What is the Church?

The term church can refer to many things.

An English translation of the Greek word ekklesia, it literally refers to an “assembly” or “group of people.” It denotes a group of people “set aside.”As Emil Brunner argues in The Misunderstanding of the Church, it is a brotherhood (brunderschaft) or pure communion of persons (personengemeinschaft)(107). It was used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, refer to God’s people. The other term for the People of God offered was synagogue, This fell out of use by and about Christ’s followers as they were differentiated from the Jewish people. In this sense, the people of God were the church and following The Way reflected how they were being church.

Ekklesia is derived from the Greek verb ekkaleo, “to summon” or “to call out.” The closest Latin/English equivalent is convocation, “a calling together.” Ekklesia was the official term for the citizen’s democratic assembly in Athens. The Christian community was just emerging and while there were bonds of fellowship and, there was no notion of a church universal. Any corporate inferences in the Pauline literature likely referred to local communities. The adjective catholic, meaning universal, was first used by Ignatius of Antioch about 109 C.E.

There are references to physical churches in the Christian Testament, likely because they typically gathered in one another’s homes and did not have any special buildings for worship.  Inferences to a physical gathering place likely originate in the English form of the Greek word kuriake, meaning “belonging to the Lord” or “of the Lord”.  Some suggest that it is a shortening of kuriake oikia, “the Lord’s household” or kuriake doma, “the Lord’s house,” which connotes a place. Consideration of the Church as a place for worship or institution emerged after Constantine’s conversion in the 4th century.

Schisms and other differentiating divisions led to the emergence of denominational thinking and the use of the term church to refer to specific subdivisions of the Christian community: the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Church of Utrecht, the Church of England, the Lutheran Church, etc.

Today, church typically has three meanings. When the word is not capitalized, it generally refers to a gathering of people as in a denomination, a congregation, or a cluster of believers or it can refer to a place, typically a building, where a community gathers. Church with a capital C refers to the Universal Church, the entire body of Christians following Jesus.

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Information primarily culled from Joseph Komonchak, Mary Collins, and Dermont Lane, general editors, The New Dictionary of Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991); Harper Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985); Leland Ryken, James Wilhoit, Tremper Longman II, general editors, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press Academic, 1998). Also, Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church (London: Lutterworh, 1952).

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