The Meaning of Church

 

In this series on the study of church, we began with a look at some questions regarding the common understanding/misunderstanding for the usage of the word church.  Then we looked at some modern conceptions of church, or what has come to be some traditional definitions of church.  Here, we will add another layer to that by asking if our societal usage of church corresponds with it’s meaning.  Next time we’ll explore the relationship between church and it’s original Greek counterpart, ekklesia.

Recall that in our previous post, we summarized some of the more common societal uses of church as follows:

  • A religious building
  • A religious organization (may or may not be truly Christian)
  • A religious meeting
  • A religious people
  • A religious institution
  • A recurring religious event
  • A particular religious denomination
  • A tax-exempt religious business

We turn now to the origin and meaning of church.

The origin of our English word church is difficult to pin down.  Some state it is a derivative of the Greek word kurios, which we often find translated as Lord.  Following this theory, the specific derivation of this word, kuriakon in Revelation1:10, is of particular interest (see also 1 Corinthians 11:20).  Here we see John was in the Spirit on the “Lord’s Day”, kuriakon hemera, or the day that belongs to the Lord. As most words do, kuriakon underwent some changes when it was imported (transliterated – alphabetic equivalence) into other languages, first being shortened to kuriak.  Then depending on the dialect differences became kurk and eventually kirk (Scottish origin).  Once in English, kirk became church.  So, in summary kuriakon eventually became “church” and generally means belonging to the Lord.

Similarly, another theory is the relationship between church and kuriakos, a compound word of kurios (lord) and oikos (house) and came to mean the “house of the Lord”.  One can see that this meaning could have a dual application, both spiritually as a people comprising the house of the Lord and architecturally, i.e. a building, as in similarity to the temple of God in the Old Testament.  Logically, this is why some church buildings have a “sanctuary”.

However, others have disagreed with these etymologies stating instead that the origin of church is not rooted in Greek, but is Celtic and is derived from the word “cyrch”, or circle, and that this is how we arrived at kirk upon which church is derived following the pattern in the previous two theories.

Along this same line of thought, in the German world, the origin of church is sometimes traced through such words as kirche and kerk, derived from the Latin circa, circumcicare, circulus, even circus!  (Has your experience with church been a circus?!?)  It should be pointed out that Martin Luther disliked the word kirche, using it sparingly in his translation of the Scriptures, in reference to pagan shrines in the Old Testament and the dedication feast at the temple in John 10:22.  He preferred “the congregation of the saints as the people or company of God.” (TDNT, Kittle, pg. 534)   In the revised Lutheran Bible and its related concordance, the word kirche (church), is not found at all.

Regardless of the exact origin, it’s clear that church generally means belonging to the Lord, either as a reference to His people or a particular place of worship.  Clearly, church carries with it a religious connotation, as noted in its meaning and confirmed in our societal uses listed above.

So far so good, right?

It’s easy to see the relationship of society’s usage of church to its meaning.  Perhaps some expansion of the meaning has led to some misapplication of the word, as in applying it to a people/building that do not belong to the Lord in a salvific sense, but this is not entirely unusual.  In other words, societies usage and understanding of the word church corresponds with its accepted meaning, generally speaking.

The question that needs to be asked next is whether this word church, as properly defined, is an appropriate translation of the Greek word ekklesia.

 

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