When Translators Let Us Down

As a result of a recent request, I have been researching the nature of the church. As a beginning point I have been studying the use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament. That Greek word is the word virtually always translated “church” in our English translations. How we arrived from ekklesia to church is fascinating, but too complicated to really unpack here. Suffice it to say that our English word “church” derives more from the Greek kuriakon than the Greek word ekklesia. This, then, has some fascinating and ultimately negative repercussions.

 

To begin with, the word ekklesia is best translated “assembly” “gathering” “meeting” or perhaps “congregation” although the last word continues to have a religious connotation that was not inherent in the Greek. You can see how ekklesia has a secular, and even legal, meaning through passages such as Acts 7:38 and 19:32, 39, and 41. Here translators do not want to confuse the reader with any “loaded” terminology, so that actually translate ekklesia to be either “congregation” (as in 7:38) or “assembly” in the passages in chapter 19, which is more like a mob or a riot.

The problem is, that in using the word “church” in every other instance in the New Testament, unintended interpretations creep in and the more simple meaning of many passages is obscured. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say we have a member of the Church of Christ, a Roman Catholic, and a totally dispassionate non-believer in the same room. We ask a simple question – “What do you mean when you say the word ‘church'”? I am going to guess (as I am not Roman Catholic), that the Catholic is going to think of the church universal, with all the imperial accoutrements – the Pope as the vicar of Christ, and the attendant Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests, and the formal liturgy of the Mass. On the other hand, my response would be to imagine each individual congregation of which I have been a part – Galisteo and Cordova in Santa Fe, Montgomery Blvd. in Albuquerque, Barrow Rd. in Little Rock, etc. That is, I think of individual congregations, and more than likely I picture specific buildings. For the Roman Catholic this would be what he or she pictures when he or she hears the word parish. The non-believer will probably have any one of a dozen different images depending on his or her experience with the church – maybe a Christmas or Easter pageant, a wedding or a funeral, a Bible-thumping preacher that condemned everyone to hell, or an ornate but basically useless building.

However, change the word to “assembly” and those differences are most likely to disappear. Assemblies can only refer to one thing – groups of people. To say, “the assembly of Christ” or “the assembly of God” (note lower case “a”) means a group of people connected in some form or fashion to Christ or to God. “Assembly” does leave room for some theological fine-tuning, but it does get away from buildings and hierarchical leadership structures and open caskets and Easter egg hunts.

I firmly believe that is why, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the word ekklesia was chosen by the New Testament authors to describe the people of God. It was already in use through the Greek translation of the Old Testament, (therefore it did have a link with the first covenant people) and it could be differentiated from its closest synonym, synagogue. Synagogue had already acquired a formal, and rigid, meaning in the first century A.D. Ekklesia was essentially a secular term, and therefore the early Christians could use it to communicate what it meant to be the people of God without having to “un-teach” the heavily laden Jewish connotations of the word synagogue.

If we would simply translate the word as “assembly” a host of problems disappear (although perhaps not all, and perhaps others would creep in). Try it. When you see the word “church” read “assembly.” Is the meaning enhanced for you? Are some passages now more clear in meaning? Are some possible misunderstandings removed?

It is for me – but, then, I am kind of weird.

Blessings on your Bible study.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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