"Robbers of Churches"?

© 1997 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Acts 19:37 (KJV) For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess.

The meaning of "robbers of churches" in the context is obvious: "they had neither sacrilegiously robbed the temple of Diana, nor the temples of any other of their deities" (Thomas Scott). However, through not understanding the English, certain people have tried to make this KJV rendering into an error. Although James White does not mention this verse in his book The King James Only Controversy, he did propose it in a list of seven verses sent to Dr. Peter S. Ruckman for a projected debate (letter of 5/12/95; available in a package of letters between Ruckman and White, distributed by both Bible Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida, and White's Alpha and Omega Ministries' WWW page). It is also listed as an "undisputable" error on the website called “The Interactive Bible.”

It is therefore apropos to notice that section V of the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "church (sb.)" gives a breakdown of the word church used "[i]n senses not distinctively Christian." In sense 13, we find "The congregation or company of God's people in pre-Christian times," and one of the illustrative quotations is the KJV's translation of Acts 7:38 . One might also add a quote from the same version in the Apocrypha, at 2 Maccabees 4:42:

. . . but as for the Churchrobber himselfe, him they killed besides [later eds: "beside"] the treasury.

--and from these lines from Samuel Humphreys' text for Handel's oratorio Athalia (1733), Act 3, sc. 4, which are sung by the high priest Joad:

May God, from whom all mercies spring,
Bless the true church, and save the king!

And in sense 14, the O.E.D. offers: "Applied to other (chiefly modern) religious societies and organizations . . . ." With the "modern" examples we need not concern ourselves, save to note that a common thread runs through ancient and modern usage of "church" in this sense. But the illustrative quotations from older works give excerpts from Wycliffe, Sir Thomas More (in Heresyes, 1528: "Ye doo persecute them as the churche of the Paynims [i.e., pagans] did"), and William Penn (Maxims, 1726: "As good, so ill men are all of a Church").

It is evident that the KJV men, following Tyndale here (as do the Great and Bishops' Bibles; Geneva deviates with "which haue neither committed sacriledge"), intended the word "churches" in this verse to be taken in the wider sense described above. What one fails to understand is how people in later ages can elevate something like this into an "error." As so often elsewhere, the defect is not in the translation, but in the understandings of those who criticize it.

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