The Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

church, the English translation of a Greek word (ekklesia) meaning ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering.’ The word does not normally appear in English translations of the ot. In the Greek translation of the ot (the Septuagint), two main words are used for the People of God: assembly (ekklesia) and synagogue (synagoge). Since Jews in the first century used the latter term, the first Greek-speaking Christians selected the former in order to show that their roots lay in the ot and that they continued the ot People of God. They affirmed the same by applying other terms from the ot to themselves: 1 Pet. 2:9 uses Exod. 19:5-6; in Gal. 3:29 Christians are called Abraham’s offspring; in Rom. 11:17-24 the Gentiles are grafted into Israel, the true olive tree. In the nt, ‘church’ always denotes a group of people, either all the Christians in a city (Acts 14:23; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1) or those gathered for worship in a particular house (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19) or all Christians in all the churches, the whole church (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22). It never signifies a building or a ‘denomination.’

Its Identity: If there was continuity between the nt church and the ot People of God, there was also discontinuity brought about by the Christian belief that Jesus was the expected Jewish Messiah. Thus, a new set of terms to describe the church appeared, terms involving Christ. This was natural, for the first Christians had all been his personal followers. He had gathered a group of disciples (Matt. 10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:13-16) who went about with him and whom he sent to preach and heal as he himself did (Matt. 10:1; 5:15; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6). The People of God is thus explicitly related to Christ. It is his body, he is its head (1 Cor. 12:12, 27; Rom. 12:4-5; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16; Col. 1:18; 2:19). Believers are members of that body with particular functions within it (1 Cor. 12:12-31; Rom. 12:4-8). They became part of it at baptism, being baptized into Christ (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27), and are consequently ‘in Christ’ (Phil. 1:1; Rom. 8:1). They are a building of which Christ is the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). The church is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:22-33), taking up another ot image in which Israel is the wife or bride of God (Hos. 1-3; Ezek. 16, 23). Christ is the vine; they are the branches (John 15:1-11). All of these phrases draw Christians closely together and closely to Christ, giving them a deep sense of identity with him and with other Christians.

Ministry: From the beginning, there was some kind of ministry in the church. Two disciples of Jesus, Peter and John, and his brother James occupied leading positions and exercised responsibility (Acts 3:1; 15:6-22; Gal. 2:9). Paul, who had no connection with the historical Jesus, was eventually regarded as their equal. Ministry is described both in quite general terms (1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:7) and with a variety of more specific titles (e.g., deacon, 1 Tim. 3:8-13; bishop, 1 Tim. 3:1-7; elder, 1 Tim. 4:17-20; pastor, Eph. 4:11; teacher, 1 Cor. 12:28; evangelist, Eph. 4:11; and prophet, 1 Cor. 12:28). Ministers exercising the same function may have been given different titles in various areas of the church. It is not clear what function each title included. The functions of prophets and teachers are, of course, indicated by the titles. Baptism was administered, the Eucharist celebrated, and sermons preached, but the nt writings do not state which ‘officials’ presided in these activities. Those who held office were believed to be endowed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-11). Their ministry was a gift from God (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:7-11). Such gifts and endowments of the Spirit were not confined to ‘officials,’ however, and were many in type, including healing, speaking in tongues, and administration; all Christians were expected to be endowed with them and to use them to benefit the whole church.

Not only did specified individuals exercise a ministry within the church, but the church as a whole had a ministry. The church is the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and the leaven that leavens the whole lump (Matt. 5:13-16; 13:33). The members are a royal priesthood, set to declare to the world the wonderful deeds of God (1 Pet. 2:9). Since the nt covers a period of rapid development, more formal structures appear in some of the later writings (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and instructions are given on continuing the ministry (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1-13), so that the church may be preserved from error (2 Tim. 1:13-14).

Problems Within and Without: The nt church was not a perfect body. In 1 Corinthians, Paul rebukes a man who has committed incest (5:1), believers take one another to court (6:1-11), some members think it a matter of indifference if they sleep with prostitutes (6:12-20), and some are drunk during the Eucharist (11:21). Early on, one serious problem threatened to split the church: the terms on which Gentiles could become Christians. Did they need to keep the ot Law in whole or in part (Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:1-35; Gal. 2:1-10)? In the end, they were accepted without condition because both Jew and Gentile had been reconciled to one another through the death of Christ (Eph. 2:13-18). To assist their growing together, the mainly Gentile churches established by Paul sent a collection of money to the poor ‘saints’ (the normal word for ‘Christian’ in Paul’s letters) in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9; Rom. 15:25-27). Further divisions appeared later in the church, mainly over ‘false teaching’ and behavior (1 John 4:1-6; 2 John 9-11; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-9).

In the nt period, the church was always a small body in the midst of what it regarded as a largely hostile world. While there was no systematic state persecution, hatred was shown to the Christians in an isolated and sporadic fashion (1 Thess. 2:14-16; 1 Pet. 1:6; 3:17; 4:13-14; Heb. 10:32-34; Rev. 2:10; Acts 17:5-9). Their faith forced them to withdraw from many accepted everyday practices connected with the worship of other deities. They became a closely knit group separated from others. At the beginning, they shared their possessions (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-5:11), but this practice soon disappeared. Although Jesus had taught his followers to love all people (Luke 10:25-37), there were times when more emphasis was laid on loving other Christians (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; 1 John 3:23; Heb. 13:1; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2:17; 4:8) than those outside the church. The Christians exhibited many of the qualities of a ‘sect.’ They attempted to preserve the purity of church life and disciplined those whom they thought transgressed too far in behavior or rejected orthodox views (1 Cor. 5:3-5; 2 Cor. 13:2; Acts 5:1-11; 20:29-31; 1 Tim. 1:20; 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:16-17; 3:5; 2 John 10; Rev. 2:14-15).

At the same time, Christians were active in preaching Christ to others and sought to draw into their fellowship those outside it. The actual procedures of evangelism are not clear apart from the great missionary work of Paul, who went to the main centers of population in the northern Mediterranean area. Strong churches are also found in the early second century in Egypt, Babylonia, and North Africa, however. Other missionaries must have evangelized these areas in the first century. Much evangelism must also have been carried out quietly in the home or at work (1 Pet. 3:1-2).

Worship: Within the church, the social and other distinctions of the ancient world were abolished at worship (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 11:5; Philem. 16), although there was apparently no advocacy of the liberation of slaves, and women were given a position below men in at least some of the churches (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-12). There were no special church buildings, worship taking place in private homes (see 1 Cor. 16:19). Admission to the church was by baptism. The Eucharist distinguished Christian worship from that of the Jews and of other religions. A number of people, including women (1 Cor. 11:5), might participate in a service (1 Cor. 14:26-33). As well as readings from the ot, which was their only Scripture, letters from leaders like Paul would be read (1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16). There would be singing (Col. 3:16; Phil. 2:6-11 was probably originally a hymn) and teaching or preaching (1 Tim. 4:11-16). Worship took place on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2), if not also on other days.

The members of the church were drawn from all levels of society. Some were wealthy enough to own slaves (Philem. 15-16), to have positions of importance in the secular community (Acts 13:12; 17:12, 34; Rom. 16:23), and to have houses large enough for meetings to be held in them (Acts 18:7; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15). These were a minority, however (1 Cor. 1:26). Many Christians were slaves (1 Cor. 7:20-24; Col. 3:22-25; Eph. 6:5-9; 1 Pet. 2:18-25), but it would be wrong to assume the majority were. The first churches were all in cities; it was some time before Christianity spread into rural areas. Although Jesus’ disciples had all been Jews, by the end of the first century the vast majority in the churches were Gentiles.

It is important to keep in mind that the development of the church proceeded differently in different places and that the nt writings provide a highly selective and incomplete picture of this development.

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