The Meaning of Church

Our English word church translates the Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία, G1577) in the New Testament. Ekklesia means assembly, so the emphasis of the word is on our regularly assembling together. Preachers have through the years also mentioned the etymology of the word which is “called out.” But as Everett Ferguson notes, “The popular etymology … is not supported by the actual usage of the word. The emphasis was on the concrete act of assembly, not a separation from others.”1

Our English word church derives from another Greek term kyriokos. This word is a Greek adjective mean “Lord’s.” The word does occur in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 11:20 and Revelation 1:10 where they refer to “the Lord’s supper” and “the Lord’s Day.” However, in our word church, the phrase in its word history is kyriokon doma (Lord’s house). This word phrase led to Kirche in German, Kirk in Scotland, and church in English. So, the first definition in English is “a building set apart for public esp. Christian worship.”2 However, ekklesia is not talking about a building but an assembly of people. Because of this word history for our English word, we end up emphasizing that the New Testament meaning of church has to do with the people not a building.

Ekklesia was also used for other assemblies than what we think of with church. It is used for an assembly of citizens in Ephesus.

Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly (ekklesia) was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. (Acts 19:32, ESV)

But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly (ekklesia). (Acts 19:39, ESV)

It is also used of the assembly or congregation of God’s people in the Old Testament in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.

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

The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the word ekklesia 100 times in the Old Testament for such things as the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:2/23:1), the assembly of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:30), the assembly of the sons of Israel (Joshua 9:2/8:35), and the assembly of the people of God (Judges 20:2). This may give some force to Jesus’ words, “I will build my church.”

The word synagogue (Greek συναγωγή, sunagōgē, G4864 )is also used once of an assembly of Christians, although this gets obscured by translation.

For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, (James 2:2, ESV)

I’ve heard people say, “You can’t go to church, because we are the church.” But the reality is you can go to an assembly. Unless age or health prevent it, to be a part of a church is to assemble regularly together.

1Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, p. 130.
2Merriam-Webster Third Unabridged Dictionary

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