When writing my commentary on Revelation chapters 1-3, I finally reached the point when I could no longer vacillate about the title of my commentary. How was I to translate the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) that the prophet John used for each of the communities that he wrote? It has certainly been traditional to entitle this kind of commentary as a study on John’s “Letters to the Seven Churches.” Should I call these communities that followed Christ “churches” or “congregations”?
Then I remembered the preface to the first edition of the King James translation of the Holy Scriptures. Toward the end of the eleven page “Translators to the Reader” that was regularly a part of the earliest printings of the KJV, one of the leaders of the translators from Oxford and Cambridge wrote, “Finally, we have on the one hand avoided the strictness of the Puritans, who reject old ecclesiastical words and adopt other words, preferring washing for baptism, and Congregation instead of Church” (Drs. E. F. Rhodes and L. Lupas, The Translators to the Reader, The Original Preface of the King James Version of 1611 Revisited, p. 84).
In fact, this strictness of the Puritans reflected not only their rejection of “old ecclesiastical words,” but also their accuracy in translation. For unlike the English term “church” which invariably refers to a Christian organization or structure, the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) used by John the prophet was a far less religious term in ancient Greek. When there is a meeting of the PTA, or a city’s council, or a group of legislators we do not designate any of these as a church. Acts 19:32, 39, and 40, as well as numerous examples from pagan literature, however, use this term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) for similar non religious meetings. Thus the KJV translators took a Greek term that was not essentially religious and changed it into an English term which was not only religious, but particularly Christian.
The term “congregation,” chosen by the Puritans and myself, certainly seemed closer to the non religious term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) used by John. Clearly the English verb “congregate” has no essential religious connotations. The noun “congregation” can refer to a Christian assembly/organization (but not a building) or a Jewish assembly/organization (but not a building) and sometimes in English can even refer to non religious gatherings. An article dated July 1, 2010 in the online edition of CNN
(http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/06/29/somalia.journalists.wounded/index.html) contained this non religious use of the term “congregation.”
“Warring sides have made it their habit to bombard or attack places with a congregation of journalists ostensibly to eliminate their enemy’s claims of political gains,” said Omar Faruk Osman, NUSOJ secretary-general. “But we must remind them of their responsibility to protect journalists and civilians.”
Accordingly, I decided upon “Seven Congregations” rather than “Seven Churches” since this choice not only seems to resonate with the spirit of John’s term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia), but also does not as easily conform itself to the architectonic Christianity that dominated the thinking of King James I and his translators. These seven communities that John addressed were individual congregations of women and men who, with varying degrees of faithfulness, followed the Lamb, and certainly did not see themselves as part of a religious organization with a corporate profile.