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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 Acts.19.32, but had already been applied in the LXX as an equivalent for the “congregation” of the Old Testament. Stephen’s speech makes this equation (Acts.7.38), and in this sense it is adopted to describe the new gathering or congregation of the Disciple|disciples of Jesus Christ.


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 (Acts 19:39). Occasionally it was applied to an assembly of any kind whether lawfully convened or not. In the LXX the “congregation” of Israel is referred to as the ekklēsía, especially when gathered before the Lord for religious purposes (Deut 31:30; Acts 7:38). The Jews had been “called out” from the nations to be God’s special people (Rom 9:4). In its simplest meaning the word may be taken to denote the “assembly” or “congregation” of those who are the recipients of His heavenly grace and have been “called out” to be Jesus Christ|Christ’s witnesses in the world (1 Pet 2:9).

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 Christian|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 Synagogue|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 Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:16ff.), and the other instance was in the context of instructions which the Lord gave His disciples concerning their duty toward an offending brother (Matt 18:17).

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” (Gal 1:2). On other occasions it is used with reference to the body of Christians dwelling in the same immediate locality such as “the church at Antioch” (Acts 13:1). A small company of Christians meeting together in a house for worship and edification also is referred to as a church (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philem 2). In no case is the word used with reference to a building in which public worship is conducted. The word “church” is applicable essentially to people, and in its broadest sense is used to describe “the company of the faithful throughout all the world.”

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 (James 2:2; 5:14). While Jews called their meeting for worship a synagōgē, and Christians used the term ekklēsía, both were showing their historical continuity with the “congregation” of Israel, the Old Testament church.

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, Charles Gore 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 Galatians 1:13 proves that the apostle found this word existing within Christian circles at the time of his conversion. There is no reason therefore to doubt the fact that the Lord Himself used it. At the same time it would be true to say that Christianity began as one of several different parties in first century Palestinian Judaism. The earliest Christians were known as Nazarenes. They constituted a separate “synagogue” or community within the larger community of Judaism.

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 New Testament.”

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 (Eph 1:22; Col 1:18), but it is applied also to a single congregation (1 Cor 12:27). The use of this metaphor lays emphasis on the unity of the Church, the interdependence of its members, and their vital relationship with its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

The temple of the Holy Spirit (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 (1 Cor 3:16). In the epistle to the Ephesians Paul speaks of believers as growing into “a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:21); while the Apostle Peter describes believers as “living stones” which are built up into “a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:5). By the use of such imagery the accent is placed on the holiness of the Church and also on the fact that it constitutes a worshiping community.

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 (Rev 3:12; 21:2). Under the old covenant Mount Zion was the place upon which Israel’s worship was centered, and Jerusalem in a special sense was regarded as the place of the divine Presence (Heb 12:22). The concept of a “new Jerusalem” is a familiar one in the Old Testament.

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” (Matt 21:43). Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles, are to regard themselves as “the seed of Abraham” (Gal 3:29). Similarly the Apostle Peter takes phrases which were originally applicable to ancient Israel and applies them to the Christian Church (1 Pet 2:9). The “new Israel” knows no racial barriers, but embraces all those who truly belong to Christ.

The pillar and bulwark of the truth

This expression is found in 1 Timothy 3:15 with reference to the Church in general. The implication is that the Church is the guardian of God’s truth and the defender of it. The Church is grounded on the truth, and is the citadel of it.

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 (Gal 6:10). Knowing the same Father, they should recognize themselves to be brothers and sisters in Christ.

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” (Rom 1:7). Certain characteristics are said to be “notes” or “marks” of the Church.


Much discussion has taken place as to the character of that unity for which Christ prayed on the eve of His crucifixion (John 17:1-26). His prayer is not merely for the unity of those who were already His disciples, but also for the unity of believers in subsequent ages. Such unity is comparable with the unity existing within the Godhead itself. It represents that “unity of the Spirit” about which the Apostle Paul wrote (Eph 4:3). Clearly this is a prayer relating to authentic believers who are truly members of Christ’s body. Such a unity transcends the divisive elements of race, sex, and class (Gal 3:28). Spiritual unity can of course exist and flourish without uniformity. Diversity may exist without disunity (1 Cor 12:4-6). The unity of which the New Testament speaks is not manufactured, but maintained. It already exists as the creation of the Holy Spirit. The Church is one because Christ its Lord is one, and all who are united to Him are also united to one another (Eph 4:1-6).


The New Testament makes it clear that holiness is the purpose of God for all His people (1 Pet 1:15, 16). It is the outcome of the work of the Spirit of God in the believer. To be holy means to be separated from sin, and set apart for God. As Christ is holy, so the Church must be holy. By virtue of Christ’s mediatorial righteousness, the Church is accounted holy in God’s sight, but this holiness should find expression in the everyday lives of its members.


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 (Matt 28:19), teach all things necessary for salvation (John 16:13), and to nourish its members in all Christian graces (Eph 5:25-27). The catholicity of the Church lies not only in its world-wide outreach but in its possession of universal truth.


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” (Eph 2:20). The Church which was founded through the apostles is still guided by the apostles through their writings which are incorporated in the New Testament. The true apostolicity of the Church depends, therefore, upon acceptance of the truths preached by the apostles, and living the kind of life which they enjoined and exemplified.

It was of this Church that the Lord said, “The powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). This is true for each individual member of the Church as well as for the Church as a corporate body. The true Church outlives all its persecutors, and no member of it will ultimately perish.

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 Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper 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 (Acts 2:47).

It seems that the Early Church demanded some such simple confession of faith as “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3) as a sort of “baptismal creed,” on profession of which a man might be baptized. Water baptism was the normal sign of entry into the Christian community in the New Testament. It is made clear, however, that it is faith in Christ which makes a man a member of the Christian community, and it is in baptism that he confesses this faith.

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 (Rom 9:6-8).

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. Matt 13:47-49; 22:9-14). The Lord warned His disciples of a coming day when the genuineness of their profession would be put to the test (Matt 7:24-27). He showed that not mere acknowledgment of Him, or even participation in His service was a guarantee of genuineness and final acceptance in God’s sight (Matt 7:21-23; Luke 13:23-30).

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 (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43). In the final analysis only God Himself knows those who are His. The Lord Himself recognizes the true Israel which is to be found within the nominal Israel. In the teaching of the Lord the most solemn emphasis is placed on the inevitable separation which ultimately will be made between the merely nominal and the truly genuine disciples, even though they temporarily may appear to be one in the visible community of His professed followers. Even the purest churches on earth are likely to become subject to some admixture of truth and error (1 Cor 13:12; Rev 2:2). Mankind must not think of the visible and the invisible as being two distinct churches, but as different aspects of the one Church as it is viewed from the human or the divine side.

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 (Eph 3:10; 1 Pet 2:9), viewed from the human side, the Church may be said to make certain specific provisions:

  • It provides fellowship for its members. The new relationship of the disciples with Christ found expression in a social form. In the early days of the Christian Church fellowship was a very significant feature (Acts 2:42, 44-47; 4:32-35).

  • It bears testimony to the world. The Church was formed for the purpose of witnessing to the world (Acts 1:8). It is commissioned to evangelize (Matt 28:19, 20).

  • It provides channels for service. Through the medium of the local church Christian service within the community is facilitated.
  • 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 (Acts 11:29ff; 12:25). Such charity was not displayed merely on an inter-church basis, but was a major activity within local churches. The original Seven were, in fact, almoners taking charge of the distribution of church funds to the poor (Acts 6:1ff.). The Apostle Paul organized a large-scale collection among the various churches which he had founded to relieve the poverty of the Jerusalem church (Rom 15:25ff.; 1 Cor 16:1ff.; 2 Cor 8:1ff.). The sense of mutual obligation was kept alive, and Christians in different local churches were reminded of their essential unity in Christ with believers in other areas.

    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 (1 Tim 5).

    The practice of Christian stewardship is strongly commended throughout the New Testament. The Apostle Paul taught that giving must be systematic and regular (1 Cor 16:2). It must not be inspired by unworthy motives nor regarded simply as a duty. Giving must be sacrificial (2 Cor 8:2, 3; 9:6, 11). Moreover, Christian stewards must be scrupulously honest and open in all their financial dealings (2 Cor 8:20, 21).

    Christian worship

    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 (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; James 5:13).

    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” (1 Cor 14:3), “revelation” and ecstatic utterance with interpretation (1 Cor 14:26). There appears to have been considerable fluidity with time given for spontaneous participation.

    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 (2 Cor 9:13; Phil 1:27). The membership could be defined clearly and defaulters were summarily dealt with. The sacred deposit of the faith was to be jealously guarded and handed on intact to succeeding generations (2 Tim 2:2). The earliest Christian confession of faith could be summed up in the words: “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor 4:5). This was a fitting formula for the new convert to use in testifying to his new life (Acts 8:35-38; 16:31-33).

    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 New Covenant 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” (Mark 10:38, 39; Luke 12:50), and also spoke of the coming Martyr|martyrdom of some of His followers in similar language. John the Baptist witnessed to the imperfect and transient nature of the baptismal rite which he administered. He places his baptism with water over against a future baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16), which received fulfillment at Pentecost.

    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 (Matt 3:16; John 3:23; Acts 8:38), and that this is the only form which adequately sets forth the meaning of the rite, the argument being that in baptism the death and resurrection of Christ are symbolically proclaimed (Rom 6:3-5). Others have argued that the amount of water available is relatively unimportant. The New Testament word translated “baptized” does not necessarily imply total immersion (cf. Luke 11:38), nor is there any indication that all baptisms in the New Testament were by this method. It is questionable whether all of the three thousand converted on the day of Pentecost were totally immersed.

    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 (Acts 2:38; 8:36). While all are agreed that, in the case of an adult, baptism is the visible sign and seal of the covenant blessings, the question arises as to whether it should be administered to the children of those who claim to be numbered among the people of God. Paedobaptists argue that the early Christians being mostly Jews, and therefore used to the idea of infant circumcision, would have needed specific instructions from the Lord if the children of believers under the New Covenant were to be excluded from the privilege of receiving the covenant sign. New Testament evidence is cited which suggests that the children of believers are in a privileged position. The Apostle Paul speaks of children in a home where only one parent is a believer as being “holy,” and this suggests the idea of belonging to the covenant people. Reference also is made to the fact that there are several instances of whole households being baptized (Acts 16:15; 1 Cor 1:16), and it is argued that it is a reasonable assumption to believe that children would thus have been included. Oscar Cullmann writing on the subject has asserted that there is no instance in the whole of the New Testament of a person born into a Christian household having his baptism postponed until faith has become his own possession through public profession.

    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” (Acts 2:42-47; 20:7-12; 1 Cor 11:17-20). This was certainly the practice of the 2nd century Church. The New Testament Eucharist differed, however, from its modern counterpart. It was more than merely a sacramental meal, and always included instruction. No sooner had the Church been fully constituted on the Day of Pentecost, than one finds the two Christian ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper duly recognized and practiced. In selecting bread and wine to be the symbols of His body and blood the Lord availed Himself of elements that were already present on the table as part of the ritual of the Jewish Passover which He was then observing with His disciples. The new ordinance was grafted on to the old (Matt 26:17; 1 Cor 5:8).

    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 (Acts 2:46, 47; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:20). In some sections of the Christian Church, however, Communion services are held only once or twice a year, and considerable stress is laid on the need for adequate self-examination beforehand (1 Cor 11:28).

    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” (Acts 2:42; 20:7-12) in fact denotes this common meal or is used purely of the Lord’s Supper. By the time Paul wrote to the church at Corinth it is evident that the church had formed the habit of meeting together for a meal before partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-34). The apostle deplores the behavior of some church members who made such an occasion an excuse for gluttony. The agape may have evolved from Jewish common meals or from a desire to perpetuate the table fellowship which the apostles had enjoyed with their Lord during His earthly ministry. As time went on, the agape had to be separated from the Lord’s Supper because lack of mutual consideration prevented the Eucharist from being celebrated in a proper spirit.

    The ministry of the Church

    The apostles

    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 Acts 1:21, 22. They were appointed by the direct ordination of Christ (Mark 3:14) and were eyewitnesses of His death and resurrection. The benefit of their special apostolic ministry is made permanently available for the whole Church in their writings preserved in the New Testament. There can be no successors to the apostles as such. In other words, true apostolic succession is a succession of apostolic teaching rather than of some specific form of ministry. Generally speaking, the apostles do not seem to have been located in one particular place, but rather to have exercised a roving commission and to have traveled extensively. In Jerusalem where the Christian Church was first established the apostles were the undisputed leaders, with Peter probably occupying the most prominent position.

    There is no evidence in the New Testament to suggest that the apostles normally presided at services of Holy Communion or were in the habit of baptizing; nor does one gain the impression that they made a habit of Ordination|ordaining. It is likely that the word “apostle” was used in a twofold sense—to denote a special delegate sent from a church (2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25), but chiefly to describe those who had had the unique experience of knowing the incarnate Lord. As A. F. Walls puts it in the NBD, “In the nature of things the office could not be repeated or transmitted; any more than the underlying historic experience could be transmitted to those who had never known the incarnate Lord or received a resurrection appearance.” Their witness to Christ was direct rather than derived, and for this reason they are a class apart.


    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 (Acts 6:1-6). Many feel that the Seven were the original “deacons.” It is noteworthy that they were chosen by the Church as being men spiritually equipped for the task as well as being good administrators. They were ordained by the apostles, their ordination being accompanied by prayer and the laying on of hands. In the first instance, these men were set apart to take care of the administrative side of church life in order to free those with the more specifically “spiritual” gifts for the work to which God had called them. The qualifications for the office of deacon are laid down by the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. It is clear from this passage as well as from Acts 6 and Philippians 1:1 that the position of deacon was widely recognized in the Early Church. Probably there was no close similarity between this office and that of the Levite or synagogue attendant with which Jewish Christians would have been familiar. It is of note that the word “deacon” is used of Jesus Himself (Rom 15:8, translated servant; Gal 2:17, translated agent).


    The Church as a whole is regarded as a priesthood (1 Pet 2:5, 9), and the Lord is referred to as the great High Priest. The function of the sacrificing priest of the Old Testament was no longer required since the one great sacrifice of Calvary had now taken place. While the New Testament does give support to the idea of certain men being set apart for specific ministries, it gives no encouragement to the raising up of a priestly caste with sacerdotal functions. At the same time the New Testament does make it clear that some form of ministry is essential to the stability and life of the Church. There are no hard and fast rules. There is instead a constant waiting on God, a readiness to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, and to obey what is heard. In the early days of Christianity there seems to have been considerable variety of ministry in the Church.

    The prophets


    Philip, chosen as one of the Seven, is also described as “the evangelist” (Acts 21:8). The office of “evangelist” is mentioned immediately after “apostle” and “prophet” (Eph 4:11). The allusion is to men in the Church endowed with a particular gift for evangelism. The modern equivalent might well be “pioneer missionary.” In the Early Church an evangelist was one who first brought the Gospel message and paved the way for the more systematic work of settled church officers.

    Pastors and teachers

    Pastors and teachers are given to the Church primarily “for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12). Their work is to act as shepherds and pastor the Church of God. They are to be considered worthy of all honor and support (1 Tim 5:17). Probably the phrase “pastors and teachers” is to be understood as indicating the two complementary types of ministry which elders in the local church are called upon to exercise.

    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” (1 Cor 12:11). The main lesson is that ministry of whatever form calls for spiritual endowment, and those set apart for it by the Church must be recognizable as having the necessary spiritual gifts which are their essential equipment.

    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 (Gal 1:19), occupied a prominent position in the church of Jerusalem, and he does not seem to have traveled as widely as the other apostles. In certain respects he would be a more accurate prototype of the present day Anglican bishop, although his authority was by no means absolute. Episcopalianism is the outcome of a steady process of development, and is not to be found in its present form in the New Testament.


    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 Acts 15 we find the presbyters acting in concert with the apostles in solemn council. When, in the course of time, the apostles disappeared from the scene, the presbyters remained as the most important church officials. Most Presbyterians would claim that their system is more faithful to the spirit and to the letter of the New Testament than any of the other modern systems. Bearing in mind such New Testament passages as Acts 1:15ff. and Acts 13:1-3, Presbyterians do recognize that the congregation should have some voice in the selection of men for the ministry. A distinction is made between teaching and ruling elders (1 Tim 5:17). The teaching elder is ordained by the laying on of hands of other presbyters after receiving a “call” from a local congregation. Ruling elders are chosen by the congregation and admitted to their office also by a form of ordination. They may not assume the ministry of the Word and sacraments, but they do assist in the government of the church in the exercise of discipline. They also have responsibility in organizing the finances of the church.


    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 (Col 1:18, etc.). When two or three believers meet together the Lord is with them (Matt 18:20). Since believers as a whole represent the priesthood, under the new covenant there is no place any longer for the interposition of a special class of priests. The priestly function is now exercised by all. If the ordinary believer has the right to immediate access to God (Heb 10:19-22), it is impossible to envisage a ministry which exercises any essential mediating function. It is often pointed out that in the New Testament emphasis generally is on the local congregation. There is little evidence of any episcopal or presbyterian control over the Church as a whole. The presbyterbishops appear to have exercised their authority within the sphere of the local congregation, but not beyond it. The Christian ministry is simply the ministry of Christ through men called and commissioned by Him.


    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 (Acts 2). He opened the gates of the kingdom to the vast crowd that listened to his preaching.

    “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.

    In John 20:23 the words “forgive” and “retain” are used. It would seem that the Lord is giving to the Church authority for the declaration of the terms of divine absolution, or the fact of divine condemnation. It is the task of the Church to declare in the name of Jesus the grounds on which God will forgive and on which He must condemn.

    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 (Matt 5:23, 24), and that it is incumbent on the one who has been offended to forgive his penitent brother (Luke 17:4). If private admonition is not successful, then two or three more are to be called. Should they fail, the matter must be brought before the Church. The New Testament places the responsibility for exercising discipline upon the whole Church even though it may delegate its authority to its officers.

    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 (2 Thess 3:15).

    The mission and ultimate destiny of the Church

    The primary task given by the risen Christ to His disciples was that of evangelism (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:45-47; Acts 1:8). The purpose of God is that the elect community may be continually added to and ultimately made complete. In the prosecution of this task the Church is commissioned to “preach the gospel.” Although in this first instance this commission was addressed to the Eleven, it was subsequently given to the larger company of disciples, and indeed the whole Church is called upon to share in the God-given task of preaching the Gospel to all men everywhere. The Gospel is of God, but He has entrusted to man both the ministry and the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-20). If the first duty of God’s redeemed people is to worship, the second is to witness (1 Pet 2:9). No church can evade its God-given responsibility as Christ’s chosen instrument to bear His name and proclaim His message in the locality where it is found.

    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” (Matt 5:13-16).

    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 (Eph 6:10-17). On the other hand, the Church in heaven may be described as triumphant, for her warfare is accomplished.

    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 (Matt 13:39, 41, 42, 47-50; 24:31). It will be then that God’s people receive their glorified resurrection bodies and will share Christ’s glory (1 Cor 15:20-23, 51-54).

    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 (Matt 18:3; John 3:3, 5). The kingdom may be said to be a broader concept than the Church in so far as it represents the reign of God in every sphere of human endeavor. The Church represents those in whose lives the kingdom has taken visible form, and who live by their King’s commandments. The Church is, in fact, the organ of the kingdom, the community of those who wait for the coming of the kingdom in power and great glory.

    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 (Acts 2:41, 42). The community of disciples was described as a church even before there was an established order for discipline and spiritual oversight (Acts 5:11). Church officers do not constitute the Church even though they have an important God-given role to fill in it and on its behalf. The emphasis in the New Testament is on the Church as a living organism rather than an organization. It is the presence of the living Lord which authenticates the local church which in turn is an expression of the universal Church. It is of note that in comparison with the meticulous detail given to Israel concerning Tabernacle and priesthood, little is said in the New Testament concerning church order and administration, although the qualifications of those who hold office are clearly enunciated. The picture presented by the New Testament would seem to suggest that the true unity of the Church is best expressed through a considerable variety of external forms. In the New Testament are found local Christians in fellowship with one another, but not linked organizationally with those in another locality.

    Dr. Hort in The Christian Ecclesiap. 168, referring to the teaching of the Epistle to the Ephesians, 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 Body of Christ 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. Rev 2:7; 1 Cor 11:16God’s Church, p. 66.


  • F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia, 1897.

  • R. N. Flew, Jesus and His Church, 1941.

  • G. Johnston, The Doctrine of the Church in the New Testament, 1943.

  • E. L. Mascall, Christ, the Christian and the Church, 1946.

  • A. Schlatter, The Church in the New Testament Period, 1955.

  • O. Cullmann, The Early Church, 1956.

  • E. Schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, 1961.

  • A. Cole, The Body of Christ, 1964.

  • G. C. Berkouwer, The Church, 1976.&mdash.&mdash.

  • K. Barth, The Church and the Churches (1936).

  • F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (1953).

  • H.E. Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church (1953).

  • F.J.A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (1908). H. Küng, The Church (1967).

  • Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, lects I-V. Hatch, Bampton Lectures.

  • Gwatkin, Early Church History to AD 313.

  • Kostlin, article "Kirche" in See Hauck-Herzog, Realencyklopadie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche.

  • Armitage Robinson, article "Church" in Encyclopedia Biblica.

  • Fairbairn Christ in Modern Theology, 513-34.

  • Dargan, Ecclesiology. Denney, Studies in Theology, Ch viii.
  • References