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Why I Avoid the Word “Church”

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You may have noticed that I avoid using the word “church” to describe the corporate body of believers in Messiah. I do this intentionally. It’s not because I am anti-church or anti-Christianity. And it’s not because I think the word “church” is pagan, or anything like that. It’s simply because I think we can easily get confused by the terminology we use. Let me explain why.

Meet Joe. Joe is a religious guy. He goes to church every week and reads his Bible and prays. He notices that the New Testament talks a lot about church. He knows what “church” means, and assumes that Paul and the other apostles had the same meaning in mind. And he also notices the Old Testament doesn’t talk about church very much. In fact, as far as he knows, the word “church” is not found even once in the Old Testament. His conclusion seems pretty obvious: the church didn’t exist back then. It must be something new with the New Testament. Joe’s pastor confirms this hunch, telling him that the church was born in Acts 2. Prior to that, there was no church. There was just Israel, which is different.

What Joe doesn’t realize is that our English Bibles are hiding something. The “church” is actually mentioned many times in the Old Testament, just not in your average English version. He also doesn’t realize that the apostles may have had a very different understanding of the term than people do today.

There are certain Bible terms that are translated into English in such a way as to give the impression they did not exist prior to the New Testament. Church is one of those words. Other words include Christ, gospel, and evangelist. What all these words have in common is that they only appear in the New Testament, not in the Old. Or so it seems. In actuality, this is an illusion.

The Greek word translated as “church” in our modern English Bibles is ekklesia. This word simply means “congregation” or “assembly.” It is used occasionally of non-religious gatherings of people, but most of the time it refers to an assembly of believers or the Assembly of believers, the corporate group of Yeshua’s followers.

In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), the word ekklesia shows up almost 100 times. It usually translates the Hebrew word kahal or kehillah (“assembly/congregation”). For example:

“Then Moses spoke the words of this song until they were finished, in the ears of all the assembly of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31:30)

“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” (Psalm 22:22)

We also read frequently of the “assembly of the Lord,” referring to the people of Israel. [1]Deut 23:1–3, 8; 1 Chr 28:8; Mic 2:5. In all these cases, the word “assembly” is the word kahal in Hebrew and ekklesia in Greek. It would actually be more consistent of our English Bibles to translate this word as “church.” They don’t, of course, because it is assumed that the church didn’t exist in the Old Testament.

Here is an example from the New Testament:

“This [Moses] is the one who was in the congregation (ekklesia) in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers.” (Acts 7:38 ESV)

The King James Version actually translated this verse as, “This is he that was in the church in the wilderness.” Notice how the ESV shies away from using the word “church” since it refers to the assembly of Israel.

This inconsistency in translating ekklesia betrays a theological presupposition on the part of the translators. The assumption is that the church is something new since the coming of Messiah. The ekklesia before Yeshua was not the church, but the ekklesia after Yeshua is. This betrays a theology of discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, between the people of God then and now, and ultimately between Judaism and Christianity. And it gives a false impression to English readers who have no idea that the same Greek or Hebrew word lies behind differing English words.

My point in this post is not to argue the finer points of ecclesiology. I will save that for future posts. There are some theologians who argue more for continuity between Israel and the Church and some for discontinuity. But my point is that the translations are rigged to favour the latter. Our English Bibles impose a discontinuity between the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God in the New Testament. It closes the door for your average reader to even conceive of a model for continuity. This doesn’t help us become diligent students of the Word.

Another important point is that “church” is one of those words we only see in a religious context, and therefore it carries certain theological assumptions with it. We don’t use the word “church” to describe a town hall meeting or a football game. It refers exclusively to a religious gathering with certain religious criteria that fit within a certain theological framework. This was not the case with the words ekklesia (in Greek) or kehillah (in Hebrew). In both languages the term simply meant a gathering of people. It was not a technical religious term.

Where did the word “church” come from, anyway? The English word actually derives from the Greek word kuriakos, which literally means “of the Lord.” Over time it came to be applied to buildings used by Christians for gathering and, eventually, to the Catholic Church itself.

When William Tyndale translated the New Testament into English in the 1500s, he used the word “congregation” to translate ekklesia. For example, Tyndale’s translation of Matthew 16:18 reads:

And I saye also vnto the yt thou arte Peter: and apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion. And the gates of hell shall not prevayle ageynst it.

In his day, the word “church” implied the Roman Catholic Church, which Tyndale saw as corrupt. Surely that Church was not what Messiah wanted to build! Tyndale wanted to make sure that his translation did not lend any credence to Roman Catholicism, so he avoided the term entirely. [2]The word “churche” [sic] is found twice in Tyndale’s New Testament: Acts 14:13 and 19:27. In both instances it refers to a secular or pagan ...continue Later English versions, however, did not continue Tyndale’s practice. The King James Version of 1611 deliberately utilized “church” instead of “congregation” to the chagrin of some of the early Puritans. No doubt some saw this as a not-so-subtle attempt to bolster the authority of the state church as opposed to Messiah’s Assembly. [3]In the Preface to the King James Version of 1611, it is noted that the translators “avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old ...continue But the KJV soon became the Authorized English version, and it set the standard for virtually every modern English translation today.

Of course, people today no longer think of “church” in connection solely with Roman Catholicism or any particular denomination. The word has come to carry other meanings. We use “church” to refer to a building for Christian worship, a congregation of Christians, or even Christianity as a whole. “Church” (Christianity) is typically used in antithesis to “Synagogue” (Judaism). There is a lot of history behind these terms. But where we run into trouble is when we try to import those meanings into the Biblical text. I would argue that Paul and the other apostles did not have those same meanings in mind when they used the word ekklesia. There were no such things as church buildings back then, and Christianity was not yet a distinct religion as we think of it today. The parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism did not occur until much later, after the apostles had already died. Before that, Yeshua-followers were simply a sect of Judaism. They even met in synagogues. [4]James 2:2 says, “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your synagogue…” The Greek word in this verse is ...continue So when Paul talks about the ekklesia, he is not talking about a building, and he is certainly not talking about a religion separate from or in antithesis to Judaism.

Because of all this, I prefer to avoid using the term “church” to describe the Body of Messiah. This doesn’t mean that I never use the word, or that I judge people who do. I have no problem using it to talk about a church building (“that church down the street”) or a conventional Christian congregation (“the pastor of the Baptist church”). But I try to avoid it when discussing the Scriptures, or in reference to God’s people corporately. I think it lends itself too easily to confusion and misinterpretation. It ties in too closely with the presupposition that the New Testament congregation is a “new” people of God in opposition to the “old” people, the Jewish people. And it carries connotations that I don’t think the apostles had in mind. For these reasons I prefer to use terms like Kehillah, Ekklesia, or Assembly instead. I think it is better to use terminology that has less baggage and clearer definitions.

Not everyone will agree with me, and that’s okay. Regardless of what terminology we use, the important thing for us to keep in mind is that Messiah shed His blood to purchase for Himself an innumerable host from every tribe, nation and language, and that He is coming again to take us as His Bride. This is the culmination of the hope expressed throughout Scripture. He has chosen us, and we belong to Him.

References   [ + ]

1. Deut 23:1–3, 8; 1 Chr 28:8; Mic 2:5.
2. The word “churche” [sic] is found twice in Tyndale’s New Testament: Acts 14:13 and 19:27. In both instances it refers to a secular or pagan gathering, not an assembly of believers.
3. In the Preface to the King James Version of 1611, it is noted that the translators “avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put washing for baptism, and congregation instead of church.” Keep in mind, however, that the 1560 Geneva Bible favoured by the Puritans did in fact use the term “church.” It was the Tyndale (1526) and Coverdale (1535) Bibles that used “congregation” instead. The Bishop’s Bible (1568) interestingly uses “congregation” in the pivotal Matthew 16:18 passage, but uses “church” elsewhere. It is the Bishop’s Bible that served as the basis for the KJV translators.
4. James 2:2 says, “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your synagogue…” The Greek word in this verse is συναγωγή (synagoge). Most translations avoid using the word “synagogue” in this verse, even though they translate that Greek word as such in every other occurrence in the New Testament.


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