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What is the meaning and origin of the word church?

meaning of church

The Greek word translated “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia. A literal translation of ekklesia would be “a called-out assembly.” How we got our English word church is a different story, but that, too, is rooted in Greek.

Etymologically speaking, the word church means “house of the Lord.” The modern word church is a direct descendant of the Old English word cirice or circe. The first recorded use of the Old English word is from the thirteenth century, and it could refer to either a body of Christian believers or to the place where they gathered.

The early Quakers, as a matter of principle, refused to call the buildings where they met “churches,” since the biblical word church referred to people, not a building. The Quakers instead called a building designed for Christian worship a “steeplehouse.” That term is now archaic, as many church buildings no longer have a steeple.

Going further back than Old English, the word church ultimately traces its origin to a Greek term, kūrikón, which was related to kurios, “lord.” The phrase kūrikón oikía meant “the Lord’s house.” In the Middle Ages, the Greek term for “house of worship” was shortened to kūrkón. And that’s the word that was loaned to West Germanic as kirika and eventually to Old English as cirice.

Old Norse borrowed the Old English word cirice to form kirkja, and that’s where the Scottish word kirk came from. During the Middle English period, the word kirk was borrowed from the Scots, so now Modern English has both church and kirk as synonyms.

Many English words, especially those related to Christianity, came from Greek and passed through early German dialects. The word church is one of those words. Other English ecclesiastical words that share a Greek origin include Christ, angel, evangelism, baptize, episcopal, apostle, Presbyterian, and charismatic.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022