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  • Writer's pictureGrace A. Johnson

What is Church?

Updated: May 15, 2021

The History of “Church” as We Know it—

Around 33 AD (no one knows the exact year, of course), Jesus Christ was crucified, resurrected, and ascended into Heaven.

In 313, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, accepting the practice of Christianity within the Roman Empire.

In the 11th century, the first Roman Catholic Church was established in England.

In 1517, Martin Luther published his “95 Theses,” which began the Protestant Reformation of the Catholic church across Northern Europe.

In 1529, Luther formed the first Lutheran church.

Several years later, King Henry VIII founded the Church of England (Anglican church) in separation from the Roman Catholic Church, when he was refused an annulment.

In 1540, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian church) was founded within the Scottish Kingdom and upon the theories of Jean Calvin.

In the early 17th century, John Smyth introduced the Baptist views (which were inspired by the views of theologians Jean Calvin and Joseph Arminius, and the ideals of Separatists and Congregationalists), and by the 1650s, there were several Baptist churches to be found across Europe and the British colonies.

During his lifetime, John Wesley, along with his brother Charles, set into motion Methodism, a reform with the Anglican Church named so for the methodical way its members studied the Word, which broke away from the Church of England in 1795.

The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in Augusta, Georgia, in the year 1845, after splitting from Baptists in the North.

At the turn of the century, the Pentecostal church as we know it today began as an evangelical movement throughout the United States, supported mostly by Wesleyan-Holiness and Higher Life evangelists, such as Charles Parnham, Abraham Benjamin Simpson, and Dwight L. Moody.

The Roman Catholic Church was built upon a foundation the of the Roman Empire’s liberal debauchery and wild politics. The Lutheran church reformed those willing within the Catholic church into more spiritual, meek disciples of Christ rather than the Pope. The Anglican church was established by one of the most scandalous kings of England, to allow him the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Presbyterian church was established within the Scottish government, a division of the Anglican church. The Baptist church was birthed by a political movement during the Commonwealth of England. The Methodist church came about as a revival within the Church of England. The Pentecostal church was founded by radicals across the US, supporting previously disdained views of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and Holiness practices. Even the SBC was created simply as a succession from antislavery unionists during the Antebellum era in the South.

The Protestant denominations as we know them didn’t come about until the 18th and 19th centuries—only around 300 years ago—and before then, the Roman Catholic church had only been common across the many European countries, such as England, for roughly 600-700 years.

For one thousand years, the idea of “church” was not widespread among our ancestors, and even their neighbors in Rome knew “church” as the state and their “preacher” as the pope, who has always been one of the wealthiest, most important political leaders in the world.

All of this then begs the question, what is Church? What was the early “church,” and how have we deviated from it within the last 1700 years? How did the apostles, the disciples, and the early Christians worship? Before the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church, where did they go for church?

Did they even have church? And, if not, why do we? Why do we do things the way we do, and why did they do things the way they did?

For the next three weeks, I’ll be examining the modern-day “church” and the Christian practices in a blog installment each Friday, and the theme is “What is Church?” (Man, that sounds like a sermon introduction, doesn’t it?) My purpose is to raise awareness for the Body of Christ’s history, the origins of church, and our calling as Christ’s disciples; not to defame any church—a single entity or a collective group—or offend anyone at all. Here I ask that, if you feel discomforted by what I’m saying, please discontinue reading.

As an attendant of a Southern Baptist church, I’ve heard a million and one times the sermon on the importance of church attendance and, more particularly, Hebrews 10:25:

“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

This verse is often translated to mean—in Gracie paraphrase—“Not forgetting to gather together at church, as a lot of church members and Christians do; but encouraging each other, and even more as Jesus’s return comes closer.”

Now, I would first like to say that there is nothing wrong with seeing things in a broad scope, that you should fellowship with other believers and encourage each other. Far be it from me to influence such beliefs, for I believe that it is clearly stated in the Bible and in the verse above that we should fellowship and we should encourage one another. All I want to do with these next few posts is take a look at the context, what Paul was really talking about, and what his words would have meant to those he was speaking to—the first Jewish/Hebrew Christians, whose newfound Christian beliefs were often warring with their familiar Judaic views.

And so I start with the question, what is Church?

What is it, really?

To answer this question takes a lot of digging, going back thousands of years to Ancient Greece, the Celts, and their pagan rituals. Now, I don’t expect all of y’all to understand or put as much stock into etymology as I do, so I’ll put it into layman’s terms for you.

The wordchurch” derived from the Greek word kryiakon, which is commonly used to mean “the Lord’s house.” But here’s the kicker—kryiakon was never used in the original Greek transcription of the Bible. Ekklesia was. (More on that later…) Kryiakon has been assumed to come from the Greek Kurious Oikos, which means “house of God”—but that can’t possibly be true, as the word existed in Celtic dialects years before the Greek was introduced.

Rather, kryiakon means “circle,” as is evidenced by the comparison of the Anglo-Saxon Circe, a weak feminine noun meaning “a small church” with circul, “a circle.” The places in which Celts and Germans worshiped in ancient times were all circular—for example, Stonehenge, one of the oldest stone megaliths on Earth, which, based on the timeline of Creation, is likely to have been a Druid temple (although some historian discredit this early opinion).

Here is an excerpt from Oxford English Dictionary:

(a) Cirice, Cyrice, Chiriche, Churchiche, Chereche (b) Circe, Cyrce, Chyrce, Cirke, etc., etc… “The ulterior derivation has been keenly disputed.”

So, there is apparently a hidden origin to “church,” then, yes? In linguistics, derivation is a “set of stages that link a sentence in a natural language to its underlying logical form.”

OED then says about the word church:

Of English Etymology.

The word “Church” comes from old English “Cirice” or Middle English “Circe”, a word that clearly seems be cognate with Circe.

(Cognate means to have the same “mother word,” or linguistic derivation, as a word in another language.)

The Anglo/Celtic dialectal form of Circe, also found in Greek, is Kirke, which is a cognate of the Saxon’s kirika, from whence the Scottish kirk, the German kirche, and the Dutch kerk comes.

So...what, or rather, who is Circe and why is our English word “church” derived from it, a word clearly meaning circle and having its origins in pagan worship?

Circe (pronounced “Kirke”) was an ancient Greek goddess—more specifically, a sorceress of pharmakeia, the magical arts of poison, drugs, and idolatry—the daughter of the sun god Helios and the ocean nymph Perse. She possessed the power, through drugs and incantations, to turn humans in wolves, swine, and lions. Her stories are told in Greek legend and by Homer in the Odyssey.

Not only was the church named for her, but so was the circus, which the Greeks attributed to her and her father, the sun. Hence the name Cirque De Soleil in French—directly translated into “Church of the Sun” in English.

An excerpt from an adaption of Adventures of Ulysses by Charles Lamb describes her and her witchcraft in this way:

Being entered, she placed them in chairs of the state, and set before them mean and honey, and smyrna wine, but mixed with baneful drugs of powerful enchantment. When they had eaten of these, and drunk of her cup, she touched them with her charming rod and straight away they were transformed into swine, having bodies of swine, the bristles and snout, and grunting noise of that animal; Only they still remained the minds of men, which made them more to lament their brutish transformation.”

Below is a painting of Circe by John William Waterhouse, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, cir. 1891. (By the way, circa also comes from Circe, meaning “about, around, approximately.”)

In Revelation 17-18, St. John is shown a woman who closely resembles the Greek Circe—or English Church—while he was in prison on the Isle of Patmos. As you carefully uncover the Greek words and translations within the Scriptures (the ones below especially) and dig into the true meaning behind it all, you’ll find that the word John used for “sorceries” is Pharmakeia, the selfsame magic Circe practiced. And Circe’s burial place, according to Greek legends?—an island visible from where John was imprisoned.

17:1 And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:

2 With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.

3 So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.

4 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:

5 And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon The Great, The Mother Of Harlots And Abominations Of The Earth.

6 And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.

7 And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns.

8 The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.

9 And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.

10 And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.

11 And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.

12 And the ten horns which thou sawest are ten kings, which have received no kingdom as yet; but receive power as kings one hour with the beast.

13 These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast.

14 These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful.

15 And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.

16 And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire.

17 For God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.

18 And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.

18:1 And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory.

2 And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.

3 For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies.

4 And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.

5 For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities.

6 Reward her even as she rewarded you, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she hath filled fill to her double.

7 How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.

8 Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death, and mourning, and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her.

9 And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning,

10 Standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Alas, alas that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.

11 And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more:

12 The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble,

13 And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.

14 And the fruits that thy soul lusted after are departed from thee, and all things which were dainty and goodly are departed from thee, and thou shalt find them no more at all.

15 The merchants of these things, which were made rich by her, shall stand afar off for the fear of her torment, weeping and wailing,

16 And saying, Alas, alas that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls!

17 For in one hour so great riches is come to nought. And every shipmaster, and all the company in ships, and sailors, and as many as trade by sea, stood afar off,

18 And cried when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, What city is like unto this great city!

19 And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and wailing, saying, Alas, alas that great city, wherein were made rich all that had ships in the sea by reason of her costliness! for in one hour is she made desolate.

20 Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for God hath avenged you on her.

21 And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.

22 And the voice of harpers, and musicians, and of pipers, and trumpeters, shall be heard no more at all in thee; and no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee; and the sound of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee;

23 And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.

24 And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth.

Now, I make no assumptions as to what all this means. I only present the etymological facts and the correlating passages. Does this mean that the “church” we attend is Babylon herself? I don’t know. Does this mean that the Roman Catholic Church is Babylon? I wouldn’t doubt it. Some take this to mean that the Reformation was the fulfillment of Revelation 18:4, when many, many believers left the Roman Catholic Church at Luther’s behest. I wouldn’t be surprised, but I don’t know. All the information above is simply facts that have been complied by several others over time that I’ve combined into one blog post.

I want you to determine for yourself, after careful consideration and lots of prayer, what this truly means. But I do want you to know for certain that the “church,” be she Catholic or Protestant, is corrupt. Nothing is perfect, of course. And “church” is not the Body of Christ. She is not Christ’s disciples nor His plan for us.

This is what I’ll explore next Friday, when I dive into why the word church is found in the Bible, how the early Christians lived, and what Hebrews 10:25 really means—for them, over a thousand years ago, and us now.

Works Cited:

“Baptist,” Britannica,

“Church of Scotland,” Wikipedia,

“Circe,” Britannica,

“Methodism,” Britannica,

Richmond, Rob. “Etymology of the word ‘Church’,” Calendar of Scripture, 24 Dec 2016,

“Separatists,” Britannica,

“Stonehenge,” History, 21 Feb 2019,

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Peabody, Ma: Hendrickson Marketing, 2009

“Pentecostalism,” Wikipedia,

“Presbyterianism,” Wikipedia,

“Why Was Stonehenge Built?” History, 10 April 2013,


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