If your ecclesiology stands or falls on the word “church”

Over at Think Theology, Kenny Burchard has written about the fact that Tyndale did not include the word church in his translation of the Bible. He has also shared something of his own ecclesiological journey to help us understand his position. John Stevens of the FIEC also shared his post with the following question: How might thinking/practice differ if “church” was always translated “congregation” in Bible? My short answer is this: if your ecclesiology stands or falls on the English translation of the word church, you are probably doing it wrong.

Burchard made much of the fact that Tyndale pointedly translates ἐκκλησία as congregation, not church. However, Tyndale’s bible used the word congregation because the ecclesiastical standard model set by The Church of his day was errant. Tyndale was not attempting to alter perceptions by using a different word for church, he was trying to escape the association with the established Church. It was the established Church that sought to define ecclesiology based on the translation of the word church, not Tyndale.

Second, majoring on the etymology of ἐκκλησία meaning “called out ones” falls foul of the root word fallacy. As noted some while ago at the Scribble Preach blog:

While combining the two root words (“called out from”) does indeed create something like “called out ones”, the truth is, the word ekklesia is never used that way in the New Testament or its contemporaries. In fact, ekklesia was used to refer to a group of philosophers, mathematicians, or any other kind of assembly in the Greco-Roman world. So unless we’re supposing that actors and gladiators were called to a holy lifestyle by assembling together, we can’t create a relationship between holiness and ekklesia necessarily. While it’s true that the church is composed of “called out” ones – that’s not the particular point of this word. It just means “assembly” or “gathering”.

Burchard argues that the “literal” understanding of ἐκκλησία means “called out” and seeks to argue, from this, that the word congregation is a better translation as it focuses on community and not on buildings. Yet, the supposed literal “called out” meaning is not the actual meaning of the word. Though congregation is a perfectly valid rendering, it has absolutely nothing to do with being called out or forming a community. It is simply an assembled gathering of people.

Third, and most importantly, just about everybody recognises that the word church has a range of meanings in scripture. Here are just some of them:

  • Eph 5:25 – the church – all people, throughout all time, saved by faith in Jesus
  • Gal 1:13 – the church – all professing Christians, real or not, that belong to visible congregations
  • 1 Cor 11:18 – the church – a gathered meeting
  • Rom 16:4f – the churches/the church – a group of separate gatherings and a particular local gathering in one place

If we take Tyndale’s congregation translation, that fits perfectly well with the meaning in the latter two passages. However, if we apply his translation to the first two, congregation doesn’t translate the meaning terribly well. It is equally fair to say, if we take a leaden view of church as meaning either church buildings or formal gatherings, we also run into problems with some of these passage. However, just about everybody recognises that church has a range of meanings and must be applied in different ways depending on whatever the context demands.

What is more, most approaches to church extend beyond the word ἐκκλησία. The command in Hebrews 10:25, to make a habit of meeting together, does not stand or fall on this word; ἐκκλησία isn’t even mentioned in the context. Nonetheless, most agree that the writer is telling us to continue going, serving and being part of a local church body (or congregation if you like). Likewise, the biblical imperative to appoint elders and deacons insists on some sort of formal structure within a visible body. If we are using congregation as a means of ridding ourselves of any structure within the church, these leadership passages speak against being able to do so. If we are trying to use church to insist on a greater level of formality and structure than members/deacons/elders then we are likely using that word in a way it was never intended. There are plenty of other examples but these two should suffice to make the point. Ecclesiology, that is the way we do church, is not only determined by our understanding of the word ἐκκλησία.

So here is the basic issue. If our ecclesiology stands or falls upon the way we translate the word ἐκκλησία – especially if we leadenly apply our translation in exactly the same way in every context – then there will almost certainly be something deficient about the way we are doing church.


  1. Kenny,

    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the interaction.

    If I have misunderstood your argument, I sincerely apologise. It read to me as though you were endorsing FInto's argument. Certainly, you quote him and go on to state “I was pretty excited when I read this insight into Tyndale’s translation of the word ekklesia, and I spent a bit of time looking over some of the more familiar “church” texts to see what he did with them.” As you nowhere reject Finto's line, and you express excitement at having been given this insight into Tyndale's thought, I did take it that you were happy with Finto. If you actually reject Finto's line on ekklesia, then I am sorry for the misunderstanding. Barring the two words “Buchard argues” (if I have misunderstood you and you do not take that line), that paragraph still ultimately stands.

    As I state at the beginning of my article, I don't think Tyndale was running with “congregation” for the reasons Finto argues. I am sure Tyndale was looking for a word that did not carry conotation of the established church and congregation, being a valid rendering, was one such way to do that.

    I don't particularly have any concerns with your underlined definition as you state it. However, I don't think your definition particularly takes us away from the common understanding of the term “church” (unless you are generally just trying to move people away from an understanding of church as a building?) Nonetheless, you seem to miss the major point of my piece which, despite our discussion here, was actually that our definition of ekklesia should not be the primary determinative factor in how we do church (not the actual definition of ekklesia itself). So whether we want to run with church, congregation or something else if our definition of the word ekklesia wildly affects our understanding of what church is, how it functions, etc we have probably done something wrong.

  2. Hi Stephen –

    Couple of thoughts here:
    1. Thanks for linking to my article and for the possibility of dialogue. It's one of the reasons I love to blog.
    2. I think you may have miquoted me in your piece here. Particularly – “Burchard argues that the “literal” understanding of e0kklesia means “called out” and seeks to argue, from this, that the word congregation is a better translation as it focuses on community and not on buildings.”

    Not to be too picky, but (1) The quote about the literal meaning of ekklesia as “called out” is actually Finto's argument — not mine. I do not go on to elaborate on that aspect of ecclesiology at all in my entire piece, and (2) the same is true regarding the contradistinction between community and buildings. It might have been better for me to go on to say… “My reference to Finto here is not about the literal meaning of ekklesia, nor a reference to buildings — but rather, a joyful embrace of Tyndale's rendering of the word ekklesia to emphasize gatherings of human beings instead of institutions created by those humans and called “churches.” I do not argue for a literal rendering of the word “called out” because I also think those words do not capture all that is meant by ekklesia. Indeed, the called out need to be brought together in order to function as the church! But they do not require either an institution or a physical building in order to qualify as an ekklesia. So, to be clear, I am not arguing for literal etymology.

    Further, I actually provide a my working definition for ekklesia 3 full paragraphs before the Finto quote. THAT more accurately represents my ecclesiology, and it would be great to have you interact with that actual definition. I think you may have missed what I actually said about the meaning of ekklesia (the underlined words) and mistakenly assumed that I was providing Fintos quote as my definition — emphasizing etymology. No. I put the Finto quote in to draw attention to Tyndale, who wanted the word ekklesia to emphasize the people who are the ekkelsia.

    Hope that helps.

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