by Parker Sandoval and Felix Just, SJ
In the letters of Paul, the earliest New Testament writings, the word "church" (Gk. ekklesia) refers to small local communities of people who have come to believe that Jesus is the Christ. Paul uses various anthropological, agricultural, and architectural images and analogies to explain what the church is and how it should function. The word "church" appears only rarely in the Gospels (just three times in Matthew)! In later NT writings, "church" refers to all Christians throughout the world as a unified whole, the one "Body of Christ." Other NT letters refer to the community of believers with several other titles, some adapted from images used in the Hebrew Bible for the people of Israel; for example: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people" (1 Pet 2:9a).
Church – Like the German word "Kirche" or Dutch "Kerk," the English word "church" etymologically derives from the Greek word κυριακόν (kyriakon), meaning "belonging to the Lord" (at first, "the Lord's people" or "the Lord's community"; only later "the Lord's house"). The equivalent words in Latin (ecclesia), French (eglise), and Spanish (iglesia), and the related English adjective "ecclesial" all derive from the Greek noun ἐκκλησία (ekklesia = "assembly, congregation, gathering"; combining the preposition ἐκ/ek = "out of" and the verb καλέω/kaleo = "to call"). Thus, an "ecclesial" community is literally a group of people "called out" of their homes to "assemble" or "congregate" (gather together) so that they can live and pray and worship together as one community.
Originally, ekklesia was a secular term, referring to any gathering or "calling forth" of people to deal with political or juridical matters. In the NT, it designates the community of Christian disciples who gathered at least weekly for common liturgy and prayer. The word "church" is used 114 times in the NT, but only three times in the Gospels (once in Matt 16:18 and twice in Matt 18:17). In the letters attributed to Paul, the word "church" is used 62 times, most often to denote the local Christian community or clusters of communities (Rom 16:4; 1 Cor 1:2, 14:33; 2 Cor 8:18; Gal 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1), or occasionally to refer to the whole church (Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 12:28) in a universal, cosmic sense (Col 1:24; Eph 5:29).
Synagogue – Gk συναγωγή (synagoge = "assembly, congregation"; derived from the preposition συν/syn = "with, together" and the verb αγω/ago = "to lead, gather"). In the Septuagint (the Old Testament in Greek), it usually refers to a local assembly of Jews, although it is also used for the "gathering" of the waters of creation (Gen 1:9). The word is used 56 times in the NT, mostly in the Gospels and Acts, but also in James 2:24 and Rev 2:9; 3:9. Scholars debate whether synagoge in the NT era still refers mainly to the assembly of people on the Sabbath, or also to the place where they gathered. Clearly, however, synagoge consistently designates a Jewish assembly, whereas a Christian community of believers is referred to as an ekklesia.
Temple / Sanctuary – Gk ἱερόν (hieron = "temple area, holy grounds"; 74x in NT) and ναός (naos = "temple building, sanctuary"; 45x in NT). Whereas hieron designates the totality of the holy space or "temple precincts", naos refers more specifically to the "sanctuary building" within the temple area, in which the deity is thought to reside. In the NT, "temple" normally refers to the sacred precincts of Jerusalem. Paul uses "Temple of God" as a metaphor for the Christian community, in that the community is the "sanctuary" where the Spirit dwells (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16).
House / Field / Vineyard / Olive Tree – As the locus of the abiding presence of the Spirit, the church is sometimes described using other familial or architectural or agricultural images: such as God's family/household (Gal 6:10; Eph 2:19) or house (1 Cor 3:10-17; Eph 2:20; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 10:21; 1 Pet 2:5; 4:17), or God's field (1 Cor 3:6-9), or vine (John 15:1-11), or olive tree (Rom 11:17-24).
People of God – Gk λαὸς τοῦ θεοῦ (laos tou theou); God's Chosen or Elect – Gk ἐκλεκτοί (eklektoi). In the OT, the Hebrew people are "chosen" by God to belong to him (Deut 7:6; 14:2); thus the descendants of Israel are called the "people of God" (Jdgs 20:2; 2 Sam 14:13; Esther 46:7; cf. Exod 19:5) or "my people," when God is speaking (Isa 43:20-21; Hos 2:23). In the NT, the phrase "people of God" sometimes refers to the Israelites (Heb 4:9; 11:25). Later, God's "people" includes both Israel and the Gentiles (Acts 15:14; Rom 9:24). God reconciles Israel to the other nations in common faith in Jesus. The Christian community is referred to not only as "God's people" but also as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own" (1 Pet 2:9-10).
Community / Communion – Gk κοινωνία (koinonia = "placed in common"), related to κοινωνέω ("to share") and κοινωνός ("partner"). Koinonia refers to a relationship of fellowship among believers based on participation in Christ (Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 4:13) and sharing common life in the Spirit (2 Cor 13:13; Phil 2:1) by way of baptism (1 Cor 12:13) and the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16-17). In addition, this communion is demonstrated by sharing goods in common use (Acts 2:44; 4:32; Gal 6:6). Paul's ministry to support the poor financially in the Jerusalem church is a sign of this communion (Rom 12:13; 15:25).
Body of Christ – Gk σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ (soma tou Christou). The "Body of Christ" is a prominent Pauline metaphor for the church (1 Cor 12:12-31), as a community of different members with different gifts and ministries (Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 12:4-7) united in the same Spirit by baptism (1 Cor 12:13) and the Eucharist (10:17). Colossians (1:18--2:19) and Ephesians (1:22-23) employ the same metaphor, but add that Christ is the head of the body (Col 2:19; Eph 4:15-16).
Saints – Gk ἅγιοι (hagioi = "holy ones; those set apart"). In the NT, all Christians are called "saints" (Acts 9:13, 32). Paul commonly addresses the Christian community as "saints" (Rom 1:7; 12:13; Phil 4:22; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1), especially the community in Jerusalem (15:25; 1 Cor 16:1). The Book of Revelation uses the term for Christian martyrs (17:6), while later Christian tradition restricts the term to denote outstanding Christians publicly recognized for their exemplary lives.
The Way – Gk ὁδός (hodos = "road, path, journey"). Some individuals literally follow Jesus "on the way" (Mark 10:52), and Jesus calls himself "the way" (John 14:4-6; cf. Heb 10:20); later, "the Way" is used as a group designation for the early Christians (Acts 9:2; 18:25-26; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).
Bride of Christ / Bride of the Lamb – The OT sometimes uses marriage and related images to describe the relationship between God and the chosen people (cf. Hos 1--3; Ezek 16; 23); similarly, the NT sometimes refers to believers, the Church, or the "New Jerusalem" as a bride (Eph 5:22-33; Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:7).
Children of Abraham / New Israel / New Jerusalem – Gal 3:29; Rev 3:12; 21:2
See also Ecumenical, Denomination, Ministry & Leadership, etc.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
This page was written by Parker Sandoval and later expanded by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
See also these other NT Theology Glossaries:
Christology | Discipleship | Ecclesiology | Pneumatology | Trinity | Eschatology | Liturgy | Soteriology | Anthropology
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