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The word "church" comes from the Greek word ekklesia for "belonging to the Lord," and with an understanding of holy people, especially people who are gathered for worship. Ekklesia in Greek had an original meaning of assembly of citizens who enjoyed full civil rights. Thus, the word "church" can mean the Lord's holy congregation. The idea of church is the abiding presence of God's definitive and fully articulated Word, who is Jesus, to the world. Since the Word was with God and in God, Jesus founded the church through his very reality. For many, the church is the central context of religious and spiritual influence.
In the Christian sacred scriptures, the New Testament, it is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ or Messiah of history, who calls his followers into community. This is not a small secret church just for an elect few, but for all, especially sinners and those on the fringes of society. Jesus called people to belong to the Kingdom of God, and left behind the celebration of a memorial meal, the breaking of the bread. Many Christians see in the Gospel of Matthew (16:18), the foundation of the church with Peter as the first leader of this new community. It is Peter who is given the power to "bind and loose" and the keys of power to this new church.
The Pauline writings or letters in the New Testament show the meaning of church as a local community and a theological entity and not an organization. Paul had many difficulties spreading the early message of Jesus to the gentiles or non-Jewish people. But despite all these problems, Paul still stayed connected to the original community at Jerusalem. For the early believers, there were house churches where people gathered for the breaking of the bread. When Paul uses the term "church," he really means the universal church that is realized and represented in small local communities.
Most Christians would agree that Jesus did found a church, or that he laid the foundations for one. He gathered followers around himself, that is, apostles and disciples, for the purpose of preaching and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. It is clear that Jesus intended to pass on some type of leadership and power to Peter and others after his life, death, and resurrection. Finally, at the Last Supper Jesus intended for his followers to continue on and "do this in remembrance of me."
The early community of believers struggled with many issues for many centuries. One needs to remember that the early church was outlawed and underground until around the year 300. The Council of Nicea in 325 put down on paper many theological beliefs concerning God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the idea of church. Nicea proclaimed that there are four marks of the church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Each of these marks has profound theological and historical meaning. Thus, the church becomes both a sign and instrument of the mission of Jesus, to establish the Kingdom of God. There is a strong missionary element to bring the message to all nations.
This mission of the church is to proclaim the word in evangelizing, while fostering the celebration of the sacraments and to be of service to those on the fringe of society. The mission of the church is to all and for all. The early believers had a difficult time understanding and living the full reality of what it meant to be a church. The subapostolic church (circa 65) and the postapostolic church (circa 95-100) were communities in transition. First, there was the purpose of missionary activity; eventually there was a need for pastoral ministry. There was the early tension of going from Jewish leadership and culture to Gentile leadership and culture.
Down through the centuries the notion of church is best understood by images. The church is the people of God, the Body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Other centuries saw the church as a ship with Jesus at the center. Contemporary understandings focus on church as a political society, the church as a sacrament, the church as a pilgrim people, and the church as servant.
For Christians around the world, the church is a primary context of influence on religious and spiritual development. Individuals, families, and communities come together to worship within the walls of the church. It is within the church that blessed sacraments are witnessed and experienced. It is within the church that the Word of God is read, shared, and experienced. While each individual person who enters the church will have his or her own unique experience, each time he or she enters, the church is considered by all Christians to be a place of worship, wherein one's religious identity and development are enveloped and promoted. While each image or model of church takes on a specific direction or a major way of living out of the message, all Christian communities still struggle to be faithful to strive to be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.