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The Church is not "Church"

by André Schwartz last modified Jul 23, 2014 03:48 PM
Back to Biblical Basics (BBB)

So far we have looked at why the question, “What is a Church?” is important and from where people get their ideas about what a church should be. As promised, we have come to what is really important: what does Scripture say a church is?

You probably have heard hundreds of sermons making the point that the church is not a building but that it is God's people. This is absolutely correct but we have to make sure that even in saying this we do not actually understand something else.

In most English translations the word “church” appears about 75 times; 110 times if you include the plural. In almost all cases it does not refer to a building or even a place of meeting. The word that is translated as “church” comes from the Greek ekklesia. Never does ekklesia refer to a building in which people gathered—for worship or for any other purpose.

You may say, “So what? We knew that all along.” The problem is that the use of “church” for ekklesia in our English New Testaments is problematic at best, and misleading at worst. The word “church” should not appear 75 times in our Bibles. It is a misleading translation.

You may consider to stop reading here but I believe it is important that we really get this right since this has an impact on how we will and should think about church. So please continue.

Let's consider 1 Thessalonians 1:1. The NKJV translates it as follows:

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church (ekklesia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is a good translation, but the problem comes with what is normally understood with “church”. Any lexicon will tell us that ekklesia can also mean “assembly”, although most recent ones would usually argue for “church”. So we may translate 1 Thessalonians 1:1 as:

... to the assembly of the Thessalonians...

Not “church,” but “assembly.” I think this translation is a better rendering. No matter what connotation for the English word “church” you prefer—either the architectural one, the congregational one, or the institutional one—one thing is clear: “church” has religious connotations.

To say, “I mean church in a non-religious sense,” is just absurd. A church is either a building used for religious purposes, or it is a group of people who have gathered for religious purposes, or it is a larger configuration of people who have been organised for religious purposes (i.e. the Presbyterian Church of Queensland). Say the word “church” and anyone who understands English will think “religious entity.” But this was not the case for ekklesia in first-century Greek.

Imagine a Christian traveller walking into Corinth back then. He asks for the location of the ekklesia. Nobody outside of the tiny Christian community there will direct him to a religious gathering. Actually, nobody will think he is asking about anything that has to do with the gods or even with religious practices. An ekklesia wasn’t anything like a church. Greek had words for religious gatherings; words such as thiasos (cultic society) or synagoge (Jewish gathering). Ekkelsia wasn’t one of these words.

The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint—abbreviated as LXX) also has ekklesia about a 100 times. This is almost always a translation of the Hebrew qalal. Both words, ekklesia and qahal, have the basic meaning of “assembly” or “gathering.” The words themselves don’t have any religious connotations. They need a qualifier like “of the Lord” to make the religious setting clear.

So, if “church” in English always suggests something religious, whether buildings or gatherings of people or organizations, and ekklesia does not have this meaning in the time when the New Testament was written, then translating ekklesia by “church” almost certainly leads to some level of misunderstanding on the part of the reader. When it comes to the vocabulary of the New Testament, truly “a church is not a ‘church’.”

You see, the normal meaning of ekklesia in Paul’s time is “gathering”. We can see this usage in Acts 19. Paul’s friends were in the theatre of Ephesus since their proclaiming of the Gospel had led to commercial losses from the drop in sales of the silver icons of Artemis. The people of Ephesus called a gathering. We read that the assembly (ekklesia) is confused (Acts 19:32). The city clerk says that this must be settled in the “lawful assembly” (ennomoi ekklesiai) (19:39). He then dismisses the “assembly” (ekklesian) (19:40).

So, ekklesia was not specifically used for religious convocations, nor did it have religious overtones. It was just a gathering, an assembly. How can Paul then say, “... to the church of the Thessalonians…”? The commonly understood meaning in this city would be one denoting the gathering of citizens to govern Thessalonica.

But Paul qualifies his use of this phrase, and misunderstanding disappears. He adds “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christians gathered in Thessalonica were not equivalent to the civic ekklesia. Rather, they were an alternative assembly, one that met “in God and Christ.” “In” means something like “by the work of” or “under the authority of” or “for the sake of.”

This qualifier makes all the difference. We as a church are not just a building (you all knew that!). We are not just a group whose names are on the books. We are not people knowing one another and sharing a common belief. We gather and assemble (physically) because of the work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, under God’s authority and for His sake. A church (ekklesia) is therefore a gathering to worship the living God.

Do not confuse this with “the Church”. More about that later as we go BBB.