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I’m pretty sure that most generations of church leaders for the past 2000 years have wrestled with defining what we mean by the church. Recently, with the pandemic restrictions brought in to force across much of the world this question has been put in sharp relief. When church buildings are shut and people are unable to attend are we still the church?
This season, despite all the pain, anxiety and horrendous loss of life, has also given us the opportunity to reassess much of our lives. For those in church leadership these questions of defining church have perhaps been front and centre. When all is stripped away what do we mean by the term church?
For many in our wider culture church has become synonymous with the buildings. Images of old buildings, with stained glass windows and lines of pews come to mind. Older people shuffling in and out on Sundays to sing hymns written hundreds of years ago. This is certainly the image the media presents. Quaint, historical and mostly irrelevant to our modern lives.
In the Beginning
In the bible the first mention of church happens through the words of Jesus in Matt 16:18 where he tells Peter that on this rock he will build his “church“. Most church leaders and well taught believers realise that the word behind church here is “ekklesia”. A Greek word that at the time was borrowed from the Greek culture. What came to mind for the original hearers of Jesus’s words was something far from what comes to mind for modern hearers of “church”.
The word literally means “called out”. The first English translation of the bible, based on the Greek, Tyndales translation chose the word “congregation” to translate the word. The choice was faithful to the original word but radical to the ears of the political and religious power of the day. It led to the death of William Tyndale as it was felt this translation challenged the entire power structure of the Roman Catholic Church at the time. Subsequent translations such as the hugely popular King James returned the usage of the word church.
The term church is thought to have come from the Greek adjective meaning “of the Lord” which became Kirke in Germany, Kirk here in Scotland and eventually church. As we know, what began as a description of a people belonging to the Lord gradually morphed into a description of the power structures, buildings and resources of an institution. Believers did not have any dedicated building space for the first 300 years of Christianity but soon the buildings became known as churches.
The original Greek word, ekklesia, is used 118 times in the New Testament and in 115 places it is still translated as church (NIV). The original usage of the word at the time was for a gathering or assembly of citizens in a city-state into a public place. It was used to refer to local democratic gatherings for the purpose of decision making, policy and governance. It was sometimes also used as a form of court. When Jesus used this term to describe the new family he was creating this would have been their frame of reference.
Jesus would build an assembly of those called out from their homes to gather. A new community with a purpose, to govern in a sense. Not in a political way as such but to make decisions and have an impact the affairs of the region. This time for the Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of Caesar.
This could not be further from what comes to mind when people say the word church today.
The goal of translation as I understand it is to try and find close matches that carry the same meaning in the new language. The challenge with words is that their meaning also changes over time. So the word church has gathered lots of extra baggage by the time it has reached our modern culture. People think of buildings, or perhaps only of Sunday services. Both of which limit a clearer definition. Yes the ekklesia may have buildings and it may gather on Sundays but it is more than that. It would seem to me that to use the term church to translate ekklesia is perhaps still one of the most confusing mistranslations in our bibles today? Perhaps I am missing something though? Feel free to comment below.
Refocus and Recalibrate
As we wrestle with what the church is and isn’t, particularly as our culture shifts and changes so quickly around us. It seems to me that having a clear understanding of what Jesus meant by the church he birthed is a good starting place. As we discuss the world of online and the world of in-person, our new Hybrid reality, understanding what the church is could not be more vital. I suspect we have a lot of baggage to shed if we are going to refocus and recalibrate our churches to be as authentic and faithful as we can be.
A people called out, an assembly, a gathering of people coming together with purpose. People with Spiritual governmental authority who’s actions matter in our regions. A people who regularly gather together as a wider family, beyond our individual existence or even that of our biological families.
That vision of church sounds exciting. The New Testament has lots of other things to say about ekklesia. It does shape the term for God’s purposes and provide the practical outworking of this new community but starting with defining the word correctly has to help.
What Jesus said he would build continues. We may just need to brush off some of the cultural baggage we have added. It isn’t all bad, but it can become a distraction.
What do you feel? Let me know below.
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