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Why We Should Abandon the Name "Church"

I attend a church. I am also a member of that church. In fact, I serve that church as a pastor. I often invite people to visit that church or to visit our church’s website. As you can tell, the church is a big part of my life. I love the church and spend a lot of time helping other churches. Church means a lot to me.

Unfortunately, I’m not even sure what the word “church” means.

Let me back up. It is well-known that the Greek word that is translated as “church” is ekklesia. This means that whenever we read our New Testament and see the word “church,” ekklesia is the corresponding Greek word. In other words, Jesus said that he would build his ekklesia (Matt. 16:18) and that unrepentant sinners should be brought before the ekklesia (Matt. 18:17). St. Paul said that Christ is the head of the ekklesia (Eph. 5:23) and that Christ’s body is the ekklesia (Col. 1:24). It is where we get the word “ecclesiology,” the doctrine and study of the “church.”

The majority of “modern” English Bible translations render ekklesia as “church” (e.g., ESV, NASB, NET, NIV, NJB, RSV and NLT). Of the “older” English translations, the KJV and the Geneva Bible both also translate ekklesia as “church.” The only translations that differ are David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible, which translates ekklesia as “community” or “Messianic community” or “congregation,” the Tyndale New Testament, which translates ekklesia as “congregation,” or Young’s Literal Translation, which translates ekklesia as “assembly.” The majority of English translations stick with “church” for ekklesia.

But what is a “church”? What’s the background to this word? It certainly isn’t a transliteration of the corresponding Greek word, like the word “baptism” for the Greek word baptizo. So how did the English word come into use? The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary notes that before the 12th century, the word’s background is from the “Middle English chirche, from Old English cirice, ultimately from Late Greek kyriakon, from Greek, neuter of kyriakos of the lord, from kyrios lord, master; akin to Sanskrit śūra hero, warrior.”

Let me explain to you what this means: There is no significant reason as to why we translate ekklesia as “church.” The word’s background is no longer relevant to the issue.

Why the word “church” is unhelpful …

My children used to always ask me if we were going to church. I’d always respond by saying, “We don’t go to church; we are the church. The church is the people.” I’m going to assume that there are a bunch of you out there that can identify with that simplistic response.

You see, ecclesiology really matters to me. I’m happily in a church tradition that needs to creatively develop and engage toward a deeper ecclesiology. This applies to both the Vineyard movement as well as both the evangelical and charismatic influences in the background. We need to think deeply about ecclesiology.

After all, why do we actually tell people that the church isn’t the building? Is it possible that church is a building? The way that many of us treat the concept of “church” certainly seems to imply that the “church” is the building. Our practices often reinforce the bad theology that we hold. Perhaps one of the reasons why we have such deficient ecclesiologies and fundamental misunderstandings about the purpose of the ekklesia is because we can’t actually translate the word beyond “church.” 

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Luke Geraty has been lead pastor of Trinity Christian Fellowship for the past six years and is a member of the Society of Vineyard Scholars. Interested in missional theology within the rural context, Luke loves all things espresso, hockey, hip hop, and fly fishing (what a weird combo!). He and his wife have four children. He blogs regularly at ThinkTheology.org.