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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15


“Church”, “Assembly”, or “Congregation”?

Dr. Thomas Cassidy

San Diego, California

© 1997 by the Author

There has been much controversy of late regarding the proper translation of the Greek word ekklasia into English. Actually, "of late" is probably not entirely accurate. William Tyndale, in his New Testament in English, first published in 1526, consistently translates "ekklasia" as "congregation" (including the references to a city assembly meeting in Acts 19:32; 39; & 41).

John Calvin, in his Geneva Bible, first published in 1560 in Geneva (at the time, Geneva was an independent city-state, and did not become part of Switzerland until 1815), uses the word "church" consistently, with the exception of the references to the city assembly in Acts, where he uses the word "assembly." The King James Bible consistently uses the word "church" except in Acts 19, where it also translates "ekklasia" as "assembly."

There has been much discussion of late as to the accuracy of the word "church" and whether or not the correct translation should have been "assembly" or "congregation." Professor Ron Minton, of the Bible Baptist Graduate School of Theology, is of the opinion, expressed in private letters to me, that the word "church" in the King James Bible is the result of the translators caving into the ecclesiastical authority of the Church of England, and maintaining the old ecclesiastical terms, to avoid using a word that violates the monolithic structure of Anglican ecclesiology. Others have stated similar opinions.

There is no doubt that King James the 1st of England did charge the translators: "That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek, and this to be set out and printed without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches of England in time of divine services."

I must note that James' restriction against marginal notes most probably arose from the very anti-Monarchy nature of the Geneva Bible's marginal notes.

King James went on to say:

"The ordinary Bible read in the church, commonly called the Bishop's Bible to be followed and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit."

"The old ecclesiastical words to be kept..."

Of course, as we now know, the KJV translation committees did not fully heed the Kings admonitions, and proceeded to produce an honest and authoritative Bible, complete with marginal notes.

So, if the KJV translation committees felt free to disregard the Kings admonition in one area, why did they not feel free to disregard the King in the area of the "old ecclesiastical words"?

I think the answer is simple. The "old ecclesiastical words" are, in fact, the best words to use to properly understand the Greek words in question for the English speaking people of the early 17th century.

Let us now look at the meaning of the English word "church" and determine its etymology and philology.

Etymology is the study of the origin and historical development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements, earliest known use, and changes in form and meaning, tracing its transmission from one language to another, identifying its cognates in other languages, and reconstructing its ancestral form where possible.

Philology is the literary study of classical or historical linguistics. The study of linguistic change over time in language or in a particular language or language family, sometimes including the reconstruction of unattested forms of earlier stages of a language.

The etymological meaning of the word "ekklasia" is clearly "called out assembly" (the Greek preposition ek - "out of" and the verb kaleo - "I call").

However, we must also look at the philological meaning of the word "ekklasia" to determine how the word was used in classical literature.

Scott and Liddel (A Greek-English Lexicon: page 206) define "ekklasia" as "an assembly of the citizens summoned by the crier; the legislative assembly."

Seyffert (A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities) defines "ekklasia" as "the assembly of the people, which in Greek cities had the power of final decision in public affairs."

There are many historical literary cites supporting this classical meaning of the word "ekklasia" from Thucydides (2,22) and Demosthenes (378,24).

But, what about the Biblical usage of the term "ekklasia"? Does the usage of the term in the Bible differ from the etymological and philological usage of the word? Yes, in my opinion, it does. The primary difference affecting the Biblical usage of the word "ekklasia" is that, with three notable exceptions in Acts chapter 19, the word is used to indicate that which belongs to "The Lord."

Notice Jesus' statement in Matthew 16:18, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." The word "my" makes it very clear that Jesus is not referring to just any assembly or congregation of people, but to an assembly or congregation that belongs to Him. The hermeneutical principle of "first mention" requires that we seriously consider this to be the defining illustration of the meaning of the word "church."

If we look at the three English words that have been proposed to render "ekklasia" into English, we can see the wisdom of the KJV translation committee members.

Assembly: (Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press)

I. The action or fact of assembling, the state of being assembled.

1. Gathering together, meeting; the state of being collected or gathered.

2. The coming together of two persons or things; meeting, conjunction, union.

3. Hostile meeting, onslaught, attack. (One of my associates, with a rather strange sense of humor suggested this to be an historical reference to Baptist church business meetings!)

II. The company assembled.

4. A gathering of persons, a number of people met together; a concourse, throng.

5. A gathering of persons for the purpose of deliberation and decision; a deliberative body, a legislative council.

6. A gathering of persons for religious worship; a congregation.

7. A gathering of persons for the purpose of social entertainment.

8. A collection of things.

III. A military call by drum or bugle.

As you can see, the English word "assembly" falls far short of the true meaning of "The Lord's" assembly or congregation. In fact, even the one cite above that mentions religious worship (6) fails to identify what religion and who is being worshipped. The meaning assigned by cite number 5, including as it does the reference to a legislative body, completely contradicts the Lord's churches as executive in nature (administering the laws already given) as opposed to legislative, that is, the making of new laws, which the Lord's churches are forbidden to do.

The Oxford English Dictionary assigns similar generic definitions to the word "congregation."

1. The act of congregating or collecting in one body or mass.

2. The result of congregating, a gathering, assemblage or company.

3. A regular meeting or assembly of a society or body.

4. A collective body of colleagues, a company.

5. & 6. are references to Bible usages by Wycliff and Tyndale.

7. A body of persons assembled for religious worship or to hear a preacher.

8. (Scottish history) The designation given to the Party of Protestant Reformers during the reign of Queen Mary.

9. A community or order bound together by a common rule.

10. The name given to several permanent committees of the Roman College of Cardinals.

However, the same OED, under the entry reading "Church" gives the following information:

The word "church" is derived from the Dutch word "kirk" or the German "kirke" both of which have their etymological roots in the Greek word "kuriakos", defined by Arndt and Gengrich in their "Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature" as meaning "belonging to the Lord, or the Lord's."

So, as we can see, the word "assembly" can mean any assembly. Anybody can assemble. It could be an assembly of football fans in a stadium, an assembly of perverts at the "gay rights" parade, or an assembly of drunks at the local gin mill!

Also, the word "congregation" can mean any congregation. Any people can congregate anywhere. In San Diego the homeless tend to congregate around the downtown mall known as Horton Plaza. The local police officers tend to congregate at the donut shop, and the sodomites congregate in the "gay" bars in Hillcrest, as the prostitutes congregate along El Cajon Boulevard between 30th and 40th streets (or so I have been told, as I have absolutely no first hand knowledge of this whatsoever! Really! Honest!).

However, the word "church," with its historical meaning of "belonging to the Lord" clearly distinguishes just any assembly, or just any congregation from "the Lord's" assembly or congregation, the true church of the New Testament.

Once again, our English Bible has proved itself superior in the face of attacks from those who would deny the authority and perfection of that Monarch of Books, the King James Bible!

God Bless, and think about it!