Do you ever read something to do with God and his kingdom and think “WOW!”
That happened to me a few weeks ago when I read a book by Andy Stanley. I’ll try and share it with you…
The Greek term, translated as church in our Bibles, is ekklesia. If you’ve heard me speak on this you’ll know that it wasn’t a religious term but was borrowed from the surrounding culture, where it referred citizens called to gather for civic purposes.
Andy Stanley writes:
“An ekklesia was simply a gathering or an assembly of people called out for a specific purpose. Ekklesia never referred to a specific place, only a specific gathering… In both secular and sacred literature ekkelsia always referred to a gathering of people united by a common identity and purpose.”
You might be thinking: If the Greek word, and Hebrew equivalent, means gathering why do we have the word church in our English Bibles? Where did the word church come from?
The answer goes some way to explaining why Jesus’ post-resurrection movement became an institution and why most people think of church as a building. We moved from being an assembly to an assembly hall.
In AD313 Constantine, the soon to be Roman Emperor, legalised Christianity after centuries of, at times, intense persecution. Later Constantine declared himself a Christian and Christianity became fashionable. Prior to this Christians had met in homes, had love feasts (pot-luck lunches), sung hymns, read scripture, discussed theology and shared communion. There are only rare cases of tolerant towns or cities where a room in a building was given over to Christians for them to meet. After Constantine’s conversion powerful people came to faith and, as Stanley says: “Christian worship began to incorporate elements of imperial protocol, including incense, ornate clothing, processionals, choirs, and pageantry. Worship became formal and hierarchical, relegating the congregation to mere spectators.”
Pre-Constantine, Christians would often celebrate communion near the tombs of martyrs but now huge buildings were built on top of their bones, or the bones were exhumed and placed under communion tables at the front of existing sanctuaries. Within a decade ekklesia ceased to be a movement. It had become a location.
The Romans called these locations basilicas, the Latin word for a public building or official meeting place. German cultures, also influenced by Christianity, used the word kirika, which became kirche in modern German, which means house of the Lord.
“This Germanic term became the one used most often to refer to the ekklesia of Jesus, and from it we get the word church. Whereas the majority of your English Bible is a word-for-word translation of the Greek text, not so in this case. The word church is not a translation from the Greek. It is a substitution for the Greek. And a bad one at that. The German term kirche and the Greek term ekklesia refer to two very different ideas. A kirche is a location. An ekklesia is a purposeful gathering of people. You can lock the doors of a kirche. Not so with the ekklesia of Jesus.”
This simple grammatical change resulted in massive shifts. Christianity was no longer a grassroots movement but became synonymous with location. Worse still, by the 4th century whoever controlled the building controlled the scriptures. By the Middle-Ages the Bible was literally chained to the pulpit and kept in the hands of experts, out of the reach of the common man. It came to the point where those who controlled the building, controlled the scriptures and, in turn, controlled the people. The reformers began to rescue the church from this grip, notably William Tyndale. He determined to translate the scriptures into English, for all to read, in 1522. He went to Germany to do this, as he had no support in England and began to smuggle Bibles back into England in 1526. He became an outlaw because he had the audacity to translate ekklesia instead of superimposing the German term kirche; he used the term congregation instead of church (he also, correctly, used elder instead of priest and repent instead of do penance). Throughout the New Testament he correctly placed the emphasis of church on being a movement rather than a location. He was betrayed and found guilty. They tied him to a beam, strangled him with a rope, his body was burned and his remains scattered. His crime? Translating the words of Jesus into a language that that adults and children could actually read and understand!
Sadly, it seems the tide is against us and people still think of church as somewhere I go for a few hours a week instead of a movement that I am part of 24/7.
Let’s try and remember at Bessels that we don’t go to church; we are the church, in every place we go!
Yours because of Jesus – Neil.