kingdom of righteousness ruled over by a present God. The preaching of John the Baptist was thus in sympathy with the ideals of his generation, though the sternness of the repentance which he set forth as the necessary preparation for entrance into the new kingdom of heaven, which was to be made visible on earth, was not less repugnant to the men of his day than of later times. Christ’s own teaching and that of his disciples began with the proclamation of the kingdom of God (or of heaven) (Luke iv. 43, viii. 1, ix. 2; Matt. x. 7). That he intended it to find outward expression in a visible society appears from the careful way in which he trained the apostles to become leaders hereafter, crowning that work by the institution of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. “It was not from accident or for convenience that Christ formed a society.” His parables even more than his sermons reveal the principles of his endeavour. But he seldom used the word ecclesia, church, which became the universal designation of his society.
All the more emphatic is Christ’s use of the term ecclesia upon the distinct advance in faith made by the apostles when St Peter as their spokesman confessed him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. xvi. 16). Instantly came the reply, “I say unto thee, that thou art Petros (rockman), and on this Petra (rock) I will build my ecclesia (church); and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” On the rock of a human character, ennobled by faith in his divine Sonship, he could raise the church of the future, which should be at the same time continuous with the old, new in spiritual power, one in worship and in work.
To the Jew the word ecclesia as used in the Septuagint suggested the assembly of the congregation of Israel. To a Greek it suggested the assembly of freeborn citizens in a city state. Without ceasing to be the congregation of Jehovah, it would claim for itself all the hopes of an ideal state over which Greek philosophers had sighed in vain.
Opinions differ upon the question whether the apostles were chosen as representatives of the ecclesia to be founded (Hort) or as men fitted to become its duly authorized teachers and leaders from the beginning (Stone). But as Mr Stone well puts it, “It would not be a necessary inference [from Dr Hort’s opinion] that there ought to be no ministry in the Christian Church.”
At first the church was limited to the Christian believers in the city of Jerusalem, then by persecution their company was broken up, and, since those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word, the conception was enlarged to include all “of the way” (Acts ix. 2) in the Holy Land. A new epoch began from the return of St Paul and St Barnabas to Antioch after their first missionary journey, when they called together the church and narrated their experiences, and told how “God had opened to the Gentiles the door of faith” (Acts xiv. 27). Hitherto the term Church had been “ideally conterminous” with the Jewish Church. Now it was to contain members who had never in any sense belonged to the Jewish Church. Thus the way was opened for new developments and for illimitable extension. St Paul, in his address to the elders at Ephesus (Acts xx. 28), adapted the words of Ps. lxxiv. 2, “Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old,” claiming for the Christian ecclesia the title of God’s ancient ecclesia. But he never, however fiercely opposed by Judaizers, set a new ecclesia of Christ in opposition to the old. We wait, however, for the Epistles of his captivity at Rome to find the full meaning of the idea of the church dawning upon his imagination. “Here at least, for the first time in the Acts and Epistles, we have the ecclesia spoken of in the sense of the one universal ecclesia, and it comes more from the theological than from the historical side; i.e. less from the actual circumstances of the actual Christian communities than from a development of thoughts respecting the place and office of the Son of God: his headship was felt to involve the unity of all those who were united to him.” Similar development of the idea of the one ecclesia as including all members of all local ecclesiae does not lead St Paul to regard membership of the universal church as invisible.
But the mere history of the word ecclesia does not exhaust the subject. We must take into account not only the idea of the visible actual church, but also the ideal pictured by St Paul in the metaphors of the Body (Rom. xii. 5), the Temple (1 Cor. iii. 10–15) and the Bride of Christ (2 Cor. xi. 2). The actual church is always falling short of its profession; but its successive reformations witness to the strength of its longing after the beauty of holiness.
Membership in the actual church is acquired through baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt, xxviii. 19). The references in the New Testament to baptism “in the name of Jesus” (or the Lord Jesus) (Acts ii. 38, viii. 16. x. 48, xix. 5; Rom. vi. 3; Gal. iii. 27), which are by some critics taken to refer to a primitive Christological baptismal formula, seem to refer to the confession made by the baptized, or to the new relationship into which they are brought as “members of Christ.” Candidates for baptism were exhorted to prepare for it by repentance and faith (Acts ii. 38). The laying on of hands (Heb. vi. 2), in the rite called in later times confirmation, followed baptism (Acts viii. 17). In the modern Greek Church it is administered by priests with oil which has been consecrated by the bishop, in the Roman Church by the bishop himself. Such use of the chrism can be traced from the 2nd century. The Anglican Church retains only the Biblical symbolism of “the blessing of the hand.” Presbyterians and other Protestant churches have abandoned the use, except the Lutherans. We need not here trace the history of Christian worship, in daily services (Acts ii. 46), or on the Lord’s Day (Acts xx. 7), meeting for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. xi. 17-34), or for mutual edification in prayer, praise and prophecy (1 Cor. xiv.). These things represent the ideal of Christendom. In the words of an eminent Roman Catholic scholar, Monsignor Duchesne, “Faith unites, theology often separates.” It must be our task to summarize the leading ideas of the church in which all Christians are agreed.
(a) The first is certainly fellowship with Christ and with the brethren. The early Christians earnestly believed that their life was “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. iii. 3), and found in their union with Christ the lasting and strongest motive of love to the brethren. Such fellowship is attributed by St Paul pre-eminently to the work of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. xiii. 14). Its strength is shown in England in the growing readiness of the different religious bodies to co-operate in movements for the purifying of public morality and for the better observance of Sunday.
(b) The second is unity. We have seen how St. Paul was led on to grasp the conception of one church universal manifested in all the local churches. Its unity is not purely accidental in that individuals have been forced to act together under pressure of chance circumstances. Nor is the ideal of unity adopted simply because experience teaches that “union is strength.” Nor is it even based on the philosophical conception of the incompleteness of the individual life. As Dr Sanday finely says, “If the church is in something more than mere metaphor the Body of Christ, if there is circulating through it a continual flow and return of spiritual forces, derived directly from him, if the Spirit which animates the Body is one, then the Body itself also must be in essence one. It has its centre not on earth but in heavenly places, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God.”
(c) Thirdly, there is no question that the Lord intended the one fellowship of his saints to be a visible fellowship. The idea of an invisible church has only commended itself in dark hours when men despaired of unity even as an ideal. The view of Zwingli and Calvin in the 16th century was not by any means acceptable to other reformers. Luther distinguished between the Spiritual Church, which he identified with the Communion of Saints, and the Corporeal Church, the outward marks of which are Baptism, Sacrament and Gospel. But he regarded them
- Ecce Homo, ed. 5, p. 87. Cf. the interesting comparison between Socrates and Christ.
- Op. cit. p. 262.
- Hort, The Christian Ecclesia, p. 148.
- For a full defence of the authenticity of Matt. xxviii. 19 see Riggenbach, Der trinitarische Taufbefehl (Gütersloh, 1903).
- The Conception of Priesthood, p. 13.