Unfortunately, because of the many definitions of the modern term “church,” the meaning of the word when we read it in the New Testament is often muddled. Some of that ambiguity has arisen because the English term “church” did not originate from the Greek term ekklesia that it translates in the New Testament. (For more information, see my post “The ekklesia and the kuriakon.”)
The Greek term ekklesia did not and could not carry all of the definitions of the English term “church.” Instead, the term ekklesia always referred to an assembly of people. (For more information, see my posts “The ekklesia of Josephus” and “The ekklesia in context.”) In the instances that interest me, the term ekklesia refer to an assembly of God’s people.
In some cases, the term ekklesia refers to all of God’s people which he has “assembled” or “gathered” out of the world. In other cases – most cases – the term refers to actual gatherings of God’s people, often designated by geography or location. Interestingly, in this latter case, the term ekklesia does seem to refer to subset of a larger ekklesia (i.e. the “church” in someone’s house as a subset of the “church” in a city). However, these subsets are never set against one another; they remain part of the larger ekklesia.
It is important to note that “church” is not exactly a translation of the Greek ekklēsia. The term “church” actually is derived from the German Kirche, which in turn comes from the Greek adjective kuriakon, “belonging to the Lord” (cf. 1 Cor 11:20) or possibly the Latin circus. In the early history of the church, when the New Testament was getting translated from Greek into Latin, there was no clear equivalent in Latin for ekklēsia, and so various terms were proposed. Tertullian used curia (“court”) while Augustine famously wrote of the Civitas Dei (“City of God”).
One surprisingly common term used by various Greek writers was thiasos (“party”), which generally referred to a troop of revelers marching through the city streets with dance and song, often in honor of Bacchus, the god of drunkenness. The point is that many early writers did not know how to translate or describe the term ekklēsia, but the terms they proposed offer tantalizing clues as to how the church functioned and was viewed during its early years.
Are you glad that our Latin forefathers went with “church” or would have preferred one of the others: court, party, City of God, or maybe even Circus? Sometimes I think church is a circus.
Maybe as the church goes through upheavals in modern times, we should search for a new term. Rather than qualifying the term “church” (as in Institutional Church, House Church, Simple Church, Missional Church, Organic Church), we should just use a different word altogether.
I have written more on this in my book, Skeleton Church. Get your copy today!