Definitions – “Church”

The word “church” illustrates what has to be one of the greatest, yet possibly most misunderstood, issues in dealing with translation and interpretation processes – some words can obtain such significant (and unintended) secondary meanings that the primary meaning is often obscured or completely erased. It happens frequently (the word “baptize” is another example) and the results can be profound. There is, however, a simple remedy (I like simple – I specialize in simple – I am simple minded).

The derivation of the word “church” is complex – I will leave it to the reader to search the internet for the history of the word. For this space suffice it to say that the word comes to us from the Greek via the Latin and German and thence to the Old English, and ultimately to the King James Version and thus to virtually every English translation. However, the great-grandparent in Greek is really just a very simple word that means “assembly.” For proof of this consider Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 – where the word is used to describe a near riot, a political/judicial meeting, and an large gathering of people (the same riotous group found in v. 32).

First, a little history. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, there were two words that could be used for the idea of assembly, and sometimes congregation. One is the word from which we get our synagogue, the other was ekklesia. By the time of the first century, the word synagogue had a secondary meaning attached – the specific meeting place of Jews. The other word, ekklesia, did not acquire this “theological” freight, and therefore was the natural word for the authors of the New Testament to use in order that the New Testament assembly of Christians would not be confused with the Old Covenant meeting of Jews. (Significant note: the word synagogue IS used in James 2:2 in reference to a Christian assembly – the word is actually translated instead of being transliterated – which just goes to prove my point by way of a different direction.) There is no “Holy Spirit” meaning attached to the Greek word ekklesia – the word that ultimately ends up being translated as “church” in our English translations.

The problem is that the English word “church” has become so overloaded with theological, confessional, and even denominational freight as to be almost useless. To a Roman Catholic the word refers to the entire Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. To many Protestants, the word refers to the “invisible” church which would include believers of every stripe, color, and description (never mind that many of the creeds that define these groups are diametrically opposed to one or more of the others). To a great many others, the word “church” simply refers to a building – “. . . bye mom, I’m going to the church to play some basketball . . . ” (which, sadly calls for another blog post, but that will have to wait).

What is my simple solution? Let’s retire the word “church” to a nice pasture somewhere where it can live out its remaining days in peace and tranquility, and replace it with the idea for which it was originally intended to convey, and that is “assembly,” “gathering,” or perhaps even “congregation” (although, even that last option comes with some extraneous meanings attached).

Notice, just one simple (that word again) example that has some fairly significant hermeneutical implications. In the modern worship wars over the “role” of women, one problematic text is 1 Corinthians 14. As simply (arrrgh) as I can explain it, the argument is that because Paul seemingly allows women to pray in public in 11:1-16, the apparent prohibition against women speaking in chapter 14 must be modified in some form or fashion (either softening it, or by eliminating it altogether). But this interpretation falls apart when it is recognized that Paul makes a significant change in 11:17 – prior to v. 17 there is no mention of a public gathering at all (the reference in v. 16 to churches of God is a rebuttal to the Corinthian view that theirs is the preferred practice!) But at v. 17 Paul starts talking about the public assembly of the Corinthian Christians – in chapter 11 his topic is that of the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 14 he continues with the assembly language, but this time in regard to manifestations of the Spirit – notably the speaking in tongues. Consider the following –

14:4 – the one who speaks to the assembly must do so for the edification of the people assembled.
14:5 – interpretation of tongues is necessary for the edification of the assembly.
14:12 – the gifts of the Spirit are to build up the assembly.
14:19 – Paul would rather speak five intelligible words in the assembly than ten thousand unintelligible words.
14:23 – when the whole assembly comes together . . .
14:26 – when you come together (the word ekklesia is not used here).
14:28 – if there is no interpreter in the assembly, let the tongue speaker be silent.
14:33 – as is the customary practice in every assembly of the saints.
14:34 – the women are to remain silent in the assembly.
14:35 – for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.

In every verse listed above (except for v. 26) the word ekklesia is used for the idea of assembly or gathering. The argument made by egalitarians (those arguing for complete equality of women in public worship) is that Paul establishes his basic teaching in chapter 11, and only modifies it in chapter 14 to limit obnoxious or unruly women taking over the worship. As I said, this argument cannot be sustained because (a) Paul never mentions the appropriateness of women praying in the public assembly in chapter 11; and (b) he repeatedly and specifically ties his teaching, which includes the limitation of women speaking (and therefore exercising authority over men) in chapter 14 to the assembly of the Christians! This is in perfect agreement with his teaching in 1 Timothy 2:12. The entire discussion changes significantly if we eliminate the heavily freighted (and therefore susceptible to twisting) concept of “church” with the very simple (arrrgh) usage of the word assembly.

There really is nothing wrong with the word, “church,” if we understand it as it was intended. But, the meanings of words change, and what was understood 200 or more years ago is frequently not the meaning of the word today. Try this experiment – every time you read the word “church” in your English Bible, substitute the word “assembly” and see if the meaning is not clarified – or at least a richer meaning is thereby provided (yes, even Matthew 16:18!).