Sunday, May 14, 2023

"Church" Or "Congregation"?

Many scholars believe that the first letter Paul ever wrote was his letter to the Galatians. If so, we find Paul's earliest use of the Greek noun ekklēsia in Gal. 1:2. Here Paul uses the plural, "to the churches of Galatia." He is probably referring to the churches in the southern part of the province. Specifically, these were churches in Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. You can read about them in Acts 13-14. In each of these towns there was a "church." It's universally recognized that the word ekklēsia in the New Testament can be used in at least two ways. It can refer to the universal church, or it can refer to local churches. In Gal. 1:13, Paul has the universal church in mind when he writes, "I persecuted the church of God." But, as we have seen in verse 2, this universal church can be divided into local churches. Not into denominations, but into congregations. Hence the NEB renders this phrase in verse 2, not as "to the churches of Galatia," but rather as "to the Christian congregations in Galatia." 

Interestingly, Martin Luther, when translating the New Testament from Greek into German, translated ekklēsia as Gemeinde ("congregation") instead of Kirche ("church"). Possibly influenced by Luther, both the Tyndale Bible (1526) and the Coverdale Bible (1635) use "congregation." In fact, in most cases, "congregation" or "Christian community" is the most accurate translation of ekklēsia. The Bishops' Bible (1568) and later the King James Version (1611) uniformly translated ekklēsia as "church" in order to strengthen the status of the institution. 

While driving in Dallas recently I saw a church sign that struck me like a bolt of thunder. The church was a Catholic church, and the sign read "St. Rita Catholic Community." Bingo! That's exactly the idea of the Greek ekklēsia, which, of course, never referred to a building. 

We urgently need to return to this concept of church. Words that once throbbed with life and meaning are now dead and dying. This is the case with the word "church." In common usage it means little more than a building one drives to on Sunday. Churches tend to be aggregations of individuals rather than congregations -- communities of believers who devote themselves to koinōnia and who share both life and service together. 

Thus to call the local church a congregation or a community has very practical consequences.