What is the 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 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.” 

The word “church” isn’t a neutral word anymore. It has way more negative baggage than we often care to admit. Inside the ekklesia, plenty of people assume the “church” is the building or the pastors. Plenty of people inside believe that followers of Jesus are no different than those who are not followers of Jesus. Outside of the ekklesia, plenty of people assume that the “church” is a group of hypocritical hate-mongers who are advocates for right-wing politics.

As David Kinnaman, author of unChristian, has stated, “Christian has an image problem.” I think a strong case can be made that the word “church” has an image problem.

Moving Up, Moving Forward

On Monday morning, Kenny is going to share a proposed way forward in regards to our understanding of ekklesia. I know he’s stepped on some of our toes and his brutal honesty has challenged some of our assumptions about theology and praxis. This is, however, very helpful for us. It might sting a little bit and you might not agree with him on everything, but he’s helping us all think about better ways to fill gaps in our ecclesiology.

Kenny’s current working definition for “church” is as follows:

  1. The multi-ethnic (Jew-Gentile) People of God,
  2. intentionally gathered…
  3. around Jesus as Lord,
  4. announcing together the reign of God in Jesus –
  5. and calling the nations (by teaching them) to follow Jesus as the world’s only legitimate King.

I love this. I think it’s a great starting point. I wonder if we might be able to fit into his definition some of these concerns too:

  • The men and women who are the People of God,
  • including the disabled and marginalized,
  • advocating and working toward hope for the hopeless and justice for the oppressed.

I realize I’m building on top of and looking for a way forward in regards to our ecclesiology, but I think these three issues, which are likely assumed and implied in Kenny’s working definition, need to be articulated because they still are either overlooked or misunderstood.


What do you think?

Is the word “church” helpful for you at all?

What definitions would you offer?


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