by Peter Ditzel
Local Manifestations of the Ekklēsia
Although there are many Scriptures that speak of the ekklēsia as all Christian believers, and that is certainly the primary meaning, there are also Scriptures that use the word ekklēsia to speak of only a portion of the whole ekklēsia . Thus, we have the “church which was at Jerusalem,” (Acts 8:1), “the church that was at Antioch” (Acts 13:1), “the church which is at Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1), “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2), and so on, including the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3.
Now notice the specific setting for these local manifestations of the ekklēsia : “Likewise greet the church that is in their house…,” (Romans 16:5), “Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house…,” (1 Corinthians 16:19), “Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house…,” (Colossians 4:15), “And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house” (Philemon 1:2). Notice also Acts 8:3: “As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.” Saul made havoc of the ekklēsia by entering into every house. Obviously, he was finding the ekklēsia in houses.
I want to point out that none of these Scriptures so far clearly refers to local meetings of the ekklēsia . References to a portion of the ekklēsia in a city or in a house do not necessarily imply meetings. Therefore, let’s look at more Scriptures.
So far, we have seen ekklēsia used for all the people of God who are always an assembly before God, a portion of those people in a city or other region, and those same people in houses or families (the Greek word oikos means either house or family). Now, in 1 Corinthians 11:18, we see ekklēsia used in a somewhat different way: “For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.” Here we see ekklēsia used for an actual meeting. This tells us that while we are always the ekklēsia gathered before God, there are times when we have local meetings. Certainly, there are other Scriptures, such as Acts 2:42, 46; 1 Corinthians 11 and 14; and 1 Timothy 2 that are references to meetings or instructions for meetings of the ekklēsia .
We have now seen that the ekklēsia built by Jesus Christ and found throughout the New Testament is the body of Christian believers who have been called out of darkness and bondage to the assembly in light and freedom before God. We have also seen that “church” comes from kuriakos , a completely different Greek word. Kuriakos referred to a building set apart as sacred and, thus, considered to be the Lord’s. Although some have tried to read the meaning of ekklēsia back into the word “church,” “church” is still intimately associated in most people’s minds with buildings, public worship, institutionalized religion, and the clergy of that institutionalized religion.
From the time of Constantine, the state-sanctioned Christians met in special, sacred, public buildings. Over time, these buildings became intimately wrapped up in people’s minds with the institution and its clergy. Thus, even in languages that retained a form of the word ekklēsia , its meaning became corrupted from that in the Bible to the definition of “church.” And in languages that used the word “church,” that word never really took on the meaning of ekklēsia . This was unfortunate as it gave even people who had access to some of the early Bibles in their native language a false idea of what Jesus built. Instead of the people God called out of darkness and bondage to His assembly in light and freedom, they thought of buildings and institutions and clergy.
This was the situation in England both before and even after its break from Rome. But neither the clergy nor the king considered this any pity since it bolstered their state-church power and kept the people ignorant and happy. This state of bliss was upset when William Tyndale made a new and unofficial translation of the Bible into English. Tyndale, realizing that “church” was not a proper translation of ekklēsia rendered it “congregation.” Although King Henry VIII at first outlawed Tyndale’s translations, being the unpredictable figure that he was, he later approved the Great Bible that was largely Tyndale’s translation work. During the reign and persecutions of the Catholic Queen Mary, many English Protestant scholars went to Geneva, where they produced the Geneva Bible. Interestingly, being produced in the church-state of Geneva, the Geneva Bible returned to translating ekklēsia as “church.” But when Elizabeth I came to the throne, she found the Calvinist marginal notes in the Geneva Bible offensive, so she ordered another translation. The result was the Anglo-Catholic Bishop’s Bible. This Bible, of course, also translated ekklēsia as “church” in most instances but used “congregation” in Matthew 16:18 (go figure!).
When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, he also became the head of the Church of England (as had and do all English monarchs since King Henry VIII). James was not happy that the Reformation had not just brought about new state churches in Europe, but had also stirred up some people to want a purer church in England, one that did not have so many of the trappings of Catholicism. He considered these people–some of the Presbyterians in Scotland, and Puritans, Separatists, and other non-conformists in England–to be troublemakers. On the other hand, although the Church of England was a hybrid of Catholicism and Protestantism, James also had no love for Catholics, especially after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, a failed assassination attempt by a group of English Catholics. His response was to try to unite his church under yet another translation of the Bible, one that would be a compromise between the more Protestant Bibles and the Bishop’s Bible.
At the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, in which he proposed the new Bible, the King showed that he had no qualms about stacking the deck. Among his comments, he said, “…we acknowledge the government ecclesiastical, as it now is, to have been approved by manifold blessings from God himself…. I approve the calling and use of Bishops in the Church, and it is my aphorism, ‘No Bishop, no King’…. I will have one doctrine, one discipline, one religion, in substance and in ceremony…. If you aim at a Scottish presbytery, it agrees as well with monarchy as God and the devil. Then Jack, and Tom, and Will, and Dick, shall meet and censure me and my Council…. If this be all your [Puritan] party has to say, I will make them conform themselves, or else I will harry them out of the land, or else do worse.”
The result was that the king and Richard Bancroft, the Bishop (and later Archbishop) of London, issued a set of rules to the translators. Among them was a rule that ordered that the text of the Bishops Bible would be the primary guide for the translators, and that, if the Bishops Bible was deemed problematic in any situation, the translators were then permitted to consult these other translations: the Tyndale Bible, the Coverdale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible.
Another rule was, “The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, viz, the word Church not to be translated Congregation, & c.”
And so my case is proved that not only is the word “church” a wrong translation of ekklēsia, it is a purposeful mistranslation of ekklēsia . And not only is it a purposeful mistranslation, it is a purposeful mistranslation designed to mislead the people into following the established church and away from any ideas they may have been developing about the true understanding of the called out assembly.
Why This Is Important
We must not make the mistake of thinking that all of this is just a small matter. In John 6:63, Jesus said, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” Peter agreed that Jesus had the words of eternal life (verse 68). The words are spirit and life. That sounds vitally important to me. Revelation 22:19 says, “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” One way to take words from a book is to change their meaning. Jesus also said, “For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he shall come in his own glory, and in his Father’s, and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26), and, “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day” (John 12:48). Are we going to be faithful to Jesus’ words or are we not? Notice this: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23).
When we change the meaning of a word that God intended in a Scripture, whether we substitute a different word or not, we have changed the word. Meanings are important. For example, in many languages, ekklēsia has merely been transliterated. In Latin, ekklēsia is ecclesia. In Spanish, ekklēsia has become iglesia. In French, it is église. But, as I briefly mentioned earlier, the meaning of these words is no longer that of the Greek word ekklēsia that is found in the New Testament. These transliterations have come to mean the special building for worship services, the organization that owns it, and the clergy that have authority and perform the service. In these cases, although the word ekklēsia has been preserved in form, it has lost its original meaning and is, thus, misleading. The meaning has been lost. I am concerned about preserving the original meaning of the word, which, after all, was the intent of the Holy Spirit.
In English (as in other languages such as German that use derivatives of kuriakos ), “church” is a totally misleading translation of ekklēsia . “Church” originally meant a building set apart as sacred and, thus, considered to be the Lord’s. This is a concept that is totally foreign to the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant, there are no sacred places (John 4:21, 23; Acts 7:48-49). “Church” eventually evolved even further from the New Testament meaning of ekklēsia by coming to also encompass priests holding an office (a concept that came to be called the clergy–also a notion foreign to the New Covenant) and the denomination or institution that they formed. Only in relatively recent history have some people tried to work into the word “church” the meaning of ekklēsia . But “church” has so many other connotations in people’s minds that this is really a hopeless cause to try to make it mean ekklēsia .
One might wonder if all I am saying here is all a hopeless cause anyway. After all, the word “church” and the baggage it carries is so ingrained into people’s minds that how can we hope to make a change? It is daunting, I will admit. But, if the Lord is willing and He is strengthening us, we can make a difference. If you believe what this article says about ekklēsia and you did not know this before, then this article has not been in vain. As you read your English Bible, you can at least begin to substitute in your mind “called out assembly” for “church.” If you do this, I can almost guarantee that having a correct understanding of this one biblical word will, over time, change your thinking about “church” and many other Bible doctrines. You will also want to spread the word to others. You may even want to get one of the few English translations that renders ekklēsia as “assembly.” Some are listed at the end of this article. 1 You may even take the big plunge and start to learn biblical Greek.
Who knows, eventually there may be enough of us that the big publishers will publish Bibles with a correct translation of ekklēsia . I am not, by the way, saying that ekklēsia is the only word that is so blatantly mistranslated. There are others, and, Lord willing, I will mention them in future articles.
Something else we can do–pray. Jesus said, “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:7). No, I do not think it is a hopeless cause. God’s Word will be preserved.
Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
Copyright © 2011 Peter Ditzel. Permissions Statement.
The following Bibles translate ekklēsia as “assembly.” The listing of these Bibles should not be taken as my full endorsement of them.
Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament: Third Edition
A Non-Ecclesiastical New Testament (link is an Adobe Acrobat file of the entire New Testament–Note, I am unfamiliar with the website that hosts this link.)
Many of these Bibles can also be downloaded as free modules to use on e-Sword, a free Bible software.↩