corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

CHURCH . 1. The word ecclesia , which in its Christian application is usually tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘church,’ was applied in ordinary Greek usage to the duly constituted gathering of the citizens in a self-governing city, and it is so used of the Ephesian assembly in Acts 19:39 . It was adopted in the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] to tr. [Note: translate or translation.] a Heb. word, qâhâl , signifying the nation of Israel as assembled before God or considered in a religious aspect ( Jdg 21:8 , 1 Chronicles 29:1 , Deuteronomy 31:30 etc.). In this sense it is found twice in the NT ( Acts 7:38 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘church,’ Hebrews 2:12 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘ congregation ’). The term is practically equivalent to the familiar ‘ synagogue ’ which, however, was more frequently used to translate another Heb. word, ‘çdhâh . This will probably explain our Lord’s words in Matthew 18:17 . For ‘synagogue’ was the name regularly applied after the Babylonian exile to local congregations of Jews formally gathered for common worship, and from them subsequently transferred to similar congregations of Hebrew Christians ( James 2:2 ). ‘Tell it to the ecclesia ’ can hardly refer directly to communities of Jesus’ disciples, as these did not exist in the time of the Galilæan ministry, but rather to the Jewish congregation, or its representative court, in the place to which the disputants might belong. The renewal of the promise concerning binding and loosing in James 2:18 (cf. Matthew 16:19 ) makes against this interpretation. And the assurance of Christ’s presence in Matthew 16:20 can have reference only to gatherings of disciples. But it may well be that we have these sayings brought together by Matthew in view of the Christian significance of ecclesia . There is no evidence that ecclesia , like ‘synagogue,’ was transferred from the congregation of Israel to the religious assemblies which were its local embodiment. But, though not the technical term, there would be no difficulty in applying it, without fear of misunderstanding, to the synagogue. And this would be the more natural because the term is usually applied to Israel in its historical rather than in its ideal aspect (see Hort, Christian Ecclesia , p. 12).

2. Ecclesia is used constantly with its Christian meaning in the Pauline Epistles. Its earliest use chronologically is probably in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 . But the growth of its use is hest studied by beginning with Acts. Here the term first occurs in Acts 5:11 , applied to the Christians of Jerusalem in their corporate capacity. In Acts 1:15 St. Peter is represented as standing up ‘in the midst of the brethren.’ Thus from the first Christians are a brotherhood or family, not a promiscuous gathering. That this family is considered capable of an ordered extension is evident ( a ) from the steps immediately taken to fill a vacant post of authority ( Acts 1:25 ), and ( b ) from the way in which converts on receiving baptism are spoken of as added to a fellowship ( Acts 2:47 AV [Note: Authorized Version.] ‘added to the church,’ but see RV [Note: Revised Version.] ) which continues in the Apostles’ teaching, and the bond of a common table and united prayer ( Acts 2:42 ; Acts 2:46 ). This community is now called ‘the assemblage of them that believed’ ( Acts 4:32 ), the word used, as compared with its employment elsewhere, suggesting not a throng or crowd but the whole body of the disciples. In Exodus 12:6 we have the phrase ‘the whole assembly of the congregation (Gr. synagôgç ) of Israel.’ When, therefore, it became necessary to find a collective name for ‘the believers,’ ecclesia , the alternative to ‘synagogue,’ was not unnaturally chosen. For the disciples meeting in Jerusalem were, as a matter of fact, the true Israel ( Galatians 6:16 ), the little flock to whom was to be given the Messianic Kingdom ( Luke 12:32 ). Moreover, they were a Christian synagogue, and, but for the risk of confusion, might have been so called. The name, therefore, as applied to the primitive community of Jesus, is on the one hand universal and ideal, on the other local and particular. In either case the associations are Jewish, and by these the subsequent history of the name is determined.

3. As Christianity spread, the local units of the brotherhood came to he called ecclesiæ ( Acts 9:31 ; Acts 13:1 ; Acts 14:23 ; Acts 15:41 ; Acts 20:17 etc.), the original community being now distinguished as ‘the ecclesia in Jerusalem’ ( Acts 8:1 ). Thus we reach the familiar use of the Pauline Epistles, e.g. the ecclesia of the Thessalonians ( 1 Thessalonians 1:1 ), of Laodicea ( Colossians 4:16 ), of Corinth ( 1 Corinthians 1:2 ); cf. 1 Peter 5:13 , Revelation 2:1 etc. They are summed up in the expression ‘all the ecclesiœ of Christ’ ( Romans 16:16 ). This language has doubtless given rise to the modern conception of ‘the churches’; but it must be observed that the Pauline idea is territorial, the only apparent departure from this usage being the application of the name to sections of a local ecclesia , which seem in some instances to have met for additional worship in the houses of prominent disciples ( Romans 16:5 , 1 Corinthians 16:19 etc.). The existence of independent congregations of Christians within a single area, like the Hellenistic and Hebrew synagogues (see Acts 6:1 ; Acts 6:9 ), does not appear to be contemplated in the NT.

4. The conception of a Catholic Church in the sense of a constitutional federation of local Christian organizations in a universal community is post-Apostolic. The phrase is first found in Ignatius ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 115; see Lightfoot, Apost. Fathers , Pt. 2. ii. p. 310). But in the 1st cent. the Church of Jerusalem, as the seat of Apostolic authority ( Acts 8:1 ; Acts 8:14 ), still exercises an influence upon the other communities, which continues during the period of translation to the world-wide society. At Jerusalem Saul receives the right hand of fellowship and recognition from the pillar Apostles ( Galatians 2:9 ). Thence Apostles go forth to confirm and consolidate the work of evangelists ( Acts 8:14 ). Thither missionaries return with reports of newly-founded Gentile societies and contributions for the poor saints ( Acts 15:2 ; Acts 24:17 , 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 ). It is this community that promulgates decisions on problems created by the extension of Christianity ( Acts 15:22-29 ). Till after the destruction of the city in a.d. 71 this Church continued, under the presidency of James the Lord’s brother ( Galatians 2:12 , Acts 12:17 ; Acts 15:13 ; Acts 21:18 ), and then of other members of the Christian ‘royal family’ (Eusebius, HE iii. 11, 19, 20), to be the typical society of Jesus’ disciples.

5. But already in the NT that ideal element, which distinguished the primitive fellowship as the Kingdom of Messiah, is beginning to express itself in a conception of the ecclesia which, while it never loses touch with the actual concrete society or societies of Christians, has nevertheless no constitutional value. It is scarcely possible to suppose that the adoption of the name ecclesia for the Christian society was altogether unrelated to the celebrated use of the word by the Lord Himself in His conversation with the disciples at Cæsarea Philippi ( Matthew 16:13-20 ||). Two suggestions with regard to this passage may be dismissed. The first is that it was interpolated to support the growth of ecclesiastical authority in the 2nd cent.; this rests solely on an assumption that begs the question. The second is that ecclesia has been substituted for ‘kingdom’ in our Lord’s utterance through subsequent identification of ideas. But the occasion was one that Christ evidently intended to signalize by a unique deliverance, the full significance of which would not become apparent till interpreted by later experience (cf. Matthew 10:38 , John 6:53 ). The metaphor of building as applied to the nation of Israel is found in the OT ( Jeremiah 33:7 ; cf. Amos 9:11 , Psalms 102:16 ). There is therefore little doubt that Jesus meant His disciples to understand the establishment of Messiah’s Kingdom; and that the use of the less common word ecclesia , far from being unintentional, is designed to connect with the new and enlarged Israel only the spiritual associations of Jehovah’s congregation, and to discourage the temporal aspirations which they were only too ready to derive from the promised Kingdom.

6. The Kingdom of God , or of Heaven, is a prominent conception in the Synoptic Gospels. It is rather the Kingdom than the King that Christ Himself proclaims ( Mark 1:14-15 , cf. Matthew 4:17 ). The idea, partially understood by His contemporaries, was broadened and spiritualized by Jesus. It had been outlined by prophets and apocalyptic writers. It was to realize the hopes of that congregation of Israel which had been purchased and redeemed of old ( Psalms 74:2 ), and of which the Davidic monarchy had been the pledge ( Micah 4:8 , Isaiah 55:3 etc.). Typical passages are Daniel 2:44 ; Daniel 7:14 . This was the Kingdom which the crowd hailed at the Triumphal Entry ( Matthew 21:9 ||). Christ begins from the point of Jewish expectation, but the Kingdom which He proclaims, though not less actual, surpasses any previous conception in the minds of His followers. It is already present ( Luke 11:20 ; Luke 17:21 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ) in His own Person and work. It is revealed as a historical institution in the parables of the Tares ( Matthew 13:24 ff.) and the Drag-net ( Matthew 13:47 ff.). Other parables present it as an ideal which no historical institution can satisfy, e.g. Treasure hid in a field ( Matthew 13:44 ), a merchantman seeking goodly Pearls ( Matthew 13:45 ), a grain of Mustard Seed ( Matthew 13:21 ; Matthew 13:32 ). We cannot solve the problem involved in Christ’s various presentations of the Kingdom by saying that He uses the word in different senses. He is dealing with a reality too vast to be submitted to the human understanding otherwise than in aspects and partial views which no powers of combination will enable us adequately to adjust. The twofold conception of the Kingdom as at once a reality and an ideal is finally brought home by those utterances of Jesus which refer its realization to the end of the age. Daniel’s prophecy is to be realized only when the Son of Man shall come in His Kingdom ( Matthew 24:3 ; Matthew 24:15 , Matthew 25:31 , Matthew 26:64 ). It is then that the blessed are to inherit what nevertheless was prepared for them from the beginning of time ( Matthew 25:34 ). And all views of the Kingdom which would limit it to an externally organized community are proved to be insufficient by a declaration like that of Luke 17:20-21 . But even when contemplated ideally, the Messianic Kingdom possesses those attributes of order and authority which are inseparable from a society ( Matthew 19:28 ).

It is hardly to be doubted, therefore, that the name ecclesia , as given to the primitive community of Christians at Jerusalem, even if suggested rather by the synagogue than by our Lord’s declaration to St. Peter, could not be used without identifying that society with the Kingdom of God, so far as this was capable of realization in an institution, and endowing it with those ideal qualities which belong thereto. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost, fulfilling as it did the expectation of a baptism of fire that was to accompany the establishment of the Kingdom ( Acts 1:5 ; Acts 2:3-4 , Matthew 3:11 ), connects the Church with the Kingdom, and the scattering of its members after Stephen’s death ( Acts 8:1 ) would begin to familiarize the disciples with the idea of the unity in Christ unbroken by local separation (cf. Acts 8:1 and Acts 9:31 ).

7. But it is only in the theology of St. Paul that we find the Kingdom of the Gospels interpreted in terms of the actual experience of the Christian ecclesia . The extension of the fellowship beyond the limits of a single city has shown that the ideal Church cannot be identified simpliciter with any Christian community, while the idealization of the federated ecclesiœ , natural enough in a later age, is, in the absence of a wider ecclesiastical organization, not yet possible. It is still further from the truth to assert that St. Paul had the conception of an invisible Church, of which the local communities were at best typical. ‘We have no evidence that St. Paul regarded membership of the universal ecclesia as invisible’ (Hort, Christian Ecclesia , p. 169). The method by which the Apostle reached his doctrine of the Church is best illustrated by his charge to the elders at Miletus to feed the flock of God over which the Holy Ghost had made them overseers ( Acts 20:28 ). Here the local Ephesian Church represents practically God’s Church purchased with His precious blood ( Acts 20:28 ), a real community of which visibility is an essential characteristic, but which by the nature of the case is incapable of a complete manifestation in history. The passage combines in a remarkable degree the three elements in the Divine Society, namely, the redeemed congregation of Israel ( Psalms 74:2 ), the Kingdom or ecclesia of Messiah ( Matthew 16:18 ), and the body established upon the Atonement ( Colossians 1:20-22 , Ephesians 2:13 ). All three notes are present in the teaching of the Epistles concerning the ecclesia . It is the historical fact of the inclusion of the Gentiles ( Ephesians 2:18 ) that is the starting-point. Those nations which under the old covenant were alien from the people of God ( Ephesians 2:12 ) are now included in the vast citizenship or polity ( Ephesians 2:13 ff.) which membership in a local ecclesia involves. The Church has existed from all eternity as an idea in the mind of God ( Ephesians 3:3-11 ), the heritage prepared for Christ ( Ephesians 1:10-11 ). It is the people of possession ( Ephesians 1:14 , cf. 1 Peter 2:9 , Titus 2:14 ), identified with the commonwealth of Israel ( Ephesians 2:12 ), and as such the immediate object of redemption ( Ephesians 5:25 ); but through the reconciliation of the Cross extended ( Ephesians 2:14 ), and, as it were, reincorporated on a wider basis ( Ephesians 2:15 ), as the sphere of universal forgiveness ( Ephesians 2:16 ), the home of the Spirit ( Ephesians 2:18 ), and the one body of Christ ( Ephesians 4:12 etc.), in which all have access to the Father ( Ephesians 2:18 ). The interlaced figures of growth and building ( Ephesians 4:12 ; Ephesians 4:16 ), under which it is presented, witness to its organic and therefore not exclusively spiritual character. Baptism, administered by the local ecclesiœ and resulting in rights and duties in respect of them, is yet primarily the method of entrance to the ideal community ( Romans 6:3-4 , 1 Corinthians 12:13 , Galatians 3:27-28 , Ephesians 4:5 ), to which also belong those offices and functions which, whether universal like the Apostolate ( 1 Corinthians 12:27-28 ) or particular like the presbyterate ( Acts 20:17 ; Acts 20:28 ; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 , Ephesians 4:11 ), are exercised only in relation to the local societies. It is the Church of God that suffers persecution in the persons of those who are of ‘the Way’ ( 1 Corinthians 15:9 , Acts 8:3 ; Acts 9:1 ); is profaned by misuse of sacred ordinances at Corinth ( 1 Corinthians 11:22 ); becomes at Ephesus the pillar and ground of the truth ( 1 Timothy 3:16 ).

That St. Paul, in speaking of the Church now in the local now in the universal sense, is not dealing with ideas connected only by analogy, is proved by the ease with which he passes from the one to the other use (Colossians 4:15-16 ; cf. Colossians 1:18 ; cf. Colossians 1:24 and Eph. passim ). The Church is essentially visible, the shrine of God ( 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 ), the body of Christ ( Ephesians 1:23 etc.); schism and party-strife involving a breach in the unity of the Spirit ( Ephesians 4:3 ). Under another figure the Church is the bride of Christ ( Ephesians 5:25 ff.), His complement or fulness ( Ephesians 1:23 ), deriving its life from Him as He does from the Father ( Ephesians 1:22 , 1 Corinthians 11:3 ).

8. Thus the Biblical view of the Church differs alike from the materialized conception of Augustine, which identifies it with the constitutionally incorporated and œcumenical society of the Roman Empire, with its canon law and hierarchical jurisdiction, and from that Kingdom of Christ which Luther, as interpreted by Ritschl, regarded as ‘the inward spiritual union of believers with Christ’ ( Justification and Reconciliation , Eng. tr. [Note: translate or translation.] p. 287). The principle of the Church’s life is inward, so that ‘the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’ remains the object of Christian hope ( Ephesians 4:13 ). But its manifestation is outward, and includes those ministries which, though marred, as history shows, by human failure and sin, are set in the Church for the building up of the body ( Ephesians 4:11-12 ). Just as members of the legal Israel are recognized by our Lord as sons of the Kingdom ( Matthew 8:12 ), so the baptized are the called, the saints, the members of the body. There is no warrant in the NT for that sharp separation between membership in the legal worshipping Church and the Kingdom of God which is characteristic of Ritschlianism.

9. The Church in its corporate capacity is the primary object of redemption. This truth, besides being definitely asserted ( Ephesians 5:25 ; Ephesians 5:27 , Acts 20:28 , Titus 2:14 ), is involved in the conception of Christ as the second Adam ( Romans 5:12-21 , 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 ), the federal head of a redeemed race; underlies the institutions of Baptism and the Eucharist; and is expressed in the Apostolic teaching concerning the two Sacraments (see above, also 1 Corinthians 10:16-18 ; 1 Corinthians 11:20-34 ). The Church is thus not a voluntary association of justified persons for purposes of mutual edification and common worship, but the body in which the individual believer normally realizes his redemption. Christ’s love for the Church, for which He gave Himself ( Ephesians 5:25 ), constituting a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of possession ( 1 Peter 2:5 ; 1 Peter 2:9 ) through His blood ( Ephesians 2:13 ), completes the parallel, or rather marks the identity, with the historical Israel. Membership in Abraham’s covenanted race, of which circumcision was the sign ( Genesis 17:8 ), brought the Israelite into relation with Jehovah. The sacrifices covered the whole ‘church in the wilderness’ ( Acts 7:38 ), and each worshipper approached God in virtue of his inclusion in the holy people. No foreigner might eat of the Passover ( Exodus 12:45 ). The propitiatory ritual of the Day of Atonement was expressly designed for the consecration of the whole nation ( Leviticus 16:1-34 ). So the sacrifice of the Cross is our Passover ( 1 Corinthians 5:7 ). The worship of the Christian congregation is the Paschal feast ( 1 Corinthians 5:8 , cf. Hebrews 13:10-16 ). In Christ those who are now fellow-citizens have a common access to the Father ( Ephesians 2:18 , Hebrews 10:22 ). Through the Mediator of a new covenant ( Hebrews 12:24 ) those that are consecrated ( Hebrews 10:14 ; Hebrews 10:22 ) are come to the Church of the first-born ( Hebrews 12:23 ), which includes the spirits of the perfected saints ( ib. ) in the fellowship of God’s household ( Ephesians 2:19 , Hebrews 10:21 ). See also following article.

J. G. Simpson.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Church'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, March 29th, 2020
the Fifth Sunday of Lent
There are 14 days til Easter!
Search for…
Enter query in the box:
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology