The History of “Church”

The English word “church” is used in the Bible 77 times, translated from the Greek word kūriakon. But as we discussed earlier, this word didn’t exist during the first century when Jesus said He would build His ekklesia. So why is it translated as “church” today? As we will see, it was more than just etymology. Something greater was at stake. William Tyndale was the first person to translate the Bible directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts. Unfortunately, he was not authorized by the king to translate the Bible into English, so he paid dearly for his great work. Beginning in 1525, he finished the entire New Testament and the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). His translation of the Bible was also the first to be mass printed using an early printing press. As a result, his Bible translation made it into the hands of the common people, posing a dire threat to the two reigning religious institutions at the time: the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England (which was controlled by the King of England ). Control of scripture was vital to both organizations, as it enabled control of the people. Of course, had Tyndale stopped there, he might have been all right, but he also included his commentaries with his Bible translations which were considered heresy to both of these powerful churches, thus making him powerful enemies. One of Tyndale’s greatest offenses, however, was his translation of Matthew 16 and 18. Specifically, he did not use the English word “church” that is used today. Instead, he used “congregation.” That’s it—” congregation.” One little word. One great transgression. So why was this simple change an affront to the prevailing powers? Because “congregation” refers to the people, not just to leadership . Outside of the purview and control of the rulers, Tyndale’s translation— in line with Jesus’ intent— told people that they were free to receive Christ and be part of His ekklesia, and that they would have authority given by God. They were not the laity to be ruled by a privileged few. By translating the Bible as he did, Tyndale gave the power and authority of God’s word into the hands of every Christian rather than merely the Church leaders. Tyndale’s threat to the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England eventually became too great for these religious establishments to bear, and they reacted as any threatened organization would do— with swift and certain vengeance. Tyndale was finally arrested by church authorities in 1535, tried and convicted of heresy, and imprisoned for over 500 days in horrible conditions. He was then strangled and burnt at the stake in the prison yard in 1536. His last words on Earth were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Tyndale’s prayer was answered three years later, resulting in the publication of King Henry Vlll’s 1539 English Great Bible. Tyndale paid a great price for a great leap forward. Then in 1604, on the heels of the Great Bible, King James of England also authorized the translation of the Bible into the English language. He chose 47 scholars for the translation work, and while their credentials were impeccable, there was also some bias. For starters, each one of the translators was a member of the Church of England— firmly under the rule and reign of the King. As such, they were under obligation to the King and required to follow his requirements. King James laid out 15 rules for the translators; most of which resulted in excellent scholarship, but at least one revealed an alternative agenda.

Rule three stated: 3. The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation & c.

Again, we see a battle over a seemingly insignificant word. Yet King James’ seemingly simple requirement was to have profound implications for how we view Jesus’ intentions towards His future kingdom government. King James’ obvious intent was to consolidate power within enforceable boundaries—the Church of England— and ensure that no other entity could establish a form of government beyond his control. It seemed that King James had not forgotten the transgressions of Tyndale’s translation after all, even though James’ translators used 90% of Tyndale’s translation. Hence, “church” gave King James a sense of security and control, whereas other translations of ekklesia, such as “congregation,” “assembly,” or worst of all “government,” probably threatened him. This ekklesia was truly a threat to Satan and the domain of darkness.

Joe Nicola

Excerpt from my book “Ekklesia: The Government of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth” 

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