CHURCH, THE (ἐκκλησία, G1711). The English word derives from the Greek kuriakos (belonging to the Lord), but it stands for another Greek word ekklēsia (whence “ecclesiastical”), denoting an assembly. This is used in its general sense in
The English word “church” with its cognate form, “kirk,” is derived from the Greek word kyriakón, signifying “the Lord’s” or “belonging to the Lord.” The New Testament equivalent ekklēsía was originally employed by the Greeks to denote an assembly or congregation of free citizens summoned or “called out” by a herald in connection with public affairs (
K. L. Schmidt points out in his article in Kittel’s Wörterbuch that the electorate (dēmos) of a Greek city-state were called out or summoned (ékklētoi) by the herald (kérux). “This naturally suggests,” he says, “that in the Bible the reference is to God calling men out of the world.” Schmidt suggests that Greek-speaking Jewish Christians may have begun to use the term ekklēsía even before the Apostle Paul, since they were anxious to distinguish their communities from the Jewish synagogues.
The actual word ekklēsía was used only twice by the Lord Himself. The first occasion was when Peter uttered His great confession of faith at (
In the apostolic writings the use of the word becomes more common. Sometimes it is used to denote scattered groups of Christians over a wide area, such as “the churches of Galatia” (
It is significant that the word “synagogue” was used originally to denote not a building but an assembly of people gathered together for a specific purpose. It was later that the same word came to be applied to the meeting house in which the congregation met for worship. James uses both Greek words, synagōgē and ekklēsía with reference to a Christian congregation (
The formation of the Church
It has been argued that the Church was not deliberately founded by Christ. E. F. Scott in The Gospel and its Tributaries (1928) wrote: Jesus “had not consciously formed a society,” though “the Church was the inevitable outcome of His work.” Of course much depends on what is intended by the word “church.” It is true that Jesus did not organize the Church in the sense of laying down a constitution, but He did bring into being a new religious community when He chose His disciples.
Referring to Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi, writes: “In virtue of this personal faith vivifying their discipleship, the apostles became themselves the first little Ecclesia constituting a living rock upon which a far larger and ever enlarging Ecclesia should very shortly be built slowly up, living stone by living stone, as each new faithful convert was added to the society.” The use of the word “church” by Paul in
The fact is that Jesus gathered in the first instance a band of disciples, and these in turn became the nucleus of the “new Israel.” To that “little flock” He directed His ethical teaching—to them He gave a missionary commission. His followers were committed to a new way of life, but they were also promised divine power to enable them to attain it.
Dr. R. Newton Flew in Jesus and His Church (1943) comments: “The idea of the Ecclesia as a community, on earth, indwelt by the Spirit of God, carrying the word of revelation, unique alike in its origin, its fellowship, its allegiance, its message, and its mission, is essential to Christian theology if theology is to be measured by the writings of the.”
The Church is essentially divine in its origin and is not a merely human institution.
The nature of the Church
The New Testament offers several figurative descriptions of the Church, each one stressing some particular aspect of its nature.
The body of Christ
This phrase is used with reference to the Church universal (
The temple of the(or of God)
In the Old Testament, the Temple—and the Tabernacle before it—was the place where God had chosen to dwell in the midst of His people. By the use of this figure emphasis is placed on the fact that Christians individually and corporately are indwelt by God the Holy Spirit; thus the church at Corinth is a temple of God in which the Holy Spirit dwells (
The new or heavenly Jerusalem
In the New Testament the Church is seen to be the spiritual counterpart of Jerusalem as the Jews had regarded that city (
The new Israel
The Apostle Paul visualized the Church as being a “new Israel” raised up. The old Israel had failed, and God’s judgment had fallen upon it. The Lord had said in one of His parables, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (
The pillar and bulwark of the truth
This expression is found in
The household of God
The emphasis is on the fact that Christians have been born into God’s family, and therefore stand in a special relationship to Him as well as to one another (
The bride of Christ
Characteristics of the Church
The Church is both in origin and in end God’s Church. Men do not create the Church by their efforts, but receive it as a gift from God. It is constituted by Him and for Him. Membership in it is not by human appointment but by divine call. It is therefore essentially a divine institution. It has been described as “the blessed company of all faithful people.” It is not a rigid structure, but a fellowship of all those in whom individually or corporately the Spirit of Christ dwells. It is a community of believers, of those who are “called to be saints” (
Much discussion has taken place as to the character of that unity for which Christ prayed on the eve of His crucifixion (
The New Testament makes it clear that holiness is the purpose of God for all His people (
This word which is so frequently misunderstood refers primarily to the fact of the Church’s universality. Christianity is intended for all men everywhere. In the Christian Church believers constitute one organic whole. The Church is meant to embrace all nations (
The Church may truly be described as apostolic since it is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (
It was of this Church that the Lord said, “The powers of death shall not prevail against it” (
Membership of the Church
Under both the Old Covenant and the New there has always been in the world a visible company of people set apart for God. In Old Testament times this was the nation of Israel, whereas one thinks in terms of the “new Israel”—the Church. Under the Old Covenant, circumcision and participation in the Passover were outward signs of covenant relationship, whereas now Christian baptism and participation in the are outward signs of membership of the Church. The teaching and activity of Jesus Christ clearly imply a distinguishable community. The first members of this new community which the Lord called into being were the disciples. They were the nucleus of the new Israel. The Lord addressed His ethical teaching to them and revealed to them the meaning of His own messiahship. It was to this new community which Christ had founded that believers were added at Pentecost when they responded to the preaching of the gospel (
It seems that the Early Church demanded some such simple confession of faith as “Jesus is Lord” (
When one reads of churches in the New Testament located in different areas, he envisions groups of baptized Christians in the countries or places mentioned. The membership of these churches consisted of those who had professed faith in Christ’s Gospel and who had been baptized in Christ’s name. The community of God’s people on earth has always proved to be somewhat mixed in its constituency. Not all who are nominally and outwardly members are necessarily in true and living communion with God. The Reformers drew a clear distinction between the catholic or universal Church which is invisible, and consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered in, and the visible Church, which also is catholic or universal, and consists of all those throughout the world who profess faith in Christ whether or not that faith is genuine. The Apostle Paul distinguished between those who were true Jews and those who merely conformed to Jewish rites (
There are numerous indications from the teaching of the Lord and from the New Testament generally, that the visible community of God’s people is likely to be mixed and not wholly pure in its membership. Experience shows that not all who appear to respond to the Gospel invitation are in fact genuine converts to Christ (cf.
In His parabolic teaching the Lord showed how Satan’s strategy is to plant tares among the wheat, and both will grow together until harvest (
While this distinction between the visible and invisible Church has to be recognized, it is nevertheless the responsibility of the visible church to see as far as is humanly possible that those who are added to it are genuine believers. The ideal of a pure church may be unattainable, but it should remain the ideal. The invisible Church ought to be the pattern for the visible. It is the responsibility of the visible Church to realize as far as is possible the perfections of the invisible so that its membership shall consist only of true believers.
The life and worship of the Church
While the primary function of the Church is to glorify God (
Christian charity was widely practiced from the beginning. One of the chief means of linking together the various Christian groups existing in the early days of Christianity was the practice of mutual aid. The largely Gentile Christian church at Antioch took the opportunity to show its sense of fellowship with the completely Jewish Christian church of Jerusalem by sending a donation to that church at a time of great scarcity in Palestine (
There seems to have been a charitable organization, at least in the Gentile churches of the New Testament known as the “order of widows.” Widows who had no relatives to support them were regarded as an obvious charge upon the charity of the local church. The qualifications for relief included real destitution, having a good personal reputation for charity and hospitality, and having been married once only (
The practice of Christian stewardship is strongly commended throughout the New Testament. The Apostle Paul taught that giving must be systematic and regular (
The first converts to Christianity were those whose religious and cultural background had been shaped by the synagogue. Christianity, therefore, entered into the inheritance of an already existing pattern of worship provided by the Temple ritual and the synagogue liturgy. As T. W. Manson has pointed out, “the first disciples were Jews by birth and upbringing, and it is, a priori, probable that they would bring into the new community some at least of the religious usages to which they had long been accustomed.” The three main elements forming the pattern of synagogue worship were praise, prayer, and instruction. The service would open on the note of corporate praise. The Old Testament hymnbook, the Psalter, was then read with Christian eyes and used to express Christian worship (
From the Acts of the Apostles one is able to construct the content of the “kerygma,” i.e. public proclamation of the Gospel. Emphasis was placed upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as events which fulfilled Old Testament prophecies and which called for a verdict. There is no information to the same degree regarding the instruction given to behavior in the context of public worship. There was “prophecy” (
It is probable that in New Testament times there was already established a general pattern of worship, and there was also an accepted doctrinal standard (
The sacraments of the Church
The term “sacrament” is applied to the two New Testament ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which the Church has always regarded as binding upon it. The Latin word sacramentum was used in military circles to denote the oath by which a Roman soldier bound himself to be faithful to his commander. It was introduced into the language of the Church toward the end of the 2nd or early 3rd century Sacraments may be defined as ordinances in which spiritual realities are set forth by visible signs, i.e., signs which can be discerned by the senses. The sensible sign in baptism is washing with water in the name of the triune God, while at the Lord’s Supper it is the giving and receiving of bread and wine. A sign is such that beside the impression it makes on the senses it suggests the thought of something else to the mind.
In the Shorter Catechism the following definition is given: “Sacraments are holy ordinances instituted by Christ wherein by sensible signs Christ and the benefits of the are represented, sealed and applied to believers.” The word “represented” means that spiritual things are set forth figuratively or emblematically. “Sealed” carries beyond the mere idea of pictorial representation, and conveys the thought of ratification; thus the sacraments entitle the Christian to claim all the promised benefits of the Covenant of Grace. The word “applied” conveys the thought that the sacraments are not to be regarded merely as external signs or seals by which something material is employed to symbolize or ratify the spiritual gift that is promised, but that they are the channels of a real communication of the grace of God in Christ Jesus to all who receive them in faith. The spiritual efficacy of these ordinances is always conditional, and is not to be associated in any absolute way with the simple administration and application of them. They have no spiritual power of themselves apart from the Spirit of God on God’s side and faith on man’s side. The sacraments have been described as “badges of Christian profession,” that is, marks to distinguish Christians from non-Christians.
The sacrament of baptism
Probably the ordinance of baptism derived its outward form from either Jewish proselyte baptism or the rite observed by John the Baptist. John had been administering this ordinance for several months before the Lord began His ministry, and in due time Christ Himself submitted to it. The underlying idea common to Jewish baptism, the baptism of John, and to Christian baptism is that of washing or purification. No doubt it was the Jewish rite which John the Baptist adapted for the purpose of his own mission. In preparation for baptism John stressed the need for repentance for the remission of sins. Submission to it was an outward profession of repentance on the part of the candidate, while water was the recognized symbol of cleansing. In the case of the Lord, the main emphasis was upon His consecration to His Messianic ministry with the accompanying divine attestation of His unique sonship.
It is probable that this decisive event in the life of Jesus exercised considerable influence both on the form and on the meaning of the baptismal rite in the apostolic and subapostolic periods. It is significant that Jesus referred to His approaching death as a baptism “to be baptized with” (
The Church down the centuries has been sharply divided both concerning the mode and the rightful recipients of baptism. Baptists have always argued strongly for immersion on the grounds that this would appear to have been the mode in apostolic times (
The issue regarding the rightful recipients of baptism is a more serious one. Baptists and others who accept Baptist principles argue that the baptism of believers is the only valid form of baptism according to the New Testament. Thus baptism can be given only when the candidate has heard the Gospel preached and has responded to it in penitence and faith (
The Lord’s Supper
There would appear to be considerable New Testament evidence for suggesting that the breaking of bread “was the main purpose for which the local church gathered” (
Whereas Christians are generally agreed that the Lord’s Supper should be regarded as the supreme act of Christian worship, there is considerable difference of opinion as to the frequency with which it ought to be observed. From the various allusions in the Acts of the Apostles and also in the epistles, it is usually inferred that the early Christians “came together for the breaking of bread” regularly on the first day of the week (
In apostolic times it is fairly clear that the Eucharist formed part of a fellowship meal or agape. It is difficult to know whether the phrase “breaking of bread” (
The ministry of the Church
In the New Testament Church any radical distinction between “clergy” and “laity” was unknown. Every church member was reminded that he or she had a specific ministry to fulfill. The whole Church is called to a work of ministry. There is, however, a group of men who stand in a class by themselves—the apostles. The term simply means those who are sent. In secular usage it was applicable to the dispatch of an army or of a fleet to make war. Later it was used to signify envoys of any kind sent for a set purpose and on a special mission. Those sent simply carried out the orders of their superior. The emphasis is on the sender rather than the person sent. The qualifications of these men are set out by the Apostle Peter in
There is no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that the apostles normally presided at services of ordaining. It is likely that the word “apostle” was used in a twofold sense—to denote a special delegate sent from a church (
In the synagogue at this time there were three offices: minister or deacon, elder or presbyter, together with the ruler or president of the elders. Early in the history of the Christian Church the need for proper administration was quickly recognized. This need was first met in the local situation by the appointment of the Seven (
The Church as a whole is regarded as a priesthood (
Philip, chosen as one of the Seven, is also described as “the evangelist” (
Pastors and teachers
Pastors and teachers are given to the Church primarily “for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry” (
There are numerous references in the New Testament to spiritual gifts (charísmata) which are widely distributed in the Christian Church, in order that men and women may be equipped for their particular ministries. Paul speaks of the Spirit who “apportions to each one individually as he wills” (
The government of the Church
The New Testament does not lay down precise rules either as to the form of ministry or of government of the Church. Over the centuries several different theories of church government have emerged, each of which claims some scriptural basis. Basically these different orders may be described as the episcopal, the presbyterian, and the congregational.
The episcopalian system is the government of the church by bishops (epíscopoi). Episcopalians recognize the threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons as being basic to the life of the church. The only minister entitled to ordain is the bishop, to whom has passed certain functions originally associated with the apostles themselves. Some would go so far as to argue that the apostles ordained their successors, and these in turn ordained their successors in an unbroken line to the present day. This theory, however, is open to serious question. The elaborate episcopalian system, as known today, is not to be found in the New Testament except possibly in embryo. The modern Anglican bishop, for example, unlike the elder of the New Testament has the oversight of a large number of churches in his “diocese,” and exercises authority over the clergy of that area.
The elders of the New Testament are responsible to the chief Shepherd alone, and have a strictly local charge. The modern monarchical bishop sees himself more closely akin with the apostles and the ministry which they exercised than with the presbyter-bishops, whose ministry was largely, if not entirely, confined to the local church. It is true that while both Timothy and Titus appear to have had a good deal of authority over a number of churches, they were more localized than the apostles, and are no real counterpart of the modern monarchical bishop. James, whom Paul describes as an apostle (
The system of church government by presbyters or elders also claims scriptural precedent. The Reformers saw in the New Testament presbyters, officials who bore rule in the churches. In each local church there were a number of presbyters who formed a kind of committee in charge of church affairs. In
Congregationalism is that system of church government adopted by those Christians who emphasize the autonomy and independency of the local congregation. They claim that no one is in a position to exercise authority over a local congregation of the Christian Church. No “order of ministry” is recognized, in the sense of a class of men made distinctive by some special endowment of divine grace conferred upon them at an ordination ceremony. In point of fact ordained men are, strictly speaking, lay people doing the work of the church full time. Stress is laid upon the fact that Christ alone is the Head of His Church (
The New Testament evidence is insufficient to know precisely what the position was in the Early Church. It is known that there were certain officers such as presbyter-bishops and deacons, but exactly what their status or functions were is not known. None of the present day systems of church government can claim to have solely scriptural justification, although there are elements in the New Testament which gave rise to each of them. It is significant that in the course of history God has been pleased to give His blessing on more than one form of Christian order.
Prerogatives of the Church
“The keys of the kingdom.”
To the Church are given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” which is a pictorial way of saying that to it is given the privilege of unlocking and throwing open the gates of God’s city for those who would enter. Those keys were used by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost (
“Binding and loosing”
The Church is said also to have the power of “binding and loosing.” To “bind” and “loose” were rabbinical terms which related to rules and regulations for the ordering of the Jewish community. When the Lord conferred this power on Peter, and later upon the Twelve, He was giving them the right to take appropriate measures for the conduct of the Church’s affairs and the exercise of its discipline. John R. W. Stott has summed it up as follows: “It is by binding and loosing certain practices (declaring them lawful or unlawful) that the Church can go on to bind those who disregard its teaching, and loose those who...having disregarded it, repent”Confess Your Sins, p. 45.
The exercise of discipline
The purpose of church discipline is twofold—first, to safeguard the purity of the Church, and second, to be the means of bringing the offending party to repentance. It seems that in the Early Church, excommunication—the exclusion permanently or temporarily of a church member from fellowship with the Church—was exercised on both moral and doctrinal grounds. While the issue at Corinth was a moral one, Paul in his first letter to Timothy refers to the fact that he had excommunicated Hymenaeus and Alexander because of their false teaching. The phrase “deliver to Satan” is used on two occasions by the apostle, and no doubt signifies “putting out of Christian fellowship into the province of Satan, that is, the pagan world.”
The Lord Himself made it clear that it is the responsibility of one who offends another to acknowledge his fault (
The fact that such punishment as is given is reformative rather than retributive has to be constantly borne in mind. Furthermore, the offender even when under discipline is not to be regarded as an enemy but as an erring brother (
The mission and ultimate destiny of the Church
The primary task given by the risen Christ to His disciples was that of evangelism (
Christ pictured His disciples as exerting a salutary influence in the community. They were to have the antiseptic qualities of “salt.” At the same time they were to be as “lights” in a dark world and by reason of their calling they would inevitably find themselves as conspicuous as “a city set on a hill” (
The Church in the present dispensation may rightly be described as militant, since she is engaged in a holy warfare against the powers of darkness (
In any one generation the Church militant on earth represents only a small percentage of the redeemed people of God. The Church will only enjoy the complete consummation of its destiny when Christ returns, the number of the elect is complete, and all believers are reunited. Then and then only will the Church be entirely pure, for the bad will be separated from the good, the counterfeit from the real (
Issues relating to the Church
The Church and the kingdom of God
Much discussion has taken place concerning the relationship of the kingdom of God and the Church. Obviously a close connection exists between them. Citizenship in the kingdom of God and membership in the Church are alike determined by regeneration (
The Kingdom is regarded as both present and future. It began with the person of the incarnate Christ, but its consummation is yet future. The Church is God’s agent whereby His reign is extended over the hearts and lives of men and women. Those who become members of Christ’s Church also become inheritors of His kingdom.
There has been a tendency on the part of some to see the kingdom as a new social condition realized by man and marked by Christian standards, while others have equated it with a restored theocratic kingdom on earth. The basic idea of the kingdom of God in Scripture is that of God’s rule in men’s hearts, a rule which will not reach its culmination until the return of Christ. Roman Catholic theologians have, generally speaking, identified the kingdom with the visible Church, while the Reformers identified it with the invisible Church.
The Church as “extension of the Incarnation.”
In the movement to “rediscover the Church,” some have gone beyond the bounds of Scripture and have described the Church as the “extension of the Incarnation.” Those who speak thus make great play of the scriptural metaphor which describes the Church as “the body of Christ,” but they overlook the fact that in the New Testament this figure is strictly limited in its application. Nowhere is the Church equated with Christ. To press any such doctrine leads inevitably to claims of infallibility for the Church, and to the erroneous notion of the Church’s participation with Christ in offering to the Father the sacrifice of Calvary through the Eucharist.
The Church and the churches
Undoubtedly one of the most fundamental issues in current theological debate concerns the true nature of the Church. It is necessary to stress that the New Testament never countenances the possibility of a believer living his Christian life apart from the context of the local church. A church in the New Testament existed as soon as a company of believers associated themselves together for regular worship, for instruction in the Word of God, fellowship, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (
Dr. Hort in The Christian Ecclesiap. 168, referring to the teaching of the , writes: “Not a word in the Epistle exhibits the One Ecclesia as made up of many Ecclesiae. To each local Ecclesia St. Paul has ascribed a corresponding unity of its own; each is a body of Christ and a sanctuary of God: but there is no grouping of them into partial wholes or into one great whole. The members which make up the One Ecclesia are not communities but individual men. The One Ecclesia includes all members of all partial Ecclesiae; but its relations to them all are direct and not mediate.”
The conclusion of Dr. Newton Flew is that “The Ecclesia of God is the People of God, with a continuous life which goes back through the history of Israel, through prophets and martyrs of old, to the call of God to Abraham; it is traced back further still to the purpose of God before the world began. The origin of the Ecclesia lies in the will of God”Jesus and His Church, p. 181. As far as the ministry of the Church is concerned, many are in accord with the sentiments expressed by Professor T. W. Manson: “There is only one essential ministry in the Church, the perpetual ministry of the Risen and ever-present Lord Himself. All other ministries are derivative, dependent and functional. All ministries are functions exercised by the through organs which are organs of the Body”The Church’s Ministry, p. 100.
Just as the Church is of God’s creating, so is its unity. Man’s part is not to create it but to maintain and express it. The New Testament does not necessarily involve the forming of an elaborate inter-church organization. In the apostolic era no one church had superiority over any other, and no earthly center was regarded as the headquarters of the Church on earth. As Alan Stibbs has pointed out, “When local congregations are referred to in the New Testament, they are not collectively called ‘the church’; that is, they are not thought of as constituent parts of one organized earthly institution. Rather, they are explicitly and surprisingly called, in the plural, ‘the churches’...cf.