Who and What is the Church? A Historical Analysis

crowder prov picby Providence Crowder

The congregation of believers under God’s old covenant was commanded to observed mosaic laws and customs; however, under his new covenant, believers in Christ, Christians, were not under the law, but grace (Rom. 6:14).  Nonetheless, exegetical discussions arose early on surrounding what biblical customs and rites Christians were obligated to observe, and if there were any such observances.  As a result, the Christian community developed some of its most essential features, many of which mirrored Judaism: “synagogue-like worship, eldership, preaching, service to the needy, baptism, and Eucharist,”[1] all of which were grounded in the teachings and the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Still, internal theological struggles arose within Church.  Those labors began with resolving the Christological debate.  Much later, ecclesiological concerns fueled the rise of Protestantism during the Protestant Reformation and Great Awakening periods and forced Christians to confront questions such as: Who is the Church?  How is one admitted into the Church?  What authority does the Church have?  How should the Church be governed?  Orthodox Christians during these periods were compelled to defend and reevaluate the orders and ministry of the church.  Competing ecclesiological viewpoints arose among Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, the Magisterial Reformers, and the Radical Reformers as each group sought to determine the marks of the true Christian Church.

The Church Defined

The etymology of the word “Church” found its root in the Old Testament Hebrew term qahal, meaning those called out.  Subsequently, the term qahal Yahweh, defined as those called of the Lord, was later translated in the New Testament as the Greek term ekklēsia.[2]   The Church has been further defined as the assembly or congregation of believers within a covenant relationship with God.[3]  The Church has been expressed as invisible: “the church as it really is before God into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are the sons of God;” these are the elect who were saved by grace through Jesus Christ under both the old and new dispensations, those of the law and of grace, those of the circumcision and baptism; essentially all believers who have existed from the beginning of the world.[4]  Additionally, the Church has been communicated as visible; consisting of “the saints who now dwell on the earth.”[5]

The Church has been conceived as the place where new life began, where authoritative teaching of religious truths were passed on, and as a serving and reconciling visible community that manifests the love of God in the world.[6]   Protestant Reformer John Calvin boldly asserted that there was no other way to enter into life unless the church conceived, birthed, nourished, and kept the believer under her care and guidance.[7]

Marks of the Church

For the Roman Catholic Church, the marks of the true Church were: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.  Roman Catholic soteriology maintained that she, the Catholic Church, was the one true, holy and apostolic divinely instituted community of believers united by the Orthodox faith; without such none could be saved.[8]  Anyone outside of the Catholic faith could not enter into eternal life.  Methodist leader John Wesley defined the marks of the visible Church as the place where the pure Word of God was preached by the power of the Holy Ghost, and the sacraments duly administered by rightly called men, though evil men and hypocrites were mingled within it.[9]   Reformed leader John Calvin in agreement with Wesley’s ecclesiology said of the Church:  “Wherever we see the Word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence.”[10]  The ecclesiological disparities between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians would endure beyond the Reformation Era lasting even today.

Membership into the Church

For Christendom, the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist were symbolic representations of the entire gospel message; entrance into a new covenant of promise and living the resurrected life.  Baptism was instituted as a rite of initiation into the body of believers in Christ; it was a reenactment of Jesus’ death and resurrection.[11]  The apostle Paul preached that “all of us who were baptized were baptized into his death, and just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:3, 4).

Jesus’ last meal “can be called the founding assembly of the ekklēsia, a founding whose significance was fully grasped after Pentecost.  His farewell meal was intentionally instituted to be repeatedly commemorated by his disciples until his return.” [12] The Lord’s last supper, also termed the Eucharist was a commemorative meal that became the central event of the continuing life of the Church.[13]  These two Christian rites, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, were esteemed differently by different Christian factions.  Protestant Reformer John Calvin believed that the sacraments were instruments of God’s grace, useful aids to foster and strengthen faith, and a way for the believer to draw near to God[14] whereas Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Philips believed that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were signs and examples, stating “It is the role of the Holy Spirit, as Christ himself taught to lead believers into all truth and obedience to Christ;” therefore, through the Holy Spirit one is compelled and incited to water baptism.  Followers of Christ must keep his teachings and his example.  In that way, Christ would be glorified.[15]  Roman Catholics, contrary to Protestants insisted that the Lord instituted seven sacraments, all of which were necessary for salvation.[16]

Competing Ecclesiologies

Within the ecclesiology of Roman Catholicism, she, the Roman Catholic Church, was the one true Church.  Catholics maintained the primacy of the Pope as the true vicar of Christ, the successor of blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians.  Only her bishops, who had succeeded the place of the apostles and were endowed with equal spiritual power by the Holy Ghost to rule the Church of God, were granted the authority to administer the sacraments and ordained the ministers of the church; such were also superior to priests. [17] Philip Jakob Spener, father of Pietism,[18] rejected the hierarchal model of the Roman Catholic Church believing that “the new birth in Baptism gave all divine adopted sons the spiritual priesthood without distinction.”[19] Nonetheless, to exercise public office, Spener did recognize that anyone desiring to exercise the ministerial office publicly did so by “special call.”[20]

Wesley stressed the importance of preaching and of brotherly unity among those who “fear God” and “work righteousness,” regardless of ecclesiological opinion or denominational affiliation.[21]  He maintained that the first principle of Methodism was “wholly and solely to preach the gospel.[22]  To those who would misinterpret his sanction of lay preachers and evangelists, he clarified that Scripture taught a clear distinction between preacher and priest.  He maintained, “Aaron did not preach at all nor was he called to it by God or man.  Aaron was called to offer up prayers and sacrifices; to execute the office of a Priest.  He was never called to be a Preacher.  In ancient times the office of a priest and preacher were known to be entirely distinct.”[23] The myriad of ecclesiological views would continue to challenge the Church, even today.


The visible Church has broadly been defined as the congregation of saints that dwell presently on the earth.  Who the Church is in the narrow sense has been defined differently in different times by different people.  For the Roman Catholic Church, she is the one, true, holy, and apostolic church.  For her Protestant contemporaries, the Church is where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered.  Diverging ecclesiological views have led the Church to face serious questions as to its nature and purpose.  Though ecclesiological differences among men create divisions within the visible Church, the Church in which the wheat and tares grow together (Mt. 13:30), they mean little in light of Jesus’ promise concerning his true and invisible Church: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Mt. 16:18).”


[1] Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit, Systematic Theology: vol. 3 (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1992), 277.

[2] Oden, 265.


[3] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Church.”


[4] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4.1.7. Christian Library: Heritage Edition, CD-ROM, version 4.0 (Rio: AGES Digital Library, 2007).


[5] Ibid.


[6] Oden, 261.


[7] Calvin., Book 4.1.4


[8] Creeds of Christendom, the Greek and Latin Creeds, vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff, revised by David S. Schaff 6th edition; (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1990), 483.


[9] John Wesley, Of the Church, Sermon 74.16, Christian Library: Heritage Edition, CD-ROM, version 4.0 (Rio: AGES Digital Library, 2007).


[10] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.9.


[11] Oden, 276.


[12] Ibid., 274.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Calvin, 4.1.1


[15] Philip Dirk, Early Anabaptist Spirituality: Selected Writings.  Edited by Daniel Liechty (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 210.


[16] Within the Roman Catholic Tradition the seven sacraments of the New Law instituted by Jesus Christ are Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony. The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, 119.


[17] Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, 188-190.


[18] A late 17th and 18th century movement within Protestantism which sought to supplement the emphasis on institutions and dogma in orthodox Protestant circles by concentrating on the practice of piety, rooted in inner experience and expressing itself in a life of religious commitment.  ODCC, s.v. “Pietism.”

[19] Philipp Jakob Spener, Pietists Selected Writings, 51.


[20] Ibid., 54.


[21] John Wesley, Of the Church, Sermon 74. Christian Library: Heritage Edition, CD-ROM, version 4.0 (Rio: AGES Digital Library, 2007).


[22] John Wesley, The Ministerial Office, Sermon 115.


[23] John Wesley, The Ministerial Office, Sermon 115.

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