Some online discussions and recent articles I’ve run across on the Internet prompted this little piece on the term ekklesia, or church. It’s a bit long, but I decided to stick with my original decision to post it here. On my website are two modern examples of changed meanings.
Remember the word “conversation” in the KJV, in such passages as Eph 4:22, Php 1:27 and Heb 13:5? In 1611 the word retained its etymological meaning of “manner of life” (see ESV in these texts). See this dictionary entry for the term:
mid-14c., from O.Fr. conversation, from L. conversationem (nom. conversatio) “act of living with,” prp. of conversari “to live with, keep company with,” lit. “turn about with,” from L. com- intens. prefix + vertare, freq. of vertere (see versus). Originally “having dealings with others,” also “manner of conducting oneself in the world;” specific sense of “talk” is 1580. Used as a synonym for “sexual intercourse” from at least 1511, hence criminal conversation, legal term for adultery from late 18c.
But no Bible version today translates these passages with the word “conversation,” nor should they. Because the meaning of the word today (or any word, for that matter) does not necessarily have to do with its etymology. Etymology (the original meaning when the word was formed) does not determine meaning. Current usage determines what a word means, and no one today uses “conversation” to talk about manner of life.
Now go to the word “church.” Its etymology is “called out.” But that is not is meaning. Does that mean the church is not called out from the world? No, that truth is well established in Scripture. First Peter 2:9 says,
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (ESV).
But this theological truth does not inhere in the word ekklesia, or “church.” Remember, etymology does not determine meaning.
What does the term mean, then? See Acts 19:39, 41, where the secular use of the term refers to an assembly or gathering of people.
The ekklesia of God picks up its usage from the Old Testament people of Israel, called the “congregation of Israel,” reflected in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:38. This language use considered Israel a “congregation” or “community,” whether they were actually assembled or not. It became a figurative use for the people of God, a “people with shared belief, community, congregation” (BGAD).
Thus, Luke moves seamlessly from the “church” of Israel in Acts 7:38 to the “church” of Christ in 8:1 to the “church” of the citizens of Ephesus in 19:39, 41.
What is, then, the church? When a person read the word in the Greek language, he would never think of a “called-out” group, since this meaning did not, in the first century, inhere in the word. He would think of a gathering, a congregation of people, a community united around a shared belief or, in the case of the saints, around the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as we never think of a lyre when we speak of lyrics, or nor of death or destruction when using the word “qualms.”
Let us use Bible words in the sense of the language it uses. Church is congregation, assembly, community.