Church is the term used in the New Testament most frequently to describe a group of persons professing trust in Jesus Christ, meeting together to worship Him, and seeking to enlist others to become His followers. A basic understanding of the church in the New Testament requires answers to the following four basic questions: What does the word “church” mean? What were the characteristics of the early church's life? How was the church organized? How did the early church grow and expand?
The meaning of the term “church” Church is the English translation of the Greek word ekklesia. The use of the Greek term prior to the emergence of the Christian church is important as two streams of meaning flow from the history of its usage into the New Testament understanding of church. First, the Greek term which basically means “called out” was commonly used to indicate an assembly of citizens of a Greek city and is so used in
Acts 19:39. The citizens who were quite conscious of their privileged status over against slaves and noncitizens were called to the assembly by a herald and dealt in their meetings democratically with matters of common concern. When the early Christians understood themselves as constituting a church, no doubt exists that they perceived themselves as called out by God in Jesus Christ for a special purpose and that their status was a privileged one in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:19).
Second, the Greek term was used more than one hundred times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in common use in the time of Jesus. The Hebrew term (qahal) meant simply “assembly” and could be used in a variety of ways, referring for example to an assembling of prophets (1 Samuel 19:20), soldiers (Numbers 22:4), or the people of God (Deuteronomy 9:10). The use of the term in the Old Testament in referring to the people of God is important for understanding the term “church” in the New Testament. The first Christians were Jews who used the Greek translation of the Old Testament. For them to use a self-designation that was common in the Old Testament for the people of God reveals their understanding of the continuity that links the Old and New Testaments. The early Christians understood themselves as the people of the God who had revealed Himself in the Old Testament (Hebrews 1:1-2), as the true children of Israel (Romans 2:28-29) with Abraham as their father (Romans 4:1-25), and as the people of the New Covenant prophesied in the Old Testament (Hebrews 8:1-13). As a consequence of this broad background of meaning in the Greek and Old Testament worlds, the term “church” is used in the New Testament of a local congregation of called-out Christians, such as the “church of God which is at Corinth”(1 Corinthians 1:2), and also of the entire people of God, such as in the affirmation that Christ is “the head over all things to the church, Which is his body” (Ephesians 1:22-23).
What church means in the New Testament is further defined by a host of over one hundred other descriptive expressions occurring in relationship to passages where the church is being addressed. Three basic perspectives embrace most of these other descriptions. First, the church is seen as the body of Christ; and a cluster of images exists in this context as emphasis falls on the head (Ephesians 4:15-16), the members (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), or the bride (Ephesians 5:22-31). The church is also seen as God's new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), the new persons (Ephesians 2:14-15), fighters against Satan (Ephesians 6:10-20), or bearers of light (Ephesians 5:7-9). Thirdly, the church is quite often described as a fellowship of faith with its members described as the saints (1 Corinthians 1:2), the faithful (Colossians 1:2), the witnesses (John 15:26-27), or the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
Major characteristics of the life of the church The preeminent characteristic of the church in the New Testament is devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord. He established the church under His authority (Matthew 16:13-20) and created the foundation for its existence in His redeeming death and demonstration of God's power in His resurrection. Christ's position as the Lord evoked, sustained, and governed the major characteristics of the life of the church in the way members were admitted, treated one another, witnessed to His power, worshiped, and lived in hope of His return.
Persons were admitted to the local congregation only upon their placing their trust in Christ as Savior (Acts 3:37-42), openly confessing this (Romans 10:9-13), and being baptized (Acts 10:44-48). Baptism or immersion in water was performed because Christ had commanded it (Matthew 28:18-20) and was itself a dramatic symbolic picturing of the burial and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Joining the church made one a fully participating member in it, unlike many of the religious groups in the first century in which there was a substantial period of probation before full acceptance. When Christ accepted the person, the congregation did also, even though the members might be aware of weaknesses (Romans 14:1-4).
The way in which members of the church were called on to treat one another was modeled by what God had done in Christ for the church. They were to forgive one another (Colossians 3:12-14) and to love one another (Ephesians 5:1-2;
1 John 3:16) because God had done this for all of them in Christ. This foundation for Christian fellowship gave an ultimacy to its requirements that reflected on each church member's relationship with God (1 John 2:7-11).
Members of the church were called on to demonstrate the power of Christ's redemption in their own lives by exemplary conduct, embracing every area of life (Romans 12:1-13:7;
Colossians 3:12-4:1). The overcoming of sins in the lives of Christians was a witness to the redeeming power of Christ in action in the community (Galatians 5:22-26), and the sins to which the communities were prone were clearly identified and challenged (Galatians 5:19-21). The Christians were expected to adopt a new life style that was appropriate to their commitment to Christ (Ephesians 4:17-24).
The worship of the early church demonstrated the lordship of Christ, not only in the fact that He was extolled and praised but also in the fact that worship demonstrated the obligation of Christians to love and to nurture one another (1 Corinthians 11:17-22;
1 Corinthians 14:1-5). In distinction from worship as it was practiced in the pagan cults of Greece and Rome, Christian worship not only stressed the relation of a person to the Deity but went beyond this to stress that worship should edify and strengthen the Christians present (1 Corinthians 14:26) and should challenge pagans to accept Christ (1 Corinthians 14:20-25). Christian worship was often enthusiastic and usually involved all Christians present as participants (1 Corinthians 14:26). This openness both inspired creativity and opened the way for excesses which were curbed by specific suggestions (1 Corinthians 14:26-33;
1 Timothy 2:1-10) and by the rule that what was done should be appropriate to those committed to a God of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33).
All of these characteristics of the life of the church existed in the context of an urgency created by the awareness that Christ was going to return (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Christ's return would bring judgment to the unbelievers (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10) and thus made witnessing to them an urgent concern. How central this belief was to the early church is illustrated by the fact that the Lord's Supper, which they observed at His command was seen as proclaiming “the Lord's death till he come (1 Corinthians 11:26). The return of Christ was to result in glorious joy and the transformation of the Christians—a hope that sustained them in difficult times (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12).
Organization of the New Testament churches A striking feature of the organization of the early churches is that every member of the church was seen as having a gift for service which was to be used cooperatively for the benefit of all (Romans 12:1-8;
1 Peter 4:10). Paul used the imagery of the human body to illustrate this unique feature of the church's life, stressing that every Christian has a necessary function and a responsibility to function with an awareness of his or her share in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).
In the context of this strong belief that every member has a ministry, certain persons were designated to fulfill specific tasks in relation to the functioning of the church such as apostles, bishops, elders, and deacons. As these offices are examined, it is important to remember that the organization of the early churches was not necessarily the same in every locality. A large church would need more organizational structure than a small one, and the presence of an apostle or his designated representative would cause the other leaders in a given church to be seen in a different light. In addition to these variables, the church was in a period of rapid growth; and as it responded to the needs of ministry, roles or offices, such as the appointment of the seven in
Acts 6:1-7, were created to enable the church to fulfill its ministry in Christ.
“Apostle” usually designated one appointed as the authorized representative of Jesus Christ, and the term in the New Testament is most frequently applied to one of the Twelve (Acts 1:15-26) or to Paul (Galatians 1:1-24). The term was occasionally used in a wider sense to indicate the validity and importance of one of the early church's leaders, such as James (Galatians 1:19) or Barnabas (Acts 14:4; compare
Romans 16:7); but there is no hint in the New Testament that an apostle could appoint a person to succeed himself and establish a continuing line. The office is, in fact, seen as foundational in the church's history and not as continuing (Ephesians 2:20).
Bishops and elders had quite similar responsibilities; and Paul, addressing the elders in
Acts 20:17, stated that they were bishops or overseers (Acts 20:28). Usually, however, the term “bishop” is in the singular (1 Timothy 3:1), and the term “elders” is plural (James 5:14) as a specific church is addressed. The responsibilities of a bishop are described in
1 Timothy 3:1-7 and
Titus 1:7-9. He is described as representing the church in a way which would suggest that each church had one designated leader who functioned much in the way a contemporary pastor does.
Deacons were required to be exemplary Christians like bishops (1 Timothy 3:8-13). Since their duties are not specified and they are usually listed with the bishops, it is usually assumed that deacons devoted themselves to the larger work of the local church, assisting in whatever ways were most appropriate to the local congregation of Christians as the seven did in Acts (1 Timothy 6:1-7).
The organization of the early churches was not governed by a rigid plan that each church had to follow. The guiding principle was that the church was the body of Christ with a mission to accomplish, and the church felt free to respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit in developing a structure that would contribute to its fulfilling its responsibilities (Romans 12:1-8;
1 Corinthians 12:4-11;
The growth and expansion of the early church Jesus taught His disciples that by following Him they were to be involved in a movement that would continue (Matthew 16:13-20;
John 14:12-14), but it was after the resurrection of Jesus that the mission of the church really began (Matthew 28:16-20;
Acts 1:6-11). The earliest Christians were Palestinian Jewish followers of Jesus and found it difficult to witness to non-Jews (Acts 10:1-48). The bridge to the Gentiles was the Hellenistic Jewish Christianity, which sprang into existence with the conversion of Jews from the dispersion who were visiting in Jerusalem and converted at Pentecost (Acts 2:5-47). These Jews whose residence had been in the cities of the Roman Empire were called Hellenistic because they were generally more open to the Greco-Roman culture than their Palestinian colleagues. They spoke and wrote Greek as their primary language, gave their children Greek names (such as Stephen which means “crown” in Greek), and were more willing to relate to Gentiles. It was this group of the early Christians that was the major channel in spreading the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 19:11-26).
Paul was a Hellenistic Jew (Acts 21:39); and when he became a Christian, he was called to and accepted a ministry to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21;
Ephesians 3:1-13). Significantly, he inaugurated his ministry of founding new churches from the base of a church composed of both Gentiles and Hellenistic Jewish Christians (Acts 11:19-26;
Acts 13:1-3). Paul's strategy was to visit synagogues in the cities of the Roman Empire and to proclaim Jesus as the Christ (Acts 18:5). The usual result was that some Jews and some Gentiles who were interested in Judaism (called God-fearers,
Acts 18:7) believed in Christ, were expelled from the synagogue, and formed the nucleus for a growing church (Acts 18:5-11;
The Acts of the Apostles gives only a glimpse of the early Christian heroes and heroines with a focus on Peter, Paul, and a few others (Acts 18:1-4,
Acts 18:24-28). There were, however, many heroic Christian witnesses unknown to us who first carried the gospel to Rome (Acts 28:14-15) and to the limits of the Empire in India, Egypt, and the outlying areas of Europe. See Apostle; Bishop; Deacon; Elders; Missions.
Harold S. Songer