Church: An Odd Translation with a Sketchy Past and an Outrageous Claim


“The contempt which I had to fear because of the novelty and apparent absurdity of my view nearly induced me to abandon utterly the work I had begun.” —Nicolaus Copernicus

Shifting the Center of the Universe

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus shook the world by demonstrating that the earth was not the center of the universe. Copernicus was a devout Catholic and knew his ideas would not go over well with the church. He was smart enough to publish them on his deathbed and avoid martyrdom.

For a long time, I have felt like my my faith was orbiting   a false center. I was afraid to talk about this, partly because I wanted to remain true to my vocation as a pastor and partly because I was afraid. I hate conflict. I’m a middle child. I make peace, not waves.

That’s why it has taken my years to work up the nerve to say what I will say in today’s podcast. With fear and trembling, here goes:

The false center around which Christianity revolves today is the church.

Some might say that God, or Christ is the center of Christianity today. I wish it were true. It’s simply not.

Church Is the Center of Modern Christianity

One way to see that church is the true center of Christianity is by the strong emotions wrapped up with church. The closer something is to the center of our convictions, the stronger the reaction when it is challenged.

If one of the orbiting planets in our solar system shifted its course, it would affect the other planets so some degree. But if the sun were to shift, the entire solar system would be in an uproar. Shifting the center is like poking a bee hive.

People will give you a pass for having odd ideas about God. You can follow any paths of discipleship you choose. But if you challenge the legitimacy of the church, the bees come after you.

I saw this illustrated in a TV interview. Pastor Chris Sonksen wrote a book titled, “Quit Church: Your Life Would Be Better if You Did.” I was intrigued. “Finally!” I thought. “A person brave enough to tell the truth and challenge the status quo.”

But when I watched the interview I was bewildered. Sonksen’s version of quitting church was to be more committed to church than ever. The interview went like this.

Interviewer: But if you don’t go to church, who is out there to remind you to be better?

Sonksen: Let me be clear: I’m definitely telling people to go to church.

Huh? Why is the title of the book the opposite of its content? The interviewer was lost. So was I. But there was something worse. It was a sentence Sonksen threw in as an aside.

“I’m not telling people, ‘Hey, stop going to church.’ I’d be crucified!”

Crucified? Exactly. Crucifixion is the punishment for blasphemy. And in tdoay’s culture, failure to make church the center of your Christian life is blasphemy.

Christ is the True Center of Christianity

My first experience of God was one of unconditional love. I felt forgiveness. I felt safe. I was happier than words could express. As I read about the love of Jesus in the gospels it all made sense. Jesus had come to conquer the world with love. I had been conquered.

I used to love to go to church, especially on Sunday nights with my dad. There, I found others who shared similar stories of God’s love. I felt accepted. We sang songs and praised God. It was amazing. A lifetime of this sounded like pure bliss. I signed up.

But when I “surrendered” (the word is apt) to the ministry, something began to shift. My living connection with God slowly moved to a human institution. It was like having the oxygen taken out of the air. Eventually, I could no longer breath.

Partly because I was completely bewildered by this and partly because I had no desire to disrupt other people’s lives, I quietly withdrew. I resigned my church and left my post at the seminary.

I Lost My Center!

Without church, I had no gravitational center. I was lost in space! Christianity without church was like ice without water—an impossibility. Church was Christianity. Was I even a Christian? I didn’t know. All I knew is that I was a mess.

I wrestled and agonized and had dark nights of the soul. I questioned the existence of God and the existence of my sanity. I was forced to rethink my faith from the ground up: my beliefs, my behavior, and most of all, church. It has taken over two years to regain my equilibrium.

My theological struggle is reflected in the Curb Your Dogma podcast and my blog as well as the book Hard Reset. My struggle to find a new way to practice my faith became a focus on making Jesus’ core teachings a way of life. I call this the Seven Habits of Wholeness.

But the crisis that led to my meltdown was not a theological issue. Neither was it the lack of a discipleship method. The agonizing pain I felt was church. Church was the big problem that had to be solved. It was also the hardest and most sensitive issue. That’s why I’ve saved it for last. It’s scary.

I’m beginning to see a way through. It’s not a new vision of church but the abandonment of church and a new way of life that I call ecclesia. It is a vision of a God of love and a people who live in love. It is a vision of joy in every human heart and a world at peace. Next week I will tell you more about ecclesia. This is what keeps me awake at night with tingles running up and down my spine. Honestly, I’d rather skip today’s topic.

But I must to share with you how the chains of church were broken in my life. Because in order for you embrace the joy of ecclesia, you must first know that you have permission to leave bonds of church. But do you?

Let’s go back to my problem.

My Unsolvable Problem: Jesus Loves the Church but I Don’t

As a guy who takes the Bible seriously, here was my big problem: The Bible is filled with verses about church. The word appears 123 times in the New Testament. It’s not some side issue that I can brush aside. It is a major theme of the New Testament.

I found some comfort from the fact that Jesus only mentions the church in one of the four gospels, and then on only two occasions. But I was forced to admit that when he used the word, it was pretty epic.

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matthew 16:18)

“I will build my church!” says Jesus. And what hell-stomping tool Jesus will use? The church! The church is what Jesus is doing in this world. How could I opt out of church and claim to be a follower of Jesus?

But it doesn’t stop there. The book of Acts is constantly describing believers getting together and calling it church. And don’t forget Paul’s letters which make breathtaking statements about church.

“The church is his [Christ’s] body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself.” (Ephesians 1:23)

Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her. (Ephesians 5:25)

There you have it: Christ loves the church! It is his bride, his very body! How could I say that I was a lover of Jesus if I didn’t love the church? I couldn’t. But I didn’t!

I found that people were sympathetic to having struggles with church. Everyone struggled with church. Often, they compared to a marriage. It was fine to struggle. It was expected. Separation was even allowed. But divorce? Never! To divorce the church was to divorce God.

Wretched man that I was! I loved Jesus. But wild horses could not have driven me back to into the church. What was I to do?

I found the solution right in front of my eyes.

Begging the Question (The Real Meaning)

“Begging the question” is often used in modern language to mean “raising the question.” But “begging the question” is actually a category of formal logic. Here’s Wikipedias’ definition. Put on your thinking caps.

“Begging the question is a logical fallacy which occurs when an argument’s premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it. … This often occurs in an indirect way such that the fallacy’s presence is hidden or at least not easily apparent.”

An example helps make this clear. Here is Wikipedia’s example of begging the question.

All birds that are black are ravens; therefore, all birds that are not ravens are not black.

This statement is true, so long as you accept the hidden premise. But the premise is not true. The flaw is not in the logic of the sentence but in the unspoken premise that undergirds the sentence.

Is it true that all birds that are black ravens? No! What about crows? What about blackbirds?  The is a hidden premise is false.

Is it true that all birds are not ravens are not black? Of course not. Blackbirds are not ravens but they are black.

Begging the question means hiding a false premise. The logic within the statement is sound. The hidden premise is not.

Now let’s apply this to church. Here is an example of begging the question.

All people who are Christians go to church. Therefore all people who do not go to church are not Christians.

The logic of this sentence is airtight, but the statement itself is true only if the premise behind the statements is true.

The hidden premise is that “church” is what the Bible means by the word ecclesia. But church is not what is means by ecclesia. “Church” is a very misleading word. It’s an odd translation. It has a sketchy past and makes an outrageous claim. Let’s start by looking at the translation of the Greek word ecclesia with the English word church.

1. “Church:” An Odd Translation

In every modern English translation of which I am aware, the word “church” is used to translate the Greek word ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία, pronounced “ek-klay-SEE-uh”). But“church” is not a translation of ecclesia. It is a modern word, loaded with centuries of baggage. It has very little to do with ecclesia.

When translating, from one language to another there are two basic choices. Translation and transliteration.

1. Translation

Obviously, this is the norm. We come up with a word in the new language that is as close as possible to the word in the old language.

A good translation of ἐκκλησία is the word “assembly.” We find this translation in the book of Acts.

So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together.

But if you want anything beyond this, it shall be settled in the lawful assembly.

After saying this he dismissed the assembly. Acts 19:32, 39, 41 (NASB)

The word translated “assembly” here is ecclesia. It describes the people who have been called to assemble.

2. Transliteration

Sometimes there is no word in the new language to capture the meaning of the word in the old language. In this case, translators sometimes give up and simply transliterate the word. What this means is they use letters from the new language to make the sound of the word in the old language.

An example of this is the word “baptize.” The Greek word Βαπτίζω simply means to dip, or immerse. In John 13:26, Jesus dips a morsel of bread in a cup. He didn’t “baptize” the morsel int the cup. But βαπτίζω is also used with a religious meaning that is not captured by the English word “dip.” So in many places, the translators kept the Greek word, forcing you to ask what it baptize means.

The transliteration of ἐκκλησία is ecclesia. Now here is something very interesting:

When the Bible was translated into Latin in the fourth century, the word ἐκκλησία was transliterated. Why was it not translated? There were Latin words that expressed the meaning of ecclesia very well (contio or comitia). The reason is that by the fourth century, Rome had an agenda.

If the word had been translated, readers would have thought of the ecclesia as an assembly. But when a Latin reader came across the strange Greek word “ecclesia” they were forced to ask what it meant. The answer was, Ecclesia is the Church of Rome.

Tyndale, the first to translate the Bible from Greek to English (1526), consistently used the word “congregation.” For this, among other things, he was strangled and burned at the stake. It is best not to challenge gravitational centers.

Other English translations followed Tyndale’s lead. The Coverdale Bible (1535), Matthew’s Bible (1537) and the Great Bible (1539) all used the word  “congregation” for ecclesia.

The Geneva Bible (1560) and the King James Version (1611) both use the word “church.” But wait! The word “church” is neither a translation nor a transliteration. What is the origin of this strange new word?

The answer is not easy. Origins of the word “church: are obscure and debated. But here are a few of the threads.

  • The Greek word kyriakon meaning “the Lord’s” is used in two places in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:20 “the Lord’s Supper” and Revelation 1:10 “The Lord’s Day”).
  • The Greek word kyriakon “the Lord’s” has been used of houses of Christian worship since about 300. A.D., though this is not especially common.
  • Words that sound like “church” have been used in various forms over the centuries throughout Europe. For example, cirice, kirika, zerke, kerke, and Kirche, among others. The lines are hard to follow and the meanings are not clear.
  • According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “after the Reformation, ‘church’ was used for any particular Christian denomination agreeing on doctrine and forms of worship.”

Whatever its origins, one thing is certain, the word “church” is neither a translation nor a transliteration of ecclesia. To most people it brings to mind the institution created by Rome in the fourth century along with its centuries of baggage. We are far afield from the simple word ecclesia.

But if “church” does not convey the meaning of ἐκκλησία, what shall we do with it?

What Should Be Done with the Word “Church”

I agonized over this. The word is so entrenched that I considered keeping it. But the more I wrestled with it, the more I realized “church” is actually a very useful word to describe the human institution that started with Rome and has usurped God’s ecclesia. History happily supplies us an extra-biblical word to describe an extra-biblical institution.

So I don’t object to the word “church.” I use it to describe a human institution that sprang up in the 4th century. My only objection is the use of “church” as a translation of ἐκκλησία. It is no such thing.

Why I Chose to Transliterate ἐκκλησία

I thought about using an English word like “assembly” to translate ἐκκλησία. But “assembly” made me think of school assemblies. Other words, like “gathering,” “meeting,” and “get-together” are all too mundane. What the Bible means by ecclesia is as earth-shattering as Copernicus’ discovery.

I have decided it is best simply to transliterate the word ἐκκλησία. The beauty of a transliteration is that it forces the question, “What do you mean by ecclesia?” This is exactly the question we should be asking. As you know by now, I do not answer this by referring to a human institution.

“But wait!” you might object. “Don’t we see the beginnings of a human institution in the New Testament?” Well, yes, though not to the degree often assumed. Let’s turn our attention from the word “church” to the human organization it describes.

2. Church: A Sketchy Past

Ecclesia in the New Testament

Next week I will focus completely on the meaning of ecclesia. But here is a preview.

The most important thing about ecclesia is that it is not a human organization. It is God gathering of all things back to unity with himself and into harmony with one another. Ecclesia is a universal triumph.

To understand what Jesus meant by “building his ecclesia,” we must consider what Jesus built by his life and ministry.

Jesus’ teachings were extremely personalized, specific to each individual. The woman at the well received a very different prescription than the demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs. The man at the pool of Bethesda had a very different encounter with Jesus than the Centurion who came begging Jesus to heal his daughter. Jesus had a unique relationship with each disciple.

There is no way to reduce Jesus’ varied encounters with human beings into a “plan of salvation.” Each person is unique and Jesus chooses the medicine each soul needs carefully for each patient.  This is why Jesus didn’t leave the disciples with a creed or a discipleship method but with the living Spirit who would “guide each person into all truth.”

So Christ’s “building his church” describes a mind-boggling array of individual works in individual people. This cannot be systematized. It is to be set loose. Each person must listen and obey for herself.

Paul is also very wide in his understanding of ecclesia—too wide for his own good. He was nearly killed on several occasions for telling Jewish people that their religion didn’t save anyone, that a person only needed to to trust Jesus.

Paul became “all things to all people.” He let Jews be Jews and the Greeks be Greeks. He understood that the Master’s ways differed in each person’s life. Salvation meant pointing people to the Master, not putting them through a discipleship maker.

God is the author and sustainer of ecclesia. There is only one ecclesia. In the New Testament, it is always referred to as the church in _____. It is God’s, not man’s.

It is perfectly possible to plant a human organization called a church but no one ever plants ecclesia. You may as well try to plant a star.

The vision is of ecclesia in the New Testament is breathtaking in its scope.

He put all things in subjection under Christ’s feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22-23)

This is no human institution. It is a Divine ingathering, God, calling all creation out, calling all creation back. It is as diverse as creation itself. As part of that creation, our role is simple: Go home. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself.

More on this next week. But back to the issue: Don’t we see the beginnings of a human institution in the New Testament?

The Movement from Ecclesia Toward Church in the New Testament

The Bible is an honest book. It doesn’t paper things over. Every character in the Bible is deeply flawed. In the same way, Scripture does not hesitate to tell us what really happened, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

So when it comes to grasping the meaning of the Bible for today, it is necessary to ask whether a given occurrence is descriptive or prescriptive. In other words, is the recorded event meant as an example to follow? Or is it a warning? Or is it just something that happened that we need to know about?

As time went on, gatherings of Christians became more institutionalized. This is seen in the later books of the New Testament, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, the final writings of Paul (or of his disciples). The question is whether these later writings are meant as a template. Do they reveal progress or decay?

The way I see it, the goal is to get as close to Jesus’ instructions as possible. There is nothing in the life or teachings of Jesus to indicate that he desired his followers to form a human institution, managed by experts. This is the very kind of thing Jesus objected to most while he was on earth. This is the system of the Scribes and Pharisees.

Also, if it was God’s intention to work through a human institution, why would God not define the institution more clearly? The so-called blueprint for the church in the New Testament is difficult to make out. Why else would there be such a vast array of differing structures in churches and denominations, each claiming to follow the blueprint?

No. Jesus never intended for the wideness and freedom of ecclesia to be confined to a human organization of any design. It was meant to be set loose, like salt in food, like yeast in dough, like light in the darkness.

But if there are traces of the movement toward a human institution in the New Testament, there was a landslide in the fourth century.

The Landslide from Ecclesia to Church After the New Testment

The Catholic Church

Christianity in the first three centuries was extremely diverse. It was held together, not by churches and creeds, but by God’s Spirit. It was a triumph of love and tolerance. It swept through the world like a whirlwind.

In the 4th century, Rome recognized the power of this new movement and harnessed its power for her own purposes. It began by Constantine taking the cross as a symbol of battle and waging war in Jesus’ name. The disconnect here is mind-boggling. This is the complete opposite of Jesus’ life and teachings. Jesus waged war with love, not swords. The cross was a rejection of domination by force, not the symbol of it.

Next came the need to bring order to the “chaos” of differing opinions. The freedom and wildness of the God’s Spirit in the world was forced into a mold. Councils were conferred. The canon was closed. Dissenters were branded as heretics and exiled or martyred.

Soon rites and ritual became associated with the new mono-form set of beliefs. Increasingly, the Christian life became defined as participation in these rites. The transfer from ecclesia to church was complete. Ecclesia was no longer the love of God drawing all people into oneness with God and harmony with each other. It was a human institution conquering the world with crosses painted on armor, baptizing converts by force, insisting on adherence to a creed.

The Reformation

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther sparked the Reformation. The Catholic church no longer held a monopoly on the church. But the Reformation was not a return to the New Testament idea of ecclesia. It was the replacement of one church with another. Soon, people were reforming Luther’s church. This quickly mushroomed into thousands of churches, each claiming to be the one pure church.

The church in a state of permanent civil war. Everyone agreed that church was central. But which one? Ask a Catholic and they’ll say Catholic. Ask a Baptist and they’ll say Baptist. Ask a Lutheran and they’ll say Lutheran.

Christians love to paint ancient Rome as the great persecutor of Christians. But the greatest persecutor of Christians is not Rome. Not by a long shot. The greatest persecutor of Christians is the church. Rome has slain its thousands. The church has has slain its tens of thousands, even millions, all in the name of Jesus. What would Jesus do? Weep!

At present, the warfare is mainly bloodless. But the lines drawn by churches still tear us apart. Based on each church’s creed, some are proclaimed “insiders” and the rest “outsiders.” The church does not conquer in the name of love but in the name of orthodoxy. The Spirit sits on the sidelines.

What is needed is not a “true church” to emerge from this mess. What is needed is the complete abandonment of the idea of church and a return to Jesus’ vision of ecclesia. But in order for this to happen, the church’s outrageous claim must be exposed.

3. Church: An Outrageous Claim

Here is the statement of Scripture.

Christ is the head of the ecclesia, which is His Body. (Ephesians 1:22-23)

Here is the claim of the church.

The Church is the ecclesia, which is Christ’s Body.

Please examine these statements carefully. They look almost identical but they are universes apart.

The false assumption of the church is the claim to be the ecclesia. This idea is so ingrained in our thinking that we don’t even question it. Once this idea is granted, there is no choice but to sort through the myriads of organizations which claim to be “the true church” and swear your allegiance.

This brings us back to the dilemma I felt so painfully when I left the church. How could I be a Christian if I didn’t love the church. After all,

Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her. (Ephesians 5:25)

I was married to the church. Divorce was not an option.

My pain was cause entirely by the the assumption that the church is what the Bible means by ecclesia, that every time the Bible uses the word ecclesia, it refers to the human institution that sprang from Rome in the 4th century.

But neither Jesus nor the apostles could have meant this. The church and its methods are the complete opposite of Jesus’ teachings.

An Invitation

By ecclesia, Jesus meant something very different than what we mean by church. But what is this? That is the focus of next week. I hope you’ll join me. You’ll feel like a child who has been confined to a tiny room being given permission to go outside to run in a field.

P.S. I must say again that my views on church are not denials of the admirable faith of so many who attend church. I love the people who attend church and I am grateful for them. In fact, two weeks from today I will focus on the good things that happen in church. But I will show that these things happen because of ecclesia, not church.

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