1. In the Gospels

2. In Acts

3. In the Pauline Epistles


1. Faith

2. Fellowship

3. Unity

4. Consecration

5. Power


1. The General and Prophetic Ministry

2. The Local and Practical Ministry


The word "church," which is derived from kuriakos, "of or belonging to the Lord," represents in the English Versions of the Bible of the New Testament the Greek word ekklesia; Latin, ecclesia. It is with the signification of this word ekklesia as it meets us in the New Testament, and with the nature of the society which the word is there used to describe, that the present article is concerned.

See a list of verses on CHURCH in the Bible.

I. Pre-Christian History of the Term.

Although ekklesia soon became a distinctively Christian word, it has its own pre-Christian history; and to those, whether Jews or Greeks, who first heard it applied to the Christian society it would come with suggestions of familiar things. Throughout the Greek world and right down to New Testament times (compare Ac 19:39), ekklesia was the designation of the regular assembly of the whole body of citizens in a free city-state, "called out" (Greek ek, "out," and kalein, "to call") by the herald for the discussion and decision of public business. The Septuagint translators, again, had used the word to render the Hebrew qahal, which in the Old Testament denotes the "congregation" or community of Israel, especially in its religious aspect as the people of God. In this Old Testament sense we find ekklesia employed by Stephen in the Book of Acts, where he describes Moses as "he that was in the church (the Revised Version, margin "congregation") in the wilderness" (Ac 7:38). The word thus came into Christian history with associations alike for the Greek and the Jew. To the Greek it would suggest a self-governing democratic society; to the Jew a theocratic society whose members were the subjects of the Heavenly King. The pre-Christian history of the word had a direct bearing upon its Christian meaning, for the ekklesia of the New Testament is a "theocratic democracy" (Lindsay, Church and Ministry in the Early Centuries, 4), a society of those who are free, but are always conscious that their freedom springs from obedience to their King.

See the definition of church in the KJV Dictionary

II. Its Adoption by Jesus.

According to Mt 16:18 the name ekklesia was first applied to the Christian society by Jesus Himself, the occasion being that of His benediction of Peter at Caesarea Philippi. The authenticity of the utterance has been called in question by certain critics, but on grounds that have no textual support and are made up of quite arbitrary presuppositions as to the composition of the First Gospel. It is true that Jesus had hitherto described the society He came to found as the "kingdom of God" or the "kingdom of heaven," a designation which had its roots in Old Testament teaching and which the Messianic expectations of Israel had already made familiar. But now when it was clear that He was to be rejected by the Jewish people (compare Mt 16:21), and that His society must move on independent lines of its own, it was natural that He should employ a new name for this new body which He was about to create, and thus should say to Peter, on the ground of the apostle's believing confession, "Upon this rock I will build my church." The adoption of this name, however, did not imply any abandonment of the ideas suggested by the conception of the kingdom. In this very passage (Mt 16:19) "the kingdom of heaven" is employed in a manner which, if it does not make the two expressions church and kingdom perfectly synonymous, at least compels us to regard them as closely correlative and as capable of translation into each other's terms. And the comparative disuse by the apostolic writers of the name "kingdom," together with their emphasis on the church, so far from showing that Christ's disciples had failed to understand His doctrine of the kingdom, and had substituted for it the more formal notion of the church, only shows that they had followed their Master's guidance in substituting for a name and a conception that were peculiarly Jewish, another name whose associations would enable them to commend their message more readily to the world at large.

See also the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.

III. Its Use in the New Testament.

1. In the Gospels:

Apart from the passage just referred to, the word ekklesia occurs in the Gospels on one other occasion only (Mt 18:17). Here, moreover, it may be questioned whether Our Lord is referring to the Christian church, or to Jewish congregations commonly known as synagogues (see the Revised Version, margin) The latter view is more in keeping with the situation, but the promise immediately given to the disciples of a power to bind and loose (Mt 18:18) and the assurance "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18:20) are evidently meant for the people of Christ. If, as is probable, the ekklesia of Mt 18:17 is the Christian ekklesia of which Christ had already spoken to Peter, the words show that He conceived of the church as a society possessing powers of self-government, in which questions of discipline were to be decided by the collective judgment of the members.

2. In Acts:

In Acts the ekklesia has come to be the regular designation for the society of Christian believers, but is employed in two distinct senses. First in a local sense, to denote the body of Christians in a particular place or district, as in Jerusalem (5:11; 8:1), in Antioch (13:1; 15:22), in Caesarea (18:22)--a usage which reappears in the Apocalypse in the letters to the Seven Churches. Then in a wider and what may be called a universal sense, to denote the sum total of existing local churches (9:31 the Revised Version (British and American)), which are thus regarded as forming one body.

3. In the Pauline Epistles:

In the Pauline Epistles both of these usages are frequent. Thus the apostle writes of "the church of the Thessalonians" (1Th 1:1), "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1Co 1:2; 2Co 1:1). Indeed he localizes and particularizes the word yet further by applying it to a single Christian household or to little groups of believers who were accustomed to assemble in private houses for worship and fellowship (Ro 16:5; 1Co 16:19; Col 4:15; Phm 1:2)--an employment of the word which recalls the saying of Jesus in Mt 18:20. The universal use, again, may be illustrated by the contrast he draws between Jews and Greeks on the one hand and the church of God on the other (1Co 10:32), and by the declaration that God has set in the church apostles, prophets, and teachers (1Co 12:28).

But Paul in his later epistles has another use of ekklesia peculiar to himself, which may be described as the ideal use. The church, now, is the body of which Christ is the head (Eph 1:22 f; Col 1:18,24). It is the medium through which God's manifold wisdom and eternal purpose are to be made known not only to all men, but to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Eph 3:9-11). It is the bride of whom He is the heavenly Bridegroom, the bride for whom in His love He gave Himself up, that He might cleanse and sanctify her and might present her to Himself a glorious church, a church without blemish, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Eph 5:25 ff). This church clearly is not the actual church as we know it on earth, with its divisions, its blemishes, its shortcomings in faith and love and obedience. It is the holy and catholic church that is to be when the Bridegroom has completed the process of lustration, having fully "cleansed it by the washing of water with the word." It is the ideal which the actual church must keep before it and strive after, the ideal up to which it shall finally be guided by that Divine in-working power which is able to conform the body to the head, to make the bride worthy of the Bridegroom, so that God may receive in the church the glory that is His (Eph 3:21).

IV. The Notes of the Church.

1. Faith:

Although a systematic doctrine of the church is neither to be found nor to be looked for in the New Testament, certain characteristic notes or features of the Christian society are brought before us from which we can form some conception as to its nature. The fundamental note is faith. It was to Peter confessing his faith in Christ that the promise came, "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18). Until Jesus found a man full of faith He could not begin to build His church; and unless Peter had been the prototype of others whose faith was like his own, the walls of the church would never have risen into the air. Primarily the church is a society not of thinkers or workers or even of worshippers, but of believers. Hence, we find that "believers" or "they that believed" is constantly used as a synonym for the members of the Christian society (e.g. Ac 2:44; 4:32; 5:14; 1Ti 4:12). Hence, too, the rite of baptism, which from the first was the condition of entrance into the apostolic church and the seal of membership in it, was recognized as preeminently the sacrament of faith and of confession (Ac 2:41; 8:12,36; Ro 6:4; 1Co 12:13). This church-founding and church-building faith, of which baptism was the seal, was much more than an act of intellectual assent. It was a personal laying hold of the personal Saviour, the bond of a vital union between Christ and the believer which resulted in nothing less than a new creation (Ro 6:4; 8:1-2; 2Co 5:17).

2. Fellowship:

If faith in Christ is the fundamental note of the Christian society, the next is fellowship among the members. This follows from the very nature of faith as just described; for if each believer is vitally joined to Christ, all believers must stand in a living relation to one another. In Paul's favorite figure, Christians are members one of another because they are members in particular of the body of Christ (Ro 12:5; 1Co 12:27). That the Christian society was recognized from the first as a fellowship appears from the name "the brethren," which is so commonly applied to those who belong to it. In Acts the name is of very frequent occurrence (1Co 9:27, etc.), and it is employed by Paul in the epistles of every period of his career (1Th 4:10, etc.). Similar testimony lies in the fact that "the koinonia" (English Versions "fellowship") takes its place in the earliest meetings of the church side by side with the apostles' teaching and the breaking of bread and prayers (Ac 2:42). See COMMUNION. The koinonia at first carried with it a community of goods (Ac 2:44; 4:32), but afterward found expression in the fellowship of ministration (2Co 8:4) and in such acts of Christian charity as are inspired by Christian faith (Heb 13:16). In the Lord's Supper, the other sacrament of the primitive church, the fellowship of Christians received its most striking and most sacred expression. For if baptism was especially the sacrament of faith, the Supper was distinctively the sacrament of love and fellowship--a communion or common participation in Christ's death and its fruits which carried with it a communion of hearts and spirits between the participants themselves.

3. Unity:

Although local congregations sprang up wherever the gospel was preached, and each of these enjoyed an independent life of its own, the unity of the church was clearly recognized from the first. The intercourse between Jerusalem and Antioch (Ac 11:22; 15:2), the conference held in the former city (Ac 15:6 ff), the right hand of fellowship given by the elder apostles to Paul and Barnabas (Ga 2:9), the untiring efforts made by Paul himself to forge strong links of love and mutual service between Gentileand Jewish Christians (2Co 8:1-24)--all these things serve to show how fully it was realized that though there were many churches, there was but one church. This truth comes to its complete expression in the epistles of Paul's imprisonment, with their vision of the church as a body of which Christ is the head, a body animated by one spirit, and having one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph 4:4 ff; Col 1:18; 3:11). And this unity, it is to be noticed, is conceived of as a visible unity. Jesus Himself evidently conceived it so when He prayed for His disciples that they all might be one, so that the world might believe (Joh 17:21). And the unity of which Paul writes and for which he strove is a unity that finds visible expression. Not, it is true, in any uniformity of outward polity, but through the manifestation of a common faith in acts of mutual love (Eph 4:3,13; 2Co 9:1-15).

4. Consecration:

Another dominant note of the New Testament church lay in the consecration of its members. "Saints" is one of the most frequently recurring designations for them that we find. As thus employed, the word has in the first place an objective meaning; the sainthood of the Christian society consisted in its separation from the world by God's electing grace; in this respect it has succeeded to the prerogatives of Israel under the old covenant. The members of the church, as Peter said, are "an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession" (1Pe 2:9). But side by side with this sense of an outward and priestly consecration, the flame "saints" carried within it the thought of an ethical holiness--a holiness consisting, not merely in a status determined by relation to Christ, but in an actual and practical saintliness, a consecration to God that finds expression in character and conduct. No doubt the members of the church are called saints even when the living evidences of sainthood are sadly lacking. Writing to the Corinthian church in which he found so much to blame, Paul addresses its members by this title (1Co 1:2; compare 1Co 6:11). But he does so for other than formal reasons--not only because consecration to God is their outward calling and status as believers; but also because he is assured that a work of real sanctification is going on, and must continue to go on, in their bodies and their spirits which are His. For those who are in Christ are a new creation (2Co 5:17), and those to whom has come the separating and consecrating call (2Co 6:17) must cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2Co 7:1). Paul looks upon the members of the church, just as he looks upon the church itself, with a prophetic eye; he sees them not as they are, but as they are to be. And in his view it is "by the washing of water with the word," in other words by the progressive sanctification of its members, that the church itself is to be sanctified and cleansed, until Christ can present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Eph 5:26-27).

5. Power:

Yet another note of the church was spiritual power. When the name ekklesia was given by Jesus to the society He came to found, His promise to Peter included the bestowal of the gift of power (Mt 16:18-19). The apostle was to receive the "power of the keys," i.e. he was to exercise the privilege of opening the doors of the kingdom of heaven to the Jew (Ac 2:41) and to the Gentile (Ac 10:34-38; 15:7). He was further to have the power of binding and loosing, i.e. of forbidding and permitting; in other words he was to possess the functions of a legislator within the spiritual sphere of the church. The legislative powers then bestowed upon Peter personally as the reward of his believing confession were afterward conferred upon the disciples generally (Mt 18:18; compare Mt 18:1 and also Mt 18:19-20), and at the conference in Jerusalem were exercised by the church as a whole (Ac 15:4,22). The power to open the gates of the kingdom of heaven was expanded into the great missionary commission, "Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations" (Mt 28:19)--a commission that was understood by the apostolic church to be addressed not to the eleven apostles only, but to all Christ's followers without distinction (Ac 8:4, etc.). To the Christian society there thus belonged the double power of legislating for its own members and of opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers. But these double functions of teaching and government were clearly recognized as delegated gifts. The church taught the nations because Christ had bid her go and do it. She laid down laws for her own members because He had conferred upon her authority to bind and to loose. But in every exercise of her authority she relied upon Him from whom she derived it. She believed that Christ was with her alway, even unto the end of the world (Mt 28:20), and that the power with which she was endued was power from on high (Lu 24:49).

V. Organization of the Church.

It seems evident from the New Testament that Jesus gave His disciples no formal prescriptions for the organization of the church. In the first days after Pentecost they had no thought of separating themselves from the religious life of Israel, and would not realize the need of any distinct organization of their own. The temple-worship was still adhered to (Ac 2:46; 3:1), though it was supplemented by apostolic teaching, by prayer and fellowship, and by the breaking of bread (Ac 2:42,46). Organization was a thing of gradual growth suggested by emerging needs, and the differentiation of function among those who were drawn into the service of the church was due to the difference in the gifts bestowed by God upon the church members (1Co 12:28). At first the Twelve themselves, as the immediate companions of Jesus throughout His ministry and the prime witnesses of the Christian facts and especially of the resurrection (compare Ac 1:21-22), were the natural leaders and teachers of the community. Apart from this, the earliest evidence of anything like organization is found in the distinction drawn by the Twelve themselves between the ministry of the word and the ministry of tables (Ac 6:2,4)--a distinction which was fully recognized by Paul (Ro 12:6,8; 1Co 1:17; 9:14; 12:28), though he enlarged the latter type of ministry so as to include much more than the care of the poor. The two kinds of ministry, as they meet us at the first, may broadly be distinguished as the general and prophetic on the one hand, the local and practical on the other.

1. The General and Prophetic Ministry:

From Ac 6:1 ff we see that the Twelve recognized that they were Divinely called as apostles to proclaim the gospel; and Paul repeatedly makes the same claim for himself (1Co 1:17; 9:16; 2Co 3:6; 4:1; Col 1:23). But apostle ship was by no means confined to the Twelve (Ac 14:14; Ro 16:7; compare Didache 11 4 ff); and an itinerant ministry of the word was exercised in differing ways by prophets, evangelists, and teachers, as well as by apostles (1Co 12:28-29; Eph 4:11). The fact that Paul himself is variously described as an apostle, a prophet, a teacher (Ac 13:1; 14:14; 1Ti 2:7; 2Ti 1:11) appears to show that the prophetic ministry was not a ministry of stated office, but one of special gifts and functions. The apostle carried the good tidings of salvation to the ignorant and unbelieving (Ga 2:7-8), the prophet (in the more specific sense of the word) was a messenger to the church (1Co 14:4,22); and while the teacher explained and applied truth that was already possessed (Heb 5:12), the prophet was recognized by those who had spiritual discernment (1Co 2:15; 14:29; 1Jo 4:1) as the Divinely employed medium of fresh revelations (1Co 14:25,30-31; Eph 3:5; compare Didache 4 1).

2. The Local and Practical Ministry:

The earliest examples of this are the Seven of Jerusalem who were entrusted with the care of the "daily ministration" (Ac 6:1 ff). With the growth of the church, however, other needs arose, and the local ministry is seen developing in two distinct directions. First there is the presbyter or elder, otherwise known as the bishop or overseer, whose duties, while still local, are chiefly of a spiritual kind (Ac 20:17,28,35; 1Ti 3:2,5; Jas 5:14; 1Pe 5:2). See BISHOP. Next there are the deacon and the deaconess (Php 1:1; 1Ti 3:8-13), whose work appears to have lain largely in house to house visitation and a practical ministry to the poor and needy (1Ti 5:8-11). The necessities of government, of discipline, and of regular and stated instruction had thus brought it to pass that within New Testament times some of the functions of the general ministry of apostles and prophets were discharged by a local ministry. The general ministry, however, was still recognized to be the higher of the two. Paul addresses the presbyter-bishops of Ephesus in a tone of lofty spiritual authority (Ac 20:17:ff). And according to the Didache, a true prophet when he visits a church is to take precedence over the resident bishops and deacons (Didache 10 7; 13 3).



Hort, The Christian Ecclesia; Lindsay, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Cents., 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.

J. C. Lambert

Bible Verses by Topic Nave's Bible Concordance McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online Bible KJV Dictionary

Scripture reference tagging and popups powered by VerseClick™.