The Origin of the Word “Church” – Part I

Copyright © 2003, 2005, 2006, 2015 by Larry G. Overton[1]

The origin of the word "church"The word church is thoroughly entrenched in the vocabulary of the English-speaking Christian. It is a part of the very fabric of his or her thinking. Indeed, the word church is a well-established part of the English language. Christians and non-Christians alike would find it difficult to do without this word at their disposal.

So what does the word church mean? It is generally assumed that this is a Biblical word. And, yes, it is found in most English versions of the New Testament. Most people today know that the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and that our English versions of the New Testament are actually translations of the Greek into English.

A number of questions come up at this point. What Greek word is behind our English term church? Where did this English word church come from, and how does it relate to the New Testament? Does it accurately translate the term found in the Greek New Testament? Answering these questions is what this Fact Sheet is about.

Etymologists generally agree that the English word church is derived from the Middle English and Old English forms, which in turn were derived from other Germanic/Indo-European languages. Ultimately, the etymology of the word church is a transliteration from an ancient Greek word. This is an important point, so please bear with me as I now take the time to explain the concept of transliteration.

To transliterate is to “represent or spell in the characters of another alphabet.” For example, “angel” is the common rendering in the characters of the English alphabet of the Greek word angelos [ἄγγελος].[2] A translation of the meaning of this Greek word into English would be “messenger.”

So then, the English word church and its older forms are ultimately a transliteration of the Greek adjective kuriakos [κυριακός], which means of (or belonging to) the Lord. The Greek word kuriakos is found in the New Testament, but just barely. It occurs exactly two times, once in 1 Corinthians 11:20 and once in Revelation 1:10. Let’s take a look at these two passages.

Therefore, when you are gathering yourselves together, it is not to eat the Lord’s [Greek, kuriakon (κυριακὸν)] supper. [1 Corinthians 11:20, LGO[3]]

The Greek word kuriakon in this verse is the accusative neuter singular form of the adjective kuriakos, which as I have already pointed out means of (or belonging to) the Lord. So in this verse the word from which we get the transliteration church is not a noun signifying the body of Christ, but an adjective identifying the supper “of the Lord.”

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s [Greek, kuriakē (κυριακη̃)] day, and I did hear behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet… [Revelation 1:10]

The Greek word kuriakē in this verse is the dative feminine singular form of the adjective kuriakos. So in this verse we find once again that the word from which we get the transliteration church is not a noun signifying the body of Christ, but an adjective identifying the day “of the Lord.”

And that’s it. The Greek term from which our English word church is transliterated (kuriakos) is found just two times in the New Testament. And the contexts of these two passages have nothing to do with the idea of a building, a worship service, a congregation or denomination, meanings typically associated with the word church.

“Wait just a minute,” you might protest. “What about all the times that the word church appears in my English version of the New Testament? Are you telling me that in each of these passages the word church is an improper translation?” That’s a good question. The word church occurs 80 times in the King James Version of the New Testament. The plural form (churches) occurs 37 times.[4] Am I saying that the word church mistranslates the original Greek term found in each of these verses?

In a word, “Yes.” That is what I am saying. When you read the word church in your English version of the Bible, you are not reading a translation of the Greek word found in that text. We have already established that the word church is not a translation but a transliteration of the Greek adjective kuriakos. And when you encounter the word church in your English version of the New Testament, the Greek word behind it is not the adjective kuriakos but rather the Greek noun ekklēsia [ε̉κκλησία], which occurs 114 times in the Greek New Testament. So the word church is not only a transliteration of one Greek word; it is substituted in our English versions of the New Testament for an entirely different Greek word.

Let’s take a moment and let this information sink in. The word church in our English translations of the New Testament fails to translate the Greek term ekklēsia. The term church is a representation of the spelling of a Greek word (i.e., a transliteration), and not the rendering of its meaning into English (i.e., a translation). Furthermore, when we encounter the word church in our English translations, this transliteration of one Greek word (the Greek adjective kuriakos) is a substitution for another Greek word (the Greek noun ekklēsia).

The word church, therefore, is truly a mistranslation. It came about as a result of clergymen being unwilling to translate the meaning, further hiding their failure to translate with the substitution of an altogether different word. The word church does not help us discover what the Greek noun ekklēsia means.

Some of you reading this Fact Sheet might well ask me at this point, “How did this mistranslation come to be the accepted rendering in English?” Others of you may be asking, “So what exactly does the Greek term ekklēsia mean?” Subsequent Fact Sheets will answer these questions.

[1] I first wrote this Fact Sheet in 2003. I have updated fonts and characters, and have made a few very minor revisions for the sake of (hopefully) clarity. Essentially, though, this article appears at it did on my website a dozen years ago.

[2] In all of my writings, I use the same conventions when transliterating words from other languages (particularly Biblical [Hebrew, Aramaic & Greek] and ecclesiastical [Latin] languages) into English. I first supply the word in its transliterated form, that is, spelled with English characters, but in bold face and in italics, as, for example, with angelos above. I then follow the transliteration with the word itself in its own characters, in this case Greek characters, and placed within brackets.

[3] All quotations of Scripture, unless otherwise noted, are my own translation.

[4] The numbers will vary slightly, but only slightly, in other English versions. E.g., in the NKJV, the singular form church occurs 74 times, the plural churches 36 times. In the NIV, 79 times and 35 times, respectively.