No, this post is not about what you may be thinking. The word I had in mind was...CHURCH. This word, which has been in the English language for a very long time, has also had times of unpopularity among people who consider themselves followers of Christ. I've been involved lately in a discussion on Facebook about what the Greek word εκκλεσια (ekklesia) meant in its New Testament context: was it another word for "synagogue," or did it refer specifically to a group of people? And where did this English word "church" come from?
Well, it turns out that εκκλεσια has a rather complex history. In the Septuagint, it was often used interchangeably with συναγογη (synagoge) to translate the Hebrew word qahal, which is often translated "assembly." In the New Testament, εκκλεσια seems to be used mainly to describe the group of people who recognized Jesus as Messiah, whereas συναγογη seems to describe the place where Jews gathered for prayer and Scripture study. And how about the word "church"? It was derived from a Greek phrase κυριακον δομα (kyriakon doma), which meant "the Lord's house." So we're back to a word that describes the building instead of the people. Where it gets confusing is that the English word "church" is used in the vast majority of English translations to translate εκκλεσια. You can see how the whole thing got a bit confusing.
During the Protestant Reformation, reaction against the institutional Church (with a capital C) caused many of the reformers to use words that emphasized the congregational aspect of εκκλεσια. Luther's Bible uses "Gemeinde" (congregation), rather than "Kirche" (church). And the original printing of the Geneva Bible, favored by the Puritans, used "congregation" instead of "church," as Tyndale had done before that.
Which brings me to today. Here in Nashville, it's been said that you can't throw a rock without hitting a church. Indeed, we have lots of churches in Nashville. Most of them have the word "church" somewhere in their names: Charlotte Pike Church of Christ, St. Ann's Catholic Church, St. John's United Methodist Church, Christ Church Cathedral, etc. But I have noticed several congregations that have signs that read something like: Abundant Harvest Worship Center, or Bethel World Outreach Center, or Oak Hill Assembly. My favorite is the sign outside of Westminster Presbyterian Church that reads: "Westminster Presbyterian Church Gathers Here." That is a neat way of emphasizing that the church itself is not the building, but the people who meet there. There is certainly a lot of baggage attached to the word "church," and it's no wonder that some churches (or congregations, or assemblies) are attempting to shed some of that baggage.
Should we drop the word "church," especially in our Bible translations? Or should we do a better job of teaching people what the word actually means? Can we reclaim the word, so it isn't considered a negative word? Possibly a worthy goal.