What is the Christian Church? This will be a fairly comprehensive and somewhat technical article, but to give a brief answer up-front: The Holy Church is the communion of saints and true believers in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, our one God and one Lord Jesus Christ, where the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered.
Now, to expand on this:
The Septuagint (or LXX; Greek translation of the OT) renders the Hebrew “edha” as “synagogue”, and typically “qahal” as “ecclesia”. Later Judaism seems to make a distinction between edha/synagogue, being the actual congregation as constituted and existing in a place, and qahal/ecclesia, being the ideal church of Israel; the assembly of those called by God to salvation.
In Christianity, “ecclesia” displaces the word “synagogue”, and “synagogue” tends to designate the congregation of the Jews. Just as in the OT the Israelites are characterized as “the assembly of the Lord”, likewise, in the NT, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, designates the new society the Church (ecclesia/qahal).
Ecclesia (Church) is used in the NT in three different ways:
1. Classical sense; a general assembly of people.
2. Jewish sense; referring to the OT Church.
3. Christian sense; a twofold meaning: (1) The catholic assembly of saints in Christ, which is the primary sense. And (2) A congregation confined to a particular place. The first is universal, the latter is local.
The origin of the English word “Church” is uncertain, but can perhaps be traced to Germanic renditions (kirche, kirke, kyrka, kerk etc) of the Greek “kuriakon”, which is a church, neuter of “kuriakos”, belonging to the Lord, from “kurios”, the Lord.
In summary, we can identify the word “church” to signify the assembly of God, or even, the kingdom of God.
Our Lord Jesus Christ explains a few important characteristics of the Church through his parables, as can be found in Matthew 13:
1. The Church is generated by the Word of God rightly received in faith. (The Parable of the Sower)
2. The condition of the visible Church is mixed, making it an impossibility of having on earth a perfectly pure visible Church. (The Parable of the Weeds)
3. The Church is recognised by its humble beginning, steady progress, and final mighty consummation. (The Parable of the Mustard Seed)
4. The Church has a self-diffusing manner of working and all-assimilating power. (The Parable of the Leaven)
5. The Church is recognised as a precious treasure, found in the providence of God, by those who were not searching for it. (The Parable of the Hidden Treasure)
6. The Church is of incomparable glory, and found by the earnest seeker. (The Parable of the Pearl of Great Value)
7. There will be a final complete sundering of the evil from the good after the all-comprehending work of the Church. (The Parable of the Net)
Many other characteristics of the Church are explained by the Apostles, such as it’s a fellowship of believers in Christ, who are united through faith, prayer and the Sacraments. That its members are living stones built up as a spiritual house, the pillar of truth, to be a holy nation and a royal priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, that the Church is a Bride; a pure virgin to Christ, who will fetch home his bride. It’s a profound mystery, that the Church and Christ are one body.
In Scripture, an important distinction is made between the actual or visible Church, which is imperfect, and an invisible or ideal Church, which has been made holy by God.
The above characteristics of the Church pertain strictly only to the Church properly so-called — to the invisible or ideal Church. They belong to the visible Church only by synecdoche, attributing to it what belongs only to a part.
The Kingdom of God
It’s necessary to distinguish between the visible Church on earth and the Kingdom of God in its final consummation. Where both terms occur, the Kingdom of God is the future and heavenly counterpart to the earthly Church.
With reference to time, Jesus describes his Kingdom in two senses: (1) As begun by His appearance and work on earth; starting with John the Baptist, it has a real existence, and one can enter into it through regeneration. The Kingdom of this age or aeon, on account of being in the world, though not of the world, is a mixture of good and evil; of genuine and non-genuine members. And (2) the Kingdom can be referred to as something of the future; the age or aeon to come, where the Kingdom of God shall exist by itself in its purity and perfection.
The nature of the Kingdom of God on earth is a divine order of things, realized through Christ. It’s a spiritual kingdom and not of this world; it cannot be observed, but has to do with the communion we have with and through Christ. It’s a fellowship of men united for a common purpose, namely, to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments to the whole world, in accordance with the will and command of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Word and Sacraments are special signs that give manifestation of the existence of the Church. These means of grace will continue until the end of the age or aeon, and it’s by this Word of Christ that people will be judged at the last day.
The Church, being founded and guided by Christ, the Head of the Church, has an immovable existence and a sure and firm continuance, and there’s nothing on earth or in hell that shall prevail against it. The Church was properly founded on the day of Pentecost by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as a token and proof of its essentially spiritual nature.
The Church is called Apostolic because it’s built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the Cornerstone. It’s also Apostolic given its doctrinal and historical connection with the Apostles, and that it continually sets forth the doctrine of the Apostles, remains steadfast in the teachings, and carries the apostolic mission of preaching the Gospel to the whole world.
The early Church rightly stressed the importance of Apostolicity, especially against heretics and schismatics, though Apostolicity should not be understood as a transmitting of divinely instituted authority or hierarchy, which has no real Scriptural support, and is in fact, even an idea refuted by some of the Church Fathers.
The Church is called Catholic or Universal, because of its doctrine and faith, which has been professed by the whole body at all times, and because it’s global, and the Gospel it proclaims is for all. However, we can also distinguish between the Church Universal, and particular Churches as individual congregations, as Paul, for example, does in his epistles. viz. sometimes he is referring to the whole Church body and other times to local congregations.
The Church is holy, because Christ is holy, who makes the members holy. It’s also holy because it’s separated from the world, and because the Word of God is committed to it, and still more because of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
The Church is said to be one and undivided, for its members are united to the one Head, Jesus Christ. There is one body and one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Although the Church always has the guiding and regenerating Holy Spirit, Scripture also explicitly warns that false teachers will creep in and so lead people into error. In this sense, the Church may err. However, we can rest in the promise in that God’s Word is firm and unchangeable, and everything ordained and commanded by God will find its fulfilment in accordance with God’s good will. Though we may stumble, the Church will prevail in truth, for Christ is with us until the end; it’s Christ that makes us stand.
A particular Church is strictly speaking not a denomination, sect or schism, but a Christian congregation, diverse in time and place.
The modern conception of particular Churches as denominations, diverse in doctrines, organized on the basis of that difference, is wholly unknown in the New Testament. A denomination in this sense would be in the NT be called a sect or schism.
However, thanks to God, salvation is still possible to the individual even in false or impure churches, because God’s Word and Sacraments are there, and they are effectual on the account of the commandment and promise of Christ, even if obscured. In other words, it’s not our personal understanding of the Gospel that saves, but rightly God’s grace.
What’s known as “The Power of the Keys” — given to the Church, and not merely to certain persons — that is ecclesiastical power, according to the Gospel, is a power or command of God to preach the Gospel, to remit and retain sins, and to administer the Sacraments. This should not be confounded with worldly authority. (Luke 12:14, Mark 10:42-43)
All power of the Church belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the Church. This supreme power has not been delegated to any man or body of men on earth; it can be claimed neither by pope, bishops, clergy, synods, councils, pastor, congregations or any individuals, for it properly belongs to God alone. Christ’s will and Word are supreme and the rule by them in its direct form is transferred to no other hands. In fact, the word “canon” itself, when talking about the Bible, denotes “the measuring rod; the authority/principle/law/rule”. However, a subordinate as distinguished from a supreme power, a mediate as distinguished from a direct power, is committed or delegated by and under Christ to the Church on earth — which involves the furtherance of the Gospel, through the Word and Sacraments. The Church may reprove, warn, and correct through the Word, and may withhold the Sacraments from those who resist the truth, but not add to or teach anything contrary to God’s Word.
The Church is a complex thing, but if rightly understood, a joyful one — It’s the ark of the Gospel and the glorious bride of Christ! Therefore, even if man is divided, we can have comfort in the certainty that the kingdom of God is not, but that God will bring about salvation and restoration as promised. In the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
For a more thorough study of the Church, I’d recommend:
Ecclessiologia by Weidner (a wonderful book, of which this article draws heavily upon)
Compend of Lutheran Theology by Hutter
Churches and Sects of Christendom by Neve
The Book of Concord
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