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Church Words

by Tim O'Hearn

Much of what we do and say in religion is strongly influenced by the King James Version of the Bible. That is not necessarily a bad thing. That version was, in its day, an excellent translation of the available texts. For those that speak or can understand fifteenth-century English it is still a good version. (If you saw an original version, though, you might not be able to read it because of standardized spellings that have developed since 1611. The versions we have today have had spellings modernized.) Another advantage of that version is that, outside the United Kingdom, it is in the public domain; writers can quote it freely without having to request permission. One of the biggest problems, though, with that version of the Bible, and many subsequent versions, is that the translators chose not to translate certain words.

In some cases, the committee chose to transliterate some words. That is, instead of translating them they brought the original Greek or Hebrew, or the Latin, into English. One simple example would be the word “Jehovah,” which is a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton, YHWH. More modern translations use the word “LORD” in all capitals. In some other cases the translators chose to use “church words.” These are terms that had been accepted by scholars of the Bible, but often mean little to the common man. It is some of these church words and transliterations that we will look at in this article.

Church

Church is one of those words that has nothing to do with the word it is supposed to be translating. The word comes from a Greek word meaning Lord. (Think of the “Kyrie” common in the mass of the Catholic Church.) It denotes subjection to a lord or master. The Greek word commonly translated as church means an assembly. It comes from a combination word with a literal meaning of “called out.” In ancient Athens, when city business was to be carried out, the citizens were called together in a true democracy. This word for an assembly to conduct city business was also used for the assembly of Christians together. Why the translators of the King James Version, and subsequent versions even until today, used a different Greek word to translate this one baffles the mind. Clearly, the term “church” had gained popularity for the building in which the assembly was held. Equally clearly, many such buildings prior to 1611 had been financed by a lord for use of worshippers of the Lord.

Unfortunately, this literal “church word” has developed a different meaning than would have happened if the king’s translating committee had referred to the assembly rather than the church. Today the primary meaning of the word is a building. Because of this, people have lost the importance of the church (assembly) itself. If the church is a building rather than a family it becomes very impersonal. It is not important where, or if, you “go to church” because you cannot establish a relationship with bricks and mortar. You cannot encourage sheetrock and cinderblock. Steel girders and acoustic tile cannot pray for or with you. By making a church into a building, people have removed the functions of the assembly from their lives. If the church is only a building, then there truly is no need to give attention to it. It is no wonder that many churches (buildings) are practically empty each time they open their doors.

Another result of this depersonalization of the church is an increased reverence for mere buildings. “Don’t run in church.” “Keep your voice down in the sanctuary.” I knew of one conservative congregation that, surprisingly, had a sign above the door to the auditorium reminding people to show reverence after passing through those doors. What? You can be irreverent in the lobby, but not in the auditorium. It’s just a building. The same as an office building, a school, or a gymnasium. Maybe because it was paid for from the church treasury certain uses are inappropriate. Nevertheless, some people have shown more reverence for the building and its furnishings than for the people who assembled to worship God and encourage one another. This ought never be.

Paradise

I don’t know exactly when a garden became the abode of the righteous dead. The use of the word “Paradise” (Arabic for garden) to describe a beautiful place for the dead was popularized by Islamic doctrine.

It is entirely possible that that was influenced by Jewish thought. Paul once uses the word apparently to describe heaven. “And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” (2 Cor 12:3-4) Whether he is equating Paradise with the third heaven is open to debate. Nevertheless, Paul is certainly not talking about an earthly garden. So it is probable that some concept of heaven as a paradise was already known.

The other uses of the word in the King James Version, and hence even to modern times, reveal the clear bias of the translators in favor of a doctrine of the time. There is no clear reason to transliterate the word rather than translate it.

Jesus told the robber on the cross, “This day you will be with me in the garden.” Did he mean in some abode of the dead? Or did he mean that the man would be buried in a garden just like he was? Leaving aside the debate about whether he was telling the man on the cross he would be saved or not, by failing to translate the word the committee, and most translators since, reveals a clear bias toward the idea that the dead retain consciousness between death and the resurrection.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus would seem to indicate that there is some abode of conscious souls between death and judgement. Other passages seem to say otherwise. “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?” (Ps 6:5) There is even question about what happened to Jesus while in the grave. “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” (Jn 10:17)

The other passage using the word “paradise” could just as easily, and more poetically, have been translated with the word “garden.” “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” (Rev 2:7) Again this shows a tendency to believe that the word necessarily means heaven. That may be what the angel means here, but there is even some argument about that. Whatever the truth is, it is not a translator’s place to create a bias by choosing not to translate a word. And yet, that is what most translators continue to do today.

Faith

Faith is not one of those words that just was not translated. The way we use it today, however, may make it a mistranslation in most modern versions. Faith has become such a “church word” that we may have lost its original meaning.

Ask the average person in America today if they have faith in God and they will probably answer in the affirmative. People believe in God, but many don’t really have faith in God.

Some commentators prefer to use the word “trust” in place of “faith.” This is a valid concept, and a valid translation. Faith is much more than simple assent that God exists. It involves trust that God will do what he says he will. “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Heb 11:6) Both belief in the existence of God and trust in his promises are required to be pleasing to God.

The root meaning of the word translated faith in the New Testament is really more than belief and more than trust. To have faith is to be persuaded of something. When I was taking a persuasive speaking course we were taught that there is a big difference between somebody acknowledging something and being persuaded of it. Someone who gives mere assent to the truth of something does not feel the need to take action. One who is persuaded that it is true takes appropriate action because the fact becomes personal. You can convince somebody that a particular car is the best on the road. They may not buy it. You persuade someone that the same car is the best for him, he will buy and will survive the buyer’s remorse that always comes shortly after the purchase.

Many people in the church (assembly, called-out group) are convinced that Jesus is the Son of God and the savior of the world. They claim to have faith, and on the basis of their faith they may watch a religious program on Sunday, or even attend an assembly. When somebody asks them what church they belong to they are happy to give an answer. But when “when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word” or “the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches” (Matt 13:21-22) come along, his faith does not translate into action. When one has faith—when one is persuaded—he will remain steadfast in the face of persecution. He will not only answer questions about his faith, but will volunteer the information freely.

“For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” (2 Tim 1:12) This is what is meant by the church word we call faith.

There is nothing wrong with using church words. When they are properly understood they are valid shorthand for biblical concepts. When talking to the unchurched, however, sometimes these words get in the way. People have one concept of what is meant by church (sitting through a boring sermon) or faith, and would be better persuaded if we used common words. They would then understand what they are being asked to buy into.