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On the Translation of Ecclesia by Congregation

By R. Magnusson Davis

Contents:
The Meaning of Ecclesia
The Meanings of Church
Tyndales Desire for the Church
Congregation and Church in the New Matthew Bible
Endnotes

One of the things William Tyndale is well known for is his translation of the Greek word
ecclesia with congregation rather than church in his New Testament. He came under
sometimes furious reproach by some of his contemporaries on account of this.
Tyndale discussed his reasons for this translation in his book, An Answer to Sir Thomas
Mores Dialogue. Essentially he sought to render the Greek faithfully, and also to avoid
fomenting a prevailing misconception concerning the Church.
What Ecclesia Means
Tyndale explained in Answer to Sir Thomas Mores Dialogue that ecclesia was a general,
non-specialized Greek word, which pre-dated the apostles and the Christian religion, and
which was used generally in common speech and in the bible to refer to any sort of
meeting or assembly:
Now ecclesia is a Greek word, and was in use before the time of the apostles, and
was taken for a congregation among the heathen where there was no congregation of
God or of Christ. And also Luke himself useth ecclesia for acongregation of heathen
th
people three times in one chapter, even in the 19 chapter of Acts, where Demetrius
1
the goldsmithhad gathered a company against Paul for preaching against images.

As Tyndale said, at Acts 19:32, ecclesia was used to describe a gathering of pagan
townspeople in Ephesus. They had assembled hastily to hear the complaints of the
goldsmith Demetrius, whose trade in images was threatened by Pauls preaching against
idols. Demetrius inflamed the crowd of townsfolk with zeal for their idol:
When they heard these sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out saying: Great is
Diana of the Ephesians! And all the city was on a roar, and they rushed into the
common hall with one assent, and caughtPauls companionsSome cried one
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thing, and some another, and the ecclesia (WT congregation) was all out of quiet.

Later in Acts 19, ecclesia is used in the town clerks speech with reference first to a
lawfully called assembly, and then with reference to the mob of townsfolk:
If Demetrius and the craftsmenhave any complaintthe law is open, and there are
rulers. Let them accuse one another. If ye go about any other thing, it may be
determined in a lawful ecclesia (Tyndale, congregation)And when he had thus
spoken, he let the ecclesia (congregation) depart (Acts 19:39,41).

Interestingly, the Acts passages demonstrate how the English word congregation has,
since Tyndales time, become more specialized, so that it no longer serves well in these
contexts. But formerly it, like ecclesia, was a general word. That is one reason why
1

Tyndales vocal critic, Sir Thomas More, objected to it. He preferred the specialized term
church, at least with reference to gatherings of Christians. But church would not have
served in Acts 19 with reference to the pagan assemblies. Therefore one may see why
Tyndale felt it was not the truest translation of ecclesia, and that the Greek called for an
English word that was correspondingly general. He explained:
When [More] saith that congregation is a more general term; if it were, it hurteth not,
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for the context doth ever tell what sort of congregation is meant.

Therefore ecclesia was a very general word for assemblies, meetings, and gatherings of
any sort orderly or disorderly, formal or informal, religious or not and the nature of the
gathering must be discerned from the context.
The Meanings of Church
Tyndale was not concerned only about the meaning of the Greek ecclesia, but also the
English word church. This was not a general word. Altogether he identified five special,
contemporary meanings for it. In one use, he understood it to mean all the members of a
community of faith in one place, roughly in the sense of a parish. This appears in his
explanation of the meaning of Matthew 18:17, Tell it to the ecclesia:
In thissignification the church of God, or Christ, is taken in the scripture to mean
the whole multitude of all them that receive the name of Christ to believe in him[as
in Matthew 18]: "If thy brother hear thee not, tell the church or congregation"In
which places, and throughout all the scripture, the church is taken for the whole
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number of them that believe in Christ in that place.

He also defined it wistfully as a place or house where people had formerly, in the old
time, gathered to hear Gods word, and for common prayer:
It signifieth a place or house where Christian people were wont in the old time to
resort at times convenient, for to hear the word of doctrine, the law of God, and the
faith of our Savior Jesus Christ, and how and what to pray, and when to ask power
and strength to live godly. For the officer thereto appointed preached the pure word of
God only, and prayed in a tongue that all men understood. And the people hearkened
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to his prayers, and said thereto Amen, and prayed with him in their hearts.

In a third sense, sometimes church was taken generally for all them that embrace the
name of Christ, though their faiths be naught,6 and then, in a fourth, spiritual sense,
sometimes specially for the elect only, in whose hearts God hath written his law with his
Holy Spirit, and given them a feeling faith of the mercy that is in Christ Jesu our Lord.7
This last, of course, makes the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church.
Lastly he described the fifth sense, which he saw as pernicious. He explained how clerics
and monks had appropriated to themselves the name church, so that in the mind of the
people it had, over time, come to be restricted to the visible ecclesiastical hierarchy and to
monks and poor friars, to the exclusion of the laity. This had resulted in the peoples
subjection to or inappropriate veneration of clerics and monks. Since ecclesia never
meant anything of this sort, he felt church simply was not the right translation:
Wherefore inasmuch as the clergy (as the nature of those hard and indurate adamant
stones is, to draw [everyone] to them) had appropriated unto themselves the term that
of right is common unto all the whole congregation of those who believe in Christ, and
with their false and subtle wiles had beguiled and taken in the people, and brought
them into the ignorance of the word, making them understand by this word church

nothing but the shaven flock of them that shaved the whole world; therefore in the
translation of the new Testament, where I found this word ecclesia, I interpreted it by
this word congregation. [This is why I did] it, and not of any mischievous mind or
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purpose to establish heresy, as Master More untruly reporteth of me.

Historian George Fisher confirms Tyndales analysis, and describes the development of
the medieval conception of the Church:
The influence of the idea of the Church as the community of the faithful, of the elect
children of God, an idea which retained a degree of power in the thoughts of
Augustine, continually waned. More and more the Church came to be identified with
the visible, hierarchical organization. Patristic authority, running back to Cyprian, and
even farther, could be appealed to in support of this principle at the root of the
medieval conception; but in the carrying out of this principle there was a wide gulf
between the earlier and the later period. The exaltation of the hierarchy, the absolute
dependence of the laity upon the priesthood, existed to an extent unknown in the
patristic age. The privileges still left to the laity in the concerns of the soul are so
scanty as to be the exception that proves the rule. Significant of the state of thought
that had long existed is the language of Philip the Fair in his indignant answer to the
haughty rebuke of Boniface VIII: Holy Mother Church, the Spouse of Christ, is
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composed not only of clergymen, but also of laymen.

The taking and misuse of ill-gotten wealth by clergy, monks, and prelates, whom Tyndale
called the spirituality, was also a grievous concern:
What good conscience can there be among our spirituality to gather so great treasure
together, and with hypocrisy of their false learning to rob almost every man of house
10
and landsseeking in Christ nothing but lucre?

Tyndale said the spirituality crept into peoples consciences, robbed them of the faith of
Christ, and caused them to give their money to build new Churches and cloisters through
a false faith in such works, by which all suffered:
The building of [churches and steeples] and such like, through the false faith that we
have in them, is the decay of all the havens in England, and of all the cities, towns,
highways, and shortly of the whole commonwealth. For since these false monsters
crept up into our consciences and robbed us of the knowledge of our Saviour Christ,
making us believe in such pope-holy works, and to think that there was none other
way unto heaven, we have not ceased to build for them abbeys, cloisters, colleges,
chauntries, and cathedral churches with high steeples, striving and envying one
11
another as to who should do the most.

Therefore by using congregation in his New Testament, Tyndale was both being faithful
to the Greek and avoiding a misunderstood word that might contribute to the continuing
exploitation of the people. Indeed this, Tyndales translation, together with his books and
writings, have caused many to credit him with breaking the spell attached to the word
church,12 and breaking the suffocating power of the medieval church.13
Tyndales Desire for the Church
But Tyndales use of congregation did not mean that he was anti-Church. Nor was he
averse to a benign use of the word church, which he employed himself in some
contexts.14 Rather, he longed for a Church, place, or congregation, where the word of God
was rightly preached, where the people were led truly in worship and prayer, and where
the sacraments were faithfully administered especially Holy Communion, with earnest

ceremony,15 because it is an absolution of sin, heals the conscience, and makes the
faith sink into the heart.16 Blessed is the disciple who can find such an ecclesia.
Tyndale wrote strongly, not against Church per se, but against the abuses, falsehood,
tyranny, and superstition that had crept into the contemporary Church, wrapping
everything in error, and locking up the knowledge of Christ. He wrote against Antichrist,
the spiritual power that had then so terribly gained the upper hand. Remarkably, however,
he prophesied that when Antichrist was then revealed, he would go out of play for a
while, and afterwards come in again disguised with new raiment, which identifies a
danger that came with post-Reformation denominationalism:
Antichrist was in the Old Testament, and fought with the prophets. He was also in the
time of Christ and the apostles, as thou readest in the Epistles of John, and of Paul to
the Corinthians and Galatians, and other Epistles. Antichrist is now, and will, (I doubt
not) endure till the worlds end. But his nature is (when he is revealed and overcome
with the word of God) to go out of play for a season, and to disguise himself, and then
17
to come in again with new raiment.

Tyndale would not strive about names, titles, or outward things, for all are at risk:
There is a difference in the names between a pope, a cardinal, a bishop, and so forth,
and to say a scribe, a Pharisee, a senior [elder] and so forth; but the thing is all one.
Even so now, when we have exposed him, he will change himself once more, and
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turn himself into an angel of light (2 Cor. xi.).

Tyndale warned generally about the suppression of the true gospel, the word, and the
sacraments.19 Therefore however and wherever such suppression arises, with raiment old
or new, or under names old or new, in any denomination, Church, place, house,
congregation, or gathering, and whether under pastor, priest, elder, minister, father,
brother, sister, mother, reverend, spiritual director, bishop, or presbyter, it is wrong, and
we need to watch, and awake, and be sober.
Therefore Tyndales vision for corporate worship included reading and preaching of the
gospel and scriptures, common prayer, and the often, meaningful celebration of the Lords
Supper (and also, a thing many moderns do not realize, traditional holy days, following a
traditional Church calendar to guide corporate worship20). A Church or congregation is
faithful when it serves in spirit and in truth, and where we may know Christ and him
crucified, and may lift our hearts in praise and petition.
Congregation and Church in the New Matthew Bible
We will keep congregation in the NMB wherever it was used in the original with reference
to Christian gatherings. However, because its meaning has narrowed, we cannot use it in
other contexts. Admittedly its modern, narrower, quasi-religious sense may argue against
keeping it. Tyndale chose it, after all, because it was then a neutral and general word. But
no suitably general word now exists, and in any case, congregation is historically
significant in the Matthew Bible. Further, it is still a good word for Christian gatherings,
especially now that the Church, broadly speaking, is so divided and diverse, and the
Lords children may be found in all manner of congregations, under many different names.
We will also keep church wherever that word was used in the Matthew Bible. Therefore it
is not intended to deny the place or name of the Church in any legitimate sense. And we
do not deny, but rather affirm, the apostolic and catholic Church, the holy and heavenly

Jerusalem and city of God. The citizens of that city who have found their way there will
know whereof we speak.
In the Matthew Bible there is moving mention of the Church as it may be understood
mystically or spiritually in subheadings to the Song of Solomon, where it is explained who
is speaking to whom. These declare the voice of Christ to the Church, and hers to him.
At Verse 1:15 we find:
Christ to the Church.
How fair art thou (my love), how fair art thou? Thou hast doves eyes.

The beloved then responds:


The Church to Christ.
O how fair art thou (my beloved), how well favoured art thou? Our bed is decked with
flowers

Christ and the Church speak again:


The voice of Christ.
I am the flower of the field, and lily of the valleys. As the rose among the thorns, so is
my love among the daughters.
The voice of the Church.
Like as the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the
sons. My delight is to sit under his shadow. For his fruit is sweet unto my throat. He
bringeth me in to his wine cellar, and loveth me specially well.

We pray that every congregation and every Church, and every member of the body of
Christ, may find not only its beloved in the pages of the October Testament, but also
peace and freedom from undue strife of words, names, and outward things. Words matter
yea, they matter very much but if we chew unwisely upon them, then, as Tyndale
would say, we will fail to attain to the sweet pith within.
Endnotes:
1

William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas Mores Dialogue (Parker Society edition, ed. Henry
Walter, 1850) (hereafter Answer), p. 15. Punctuation and language in early English quotations
may be minimally updated.
2
Scripture quotations are from the 1549 Matthew Bible.
3
Answer, p. 15.
4
Answer, p. 13.
5
Answer, p. 11.
6
Answer, p. 13.
7
Answer, p. 13.
8
Answer, pp. 13-14, and see p. 12.
9
George Park Fisher, History of Christian Doctrine (Charles Scribners Sons, New York, 1909), p.
251.
10
William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man (Penguin Classics edition, 2000) (hereafter
Obedience), p. 51.
11
Answer, p. 78.

12

Brook Foss Westcott, A General View of the History of the English Bible, (MacMillan and Co,
London, 1872), p. 173. [I do not like or promote Westcotts views, but merely reference the source
of the quotation.]
13
Patrick Whitten, Tyndale at the Huntington, The Tyndale Society Journal, No. 45 (Summer
2015), p. 22.
14
For example, in a note to his 1534 New Testament he protested We be the church, obviously
intending it in the sense of the catholic congregation of true and faithful believers.
15
William Tyndale, A Fruitful and Godly Treatise Expressing the Right Institution and Usage of the
Sacrament of Baptism and the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Jesu Christ,
contained in Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures
(Parker Society edition, ed. Henry Walter, Cambridge University Press, 1848) (hereafter Treatises),
p. 361.
16
Treatises, pages 357, 359, 360.
17
William Tyndale, Parable of the Wicked Mammon (Benedicton Classics facsimile reprint of an
earlier, unidentified edition, 2008) (Hereafter Mammon), p. 4.
18
Mammon, p. 5.
19
Tyndale wrote that those who suppress or distort Gods word deny people entrance to the
kingdom of heaven, which is the word of God, especially the preaching of the gospel (Obedience, p
27; Answer, p. 69). They shut up the kingdom of heaven with false glosses and by taking away
the meaning of the ceremonies (Answer, p. 43). Those who put down the sacraments he called
destroyers (The Practice of Prelates {Parker Society edition, ed. Henry Walter, 1849, from
Expositions and Notes on Sundry Portions of The Holy Scriptures Together With The Practice of
Prelates, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004}, p. 91).
20
Tyndale carefully appended to his 1534 New Testament readings for no less than 189 days or
seasons in the Christian year, including Advent, Christmas (three masses on Christmas night),
Lent, Easter, and Trinity, and readings for saints days, The Conception of Our Lady, and the
Dedication of the Church. He translated texts from the Old Testament for public reading on Ash
Wednesday, Saint John the Evangelists day, and others.