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Defining the Word "Church"

Updated on July 22, 2020

Christianity as a religion accounts for more followership in the world than any other religion. It has endured for thousands of years. Yet there are some basic words and concepts in Christianity that have failed to receive resounding oneness in terms of definition. One of such is the word “Church”. However, there is a definition that can serve as basic and foundational.

Understanding the word "Church"

The English word Church got its expression from the Germanic “Kirche”/ “Kirk” which stems from a popular Greek word “kyriake” (house of God), and the Greek adjective “kyriakos” meaning “belonging to the lord,” which is a simplified form for “kyriakon doma” or “kyriakos domos” (house of the Lord/Master).

However the English Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, and the term for Church is “ecclesia”. The Latin ecclesia comes from the Greek “ekklesia” taken over in the Greek translation of the Old Testament Septuagint, from a Hebrew expression “Qahal Jahweh” (Yahweh’s convoked assembly).

In the secular use, ekklesia means the act of assembling and the assembled community itself; in addition, however it designates the total community of the people of God.

The New Testament designation, ecclesia, means the new and the true Israel, and not simply the existing community but the act of assembling the community and the assembled community. It has three fold meaning: it is understood in the sense of an occurrence, an act, as well as an institutional meaning.

In any case, a basic distinction is involved namely, that in the secular use, the word ekklesia refers to the assembly of all the free citizens of the state, summoned by the proclamation of the herald to make decisions on legal or political questions. In the scriptures, however, the word means a coming together not only of men but also of women and children, not for the purpose of decision-making, but for the obedient acceptance and reception of the holy word of God.


The Church is said to be a building that is used for Christian public worship. It is also defined as the Christian religious community as a whole, or a body or organization of Christian believers. However I will like to explore the definitions of two seasoned scholars Robert Bellarmine and Johann Adam Moehler.

For Robert Bellarmine, the Church is a union of men who are bound together through the confession of the same Christian faith and through participation in the same sacraments under the guidance of legitimate pastors, above all of the one vicar of Christ on earth, the roman pontiff.

This definition however has some inadequacies. First, it does not state explicitly that the Church is of divine origin. The human elements overshadows that of the divine. We can see that the intent is to define membership in the Church rather than the church itself.

Johann Adam Moehler states that the Church is the son of God perpetually appearing in human form among men, always renewing himself, eternally regenerating; his enduring incarnation; for the Christian faithful are called in Holy scripture the Body of Christ.

This definition is in danger of being a Christocentric mysticism. The church is an element of the mystery of Jesus Christ, indeed of the Trinitarian God himself. It would, of course, be an exaggeration to identify the Church with Jesus Christ only.

The Church is not simply the evolutionary form of Jesus Christ. It is, on the one hand, a mystery of the divine summons to man through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit; and on the other hand, a mystery of man’s free decision.

Biblical Insights

The early church has, besides the word ekklesia, a list of other designation, among the most important of which are: Body of Christ, the Disciples, the Saints (Acts 9:13,32,41; 26:10; Rom 15:25,31; 1Cor 66:1; 2Cor 8:4; 9:1,12), the poor, the Believers, the Elect (Rom 8:33; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:10; 1pet 1:1; 2:9), the Brethren, the Called (Rom1:16; 1Cor 1:24; cf Rom 1:7; 1Cor 1:2).

The Church is also the true Israel, Israel of God, Israel in the Spirit, the sons of Abraham, the people of God, House of God, Temple of God, the chosen people, the servant of God, the strangers, the Pilgrims. Each one brings a particular aspect of the church to light; all, however, proclaim that what is under consideration is a community of men who are bound together through God’s salvific initiative.

Beyond all the semantic problems, the thing which we designate by the word “Church” represents a mystery of the self-communication of God through Christ to the human community and thereby to individual human beings, as well as the mystery of this society itself fashioned by God’s self-communication.

Theological Reflections

Theological reflection upon the nature of the Church begins after some preliminary attempts at the end of the twelfth century. At that time the overriding concern was the relationship between papal power and the power of the king.

However, it is only in our time that the Church has offered a definitive interpretation of herself (after an only partially successful beginning at the First Vatican council). This late development may perhaps be accounted for, if not justified, by the fact that like most human societies the church begins to take stock of itself only to the extent that its operation is impeded.

The Second Vatican Council also refrained from giving a definition of the Church. It offers various descriptions in connection with the scriptures without bringing these together in a unified concept.

Since the Church is a mystery, it is an object of faith. One can make many statements about it with insights gained from scientific and prescientific disciplines, by means of phenomenological observation, of historical research, of psychological analysis, of scientific study of religion and the like. But what the Church really is, is revealed only to the believer.

As a result of its character as mystery, the Church eludes definition in a rigorous sense. Besides, such a definition, to be complete, would have to include all the elements prominent in the progress of the Church’s historical life, including its future form, which we cannot yet know.

In as much as the church is the beginning and the instrument of the reign of God; the kingdom of God is present in her really, dynamically, as a hidden seed; one can attempt the following description: the Church is the people of God of the New testament, living and acting as the Body of Christ, which stands in the service of the lordship of God and the salvation of man.

Church as the People of God

The Second Vatican Council, however has a guiding image of itself when it makes the concept of the Church as the ‘People of God’ the foundation of its exposition. The use of this idea constitutes a major difference between the pronouncement of the Second Vatican council and the encyclical Mystici Corporis of Pius XII, in which the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ is made the foundation of all ecclesiology.

But this distinction should not be understood as an essential opposition. Both expressions occur in the scripture. They are related to each other in a unity of tension. It is a question of different emphasis, or of different perspectives, rather than of different doctrine.

The image of the Body of Christ express the specific difference between the Old and New Testament People of God, while the concept of the Church as the people of God accents the continuity between the old and new covenant.

Further, this latter concept is capable of bringing out more strongly the personal element in the Church, and thus is closer to that growing esteem for the person which has become one of the characteristics of our age. It has a more democratic orientation, without actually characterizing the Church as a democracy.


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