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How the Word Church is Used in Scripture and Common Speech

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The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia gives this view of the usage of the word church in the Bible and everyday language: “Theologically, there is only one Church, for Christians are now fellow citizens of the saints and of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”

The New Unger's Bible Dictionary explains the ways church is used in English: “The word church is employed to express various ideas, some of which are scriptural, others not. It may be used to signify: (1) The entire body of those who are saved by their relation to Christ. (2) A particular Christian denomination. (3) The aggregate of all the ecclesiastical communions, professing faith in Christ. (4) A single organized Christian group. (5) A building designated for Christian worship.”

In contrast, the Holman Bible Dictionary summarizes the biblical usage of the word: “Church is the term used in [translations of] the New Testament most frequently to describe a group of persons professing trust in Jesus Christ, meeting together to worship Him, and seeking to enlist others to become His followers.” This resource correctly defines church, as used in the Bible, as a group of people.

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible describes in some detail the usage of church in the New Testament (NT):

“For that reality which is designated in English most commonly by the word 'church,' there are in the NT many diverse terms, each with its own etymological and theological history. Each term conveys in varying contexts a large cluster of shifting connotations and associations.

“In contemporary English usage, 'church' as a word dominates the ecclesiological vocabulary. It comes through German and Latin from the Greek kyriakon, which means 'that which belongs to the Lord.' In NT Greek, ekklesia (almost always translated in English by 'church') is by no means so dominating or central a term.

“Of the 112 appearances of ecclesia [Latin spelling] in the NT, 90 per cent are found in Paul's letters, the book of Acts, and Revelation. From ten books (Mark, Luke, John, II Timothy, Titus, I-II Peter, I-II John, and Jude) this word is absent.

“Ecclesia was used primarily to designate a particular communal reality, not to describe its qualitative aspects. Where the distinctive qualities and dimensions of community life were intended, other terms proved more flexible and evocative.

“In comparison with these other terms, ecclesia was relatively neutral and colorless, conveying by itself little theological meaning. It was open to use, without basic shift in meaning, by unbelievers as well as by believers. Even among those writers who made wide use of ecclesia, other terms were more expressive of the reality at hand.”

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