What is Church, according to the Bible?–Part 1

What is Church-picture

“Church” can be confusing

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:

  1. a building for public Christian worship.
  2. public worship of God or a religious service in such a building: to attend church regularly.
  3. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) the whole body of Christian believers; Christendom.
  4. ( 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.
  5. 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).

kyriakon is found twice in the New Testament; once in 1 Corinthians 11:20 and once in Revelation 1:10, and in neither case is it translated as “church.” In both cases it is properly rendered as “Lord’s”; first referring to the “Lord’s supper,” and secondly to the “Lord’s day.” It is an adjective meaning “belonging to a lord.”

Doma, which was dropped by the time the term made its way into German and English, (and a host of Teutonic languages) means “house top” or “roof” and is the origin of our word “dome.” It is found seven times in the New Testament. (Matthew 10:27, Matthew 24:17, Mark 13:15, Luke 5:19, Luke 12:3, Luke 17:31, Acts 10:9) It seems that this word eventually came to represent not just the roof, but the entire building, hence kyriakon doma means “building of a lord,” or “the lord’s building.”

It should come as no surprise that the primary dictionary meaning, and the understanding of most people, is that the church is a building; it has meant that since its adoption into the English language. It is somewhat ironic that the English word “church” is indeed a transliteration from the Greek, but not of the word used by our king’s ambassadors (often transliterated as “Christ’s apostles”) to represent the thing we think of as the “Church.”

What is Church in Greek?

So what did the Greek word ekklesia mean? Its denotation is derived from two Greek words meaning “called out,” and many would have us to believe that this is the sense intended by its use in the New Testament. “We are the Church” equals “we are called out of the world.” While this is a true statement, it may not be the meaning of the word. As we learned earlier we must decide how it was used, before coming to our conclusion. To this end we are assisted by the Encyclopedia Britannica which gives:

Ecclesia, Greek Ekklēsia, (“gathering of those summoned”), in ancient Greece, assembly of citizens in a city-state…. the Ecclesia became coterminous with the body of male citizens 18 years of age or over and had final control over policy, including the right to hear appeals in the hēliaia (public court), take part in the election of archons (chief magistrates), and confer special privileges on individuals…. Assemblies of this sort existed in most Greek city-states, continuing to function throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods, though under the Roman Empire their powers gradually atrophied.

Put simply, an ekklesia was a gathering of citizens to exercise their authority. We are further told that the word eventually became coterminous (having the same boundaries or extent in time, space, or meaning)with the citizenry. In other words by the time of our king’s arrival, ekklesia had become a term that referred to a collective body of citizens excising their authority.

Is this what you think of when you hear the word church? Hmm…

In our next post we will look at how the the Greek and Hebrew Old Testaments shaped the understanding of the New Testament authors as they used the word ekklesia

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9 thoughts on “What is Church, according to the Bible?–Part 1

  1. Very interesting post Chris.

    When I think of the word Church, I never think of a building unless I say “I’m off to Church!” As you rightly say the word ‘Church’ (Latin ecclesia, from the Greek ek-ka-lein, to ‘call out of’) means a convocation or an assembly, so for me even a parish can be called a “church”.

    In your post you ask what is Church in English and what is Church in Greek, and after reading the post I thought about what Church is in Irish (I’m Irish). In my native language the word is eaglais and refers to a building – and is usually used only of Roman Catholic churches in Ireland; Protestant churches are called teampall i.e. temple. But “an Eaglais” (the word “an” being the definite article in the Irish language, and pronounced like “on”) is “the Church” as an institution regardless of denomination: the Anglican Church of Ireland is called Eaglais na hÉireann in Irish.

    But if we look at the inner meaning of the word we come to know that the Church has been seen as people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
    The Church is also referred to as a sheepfold whose one and indispensable door is Christ. It is a flock of which God Himself foretold He would be the shepherd.
    The Church is also compared to a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God and on that land the ancient olive tree, rooted in the holy Prophets, grows. Grafted onto that ancient olive tree, we Christians bear fruit in Christ alone. Cut off from Him we can do nothing.

    So for me unity is essential to the inner meaning of the word Church with Christ as the Head of the Body.

    Looking forward to your future posts.

    • Thank you Thérèse, for your insightful comment. I find it interesting to see that Irish has followed the path of Spanish and other Latin languages in transliterating Ekklesia rather than the Teutonic route of transliterating kyriakon. It seem that the result has been the same in all cases, since as you note “In my native language the word is eaglais and refers to a building.”

      It is hard for us to escape the power of vocabulary to control our thinking. I suspect that when you said “Protestant churches are called teampall…” that you were referring to the building as well, rather than the people.

      I have found that often the first step in successfully changing our thinking is to change our vocabulary. One of the purposes of this blog series is to see if we can find a more accurate way of expressing the Greek word ekklesia.

      Thank you again for your input, and stay tuned.

      For the king–Chris

  2. Pingback: The Old Testament Church: What is Church--Part 2 - RadicalFish.net

  3. Pingback: Translating Ekklesia: What is Church--Part 3 - RadicalFish.net

  4. Hi Chris,

    I am new to your blog but I like what you have written so far. Before going to the other pages to read them may I make a comment about those who suggested you keep things shorter?

    I say don’t pay them any attention!

    I (I hate starting sentences with so many I’s but what can I – oops there I go again – say? :)) would encourage you to write whatever and however long you feel is necessary to adequately explain your topic.

    So write and write away and don’t be concerned about people who don’t want to read long posts. For every person who doesn’t want to read long posts there is a person who doesn’t mind as long as what you write is insightful and relevant.

    What is important is what the Lord has laid on your heart to say NOT how many words you use in the sharing.

    For what it’s worth.


    • You are very gracious Carlos, and I hear you. I am simply struggling with trying to make the message (I believe) God has given me as palatable as possible. As much as possible I would like to be all things to all men that I might win a few. 🙂

      • Chris.

        I hope I am not being presumptuous in saying so but I would suggest that you not concern yourself with how palatable you are coming across.

        It seems to me that Jesus did not concern Himself with such.

        Truth from God is imminently palatable to those who have ears to hear no matter how you phrase it whereas, for those who are resistant or outright disobedient to the Lord, they will denounce whatever truth you share – no matter how you put it.


        • I think I hear what you are saying and am in agreement. However we need to be sensitive to the state of our audience. Jesus had no problem calling the Pharisees “white washed graves full of dead men’s bones,” but He drew out the woman at the well by telling her to bring her husband.

          We should try not to offend weaker brothers, but we need to be prepared to battle Pharisees. Sadly, It seems to me that the assembly of citizens often gets this backwards. 🙁

  5. Wow, your “We should try not to offend weaker brothers, but we need to be prepared to battle Pharisees. Sadly, It seems to me that the assembly of citizens often gets this backwards” is the best I have heard in a while.

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