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Theology > Church > Nature of the Church > Meaning of the Word


The word translated “church” in all translations of the New Testament is the Greek word ekklēsia. What is the meaning of this word? Ekklēsia occurs only three times in the Gospels and each of these is in Matthew (Matt. 16:18; 18:17, twice in v. 17), but it appears 112 times in the rest of the New Testament (one is in a quote from the OT, Ps. 22:22, and is used in Heb. 2:12). The word is used most frequently by Paul in his epistles.

The word “church,” which translates ekklēsia, comes from the Greek, kyriakos, meaning “belonging to the Lord,” “of the Lord,” or “Lord’s” and was originally used to speak of something associated with the Lord, later the place where believers met to worship, and finally of the people who met at the place. This word, kyriakos, appears only twice in the New Testament and is used in its original sense of belonging to the Lord: I Cor. 11:20 (the “Lord’s Supper”) and Rev. 1:10 (the “Lord’s Day”).

It is worthy of emphasis to note that the word used to translate ekklēsia is “church,” which is from kuriakos, a word that does not even have the meaning of the word it translates; kuriakos is an adjective from the noun, kurios, meaning “Lord”. The former word—ekklēsia—speaks of an “assembly of people” and the later word—kuriakos—speaks of “something belonging to the Lord” and then evolves into “the place of worship” (by the Third Century Kuriakos was used of places of worship).

The point: the word “church” (kuriakos) conveys the wrong concept for the word (ekklēsia) that it translates in the New Testament.

Ekklēsia is derived from ek, “out of,” and kaleo, “to call”; therefore, the basic concept is “called out,” called out in order to be together. In the Greek culture it was used of a gathered assembly in the Greek city states which met in order to conduct the affairs of the city, for when the citizens gathered, the gathering was an ekklēsia. The word means an assembly of any kind, sacred or secular; the word speaks of an assembly of persons. The word always refers to people and their meeting, or a group of people in assembly; the word speaks of people who are meeting for a purpose.

In the New Testament the word is used in three ways: one, of a mob (Acts 19:32, 39, 41); two, of a nation (Acts 7:38; Heb. 2:12, which is a quote from the OT); and three, of believers, those who follow Christ, either in a local sense or in a comprehensive sense. In each of these three ways, the word refers to people, a group of people, a congregation, an assembly.

The word is never used in Scripture of a building or structure; it is never used of an organization or denomination; and it is never used of a place, or of something to go to, or something to do.

While the Church does belong to the Lord—the meaning of kuriakos—which is the etymological source of the word “church,” the meaning of the Greek word that is translated “church”—ekklēsia—speaks of a congregation, or an assembly of people.

Point: Church must always be understood in terms of “Who” not “What” or “Where.”

In the Septuagint, particularly in Deuteronomy, ekklēsia translates the Hebrew qāhāl, a word which refers to the assembly or congregation of God’s people (Deut. 4:10; 9:10; 10:4; 18:16; 23:2-3; 31:30; Josh. 8:35; Ps. 22:23); and in the Hebrew Scriptures qāhāl is the Hebrew word translated “assembly” or “gathering” in the modern translations. Regarding the repeated account in the Old Testament of the assembly of the nation, John Murray writes: “The assembly of God’s people was not a passing phase of Israel’s history; it was not ephemeral . . . it was a permanent feature of Israel’s identity” (Collected Writings, 2:322).

The word “church” is used in at least the following ways in Scripture:

Used of the people for whom Christ died

the church of God which He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28);

Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25).

Used of the totality of the Church

God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets . . .  (I Cor. 12:28).

Used of the people of a geographical area

The churches throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Acts 9:31; most modern translations have “church” – singular; nearly all manuscripts before the Fifth Century had the singular);   to the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2).

Used of the people in a city

to the church of God that is in Corinth (I Cor. 1:2);

to the church of God that is at Corinth (II Cor. 1:1);

to the church of the Thessalonians (I Thess. 1:1).

Used of a local specific people

the church that is in their house (Rom. 16:5);

the church in their house (I Cor. 16:19);

to the church in your house (Philem. 2).

Whatever the particular application or use of the word, the basic concept in each occurrence is that of an assembly or congregation of people. This understanding must be grasped and maintained.

To speak of the Church
to speak of people!

NOTE: This definition or concept of the Church is fixed rather than dynamic; the point is that the Church is—it is not becoming. From the dynamic perspective it is suggested that the Church can relate to society in a more proper manner, adjusting its viewpoint and message as is needed in order to remain relevant. Such is the modern thinking, in which change becomes desirable, even loving, while a fixed position reveals an egotistical and isolationist posture. And at the present this latter point of view is soundly condemned by the culture. The definition of the Church as fixed affirms that the Church stands over against the world, distinct from the world. There is no common ground, no point where the two meet on neutral ground. To the world the Church is the bearer of the Gospel, a word that is contrary to worldly thinking and infuriates the world the more the word is pressed.

NOTE: I am desperately seeking to divorce myself from any concept related to the organizational church. That is why I will never join a church again—I will not submit to the inane idea of membership and letter, nor to a code of conduct established by a group that assumes that its dictates constitute God's will for my life. Nearly all churches that have formal membership have some sort of guide—all of it smacks of an unspoken institutional concept that is more Roman than Biblical, more of an evolving organizational model than the New Testament spiritual fellowship.

I have come to understand that the Roman, Lutheran, and Calvinistic concepts of the Church are all the same, which is explained in part by the fact that depravity desires to organize and to control. And control of the individual is easier if there is organization. Pragmatism replaces Truth!  

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