This article describes the Christian church, both the concept and the institution, as distinct from other phenomena such as the Kingdom of God and Christendom. In the spiritual realm, the Kingdom of God refers to the universal reality of God's sovereign rule. In the temporal realm Christendom refers to the society (medieval, western society) that sprang from the church and, in turn, is the context of the church's life and its mission base. The church is the fellowship of those who worship the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 3:16; 1 Thes.1:1), and who, having received the forgiveness of their sins, are saved through the grace of Christ (Acts 15:11). As a church is comprised of members, and they are the church, so every local association of Christ-followers is a member of the church universal, existing throughout time and place since its founding in the mid 30s of the lst century of the Christian era. Thus church refers both to the universal reality and to particular local and historical examples. While other ways of identifying the church — for example as the visible and invisible church — are described below, exploring the church's fundamental nature as both universaland particular requires an understanding of the biblical-theological ideal, followed by an examination of historical examples.
Defining the church properly begins with a consideration of its original biblical terms. The Greek New Testament word ekklesia (most often translated “church”) refers to the assembly of God's people. Among Greek-speaking Jews, ekklesia was the usual term for a meeting to which certain people had been called, or rather “called out” since the term combines ek, meaning “out of,” and kalein, meaning “to call.” In the context of the Greek polis, the ekklesia was the duly summoned and authorized gathering of free citizens assembled to make decisions. The first Christians moreover read of an ekklesia in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament), where it was a name for God's people gathered to receive the Law from Moses (Dent. 5:22). In the New Testament the church is the “ekklesia of God” (1 Cor. 1:2) and the “ekklesia in Christ Jesus”(1 Thes. 2:14) so that, apart from the Triune God, “the full significance of ekklesia cannot be appreciated,” since “the … Church of God always stands in contrast and even in opposition to other forms of society (Kittel 1965: 3:505).
It is notable that the English word “church” does not derive from ekklesia but from kuriakon, a Greek New Testament word meaning “of the Lord,” (as in “the Lord's supper,” 1 Cor. 11:20). After Christianity was legalized under the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century ad (more on this below), places of Christian worship came to be designated kuriakon. The Roman church preserved the use of ekklesia in its Latin form, ecclesia, but Germanic invaders and their Christian descendants preferred terms such as kirika (West Germanic) and cirice (Old English), all of which apparently derive from kuriakon (Oxford English Dictionary). Perhaps the memory of plundering valuables (i.e. “things of the Lord”) from Christian places of worship during the invasion of the empire led to the change; or perhaps it was a general resistance to Latin church terms by Northern Europeans. Whatever the case, there seems to have been a change in the significance of the name “church,” from a people to a place.
Surprisingly, since the church was founded after Christ's ascension, in contrast to the frequent mention of preaching about the kingdom of heaven (in Matthew's Gospel) or of God (in the other Gospels), there is only Christ's prophecy, “… I will build my ekklesia” (Matt. 16:18b), and his instruction that the church is to be the final arbitrator of earthly judgment for unrepentant members (Matt. 18:17). Although many biblical scholars view these lone references to ekklesia in the Gospels as later insertions by the church itself, there is no textual basis for such skepticism since all of the earliest manuscripts include both references. (In the full reference of the passage above, Christ will build his ekklesia on the “rock” of Peter and give him the keys to the kingdom of God, and this is cited as the authoritative basis for apostolic succession — the doctrine that locates the true church in Peter's successors, the Catholic bishops of Rome.) The Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, describes the founding of Christ's church immediately following the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples (Acts 1:8; 2:1-13) and Peter's sermon, which clarified the phenomenon to a disbelieving crowd of religious pilgrims from all over the world (Acts 2:14-36). The response of some 3,000 on that day — repentance, baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, and receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-41) — was, biblically speaking, an “ingathering” that recalled Christ's words, “the fields are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35). In the face of opposition from the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:17), “the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). Regular progress reports of the building up of the Jerusalem Church follow (e.g. Acts 4:32-35; 6:7) as well as accounts of the scattering of believers due both to persecution (8:1, 4; 9:1-3) and to the Holy Spirit's leading (8:40). The net result, however, was that “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, (and) being built up … it continued to increase.” Notably, in the passage just quoted (Acts 9:31), it is the singular noun “church” that is applied to all the fledgling fellowships throughout Palestine (the King James Version, however, follows the Textus Receptus in using the plural “churches”). The preaching of the gospel to non-Jews led to the establishment of a church at Antioch in Syria on the Orontes River, the third largest city of the Roman Empire. There, Barnabas and Paul gained experience with ministry to Gentiles (11:19-21) and made their base of missionary operation (13:1-4). The mother church of Jerusalem rejoiced to learn that there were Christianoi (Christians) in Antioch. The resulting fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers was characterized by joy and mutual encouragement (11:23; 15:3). The fellowship of believers at Antioch moreover provided the nucleus for subsequent evangelistic missions — i.e. of “sending out by the Holy Spirit” — to Gentiles and Jews living to the west, that is, in Greece and ultimately to Rome. Meanwhile, the question of whether it would be necessary for Gentile believers to observe the Law of Moses was settled by church leaders (apostles and elders) at Jerusalem, with Barnabas and Paul in attendance. Peter addressed the matter by defining salvation (“we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus”), and James recognized the legitimacy and autonomy of the mission congregations as a people “turning to God from among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:11, 19). Later chapters of Acts describe the founding of churches throughout the Mediterranean basin, and the book ends on a note of open, unhindered preaching and teaching. The New Testament letters of Paul are addressed to churches or church leaders in answer to their specific questions, concerns, and circumstances. The Catholic or General letters may have been written to circulate among a group of churches in a specific region. All of these employ a variety of analogies to communicate particular truths about the church, including botanical images (e.g. God's planting, a vine and its branches, trees, a vineyard), architectural images (household, tabernacle, temple, city), somatic images (head, blood, body), and various relational, tribal, and national images (Abraham's sons, brotherhood, the twelve tribes, the people of God, a holy nation) to name a few. Paul Minear identified over 100 such images and noted the tendency of New Testament authors to proliferate and combine the various analogies. The Corinthians are at once God's field and God's building (1 Cor. 3:9), and 1 Peter speaks of “living stones … being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). Whatever sort of analogy is employed, “the purpose of every comparison is to point beyond itself” and “the collage of images arrayed in the New Testament points to the reality and work of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ” (Minear 1960: 222-223). Compared to these ideal images the churches themselves struggled to grow, and to maintain the witness of unity, love, and godliness (categories mentioned in Acts 9:31). And just as the earliest churches exhibited strengths and frailties in their particular cultural milieus, so also did the churches they spawned.
The earliest churches met in the homes of extended families (1 Cor. 16:9; Col. 4:15; Phil. 2) who, following the pattern found in Acts 2:42-47, were committed to the apostles' teaching and to a quality of fellowship that met the basic needs of all its members, particularly its most needy and vulnerable members. Although prior to Pentecost the disciples still met in the temple courts (Acts 2:46), which shows their historical unity with Judaism, afterward the seclusion of private homes allowed for anonymity and protection from a hostile society. From the mid 1st century onward, Jews viewed the church as a heretical sect — the Nazarenes — banning them from the synagogue, and Romans saw Christians as pagans since they would not participate in the worship of Roman deities. Early forms of Christian worship, leadership, and ministry at first followed the model of the Jewish synagogue. Increasingly, however, the fledgling congregations were influenced by a series of postapostolic Christian encyclicals known later as the “church fathers” but which early on were regarded as “scripture.” One of these, Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, attests the gradual emergence of specifically Christian patterns from the Jewish milieu. The Didache combines Gospel teachings with Jewish liturgical themes and directions for Christian discipline and sacramental practice. Its harshly worded directives, e.g. “don't be like the hypocrites who fast on Mondays and Thursdays,” may be aimed at early Jewish Christians who insisted on observance of the law of Moses as necessary for salvation. Its rigorous guidelines for scrutinizing itinerant teachers and prophets, and the admonition to honor local bishops and deacons, foreshadow a growing inclination to centralize the church's authority.
As the Christian movement spread — estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 Christians by the end of the 1st century — heretical teachings, questions about the canon of Scripture, and problems such as whether or not to readmit “lapsed” Christians to communion, all led to a growing reliance on centralized authority, with the bishop (Greek episkopos) as the administrative head of each local area. “Do nothing without the Bishop,” Ignatius advised, writing late in the 1st century (in his Letter to the Magnesians, chap. 3). The previously described Didache, circulating among the churches during the first half of the 2nd century, helped along the establishment of a standard, threefold church order: bishop, elder, and deacon. By the 3rd century, Bishop Cyprian, speaking on behalf of the church in politically tumultuous times, expressed the need for authority in exclusivist terms: “There is no salvation outside of the church” (Salus extra ecclesiam non est). Concern for doctrinal purity, moreover, led to the development of formal creeds recited during baptism. The Nicene Creed (“We believe in One God …”) originated among the Eastern Church and speaks of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” This was, for late ancient and early medieval Christians, a universal “symbol” of the Church's unity and authority. However, there were differences in the precise wording of the creed as spoken by churches of the East (for whom the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father” alone) and the West (for whom he proceeds “from the Father and the Son”), and in fact the Apostles' Creed (“I believe in God the Father Almighty”) became the standard for the West. Given the nature of Christian diversity, the goal of a unified church proved to be elusive, as it had been from the very beginning (see, for example, Acts 6.1). The New Testament itself illustrates this diversity in its description of a range of churches, from the great urban churches of Rome, Corinth, and Antioch, to those of remote Asia Minor addressed in the Revelation to John.
From those first apostolic churches scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin there emerged urban centers of church authority which, by the late 3rd century ad, had begun to coalesce in five “patriarchies,” i.e. Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Constantinople. This coincided with the conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine and the legalization of Christianity early in the 4th century. The subsequent dramatic rise in the numbers of professing Christians made public worship both possible and necessary. The gifts of wealthy benefactors funded the construction of large urban basilicas and the increase in church wealth, together with the increasing political power of her bishops, produced a church that would have been scarcely recognizable to earlier generations of persecuted Christians. Documents of the period, such as the late 4th century collection known as the Apostolic Constitutions, attest an increasing degree of separation between ordained clergy and laity, as well as elaborate formal prayers and catechetical rituals. The church of medieval Christendom was still the ekklesia — the assembly of God's people — but in its transformation from illegal cult to the “dominant form of religion in the Roman empire” the church was forever changed and, in turn, “imprinted the most important difference between ancient and medieval society” (Chadwick 2001: 1).
The medieval church was considered to be the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, represented in her gathered bishops — men whose increasing position and power were understood to be evidence of God's sovereignty over all society. The medieval synthesis of church and society, however, did not hasten church unity. As the church's borders expanded it was inevitable that its development would follow the lines of church division. The year 1054 marked the formal schism of the church, East and West. Rome became the chief apostolic see forthe Catholic, Latin-speaking Western church, and Constantinople (Istanbul) for the Orthodox, Greek-speaking Eastern church. While the former was (and is) characterized by a central government (the Vatican), a single liturgical language — Latin — and experienced a progressive development of its rites and traditions over time, the latter is far less centralized, and remains rooted in the ancient liturgies — of St. Basil, of the Presanctified, and of St. Chrysostom — celebrated in the formal tongues of each church's homeland. Moreover, while the celebration of Mass is the center of worship for both churches, Eucharist is taken far less often in the Eastern Church and is preceded by lengthier fasts. Both bodies support monastic life, but while the Western Church has a variety of monastic orders, all Eastern monks keep the Rule of St. Basil. Although the Eastern Church, beginning in the 9th century, experienced growth through the evangelization of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia, it is numerically small and geographically isolated when compared with the worldwide Catholic Communion. The limited usefulness of East and West as comprehensive designations for the church becomes apparent when the fact of the existence of Greek (Eastern) Catholic churches is taken into consideration. These churches (found in Albania, Egypt, Ethiopia, Western Syria, and elsewhere), while arising historically from Eastern Orthodoxy, are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and view themselves as a kind of bridge between East and West.
In the late medieval period, corruption and division within the church fueled the quest for the vera ecclesia (the true church), a quest that intensified amidst widespread poverty and the prevalence of sickness and death during the Middle Ages, as well as a growing discontent with the traditional basis of authority, e.g. the divine right of kings. The Protestant Reformers were themselves Roman Catholics who opposed the Roman magisterium — the Western Church's authoritative teaching basis. In the late 14th century John Wyclif taught that a corrupt church hierarchy must be subject to correction by the state. In the early 16th century Martin Luther denied that the pope or church councils were “masters of Scripture,” possessing sole authority for interpretation. For Luther, the church was not to be identified with the succession and hierarchy of Roman bishops, but was rather a spiritual priesthood of all Christian believers (see 1 Peter 2:9). Nailing his criticisms to the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517, Luther used his position as professor of theology at a German university to make an assault on Catholic doctrine, and in so doing unleashed revolution in the church. Stripping away those claims to authority that were based in apostolic succession (i.e. Matt. 16:18-19), Luther found “the word alone … sufficient to identify the Church,” that is “the external word, preached orally …” such that “whenever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed and lived do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica [holy Catholic Church], a Christian holy people, must be there, even though their number is very small” (quoted in Avis 1981: 14). In addition to the preached word, Luther described several marks of a true church including the sacraments rightly administered (reduced from seven traditional Catholic sacraments to two: baptism and the Lord's Supper), the office of the keys (the hearing of confession and declaration of forgiveness), and public worship. The Augsburg Confession gave shape to Luther's teachings and defined the church as “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (Article vii). It is important to note that Luther sought the purification of the church and did not intend to found a new church. In making the distinction between the invisible church (comprised of the elect and known only to God) and the visible, imperfect church, Luther set limits on the extent of that purification. Radical Reformers, however, “were dissatisfied with this worldly Church and strove for perfection” (Avis 1981: 54-55). Their vision was nothing less than the restoration of the primitive church since the passing of the apostles (or the conversion of Constantine, the point was debated), had led to the corruption and loss of the true church. Paul Avis (1981) notes four principles underlying the view of the church held by Radical Reformers. These include:
Voluntarism: dichotomizing the sacred and the secular, they made a radical distinction between church and state, and rejected altogether the notion of Christendom (Christianized society) in favor of the body of Christ. The Church, then, was “a voluntary association which took its spirit and its discipline from those who intentionally belonged to its fellowship” (Avis 1981: 55).
Primitivism: in the documents of the New Testament they found the blueprint for the true church. Thus, and here Avis quotes church historian Philip Schaff, “The Reformers aimed to reform the old Church by the Bible; the Radicals attempted to build a new Church from the Bible” (p. 56).
Exclusivism: in their view Luther, in his reforming agenda, had compromised with a corrupt church. Separating themselves entirely, and enduring persecution for their actions, Radical Reformers saw themselves as “the true Church of the apostles and prophets” (p. 55).
Discipline: an unwillingness to abstain from serious sin or to be reconciled to a neighbor resulted in an individual's being banned from fellowship, with no further relations with those in good standing.
While the Radical Reformers may seem, simply, to have taken Luther's reforms to an extreme, their spiritual, idealized picture of the church contrasts markedly with that of Luther and other Reformers, and this was due largely totheir rejection of the visible/invisible church distinction.
Writing nearly 100 years ago, Ernst Troeltsch employed a sociological analysis in order to describe the historical development of The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. Surveying the development of Christian thought broadly, Troeltsch identified “three main types of sociological development,” including institution (church), voluntary society (sect), and personal and inward experience (mysticism), which types he determined had appeared “from the very beginning” (Troeltsch 1931: 993). This analysis brings a coherence to the inherent variety of Christian expression that is otherwise difficult to discover, and offers helpful categories for describing the post-Reformation development of the church. While Catholics reaffirmed tradition by way of the Catholic (or Counter-) Reformation, Protestants reformulated the institution of church on the basis of the preached word of God. Here the principle of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) stood in place of the “rule of faith,” that operated in the ancient church. From the German states the Reformation spread throughout the European Continent giving rise to Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist churches. In the British Isles, the Church of England had its own distinctive genesis, being formed when King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church over the matter of the unsanctioned divorce of his wife. Inevitably, the evangelical zeal that had guided the Reformation diminished: the Reformation churches were intertwined with the state whose regulation and oversight encouraged the hardening of the church into a bureaucratic institution with little tolerance for diversity or interest in evangelism. Renewed quests for a true church gave rise to Christian sects and encouraged the expression of the “personal and inward experience” described by Troeltsch. Anabaptists, Lollards, Puritans, and others separated themselves from corrupt and lifeless state churches, and at the risk of their own lives, met secretly until they won the right to establish their own churches. British Methodists evangelized huge throngs of the working class by preaching outdoors, and gathered their converts into classes for spiritual growth through testimony and mutual encouragement. The freedoms and opportunities available in the American colonies led to the sponsoring of missions and the spread of Old World churches (Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, etc.) there, as well as to the birth of new “Restoration churches” (i.e. seeking the restoration of “primitive” or ancient Christianity) such as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). American church participation was increasingly characterized by a voluntary covenant.
The growth of indigenous churches throughout the world and the continuation of efforts to work toward church unity have shed further light on the nature of the church. “The church is the bearer to all the nations of a gospel that announces the kingdom, the reign, and the sovereignty of God.” So wrote Leslie Newbigin (1986: 124), a Scottish Presbyterian missionary to India, who presided as bishop over the union of Protestant mission churches to form the Church of South India in 1947. In The Household of God (1953) Newbigin defined the church in the context of “the breakdown of Christendom — the dissolution of the synthesis between the Gospel and Western culture … that synthesis by which Christianity had become almost the folk-religion of Western Europe” such that the entire population was, at least nominally, Christian (Newbigin 1953: 1). In Reformation theologies, Newbigin noted, the church is defined within the context of “a situation in which Christendom is taken for granted” - i.e. within a social matrix that Christendom created or helped to create such as in Western Europe or the United States — and not in a missionary situation, in which case the church is defined “as over against a pagan world” (pp. 1-2). Situated in Hindu culture, the Church of South India was “compelled to define itself as a body distinct from the community as a whole, and therefore to reflect on its own nature” as a new community. Widespread renewed efforts at church unity have arisen from the modern world missions movement, as various missionary organizations such as the YMCA and the World Student Christian Federation sponsored worldwide missionary conferences and supported the establishment of the World Council of Churches (1948). The ecumenical movement has inspired an extended dialogue among hundreds of participating denominations and church connections about the meaning and nature of the church, evangelism, and missions, and has produced an extensive literature on ecclesiology.
Historical examples of the church, in each unique context, yield insights into its nature. Christianity came to China in the 7th century ad with the Nestorians (deemed heretics by other Christians because of their view of Christ as two distinct persons), but made little impact there until the advent of modern Christian missions. Throughout the 19th century, the church — Catholic and Protestant — struggled against the Chinese perception of Christians as “foreign devils.” Only as missionaries put aside western pride and cultural prejudice did the church gain a foothold: the early 20th century saw a “Chinese quickening,” or revival, in the Protestant Church, with significant growth occurring every decade thereafter. By the time of the Communist Revolution in 1949, the Protestant Church numbered about 1,000,000 members and was independent of western control. Communist leaders, however, rejected the church as unscientific and representative of foreign imperialism. Under the rule of Chairman Mao Zedong, with his policy of total religious suppression, the Church of China disappeared from sight until Mao's death in 1975. During his 25 year rule the church endured severe persecution and survived by means of alliance, in some quarters, with the Three Self (i.e. self-reliant) Movement, but primarily through the proliferation of secretive and widely dispersed house churches. With the reinstatement of religious freedom under Deng Xiaoping in 1978, a church numbering many millions reemerged to the view and astonishment of the world. Communist strategies for suppressing the church had failed, for while “the government could seize control of an organization … the Church (of China) was not a structured order, but it was a growing, living organism.” Indeed, “the weakness of Protestantism, by its individuality and local autonomy became its very strength” (Suman 2006: 180).
Not all indigenous churches have been planted by mission churches. In the case of the Korean Catholic Church, “missionaries from the West came after an indigenous church had been founded” in 1784 (Sunquist 2001: 447). Protestant missionaries began arriving much later, and consequently Christianity grew much faster than in either Japan or China, due to the church's self-reliance and lack of dependency on foreign leadership and funds, close cooperation between various Protestant missions, and the fact that foreign imperialism was associated with Japan and not the Christian west. Sustained prayer and exponential church growth through the proliferation of cell churches are characteristics of the Korean Church.
Wherever the gospel is freely and accurately proclaimed, the church takes root and grows among people of every race, culture, and economic circumstance, thus transcending traditional social barriers. In late 20th century Latin America, for example, the Pentecostal Church evangelized Creole, Indian, mestizo, and black, both rich and poor, becoming the largest and fastest growing segment of the church in Latin America, and among the fastest growing churches in the world. Emphasizing dynamic worship and life transformation through salvation and sanctification — power to live a new and holy life — the Pentecostal Church offers a strong, supportive community that differs radically from religious and nonreligious forms of traditional Latin community.
In every generation the tenor of the debate about the meaning and mission of the church reflects its spiritual health and intellectual vigor. The adjective “emerging” speaks of what is only dimly seen, and whose arrival, though anticipated, is yet to be fully realized. The megachurch movement and the so-called “third wave” of Pentecostalism comprise the context out of which the current debate arises. Among neo-evangelical participants of the more recent “conversation” pragmatic core values have displaced Christian doctrine as the focus: in place of ecclesiology is a discussion about “doing church,” and concern for denominational loyalty is sidetracked by worries about worship styles. On the other side are critics from the Reformed theological perspective who find heresy — the adulteration of gospel — in seeker-sensitive worship and generation-based programming. In this sense, the discussion about what the Church should be and do seems to have progressed little in over two centuries of Old School/New School theological debate. Recent ecumenical efforts in some quarters appear to be more promising. Over 480 years after the posting of Luther's 95 theses, a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed (symbolically, on October 31st) at Augsburg, Germany, by official representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation, with an invitation for others to join. The accord was designed to establish common ground between the Catholic and Lutheran perspectives on justification — the basis of salvation — yet, “it remains to be seen whether this document will bridge the barriers that have separated the churches for so long” (Bloesch 2002: 253). It has always been difficult to square the marvelous concept of church as described in Scripture — built by, loved by, and nourished by the very life of Christ — with the messy reality of the historical church. Key biblical images of the church, e.g. the people of God, the body of Christ, living stones built into a spiritual house, still best express its abiding attributes — unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Lack of unity is only the most visible problem; as concern for historic Christian doctrine diminishes, the other attributes suffer as well. Even so, to a church torn with strife and worldliness the Apostle Paul declared, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him” (2 Cor. 11:2).
SEE ALSO: Authority; Creeds and Confessions of Faith; Ecclesiology; Ecumenism; House Churches; Kingdom of God: Modern Interpretations; Medieval Church, the; Ontology of the Church; Reformation; Sobornost
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