What is Church? This is one of those questions to which the answer seems obvious until one starts to think seriously about the answer. Think about it… what is your answer? That building on the corner with the steeple? The body of Christ? All believers down through the ages? The people you fellowship with? All of the above? While each of these have some measure of truth depending on the context; the English word “church” bears scant resemblance to the Greek word it represents.
My last post was considerably longer than usual and generated several suggestions that I try to keep the length of my posts to a more manageable level. Unfortunately I am trying to cover topics or points of view, which are often misunderstood or poorly represented in today’s world. As a result they deserve in-depth coverage.
A case in point is today’s topic: “What is Church?” In order to do this subject justice, and keep my readers happy, (is that possible?;-) I am going to cover this as a multi-part series. In today’s post I am going to cover the origin of our English word, and introduce the Greek word which the New Testament uses: the word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία)
Those of you who have read my book know that the meaning of certain New Testament words seem to be obscured by transliteration as opposed to translation. Transliteration is simply rewriting a word from one language, using the spelling and pronunciation norms of another. Some common examples of transliterated words in the New Testament are baptism, apostle, and Christ. The Greek words baptizo, apostolos, and christos mean dip, immerse or wash; ambassador or emissary; and king, respectively. As you can see, transliteration does nothing to help a reader understand the author’s intent.
The English word church does not seem to bear any resemblance to ekklesia. As a result we might take comfort in the fact that at least it does not seem to be a transliteration, but we would be wrong. As we will see shortly
What is Church in English?
As a starting point we should consider what an English dictionary can tell us about the meaning of our word. Dictionary.com gives us the following for church:
- a building for public Christian worship.
- public worship of God or a religious service in such a building: to attend church regularly.
- ( sometimes initial capital letter ) the whole body of Christian believers; Christendom.
- ( sometimes initial capital letter ) any division of this body professing the same creed and acknowledging the same ecclesiastical authority; a Christian denomination: the Methodist Church.
- that part of the whole Christian body, or of a particular denomination, belonging to the same city, country, nation, etc.
Most serious Christians will recognize instantly that while many people may think of a building when they hear the word church; this is not the way the Bible uses the term. When asked “what is church?” they rightly understand that the term is a reference to a group of people who have given their allegiance to Jesus Christ—whoops—I mean King Jesus. In spite of this, few who are part of the Church understand the full significance of this reference. Our goal is to fully explore the significance of this over our next several posts. For now you should simply keep in mind that none of the dictionary definitions convey this thought.
The fact that the Spanish word for church, “iglesia” is clearly a transliteration (as it is in many languages) is an indication that some attempt has been made historically to obscure its meaning. This indication is intensified when we realize that the English “church” derives from the German “Kirche” which is a shortened form of two Greek words; “kyriakon doma” (κυριακόν δῶμα).