English translators of the scriptures saw the New Testament with religious (catholic) lenses. So these obeyed the politico-religious powers and consistently translated the Greek word ekklesia into a current religious word, ‘church’ which everyone already knew, being taught and accepted as truth, instead of the real meaning of the Greek word, which is assembly or gathering—a word in the Ancient World which had no religious or institutional connotations at all. None.
This is clearly shown by the translators’ inconsistency in translating the same Greek word by assembly or gathering three times in Acts 19—the story of Paul’s gospel stirring up the silversmiths in Ephesus—instead of the c… word! Check me out. I kid you not.
Ekklesia always meant assembly or gathering in the Ancient World of the New Testament period. When Paul wrote to those gatherings of Jesus’ people in the New Testament period, he qualified the word ekklesia by e.g., the ekklesia in God the Father and His son at . . . . (wherever—Corinth, etc) or similar language. It had to be distinguished from all the other local gatherings—religious, political or commercial which abounded in great numbers. Get it?
And if Paul was talking about more than one gathering of believers, he used the plural, ekklesiai, gatherings. So we read about the “assemblies or gatherings of Judea” and not “the gathering of Judea”. John does not address any “assembly of or in Asia” in the Book of Revelation but as “the seven gatherings in Asia”. Seven! And that’s because they are assemblies not denominations or institutional religious organisations.
In fact, a strong case can be made that ekklesia originally meant “a gathering actually gathered” so that when the assembly broke up there was no longer a gathering. For example the riotous assembly, Acts 19:41. Naturally for a group of believers meeting regularly it would continue in their minds as a spiritual gathering, a virtual one, which had a (hopeful) continuity while not meeting—though could never be guaranteed that it would gather again exactly the same as it did the previous time.
So it’s like our parliaments which sit for a period but then when not sitting, there is no parliament. And a city council is really only a council when it is meeting. The employees are not the actual council, are they?
William Tyndale in his groundbreaking 16th Century English New Testament translation, rendered ekklesia as ‘congregation’ which then had no traditional religious connotation. This led to his being persecuted and strangulated by the religious establishment—that’s 1534 English history.
So why did the English Bible translators three times translate ekklesia as ‘assembly’ in the story in Acts (Acts 19:32, 39, 41)? The word church clearly wouldn’t fit these three meeting contexts. But wearing their religious glasses, they consistently translated the Greek word in other contexts as ‘church’ as if this Roman Catholic term was its equivalent and not as the word was understood in the Ancient World.
A century later, the translators of the King James Version (KJV) were commanded by James the King of England to abide by about 14 conditions one of which the Greek word ekklesia had to be translated as church. They had no option but to do what James wanted so he could maintain his political agenda. They did translate the word as assembly in the Acts 19 story.
You may be interested to know that now we can use a recent scholarly translation called World English Bible (WEB) which translates the Greek word ekklesia with the English word assembly in the New Testament. In this version, the word ‘church’ cannot be found.
What has kept English translators so long to correct this?
Tradition! which obscures the word of God.
We may ask: why did the apostles use the Greek word ekklesia (gathering) and not other words which had a similar meaning? They did not use the word synagogue for the obvious reason that their gatherings were distinguished from those of the Jews.
Now, the Hebrew word qahal (=gathering, assembly) had been used in the Old Testament over 100 times and in the Greek translation of the OT (called the Septuagint or “LXX”) this Hebrew word was translated ekklesia (gathering). The early New Testament writers widely used the LXX and so probably chose this word which was also used by Jesus (see Matthew 16:18 and 18:17—the only places in the 4 gospels).