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‘Church’ vs. ‘Assembly’

By Nelson Thomas, Mumbai

         Recent developments among the brethren in Kerala India show the confusion prevailing among some believers about church doctrine and practices according to the New Testament.

Around 180 years ago it pleased the Lord to help their forefathers to re-discover several precious church truths hidden for many centuries. As a result they came out of the ecclesiastical traditions of that time and began to gather together according to the New Testament pattern. They had no plan to begin a new denomination; they had no head other than the Lord Jesus Christ. These independent local churches were known as the ‘assemblies’. The world called them ‘the brethren’. Their teachings touched many hearts and though not part of this group, many Christians began to follow their teachings. Today there are so many such autonomous assemblies all over the world who fervently follow the New Testament pattern as taught by these godly men.

Changing times
        Of late some of the ‘leaders’ feel that it is necessary to make some changes in their doctrine and practices because of the changing times! One such event took place recently in Kerala India, which hurt many who love and follow the ‘Assembly Distinctives’.

        The law of the land is not against these believers. No authority has made any pressure to make any changes in their church practice. But just because of some comments made by certain people in connection with a particular assembly hall, the ‘leaders’ of Kerala brethren came together and decided to adopt a new name that is ‘Brethren Church’. This decision arouses many questions.

        Since we believe the autonomy of the assembly how can a group of ‘leaders’ decide for another assembly? However they may try to say that it is not a central authority, the outcome would be the same. Certain influential people will begin to control the affairs of the local congregations. The elders / evangelists of such local assemblies will be forced to follow their guidelines for survival!

        Secondly how can we demand a uniform title for independent assemblies who use different titles? All over the world ‘the brethren’ use different title for their gatherings like ‘Christian Assembly’, ‘believer’s Assembly’ etc. Their gathering place is also called in various ways like, ‘gospel hall’, ‘meeting room’, ‘Good news centre’, and ‘Bible Chapel’ etc.

        Thirdly how strange it is to change our stand today after teaching it in all these years? Is it because we taught a wrong concept earlier? So far we taught that ‘Church’ is not a building and now we demand others to acknowledge that our assembly hall / meeting room is also a Church. How contradictory!

Brethren Blunder?

        In this brief note we will focus on the terms ‘assembly’ and ‘church’. It seems there are certain believers who think that the early brethren made a grave mistake by using the term ‘assembly’ instead of the more common word ‘church’.

        What made the early brethren teachers to use the word ‘assembly’ instead of ‘church’? Was it a mistake? Most of us know it very well that their effort was to go as per the scripture not just the traditional way. In fact that’s what we have been teaching in all these years.

‘Ekklesia’- The meaning

        We know that the Greek word for ‘church’ is ‘ekklesia’ which means ‘an out-calling’. In everyday usage it meant ‘an assembly of people’. Especially a gathering of citizens called out from their homes in to some public place. This word is never used for a structure.

        In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word ‘ekklesia’ is used referring to the gathering of the people of Israel.

Judges 21:8b:- “And, in fact no one had come to the camp from Jabesh Gilead to the assembly.”
1Chronicles 29:1:- “Furthermore Kind David said to all the assembly...”
        In the both the places KJV used the word ‘assembly’ for ‘ekklesia’.

In the New Testament this word occurs more than hundred times but only at three places translated correctly.

Acts 19: 32 “The assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”
Acts 19: 39 “but if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly.”
Acts 19:41 “And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.”

In the above three references the Greek word ‘ekklesia’ is correctly translated as ‘assembly’. In verse 32 and 41 reference is to a disorganized gathering of people. In verse 39 ‘assembly’ refers to a specially called out lawful gathering.

Translator’s error
However, in the remaining occurrences of the same word (‘ekklesia’), KJV translators chose to use ‘church’. Even, while referring to Israel in the Old Testament they used the word ‘church’ for ‘ekklesia’. Cf. Acts 7:38:- “that was in the church in the wildernesses”. We know there was no ‘church’ in the Old Testament. The reference is to the congregation of Israel as the specially called out people of God. In the NKJV they have changed ‘church’ in this reference to ‘congregation’ and NIV uses ‘assembly’.

         Then what made the translators of Authorized Version (AV/KJV) to use the word ‘church’ which is neither a translation nor a transliteration of ‘ekklesia’?

        According to the late Dr. C. V. Baby, “The King James ordered the word ‘church’ to be used despite the protest from translators.” (Basic Bible Doctrine page 152)Another writer Mr. Hamilton Smith writes, “In Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, the basis of the Authorized Version, the Greek word is rightly translated by the word ‘congregation’; but in our authorized Version of 1611, King James for political reason, insisted that the ecclesiastical word ‘church’ should be used, and the Revised Version has unfortunately retained the word. In the New Translation by the late J. N. Darby, the word ‘assembly’ is used, and beyond question this is the simple and proper translation.” (The Assembly, page 2)So it is clear that even the translators themselves were not happy to use the traditional word ‘church’ as it doesn’t signify what Christ meant by ‘ekklesia’. They were forced to retain the common word.

‘Kuriakos’ vs. ‘ekklesia’
Does it mean church is a bad word? No. The word ‘Church’ comes from the Greek word ‘Kuriakos’ meaning ‘of or belonging to the Lord’. But that is not what the Lord intended when He said, ‘I will build my ‘ekklesia’’. Matt 16:18. He was speaking of a special group of people who will be called out from every tribe and nations for God. Cf. Acts 15:14. Definitely, what the listeners understood then is entirely different from the general impression ‘church’ gives today.

         Donald L. Norbie writes, “By the time of Christ the term ‘ekklesia’ was well known through out the civilized world. To the Gentile it was the city assembled; to the Jew it was the gathering of God’s people in a public assembly.” Referring to the word ‘church’ he wrote, “It is a most unfortunate rendering which has become an inescapable part of the English Christian Vocabulary because of its use in the King James Version.” (The New Testament Church Organization page 22, 23)Donald L. Norbie quotes the statement of Mr. Adolph Deissmann, which summarizes the topic well:
“The first scattered congregations of Greek speaking Christians up and down the Roman Empire spoke of themselves as a “[convened] assembly”; at first each single congregation was so called, and afterwards the whole body of Christians everywhere was spoke of collectively as “the [convened] assembly.” That is most literal translation of the Greek word ‘ekklesia’. This self-bestowed name rested on the certain conviction that God has separated from the world His “saints” in Christ, and had “called” or “convened” them to an assembly, which was “God’s assembly”, “God’s muster”, because God was the convener.” (Light from the Ancient East Page 112)

Truths re-discovered
        The early brethren leaders whom the Lord used to re-discover number of New Testament Church truths in the early part of nineteenth century chose to use to the most appropriate word ‘assembly’ instead of ‘church’ for their gatherings. Of course they did use the term ‘church’ occasionally however they understood the difference between assembly, church and the traditional concept of church.

        They believed that according to the New Testament, Church is neither a building nor an organization but a gathering (assembly) of God’s people saved and separated by the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Cf Acts 11:22; 14:27 etc.

        Not only the Brethren Assembly teachers but many other Bible scholars too use the word ‘assembly’ while refereeing to local churches. Because they know that the term ‘assembly’ is the most appropriate word for the Greek word ‘ekklesia’.

        Finally, let me close this note quoting Mr. H.G. Mackey, “Taking in to consideration the modern connotation of the word “church” as previously discussed, it would seem that ‘assembly’ is the preferable translation of ekklesia, as more nearly approximating the meaning of that Greek word, when referring to the gathering together of believers in Christ.” (Assembly Distinctives page 10)

        After using the most suitable word ‘assembly’ for more than a century, why should we change it to ‘church’ which does not signify what the Bible says about the gathering of God’s people? Shall we sacrifice our conviction just for the sake of more social acceptance? Is it not the best opportunity to present the New Testament Church truth as we believe and teach? Following something in ignorance is one thing but forsaking the truth even after knowing and tasting is entirely a different thing. Cf. Hebrews 6:4—6; 10:26, 27; 2Peter 2:20—22.

May the Lord help us to be aware of the preciousness of the teachings that we hold and teach.



Related topics:- Some Unique facts about the Church
                      What is Church?


Prepared by Nelson Thomas as part of his teaching ministry. You are free to use it for your personal study. You can also reproduce this article in any medium, provided it is unedited, and retain the original author / copyright information and
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