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Steven Chu
January 8, 2021
This entry is part [part not set] of 8 in the series Key Words in the New Testament
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In this series we take key words from the New Testament and study their meaning through several lenses: dictionaries, famous quotes, contemporary Greek culture, and according to the Bible itself. This is the first part in a new study with a new word: ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), which is translated “church” in many Bibles. Let’s see what modern dictionaries have to say about this key New Testament word.

Encyclopedia Britannica

The Encyclopedia Britannica basically views “church” according to two aspects: as an organization and as a congregation.

Church as an Organization

When discussing the Church as an organization, the Encyclopedia focuses on the discipline encouraged and executed by the organized Church. It says the following:

“The execution of church discipline by the clergy was subordinated to the regulations of canon law provided for priests. A genuine practice of church discipline was maintained in the monasteries in connection with the public confession of guilt, which was made by every monk before the entire assembly in the weekly gatherings of the chapter. A strong revival of church discipline among the laity also resulted from the church discipline pursued within monasticism.” 

We can see that throughout the centuries, such a view of the Church as an organization has been exemplified chiefly by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“On the whole, the casuistic regulation of church discipline led to its externalization and devaluation. The medieval sects, therefore, always stressed in their critique of the worldly church the lack of spiritual discipline and endeavored to realize a voluntary church discipline in terms of a renewed radical demand of holiness based on early Christianity. The radical sects that emerged in the Reformation reproached the territorial churches by claiming that they had restricted themselves to a renovation of doctrine and not to a renewal of the Christian life and a restoration of the “communion of saints.” 

A proper church always has two sides. Externally, it has its administration and practices. Intrinsically, it is the body of Christ full of His reigning and dispensing in life. A church is not healthy if it emphasizes the external aspect and is void of the intrinsic side.

We worship God! Both the revelation and practice of the church have been progressive throughout the ages. The believers in the medieval age, the so-called “medieval sects”, endeavored to make the disciplines in the Bible practical in their life based on the foundation of early Christianity. 

Moreover, from 16th century the Reformed church help their believers to renew their Christian life based on spiritual inheritance of early Christianity instead of non-biblical traditions. In addition, they restored the “communion of saints,” that is, the direct fellowship of all the members of the body with Christ the Head and with one another without the intermediary clerical system.

Church as a Congregation

Now we proceed to the second, more organic aspect of the church: The Church as a Congregation. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a congregation is:

“An assembly of persons, especially a body assembled for religious worship or habitually attending a particular church… [In] the Old Testament, congregation sometimes refers to the entire Israelite community, and at other times it means a gathering or assembly of people.”

When the entire Israelite community is referred to as a “church” (Greek, ἐκκλησία, Deuteronomy 18:16, Septuagint), it is an earthly type of the heavenly church seen in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul said, “Now all these things happened to them (the children of Israel) as examples, and they were written for our (the New Testament believers’) admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11, NKJV)

The Encyclopedia continues:

“In the Roman Catholic church the word is used in several senses: (1) the congregations or committees of the Sacred College of Cardinals that form administrative departments, (2) the committees of bishops for the regulation of procedure at general councils, (3) branches of a religious order, following its general rule but forming separate groups, each with its special constitution and observances, (4) religious communities composed of persons who have taken simple, rather than solemn, vows, and (5) in France, religious associations of lay persons, male or female, for some pious, charitable, or educational purpose.”

“In Protestant churches a congregation usually means the assembly of worshipers gathered in a church at a particular service. But among English Nonconformists and American Protestants, it has been increasingly used to designate the members of a local church, often only the lay people of a local church, and it has become virtually synonymous with parish.”

According to Roman Catholics, there is only one universal church, and locally it has its congregations, its branches of religious order, and its religious communities. According to the Protestant view, Jesus Christ has produced His body — the universal church — and it has manifested as a myriad of churches raised up in their localities.

Webster’s Dictionary

(1828 edition)

“A house consecrated to the worship of God among Christians; the Lord’s house… Lord, a term applied by the early Christians to Jesus Christ; and the house in which they worshipped was named from the title.”

This is a very good description of the church. The church is the Lord’s house! This indicates that the Lord is the owner of the house, and  His believers are the household members. In the church — His house — the Lord loves His members, cares for His members and lives with His members; in this house, His members love Him, adore Him, worship Him, and serve Him. The early believers of Jesus Christ gathered together both at the temple and from house to house, just as the Bible says, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Act 2:46-47)

“The collective body of Christians, or of those who profess to believe in Christ, and acknowledge him to be the Savior of mankind. In this sense, the church is sometimes called…Universal Church.”…“The followers of Christ in a particular city or province; as the church of Ephesus, or of Antioch.”…“The disciples of Christ assembled for worship in a particular place, as in a private house.”

Here are two remarkable aspects of the church: the intrinsic and the practical. The first (intrinsic) aspect reveals the church as the collective body of all the believers of Jesus Christ, that is, the body of Christ. It is an organic entity. In this organic entity Christ is the head and the church is His body, just as the Bible says in Colossians, “And He (Jesus Christ) is the head of the body, the (universal) church… “ (Col 1:18). The second (practical) aspect  shows how this universal church (the body of Christ) has been manifested on the earth by many churches in various regions, both big and small. On a small scale, “church” refers to the followers of Christ who live and meet in a particular city. One example is the church in Ephesus (an ancient city in modern day Turkey) when scripture says, “Paul, an apostle…to the saints who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1). On a regional scale, the church refers to the followers of Christ who live and meet in a particular province, such as Galatia (an ancient Roman province) which scripture identifies as having “churches”: “Paul, an apostle…to the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:1-2)

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