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What is "church" according to the scriptures?

(Garth D. Wiebe, Sep 2012, last edit Oct 2016)

What the word means.

Today in modern Western culture the word "church" can mean a number of things:

1. A body of believers in Christ.
2. Any assembling of people part of the body of believers in Christ.
3. A building.
4. An institution, organization, sect, or denomination.

This post shows that the scriptures only make sense for #1 above, #2 is what #1 will naturally do, because of who they all are, #3 is impossible, and there is no record of #4 occurring in the scriptures.

The Greek word from which the English word "church" is *always* translated is εκκλησια (Strong's G1577, "ekklesia") which is a combination of εκ (Strong's G1537, "ek") which means "out," and κλησια ("klesia"), which is based on the irregular verb/noun/adjective "καλεω/κλησις/κλητος" (Strong's G2564/G2821/G2822, "kaleo/klesis/kletos") which means "call/calling/called." That's the verb "call" as in "I call you," the noun "calling," as in "You have a calling," or the adjective "called," as in "we are the called ones." The -ια suffix in in Koine Greek works just like the English -ia suffix in English words, which generalizes it into a class designation.

εκκλησια ("ekklesia") is always used as a noun, which means "out-calling" (a group or class of people "called out" for some purpose).

That's all it means. It is a secular term with no intrinsic spiritual or religious meaning. In Acts 19, there is the account of the riot in Ephesus, after Demetrius the silversmith and his fellow craftsmen got the whole city into an uproar. The word εκκλησια is used three times there, each time translated "assembly" (but just think "out-calling"):

"32 The assembly [εκκλησια] was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. 33 The Jews pushed Alexander to the front, and some of the crowd shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. 34 But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: 'Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!' 35 The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: 'Men of Ephesus, doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? 36 Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash. 37 You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. 38 If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. 39 If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly [εκκλησια]. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today's events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.' After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly [εκκλησια]" (Acts 19:32-41, NIV'84)

So, was the mob of people "called-out" by Demetrius the silversmith and the idol-craftsmen a "church"? Was the assembly of "out-called" proconsuls in a courtroom that the city clerk said they should appeal to a "church"?

In the places where it is used, εκκλησια just means those who are called out (for whatever reason).

In the context of the scriptures, this secular term is used in the New Testament to refer to a those who are "out-called," called out from the world into the Kingdom of God by Jesus.

Once again, things get really simple. Any time you read the word "church" in God's Word, if you mentally just re-translate and think "out-calling" instead of assuming the modern, religiously loaded term "church," then things get easier to picture.

Definition #2 (assembling of Christians) is just one of the things that the "out-calling" of God naturally do, because of the fact that they are "out-called." συνερχομαι ("sun-erchomai") = "together-come" or "come together" is sometimes used with εκκλησια, such as in 1 Cor 11:18-20 and 1 Cor 14:23, and is actually also at the end of the sentence of Acts 19:32 above (the NIV translates it loosely; it more literally says they "didn't even know why they had come together.")

Definition #3 (a building) is impossible, because it doesn't make any sense. A physical building cannot be called out from the world into the Kingdom of God. The building is physical structure that you buy with money, build with manual labor, and which is guaranteed to deteriorate; eventually it will burn up (2 Pet 3:10). You can have a building, and the building can serve the "out-calling," but the "out-calling" do not serve the building, and the building isn't the "out-calling." So you can never call a building "a church" in the sense that the Bible defines "church" = εκκλησια.

Definition #4 (an institution) doesn't apply either, and has no precedent in the scriptures. If it is, for example, a U.S. IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit "charitable organization," then that is perhaps "out-called" according to the secular civil authorities for tax and other legal purposes, but not out from the world to the Kingdom of God, which is not of this world. If it is a denomination or other exclusive group, however big or small, then this can't be called a "church" either, because the implication is that a group of believers are "out-called" from among the believers who are "out-called" from this world into Kingdom of God. So who "called out" those "out-called" from among the "out-called"? God or men? It doesn't make sense, and there is no precedent for that in the scriptures.

This is not to say that you can't form organizations that serve the "out-called" people of the Kingdom of God. There is nothing wrong with that. It just means that you can't really call these organizations "church" or "a church" in a truly biblical, scriptural sense. The key point is that these organizations are not the "out-calling" that the Christian scriptures refer to. They can serve the "out-calling." But they aren't the "out-calling." The institutions should be there to serve the body of Christ. The body of Christ is not there to serve the institutions.

Christians are the "out-calling" = εκκλησια (church), and they meet together ("sun-erchomai" = "together-come" = come together) because of the fact that they are "out-called," and because of who they have in common who "called" them "out."

Even the officially appointed positions, such as elders, deacons ("deacons" = "diakonos" = servants), apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/teachers, etc., are there to serve the "out-calling." That's what Eph 4:12 says: "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up." The "out-called" are not there to serve them. They are there to serve the "out-called."

That is the way that things started with the "church," according to the scriptures. What happened?

The big shift in thinking "happened" when emperor Constantine of Rome in the 4th century was "converted" to Christianity and made it the official state religion. From that point on, mass institutionalization began. The underground "church" in Rome suddenly went from being brutally persecuted to politically and economically privileged. Grand buildings were constructed, official appointments of people with official titles were granted, official structure and official programs were put into place, and this remained after the political fall of Rome, leaving what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church. The buildings, the clergy-laity system and structures of religion remained, and the religion of "Rome" was widely established as the one true "Church." Since that religious institution was identified as the "out-calling" of scripture, then it was said that there was no salvation apart from one's membership in that institution (the "Roman Catholic Church"). The institution became "The Church."

Now this is important to recognize: A thousand years later, various individuals such as Wycliff, Hus, Luther, and etc. "protested" certain official doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and attempted to "reform" it. That's why we call it the "Protestant Reformation." However, these men were Roman Catholic clergymen and initially only intended to "reform" the institution. They saw wrong things being taught and wrong things being done, and supposed that once they communicated their insights to their superiors in the institution and proved them from the scriptures, that their superiors would just recognize the truth for what it was, repent of the abuses, and officially administrate corresponding change within the institution.

Of course, they did not. They labeled the reformers as heretics and condemned them. Why? Because they themselves were "superiors" in an institution that they were devoted to. Their institution was more important to them than truth and scripture, and they expected these lesser, "protest-ant" clergymen to recant and conform to the top-down authority of the institution, which they considered "out-called" of God.

When these men were rejected by the Roman Catholic Church, they and their followers set out to establish various institutions and denominations of their own that followed their "reformed" ideas of how that institution (the Roman Catholic Church) should instead operate.

But they never really wiped the slate clean. They never questioned the institutional mindset itself. So many things remained. The clergy-laity system still put clergy superior to and lording over the laity. The concept of "church" meant a physical building that you would go to, minimally once a week, as a substitute for Roman Catholic mass. The "church service" was often still a stage performance with an audience, a production with prescribed program elements by the clergy, a drama for which the players auditioned for, were trained, rehearsed, and then the production was performed in the prescribed manner. The clergy was active, the laity passive. The laity served the clergy with money and attendance. The clergy, to various degrees, some more, some less, still lorded over the laity and controlled them.

Now, obviously, the "reformers" replaced the "priest" with a "pastor," "Holy Eucharist" with "communion," "catechism" with "Sunday school," infant baptism with "baby dedication," "confirmation" with "believer's baptism," and so on. But the formalities of religious tradition and protocol ("this is the way it has always been done") persisted.

In modern Western culture, hundreds of years later, "churches" can mostly be classified as either "Catholic" or "Protestant," but the "Protestant" ones are mostly just "reformed" versions of the "Roman Catholic Church" that materialized in the 4th century, not the 1st century. Even the vast majority of "non-denominational" or independent fellowships follow the traditions established over 1500 years ago, beginning in Rome. The mindset is that if you are going to "have" a "church" or "start" a "church" you will need to procure a building, incorporate the "church," announce and advertize the "church," hire/designate/appoint a pastor, have Sunday morning "mass" substitute, where you have a stage and an audience, prescribed hymns or praise songs that were pre-designated and rehearsed, a prepared sermon, money collection, "catechism" substitute (Sunday school) for the children, and so on. After all, if you don't have some reasonable resemblance of these institutional things, how can you call it a "church"?

Also, the mindset of the Roman Catholic Church, that scripture could not be properly understood apart from the preaching of the professional seminary-trained clergy, prevails today, even though it is obviously to a much lesser degree in the Protestant "churches" and denominations than in the Roman Catholic Church, and obviously far less today in the Roman Catholic Church than during the era of the Protestant Reformation, when the laity was prohibited from reading the Bible at all.

Even today, professing Christians are more likely to be "fed" by preachers and books explaining the Word of God, than by the Word of God. Many professing Christians have not even read the Bible even once all the way through, but have read many Christian books all the way through, and have spent far more time listening to preaching about the Bible by the clergy than the roughly 75 hours that it would take to read the Bible all the way through for themselves, or even the New Testament, which is only about 15 hours of that, for an average reader.

So, the attitude largely prevails that you need to "go to a church" somewhere in order to "be fed" by a professional clergyman who has institutional training that he got by going to seminary and being officially ordained by that institution or denomination. Otherwise, the question is asked, "where are you going to get fed?" 1 John 2:27 "the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you" is lost on people.

Today, people are still addicted to "going to church," instead of "being the church" (the "out-calling" of God), to the extent that it has become a form of bondage. Just as the Roman Catholic misses out on getting his weekly sins forgiven by confessing them to the Roman Catholic priest on Sunday morning and sacrificing Jesus anew weekly in "Holy Eucharist," it seems that the "reformed" "protestants" think they are missing out on something (still in some big way) if they don't attend the Sunday morning protestant reformed alternative to Roman Catholic Sunday morning mass. Hebrews 10:25 becomes, essentially, "...let us not stop 'going to church'..."

Today, people are in "a church" or "looking for a new church" or telling people to "go" "to church" or asking "where" they "go" "to church" or comparing "this church" with "that church" or inviting people to "their church," or visiting their friend's "church," and when all is said and done, none of that kind of talk is in the Bible!

Again, if you get rid of all this "stuff," consider yourself an "out-calling" who will naturally meet with others who are "out-called" for the same called out purpose, then "church" gets simple. Real simple. The idea of "going to church" becomes an oxymoron, and irrelevant. "Sunday" becomes moot in principle, because you are always "out-called," not sometimes, let alone one morning a week. The "out-called" are all on a mission to proclaim and demonstrate the Kingdom of God that they are "called out" into. And where do they do that? Everywhere, as long as they live in this world!

When you have enough people in fellowship with one another, then you recognize "elders" who "over-see" those in fellowship. You recognize diverse contributions by various people, and they are set apart and designated to serve in designated capacities (those are "deacons" = Greek "diakonos" = "dispensers" = "servants"). There may be other titles, such as the *examples* given in Eph 4, but all these serve the body of the "out-calling." The "out-calling" doesn't serve them.

Even the "5-fold" or "4-fold" ministry (from Eph 4) is not a formula or prescription for institutionalization. Think! If you have 2 or 3 gathered, then how can you appoint 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 (depending on how you tally all the terms) official people-positions among them! And why would you need to? "2 or 3" people don't need to appoint among themselves "elders/overseers, apostles, prophets, evanglists, pastors/teachers, deacons, etc."

It is that within the greater body of "out-called" believers, you have "elders/overseers, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/teachers, deacons, etc." who serve to shepherd and equip the body. You would find these in any sizable organized fellowship, as needed.

Again, don't misunderstand. You can have buildings. You can form organizations and institutions. And even though neither Acts 20:7 nor 1 Cor 16:2 specify or give a prescription for it, or even suggest that you should, you can even regularly meet on Sunday morning if you want to, and that is okay! These things are not anti-bible in of themselves. It's just that you can't call these things a "church" in any scriptural sense, nor can you call "church" a prescription of things to do or titles to assign or times to meet. Those things aren't the "church." Those things serve the "church." "We" are "the church."

Now, who "goes to church"? Going by the biblical definition, such a phrase is an oxymoron. You cannot "go" "to" the "out-calling." You "are" the "out-calling." You can only "be" the "out-calling," and the "out-calling" will meet together because they have in common that they were "called out" from the world into the Kingdom of God, and they have a supernatural, common bond in Christ, for which they have a good reason to meet.

This means that a "church" meeting (the meeting of the "out-calling") doesn't fundamentally include unbelievers. Unbelievers may happen into a meeting of the "out-calling" (like in 1 Cor 14:23-25), but the gathering of the "out-calling" isn't intended for them. Heb 10:19-25 confirms this. Heb 10:25 says "let us not give up meeting together" and Heb 10:19-24 describes who the "us" is. No unbeliever can ever fit the description of Heb 10:19-24, to which Heb 10:25 refers as "us."

This last point speaks against evangelistic, "seeker-sensitive" "church services." The lost of the world are reached through evangelism, not "church." You do not "invite" the lost to your "church," you evangelize them by preaching the gospel to them yourself wherever they happen to be outside of your "church," and then discipling them. You, the "out-called" do that. Not the "church service," and not the "pastor" ("pastor" = the word for "shepherd" in Greek, and shepherds shepherd sheep; unbelievers aren't sheep, they are goats). You can have evangelistic crusades, and you can even have them in a building that people today call "a church," if you want to. There's nothing wrong with that. But you can't call that "church." You are "the church."

Once the lost become believers, then they become part of the "church." Then they will want to meet with you in your meetings of the "out-calling," because now they are "out-called" too.

Now that I have shown that the English word "church," as used today, is different than that of scripture, this doesn't mean you have to shun the word "church" as it is used today. Don't be weird and eccentric with people! This is our modern English language. Just understand what the scriptures really say about "church." The "church" of today's language is not quite the same as the "church" of scripture. The "church" of today is there to serve the "church" of scripture.

This post proclaims freedom from any "bondage" of "going to church." This does not mean that you must immediately stop "going to church" or disassociate yourself from whatever "church" you are associated with. It means you should question why you think you must "go to church" when the Bible doesn't say "go to church." It just means that you should re-evaluate the reasons for doing the things that you have been doing that are based on the traditions of men and the definitions of men.

Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32)

The Old Covenant mindset.

I pointed out how a lot of the institutional mindset of churchianity comes out of a Roman Catholic mindset that still persists today.

There is another mindset that comes into play to one degree or another, and that is the old covenant mindset.

In the Old Covenant, there was a "house of the Lord" which was the "tabernacle" of Moses' day or the temple of Jerusalem of Solomon's day forward.

This is often mistakenly equated with a modern "church" building and modern "church" institution.

For example, many seasoned, "churched" people are familiar with the preached verse "bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house..." (Mal 3:10), used in fund raising appeals from the pulpit to solicit money for the institutional church and/or building.

Things like this apply old covenant thinking to the new covenant reality, for which the old covenant was only a type and foreshadow. Malachi concludes his exhortations with "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel." (Mal 4:4)

So, the modern "church" building becomes the old covenant "temple," the modern "church" pastor becomes the old covenant priest, the "church" ceremonies become the old covenant ceremonies, and so on.

In the case of example of the Malachi "tithe into the storehouse" exhortation, note that Malachi also has exhortations about blemished animal sacrifices (Mal 1:6-14). Anyone that obeys the "tithe" instruction of Malachi must also obey the "animal sacrifice" instruction. Yet, we do not see churchgoers bringing animal sacrifices into their churches on Sunday morning!

One of the last statements that Stephen made in Acts 7, before he was stoned to death was

44 "Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Having received the tabernacle, our fathers under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God's favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built the house for him.

48 "However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:

49 "'Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?'[Isa 66:1,2]

This was the end of a long-winded speech in answer to the accusation "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us." (Acts 6:13-14)

By contrast, it is written in 1 Peter 2:

4 As you come to him, the living Stone--rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him-- 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:

"See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame."[Isa 28:16]

7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

"The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone,"[Psalm 118:22]

8 and,
"A stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall."[Isa 8:14]
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

As verse 9 above concludes, we are the "out-called," called by Jesus "out of darkness into his wonderful light." We don't "go to church." We "are" "the church."

English Bible translation origins.

The oldest English translation in widespread use today is the King James Version (KJV), which is actually the 1769 "Oxford" edition/revision by Benjamin Blayney and Francis Sawyer Parris, which is based on the original 1611 King James Bible (which is almost never used today, and very few people even have a copy).

King James I of England commissioned the translation of what would become the original 1611 King James Bible. Of the 47 scholars commissioned, all but one of them were clergymen of the Church of England.

The Church of England was a split from the Roman Catholic Church started by King Henry VIII of England in 1534, instigated because the Roman Catholic Church would not endorse the king divorcing his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who he was unhappy with, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. However, the Church of England retained most of the doctrines and institutional structure of the Roman Catholic Church.

King Henry VIII was the first to "authorize" an English Bible translation (the Myles Coverdale "Great Bible") in 1539, meant to be read out loud in church services of the Church of England.

The "Bishop's Bible" of 1568 was the second "authorized" version, produced under the authority of the Church of England in 1568, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), revised many times from 1572 to 1602, at which point it was then used as the primary basis for the translation of the King James Bible.

King James I, as head of the Church of England, imposed 15 rules on the translators he commissioned:

Rule #1 was as follows:

"The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit."

Rule #3 was as follows:

"The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c."

The above statement is ironic, because the word "ecclesiastical" is a transliteration from the Greek word εκκλησια ("ekklesia") which means "out-calling" in the Greek, but "ecclesiastical" in the English meant quite another thing back then (as it does today). I guess King James missed the irony of his statement.

In any case, King James explicitly directed that it *not* be translated "Congregation." Why? Because he couldn't have the laity thinking that they could just congregate anyplace or form congregations themselves and suppose that it was legitimate, when the only legitimate place to gather was supposedly in "the Church," meaning the "Church of England." After all, the institution was considered "the church."

Again, from the above snippets you can see the institutional mindset that affected the English translation of the word εκκλησια, which really just means "out-calling" but is translated "church" instead, by decree of a king and his "church."

The institutional bias does not stop there. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:1, the 1611 KJV says:

"This is a true saying: If a man desire the office of a Bishop, he desireth a good worke."

The word "Bishop" (capitalized in the 1611 version) would have been understood as an office held in the Church of England, and it says "office."

But the word "office" is not in the Greek text.

Here is what the actual sequence of Greek words are for 1 Timothy 3:1:

"pistos ho logos ei tis episkopes oregetai kalou ergou epithumei"

"faithful, the, saying, if, any, of-over-seeing, is-craving, ideal, work, he-is-desiring"

The Greek word is "episkopes," from which we get the modern word "Episcopal." "Episkopes" comes from "epi," which means "over" (like epidermis is the "overskin") and "skope," which means "look" or "peer," from which we get the word "scope" (like "microscope" or "telescope" etc.) So, "epi-skope" means to "over-see." Because the Greek case is genitive (possessive), you add the word "of": "of overseeing" or "of oversight."

So, 1 Timothy 3:1 talks about being in a position of having oversight. That's what "elders" are supposed to do. Compare 1 Timothy 3:1-7 with Titus 1:5-8. Or see 1 Peter 5:1-2. "Overseeing" is also what "pastors" do (the Greek word for "pastor" is just "shepherd"). See Acts 20:28. So, what is the official "office" then?

Or, for example, "deacon" is just a transliteration from the Greek word "diakonos," which just generically means "servant," and "minister" is translated from that same Greek word as well.

Again and again, the scriptures do not give formulas for institutionalization, such that you could create "a church" out of it. You can't create "a church" anyway. You "are" "the church" by virtue of being "out-called."

Keep in mind that the Church of England in the 1600's was in many ways as oppressive of an institution as the Roman Catholic Church before it. King James was the original author of the doctrine of the "divine right of kings." The "puritan" and "pilgrim" non-conformists, although just a nuisance to King James at the time, were persecuted under King Charles I, who succeeded him, and also King Charles II. John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," for example, was written while John Bunyan, a self-styled lay preacher and common man, was in prison for preaching "in other manner than that sanctioned by His Majesty's Church," which was the Church of England under King Charles II. Pilgrims fled religious persecution by the Church of England under its "Bishops" at various times during the 1600's, many coming to "New England" here in America.

Throughout the 1600s, the Puritans and Pilgrims would build their own "churches" and form their own institutions, including here in America, and end up being as legalistic about them as the Church of England was (requiring "church" attendance Sunday morning, etc.) Roger Williams, for example, fled religious persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to what is now Providence, Rhode Island, in 1636, narrowly escaping arrest.

Although there were some 24,000 changes and corrections to the 1611 King James Bible between 1611 and 1769 to get to where the KJV is now, the word "church" (as well as "bishop," "pastor," "deacon," etc.) obviously remained unchanged. The widespread acceptance and use of the current 1769 edition of the KJV since then has been so extensive that any translators of the more modern English versions could not help but be influenced by it, besides the fact that those translators were also clergymen and/or scholars with allegiances to their own seminaries, "churches," and other religious institutions. So the English word "church" has continued to persist, even in translations that were designed to eliminate the archaic English and revisit the original meaning of the text in the original manuscripts.

The bottom line is that until the translators get the revelation that they "are" the "out-calling," as opposed to them just being "called out" by religious institutions, it is unlikely that their mindset will change.

Etymology of the word itself.

Where the English word "church" came from:

Here is the progression, the best I can tell:

The original Greek word is εκκλησια, which means "out-calling."

In 382, Pope Damasus I commissioned a translation of the Greek scriptures into Latin (the "Latin Vulgate"), which St. Jerome completed in 405. He (or someone before him) invented the Latin word "ecclesia," which is just a transliteration (letter for letter, sound for sound), rather than translate it. He would have known what it meant, but no one who who didn't also know Koine Greek would have from that point on.

"Out-called" in Latin would have been "ex-vocavit."

"Congregation" in Latin would be "congregatio" or "coetus" or "coitus." "Assembly" in Latin would have been "coetus" or "contio" or "conventus" or "conventiculum" or "comitiatus" or "corrogatio" or "coitus" or "conrogatio."

But, if you look up the word "ecclesia" in a Latin dictionary, it just means "church."

The Roman Catholic Church, as an institution, ascribed the new "Latin" word "ecclesia" to itself by virtue of their tradition, so people now associated "ecclesia" with the "Roman Catholic Church."

Latin would continue to be used by the Roman Catholic Church long after nobody spoke Latin any more. The clergy would read it, but the laity would not.

Meanwhile, the usual etymology given for the English word "church" is Greek kuriakon/kuriake ("belonging to the Lord," as in 1 Cor 11:20 "Lord's supper", or Rev 1:10 "Lord's day"), evolving into Germanic "kirika," evolving into Old English "cirice," evolving into Middle English "chirche," evolving into English "churche," evolving into modern English "church."

If we go by the Rev 1:10 reference to "kuriake" ("Lord's" day), or "kuriakon" ("Lord's" supper) then the focus is on something "belonging" to the "Lord" rather than who you are "in the Lord" ("in Christ"). The focus of "a day" or "an activity" or "a building" or something "devoted" is where that error starts. This is human nature, of course, but continues to this day!

In 1395 the word "church" was used in the Wycliffe New Testament ("chirche"). John Wycliffe was working from the Latin Vulgate, not the Greek original, so he translated it as "chirche." He had no ability to read Greek.

In 1525, William Tyndale was working from the original Greek, so he translated it "congregacion" in 1525, which is closer to the original intent (the "out-called" do congregate, but that is one of the things they "do," not who they "are," the "out-calling.") It was the first English Bible to be printed using the printing press.

The 1535 Coverdale Bible, authorized by King Henry VIII after he split with the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England, used "congregacion" as well. This would suit him, since he was going to break with the "church" (meaning, the Roman Catholic Church).

In 1568, the Church of England reverted back to "church" in the Bishop's Bible. The Church of England was now "the church."

In 1611, King James explicitly directed that the word "church...not congregation" be used, to make sure that the translators would not revert back to "congregation." This would exclude the Puritans and others who were challenging the "church" (meaning, the Church of England).

In 1769, 24,000 edits and 158 years later, the word "church" remained in what would become the final "Authorized Version" of the King James Bible.

Now in the 21st Century, we have another roughly 75 English translations. Still, people popularly think of "church" as a building or this or that institution of men.

(Note: There's another theory about the word "church" originating from the name of the Greek goddess "Circe" but I'm unconvinced about that.)

"Ecclesiastical authority"

There is one single verse in the Bible used by the institutional clergy to claim and enforce "ecclesiastical authority" over the laity. It is Hebrews 13:17, and is usually translated something like this:

"obey your leaders and submit to their authority"

The word almost always (mis-)translated "obey" in Hebrews 13:17 is πειθεσθε (present tense, imperative mood, middle voice, second person, plural number, inflection of Strong's G3982, πειθω, "peitho") which actually means to be convinced by, persuaded by, or have confidence in.

Ironically, it is the same Koine Greek word used both in that verse (Hebrews 13:17 - "Be ye being persuaded by your leaders") and in the next verse (Hebrews 13:18 - "...for we are persuaded that we...")

The 55 instances of πειθω (be persuaded, convinced, have confidence in), in their contexts, are never equated to submission or obedience to authority. You can look up all 55 references and see:

Matt 27:20,43, 28:14, Mark 10:24, Luke 11:22, 16:31, 18:9, 20:6, Acts 5:36,37,40, 12:20, 13:43, 14:19, 17:4, Acts 18:4, 19:8,26, 21:14, 23:21, 26:26,28, 27:11, 28:23,24, Rom 2:8,19, 8:38, 14:14, 15:14, 2 Cor 1:9, 2:3, 5:11, 10:7, Gal 1:10, 3:1, 5:7,10, Phil 1:6,14,21,25 2:24, 3:3,4, 2 Thess, 3:4, 2 Tim 1:5,12, James 3:3, Heb 2:13, 6:9, 11:13, 13:17,18, 1 John 3:19

A second word in Hebrews 13:17 often mistranslated "submit" is υπεικετε (similar inflection, except active voice, of Strong's G5226, υπεικω) which is a combination of υπ (Strong's G5259, "[h]up"/[h]upo = "under") and εικ_ (Strong's G1500, G1502, G1503, G1504, "eik_" which means simulate or image in likeness, to be like, or resemble, from which we get the English word "icon" (specifically, εικων, Strong's G1504 Greek "eikon").

Even in 21st century usage, if you look at an "icon" on your computer, it is a small image resembling a bigger thing.

The word υπεικω only occurs once in the New Testament, and is a hard word to translate. That's why I broke it down into the two morphemes ("under" and "image/simulate"). The word can mean, in the various classical literature, to retire, withdraw, depart, yield, give way, concede, or defer, and some of those make no sense at all in the context of Heb 11:17. But the sense is that you defer to the leader's leading, so that you are led by him and are conformed to what he is making you into, which is to be like him as he is like Jesus.

Two other similar examples in scripture are:

"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." (1 Cor 11:1)

"...for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me." (1 Cor 4:15-16)

Both of those actually use the same three words: μιμηται μου γινεσθε ("mimetai mou ginesthe" = "imitators of-me be-becoming")

A third word thrown into Hebrews 13:17 that is often in the translation but is not even there in the original Greek text to begin with is "authority." The Greek word for "authority" is εξουσια ("exousia"). There is no word like that in Hebrews 13:17.

So now, instead of

"obey your leaders and submit to their authority"

we have

"be persuaded by your leaders and emulate them"

Quite a difference!

This fits the context, because just a little way back in verse 7, the scripture says

"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" ("imitate" in verse 7 is μιμεισθε, "mimeisthe," from which we get the English word "mimic").

So, verse 7 tells us to mimic the leaders' faith, and verse 17 tells us to be persuaded by them and use them as a model.

The context of Hebrews 13:17 has the writer exhorting the readership to heed the word of God originally spoken to them by their leaders (verse 7) and not be carried away by strange teachings (verse 9). They were rebuked earlier in Heb 5:11-6:3 (milk vs. solid food, elementary teachings vs. maturity) for needing to be told all these things (i.e. the content of the book of Hebrews) all over again, whereas they should have been teachers by now (Heb 5:12). Hebrews 13:17 tells them to "be being persuaded" by those original leaders and base their faith on that spiritual foundation, for they (the leaders) are being "vigilant" over them "for their souls (the souls of the ones being led)."

If you take that to its logical result, then you will end up being leaders speaking the word of God to others, and those others will be "persuaded" by you and use you as a model, because you were persuaded by and modeled your leaders. That's discipleship.

If you read all of the book of Hebrews, the only theme is sound doctrine concerning who Jesus is, what he did as a fulfillment of the old covenant type, and how we should persevere in faith. There is no mention in the book of Hebrews of how to administrate an institutional "church," nor is there any talk about clergy vs. laity roles, let alone any notion of laity "obeying" clergy.

By contrast, there are words which do mean "obey," which are not used in Hebrews 13. For example, the noun υπακοη (Strong's G5218, "[h]upakoe" = "obedience"), and the verb form υπακουω (Strong's G5219, "[h]upakouo" = "obey") is such a word, used in "children obey your parents" (Eph 6:1, Col 3:20), "slaves obey your masters" (Eph 6:5, Col 3:22), the winds and waves obeying Jesus (Matt 8:27, Mark 4:41, Luke 8:25), demons obeying Jesus (Mark 1:27), and so on. The writer of Hebrews 13:17 could have used this word, or something like it, but didn't.

Again, leaders are there to serve the "church" = "out-calling." The "church" = "out-calling" is not there to serve them. Their role is that of servants, not lords.

To balance all this out, we should still "submit for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men" (1 Peter 2:13). If you are part of an institution of men, then you should either submit to the institutional authority or leave the institution; you should not rebel against it from within.

The mistake made is when one tries to equate the institutional "church" with the "church" of scripture. The leaders of the institutions have institutional authority over their institutions, not institutional authority over the "out-called" of the body of Christ, the true "church" that the scriptures speak of, which Jesus has authority over.

Anticipating objections (Jan. 2014, updated Apr 2016, Aug 2016)

I want to comment on a potential objection to what I've written, based on what you read from the writings of English Bible scholars, and so on.

It is common to read that εκκλησια is a Greek word that referred to an assembly, pointing out that this is how it was commonly used by the secular Greeks in New Testament times.

The way that word was sometimes used in ancient Greek areas during New Testament times was that a geographical, metropolitan area had an "out-calling" that corresponds nicely to the "board of selectmen" that certain U.S. cities have, particularly in New England. These appointed or elected "selectmen" together are responsible for executive decision-making in the town. Obviously, as a group they must meet together to confer with each other about issues and make decisions. The Christians hijacked that Greek word, in a good way, to apply it to that of the body of Christ. This is also why you also see some instances in the New Testament of "out-callings" (plural) that are associated with particular geographical regions, if they wanted to specifically refer to the body of Christ in a particular place. Note again that these Greek εκκλησια(s) or U.S. boards of selectmen refer to the people group and the authority/responsibility designated to them, not the meetings of these people, even though they must meet to get the job done.

If εκκλησια was casually associated with the meeting of the "out-calling," it would be no different than today, where "church" primarily refers to a building or a local religious assembly. You only visibly see the building or the meeting. Fundamentally, "out-calling" refers to the people who are called out, not the building, nor their meeting.

The modern saying, "We are the church," rings true to the original meaning, but is not true to the English word definition, which refers to a building or an institution.

However, εκκλησια does not fundamentally mean "assembly," aside from that colloquial association.

Back then, as today, the "out-calling" assembled because they were "out-called." They weren't "out-called" because they assembled.

The Greek language had words that meant "assemble." For example, in Acts 19:25, Demetrius the silversmith assembled an initial meeting with others of his trade, and it uses the word συναθροισω ("sunathroizo") = "together-convene". I also pointed out in my original post that a lot of the mob eventually didn't even know why they had συνερχομαι ("sunerchomai") = "come together," in Acts 19:32.

The mob was an "out-calling" (εκκλησια) by Demetrius the silversmith and his friends, then they assembled in the middle of the city and made a big scene. The city clerk urged them to appeal to a legal "out-calling" (εκκλησια) of proconsuls (Acts 19:39). They weren't told to appeal to a "meeting." Rather, there were court sessions with proconsuls, the proconsuls were the "out-calling" (εκκλησια) who were called out to judge such matters, and they would assemble to do that. They had the authority because they were legally out-called, not because they met. The mob had no authority to do anything, was not legally out-called (they were out-called by Demetrius and his friends), and was potentially in danger of being indicted for rioting because of their behavior (Acts 19:40); the clerk dismissed this εκκλησια (Acts 19:41) with that warning.

If the Greek word εκκλησια intrinsically referred to an institution, then why in Acts 19 is it used to refer to an unruly, renegade mob? Acts 19 contradicts such a categorization of the word εκκλησια.

The well-known Hebrews 10:25 says to not stop the assembling, and that root word is επισυναγογη ("episunagoge"). Note that Hebrews 10:25 does not say εκκλησια (out-calling). It can't, because meeting together is something we do, and εκκλησια is something we are. You can tell someone to assemble or not assemble, but you can't tell them to be called out. They either are, or they aren't. Hebrews 10:25 is urging them to not stop the assembling. The audience of the book of Hebrews is not an "assembly." The audience is us.

There is an appropriate Koine Greek word that matches our English word "church." In Acts 13:44, "On the sabbath almost the whole city was gathered to hear the word..." uses the root word συναγογω ("sunagogo"). The noun form of that verb is συναγογη ("sunagoge"), used many times in the New Testament, which is transliterated into the English word "synagogue." That would be the correct word to translate to the English word "church," since it represents a place or organization where people meet. It is only historical tradition that ties that word to Judaism. Note that the word used in Heb 10:25 just adds the prefix επι- ("epi-"), which means "upon," to that same word.

So, I have driven the definition to its root. εκκλησια does not mean "assembly," except perhaps by informal, colloquial association. Rather, the εκκλησια "assemble." Take away the "calling" and the assembly becomes a social gathering, no more. A social gathering of random people accomplishes no unified purpose. The εκκλησια are "out-called," and they assemble to accomplish the purpose for which they were called-out.

More on the origin of Latin "ecclesia" (Dec. 2014)

This is some additional research on the comment that I made above:

Where the English word "church" came from:

Here is the progression, the best I can tell:

The original Greek word is εκκλησια, which means "out-calling."

In 382, Pope Damasus I commissioned a translation of the Greek scriptures into Latin (the "Latin Vulgate"), which St. Jerome completed in 405. He (or someone before him) invented the Latin word "ecclesia," which is just a transliteration (letter for letter, sound for sound), rather than translate it. He would have known what it meant, but no one who who didn't also know Koine Greek would have from that point on.

"Out-called" in Latin would have been "ex-vocavit."

I searched the online Perseus classical archives of Tufts University for the origin of the Latin word "ecclesia," which is an exact transliteration (Roman letter for Greek letter) of the Greek word "εκκλησια."

Now realize, as it should be obvious, that available Latin literature is immense and covers many centuries, including during the rise of the Roman Empire, which displaced the Greek Empire from which Koine Greek became the lingua franca during the conquests of Alexander the Great of Greece.

The earliest reference I could find is a single reference, obviously secular, by Pliny the Younger, who at the time was the Roman imperial governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus (cf. NT Acts 2:9, 16:7, 18:2, 1 Pet 1:1) in Asia in 110-113 AD. This would be a Greek-speaking province, so I assume that he arbitrarily took the liberty of transliterating the Greek word into Latin, since this is the only time it is used in all his writings, which together count 66670 words.

Prior to this in history, a search for the word in all previous Latin literature comes up empty.

C. Plinius Traiano Imperatori

Ecdicus, domine, Amisenorum civitatis petebat apud me a Iulio Pisone denariorum circiter quadraginta milia donata ei publice ante viginti annos bule et ecclesia consentiente, utebaturque mandatis tuis, quibus eius modi donationes vetantur. Piso contra plurima se in rem publicam contulisse ac prope totas facultates erogasse dicebat. Addebat etiam temporis spatium postulabatque, ne id, quod pro multis et olim accepisset, cum eversione reliquae dignitatis reddere cogeretur. Quibus ex causis integram cognitionem differendam existimavi, ut te, domine, consulerem, quid sequendum putares. (

To the Emperor Trajan

The solicitor to the treasury of the city of Amisis instituted a claim, Sir, before me against Julius Piso of about forty thousand denarii, presented to him by the public above twenty years ago, with the consent of the general council and [ecclesia] of the city: and he founded his demand upon certain of your edicts, by which donations of this kind are prohibited. Piso, on the other hand, asserted that he had conferred large sums of money upon the community, and, indeed, had thereby expended almost the whole of his estate. He insisted upon the length of time which had intervened since this donation, and hoped that he should not be compelled, to the ruin of the remainder of his fortunes, to refund a present which had been granted him long since, in return for many good offices he had done the city. For this reason, Sir, I thought it necessary to suspend giving any judgment in this cause till I shall receive your directions. (

As you can see, this is just another reference to a secular "out-calling," probably similar to that spoken of in Acts 19:39. One of the hot topics of his correspondence with the Roman emperor around this time was what to do about the Christians, as a legal matter. The Roman government was persecuting Christians, particularly because of their lack of allegiance to the Roman gods. Pliny himself would be responsible for executing Christians just for being Christians, so it is unthinkable that he would consider a "church," as we would call it, as having any bearing upon legal matters.

The next four occurrences are by Tertullian (160-225 AD), the first Christian author to produce works in Latin. All four references are in De Spectaculis ("Of the Games"), written around the turn of the century.

This is about 90 years after the one occurrence by Pliny the Younger!

Excerpt from chapter 25:

Avertat deus a suis tantam voluptatis exitiosae cupiditatem! Quale est enim de ecclesia dei in diaboli ecclesiam tendere, de caelo, quod aiunt, in caenum? Illas manus quas ad deum extuleris postmodum laudando histrionem fatigare? Ex ore, quo Amen in Sanctum protuleris, gladiatori testimonium reddere, εἰς αἰῶνας ἀπ αἰῶνος alii omnino dicere nisi deo et Christo? (

May God avert from His own such a passion for murderous pleasure! The nature of the [ecclesia] is directed for it is said of the [ecclesiam] of the devil, from the sky, as they say, into the mire? Those hands you have uplifted to God, to tire them out clapping an actor later on? Out of the mouth, which, in the Holy Ghost, Amen, I have uttered a gladiator to pay, εἰς αἰῶνας ἀπ αἰῶνος other whatever but to God and Christ? (Google Translate)

May God avert from His own such a passion for murderous pleasure! For what sort of conduct is it to go from the [ecclesia] of God to the [ecclesiam] of the devil? from sky to stye, as the proverb has it? those hands you have uplifted to God, to tire them out clapping an actor? with those lips, with which you have uttered Amen over the Holy Thing, to cheer for a gladiator? To say for ever and ever to any other whatever but to God and Christ? (*)

Excerpt from chapter 27:

Non quasi aliquid illic pati possis ab hominibus (nemo te cognoscit Christianum), sed recogita, quid de te fiat in caelo. Dubitas illo enim momento, quo diabolus in ecclesia furit, omnes angelos prospicere de caelo et singulos denotare, quis blasphemiam dixerit, quis audierit, quis linguam, quis aures diabolo adversus deum ministraverit? ( )

It is not possible for a man to suffer, as if something there (nobody recognizes you for a Christian), but think well, what it means for you in heaven. Doubt but that at the moment when the devil in [ecclesia] rages, all the angels look forth from heaven, and mark down any one of the blasphemy and that has listened, the tongue of a man, who will minister to the ears of the devil, against God? (Google Translate)

I do not suggest that you can run any risk there of suffering from men--nobody recognizes you for a Christian; but think well over it, what it means for you in heaven. Do you doubt but that at that very moment when the devil is raging in his [ecclesia], all the angels look forth from heaven, and mark down man by man, how this one has spoken blasphemy and that has listened, the one has lent his tongue, the other his ears, to the devil, against God? (*)

Excerpt from chapter 29:

Quae maior voluptas quam fastidium ipsius voluptatis, quam saeculi totius contemptus, quam vera libertas, quam conscientia integra, quam vita sufficiens, quam mortis timor nullus? Quod calcas deos nationum, quod daemonia expellis, quod medicinas facis, quod revelationes petis, quod deo vivis? Haec voluptates, haec spectacula Christianorum sancta perpetua gratuita; in his tibi circenses ludos interpretare, cursus saeculi intuere, tempora labentia, spatia peracta dinumera, metas consummationis exspecta, societates ecclesiarum defende, ad signum dei suscitare, ad tubam angeli erigere, ad martyrum palmas gloriare. (

What has more joy, than of God the Father and of the reconciliation of the Lord, than the revelation of truth, the recognition of error, the great sins of pardon? What greater pleasure is there than to distaste for pleasure, than the contempt of the whole world, than true liberty, than a clean conscience, than life sufficient, than the fear of death? That trampling underfoot the gods of the Gentiles, expelling demons, effecting cures, seeking revelations, which, living to God? These are the pleasures, the spectacles of Christians, holy, eternal, and free; these things have to games of the circus, the course of the world, the seasons slipping by, count the goals of the end of wait, companies of the [ecclesiarum], to the signal of God, to the angels of the trumpet, to establish, to the palms of martyrdom. (Google Translate)

What has more joy in it than reconciliation with God, the Father and Lord, than the revelation of truth, the recognition of error, and forgiveness for all the great sins of the past? What greater pleasure is there than disdain for pleasure, than contempt for the whole world, than true liberty, than a clean conscience, than life sufficient, than the absence of all fear of death? than to find yourself trampling underfoot the gods of the Gentiles, expelling demons, effecting cures, seeking revelations, living to God? These are the pleasures, the spectacles of Christians, holy, eternal, and free. Here find your games of the circus, -- watch the race of time, the seasons slipping by, count the circuits, look for the goal of the great consummation, battle for the companies of the [ecclesiarum], rouse up at the signal of God, stand erect at the angel's trump, triumph in the palms of martyrdom. (*)

Note that in the first excerpt Tertullian reverts back to Greek for the phrase εις αιωνας απ αιωνας (transliterated "eis aionas ap aionas," which literally means "into eons from eons").

So far, in these scant references that are likely all just deliberate transliterations of the Greek word εκκλησια, there is no association with a building or an earthly organization.

This appears to be all there is prior to the writings in the late fourth century (nearly 200 years later!) of St. Jerome (50 occurrences), St. Augustine (109 occurrences), the Roman soldier/historian Ammianus Marcellinus (11 occurrences), the Roman Christian poet Prudentius (6 occurrences), and the Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius (1 occurrence), all contemporaries of each other, during the rise of the Roman Catholic church. At that point, and especially with St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible (164 occurrences), which he started in 382 AD, the instances of the Latin word "ecclesia" become too frequent to number, you start seeing the association between "ecclesia" and buildings, parishes, and such, and ultimately the Roman Catholic Church as an institution becomes identified as being the "ecclesia."

In conclusion, a critical language error could have been avoided if the word was translated from the Koine Greek, not transliterated. If it were translated, then the Latin would be rendered ex vocavit (out called). However, this would not suit the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, since it could hide behind the transliteration, and avoid having any arbitrary believer or group of believers considering themselves "out-called." The same issue applied to the Church of England in the 1500's and the 1600's, which considered itself, as an "ecclesiastical" institution, that which the original word εκκλησια in the scriptures pointed to, in contrast to the puritans, pilgrims, and other protestants being renegade for departing from "the Church" and its "ecclesiastical authority."

No copyrightI grant this work to the public domain.