Church 2.0: Part 10.2: Ekklēsia and kirche

Church2This may be familiar ground for long-time readers, but we need to review the use of ekklēsia in the Old Testament.

First, we need to dispense with a couple of sermon clichés. The word does not mean “called out.” That’s the etymology of the word, but long before the First Century, the meaning had shifted to refer to a gathering, any gathering, even a rioting mob (as in Acts 19:32; note v. 40) (insert here very inappropriate sardonic remark about the Bible’s use of the same word for both “church” and “rioting mob”).

Second, for some reason, countless lessons (for example) make the point that the English word comes from the German kirche, meaning, well, “church” — either the building or the people. (And this is from the Greek κυριακόν ‎(kuriakón) meaning “belonging to the Lord.”) Which is really neither here nor there, because English definitions and etymologies are rarely of much use in interpreting a Bible written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. But it’s interesting. The problem is that such sermons assume that the English translation is somehow in error in using “church.”

All these lessons make the point that the NT uses ekklēsia is to refer to a group of people rather than a building — and yet I don’t think anyone in the history of humanity has ever made that mistake in the reading the NT. I mean, who thinks “The buildings of Christ salute you” would be a sound translation?

We are severely warned against saying “I went to church on Sunday,” because “the church” is the people — which would be true if I were the NT, but as an English-speaking American, it’s not a serious point at all. Besides, if I were to say, “I went to my book club Monday,” they would be referring to a gathering of people, not to the building.

In fact, as someone born and reared in the Churches of Christ, I often give away my heritage by referring to the “church building,” when everyone else just says “church.” A generation older than me was trained to say “meetinghouse” by the same logic.

Most people are very aware that the English “church” may be used of either the people or the building. And there aren’t really any people who find this so confusing that they need a sermon to explain the difference between a building and God’s people. The context is usually plenty clear enough.

If you want to be a growing church, please train your members not to “correct” visitors or, for that matter, members who use “church” correctly according to the rules of standard English to refer to the building or the assembly or the denomination rather than the congregation or the church universal. I mean, no one enjoys being looked down on for calling the auditorium the “sanctuary” or for saying they “attend church.”

In other words, if a visitor calls your preacher the “pastor,” let it go. Don’t write letters to the editor correcting reporter’s referring to your preacher as “pastor.” That never comes across as anything but insufferably sanctimonious. Just quit right now.

Sorry. I just sometimes get frustrated when we spend so much energy making pointless points.

PS — I once served on an architectural design committee for the construction of a new churchchurch buildingmeetinghouse. I visited countless Baptist church buildingsmeetinghouses, walked through their sanctuariesauditoriums and spoke with their pastorspreachersevangelists about their buildings. And it was just so hard to report to the committee what I’d heard while translating from Baptist-ese to Church of Christ-ese. I mean, I spent as much time correcting my own vocabulary as explaining what I’d learned about churchmeetinghouse architecture.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Church 2.0: Part 10.2: Ekklēsia and kirche

  1. Christopher says:

    *Insert here very inappropriate sardonic remark about the Bible’s use of the same word for both “church” and “rioting mob”*

    Thanks…now I can finally let go of any guilt for the times I called my time at church a “riot”. 😉

  2. Larry Cheek says:

    I think that much of the attempts to redirect the term “church” from being a building into the concept that the church is actually the people, has been because in prior history many religions even some in Christianity placed a power into their buildings that represented them as a holy place, and some are still following that thinking. Almost like the old Temple, giving the impression God was there, if you had an emotional problem you went to the building to communicate with God. You may happen to encounter one of God’s representatives there and he if he had a high enough position within the organization could counsel with you but the concept was that your petition would have no chance to be granted unless you presented it in that building, even possibly only at the alter in the building. It really did not matter whether you saw anyone in the building, there was power dedicated to the building and possibly the alter which was there. In the NT Christianity there was no such place. Each individual Christian has a direct link open to him/her to communicate directly with God, no building, alter or earthly mediator necessary.
    The point I see we need to emphasize is that there is no “holy” buildings (structures).

  3. Dwight says:

    I am with Larry.
    Jay I notice that you said what ekklesia doesn’t mean, but you didn’t waste time on focusing what it meant…congregation, instead moving to the defense of the word that replaces it.
    It is by chance that one, who translated it as cirche, out of other two translators, who translated it congregacion, was chosen and carried forward in the KJ and subsequent versions.

    The problem as I see it is that we put much weight into a word that we see, but not into the concept. I know many who claim that the “church of Christ” is the only name recognized by God, but once you translate it into “congregation of Christ”, then the name aspect fades away and you are left with the clear explanation.
    Then once you start replacing the word church with congregation, then the church as a “thing” aspect fades away and you are left with people in Christ.
    What the word “church” does is obscure the reality of congregation.
    We might say “go to church” to mean go to an assembly, but then again what do we have on the sign when people aren’t there, “church of Christ.” So we are really arguing one thing, then reflecting something else entirely.
    I am not against the word church, but I am all in favor for clarity.

  4. John F says:

    We often are guilty of saying in response to an invitation from an acquaintance, “No thanks, I HAVE to go to church” which gives a negative connotation. While “we” know what we mean, it would be better to say, “No thanks, I will be in worship with my church family” or something similar.

    I sharpened my axe on ekklesia some years ago, ground sharply and remains the same.

  5. Dwight says:

    My daughter plays a glockenspiel in band. Glockenspeil in german means “play bells”. Well it looks nothing like bells as it is little slats of metal, but they still call it a glockenspiel. If you know nothing about band instruments, then the glockespeil means nothing to you, but if you do it does. But now imagine if I start talking about this thing as not a thing, but maybe as a person. And then imagine if more people start doing that. Then imagine if we start calling the player a glockenspiel as well and then this moves to other players even though they play different instruments.
    What we have is obscured the instrument and thus the meaning, as it now has more than one possible meaning and a shifting landscape.
    This is the problem with the word “church” as it explains nothing and means many possible things on a consistent basis and not even context informs us many times.
    This is particurally clear in the scriptures when the apostles write to the “church in Phillipi” and many assume that this was a single assembly in a building in Corinth, instead of the saints in the town. Then all of the sudden what Paul is telling the people to do individually, becomes the church as a single unit to do. Even though it is clear from I Cor.11 and 14 that the congregation isn’t being spoken to as a single unit, as they have (when you come together for the LS) and will come together as one (if you come together).
    The answer of do you have to be immersed in baptism would quickly adjust itself if we used the term “immersion” which is what baptism really means.
    One day our preacher gave a lesson on the church and he started out with the church is the people and talked about ten minutes on that, then he switched to the church as a thing in that now the church could preach and now the church could sing and now the church could evangelize and we should worship at church, etc. Then after he left the stage our exit presentation comes on the screen and it has a picture of our church building with the caption underneath “The _________ church of Christ”. No people are present.
    There is a reason we don’t know where we stand in the congregation and where the congregation stands, because we mislabel it with term that has an ever shifting frame of reference.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    You are certainly correct that the Catholics have a doctrine of “holy ground” where the church building carries a special holiness — which is very dualistic, nearly Gnostic. They have an elaborate doctrine of who can be buried in consecrated ground, for example.

    The problem among us Protestants is we preach the church-building sermons and then won’t let the kids play games in the auditorium for fear of offending God. We refuse to even eat in the building in east Mississippi Churches of Christ — as though eating in a non-holy building might offend God’s sensibilities — which is very strange.

    So it seems that the point of the lesson has been ENTIRELY lost in the Churches of Christ. I think we’d do better to “preach” the lesson by doing the lesson by allowing our facilities to be used for games, eating, parties, receptions, and all sorts of good things that aren’t “holy” so we rid ourselves of the Gnosticism.

    PS — In my church, we meet in a gym, with Corinthian columns and a vaulted ceiling and stained glass above a baptistry. Volleyball during the week; Worship on Sunday. We’re most definitely not dualistic/Gnostic, pretending that some space is too holy for fried chicken. We have meals in there all the time. Last week: Supper with Santa. Chicken, Santa, games, little kids, pictures, and lots of visitors.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    How about, “No thanks, I get to be with my church family tomorrow.” or “No thanks, I’ve dedicated my Sunday mornings to being with my church family.”

    Helps to practice these things.


  8. Dwight says:

    One of the strange bits of irony is that within the conservative coC the building is for worship only as it was bought with “church money”, thus no other things can go on in it, but what we don’t realize or don’t wish to admit is that this is the definition of a temple or a building dedicated to worship, but we would be aghast to call it such as we argue that the things of Judaism were done away with such as the Temple, incense, etc. We have a false dichotomy. But then on work day, we will often order pizza and eat it on the property, which also was bought with the “church money”. And I know the preacher will often eat in his office, which is part of the church building. This show where we have invisible hard lines that only we can see and that leaves other people scratching their heads.

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