It’s true. Our much used and loved term “church” isn’t in the New Testament. But could it be that name for “church” that we’ve become so accustomed to conveys something that leaves out or presents an alternative picture to what God had in mind for the Body of Messiah?
Now before I go any further, I just want to say I’m not anti-anything nor starting any revolutions here. I’m just presenting some information. God in His time will do what God wants to do. I’m just presenting the facts. But I do want to see the Body of Messiah be all that is Lord-worthy and for us to impact the world around us. I’m wondering if this may just be a key to more “Kingdom-vision” than our “church-vision” has equipped us for. Read on to see what I mean. You need to read through the linguistic part to understand the real meat of the issue. Then you can decide for yourself.
With the resurrection of Hebrew as a language along with the many archaeological findings, the Old Testament
"...the word "church" isn't in the original Greek manuscripts."
has come alive as we’ve learned what life was like and what certain phrases meant to the original hearers of the Scriptures. The same is true for the New Testament and Greek manuscripts. We now have a much better grasp of life back then than, say, the translators of the King James Bible understood. Some words and phrases have come into question and been redefined in more recent translations. But one word we still hang on to seems to need to be revisited. Namely, that the word “church” isn’t in the original Greek manuscripts. What meaning, if any, could that have for us today?
To begin with, the King James translation uses the word “church” 112 times, having translated the word ecclesia to mean “church.” First let’s look at where they got the word church. The word comes from the Old English and German word pronounced "kirche." In Scotland and Northern England it was "kirk" and meant what we think of as church. Funny to think of someone, like Kirk Douglas as being named Church Douglas, especially since he was actually Jewish, but that’s where the name Kirk derives from.
In the earlier Greek it was pronounced "ku-ri-a-kos" or "ku-ri-a-kon." a word that doesn't remotely resemble the Greek word "ecclesia" which it somehow replaced. The meaning of "ku-ri-a-kos" is understood by its root, "ku- ri-os," which means "lord." Thus, "kuriakos" (i.e., "church") means "pertaining to the a lord." It refers to something that pertains to, or belongs to, a lord, not necessarily ‘the’ Lord. The Greek "kuriakos" eventually came to be used in an Old English form as "cirice" (pronounced kee-ree-ke), which evolved to "churche" (pronounced kerke), and eventually to "church" as we use it today. A church, then, is correctly something that "pertains to, or belongs to, a lord."
The word "church" would have been an acceptable translation for the Greek word "kuriakos." But the translators inserted the word "church" in the English versions, even though they were not translating the Greek word "kuriakos." The word they were supposed to be translating was “ecclesia.” Even the most liberal translator today would never find “church” as the acceptable translation for the Greek word "ecclesia." "Ecclesia" is an entirely different word with an entirely different meaning than "kuriakos."
The Greek word "kuriakos" actually only appears in the New Testament two times. It is found once in I Corinthians 11:20 where it refers to "the Lord's supper," and once again in Revelation 1:10 where it speaks of "the Lord's day." In both of those cases, it is translated "the Lord's..," not "church." Even though the word does not appear again in the New Testament the word "church" as it has come to be known in the English language has replaced "ecclesia."
Does any of this really make a difference? It does if we want our understanding to be what Matthew, Luke, Paul, Peter and John envisioned when they each referred to what we think of as “church.” So, let's now look at the correct meaning of the word, "ecclesia". This Greek word is found in the New Testament approximately 115 times, and that’s just in this one grammatical form. It appears also in other forms. There are three exceptions in the King James translation where it is properly translated. They are found in Acts 19:32, 39, 41. Here the translators used the word "assembly" instead of "church." But, the Greek word is exactly the same as the other 112 entries where "church" was used.
In Acts 19, "ecclesia" is a town council, a civil body of people gathering together in Ephesus. So you can see that “church” wouldn’t work there as they had nothing to do with gathering as a body of believers. Still, 112 other times the translators used the word "church" when translating “ecclesia.” The Greek word "ecclesia" is correctly defined as "the called-out (ones)" The term “ecc” in Greek means “out”; kaleo means “call.” So you can see how this word was used to indicate a (civil) group of select (called or elected) people and really doesn’t have anything to do with them being Believers in Yeshua.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica: In the New Testament, "ecclesia" is the only single word used for church. It (ecclesia) was the name given to the governmental assembly of the city of Athens, which ‘called out’ proper officers possessing all political power including even juridical functions.
So we can see that the term “ecclesia” in Greece had no resemblance to a church or a body of believers. An "ecclesia" was an assembly in Athens having to do with town politics and other civil issues even before the writing of the New Testament. Quoting from the Oxford Universal English Dictionary on the word "ecclesia", “the word means “summoned,” especially the general assembly of Athenians. Later used for church.”
Even the English language confirms that the fact that an "ecclesia" was originally a select civil body, summoned for a particular purpose. So what, then, did the writers of the New Testament mean when they used the word "ecclesia" to describe a Christian body of people? They obviously meant a body of Believers in Messiah Yeshua summoned by God and called out (by Him) from among the Jewish and Roman peoples to come together into a separate community under His Lordship. It meant an autonomous body of Believers under the Kingship of the Lord Yeshua. They would bow to no other king than He. They would obey the rules of the nation so long as they did not conflict with their obedience to their King. They would serve no one but the Lord. That was why these same Believers often ran into trouble with rulers, whether it be the Sanhedrin or later kings and rulers. They were arrested, crucified and martyred because they served only King Messiah and not Caesar.
Paul and Silas were accused of "turning the world (system) upside down." (Acts 17:1-6 KJV). What was their message that made them worthy of such a declaration? Paul came to town and began proclaiming Yeshua in the temple. Here’s what then took place: “…becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, (some) formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. When they did not find them, they began dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, "These men who have upset the world have come here also” (17:1-6). What was the message that was so enflaming? The accusation is found in the next verse: “and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (:7).
They weren’t telling the people to start a church, find a building and a minister, attend every weekend, and act
"...they valued an eternity with the Lord over whatever it would cost them in this life."
like good “Christians.” That wouldn’t have incited the city fathers against them. No, they were announcing another King other than Caesar. They were calling people out of the Roman system into another Kingdom -- God’s Kingdom -- a Kingdom far more powerful than Caesar’s, an entirely alternative life and allegiance. A whole new identity and way of life. These would now be people who no longer looked to Caesar as their king. This would have been seen as a declaration of war, of treason. Such is the way of the “called out ones.” Those who came to the Lord had to understand that they were making a serious choice. But they valued an eternity with the Lord over whatever it would cost them in this life. Wow, that sure is a different way of looking at “accepting the Lord” than most of us have ever experienced, at least in our Western societies.
Paul and Silas weren't "church builders" in the sense that we may have thought of them. They weren’t advocating people now find some place where they can be separate and not influence anyone around them, meeting for a few hours on the weekend and singing a few songs, hearing a message, and then going home. These men were Kingdom builders! They were dethroning Caesar and the whole Roman governmental structure with its Empire class structure in the minds of the people. There were no distinctions among the Believers; slaves and freemen were equal among them. That went against the whole economic base of Rome which had, at least in Rome and other large cities, more slaves than aristocracy. Their words were freeing their hearers from the mental hold Caesar had upon them through a belief that Rome was the exalted and invincible government meant to rule the world, and that Caesar was a god, albeit among other Roman and Greek gods. (In actuality the Roman gods were the same Greek gods renamed with Roman names.)
As Paul and others taught the principles of a theocracy where God alone ruled as benevolent but holy Sovereign, and of family values and the standards of justice and equality, all of which God gave to Israel through Moses, it was doing great damage to the foundation upon which Rome stood. This was now the Almighty one-and-only God whom they would obey at all costs, even unto death, as their hearts responded to the call to become citizens of Christ's kingdom and join themselves to the “ecclesia” or community of believers who were “called out” of the political and personal status quo.
So you can see that the idea of “church” as a group of people meeting in a specific location (building) as Believers has nothing of the “otherness” of the call upon their lives as was intended by the writers of the New Testament. Neither did it have anything to do with denominations of one group believing this but not that, which meant keeping their distance from their fellow Believers based on those differences. It would have been heresy to even consider. They were one in Messiah -- period!
Yeshua sent the Believers into the world just as His Father had sent Him. Therefore, it would not be surprising that He told His disciples “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Now you can see why that would be so. Yeshua came against the ungodly leadership that was functioning in the temple, men who had their own political careers and power to protect. His is “great power and the glory” (Mark 13:26) and those who wish to maintain their own power and glory must do away with those who recognize only Yeshua’s.
When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in the sixteenth century, at the cost of his life, by the way, because it meant that “church” leaders would loose their control over the people when they would have the Scriptures, he used the word "congregation" for “ecclesia.” How come? Tyndale, and other sixteenth-century reformers did not believe the word "church" properly conveyed what the word “ecclesia” meant. They used words like "congregation," or "governmental assembly," etc.
When you consider that the early Believers for the first two centuries met in homes and were free in their associations with one another, we can see that to have their identity so connected with what takes place in a
"It's the idea of "attending church" with its rather predictable agenda as part of the non-interactive audience that sucked the life out of the Body."
specific building where now pretty much all “church business” would take place, would enormously hinder their interaction with the community around them. The buildings that were instituted by the State religion set up by Constantine in 325 A.D. changed everything. Not that buildings are bad. They provide a place for meeting, just as homes do. The buildings aren’t the real issue. It’s the idea of “attending church” with its rather predictable agenda as part of the non-interactive audience that sucked the life out of the Body. Such cannot even be compared to the vital, alive, spontaneous and overflowing, passionate fidelity to God and each other in the fellowship of “the called out ones” who know they have been summoned by God to come out of the prevailing society into His Kingdom. History records that time and again, they valued this calling beyond even their own lives.
So I ask you. Which of these sounds more like the “church” you attend? Which sounds more like our “normal Christianity” today? Do you think God might want to make some changes before Yeshua returns? If that’s more like what the early Believers were like, were they perhaps more like Him than we thought? Was Yeshua Himself even more revolutionary than we may have thought our “gentle Jesus, sweet and mild” with the lambie in His arms was? Not that He’s not that too. But it’s not the whole picture, is it?
We know we live in times that are likely gearing up for an end time spiritual conflict before He returns. He Himself asked, “…when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). I for one wish to present myself before the Lord for Him to do in my life whatever is necessary in order that I be found in faith when He comes. I do believe that He will be teaching His own new ways to think and process what is going on from Kingdom perspectives -- to think like He would think, to be so attuned to the Holy Spirit that we are tracking with Him at all times. Oh, Lord, make it so.
What was just described isn’t something we can say, “OK, let’s be like that.” It will take an internal work of the Spirit, just as it did for the early believers to be like that. Our job is to love the Lord with all our heart, love each other and even to love ourselves. Let love be our quest, while we lean the weight of our beings upon Him for His work in our spirits. It’s all by grace anyway.
Lord, we want only to live so as to obey You, and to give You the glory and honor that You are worthy of. Do unto us as You see fit in order to equip us for the days ahead, that you may find faith in each of our hearts to welcome you when you return as is befitting You. In Yeshua’s name. Amen.
Reprint of this article is permitted as long as you use the following; Use by permission by Messianic Vision, www.sidroth.org, 2009.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.