Church (congregation)

A church (or local church) is a religious organization or congregation that meets in a particular location. Many are formally organized, with constitutions and by-laws, maintain offices, are served by clergy or lay leaders, and, in nations where this is permissible, often seek non-profit corporate status.[1]

Congregants worship in a Dutch Reformed Church, Doornspijk

Local churches often relate with, affiliate with, or consider themselves to be constitutive parts of denominations, which are also called churches in many traditions. Depending on the tradition, these organizations may connect local churches to larger church traditions, ordain and defrock clergy, define terms of membership and exercise church discipline, and have organizations for cooperative ministry such as educational institutions and missionary societies. Non-denominational churches are not part of denominations, but may consider themselves part of larger church movements without institutional expression.

The word church may also be used for other religious communities, although for non-Christian communities the term is sometimes considered archaic or even offensive, while some other non-Christian communities themselves use the word to refer to their community or house of worship. It may also be used as a "catch-all" term for religion, whether Christian or non-Christian, such as in the term "separation of church and state".


The word church is used in the sense of a distinct congregation in a given city in slightly under half of the 200 uses of the term in the New Testament.[2] John Locke defined a church as "a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to him".[3][4]

A local church may be run using congregationalist polity and may be associated with other similar congregations in a denomination or convention, as are the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention or like German or Swiss Landeskirchen. It may be united with other congregations under the oversight of a council of pastors as are Presbyterian churches. It may be united with other parishes under the oversight of bishops, as are Anglican, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox churches. Finally, the local church may function as the lowest subdivision in a global hierarchy under the leadership of one bishop, such as the pope (the bishop of Rome) of the Roman Catholic Church. Such association or unity is a church's ecclesiastical polity.


The Greek word ekklēsia, literally "called out" or "called forth" and commonly used to indicate a group of individuals called to gather for some function, in particular an assembly of the citizens of a city, as in Acts 19:32–41, is the New Testament term referring to the Christian Church (either a particular local group or the whole body of the faithful). In the Septuagint, the Greek word "ἐκκλησία" is used to translate the Hebrew "קהל" (qahal). Most Romance and Celtic languages use derivations of this word, either inherited or borrowed from the Latin form ecclesia.

The English language word "church" is from the Old English word cirice, derived from West Germanic *kirika, which in turn comes from the Greek κυριακή kuriakē, meaning "of the Lord" (possessive form of κύριος kurios "ruler" or "lord"). Kuriakē in the sense of "church" is most likely a shortening of κυριακὴ οἰκία kuriakē oikia ("house of the Lord") or ἐκκλησία κυριακή ekklēsia kuriakē ("congregation of the Lord").[5] Some grammarians and scholars say that the word has uncertain roots and may derive from the Anglo-Saxon "kirke" from the Latin "circus" and the Greek "kuklos" for "circle", which shape is the form in which many religious groups met and gathered.[6] Christian churches were sometimes called κυριακόν kuriakon (adjective meaning "of the Lord") in Greek starting in the 4th century, but ekklēsia and βασιλική basilikē were more common.[7]

The word is one of many direct Greek-to-Germanic loans of Christian terminology, via the Goths. The Slavic terms for "church" (Old Church Slavonic црькꙑ [crĭky], Russian церковь [cerkov’], Slovenian cerkev) are via the Old High German cognate chirihha.[citation needed]

The early Quakers, as a matter of principle, refused to call the buildings where they met “churches,” since the biblical term church referred to a community of believers, not a building. The Quakers instead called a building designed for Christian worship a “steeplehouse.” That term is now archaic, as many church buildings no longer have a steeple.


Among congregational churches, since each local church is autonomous, there are no formal lines of responsibility to organizational levels of higher authority. Deacons of each church are elected by the congregation. In some Baptist congregations, for example, deacons function much like a board of directors or executive committee authorized to make important decisions. Although these congregations typically retain the right to vote on major decisions such as purchasing or selling property, large spending and the hiring or firing of pastors and other paid ministers. In many such local churches, the role of deacons includes pastoral and nurturing responsibilities. Typically, congregational churches have informal worship styles, less structured services, and may tend toward modern music and celebrations.[8][9]

Local churches united with others under the oversight of a bishop are normally called "parishes", by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran communions. Each parish usually has one active parish church, though seldom and historically more than one. The parish church has always been fundamental to the life of every parish community, especially in rural areas. For example, in the Church of England, parish churches are the oldest churches to be found in England. A number are substantially of Anglo-Saxon date and all subsequent periods of architecture are represented in the country. Most parishes have churches that date back to the Middle Ages. Thus, such local churches tend to favor traditional, formal worship styles, liturgy, and classical music styles, although modern trends are common as well.

Local parishes of the Roman Catholic Church, like episcopal parishes, favor formal worship styles, and still more traditional structure in services. The importance of formal office is also a distinctive trait; thus a solemn mass may include the presence of officers of the Knights of Columbus as an escort for the regional bishop when he is present. Likewise, vestments are valued to inculcate the solemnity of the Holy Eucharist and are typically more elaborate than in other churches.

A local church may also be a mission, that is a smaller church under the sponsorship of a larger congregation, a bishop, or a greater church hierarchy. Often congregational churches prefer to call such local mission churches "church plants."

A local church may also work in association with parachurch organizations. While ParaChurch Organizations/Ministries are vital to accomplishing specific missions on behalf of the church they do not normally take the place of the local church. Ministries, Bible Studies and other such Parachurch partnerships may be seen as beneficial and as a great means of personal growth and effective ministry but without superseding (in priority and commitment) the local body of Christ. Every Christian is connected to this building firmly known as church.

Related concepts

The term "orthodoxy" or "orthodox faith", with a lower-case O and thus distinguished from the term Orthodox Church, have been used to distinguish the "true church" from supposedly heretical groups. The term became especially prominent in referring to the doctrine of the Nicene Creed and, in historical contexts, is often still used to distinguish this first "official" doctrine from others.[10]

The "Body of Christ" (cf. 1Cor 12:27) and "Bride of Christ" (cf. Rev 21:9; Eph 5:22-33). These terms are used to refer to the whole community of Christians seen as interdependent in a single entity headed by Jesus Christ.[11]

The terms "Churches Militant, Penitent, and Triumphant" (Latin: Ecclesia Militans and Ecclesia Triumphans), taken together, are used to express the concept of a united Church that extends beyond the earthly realm into Heaven.[12] The term Church Militant comprises all living Christians while Church Triumphant comprises those in Heaven. Related is the "Church Suffering" or "Church Expectant", a Catholic concept encompassing those Christians in Purgatory, no longer part of the Church Militant and not yet part of the Church Triumphant.

The communion of saints (Latin: communio sanctorum) is the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, living and the dead. It is a union in faith and prayer that binds all Christians regardless of geographical distance or separation by death. In Catholic theology, this union encompasses the Church Militant, the Church Triumphant, and the Church Suffering.[13]

Apostolic succession

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, depicting Jesus with his twelve Apostles

Apostolic succession is a doctrine of the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Moravian Church, the Scandinavian Lutheran Churches, Anglican Communion, and others.[14] The doctrine asserts that the bishops of the "true Church" enjoy the favor or grace of God as a result of legitimate and unbroken sacramental succession from Jesus' apostles.[15] According to this doctrine, modern bishops, therefore, must be viewed as part of an unbroken line of leadership in succession from the original apostles: though they do not have the authority and powers granted uniquely to the apostles, they are the apostles' successors in governing the Church.[16]

Other Protestants see the authority given to the apostles as unique, proper to the apostles alone, to the extent that they generally reject the idea of a succession of bishops to the apostles in governing the Church. Their view of ecclesiastical authority is accordingly different.[15]

One true church

The phrase "One, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" appears in the Nicene Creed (μίαν, ἁγίαν, καθολικὴν καὶ ἀποστολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν) and, in part, in the Apostles' Creed ("the holy catholic church", sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, which in Greek would be: ἁγίαν καθολικὴν Ἐκκλησίαν).[17][18] The phrase is intended to set forth the four marks, or identifying signs, of the Christian Church—unity, holiness, universality, and apostolicity—and is based on the premise that all true Christians form a single united group founded by the apostles.[19]

The word "catholic" is derived from the Greek adjective καθολικός pronounced katholikos, which means "general" or "universal".[20] Applied to the Church, it implies a calling to spread the faith throughout the whole world and to all ages. It is also thought of as implying that the Church is endowed with all the means of salvation for its members. In this sense the Church is taken by Christian theology to refer to the single, universal community of faithful. Baptism and communion signifies membership of the Church.

Excommunication is expulsion from the visible community of the Church, and is a remedial denial of the sacraments to a baptized Christian that does not invalidate that Christian's baptism. This can be traced back to the New Testament and to Jesus himself: Matthew 18:15–18, Matthew 16:18–19, Acts 8:18–24, Galatians 1:6–9, 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:5–8, 1 Timothy 1:18–20, Titus 3:10, 3 John 9–11, Jude 8–23, John 15:6, 1 Corinthians 5:5.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch, the earliest known writer to use the phrase "the Catholic Church", excluded from the Church heterodox groups whose teaching and practice conflicted with those of the bishops of the Church, and considered that they were not really Christians. In keeping with this idea, many churches and communions consider that those whom they judge to be in a state of heresy or schism from their church or communion are not part of the catholic Church. This is the view of the Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox churches.

St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, the largest church building in the world today.[21]

The Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and the Catholic Church each regard themselves as the one true and unique Church of Christ, and claim to be not just a Christian church but the original church founded by Christ, preserving unbroken the original teaching and sacraments. The Catholic Church teaches that "the one Church of Christ, as a society constituted and organized in the world, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and the bishops in communion with him. Only through this Church can one obtain the fullness of the means of salvation since the Lord has entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone whose head is Peter."[22][23]

Similarly, the Eastern Orthodox Church believes it is "the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, founded by Jesus Christ and His apostles. It is organically and historically the same Church that came fully into being at Pentecost."[24] They see the members of other churches as linked in only an imperfect way with the one true Church, recognising Protestants not as churches but as ecclesial or specific faith believing communities.[25] Historically, Catholics would label members of certain Christian churches (also certain non-Christian religions) by the names of their founders, either actual or purported. Such supposed founders were referred to as heresiarchs. This was done even when the party thus labeled viewed itself as belonging to the one true church. This allowed the Catholic party to claim that the other church was founded by the founder, while the Catholic church was founded by Christ. This was done intentionally in order to "produce the appearance of the fragmentation within Christianity"[26]–a problem which the Catholic side would then attempt to remedy on its own terms.

Although Catholics reject branch theory, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II used the "two lungs" concept to relate Catholicism with Eastern Orthodoxy.[27]

There are long standing controversies over whether Protestant religious denominations should be called "Church" or not and whether the Roman Catholic Church's sense of the word "Catholic" is the only correct one. Catholic epistemology has been criticized by Eastern Orthodox Christians and Protestants. For example, in 2001, several leaders from the Church of Denmark released a public statement, saying in part,[28]

However, it has a destructive effect on ecumenical relations if one church deprives another church of the right to be called a church. It is just as destructive as if one Christian denies another Christian the right to be called a Christian.

Historically, Catholics would label members of certain Christian churches (also certain non-Christian religions) by the names of their founders, either actual or purported. Such supposed founders were referred to as heresiarchs. This was done even when the party thus labeled viewed itself as belonging to the one true church. This allowed the Catholic party to claim that the other church was founded by the founder, while the Catholic church was founded by Christ. This was done intentionally in order to "produce the appearance of the fragmentation within Christianity"[26]–a problem which the Catholic side would then attempt to remedy on its own terms.

The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Churches teach that "their churches represent the true catholic or universal church".[29] It holds, however, that "there are indeed true Christians in other Churches" as "other denominations also preach the Word of God, though mixed with error".[30]

Many other Christian groups take the view that all denominations are part of a symbolic and global Christian church which is a body bound by a common faith if not a common administration or tradition. Like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and some others have always referred to themselves as the Catholic church.[31] Oriental Orthodoxy shares this view, seeing the churches of the Oriental Orthodox communion as constituting the one true Church. In the West the term Catholic has come to be most commonly associated with the Catholic Church because of its size and influence in the West, and because that is historically its name (although in formal contexts most other churches still reject this naming, because the title "Catholic Church" is so linked with the notion of being the one true church).

Visible and invisible church

"... one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." – Augsburg Confession[32]

Many Protestants believe that the Christian Church, as described in the Bible, has a twofold character that can be described as the visible and invisible church.

In this view, the church invisible consists of all those from every time and place who are vitally united to Christ through regeneration and salvation and who will be eternally united to Jesus Christ in eternal life. The universal, invisible church refers to the "invisible" body of the elect who are known only to God, and contrasts with the "visible church"—that is, the institutional body on earth which preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments. Every member of the invisible church is considered saved, while the visible church contains some individuals who are saved and others who are unsaved.[comp. Mt. 7:21-24] This concept has been attributed to St Augustine of Hippo as part of his refutation of the Donatist sect,[33] but others question whether Augustine really held to some form of an "invisible true Church" concept.[34] Catholics and Eastern Orthodox see this dual ecclesiology as semi-Donatism and a deviation from historic teaching.

The church visible, in this same view, consists of all those who visibly join themselves to a profession of faith and gathering together to know and serve the head of the church, Jesus Christ. It exists globally in all who identify themselves as Christians and locally in particular places where believers gather for the worship of God. The visible church may also refer to an association of particular churches from multiple locations who unite themselves under a common charter and set of governmental principles. The church in the visible sense is often governed by office-bearers carrying titles such as minister, pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon.

For the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, making a real distinction between "the heavenly and invisible Church, alone true and absolute" and "the earthly Church (or rather "the churches"), imperfect and relative" is a "Nestorian ecclesiology"[35] and is thus deemed by both as heretical.

Catholic theology reacted against the Protestant concept of a "purely" invisible church by stressing the visible aspect of the church founded by Christ; but in the 20th century the Catholic Church has placed more stress on the interior life of the church as a supernatural organism. In an encyclical, Pope Pius XII stated that the Catholic Church is the "Mystical Body of Christ".[36][37] This encyclical rejected two extreme views of the church:[38]

  1. A rationalistic or purely sociological understanding of the church, according to which it is merely a human organization with structures and activities, is mistaken. The visible church and its structures do exist but the church is more, as it is guided by the Holy Spirit:

    Although the juridical principles, on which the Church rests and is established, derive from the divine constitution given to it by Christ and contribute to the attaining of its supernatural end, nevertheless that which lifts the Society of Christians far above the whole natural order is the Spirit of our Redeemer who penetrates and fills every part of the Church.[39]

  2. An exclusively mystical understanding of the Church is mistaken as well, because a mystical "Christ in us" union would deify its members and mean that the acts of Christians are simultaneously the acts of Christ. The theological concept una mystica persona (one mystical person) refers not to an individual relation but to the unity of Christ with the Church and the unity of its members with him in her.[40]

Church government

Major forms of church government include episcopal governance (Anglican, Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy), presbyterian governance, and congregational governance (Baptist, some Pentecostal, Congregationalist, charismatic, and other Protestant denominations). Before the Protestant Reformation, church leaders (the bishops) were universally understood to gain their authority through apostolic succession via the Sacrament of Ordination.


Christian scriptures use a wide range of metaphors to describe the Church. These include:

Church asylum

The Catholic Church has long offered housing to asylum seekers in the form of church asylum. In this tradition, the church provides sanctuary to asylum seekers for a short duration on their congregation's premises.[41]

See also


  1. Bruce R. Hopkins – Starting and Managing a Nonprofit Organization: A Legal Guide 1118520629 2012 "On another occasion, the Tax Court concluded that a “church is a coherent group of individuals and families that join together to accomplish the religious purposes of mutually held beliefs” and that a “church's principal means of accomplishing ..."
  2. Joe T. Odle Church Member's Handbook 1986 – Page 14 0805494014 George W. McDaniel, in his book, The Churches of the New Testament (1921), said that it is used 109 times to refer to the Lord's church. He held that in 93 cases it designates a local church; in 14 cases, the church as an institution; and twice, all of the .
  3. John Locke A Letter Concerning Toleration: Latin and English Texts Revised .Mario Montuori – 2012 9401187940 "Let us now consider what a church is. A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to him, and ..."
  4. Ben Lunis Get Out of the Box 2003-1594670900 Page 463 "A church, in the New Testament sense, is a gathering of people who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. At first, their worship often took place in the temple and synagogues."
  5. Harper, Douglas (2001). "church". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-01-18. O.E. cirice "church," from W.Gmc. *kirika, from Gk. kyriake (oikia) "Lord's (house)," from kyrios "ruler, lord."
  6. – Smith's Bible Dictionary from 1884, page 452. Retrieved October 20, 2019.
  7. Harper, Douglas (2001). "church". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2008-01-18. Gk. kyriakon (adj.) "of the Lord" was used of houses of Christian worship since c. 300, especially in the East, though it was less common in this sense than ekklesia or basilike.
  8. Welcome to the Congregational Church of North Barnstead, UCC. – "We are an informal congregation that gathers for worship" – Congregational Church of North Barnstead. Retrieved 18 April 2012.
  9. Guilden Morden Congregational Church – "A good meeting for those who prefer a more informal kind of service, and perhaps for those who are less familiar with church events." – Retrieved 18 April 2012.
  10. Michael Hines, Constantine and the Christian State, Church History for the Masses
  11. "Paul, the Apostle: The body of Christ", Encyclopædia Britannica
  12. Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, Eternal Word Television Network, retrieved May 24, 2007
  13. "communion of saints", Encyclopædia Britannica.
  14. Guidry, Christopher R.; Crossing, Peter F. (1 January 2001). World Christian Trends, AD 30-AD 2200: Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus. William Carey Library. p. 307. ISBN 9780878086085. A number of large episcopal churches (e.g. United Methodist Church, USA) have maintained a succession over 200 years but are not concerned to claim that the succession goes back in unbroken line to the time of the first Apostles. Very many other major episcopal churches, however-Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Old Catholic, Anglican, Scandinavian Lutheran-do make this claim and contend that a bishop cannot have regular or valid orders unless he has been consecrated in this apostolic succession.
  15. Apostolic Succession, The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-07.
  16. "Successors of the Apostles". Archived from the original on 2009-05-23. Retrieved 2009-05-30.
  17. Nicene Creed, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  18. Apostle's Creed, Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  19. Kenneth D. Whitehead, Four Marks of the Church, EWTN Global Catholic Network
  20. Tufts University: Perseus Digital Library: A Greek-English Lexicon
  21. UNESCO World Heritage: Vatican City
  22. Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 162
  23. Note that it does not say, "Only through this Church can one obtain salvation"—it says, "Only through this Church can one obtain the fullness of the means of salvation", i.e., all the "helps" individual believers need to nurture, protect, cultivate, and grow to fruitful maturity the gift of salvation that has been given to them. —see Matthew 25:13–30, John 15:4–8, Acts 2:42, Romans 12:4–8, 1 Corinthians 1:10, 1 Cor. 12:7, 1 Cor. 12:20–21, 1 Cor. 12:25–28, 1 Cor. 14:12, 1 Cor. 14:26–33, Ephesians 2:19–22, Revelation 21:14, Ephesians 4:4–16, Philippians 2:12–15, Colossians 2:18–19, Hebrews 6:4–12, Hebrews 10:25, Heb. 13:17, 1 Peter 2:2–3, 2 Peter 3:9–18, Revelation 21:22–27, Rev. 21:6–8, Rev. 22:14–15.
  24. What is the Orthodox Church? Archived 2008-09-15 at the Wayback Machine
  25. "The expression sister Churches in the proper sense, as attested by the common Tradition of East and West, may only be used for those ecclesial communities that have preserved a valid Episcopate and Eucharist" (Note on the expression "sister Churches") Archived April 1, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  26. Denise Kimber Buell (1999). Making Christians: Clement of Alexandria and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy. Princeton University Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-691-05980-2.
  27. Modern culture runs risk of amnesia, from a speech given May 20th, 2010
  28. Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark's reply to the Catholic Church
  29. Ludwig, Alan (12 September 2016). Luther's Catholic Reformation. The Lutheran Witness. When the Lutherans presented the Augsburg Confession before Emperor Charles V in 1530, they carefully showed that each article of faith and practice was true first of all to Holy Scripture, and then also to the teaching of the church fathers and the councils and even the canon law of the Church of Rome. They boldly claim, “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers” (AC XXI Conclusion 1). The underlying thesis of the Augsburg Confession is that the faith as confessed by Luther and his followers is nothing new, but the true catholic faith, and that their churches represent the true catholic or universal church. In fact, it is actually the Church of Rome that has departed from the ancient faith and practice of the catholic church (see AC XXIII 13, XXVIII 72 and other places).
  30. Frey, H. (1918). Is One Church as Good as Another?. 37. The Lutheran Witness. pp. 82–83.
  31. Robert G. Stephanopoulos. "The Greek (Eastern) Orthodox Church in America". Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Retrieved 2007-08-01.
  32. See Augsburg Confession, Article 7, Of the Church
  33. Justo L. Gonzalez (1970–1975). A History of Christian Thought: Volume 2 (From Augustine to the eve of the Reformation). Abingdon Press.
  34. Patrick Barnes, The Non-Orthodox: The Orthodox Teaching on Christians Outside of the Church
  35. Vladimir Lossky, The mystical theology of the Eastern Church (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976 ISBN 0-913836-31-1) p. 186
  36. Mystici corporis Christi Archived March 17, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  37. John Hardon, Definition of the Catholic Church
  38. Heribert Mühlen, Una Mystica Persona, München, 1967, p. 51
  39. Pius XII, Mystici corporis Christi, 63
  40. S Tromp, Caput influit sensum et motum, Gregorianum, 1958, pp. 353-366
  41. The church stands up for refugee rights