The Christian community. In the Graeco‐Roman world of the 1st cent., there were many religious guilds and societies, but the Christians took over the word ecclesia from the LXX, where it denotes the assembly of the people of Israel; but unlike the word synagogue, also used in the LXX, ecclesia was not a peculiarly Jewish word: it was the ordinary word in classical Greek for a gathering of the people at the call of a herald, and is indeed used in Acts 19: 32 of a secular assembly. It was thus a fitting noun to apply to a society which included many Gentiles. But ‘Church’ is never used as today for a building, or for an independent group. The unity of the Church was maintained by the exchange of letters (Col. 4: 16) and visits from local churches (Heb. 13: 23–4).
Unlike Jews who had their national history and unique social life, Christians were distinguished only by their distinct religious beliefs and customs. The Church comprised former Jews and many ‘god‐fearing’ former adherents of the synagogues, but increasingly it also comprised Gentiles of miscellaneous backgrounds who nevertheless shared a community life which in some aspects resembled that of pagan clubs.
In Acts the word is sometimes used in the singular of a local Christian community but in 9: 31, it refers to the whole Church so far as it had then extended. In Acts 20: 28 Paul charges the elders of Ephesus ‘to shepherd the Church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son’, which must surely mean a body wider than the community at Ephesus: it points to the universal Church, as in 1 Cor. 16: 19, where the local Church which meets in a house seems to be regarded as one unit in a greater whole. In 1 Cor. 12: 28 Paul refers to those whom God has appointed in the Church—surely the universal Church—‘apostles, prophets, etc.’ So too Eph. 1: 22.
The universal Church is also mentioned under different names: ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6: 16), ‘the true people of the circumcision’ (Phil. 3: 3, NJB), asserting the claim that the Church was both the continuation and consummation of the chosen people of the OT. The fullest description of the ecclesia in the NT is provided in 1 Pet. 2: 9—‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people’. In John's gospel the disciples are one with Jesus, as he is one with the Father (10: 30; 17: 11) and they are the object of his love, especially those who were not already Jesus' contemporaries (20: 29); but it was not long before elders grieved for the deserters and apostasies (1 John 2: 19).
The English word ‘Church’ is therefore a very satisfactory rendering of ecclesia. The word, like the Scottish kirk and German Kirche (which Martin Luther detested and used mostly to denote the heathen shrines of the OT), is from the Greek kuriakos, ‘belonging to the Lord’. Possibly the word Kirche was brought by traders up the Danube and down the Rhine. Wyclif was responsible for the word ‘Church’, and though Tyndale and Cranmer substituted ‘congregation’, this was changed back to ‘Church’ in AV, possibly because of Tyndale's absurd version of Acts 8: 1: ‘There was a great persecution against the congregation which was at Jerusalem and they were all scattered’, where ecclesia must refer not only to the body of Christians gathered as a congregation, but also to a corporate body, whether assembled or not.
The southern European nations derive their words (église etc.) directly from the Greek (and Latin) ecclesia.
Whether Jesus intended this Church continues to be debated. If he expected the world to end quite soon could he possibly have contemplated anything so long‐term as founding a Church? It is true that a small Aramaic‐speaking group based in rural Galilee became even within the NT era Greek‐speaking and urban and dispersed, slightly embarrassed about its apocalyptic origins and now gazing into an indefinite future, nevertheless there are indications in the synoptic gospels that the transition was not unprepared. Cf. Mark 13: 10. Mark ends his apocalyptic chapter (13: 32) with a warning to any Christians who supposed the end to be near; not even Jesus knows when the end will come. There is indeed to be a future judgement, but Jesus says that God's saving power is to be experienced in the present (Luke 11: 20); the kingdom is within the disciples' grasp (Luke 17: 20–21); it is present when evil is met with love and mercy rather than with hate and violence, and it is to be present above all in Jesus' suffering and death. Jesus has necessarily employed the concepts that were available to him, and then given them new content. The Reign of God, he said, is breaking into human affairs, but there will be an interval before the Reign is wholly and unconditionally present. It is in this interim period that the Church must work, and Jesus made provision for a community of disciples. The term ‘Son of Man’, derived from Dan. 7, where he represents ‘the saints’ (AV), involved the notion of community; but it is not possible to assign the foundation of the Church to a particular day or hour, such as after Peter's confession. Rather, the Church was created by the totality of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The words of Jesus reported in Matt. 16: 18 and 18: 17 are the only instances in the gospels of the word ecclesia, and are unlikely to be authentic words of Jesus, since the kind of authority there promised to Peter (16: 18) was never in fact enjoyed by him, so far as the NT evidence suggests. In Matt. 18: 17 it is the local Church community that is referred to—so that at the time of the composition of Matthew the Church was seen as a universal body with local manifestations.
Admission to the Church was by baptism, but the ideals of holiness were far from being achieved. Although membership of the Church was open to all, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, rich and poor, men and women, in practice social differentiations sometimes persisted (1 Cor. 11: 21), as did typically Greek fondness for lawsuits (1 Cor. 6: 1–11). False teachings and unseemly behaviour crept in (1 John 4: 1–6; 1 Tim. 4: 1–5) but nevertheless the quality of corporate Christian life did attract converts, and it seems that outsiders might be present at worship (1 Cor. 14: 16), which would consist of prophecies and teaching, singing and readings from the OT, and Eucharistic celebrations on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16: 2). At some meetings, Paul had asked for a collection to be taken to assist Christians in Jerusalem who were destitute in a time of famine as a result of disposing of all their capital (Acts 4: 34), and it proved a godsend to Paul as a means of holding together the Gentiles of his Churches and the Jewish Christians (‘the saints’) in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 9: 1–5), as well as being a way of putting pressure on the latter to overcome their reservations about his Gentile mission.
The subsequent expansion of the Church and its growth exceeding that of its religious competitors was partly due to its being a transnational group. Moreover, it offered, unlike others, a recognized status for women and organized care for the sick.