Some say you don’t really know a foreign language until you can do two things in it: do math calculations without translating back into your heart language, and tell a joke. Perhaps that is why people have debated for centuries about whether Jesus used humor or not. When he talked about a camel going through the eye of a needle, was that needle some gateway that the camel had to kneel to get through, or was he hyperbolically talking about the eye of a sewing needle. Somehow, the humor, or lack thereof, gets lost in translation. The prophet Micah used a number of puns, but unless you have a good knowledge of Hebrew or know a good commentator who does, you will miss them. Humor is one thing. But sometimes we lose more serious thoughts in translation.
Most people are at least familiar with the argument that English translations since the one ordered by King James I have transliterated the Greek word baptize, rather than translating it properly as “to immerse.” The earliest English translations used “immerse” and “immersion,” but some who did not want to offend those who had gotten away from that practice used the neutral (that is, unintelligible) word. Notice that every major, accepted translation in English since then has followed the same practice. Those that choose to refer to immersion,Neither “congregation” nor “assembly” conjure up bricks and mortar, altar and steeple. such as Alexander Campbell, may expect their translation to disappear in obscurity.
Stanley Morris, translator of the International English Bible, has chosen to translate, rather than bring the Greek words into English. In an interview in The Christian Chronicle (Vol. 72, No.2, February 2015) he points out another such word. “King James I commanded the KJV translators to replace Tyndale’s “congregation” with the word “church.”” Again, that has caused much misunderstanding. Today when you use the word “church” you are likely to call up several images in people’s minds, most of them inaccurate in relation to the original language. Many know the old rhyme that goes, “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” That is the common view of church. It is a building used for worship. It often has a room (essentially an auditorium) that is called “the sanctuary.” People can talk loudly and joke or even take refreshments in the lobby, but are expected to speak quietly in the sanctuary. The “church” is worthy of a certain amount of respect, but the sanctuary is where you come into the presence of the King.
Compare to this the more accurate translations of “congregation” or “assembly.” Neither of these words can reasonably conjure up bricks and mortar, gothic arches and gargoyles, altar and steeple. These are words for gatherings of people, whether in a building or not. The Greek word commonly translated “church” is pronounced ekklesia, from which we get Ecclesiastes or ecclesiastical. In ancient Greece, each city-state practiced a true form of democracy. A city-state was limited in size because if it grew too big each person could not have a direct say in the government. When a matter of government had to be decided the ekklesia (literally “called out”) was called out. Every free citizen was called to the city center (the marketplace, or sometimes an amphitheatre) to learn, discuss, and vote. It was just this sort of gathering that was used to describe what is translated as “church.” More properly, it is a congregation (meaning flock together) or an assembly. The church is not a building but a people. It may be the congregation of all believers, whether they can actually gather together or not, but more commonly it is the group of believers in one location. Its only membership, in this narrower sense, is whoever happens to be assembled together. Thus the answer to the question, “Do I have to go to church?” is that if you are not present, you are not part of that assembly/congregation/church at that time. And if you attend at another gathering, you are part of that congregation regardless of where you claim your “membership” may be.
I have heard, especially in congregations of the churches of Christ, the statement when a collection of money is taken up, “this is only for members; if you are not a member we do not expect you to give.” Leaving aside the question of whether such a weekly collection is even scriptural, such a statement ignores the nature of the congregation. If a person is present, that person is a member of the congregation. If they are there, they are part of the assembly.
When we understand the nature of the congregation or assembly, we begin to understand the action of the group. While worship may be a part of the gathering, the writer of Hebrews says it is “to provoke unto love and good works.” (Heb 10:24) In the previous verse, (s)he also says it is to draw near unto God. So the assembly has a two-pronged purpose. Some people object to a “visiting period” during the “worship.” Such a practice, though, meets one of the requirements of being a church: fellowship. How can we provoke one another if all we do is stare at the back of the person sitting in front of us?
It is common today to hear someone claim to be a follower of Christ. Other than in the context of the Restoration Movement, it is rare to hear one claim to be a disciple of Christ. And yet, in most reliable English translations you will never find the term “follower,” but 268 times will find “disciple.” What is the difference?
One way of looking at is the difference between auditing a class and taking a class. Some colleges let students audit classes. They get to sit in on the class, do any labs, even do the homework. They may take the tests. They learn a lot, but they never get credit for it. The knowledge is great, and certainly of value, but it doesn’t show up on a transcript or count toward graduation credits. One could audit every course required for a degree, but would never qualify for the degree. Yes, auditing is cheaper, but one never reaches the goal.
A follower of Christ listens, and may even do what Jesus says. He may or may not put his trust in Jesus. He may follow out of interest or because he believes in the subject matter but doesn’t want to invest himself fully. He may follow for a while, but it does not really fall in line with his ultimate goals. He may even put great effort into following, and believe he is doing the right thing. And he may be doing the right thing. But Christianity is not about following Christ. It is about the fact that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again so that a person might have forgiveness of sins and a certainty of eternity with him. Doing the right thing is a natural consequence, not the goal.
A disciple, on the other hand, is defined as a student. It is one who participates in a discipline in order to be acknowledge as one who knows a subject or what a teacher imparts. At the end of the discipleship, one knows what the teacher knows; becomes the essence of the teacher. In Talmud, many comments are made by a rabbi “in the name of” a more famous teacher. They have the authority to do so because they are disciples, and know fully what the teacher taught. They completed the full course of study, and got the credit for taking the course. So it is with a true disciple of Christ. It is possible to be a follower and never get the diploma, to be a follower of Christ until death and never get the prize of eternal life with him. A follower may give mental consent to what Jesus taught and did, but never commit to taking the course. He may even finish all the requirements of the course and yet get no credit because he did not pay the fee to take the course.
Jesus spent three or four years teaching on earth. Teaching was not his principle purpose, but while he was able he was preparing his disciples to teach others about why the Christ must suffer and be raised again on the third day. He had many disciples. We pay particular attention to the twelve he designated apostles, but there were many others, both men and women. He had many disciples, but he had even more followers. These people went from city to city with him. They heard his sermons, they ate his food. Many of them slept on the road with him and endured weather and other hardships. But in the end they were just followers.
Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it? When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offendThe difference between a follower of Christ and a disciple is the difference between auditing a class and taking a class. you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him. And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father. From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. (Jn 6:60-66)
These people may at one time have truly been disciples, but they proved themselves mere followers. These are the people of whom he said in verse 26, “Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.” They did not come for the teaching. They did not come to be disciples, but rather to follow him for the prestige or for the food.
Disciple and congregation. These are merely two of many words that have a deeper meaning when properly translated. Sometimes learning these meanings takes being part of a congregation rather than spending time in a church. Sometimes it requires as decision to stop being a follower of Christ and to start being a disciple of Christ.