About Jesus     Steve Sweetman

Home Page

Is Church Really Church?


Have you ever wondered where our word “church” came from?  Well, maybe you haven’t, but you’re probably not surprised that I have.  Here are the technicalities. Our word “church” wasn’t always spelled the way it is today.  In 1300 AD it was spelled “chirche”.  In 500 AD it was spelled “cirice”, and came from the Greek word “kuriakon”, meaning “of the Lord”.  “Cirice” meant “house of the Lord”.  “Kuriakon” has many uses in the New Testament when connected to other words such as “supper”, as in “supper of the Lord”.  So  the Greek “kuriakon” was imported into English as “cirice” which became “chirche”, which evolved into “church”.  Got it so far?


Just so you know,  “kuriakon” isn’t a religious word. It’s a regular old word and  could be used in such a phrase as, “the army ‘of  the king”.   


Knowing this you might think that every time you read the word “church” in our New Testament, it’s translated from the Greek word “kuriakon”, right?  Sorry, but that’s wrong. The word “church” in the New Testament is translated from the Greek word “ekklesia”.


“Ekklesia” means “an assembly of people set apart with a certain distinction”.  “Ekklesia” isn’t a religious word either.  One example of its New Testament use is found in Acts 17:5 where it’s translated as a riotous “mob” of people.


So to sum up, the Greek “kuriakon” evolved into our English word church, but the word “church” isn’t translated from “kuriakon” in the New Testament but from the word “ekklesia”.  Have I totally confused you now? 


Now pretend that you live in the 15th century and for the first time in your life you’re reading the first of many future editions of  the King James Bible.  Say you’re reading Matt. 16:18 where Jesus says “I will build my church”.  What would your mental image of church be?


I believe you’d picture church to be the massive institutional structure of the day that you grew up with.  You couldn’t have known anything else.  The Papal authorities would have made sure of that by indoctrinating you with their unbiblical  traditions and refusing to allow you to have your own Bible to learn the truth for yourself.  So after reading Matt. 16:18 you’d think that Jesus had built the institution you know so well. But did He really build the Roman Church that was more like a political organization than anything else?


Was Jesus thinking about institutionalizing His followers when He told them He’d build His own church as the Papal system taught?  Certainly not.  Jesus used the word “ekklesia” in Matt 16:18 and He understood “ekklisia” to mean an assembly of His followers and not an institution because that’s what the word means.  Jesus didn’t invent a new meaning to “ekklesia”. We did that.  As I’ve said before, Jesus had no interest in replacing an old institution with a new one.  


If Jesus wanted to institutionalize His disciples He would have designated them as voting members of a registered charity, appointed a board of directors with a CEO, and presented them with a strategic operating plan for the first few fiscal years.  He didn’t do that.  He just returned to Heaven, leaving His followers alone until they received the Holy Spirit who would lead them the rest of the way.  There’s quite a difference between these two scenarios, don’t you think?


“Ekklesia” is used throughout the New Testament. When Paul wrote to the “ekklesia” at Ephesus , he didn’t write to an institution called the First Church of Ephesus.  He wrote to a functional body of real human disciples.    


Now some of you may need to find some extra grace for me for my next point.  I believe  the King James translators did us a disservice by translating “ekklesia” as “church” and not as “a gathering of Jesus’ followers”.  I think the word church gave original King James readers the wrong impression of what “ekklesia” is, and that has carried on down to us today.  I can’t put all the blame on the King James translators because  other English translations have done the same. I suppose if you understand church to be the body of Jesus’ followers then the insertion of  the word “church” for “ekklesia” is fine, but 15th century readers understood church to be institutional, and many do today as well.


It’s interesting that Tyndale’s English Bible written some decades before the first edition of the King James Bible translated “ekklesia” as “congregation” and not as church.  Congregation is more of a people word than an institutional word and provides a more accurate picture of what “ekklesia” means.   


The conclusion to all of this is that we need to understand, and act as if we understand that the church is not an institutional hierarchal system.  It’s a functional body of Jesus people who are united and set apart through their mutual association with our Lord Jesus Christ, whether they own a building or not,  whether they belong to a denomination or not, or whether they attend a Sunday meeting or not.   Many of us say we understand the true nature and meaning of church as seen in the New Testament, but our speech and lifestyles betray our words. Wouldn’t it be something if we could begin to live what we say we believe so the world could see church as it should be seen.  


Home Page