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.
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.