The editor’s fault

One of the many crosses my children have to bear in having me for a father is that I find it hard to stop being an editor.

“Me and Elle are going to the beach today, Dad. Can you give us a lift?”

“Not until you can say: Elle and I are going to the beach today.”

“Oh Dad!” Then smiling sweetly, “Father, can you please drive Elle and I to the beach?”

“Not until you say: Can you drive Elle and me to the beach?”

There follows much eye-rolling, and the inevitable mini-lecture from their editor-father (“You wouldn’t say: Can you drive I to the beach. So why would ask me to drive Elle and I?”).

I harbour a (probably vain) hope that years of this sort of torture will have had some effect. I hope that one day they will teach their own children that ‘versing’ is not a word (as in “Who are you versing in football today?”). I hope that they will come to appreciate the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’. I hope that somehow the idea will have seeped into their image-addled Gen Y brains that words matter, that words are powerful, and that choosing the right word can make all the difference.

This is certainly true in theology. Choosing the right word can make all the difference in the world.

I was reminded of this recently while browsing through Tyndale’s New Testament.1

Tyndale’s Bible (which was the forerunner and basis for the King James Bible) shaped the English language. His words and phrases are part of our history and our daily speech: “let there be light”, “my brother’s keeper”, “the salt of the earth”, “the powers that be”, “a law unto themselves”, “filthy lucre”, “fight the good fight” and plenty more.

Where he couldn’t find a suitable English word to render something from the original languages, Tyndale came up with his own new words. It was Tyndale who gave us words such as ‘passover’, ‘atonement’, ‘scapegoat’ and ‘mercy seat’.

Tyndale’s translational decisions also helped make the gospel clear for the many millions who have read his words since. For example, in the Latin Bible that was the standard version in Tyndale’s time, the Greek word metanoia was translated ‘penance’, a rendering which well-suited the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of sinners making amends for their sin through acts of contrition (like saying the rosary a certain number of times). Tyndale translated metanoia more accurately as ‘repentance’, the turn-around of mind and heart and life that happens in response to the gospel.

However, not all of Tyndale’s word choices made it into the King James Bible, and so have not flown on into the standard English translations we have used ever since. No doubt this was quite right in some cases. But I have always thought it a great shame that Tyndale’s translation of ekklesia didn’t make the cut. Tyndale translated this important New Testament word as ‘congregation’; it was changed in the King James Bible to ‘church’.

‘Congregation’ was (and is) much the better rendering. Like ekklesia it is an ordinary, everyday word rather than a specialized religious one (as ‘church’ is). And like ekklesia it really only has one meaning, ‘a group or gathering of people’. ‘Church’, on the other hand, has a number of meanings that aren’t part of the semantic domain of ekklesia (such as ‘a building for Christian religious activities’, ‘the institution that organizes and governs the regular gathering of a group of Christians’, ‘the denomination that consists of several of these institutions’, ‘all the Christian people of the world’, and so on).

In this sense, ‘church’ is not a New Testament word (or is no longer). It overlaps with ekklesia, but has many meanings and associated concepts that are some considerable semantic distance from ekklesia. And we can’t help but have all these other meanings and associations in our minds when read ‘church’ in our Bibles.

This is why it is so illuminating to read Tyndale, who translates ekklesia as ‘congregation’ wherever it is found in the New Testament—even in Acts 19:32 where the riotous mob in Ephesus is called a “congregation” that is “all out of quiet”.

Tyndale’s use of ‘congregation’ helps us see a whole range of verses with fresh eyes. Here are just a few examples:

  • “… thou art Peter: and upon this rock I will build my congregation. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18)
  • “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, whereof the holy ghost hath made you overseers, to rule the congregation of God, which he hath purchased with his blood.” (Acts 20:28)
  • Paul by vocation an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and brother Sosthenes. Unto the congregation of God which is at Corinth. To them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all that call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, both of theirs and of ours. (1 Cor 1:1-2)
  • To the intent that now unto the rulers and powers in heaven might be known by the congregation the manifold wisdom of God … (Eph 3:10)
  • Unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, be praise in the congregation by Jesus Christ, throughout all generations from time to time. Amen. (Eph 3:20-21)
  • Husbands love your wives, even as Christ loved the congregation, and gave himself for it, to sanctify it, and cleansed it in the fountain of water through the word, to make it unto himself, a glorious congregation without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing: but that it should be holy and without blame. (Eph 5:25-27)
  • And he is the head of the body, that is to wit of the congregation: he is the beginning and first begotten of the dead, that in all things he might have the pre-eminence. (Col 1:18)
  • Now I joy in my sufferings which I suffer for you, and fulfil that which is behind of the passions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the congregation … (Col 1:24)
  • … but and if I tarry long, that then thou mayest yet have knowledge how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the congregation of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth. (1 Tim 3:15)

Tyndale’s translation constantly takes us back to a gathering of people. It keeps prompting us to ask, “Which congregation? Which people? Where are they gathering? And why?” It’s a shame our modern translations have lost this.

Mind you, who is to blame? I guess I have to face the truth. It was all the fault of an editor.

1 David Daniell, Tyndale’s New Testament (in a modern-spelling edition and with an introduction by David Daniell), Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.

39 thoughts on “The editor’s fault

  1. One wonders at reading this if you are a Baptist in disguise?
    If so, welcome!
    If not, shame!
    The choice of “congregation” over “church” has provided significant fodder in theological debate – most recently the “discussion” between Driscoll and Dever that was floating around the meta a few months back.
    In that video, Dever makes a similar point to yours regarding the same word.

  2. Thanks Tony – I love Tyndale. He described Adam and Eve as wearing ‘aprons’ of fig leaves. Nice touch.

    Is it possible that you posit a false dichotomy when it comes to the word ‘ekklesia’ and its use as a technical ‘religious’ word? ‘Ordinary’ words (if there are such things) change with use in new contexts after all, and the NT was written by and too people who had evidently been using the word to identify themselves for a number of years.

    Does persisting with the word ‘congregation’ obscure this development?

  3. Hi Albert,

    Actually I was hoping I might persuade you to hop across. After all, Tyndale was an Anglican (well sort of), and we Anglicans believe that the “visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” (Article XIX).


    Michael, I’m simply suggesting that ‘congregation’ (or ‘assembly’ for that matter) would be a much clearer and more helpful translation of ‘ekklesia’ into our language—based not on a simplistic dictionary definition circa 50 AD, but on its usage in the NT.

    Actually, I’m surprised that you’re not a fan of ‘congregation’. If you’re suggesting that ‘ekklesia’ might have been given a bit of Christian twist by its appropriation by the early Christians, would not ‘congregation’ be the perfect word to convey that in English? (That is, a group of people who meet in a Christian context—where else do people talk about being part of a ‘congregation’?)


  4. @Tony – ‘congregation’ in Article XIX unfortunately refers to the national rather than the local church congregation – so I don’t know if Albert will buy it!

    I am not not a fan of ‘congregation’. I am interested in how chosing this vocabulary sets up a doctrine of the ‘church’, though.

  5. @MIchael

    I have heard this said before (that ‘congregation’ in Article XIX means something other than the local congregation), but I’ve never understood why this asserted.

    Can you enlighten me?


  6. Indeed.
    When else would the “congregation” congregate for these purposes if not in a local sense?
    I was about to buy a purple shirt & dog collar but if it means something other than the literal sense then I’ll spend my money instead on a deeper baptismal wink

  7. Terrific to see you advocating using “you and I” and “you and me” correctly. You and Peter O’Brien would be two of the only folk I have observed who understand it.

    A sixty-something man told me last year that it is always wrong to say “you and me.”

    Concerning the use of “congregation,” I understand that several translations were ruled out of court before the King James committees began and “congregation” was one of these.

    I think I read this in Benson Bobrick’s The Making of the English Bible.

  8. Tony, in a conversation I had with Donald Robinson 10 years or so back, he pointed out that in Article XIX

    The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments are duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome has erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith.

    there is a comparison implied between the ‘Church’ (presumably of England, as that’s what the 39 Articles were written for) as a congregation, and the churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. It could be argued that all 4 churches of J, A, A, and R were national churches, or even in the case of Rome, trans-national.

    On balance of probability, giving due weight to the historical context of the 16th century, Donald Robinson’s argument was that ‘congregation’ was being used of the national church in this article.

    That is my recollection of his argument. It seems possible, even probable, but not decisive.

  9. Hi Gordo

    Thanks for the background. I wondered if that was it (ie the context of the following paragraph in the article).

    If that is the argument, it’s not very persuasive to me—for the following reasons: 

    – The word meant then much what it does today: a gathering or group of people. You would need very strong reasons to suggest that it is being used in this different sense to describe a national organization—especially when such organization never actually all met together for the preaching of the Word of God and the sacraments (the things that were to distinguish it as the visible Church of Christ);

    – The second para doesn’t provide these strong reasons. The ‘national-ness’ of the erring churches in para 2 is not the point of comparison, such that it would require ‘congregation’ to take on the linguistically strange meaning of ‘national denomination’ in para 1. The point of comparison is their fidelity (or not in this case) to the word of God and the right administration of the sacraments.

    – Even if you want to push the comparison between the two paras hard, it’s also worth pointing out that the erring churches of para 2 are not national but local—they are the churches of particular places (Jerusalem, Antioch etc.) that were, at least in their origins, the gathering of a congregation.

    – It would be very strange for the articles to use the word ‘congregation’ to mean ‘national church’ in Article 19 when they go on to use the word four times in Articles 23 and 24 in its normal sense of a localised gathering.

    I think I’ll stick with my ‘congregational’ understanding of Article 19.

    So Albert—time to put that baptismal on ebay?


  10. *sigh*
    if only ole Bill (Tyndale) had translated ‘baptizo’ as accurately.
    But even if he had I suspect the ‘James’ guys would have opted for the current ‘baptise’ transliteration for similar reasons they chose to use ‘church’.

  11. Sorry Michael. Just realised I didn’t acknowledge your second and more significant point—viz how ‘congregation’ as a translation ‘sets up a doctrine of church’.

    I obviously wasn’t getting that far in the post—just noticing how the different translation helped my reading.

    But it is interesting to ponder how our doctrine of church might be differently expressed and conceptualised if it was a ‘doctrine of assembly’ or a ‘doctrine of congregation’. Might its focus and parameters be different?


  12. @Tony – yes, it might be. But I think the danger would be that it might be too reductive. The NT uses a great array of metaphors and terms to describe the ‘church/congregation’, including ‘the Way’, ‘the body’, the ‘people of God’, ‘house of God’ and so on. Why make this notion of ‘congregation’ the controlling one? There may be good reasons to do so, but if there are, it would be worth hearing them.

    I was interested to read recently that Donald Robinson felt that he hadn’t really completed a full analysis of all the NT has to say about the church – he had just made a telling point about the usage of one of the terms.

  13. Tony, if you read the 39 articles in their immediate context, it looks like Robinson’s suggestion about the meaning of ‘congregation’ in article 19 is wrong, then. A relief, because it had been worrying at my mind for a decade or so.

    If we take into account Michael Jensen’s input, perhaps the idea of church you are talking about should be changed from the Knox-Robinson-Stibbs theory to the Knox-Stibbs theory.

    But I think you are saying that before any recent debates, Tyndale was right in his translation, to which the response is yes, obviously.

  14. @Michael

    I don’t follow. You (rightly) say that the NT uses a range of metaphors to talk about the ‘church/congregation’—as if the two terms are equivalent enough to be forward-slashed together. But then you seem to be suggesting that ‘congregation’ is too reductive in a way that ‘church’ is not.

    So what is the overplus that ‘church’ gives us over ‘congregation’ as a conceptual ‘controlling notion’? (I’m assuming you’re happy with ‘church’ as the over-arching doctrinal category because you originally asked how all this ‘set up our doctrine of church.)


  15. I slashed the words ‘congregation’ and ‘church’ to indicate that it could be considered an open question as to what concept helps us best here, rather than considering them equivalents.

    I used the word ‘church’ just because it is the usual word we use, and not intending to close off other options. But the word ‘church’ does have the (not necessarily decisive) advantage of inviting us to see how the NT thinks of the gathered people of God as more than the gathering of the people of God. ‘Church’ is a special English word (that is, it isn’t an ‘ordinary’ word adapted for purpose), but then ‘Church’ isn’t an ordinary concept. And that’s my original point: ‘ekklesia’ isn’t perhaps as ‘ordinary’ a word as you might suggest. It is already theologically freighted: it is used in the LXX for the assembly of Israel.. Right?

  16. A few years ago it was the “gathering”. What’s made you shift to “congregation” Tony?

    And don’t go off on your daughter either! There’s a huge amount of debate on coordinated pronouns. Check pages 8-10 of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (the best description of modern English) for just an introduction to the complexities: While it’s possible your daughter speaks a slightly different dialect of English to you I think it’s far more likely that you’re just not aware of how you really speak – and your editorial training has poisoned you against natural English wink I wonder if I could find examples where you broke your own rules in this Sola Panel corpus…

  17. Hi Michael

    Thanks for the clarification. Well, some things are clearer—although others are still shrouded in a bit of a linguistic fog for me. So I’m getting confused as to whether we are talking about
    a) the best English word to translate ‘ekklesia’ in the NT, or
    b) the best English word to label the over-arching category in which we discuss our corporate life, or
    c) what relation a) should have to b), or
    d) all of the above, or
    e) whether Albert should buy a bigger indoor dunking pool.

    Given my time constraints, it might be more fruitful if we took up the conversation in person sometime (must be time we had lunch again).

    Hi Dannii

    I haven’t made any shifts that I’m aware of—just a minor point about how I enjoyed Tyndale’s translatoin. Gathering is a good word; so is congregation. Don’t try to read too much in.

    As for my children’s speech, one of them came up with a great put down after a little rant of mine. “Oh come on, Dad. What are you? A grammar police?”


  18. 1. (e) of course being the most critical of factors to resolve …

    In following the conversation though… surely the question of what is the best translation of the word differs from the theological (& secondary polity) implications.

    In which case, though it is as hard for to cast my baptist bias aside as it is for you your episcopalian, I find it difficult not to prefer Tyndale’s original choice. Given that (in my simplistic or reductionistic understanding of the history of the KJV) the choice of “Church” over “congregation” was politically and theologically (not necessarily in that order) driven.

    Surely in terms of hermeneutics, there is a distinction between what IS the word and what does the word MEAN?
    Was Tyndale trying to be literal and use the ploughman’s language or was he stirring the theological pot a bit? Or perhaps, more than likely, a combination of the two?

    If his interest was soley that the ploughboy have a grasp of scripture then why didn’t he translate ‘baptizo’ as “dip” or “dunk” or (to placate our SAngy & Presby mates) “wash”?

  19. Tony – d) is the answer. That’s why we study the meaning of words after all.

    Lunch is good.

  20. There’s a talk by Don Carson available from the Yorkshire Gospel Partnership which touches on these issues available here.

    I’d also suggest that “congregation” is not entirely neutral — the dictionary I have at hand lists the primary meaning as a gathering for religious worship. Yet perhaps, in light of the background to εκκλησια in the LXX, that counts in its favour over more neutral terms such as “gathering.”

  21. Hi all, interesting post and discussion!

    My two cents worth is this: we often get caught up in questions about the sociology of “church”, whereas the Reformers seem to be far more interested in the theology of “church”.

    So the article XIX Tony cited: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”

    The issue here is not so much what church looks like sociologically, but rather its relationship to the Word of God and to the Sacraments. Theologically, it is the hearing / preaching / obedience to the Word of God that constitutes the church. Ekklesia, IMO, is a central NT metaphor precisely because it implies this relationship to God’s word.

    Nevertheless, the word “congregation” can be very helpful in capturing this theological truth, in a way that “church” is not. The word “congregation” implies more immediacy, the social reality in which the word of God comes to us; a “congregation” is to our minds an actual community hearing and responding to and living out the God’s word (and, as the Article implies, sharing the Lord’s Supper together and doing baptisms). “Church” has more potential, I think, to make people concentrate on the kind of sociological issues which are not so intimately related to the communal preaching and hearing of God’s word.

    And that’s why, for me at least, the quotations from the Tyndale Bible which speak of the “congregation” are so interesting and refreshing.

  22. Thanks Lionel – although I think it was quite clear to Cranmer that a ‘congregation’ could be a national church (as it was indeed in the OT – where you see the word ekklesia frequently refer to the assembly of Israel, or even to the gathering of their elders Ps 106:32)

  23. Hi Michael – I defer to your knowledge of Cranmer; indeed I’d be surprised if he didn’t think mostly in terms of the English national church. But isn’t the point at hand for Cranmer that the English national church is a particular “congregation” defined above all by the proper hearing of and response to the word of God, as opposed to the concept of the so-called catholic church defined above all by a proper legal relationship to the church of Rome (which sees itself as the true interpreter of the word of God)? Cranmer’s not a congregationalist; granted. But, on the basis of his theology of the proper relationship between word and church, he is advocating an ecclesiology which is more concrete and particular than that of Rome.

    I think it’s misleading to refer to the church in the OT as “national” in the same sense as the English church is “national”. Of course OT gatherings are “national” in the sense that they are gatherings of the nation of Israel. But there’s a key difference between the OT concept and the “national church” idea. The English “national” church, as normally understood, consists in a whole bunch of individual gatherings in different places throughout England. The OT word ekklesia when used of Israel or the “people” is referring to the entire body of Israel, all together in one place, for the purpose of hearing God’s word (e.g. the “Day of the Assembly” at Horeb, Deut 4:10, 9:10).

    Psa 107:32 (106:32 LXX) seems to me to be envisaging the redeemed people all together in post-exilic worship, probably in Jerusalem or the temple, who have been “gathered” (v. 3) from the nations; not a plurality of different gatherings throughout Israel (as the phrase “national church” usually implies), or a representative gathering of elders (as you suggested).

    PS to be precise, the word ekklesia in Psalm 106:32 LXX (107:32 MT) doesn’t refer to the elders but to the people. It’s literally; “Let them exalt him in the congregation (ekklesia) of the people, and praise him in the seat of the elders.” The elders are sitting among all the people, it seems?

  24. Yes, got me there – I was distracted by the word ‘assembly’ in several English translations to translate the word ‘kathedra’ or ‘seat’.

    You are absolutely right, I think, on the point you are making – that the church as Cranmer wanted to define was established by word and sacrament (and he was sounding a lot like Calvin at this point). It wasn’t the institution that mattered.

  25. I think it’s misleading to refer to the church in the OT as “national” in
    the same sense as the English church is “national”.

    Yes, surely as misleading as a misleading thing that has been led astray and gone for a beach holiday at the Black Hole of Calcutta before falling into a pit.

    The assembly at Mt Sinai included literally every body, men, women, children, firstborn, lastborn, even sheepdogs and cattle (if I am reading Exodus 19:13. We are not talking some cosy Cranmerian English village chapel, as Cranmer himself possibly realized when he spoke of the ‘congregation of faithful men’.

  26. @Michael, thanks. Here’s a further exegetical thought, perhaps somewhat along the lines you were advocating: there is one very significant verse which extends the meaning of ekklesia beyond a simple concept of “gathering”. 1 Tim 3:15 identifies “church/congregation” with “household”! Knox-Robinson never included this verse in their discussions, as far as I can tell.

    @Sandy, you’re asking too much of me. It’s only 1.25 pence worth at current exchange rates.

  27. @Gordo: I love the injections of sheepdogs and Blackadderesque hyperbole into the discussion. One correction, though: the old village chapels (at least around here) ain’t cosy.

  28. Acts 9:31 in the ESV reads: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up” – which seems to indicate a use of the term ekklesia as a non-congregated plurality of congregations.

    There is a textual variant, which means the older English versions (like the KJV) translated the word ‘churches’.

  29. @Michael, I agree that Acts 9:31 might be significant, but I think the reference in 1 Timothy is more significant. The reason I don’t normally head straight to Acts 9:31 is Peter O’Brien’s comment:

    In one or two New Testament instances ekklēsia is found as an extension of the literal, descriptive use of “an assembly” to designate the persons who compose that gathering whether they are assembled or not. This is a natural extension or linguistic development of group words (note our use of the word “team”) and may explain references such as Acts 8:3; 9:31; 20:17. However, two significant observations need to be made: first the primary use of the word ekklēsia as ‘gathering’, ‘assembly’ predominates overwhelmingly in the New Testament—and indeed through the Apostolic Fathers to the Apologists. Secondly, no theological constructs are made on the basis of these very few extended uses.

    From Peter T. O’Brien, ‘The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity’, in The Church in the Bible and the World (ed. D. A. Carson; Exeter: Paternoster, 1987), 92.

    However, I think that a very significant theological construct is made throughout 1 Timothy, and that this construct is caught up with the equation of the church with the household (or “family”) in 1 Tim 3:15. I don’t think 1 Tim 3:15 is subject to O’Brien’s observations in the same way that the Acts references are.

  30. Does the Sola Panel have a tag-cloud or ‘archive by subject’ area I just have not found yet? I’m just researching a few things…

  31. @Michael Jensen

    As I understand the late D. Broughton Knox’s argument, the right preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments can only occur in localized assemblies and congregations, not a congregation spread over various geographical or national locations as a whole.

    In fact, in the Old Testament the “assembly” or “congregation” gathered together in one place to hear the reading of the law, etc.

    Visible congregations are more or less pure according to their faithfulness to Scripture, the law/gospel distinction, and their proper or duly administering the two sacraments.


  32. As to the point of “national” churches, the geographical locations of the churches in error are generally in one specific location, not multi-national.

    Although it should be conceded that Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria would include many congregations assembling together in those metropolitan areas.

    This brings up the biblical evidence for all three forms of church polity.  There is evidence for congregational polity, presbyterian polity, and episcopal polity—which is why fellowship with Evangelical denominations of other traditions should not be hard and fast.  That would mean that “valid orders” rest solely in whether or not the minister is properly ordained in his own denomination and whether or not he and his particular denomination “rightly preaches the Gospel and duly ministers the sacraments.” 

    The so-called historic episcopate is unbiblical.

    The Declaration of Principles of the original Reformed Episcopal Church here in the USA clearly defined those issues, although it is ironic that that denomination has now gone over to the Anglo-Catholics.

    See:  Declaration of Principles

    # This Church condemns and rejects the following erroneous and strange doctrines as contrary to God’s Word:

        First, that the Church of Christ exists only in one order or form of ecclesiastical polity:
        Second, that Christian Ministers are “priests” in another sense than that in which all believers are a “royal priesthood:”
        Third, that the Lord’s Table is an altar on which the oblation of the Body and Blood of Christ is offered anew to the Father:
        Fourth, that the Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is a presence in the elements of Bread and Wine:
        Fifth, that regeneration is inseparably connected with Baptism.

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