Is Church in the Bible?
Ekklesia not church. That’s a new concept! When you read the New Testament in almost every English translation, the word “church” is found about 74 times. According to the translators, Jesus is the first one to use it.
Mat 16:13-18 (NIV) When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (14) They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (15) “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” S (16) Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (17) Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. (18) And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
So when Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do people say I am”? Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ (the anointed one), Son of the living God. Jesus responds by saying, “…on this rock (the testimony of faith that I am the Son of the living God) I will build my church! So there it is. Jesus builds the church! Of course, I’m wrong.
Not all things are as they appear to be, however. It is important to understand that the Bible was originally written in two different languages. The Old Testament was recorded in Hebrew and the New Testament was recorded in Greek. These were the common languages spoken by God’s people during the time they were written. The original word translated (incorrectly) into English as church is the Greek word ekklesia. It is pronounced “ek-klay-see’-ah”. And it doesn’t mean what most people think!
What is Ekklesia?
Ekklesia was commonly used to identify an assembly of people who were called out of their homes to meet and discuss the affairs of state. A modern example would be a town council meeting. It’s how the Roman government allowed people to handle their local affairs. Everyone assembled to discuss the issues that affected them and their lives in the community. It was an open meeting that everyone could participate in.
When referring to the gathering (assembly) of believers, it is more accurately understood to be believers called out to assemble together as equals, members of His body functioning together, with Jesus leading the gathering as the Head. Any serious study of the New Testament clearly reveals that each one can participate and share what the Holy Spirit wants to reveal to the group through them. They discuss things that affect them as a community of believers. They pray together, encourage one another, worship, and use their spiritual gifts to minister to one another.
How can you operate this way in a large gathering? Not very well! That’s why the New Testament shows us that believers met in small groups in one another’s homes. Instead of gathering in an expensive building with lots of overhead expenses, they met in dozens of homes all across the region. Groups like this are much more effective at reaching those in the community than putting up a structure and trying to get unbelievers to come to it. Local ekklesia gives the residents the opportunity to see the Body of Christ in action, caring for and loving one another! What you see in a church building is a program to watch. There is so much more!
That’s one reason why I don’t use the word “church” anymore. It doesn’t represent what Jesus said He will build.
The First English Translation of Ekklesia
William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the first to translate the Bible into English directly from the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. He started his work during the reign of King Henry VIII of England who had appointed himself as head of the new church of England after breaking away from the Catholic Church of Rome. He did this because the pope wouldn’t grant him a marriage annulment from his first wife, who was still living. Henry was madly in love with another woman. He got his annulment by decreeing it himself because he put himself in charge. Tyndale opposed this action, so the king was not pleased.
The king also declared it was illegal to have an unlicensed English copy of the scriptures in that day. Neither the king nor the clergy wanted the people to have access to the scriptures. They wanted to control what the people believed, not find out for themselves the vast treasures and liberties recorded in the scriptures (Bible).
Influenced heavily by Martin Luther and other church reformers Tyndale left England to finish his work unhindered. He believed the Word of God should be available to all.
Soon Tyndale was labeled as a heretic by the official church for several reasons. One was his translation of the Greek word ekklesia as congregation (a group of people assembled for worship). He refused to use the officially designated word church. He understood that the ekklesia was about the people assembling together and not the religious system of big boss (clergy) ruling over the little people spectators (laity).
Tyndale was ultimately arrested and executed for his activity. His punishment? He was tied to a cross, strangled, and burned at the stake. Gunpowder was used to enhance the flames. The king and the institutional church would not stand to have their system challenged or undermined. That was a heavy price to pay for an accurate English translation, especially of the word ekklesia!
The King James Bible
In 1611, King James of England commissioned the English translation of the Bible that bears his name, The King James Version. The 47 scholars who worked on the project were heavily influenced by Tyndale’s English translation but there were some notable exceptions.
King James followed Henry VIII’s ultimate rule of the Church of England. As such he had full control of its beliefs and practices. Well, James didn’t like the word assembly or congregation as the translation of the word ekklesia. He insisted the translators use the word church (see instruction #3). He wanted the people to understand “church” as a ruling system. He did not want them to get the idea that they could meet together and learn from one another. He insisted that the people continue to have a King and a bishop rule over their spiritual lives. There was to be no independent reading or interpretation of the scriptures like Luther, Tyndale, and others had done.
Understanding ekklesia as a town meeting style (assembly) gathering of people who function together is the opposite of what the church then, and in most places now, believes. Religious leaders still maintain control over congregations through their institutional systems. The people and even Jesus are meant to be observers, not participants.
When I see the power man has usurped from Christ, going all the way back through the centuries, that confirms to me that I won’t use the word “church” anymore. Nothing man builds represents the New Testament expression of the assembly of His people.
Now, I’m not saying that all institutional churches are evil and their leaders corrupt. There are definitely a lot of problems but there are many good churches lead by good people. I spent decades in the system, because I didn’t know any better. However, most people in the institutional church are unaware of what Jesus truly wants to build because the old system has been deeply ingrained into their minds.
Jesus Will Build It
This is a new day! Jesus wants to build what He said He would build. So we must ask who will cooperate with Him? Who will resist Him? Let’s look at Matthew 16:13-18 once again, but this time in the World English Bible translation, which translates ekklesia correctly.
Matthew 16:13-18 WEB Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (14) They said, “Some say John the Baptizer, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” (15) He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (16) Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (17) Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (18) I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
Simon Bar Jonah had the revelation from God and knew the true identity of Jesus. Because of his expression of faith, Jesus changed his name to Peter, which means “a stone, a single rock” in the Greek. Then Jesus declared He would build His ekklesia on that rock, which is the truth Peter confessed. The word for rock in the Greek Jesus used here means “a large mass of rock.” So the foundation of the ekklesia is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. All those who believe this will be a part of that assembly later identified also as the Body of Christ.
So the Catholics got it wrong. Peter is not the rock Jesus would build His “church” on (ekklesia, as we have seen). He was not the first Pope. It’s the revelation Peter had, not him, that is the foundational large mass of rock!
So grasping what Jesus wants to build in the earth (ekklesia) requires a total shift in our understanding. Those who, like Peter, recognize that Jesus is the Christ, will be built into an assembly that will prevail against the gates of Hades (Hell) itself.
I understand what He is doing now, and that’s another reason why I don’t use the word “church” anymore. It doesn’t fit the New Testament narrative.
Jesus Must Be the Head
Jesus should be in charge of the assembly when it gathers. He is not to be simply a figurehead. He is to be the functional head of the assembly. It’s called the Body of Christ, not the Body of the Denomination or the Body of the Pastor. Jesus must have the preeminence, the supremacy over all things, especially concerning the assembly of believers.
Colossians 1:17-18 (WEB) He is before all things, and in him all things are held together. (18) He is the head of the body, the assembly, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
Most people believe that Jesus is up in heaven sitting on His throne next to God the Father just passively waiting for the day when He will return and set up His Kingdom on the earth. Meanwhile, we, His people, are busy with all their religious activities building His “church”, His assembly for Him. He can’t be the actual head, we reason, because He is in heaven. We are here, so we appoint and follow leaders who run things for Him.
Breaking News!!! Jesus is capable and desirous of running His Body right here on earth. That’s why He gave the first Christians the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. So He could lead, empower, and bestow spiritual gifts on every believer in order to minister through them. He still does that today. However, most of the institutional church will tell you that the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit stopped when the last Apostle died. That is so wrong! The Body of Christ desperately needs the outpouring of the Holy Spirit so we can function and respond to Him. That’s how we will show the world, Jesus!
I don’t use the word “church” anymore because it does not accurately represent the activity of the present Holy Spirit in most of its activities.
The Chosen Ones
Here’s another dimension of the word ekklesia. Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says ekklesia literally means called out ones. This thought is expressed in 1 Peter, even though the word ekklesia is not used. The principle was well understood by the first Christians and the disciples of Jesus.
1 Peter 2:9-10 WEB But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: (10) who in time past were no people, but now are God’s people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
The word chosen in that verse is the Greek word ekletos. It sounds similar to ekklesia but it means chosen out. Believers are people chosen out of the world to be God’s possession. He called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Those who do not have new life in Jesus Christ are not the people of God. They are still in darkness. Those who have surrendered to His Lordship and been cleansed from their sin are the chosen people. They have obtained His mercy and live in the kingdom of light.
It is interesting to note that Peter wrote this letter to all the chosen ones 1 Peter 1:1, all the believers, not a group of clergy. There was no such thing as a class of leaders who ruled the ekklesia in the New Testament. He even called these chosen people a royal priesthood. The priesthood of the Old Testament was replaced after Jesus died on the cross. No special clergy is required because we can all be filled with the Holy Spirit. We can hear from God and be used by Him when we get together and use the gifts He gives us.
I don’t use the word “church” anymore because it speaks of a hierarchy of controlling leadership.
Where Did the Word Church Come From?
Here is a definition from a great book that gives its origin.
The English word church is derived from the Greek word kuriakon, which means “belonging to the Lord.” In time, it took on the meaning of “God’s house” and referred to a building. – Viola, Frank. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices (p. 12).
We’ve all heard the building Christians gather in (church) referred to as God’s house! According to The Complete Pilgrim website there are over 300,000 religious buildings in the USA alone and somewhere over 3 million in the world. Really! Wow!! That’s pretty extreme to think God needs to live in all those buildings, especially when you consider that in the Old Testament there was only one, the temple!
The presence of God was in the temple but He was not accessible to everyone. He dwelt in a room called the Holy of Holies. There was a very thick veil (curtain) that separated that room from the rest of the people. No one could stand in the presence of a Holy God. Only the High Priest could go in there just once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to present the blood of a bull and a goat to atone for the sins of the priests and the people of Israel.
When Jesus died on the cross, that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom (signifying God did it, not man). God left that building. Never again would God’s people be excluded from His presence. The blood of Jesus paid for the sins of all believers. No more would animals have to be sacrificed to appease God. Now God lives in us, not in buildings made with hands. Ekklesia, what most call church, is not a building.
Kuriakon, which was the basis for the word church in later years, was used only twice in the New Testament. Once in 1 Corinthians 11:20 referring to the Lord’s Supper. Again in Revelation 1:10, referring to the Lord’s Day. The ekklesia was never referred to as a building and kuriakon is not church. Neither is it a religious system, a denomination, or an institution.
I don’t use the word “church” anymore because it automatically refers to a building that God lives in and belongs to Him. I know He lives in me.
Letting Go of the “C” Word
Ekklesia is the only word used in the original scriptures to identify the assembly of believers. Jesus called it the ekklesia. The apostles called it the ekklesia. So that’s what I call it, too.
I have been reprogramming myself to stop using the church word. Why is that important? Because the very word church creates all these images in our head that are not biblical. They were all invented by men and they are flawed. I don’t want people to have those images when I talk about gathering together as believers, so I won’t use it anymore.
Centuries of religious tradition have watered down the ekklesia from what Jesus wants to build. The good news is that He is changing everything. If you are questioning your involvement in the institutional church or if you love Jesus and think you have to attend one, read this again and pray. Seek the Lord Himself and ask Him what He wants you to do. Don’t think you have to be connected to the system to walk with Him.
Read the referenced Bible verses in this article carefully and pray for insight. You can experience the freedom and joy I found when I discovered the truths I have shared here. It’s an awesome journey. Feel free to come along!
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If you have any questions or comments, contact me.
For more information about the ekklesia Jesus is building check out these excellent resources:
Leaving Church Becoming Ekklesia by Tim Kurtz
Unchurching: Christianity Without Churchianity by Richard Jacobson
7 Facts Why Jesus Didn’t Say He Would Build a Church by Tim Kurtz
Beyond Church: The Lost Word Of The Bible- Ekklesia by Steve Simms
Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola and George Barna
The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament by Frank Viola
Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola
Click here to read a letter I “wrote” to the Holy Spirit about what the institutional church expects of Him today. It ties in with some of the points I made in this article