The Word "Church"

In this series of articles (which began June 9), we have been presenting some of the key principles in the spiritual formation of a Christian. We’ve addressed aspects of two main principles: the personal responsibility of Christian to grow spiritually and the infallibility of the Bible. A third principle every Christian should understand is how to identify the true church. With so much religious confusion in the world, a disciple can easily become confused and disoriented. So, how does one determine if he/she is in the right place? How can we be sure that the church we attend is adhering to the right doctrine? The articles in next few weeks are going to deal directly with these questions and more.

Let’s begin by looking at the word “church” itself. The word “church” is found more than 100 times in the New Testament. Obviously it is a very important word if the inspired writers recorded it that often! But what does it mean? Is that the word they used? Where did our English word come from? The first time the word “church” appears in the New Testament is in Matthew 16:18 when Jesus said, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, …” The word used here in our English Bibles was translated from the Greek word “ekklesia.” Jesus didn’t actually say, “I will build my church.” He said, “I will build my ekklesia.” There’s quite a difference between what He actually said and what word the translators decided to use in the English versions they produced.

The Greek word ekklesia means “a gathering or assembly, congregation, or community.” Many preachers like to point out that it is composed of two words, “ek” meaning “out of” and “klesia” meaning “to call.” Thus, they say, “Christians are the ‘called out’ as in being called out of the world.” While that may be applicable, the New Testament never uses the word in that manner, or context. Instead, it is always used in the sense of an assembly. Acts 19:32-41 is a great example of the word being used in its general sense, apart from the spiritual connotation. 1 Corinthians 14:23 also explains it well, “Therefore if the whole church [ekklesia] comes together in one place.” So, what Jesus actually said implies that He was going to build a gathering, an assembly, or a community. This is a better way to understand what the word church truly means.

Our English word “church” came from a derivative of an Old English word, “kirche,” (from German influences). Sometimes it was spelled, “circe, cirche, or chirche.” In fact, a man named John Wycliffe used it when he copied and published a translation of the Latin Vulgate (the Bible of the Catholic Church at the time) into the Middle English of his day (the language of Chaucer). In 1380, it became the very first Bible written in English. In it, he translated Matthew 16:18 in this way (in Old English style) “ … Y schal bilde my chirche, ….” He used the term chirche for ekklesia. That word means, “belonging to, or pertaining to God.” So, in that sense of the word, it would be correct to say the “church building” for it is, indeed, a building pertaining to God.

That wasn’t always the case, however. One hundred and forty six years later, William Tyndale produced the first English translation to come directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts. His 1526 version was also the first English Bible mass-produced. His translation of Matthew 16:18 reads, “… I wyll bylde my congregacion …” (I will build my congregation). The Coverdale Bible of 1535, the Great Bible of 1539, and the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 followed suit and also all translated the word as “congregation.” It wasn’t until the Geneva Bible was published in 1560 that the use of “church” became the common term used among translators. The King James Version then solidified its use which has lasted until now in all English versions of the Bible.

The word “church” is not a reference to a building, or even a place you go, as so many people typically use it. “Church,” as the New Testament uses the word, is the collection of disciples, or the assembly of the saints. Peter described it this way, “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood,” (1 Peter 2:5). People are what make up the church. The building is just where the church meets (where they assemble). Do you see the difference in what Jesus actually said? He certainly wasn’t talking about a big, elaborate brick and mortar structure. He was talking about spiritual things. He was talking about His people, His disciples.