Ekklesia and Kurakios
Time for a biblical Greek geek-out. It is pretty common knowledge that the word translated as “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia. What I did not know until recently reading from the book Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is how we got to the word church instead. Clearly it is not a direct inheritance. Here’s the fascinating (to me) meanings behind each word:
When Christians first described their own collective identity, with its customs, structures, and officer-bearers, they used the Greek word ekklesia, which has passed hardly modified into Latin and its successor languages. Greek-speaking Jews before the Christians had used the same word to speak of Israel. Ekklesia is already common in the Greek New Testament: there it means ‘Church’, but it is borrowed from Greek political vocabulary, where it signified the assembly of citizens of the polis [city-state] who met to make decisions. So the ekklesia represents the polis, a local identity within the greater whole of Christianity or Christendom, just as the Greek polis represented the local identity of the great whole Hellas, ‘Greekdom’. Yet the Christian ekklesia has become more complicated, because the word can also describe the universal Church, the equivalent of Hellas, as well as the local – not to mention the fragments of universal Christianity with particular identities which call themselves ‘Church’, and even the buildings which house all these different entities.
There is a further interesting dimension of the word. If the ekklesia is the embodiment of the city or polis of God, lurking in the word ekklesia is the idea that the faithful have a collective responsibility for decisions about the future of the polis, just as the people of the polis did in ancient Greece. This creates a tension with another borrowing from Greek which has passed into several northern European languages, and which appears in English as the word ‘church’ or in Scots English as ‘kirk’. This started life as an adjective which emerged in late Greek, kuriake, ‘belonging to the Lord’, and because of that, it emphasizes the authority of the master, rather than the decision of those assembled. The tension between these perspectives has run through the history of ecclesia/kirk, and is with Christians still.
It’s amazing how language can so succinctly sum up differing concepts of what the church – or maybe I should say ekklesia – should be. In the early days we were a group of people meeting to help each other making decisions as citizens of the Kingdom of God. In other words, it was very outward-focused or horizontally-focused, even while having strong praise and prayer elements of course. Then we shifted to a vertical-focus where church was primarily about us and God, an attitude that I think predominates most churches.
I also had a similar conversation with a friend this weekend regarding worship songs. His church basically won’t sing anything that isn’t entirely about ascribing attributes to God. Clearly we need a good dose of that and I definitely do not want to belittle praising God. I do want to go beyond it, though, and actually make commitments that impact my life, so I appreciate songs like Lincoln Brewster’s “The Power of Your Name” (the initiator of the conversation) or any of the many others that concretely say the kind of things that it means to follow Jesus.
It’s a big question and not a particularly clear one. I’m sure we’d all say that both elements should be true, but what is the primary purpose – the defining characteristic to the point that we would use that word to describe it – of the church? Is it like an ekklesia, an “outpost of the Kingdom” as I’ve heard some say? Or it is more like a kurakios, a sacred place for you to connect with God?