Church, word of pagan origin

POSTED 06 JULY, 2006

I have heard that the English word “church” is of pagan origins. Is there any substantiation to support this?

There is debate over the origins of the English word church, but before we can address this, we need to have a proper understanding of the Greek word ekklēsia, which in our Bibles is commonly rendered as “church.” Is “church” an appropriate translation of this word?

LS defines ekklēsia as “an assembly of the citizens regularly summoned, the legislative assembly” and “in N.T. the Church, either the body, or the place.”[1] In the Apostolic Scriptures, ekklēsia is used as a term to define the Body of Messiah, and thus by extension, is rendered as “church” in most English translations of the New Testament. TDNT remarks that “Since the NT uses a single term, translations should also try to do so, but this raises the question whether ‘church’ or ‘congregation’ is always suitable, especially in view of the OT use for Israel and the underlying Hebrew and Aramaic…‘Assembly,’ then, is perhaps the best single term, particularly as it has both a congregate and an abstract sense, i.e., for the assembling as well as the assembly.”[2] This Christian commentary says that “assembly” would be the best, consistent translation for the word ekklēsia.

The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanach, the Septuagint (LXX), produced approximately 300 years before Yeshua the Messiah, frequently translates the Hebrew word qahal, or assembly/congregation, as ekklēsia. TWOT tells us that “usually qāhāl is translated as ekklēsia in the LXX.”[3] When the Apostolic writers used the Greek word ekklēsia, often rendered as “church” in our English Bibles, they did not see the ekklēsia as a separate assembly or group of people away from Israel. Rather, they considered the ekklēsia to be Israel (albeit an Israel internally diverse, incorporating many more from the nations alongside of the Jewish people). It is not surprising by any means that one of the definitions given for the word ekklēsia does in fact include “Israel.” Thayer states that “in the Sept. often equiv. to [qahal], the assembly of the Israelites.”[4] It is unfortunate that ekklēsia in most Bibles has been translated as “church,” whereas it would be best rendered as either “assembly” or “congregation.” Two Christian translations that render ekklēsia as “assembly” include Young’s Literal Translation and the Literal Translation of the Holy Bible by Jay P. Green. The Complete Jewish Bible by David H. Stern often uses phraseology like “Messianic community.”

As it relates to whether or not the English word “church” is of pagan origins, there are a number of differing opinions. ISBE indicates that it comes from “Gk. kuriakós—‘belonging to the Lord’; NT ekklēsia—‘gathering’; Lat. ecclesia.”[5] NIDB further remarks on how, “The English word derives from the Greek kuriakos (belonging to the Lord), but it stands for another Greek word ekklēsia (whence ‘ecclesiastical’), denoting an assembly.”[6] Smith’s Bible Dictionary has a slightly different view of the origins of the English word “church,” remarking, “The derivation of the word is generally said to be from the Greek kuriakon, ‘belonging to the Lord’. But the derivation has been too hastily assumed. It is probably connected with kirk, the Latin circus, circulus, the Greek kuklos, because the congregations were gathered in circles.”[7]

Regardless of if you believe that the English word “church” comes from the Greek kuriakos, meaning something that belongs to the Lord, or the Latin circus via circulus, because the early congregations gathered in circles, there is no substantial proof that it is from a word of pagan religious origins.

There are a few Messianics you may encounter, in their criticism of our Christian brothers and sisters who are not Torah observant, who say that they are part of “the kirk” or “the kirch” and that the English word “church” is of pagan origins. (Die Kirche, pronounced keer-kay, is simply the German word for “the church.”) Their problem, aside from this being a non-substantiated belief, is that they are trying to insult others and incite them, rather than reason with them from the Word of God about who the true assembly is.

The true assembly or qahal/ekklēsia is the Commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:11-12). While we believe that ekklēsia is properly rendered as either “assembly” or “congregation” in English (“assembly” is probably slightly better than “congregation”), saying that the word “church” is of pagan origins is a poor excuse in light of a bigger problem. The bigger problem is getting people to theologically see that there is no separate assembly of elect called “the Church,” and that there is only one ekklēsia, the assembly of Israel. This has to be proven from more than just vocabulary, but specifically from the calling and mission the Lord has placed upon His people—a separate “Church” or not.


NOTES

[1] LS, 239.

[2] K.L. Schmidt, “ekklēsía,” in TDNT, 397.

[3] Jack P. Lewis, “qāhāl,” TWOT, 2:790.

[4] Thayer, 196.

[5] G.W. Bromiley, “Church,” in ISBE, 1:693.

[6] Bromiley, “Church,” in NIDB, 218.

[7] E-Sword 8.0.8: Smith’s Bible Dictionary. MS Windows 9x. Franklin, TN: Equipping Ministries Foundation, 2008.

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