About Jesus  -  Steve Sweetman

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The Etymology Of  Church


The meaning of words is important.  If you misunderstand the meaning of a word, your misappropriation of the word will be evident in the way you live.  Let's look at the word "church".


When I speak of the etymology of our English word church I am referring to how its spelling has historically evolved into what it is today.  The word "church" wasn’t always spelled the way we spell it.  In 1300 A D it was spelled "chirche".  In 500 A D it was spelled "cirice", which found its roots in the Greek word "kuriakon", meaning "of the Lord".  "Kuriakon" was thus associated with the "house of the Lord" as a place of worship. 


In brief, the Greek word "kuriakon" was exported into English as "cirice" which evolved into "chirche", and later into "church".  Since the New Testament was written in common street level Greek known as Koine Greek, you'd conclude that the word "church" in the New Testament was translated from the Greek word "kuriakon".  That's not the case.  The word "church" is translated from the Greek word "ekklesia", which meant any group of people set apart from the general population for a specific purpose. 


In Acts 17:5 "ekklesia" is translated as an angry "mob of people".   In Mathew 16:18 it's translated as "church".  That's the verse where Jesus said that He'd build His church, or, He'd build His "ekklesia".  In other words, Jesus said that He'd form His own special group of people who He'd call out from the general population to accomplish His specific purposes.       


Beyond the etymology of the word church we should understand the etymology of the meaning of church.  At the risk of complicating things, we should know that for the most part Jesus never spoke Koine Greek.  He would not have said "I will build my ekklesia".  Jesus was a Jew who primarily spoke to Jews.  He would have spoken Hebrew, or its linguistic cousin, Aramaic.  Jesus would have said, "I will build my "synagoge".  So, in order to be good hermeneutical students of the Bible we must know how the Hebrew word "synagoge" was understood by Jesus and those to whom He spoke.


You will notice that the Hebrew word "synagoge" is where we derive our English word "synagogue", a Jewish place of worship.  Once you realize how Jesus, and even most Jews, understood the word "synagoge" you'll understand why the Jews were so angry with Jesus when He said He'd build His own "synagoge". 


The word "synagoge", although being a place of worship, meant more than a building.  The underlying meaning of "synagoge" was the community of God's people that was distinct and separate from all other religious, political, cultural, and ethnic, peoples.  "Synagoge" was an extended family; a place where the individual could both provide for the needs of those in the family and be provided for when necessary.  The individual wasn't an isolated island unto himself.  The very existence of the individual was intertwined and immersed into the community of God's people.  This community was to submit to the rule of God so it could be a clear expression and an exact representation of God to the nations of the world. 


The foundation of "synagoge" as understood by Jesus and the Jews goes back to the day when God pulled Abraham away from the existence he had known all of his life.  God called Abraham out of the general population of Ur so he and his descendents Israel would be built into "synagoge".  Israel was meant to be the community of God's special people who would demonstrate "synagoge" as defined above to the nations of the world. 


Israel failed in its calling to be God's special community of people so Jesus said that He'd form His own "synagoge".  Now think about this for a minute.  Jesus dared to buck the social, cultural, and religious, systems of His day.  The Jews knew exactly what He was telling them, and for this reason they hated Him.  He was about to form a counter cultural "synagoge" apart from the existing one that was now in shambles.  His community of God's people would stand in stark contrast to the failed "synagoge" of the Jews.  That angered the Jewish establishment to no end.  All that "synagoge" meant would now be found in Jesus' "synagoge", otherwise known as His "ekklesia" to the Greek speaking world, or, His "church" to the English speaking world.     


If I offer you a genetically modified apple that looks like a peach, you'd probably call it a peach and not an apple.  If you offer me an unbiblical modified church, why would I call it church?   The Hebrew meaning of "synagoge" is what Matthew 16:18 and church is all about.  I prefer to replace the word "church" in the New Testament with the words "community of God's people" because, for the most part, our English word "church" no longer reflects its Biblical meaning.  Words are important.  If we misunderstand the Biblical meaning of church, our misappropriation of church will be clearly evident in the life of that which we call church.  



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