I believe that words are important. If we all have different definitions of a word, confusion will undoubtedly enter into our conversations. Unless both parties in a conversation have the same idea of the meaning of the words in that conversation, there is no chance at having full clarity.
Over the course of time, the meanings of words can change because of various reasons. Every now and then, I add words to my “Christian Dictionary” category on this blog when I feel like there is some value to be had by getting a clear definition of a word as it is used in the Bible.
This post is about the English word “church.” In order to give a full view of what this word means, I would like to do this in a few steps.
First, I would like to give a brief history of how the word “church” came into the English language, because it is very fascinating.
Next, I would like to look at the Greek word in the Bible that is most often translated “church.” When we look at that Greek word in historical context, we can see some profound truths.
Finally, I would like to sum up what I believe to be the application and result of combining all this information together.
All that being said…let us begin.
KURIOS and KURIAKON
In the Bible, the followers of Jesus often call him by the title “Lord.” The Greek word that is translated as “lord” is the word KURIOS. It means lord, master, head of a house, head of an estate, etc. If you are considered to be a KURIOS, then you are in charge of something, or you are the ruler or the governing authority over something. In the case of Jesus, his followers (like me) consider him to be the lord, master, and head of all things. Jesus is the supreme lord, the supreme KURIOS.
In English, if we want to make a word possessive, we often add an apostrophe and and “s” to the end. In this example, if something belongs to a lord, then we can say that things is the lord’s. We had an apostrophe “s” to the end of lord to show possession.
If we wanted to do that to the Greek word KURIOS, we don’t add the apostrophe. Instead, the word becomes KURIAKON. That word means “belonging to the lord” or “of the lord” or “the lord’s.” For example, in the phrase “the Lord’s supper” in 1 Corinthians 11:20, the word KURIAKON is used.
So to summarize:
KURIOS = Lord
KURIAKON = The Lord’s
So, the Christians called Jesus Lord, or KURIOS.
The world, looking at Christians, saw individuals that held an allegiance to an invisible being they called KURIOS…Jesus. The Christians acted as if this invisible Lord/KURIOS was always with them, could hear them, could guide them, and so on. And so the world called the Christians “the Lord’s people” aka the KURIAKON. They called them “the lord’s” or “the people that belong to the lord.”
It came to be that the title “KURIAKON” meant “The Lord’s” or “The people that belong to the Lord” or “The Christians.”
Etymology is the study of words, and how they evolved or came into being. The etymology of the word church tells us the following:
Over time, KURIAKON became
- the German word KIRCHE
- the Old English word CIRICE
- the Middle English word CHIRCHE
- The modern English word CHURCH
So the English word “church” comes from a word that means “people that belong to the Lord” or “the Lord’s people.” The church is the Lord’s people.
The church is not a place, a denomination, a business, or a corporation. The church is people that belong to the Lord. That is what the word church means.
(I would also like to add that “church” not a verb either. We do not “church” people. People cannot be “churched” or “unchurched.”)
In the English Bible, the word “church” is often used to translate a different word from the Greek…the word EKKLESIA.
In a technical sense, this word literally means “a gathering of those summoned.” In ancient Greece at the time the New Testament was being written, EKKLESIA was a group of citizens that gathered (or were summoned) together to make decisions on matters pertaining public policy. It is roughly similar to something like a town council. Sometimes it was more formalized, and sometimes it was a group of citizens gathered together because of something that needs attention, or for some other reason. The main idea is that it is a group of people that gather together for some purpose. (Click here for the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on this)
The writers of the Bible used EKKLESIA to describe a gathering or group of Christians. It is sometimes used to refer a small group of believers meeting in someone’s home (Philemon 1:2). Sometimes it is used to refer to the believers in a particular region (Acts 9:31). It can also refer to all believers as a whole unit (Ephesians 1:22)
In Matthew 16, Jesus said he would build his EKKLESIA…his governing assembly…on the rock of the revelation that he is the messiah…the Lord…the savior.
For reasons that I do not fully understand, most Bible translators use the word “church” when they are translating EKKLESIA into English. Instead of saying “governing assembly” they use “church.” Church means “people that belong to the Lord.” So, that is partially correct. A Christian EKKLESIA would definitely be composed of “people that belong to the Lord.” Yes that is true 100%.
However, we lose a very important facet of this truth when we think of church as simply a group of Christians. A Christian EKKLESIA would be a governing body of individuals that do not belong to either the Judean or Roman (or American, or etc) governmental system…they are part of a different system…a different government…a different Kingdom…with a different King. They were not under the rule of Caesar, and they were not under the rule of the Sadducees, Pharisees, Herod, or the High Priest. They were a separate Kingdom with a separate King with a separate system of government altogether.
So when you read your Bible and you see the word “church,” it is actually the word EKKLESIA most of the time. And the EKKLESIA is a governing assembly of the Lord’s people.
Final Points to Ponder
Based on the information above, I would like to make a few statements that I believe would be helpful to you as I end this article.
- The early believers…the KURIOKON….were not simply “planting churches.” They were establishing EKKLESIA’s. They were building a Kingdom that would bring God’s governing influence and culture everywhere they went.
- There is only one Kingdom of God. And King Jesus has only one body of believers. We should not view ourselves as divided into different factions (e.g. Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal). We are one body, one family, one Kingdom.
- The church is to view herself outside of and above any earthly governmental system. The EKKLESIA is not here to endorse earthly political candidates or ideologies, or to submit to any human form of government. Christ is our King, and he is not a Republican or Democrat, nor is he bound by the constitution. His system is different and far above anything mankind has come up with.
- If you are a Christian, you should view yourself as a citizen of God’s Kingdom, and a member of the EKKLESIA (governing assembly). You should endeavor to learn about the authority that has been given to you by God…and what you are to be doing with that authority. You are not just a spectator. You get to play in the game.
- By definition, a “church” meeting, gathering, service, etc, is a meeting of people that belong to Jesus. When we are given a glimpse of what happened in these meetings (1 Cor 14:26, for example), we see that the focus is on interacting with God through the Holy Spirit, and building up one another in Christ. Church was not designed with an audience of non-believers in mind. Non-believers were led into relationship with Jesus, not by being invited to a church service to hear a pastor preach a sermon (although there is obviously nothing wrong with this…that is not my point), but rather by witnessing the miraculous activities of the Christians (Acts 11:20-21, 1 Cor 2:4-5, Rom 15:19, etc), or as a result of different believers bringing the truth of the gospel out of the “church” and into the environment of the non-Christians (Acts 17:17, for example).
The church is the Lord’s people…people with authority to bring God’s governing influence into their environment.