When James I of England agreed to a new translation of the Bible, a translation which would eventually become the 1611 Authorised Version in the UK and more commonly known in North America as the King James Version, he had only two stipulations to the translation committee. The first was that he wanted to keep the transliteration of the word “Baptism” rather than using a translation such as “dunk” “plunge” or “immerse” and the second was that he wanted to keep the word “Church”. I have some challenges with this stipulation and that is what has led me to write this hopefully short blog.
Various words were used in the New Testament to describe the new community that was established after the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost. The Apostles use multiple metaphors to try and describe this “one new man”. The remnant of the faithful in Israel now had embraced Gentiles who had expressed faith in the Jewish Messiah. The most prevalent word that is used to describe this gathering is ekklesia. It was a common word, with no particular religious significance, it is alternately translated as “mob” in places where the context is a riot. Yet it was through this “ekklesia” of believers that “the manifold wisdom of God might be made known … to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10).
Whenever the word “church” appears in English translations of the Bible the Greek word being translated is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία),which actually means “called out ones” but is always used in the context of a gathering.The English word “church” however derives from another Greek word κυριακός‚ (kuriakos) which means “belonging to the Lord.” It is only used twice in the New Testament and both times are not related to our understanding of what the “Church” is: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s (κυριακόν) supper that you eat.” (1 Cor. 11:20, ESV) and “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s (κυριακῆ) day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet.” (Rev. 1:10, ESV).
Because the building where the believers met together eventually became known as “the Lord’s house” (using Greek kuriakon), it entered into the German language as “kirche,” Anglo-Saxon as “circe,” and Middle English as “chirche.” With the advent of “Christendom” and the meshing together of political power with the church, the name “church” became very convenient. The church meant building, the church meant institution, the church meant control. The origins of the word meant this and that is indeed what the institutional church became. However this was not the original meaning of the simple “gathering” or “community” of believers and therefore in the Reformation both Luther and Tyndale translated ekklesia into words meaning community or congregation (in German this became germeinde).
When King James stipulated that the word NOT be translated as community or congregation he knew that the word “church” conjured very different connotations in English as it means either a building or an institution. James wanted to retain this meaning and held a deep hatred towards the Puritans who wanted to see a return to New Testament understandings instead of preferring the institutional power and grandeur of the Roman Catholic Church. The King James Version became not only the standard Bible translation, but it had a defining effect on the entire English language. It is hard to get away from the word – for the idea of word in the New Testament – the New Testament community – the bride of Christ is one of the most powerful groups of people that see the love of God on earth. But the institutional “Church” has not been this throughout history. It has at times in fact been the direct antithesis of this, committing the greatest atrocities known to man. However the challenges remain today in very subtle ways for Christians – how many Christians on a Sunday morning say they are “going to church” – it is unsurprising that many will think of a building when they refer to a church, because that is what it means. What about “I love Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I have to go to church” – this is a foreign concept if you think that salvation means being “born again” into a New Testament community, it is not a strange thing to say if the church is merely an institution or a building to attend.
But at the end of the day we are stuck with the decisions of our forbears to use the word and so perhaps the only way forward with our English word is redemption rather than rejection.