the word “ekklesia” for lack of an English translation, I generally use something along the lines of “the assembly of believers,” “the gathering of believers,” “the believers,” or even occasionally “the saints,” although the last has been tainted by Catholicism. I’ll have to rethink that given your exposition of Acts 19….

    Why not simply “assembly?”

    • Thank you my friend, you encourage me as well! I suspect that the misuse is due to the interplay between words and thoughts. It is almost impossible for thinking to be more precise than the words we use in forming them.

      The problem with assembly is noted in my answer to Patrick above; it is that it says nothing about the nature of the group. Consider an assembly of prisoners prior to a riot—not even close to the concept intended by ekklesia.

      One way of clarifying the meaning of a word is to consider its antonym, or opposite. For the noun “assembly,” the antonym is individual or alone. Stay tuned to our next installment for the antonym of ekklesia as it is used in the Bible. I think it will drive home how far off the mark our word church is.

  3. Quite frankly I don’t think it is possible to redeem the word “church” any more than it is possible to redeem the word “pastor” (for anyone who likes talking in Latin :)).

    We should drop both words, take on words or phrases that express what is biblical more clearly, and be done with it.

    I think those of us who know the truth in these areas tend, far too often, to coddle and cater to religious sensitivities that hold Christians in bondage to falsehood.

    Carlos

  4. I agree Carlos. As I state in “The Problem with Christ,” the first step in correcting poor thinking is to correct poor speech. In Spanish “pastor” is a perfectly good word as it means “shepherd.” In English it has no such connotation and should be avoided IMHO.

  5. On what basis do you have to translate christos as “king” when we have explicit testimony in the Gospel of John that it is the Greek rendering of messiah (John 1:41)? The idea of the messiah had three basic uses for people: priests (Lev 4:3, 5, 16; 6:22), kings (1 Sam 2:10; 2 Sam 22:51; 1 Chron 16:22; 2 Chron 6:42; Ps 2:2; 28:8; 84:9; 105:5; 132:10, 17; Hab 3:13) or a prince (Dan 9:24-26), and also for prophets (1 Kgs 19:16; cf. Ps 105:15).

    So what makes you chose king for the Greek christos (from the Hebrew messiah), when there are other uses of the term?

    • In Greek, the only word I know right now that could be close to an antonym for ekklesia would be monos, which can mean “alone.”

      But my vocabulary is pretty small right now:)

    • Brother Joseph, I like the way you think! :-) I am really bothered when I make a statement that runs so contrary to the conventional view and folks just nod in agreement and move on. It makes me think that either they are not really paying attention, or they are just being gullible.

      While it is not a large book, The Problem with Christ, has much more info than I can post here. I wrote it specifically to answer your question. I will send you a copy of the PDF. Please read it and let me know what you thing. If you have a Kindle, you can get it from Amazon for about 5 bucks, or the paper back for less than ten. The PDF is complete, if you don’t mind reading it that way.

      I will point out one thing–once again transliteration is messing with our minds and tricking us into thinking we understand something when we really don’t. You refer to the “Hebrew messiah” in error. messiah is an English word meaning “promised one” or “deliverer.” It is a transliteration of the Aramaic word messia, which is equivalent to the Hebrew “meshiach.” Both messia, and meshiach meant “king” in the 1st-century, as I demonstrate in the book. (BTW–to answer your next question, no, they do not mean anointed either! Read the book 😉

  6. In order to redeem “church,” we foremost need to go back to the cross of Christ. God’s people can be ignorant about a lot of things, but if they are ignorant about what Christ accomplished on the cross, they are in real trouble. This is why Paul preached the gospel of “Christ crucified” and why we also focus primarily on the meaning and application of the cross rather than the topic of church in our website. Focusing on church as many now do is putting the cart before the horse or trying to get the tail to wag the dog.

    • Brother Peter, I am sorry that it took so long to approve your post. From now on they will post right away. I have been getting a lot of mail lately and yours somehow slipped by. Sorry :-(

      While I see your point and agree to a certain extent, I think it is important to recognize that our king’s work on the cross had the effect of creating a new ekklesia that is to accomplish His will in this dark world. We are not supposed to be separate individuals going about doing our own thing. We are redeemed into His body.

      You are correct, we must not put the cart before the horse. But the horse can get a lot more work done if we hitch the cart to it. 😉

      For the king,

      Chris

    • Peter,

      You are too kind when you say that Christians (so-called) are ignorant. The truth as I see it as that many who call themselves Christians may not even be so and that what you call ignorance may be nothing less than deception stemming from an unbelieving and unwilling heart.

      Carlos

  7. Fascinating series. Thank you! As someone who works in the translation industry, I am familiar with the nuances of words and the importance of “getting it right.” I’m also aware that it’s very, very difficult to “get it right” in many cases. At the end of the day, language is an imperfect tool we have to communicate ideas. Thank goodness for the Holy Spirit, which can help us understand those ideas as we study them out.

  8. Hi Chris,

    Don’t know where to fit this into the conversation but seeing it’s related to what the church is or was meant to be I was wondering if I could pick your brain (or anyone’s brain really – you are certainly under no obligation to respond) on the meaning of the phrase “in the church” as found at the tail end of 1 Corinthians 14:35?

    I don’t want to get into what the verse is talking about overall as quite frankly most so-called Christians haven’t got a clue as to what Paul was saying and are so resistant to the plain meaning of what he meant to say that it is quite often fruitless to even discuss it other than to point out that in Paul’s mind there was obviously a difference between a get together at home (where it was okay for women to ask their husband’s questions) and a meeting of the church (where it was not).

    In other words a get together between a husband and wife and possibly an aged parent or two living with them and very likely a few children did not constitute a church for Paul whereas a meeting with everyone assembled together apparently did.

    What do you see as the difference between these two types of assembly? Why did Paul see one as “church” and the other as not?

    We of today might readily call both “church” as many Christians look on church as being wherever 2 or 3 (or more) are gathered together in His name. But Paul apparently did not look on church that way – which I find interesting and insightful.

    Any thoughts?

    Carlos

    • Wow Carlos, that is a very interesting observation! I must confess that I have never noticed the very legitimate distinction that you are pointing out. I honestly don’t know what to make of it and am very open to anyone elses understanding of this. In the meantime I am going to put it on the back burner and let it stew awhile. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

      In the meantime I will remind everyone of a very important maxim. In general, our real problem is not with the few verses we don’t understand or know how to apply. Our real problem is the verses we do understand and don’t want to apply.

  9. To me the difficulty is not with the word “church” but with the Christians. To me, the degradation of the meaning of the word to “a physical building where we go Sunday morning” is a reflection of Christians falling away from an intense love for the Lord Jesus. If we were in Paul’s condition, e.g. “to me to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21), proper use of words would follow.
    As a minor ps, among the Christians I am with we refer to the building as “meeting place” and to getting together as “meeting” or “gathering.” Many years of not using “church” for the physical building, and speaking about what the church is, has built up a habit of proper use of the word “church.”

    • Thank you Don. You make a good point. By distinguishing the building from the people we can begin to recover at least the “people” aspect of ekklesia. Being a “RadicalFish” I tend to want to go even further and recover the full biblical implications of the term. :-)

      Rome saw in the ekklesia something of sedition. The very term was a challenge to its ultimate authority. The fact that the ekklesia owed their allegiance to their own king, only heightened that suspicion. No matter how many times that king’s ambassadors called for obedience to earthly kings (where there was no conflict with their king’s demands).

      I am convinced that recovery of a proper understanding of ekklesia is but one step on the road of realizing the truth of “in but not of.”

      For the king,

      Chris

  10. Great article, just found this ! looking forward to further comments & discussion. About redifining the word ‘church’. I like the old testament ‘store house’ that basically took care of widows, children, & had where the Levites pretty much lived. People brought donations (meat) there for these to have to live off of. Not live in 3.4 million dollar ranches in Texas, own jets, exotic homes, continious cosmetic surgery, all types of fund-a-thons, massive church buildings. It goes to the pastor’s heads, they get a big church, big salary, nice possessions, and then get cocky. I wonder if these wealthy mega church pastors with thir big homes, exotic cars, would be willing to give all of it away & live & preach at the homeless mission. That pretty much is what the old testament ‘storehouse’ was.

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