THE WORD “CHURCH”

Upcoming on this site soon will be an article on the idea of assembly. In the course of writing that article, I became involved in thinking about this word, church. Many of us are so used to hearing and using the word that we probably think nothing of it. We use the word in our “name”; however, we do not capitalize it so as to indicate that it is a description rather than a proper name. The question arises, though, as to what the word actually means. I suspect that this word church carries with it connotations that were intentional.

When the English translators of the Bible, such as Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Coverdale, began their work, the English language was in its infancy. The translations of the Bible into English corresponded with the very development of the language. What are the roots, then, of that language? The site jebbo.uk.co traces our modern English language back through Middle English, Old English, and finally to Proto-Germanic. So the reality is that our language is rooted in the pre-German language. “This whole issue of word origins is very difficult as Latin, the Germanic tongues, Old English (derived from Germanic), and the Celtic tongues are all ultimately derived from a common Indo-European root….”

Why is this idea important? Because it bears on the origin of the word church. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the etymology (origin) of the word church is:

‘Old English cirice, circe “church, public place of worship; Christians collectively,” from Proto-Germanic *kirika (source also of Old Saxon kirika, Old Norse kirkja, Old Frisian zerke, Middle Dutch kerke, Dutch kerk, Old High German kirihha, German Kirche), probably from Greek kyriake from kyrios “ruler, lord”….’

There are two interesting things in that etymology. First, knowing that the origin of our language comes from a Germanic root, we see that the above still says ” probably from Greek kyriake”. The problem with this is that the Greek word does not mean “church”; it is from kyrios which means ruler or lord. The same dictionary says, ‘Greek kyriakon (adj.) “of the Lord” was used of houses of Christian worship since c.300, especially in the East, though it was less common in this sense than ekklesia or basilike.’ How did a Greek word meaning ruler or lord or of the Lord come to be translated “church”? The connection seems very loose at best.

Second, anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology knows that Circe (see above Old English word) was a Greek goddess of magic. The Greek word, circe, itself is thought to mean bird. If so, it is unlikely that the word church came from the Greek word. It almost seems as if someone is trying to make a link to Greek, where there is not really one, to the word for lord or ruler. It would be interesting to know more about the goddess, Circe, and her connection to the word church.

It seems, then, that the word church was evolving from a possible Germanic root into the word as we know it now. The problem, however, is that in the Greek, the word we find that is generally translated as “church” in our Bibles is not kyriakon anyway but ekklesia which does not at all resemble circe or kyrios. Ekklesia is from two words: ek, “out” and kaleo, “to call”. It is more properly translated as assembly or congregation.

William Tyndale, in his translation of the Bible, never used the word church to translate the Greek ekklesia. Instead, he used the word congregation. The King James Version only uses the word congregation one time in Acts 13:43; however, the Greek word is not ekklesia but the Greek word sunagoges from which we get our word synagogue. The New King James translation uses the word congregation one other time, in Acts 7:38, where the Greek is ekklesia. In all other cases where the word church is used, the Greek is ekklesia.

Why all this fuss? Who cares? We should care as Christians. We want to speak as the Bible speaks, 1 Peter 4:11. Well, you still may say, the word church is in my Bible. True enough; but the word church really only has the meaning or meanings it has developed. It is only loosely attached to any linguistic root. Or maybe better said, it appears some translators decided to use one particular English word where the Greek would have demanded another. Tyndale understood this.

Tell me, what is the church? What does it mean? Is it the building where we meet? In early America, those buildings were referred to as meeting houses, not churches. Is church what we do when we get there? Many people have these misconceptions and, so, do not understand the real meaning behind the word church. It may be that you can study and ascertain what the church is or have been taught what it is; but if so, you are still attaching a meaning to the word rather than understanding the word by its definition. Why is it necessary to have an “invented” word to translate the Greek when we have the perfectly good assembly or congregation?

It seems to me that there may have been a reason why the word church was used ( just as the word baptizo was not translated into English as dip or immerse but was transliterated into baptize). I may not know the reasons such a thing was done, but I have my suspicions. I also am beginning to believe that if the word were translated correctly, it might alleviate some difficulties of doctrine that we have. I freely admit that I am neither a Greek scholar nor language expert, so I would encourage you to investigate all of this for yourself.

Comments are closed.