The Kingdom of God: Defining Your Terms

Matthew 28:16-20, ESV

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

From Disciple the Nations, by Stephen C. Perks

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Church (kyrikon)

TheRe are problems with the use of the English word church. We use the word in a variety of ways to mean different things, usually without defining what we mean by it and very often without even being aware ourselves that we are using the same term in different ways to refer to different things. This leads to confused thinking and consequently to misunderstanding. In order to avoid these problems we need to understand something of the etymology and history of the word and its use, and we need to be careful in our use of the term to make sure that we understand ourselves and indicate clearly to others what we mean by it.

The English word church comes from the Old English cirice or circe, which is derived from the Greek word kyrikon, meaning God’s house, a popular fourth-century form of the Greek word kyriakon, an adjective meaning imperial, of the lord. This Greek word was used of “the Lord’s house” (to kyriakon doma).1 The English word church is derived, via this route, from the Greek adjective kyriakos.2 This adjective is used only twice in the New Testament, however, and in neither instance does it have reference to the Greek word ecclesia, which is the word usually translated as church in English translations of the Bible. In 1 Cor. 11:20 it is used of the Lord’s Supper, and in Rev. 1:10 it is used of the Lord’s day. Nowhere in the New Testament is this term used to refer to the Lord’s house. Strictly speaking therefore, the notion or concept of the church is not part of the new covenant—though it is of course part of the old covenant, i.e. the Temple. The concept of the church—i.e. a building and its appurtenances, set apart as a special sanctuary for Christian worship—is not found in the New Testament and is not a feature of the new covenant.

In his translation of the New Testament William Tyndale did not use the word church to translate the Greek word ecclesia and rendered it more accurately throughout as congregation. Nowhere in Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament do we find the word church used of the assembly or community of believers.3 The New Testament does not identify the ecclesia as the house of the Lord, i.e. a building and its appurtenances, but as the people of God, a covenant community called out of the world of sin and unbelief into fellowship with God as his holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). Unfortunately, subsequent translations of the Bible into English, including the Geneva Bible, did not follow Tyndale’s lead in this matter and mistranslated the Greek word ecclesia as church.

The English word church is used in most English translations of the Bible to translate the Greek word ecclesia. This is a mistranslation since the ecclesia is not a building but an assembly of the people constituted as a body politic (see §2 “Assembly” below). There were, strictly speaking therefore, no Christian churches in the New Testament; believers met in their homes or in other places, but there were no specially designated buildings set apart for Christian worship. There was the Temple of course, and there were synagogues, where the first Jewish Christians probably worshipped on the sabbath, but they were soon obliged to leave these, and they worshipped elsewhere on the Lord’s day, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, and Gentile Christians never worshipped in the synagogues. Originally, however, the term synagogue did not refer to a building either, but to a gathering of people, an assembly (from the Greek word synago, meaning to gather together), and was used of local communities of Jews who met together on the sabbath for worship, instruction in the law and for educational and social purposes. That is to say, it referred to people, a community, not to a building, and only came to signify a building at a later date because of its use as a metonym for the building in which the community met. It was exactly the opposite with the term church; that is to say, the building, which is properly called a church from the etymological point of view, came to signify the community of Christians that met in it.

According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Eighth Edition, 1990) the English word church can mean: 1. a building for public worship, 2. a meeting for public worship in such a building; then, with the first letter capitalised (Church), 3. the body of all Christians, 4. the clergy or clerical profession, 5. an organised Christian group or society of any time, country, or distinct principles of worship, 6. institutionalised religion as a political or social force.

In this book I use the word Church, with the first letter capitalised, to refer to what is predominantly understood by the term in common usage, i.e. the liturgical institution with its rituals, discipline and bureaucracy governed by clergymen (not all modern denominations use the term clergyman, but the concept to which the word refers is endemic in all of them).

Assembly (ecclesia)

The correct translation of the Greek word ecclesia is assembly not church. The word ecclesia, which is usually and incorrectly translated as church in most English versions of the Bible, is derived from a Greek verb (eccaleo) meaning to call out or summon forth.4 The noun, ecclesia, is a political term meaning an assembly of the citizens regularly summoned, the legislative assembly.5 The ecclesia was, from the fifth century b.c., the assembly of the demos in Athens and most Greek city States,6 the demos being the classical Greek term for “the people as organized into a body politic.”7 In its use of the term ecclesia, therefore, the New Testament stresses not only that members of the body of Christ are called out of the world of sin and unbelief, but also that they are called into participation in a new political organism, a new community or society, with its own distinctive social order: the Kingdom of God. The members of the Lord Jesus Christ’s assembly, his ecclesia, constitute a holy nation under one Lord who is sovereign over the whole of life. In claiming Christ as Lord, therefore, Christians declare allegiance to a new King whose jurisdiction is total and whose law is to govern all human thoughts, actions and relationships with all other people and things.

The word ecclesia is a political term not a cultic term; i.e. it is not a term denoting the meeting of a group of people united by their devotion to a particular deity and the maintenance and promotion of his cultus. There were many words available to denote such cultic groups in classical Greek culture and literature, which the authors of the New Testament could have used to identify the assembly of Christians primarily as a cultic group devoted to maintaining the cult of Jesus. But the New Testament, written by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does not use such words of the assemblies of Christians. The New Testament does not identify the ecclesia, the assembly of those who serve the Lord Jesus Christ, as a mystery cult, but as the assembly of the citizens of a new political order, the Kingdom of God, and the purpose of their assembling together is to equip the members of the assembly in their calling to proclaim in word and deed the good news of the Kingdom of God to the whole world, until all the nations of the earth have submitted to the Lord Jesus Christ as his disciples.

Nation (ethnos)

The Greek word ethnos, which is translated as nation in English Bibles means, according to Abbot-Smith, “1. a multitude, a company, whether of beasts or men (Hom.). 2. a nation, people . . . 3. In pl. as in the O[old] T[estament] . . . the nations, as distinct from Israel, Gentiles.”8 According to Liddell and Scott it means “a number of people living together, a company, body of men . . . a band of comrades …a host of men…and of particular tribes… and of animals . . . swarms, flocks etc. 2. After Hom., a nation, people . . . in the N.T. and Eccl. . . . the nations, Gentiles, i.e. all except Jews and Christians . . . 3. a particular class of men, a caste, tribe.9 According to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament it means “‘a mass’ or ‘host’ or ‘multitude’ bound by the same manners, customs or other distinctive features. Applied to men it gives us the sense of people; but it can be used of animals in the sense of ‘herd’ or of insects in the sense of ‘swarm’ . . . In most cases [ethnos] is used of men in the sense of a ‘people.’ ” Compared with other words such as laos (“people as a political unity with a common history and constitution”) and glossa (“people as a linguistic unity”) ethnos “is the most general and therefore the weakest of these terms, having simply an ethnographical sense and denoting the natural cohesion of a people in general.”10 Ethnos does not mean State. It is a much broader and wider concept than merely the State. Of interest also is the statement in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament that the word ethnos probably comes from the Greek word ethos, which means habit, use, custom, cultic ordinance, law.11 An ethnos, a nation, in this sense means a company of men bound by the same customs, laws, cultic ordinances, habits etc.

It is clear from this why the New Testament, although it never refers to the body of Christ, the Christian community, as a church (kyrikon) but rather primarily as an assembly (ecclesia), also refers to the body of Christ as a nation (ethnos, 1 Pet. 2:9) and addresses the nation of Christ with the same words that Moses addressed the nation of Israel in Ex. 19:6 (cf. Lev. 20:26; Dt. 7:6; Rev. 1:6, 5:10).

1 The German word for church, kirche, shares the same etymology. Compare, however, the French, église, the Spanish, iglesia, and the Italian, chiesa, which are all derived from the Greek word ecclesia.

2 H. D. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1901), p. 862a; Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), Vol. III, p. 532 n. 92.

3 At Acts 19:37, for example, he uses the word churches, but the Greek word that he is translating is hierosylous, i.e. robbers of temples, sacrilegious persons, not ecclesia, and refers to a building and its appurtenances, not the assembly of the Christian community.

4 Liddel and Scott, op. cit., p. 434b.

5 Ibid., p. 435a.

6 Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedhrich, op. cit., Vol. III, p 513.

7 J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1901), p. 132.

8 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986), p. 129.

9 Liddel and Scott, op. cit, p. 412a.

10 Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 369. 11 Ibid., 372f.

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Recall that bit when Jesus said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”?

I hear it’s on the test.

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