The Origin of the Word “Church,” Part II: the Acceptance of a Mistranslation

Copyright © 2006, 2015 by Larry G. Overton

The origin of the word "church"In the conclusion of my previous Fact Sheet (“The Origin of the Word ‘Church,’ Part I”) I raised several questions, one of which was “How did this mistranslation [i.e., church] come to be the accepted rendering in English?” As promised, this Fact Sheet[1] is designed specifically to answer this question.

So how did the transliteration/mistranslation church come to be the accepted rendering in English?” The short answer is…(drum roll, please)…the Church! I know that sounds like circular reasoning, but then circular reasoning is a large part of why this term has been foisted upon believers. The socio-economic religious institution called the “Church” was known by that name long before translations of the New Testament (hereafter, NT) into English were allowed. And this religious institution dictated how the Biblical terms in the Greek NT were to be translated.

The King James Version (hereafter, KJV) of the Bible played an important part in popularizing and maintaining the “ecclesiastical” term church. Though the KJV was not the first translation to render the Greek word ekklēsia [ε̉κκλησία] as church, we essentially have the KJV to thank (?) for the standardization of this particular mistranslation. From the version of 1611 onward, translations of the NT into English have consistently followed this pattern of substituting the word church, a transliteration of kuriakos [κυριακός], into the English text instead of translating the meaning of ekklēsia.

The sixteenth century English translations of the New Testament did not all use the term church. The translations of Tyndale (1526), Coverdale (1535), Matthew’s Bible (1537) and the Great Bible (1539) all consistently read congregation where the Greek text has ekklēsia.

The Geneva NT (1557) broke the pattern, rendering ekklēsia as “church” throughout its version of the New Testament. The Bishops’ Bible (1568) was not consistent with itself in this matter. In most cases, the Bishops’ Bible rendered ekklēsia into English as “church,” but in key passages (including the initial New Testament reference, Matthew 16:18), the word “congregation” was used.

The next major version of the Bible in English was a seventeenth century production, being initiated in 1604 and completed by 1611. Of course, I am referring to what we now know as the King James Version. As it turned out, the KJV would come to be considered the Bible in English for more than two and a half centuries. Consequently, this version was the most influential in determining how the Greek term ekklēsia would be rendered into English translations of the NT. And a little knowledge of the history of King James I and the Bible version that bears his name is sufficient to show us why the mistranslation “church” was chosen.

Before he had reached his second birthday, James Stuart became King James VI of Scotland. In 1603, he ascended the throne of England, uniting England and Scotland under one crown. James literally did not know what it was like not to be a king. He therefore was thoroughly committed to the doctrine known as “the divine right of kings.” And he saw episcopal church polity as conducive to monarchy, whereas a more presbyterian form of government he perceived as incompatible with kingship.

At the Hampton Court Conference (January 14, 16, 18, 1604), James referred to the conference’s purpose as “for the hearing, and for the determining, of things pretended to be amiſſe in the Church.”[2] In it, he made the following comments.

“…we acknowledge the gouernment eccleſiaſtical, as it now is, to haue been approued by manifold bleſſings from God himſelfe…”

“I approue the calling and vſe of Biſhops in the Church, and it is my aphoriſm, ‘No Biſhop, no King.’”

“I will have one doctrine, one diſcipline, one religion, in ſubſtance and in ceremony.”

“If you aim at a Scottish preſbyterie, it agreeth as well with monarchy as God and the devil. Then Jack, and Tom, and Will, and Dick, ſhall meet and cenſure me and my Councill.”

“If this be all your [Puritan] party hath to ſay, I will make them conform themſelues, or elſe I will harry them out of the land, or elſe do worſe.”

The best thing to come out of the Hampton Court Conference was the proposal for a new translation, which of course we know as the King James Version. However, even this happy result had its down side: the KJV reflects the high church, institutional religious mindset. In responding to the idea of new translation, James I said

“I wiſh ſome ſpecial paines were taken for an vniform tranſlation; which ſhould be done by the beſt learned in both vniuerſities, then reuiewed by the Biſhops, preſented to the Privy Councill, laſtly ratified by royall authoritie to be read in the whole Church, and no other.”

Clearly, then, it was to be a version produced by and geared toward the institutional church. Richard Bancroft, the Bishop (and later Archbishop) of London, represented James in expediting the work of translation. Bancroft (with perhaps the help of even king James himself) set forth rules for the prospective translators to follow. Rule number three for the translators read as follows:

The old ecclesiaſtical words to be kept, viz, the word Church not to be tranſlated Congregation, & c.

The translators of the KJV, therefore, were not only instructed to utilize “ecclesiastical words” in their translation; they were also explicitly instructed to translate the Greek word ekklēsia as “Church.” Virtually every English translation since has followed the long-standing precedent set by KJV, rendering ekklēsia as “church.”

[1] This Fact Sheet was first written in 2006. I offer it now in its present form, with only slight revisions.

[2] This quote of King James I, as well as all subsequent quotations, are presented here accurately. That means they are not only verbatim quotes, but the orthographic details of the way they were written down have been preserved as well. These statements were recorded when the written word in the early period of Modern English was still in a state of flux. Words like “amiſſe” (amiss) were commonly spelled with a silent “e” on the end of the word. Even more striking to us was the use of the special character “ſ” known as a long (or script) s. It looked somewhat like the present form of the letter “f,” but without the crossbar. It was used in the initial and medial positions (i.e., at the beginning and in the middle of a word), but not the final position (i.e., the end of a word). Other irregularities (from our perspective) include: the use of u for v (as in “gouernment” and “approued”); the use of v for u (“vſe” and “vniform”); inconsistent use of –ie/–y endings (compare “ceremony,” “preſbyterie,” “monarchy” and “authoritie”); and doubling of some final consonants (see “Councill” and “royall” above). Of course, other archaic features found in these quotes are grammatical, not orthographic, such as the –eth ending of 3rd person singular present indicative verbs (see “agreeth”).