Definitions – 1

Copyright © June 10, 2015 by Larry G. Overton


Copyright © June 10, 2015 by Larry G. Overton

As I anticipate subjects I will be writing about in the foreseeable future, I will occasionally have to define some terms pertaining to those subjects. The reasons for needing to supply definitions will vary.

In some cases, the words I plan to use that apply to the topic at hand are absolutely valid, expressing just what needs to be said on a given topic. But the word in question is just unfamiliar as a general rule, so a definition is in order.

In other cases, the word in question is familiar enough, but the term is either widely misunderstood or has been blatantly misappropriated for reasons of personal and/or political vested interest.

For this first installment in a series of “Definitions,” I will deal with an example from the latter category.[1]


Since I have recently posted a couple of Fact Sheets on the origin of the word church, I will make that word the focus of this first “Definitions” installment. In those articles, I have spoken of the origins of the word, but haven’t dealt with the modern definition, so that will be more what I focus on here.

And so let me start with a modern definition, from a 21st century source: the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.[2] And I retrieved the online definition of church (the noun, adjective and verb forms) just now.[3]

The primary definition given for the noun church is “a building for public and especially Christian worship.” The secondary definition is “the clergy or officialdom of a religious body.” The third definition refers to “a body or organization of religious believers,” as applied to either: (a) the totality of believers in Christ; (b) a specific denomination; or (c) a congregation. The next definition is of “a public divine worship,” as in “goes to church every Sunday.” And finally, the noun church is also defined as “the clerical profession,” as in “he considered the church as a possible career.”

The adjective simply means “of or relating to a church,” as in “church government.” In British usage, the adjective means “of or relating to the established church.” As for the verb form, to church means “to bring to church to receive one of its rites.”

However, now that I have given the modern definition of church in its various forms and applications, I must add that the modern definition isn’t so modern. In fact, this word church in its various forms has been used pretty much the same way for centuries. The wording in various dictionaries down through time may vary slightly, but only slightly, and each of the definitions and applications given above go back a long way. Indeed, that Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says of the noun and adjective forms that their first known use was before the 12th century, and the verbal form was known before the 14th century.

And looking back at the term during that period of the English language (Middle English), we see that this is so. Another great online resource for the Middle English language is Middle English Dictionary (MED), hosted on the University of Michigan’s website.[4] Utilizing that resource, I find numerous examples in 12th century manuscripts, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, etc. of church (spelled various ways, such as cherche and chirche) used in the very same ways we find it used today.

In 1755, Samuel Johnson published in two volumes what would become the benchmark for all dictionaries to follow: A Dictionary of the English Language.[5] In Volume I, on page 375 is his entry for the word church, his definitions (with quotes from William Shakespeare, Richard Hooker, Isaac Watts, etc.) track consistently with those found in a 21st century dictionary.

And the same could be said of the dictionaries bearing Noah Webster’s name, beginning with his An American Dictionary of the English Language in two volumes, 1828.[6] The Merriam brothers (George and Charles) bought the rights to the 1841 edition of Webster’s dictionary, as well as the rights to create revisions. And the Merriam-Webster unabridged and collegiate dictionaries have been bestsellers and standard bearers for more than 150 years. And in all that time, the definitions of the noun, adjective and verb forms have stayed essentially the same.[7]

So the term church is used today in pretty much the same way as it has for more than eight centuries. It can refer to a congregation, a denomination, a building, a religious service or to the clergy. But of all these longstanding and accepted definitions, only the first, a congregation, actually represents a Biblical concept.

As I said before, I have already written about the origins of the word church and how it is a mistranslation of the word underlying it in the Greek New Testament, ekklēsia [ε̉κκλησία]. My next Fact Sheet will cover that Greek term and its meaning. But you need to know that while church is a perfectly familiar word in the English language, its origins have to do with religion rather than Bible translation. Consequently, when I use the word church in any of my writings or conversations, I always use it to refer to the religious institution in its various applications and shades of meaning. I never use it to refer to the Biblical concept.

[1] As with all my writings, I have supplied (or will supply) in my bibliography pages the source materials I quote from or refer to in footnotes or the main body of an article.

[2] The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is based on the print version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, Frederick C. Mish, Editor in Chief. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.

[3] “church.” 2015. (10 June 2015).


[5] Also available online:

[6] In Webster’s 1828 edition, the entry for church is in Volume I, page 382. It is also available online at and

[7] Cf. Webster, Noah, Revised and Enlarged by Chauncey A. Goodrich, An American Dictionary of the English Language. Springfield, Mass.: George & Charles Merriam & Co., 1861. Its definitions of church as both noun and transitive verb are found on pages 202-3. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: A Dictionary of the English Language. Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Co. Copyright © 1898. See pages 151-2. Gove, Philip Babcock (Editor-in-Chief), Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Co. Copyright © 1961. See page 404. Gove, Philip Babcock (Editor-in-Chief), Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, based on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Co. Copyright © 1972. See page 149.