What’s In a Word? Thoughts on Translations, Interpretations, and the Weight of History

What’s in a word?  In a very real sense, it’s the meaning we give it.  Unfortunately, if that meaning is different from the author’s intent, we have done violence to his work.  Nowhere is this more evident that in the realm of religion.  Translations and interpretations may be faithful to the original, or they may carry the thought farther from its initial purpose, with every subsequent interpretation taking on a new layer of implied meanings.

When I was growing up, I heard it said so many times that a “church” is not a building, it is people.  Now, in a religious sense, that is true.  I was so assailed with that concept that I thought it was a practically unforgivable sin to use the word in such a way.  However, it is not a sin to call an ornate edifice a church, if that is indeed a culture’s common term for such a house of worship.   After all these years, I can see that as long as we know the intent of the speaker, it really isn’t so criminal after all.

The greater damage in my humble opinion is the willful misapplication of the term “church” to force it to mean an institution, with special attention to its institutional structure and governance.  When Jesus made the declaration that on the foundation of faith in him, he would build his church (Matthew 16.18), it was obvious he wasn’t referring to an architectural project.  The traditional view has been that of founding the institution of the “church.”

Add to this the mistranslation in Acts 2.47, where the Lord added daily to their number –not the “church” as the KJV translators proposed, going against the earliest of the ancient texts—those that were being saved, and the institutional concept was well under way, collecting the mass of tradition as it gained speed rolling down the steep slope of history.

But is that what Jesus really meant?  Anyone who has studied the scriptures at all knows that the Greek word, ekklesia–literally a group of people called out to assemble in a public place–is usually translated as “church,” a word with obvious institutional overtones, built from centuries of misuse and misunderstanding.

If we revisit Matthew 16.18 and try some different and equivalent translations, we may understand Jesus’ intention better. 

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  (ESV, traditional wording, emphasis mine)

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades (=death) shall not prevail against it.”      

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my congregation, and the gates of Hades (=death) shall not prevail against it.”

The alternate versions capture what Jesus was going to build: a chosen people, a community, a new Israel.  What we have focused on far too many times is the word “church” and all that it has accreted over two millennia. 

This misconception has many and far-reaching effects: one that I have heard on many occasions is that in order to go to heaven, you have to be a member of the “right” church.  This is institutional church-ism at its finest. But if the church is people, then the church can only be “right” if it is made up of people who have by the grace of God been made right, justified by his free gift through the sacrifice Jesus made for us (Romans 3.24).  To tout that membership in the “right” church as being the central requirement and most essential component of salvation is getting the cart tragically before the newborn foal.    

If we consider Acts 2.47 in its actual sense, not its traditionally mistranslated sense, this issue is easily cleared up.  God added new Christians to the number of those that made up the congregation, the assembly, the community of believers.  If we focus on getting ourselves right with God, he does the adding.  His view is far more comprehensive than ours.  He knows whom he has accepted.  And his membership roster is more important than any we might devise.    

Eliminating the word “church” with its institutional baggage may help focus on what it really means to be a part of that group.  Using an alternate word could reinforce the idea of family, which is perfectly biblical, and it could also provide the image of an army, which is also scriptural.  Focusing on “church,” however, with all its added nuances relating to polity, governance, and perceived and disputed function takes away from the reality of what I was taught all those years ago. 

The church is people.  Redeemed people.  People made whole by the saving grace of God.

The immigrant story seems particularly pertinent here: when an immigrant wishes to become a citizen, he petitions the government, takes a test, takes an oath, and is declared legally a part of his adopted country, with all of its rights, privileges, and obligations as allowed, afforded or required by law.  He becomes a part of the community of citizens.

Isn’t it like that when becoming a Christian? We petition God for his mercy and respond to his grace through acts that symbolize our penitent conversion and submission.  Then we are added to the community of believers, with all its rights, privileges, and obligations.  What we have called the “church.”

But it’s really just people. 

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