Looper column: The curious origin of the word ‘church’
Ask people about the church, and most will tell you where the church is. It’s on the corner of Main and Fourth - as if the church is the building in which a group of people meets.
Some may tell you the denomination of the church. It is a Methodist church, a Presbyterian church, or maybe “a holy roller church.” Don’t bother asking what a holy roller church is. For that matter, asking the difference between the Methodists and the Presbyterians will probably not yield an adequate answer, either.
I once invited a man to visit our church and he immediately replied that he had his own church, which was obviously meant to put me off. It didn’t. I said, “Great! Which church is that?”
He seemed surprised by the question and I could see he was searching his memory for a name. The best he could do was: “Uh, it’s the one on Parkman Road … uh, just before you get to the overpass.”
I said, “You mean the Nazarene Church?”
His eyes lit up, he pointed is finger at me and said, “That’s the one!”
It was like I’d won the prize on “Let’s Make a Deal.”
The word “church” has a complicated history. It is probably derived from Old English “cirice,” which in turn came from the German “kirika,” which likely came from the Greek “kuriake,” which means “of the Lord.” Some scholars dispute this, saying that our English word derives from the Anglo-Saxon “kirke,” which in turn comes from the Latin “circus” (meaning “circle” or “ring”) because early congregants gathered in a circle.
Somehow, the idea that the words “church” and “circus” are related seems fitting. Sometimes, the church is like a circus. However, the oldest word for church is completely unrelated to any of these derivations.
The oldest word for church, the word that St. Paul himself used, is the Greek word “ecclesia,” from which we get the terms “ecclesial” and “ecclesiastical.” The word was in use centuries before the Christian church appeared on the scene. It referred to a socio-political gathering of citizens, who were called together to attend to the concerns of their city.
The term’s political associations probably had little to do with its use by the followers of Jesus. Those earliest followers probably borrowed the word from the popular Greek translation of the Old Testament, where it referred to Israel’s sacred assemblies, called together to worship or conduct business. It was natural for the first followers of Jesus, nearly all of whom were Jews, to borrow the familiar term for their assemblies.
Nevertheless, as news spread across the Mediterranean that a potential rival to Caesar had appeared, and that his followers were gathering in ecclesia, the ancient meaning of the word must surely have come to mind. That the Christians (Christ-ones or Christ-supporters) were meeting in socio-political gatherings across the empire caused the emperor and his prefects to see the church as a threat and attempt to abolish it.
Few people see the church as a threat today, though many politicians see it as a resource to be leveraged or an obstacle to be avoided in the acquisition of power. Some within the church have encouraged such thinking as a way to snatch at least the leftover crumbs of power. This betrays a misunderstanding of the church that is based on a category error.
Society at large - the “world” in biblical parlance - is not the dominant category into which the church must negotiate a place. On the contrary, St. Paul would say the church is the principal reality the world and society are called to join. In any biblical understanding, the church is the future.
It is a general election year, which means the church sometimes looks more like a circus than an ecclesia. The best thing the church can do for society is to be the church as Jesus intended and as his apostles instructed. Then the world will see what a just society looks like: a society where people are respected; burdens are shared; talents are used and not exploited; the poor are valued and the rich are helpful. Then the church will become the prototype of what the world can and, by God’s grace, will be.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.