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The English word church and the German Kirche derive from the Greek Kyriake, which means “that which belongs to the Lord.” The Romance languages derive their words for church (iglesia, chiesa, église, etc.) from the Latin word ecclesia, which derives from the Greek, ekklesia, which means “convocation” or “assembly.” In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, ekklesia is used about 100 times to render Hebrew words like qahal that refer to the “assembly” of the Lord. In the New Testament the term ekklesia occurs 114 times and is used either for the whole Christian community (Gal. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9; Matt. 16:8) or for local or particular churches (1 Cor. 1:2; Rev. 1:4, 2:1, etc.).
Only one of the four Gospels, Matthew, uses the word ekklesia (Matt. 16:8; 18:17), but the term is used twenty-three times in Acts, sixty-five times in Paul, and twenty times in Revelation. This absence of ekklesia in three of the Gospels is probably the result of the Christian belief that the church only replaces Israel as the “People of God” following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Christians, however, see the words and actions of Jesus during his earthly ministry as foundational for the church, and they look upon the history of Israel from the time of Abraham to Jesus as the “preparation” or “prefiguring” of the Christian Church.
The Early Church
The New Testament relates the spread of the Christian Church through the preaching of Jesus’ disciples (followers) and apostles (those commissioned by Jesus to preach his message). The Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, tells the story of the spread of the church from “Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” namely, Rome (Acts 1:8).
In the early church, leadership seems to have been both charismatic (some were “prophets”; 1 Cor. 12:48) and hierarchical (with overseers/bishops; elders/presbyters, and ministers/deacons; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1–13, 5:17–20; Titus 1:7–9). In the early second century Ignatius the Martyr (d. c. 107) testifies to three distinct ministries or orders in the universal (“catholic”) church: bishop (episkopos), presbyter (presbyteros), and deacon (diakonos). By the end of the second century Irenaeus (c. 130–200), the bishop of Lyons, points to the Church of Rome as having a “more powerful principality” because it is the church of the apostles Peter and Paul.
The “rule of faith” in the early church was the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. By the late second century, however, Bishop Irenaeus upholds the normative value of the four written testimonies to Jesus’ life and mission known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (written c. 65–90 CE). The letters attributed to Paul also achieve scriptural status, and by the late fourth century (367) Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, specifies the definitive list, or “canon,” of the twenty-seven writings of the New Testament as they remain in the early twentyfirst century. The African Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) endorse the longer list of forty-six Old Testament books as canonical (a list later upheld by the Catholic Council of Trent in 1546, although the Protestant Reformers favored the shorter Old Testament of thirty-nine books).
The Christian Church spread throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean basin during the first three centuries of the Common Era in spite of periodic persecutions from Roman emperors, such as Nero (64–68), Domitian (95–96), Trajan (106–117), Marcus Aurelius (161–180), Decius (249–251), and Diocletian and Galerius (303–311). The spread of the faith amid such persecutions prompted the Christian writer Tertullian (c. 150–220) to remark that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.”
In 313 the Roman emperor Constantine (later baptized a Christian) granted legal recognition and religious freedom to Christianity by the Edict of Milan. In 330 he moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium in Asia Minor (later renamed Constantinople). This move led to the recognition of Constantinople as the “New Rome” and a leading center of Christian culture. By the fifth century there were five major centers or “sees” of the Christian Church: Rome in Italy, Constantinople in Asia Minor, Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Jerusalem.
The Development of Church Doctrine
Between 325 and 787 seven major (ecumenical) church councils were held to clarify points of doctrine in resistance to various teachings considered to be false or heretical. A profession of faith linked to the first two ecumenical councils of Nicea I (325) and Constantinople I (381) summarized the basic points of Christian faith, especially the belief in the Trinity (three persons in one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and Jesus Christ as consubstantial or “one in essence” with the Father.
This profession of faith, known as the NiceneConstantinopolitan Creed (or simply the Nicene Creed) also describes the Christian Church as “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.”
Other doctrinal proclamations followed. The Council of Ephesus in 431 affirmed Mary as the “Godbearer” or “Mother of God.” The Council of Chalcedon in 451 described Jesus as one person with two natures (human and divine). The Second Council of Nicea in 787 condemned iconoclasm (opposition to the use of sacred images or icons) and reaffirmed the right to give veneration (though not worship) to icons of Jesus, Mary, the angels, and the saints. This council also reaffirmed the condemnation of forced conversions to the Christian faith.
Although these councils sought unity in the church, various groups of Christians resisted their teachings and formed separate ecclesial bodies. The Arian churches (named after the Egyptian Christian priest Arius) denied the full divinity of Christ and rejected Nicea I and Constantinople I. The Church of the East, or “Nestorian Church,” rejected the teaching of Ephesus (431) on Mary as the Mother of God. It found refuge in the Persian Empire and spread to parts of India and China. Large numbers of Christians in Armenia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and East Syria resisted the doctrine of Chalcedon (451) and formed the “Monophysite” (one-nature) churches, also known as the Oriental Orthodox churches.
The Church in the Middle Ages
In the 600s Islam rose under Muhammad (570–632), beginning in Arabia. The Muslims, or followers of Islam, denied the Trinity and understood Jesus as a prophet/messenger of God rather than the divine Son of God. They claimed that their holy book, the Qur’an, corrected the mistakes of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Muslims became a military power and conquered Jerusalem in 638; Alexandria, Egypt, in 642; Carthage, North Africa, in 698; and Spain in 712. The Muslims were set to conquer the rest of Europe but were defeated by Charles Martel in 732 in France.
Because of the threat of Islamic expansion, the popes in the West formed an alliance with the Franks for military protection. The crowning of the Frankish king Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 can be understood as the beginning of the Middle Ages in the West. The Byzantine Christians resented the recognition of another “Roman” emperor because they saw themselves in continuity with the empire of Constantine. This resentment contributed to the 1054 schism (split) between the churches of Rome and Constantinople, which led to an enduring separation of the Eastern Orthodox Churches from the Catholic Church under the pope. The split was mostly over the Orthodox rejection of the pope’s primacy of jurisdiction over the churches in the East and the addition of the phrase “and the Son” (filioque) to the creed. Later attempts at reunion in 1274 and 1439 were not successful.
In spite of the split between Rome and Constantinople, the perceived threat of Islam, now under the rule of the Turks, led to the Byzantine emperor appealing to the pope for military aid. The result was the Crusades, a series of military ventures authorized by the popes and other Christian leaders to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. These Crusades began in 1095 and ended in 1291. Jerusalem was captured by the crusaders in 1099 and a Latin kingdom established. The Muslims, however, regained control of the holy city in 1187, and the other Crusades were mostly failures. Some tragedies also took place, such as the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Western crusaders, which deepened the split between Rome and Constantinople.
The church, as a cultural and political entity, played a major role in the history of western and eastern Europe during the Middle Ages (c. 800–1400), and it provided inspiration and support for education and the arts. Though elements of pre-Christian classicism revived during the Renaissance (c. 1400s–1500s), Europe remained essentially Christian, and the secular rulers defended the church (though tensions did exist). Non-Christians, such as the Jews, also lived in Christian Europe during this time, but their situation was sometimes precarious.
The Rise of Protestantism
The Reform or Protestant movements of the 1500s resulted in new Christian churches distinct from the Catholic Church under the pope. The Protestant movements—identified traditionally as Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist/Reformed, Anabaptist, and Spiritualist—tended to accept only the Bible as the normative Christian authority. When Protestant groups differed in their interpretations of the Bible, multiple Protestant groups were formed.
The Protestant movements resulted in wars of religion when nations and rulers sided with either the Protestants or the pope. By the time of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, the landscape of Europe was broken up into various Catholic and Protestant regions, with the prevailing policy of following the religion of the local region’s ruler (cuius regio, huius religio). Beginning in the 1500s Catholic and Protestant explorers began to bring their church structures with them to Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
The Church in the Modern World
Christianity in the early twenty-first century comprises three main groups, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, with Anglicans claiming aspects of both Catholicism and Protestantism. For Catholics (often called “Roman Catholics”) the church is held in communion by the three visible bonds: unity of faith, unity of seven sacraments, and unity of ecclesial government (bishops in communion with and under the pope, the bishop of Rome). Catholics also conceive of the church as visible and invisible, consisting of three states: the faithful on earth, those undergoing postmortem purification, and the saints in heaven.
Orthodox Christians (those of right worship and doctrine) see themselves as the “one, holy, apostolic and Catholic Church” of the Nicene Creed. This one church is a communion of self-governing (autocephalous) churches bound together by the apostolic succession of true bishops, divine worship and the seven sacraments (or mysteries), and the apostolic faith of the first seven ecumenical councils (Catholics, though, accept twenty-one councils as ecumenical).
Except for the Anglicans/Episcopalians (who see themselves in continuity with the apostolic succession of bishops), Protestant Christians tend to understand the church as “the congregation of the saints” (Lutheran Confession of Augsburg, 1530) or as “the universal Church, which is invisible,” consisting of “the whole number of the elect” (Calvinist Westminster Confession of Faith, 1643). While the visible church is important for the teaching of correct doctrine and the rightful administration of the sacraments (reduced from seven to baptism and the Lord’s Supper), Protestants tend to understand the church more as an invisible communion of those chosen by God for justification in Christ. Especially among contemporary “evangelical” Christians, the denomination of one’s Christian community does not matter as much as one’s faith and commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Since the rise of modern secular states (late 1700s–1900s), the Christian churches generally no longer enjoy the patronage of state support. They do, however, play an important role in various works of charity, education, and involvement with causes of peace and social justice. The witness of the church has grown to be more moral than political, although a political dimension is clearly present in many cases.
- Auer, Johann. 1993. The Church: The Universal Sacrament of Salvation. Trans. Michael Waldstein. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
- Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder, eds. 1999. Documents of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
- McManners, John, ed. 1993. The Oxford History of Christianity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
- O’Collins, Gerald, and Mario Farrugia. 2003. Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ware, Timothy. 1993. The Orthodox Church. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books.
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