Many of us learned as children to lace our fingers and say the rhyme: “Here is the church / here is the steeple / open it up / and see all the people.” A funny thing then happened when we grew up: we heard that church in the New Testament never refers to the place in which the people meet but refers always to the people themselves. Meanwhile, we find ourselves inevitably using the word church in three ways. We speak of it as a place—“The youth group will leave at 9:00 a.m. from the church.” We speak of it as the meeting itself—“We’ll have a lunch after church in the fellowship hall.” And we speak of it as a people—“We cannot thank the church enough for your prayers and support.”
This can lead us to wonder, Are we often misusing the word church? The answer has a bit of a story to it. And that story explains why we tend to use the word church in these several ways.
We begin in the first gospel. When Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), the Greek word for “church” is ekklēsia. In all 114 instances that the New Testament uses this word, it designates a people, or an assembly of people, responding to the call of God in Christ. It sometimes refers to the whole people of God and other times to a local congregation (Eph. 5:27; 1 Thess. 1:1). From ekklēsia we call the doctrine of the church “ecclesiology” and speak of the courts of sessions, presbyteries, and synods or assemblies as “ecclesiastical courts.”
In the New Testament, ekklēsia always designates a people, never the place where they meet. The family of Romance languages (such as French and Spanish, each descending from Latin) named the church directly from its New Testament word, ekklēsia. That is why the French speak of l’eglise and the Spanish of la iglesia, each derived from the Latin ecclesia.
It’s more complicated for us English speakers, however, because our word church is from another source. Together with German (Kirche) and Dutch (kerk), the English word church comes not from ekklēsia but from another Greek word, kyriakon, meaning “of a lord” or “belonging to a lord.” Whereas ekklēsia appears 114 times in the New Testament, kyriakon appears twice—once in 1 Corinthians 11:20, where it specifies “the Lord’s supper,” and once in Revelation 1:10, where it designates “the Lord’s day.” But nowhere does the New Testament use kyriakon to refer to the Lord’s people.
Over time, however, Christians began to refer to the meeting place where they would assemble—on the Lord’s Day, often to celebrate the Lord’s Supper—as the kyriakon (abbreviated version of “the Lord’s house”). This means that our word church does technically refer, at least originally, to the physical building and location where Christians would meet to worship. In terms of etymology of the English word church, the children’s rhyme is technically correct: “This is the church / this is the steeple / open it up / and see all the people.”
This created something of a problem for William Tyndale when he was translating the Bible. Tyndale, translating the Greek New Testament into English in 1536, wanted to make clear that ekklēsia in the New Testament refers to the people, not to a place or building. So, he translated ekklēsia as “congregation,” not “church,” rendering Matthew 16:18 as “I wyll bylde my congregacion. And the gates of hell shall not prevayle ageynst it.” But later English translations of the New Testament, most determinatively the King James Version, translated ekklēsia as “church,” and so an English word that originally referred to the meeting place of God’s people has, for the last four hundred years, been doing “double duty,” referring also to God’s people themselves. And thus we find ourselves using it in both ways too.