Yesterday I mentioned some comments that Ken Myers made about George Barna's book, Revolution and he pointed out a fundamental error in Barna's understanding of the church. Myers said that Barna derives his theology (ok, it's only with some imagination that we can call this a theology) of the church from the etymology of the Greek word for church - ekklesia - "called out."
In all fairness this is not unique to Barna, almost all evangelicals I have read have at least begun building a theology of the church on this etymology.
But, what Myers points out is that in the first century the word ekklesia was used primarily to designate an assembly. Barna is extreme, but he is not all that far off from other evangelicals in his understanding of the church, just more extreme in his application.
I thought Myers' comments were helpful because many of us are enamored with word studies and those who are enamored with word studies are often namored with etymologies. It is as if words have an essence of meaning which can be found in its etymology.
Yet, as D. A. Carson points out in his book Exegetical Fallacies, we have to be careful here:
One of the most enduring fallacies, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is by the roots of a word. How many times have we been told that because the verbal cognate of apostolos (apostle) is apostello (I send), the root meaning of "apostle" is "one who is sent."? In the preface of the New King James Bible, we are told that the literal meaning of monogenes is "only begotten." Is that true? How often do preachers refer to the verb agapao (to love), contrast it with phileo (to love) and deduce that the text is saying something about a special kind of loving, for no other reason than that agapao is used?
All of this is linguistic nonsense. We might have guessed as much if we were more acquainted with the etymology of English words. Anthony C. Thistleton offers by way of example our word nice, which comes from the Latin nescius, meaning "ignorant." Our "good-by" is a contraction for Anglo-Saxon "God be with you." Now it may be possible to trace out diachronically just how nesciusnice"; it is certainly easy to imagine how "God be with you" came to be "good-by." But I know of no one today who in saying that such and such a person is "nice" believes that he or she has in some measure labeled that person ignorant because the "root meaning" or "hidden meaning" or "literal meaning" of "nice" is "ignorant."
In Barna's case, as in many evangelicals, their reliance on etymology to determine the meaning of ekklesia is not in the same class as Thistleton's example of the word "nice." In that case, the etymology actually takes you away from the contemporary meaning of the word. In our case, the etymology of ekklesia does point you in the right direction, it just doesn't take you all the way to where you need to go.
As an aside, Carson's mention of "agapao" does illustrate a case where we can fall into the "nice" trap mentioned above. I usually hear that the root of agapao means "God's love" or something like that. Yet, how would you plug that "root meaning" into II Timothy 4:10:
In that verse, "agapao" is the Greek root for the word translated "love." Yet, I doubt anyone would say that it was "God's love" that motivated Demas to forsake Paul for the world. This is a good example of how etymology can lead one astray.
Yet, getting back to ekklesia, its usage was that of assembly. The Louw-Nida dictionary has the following entry:
11.32 ἐκκλησία, ας f: a congregation of Christians, implying interacting membership—‘congregation, church.’ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ τῇ οὔσῃ ἐν Κορίνθῳ ‘to the church of God which is in Corinth’ 1 Cor 1.2; ἀσπάζονται ὑμᾶς αἱ ἐκκλησίαι πᾶσαι τοῦ Χριστοῦ ‘all the churches of Christ greet you’ Ro 16.16.
Though some persons have tried to see in the term ἐκκλησία a more or less literal meaning of ‘called-out ones,’ this type of etymologizing is not warranted either by the meaning of ἐκκλησία in NT times or even by its earlier usage. The term ἐκκλησία was in common usage for several hundred years before the Christian era and was used to refer to an assembly of persons constituted by well- defined membership. In general Greek usage it was normally a socio-political entity based upon citizenship in a city-state (see ἐκκλησία, 11.78) and in this sense is parallel to δῆμος (11.78). For the NT, however, it is important to understand the meaning of ἐκκλησia as ‘an assembly of God’s people.’
In the rendering of ἐκκλησία a translator must beware of using a term which refers primarily to a building rather than to a congregation of believers. In many contexts ἐκκλησία may be readily rendered as ‘gathering of believers’ or ‘group of those who trust in Christ.’ Sometimes, as in 1 Cor 1.2, it is possible to translate ‘Paul writes to the believers in Christ who live in Corinth.’ Such a translation does, however, omit a significant element in the term ἐκκλησia, in that the sense of corporate unity is not specified.
This is important because so many people have built their doctrine of the church on the meaning of this one Greek word and thus have a truncated, insufficient understanding of the church. Basically, the New Testament usage for the term was that of an assembly, that of a congregation, but today many posit and endorse an assembly that never assembles.
I shoudl also point out that Carson points out that etymologies can be useful, they just have to be used in conjunction with other good hermeneutical principles.