The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches each claim to be the modern day representative of the one Church established by Jesus Christ, specially guided by the Holy Spirit as the Body of Christ. This ecclesiology describes those people, including other Christians, not in full communion with the Church as standing in several degrees of imperfect communion; other churches are recognised as legitimate to varying degrees, but also as deviant from the true and orthodox Christian faith to varying degrees. The word 'church' (lower case c) also describes particular different groups of tradition within the Church, e.g. the Syro-Malabar Rite church as a particular church within the 'Catholic Church', as is each diocese, while the Greek Orthodox church is a particular church within the 'Orthodox Church'; again, to a Catholic the Eastern Orthodox are but particular churches, and conversely to an Eastern Orthodox the Roman Catholics form particular churches, each not viewing the other as 'the Church' commissioned by Jesus. The other Eastern churches such as the Oriental Orthodox are also viewed by both in this way. Anglicans feel that they are but a branch of the Church. Neither the Eastern Orthodox nor the Catholics recognise Protestants as 'churches' at all, describing them as communities in imperfect communion with the Church, as they have not maintained the particular features of historic Christianity (such as Apostolic succession) that the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox define as conferring 'church' status.
In both the secular and the Protestant views, the Christian Church is a religiously ambiguous and cultural-sociological term to refer to all religions based on the worship of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God. It is not a single religious institution, neither a single faith. Today there is no single political entity recognized by the secular world as the unique Christian Church.
The phrase The Church in its widest sense has a similar breadth as the Body of Christ.
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 црькъі, Russian церковь) are via the Old High German cognate chirihha.
Throughout history there have been various terms that have been used to express the concept of a united Christian Church. This section discusses some of these.
The Greek word ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) or literally "assembly, congregation, council", is the traditional Roman Catholic/Orthodox term referring to the Christian Church. Most Romance languages use derivations of this word. The Latin form ecclesia is used in English to denote either a particular local group, or the whole body of the faithful.
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", ἁγίαν καθολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν). 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. The word catholic in the phrase is a synonym for "universal" and is not a reference to the Roman Catholic Church.
The terms orthodox Church and orthodox faith (not to be confused with the modern term "Eastern Orthodox" with a capital 'O') have been used to distinguish what is considered the true Church from groups considered heretical. 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.
The term Body of Christ (cf. ), also known as the Bride of Christ, is used to refer to the total community of Christians seen as interdependent in a single entity headed by Jesus Christ.
The phrase Church Militant and Church Triumphant (Ecclesia Militans, Ecclesia Triumphans) is used to express the concept of a united Church that extends beyond the earthly realm into Heaven. The term Church Militant comprises all living Christians while Church Triumphant comprises those in Heaven.
The Church Suffering, or Church Expectant, is a Roman Catholic concept encompassing those Christians in Purgatory. These Christians are not considered part of the Church Militant and Church Triumphant.
The term Communion of Saints expresses the idea of a shared faith which, through prayer, binds all Christians regardless of the physical separation or separation by death. In Roman Catholic theology this would be differentiated from the Church Militant and Church Triumphant alone because the Communion of Saints also includes the Church Suffering.
The term domestic church is sometimes used to refer to the Christian family, the most basic unit of church life.
In Catholic theology, The Church may be used to designate those who exercise the office of teaching and ruling the faithful, the Ecclesia Docens, or (more rarely) the governed as distinguished from their pastors, the Ecclesia Discens.
The Christian Church originated in Roman Judea in the first century AD, founded on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth believed by all Christians to be the Son of God, and the Messiah, or deliverer king, of the Jewish people. The precise start of the Church is considered to be at Pentecost, but it is usually thought of as originating with Jesus' Apostles. According to scripture Jesus commanded the Apostles to spread his teachings to all the world.
Although springing out of the first century Jewish faith, from its earliest days, as did Judaism (see proselyte and Noahide Laws), they accepted non-Jews (Gentiles) without requiring them to fully adopt Jewish customs (e.g. circumcision) Some think that conflict with Jewish religious authorities quickly led to the expulsion of the Christians from the synagogues in Jerusalem, see also Council of Jamnia and List of events in early Christianity.
The Church gradually spread through the Roman Empire and outside it gaining major establishments in cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa. Christianity became a widely persecuted religion, hated by the Jewish authorities as a heresy, and by the Roman authorities because, like Judaism, its monotheistic teachings were fundamentally foreign to the traditions of the ancient world, as well as a challenge to the imperial cult. Other teachings of Christianity, such as the call to chastity and the prohibition on homosexual practise, also made it unpopular. Despite this the Church grew rapidly until finally legalized and then promoted by Emperors Galerius and Constantine in the fourth century. A major controversy as the Church was being formalized was the Arianism vs. Trinitarianism debate which occupied the Church during the fourth century.
After various Church councils (Nicaea, Tyre, Rimini, Seleucia, Constantinople, etc.), the matter was effectively settled by the Trinitarian Emperor Theodosius I who made Christianity the state religion (some Germanic tribes, though, remained Arian well into the Middle Ages). This period would begin the long-term persecution of pagans and "heretical" Christians in the Empire and the kingdoms that followed. See also Christendom.
The Church of the Roman Empire was divided into Patriarchal Sees with five holding particular prominence, one in the West (Rome), and the rest in the East (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria). The bishops of these five would become the Patriarchs of the Church. Even after the split of the Roman Empire the Church remained a relatively united institution (excluding Oriental Orthodoxy and some other groups which separated from the rest of the Church earlier). The Church came to be a central and defining institution of the Empire, especially in the East. In particular, Constantinople would come to be seen as the center of the Christian world, owing in great part to its economic and political power.
Once the Western Empire fell to Germanic incursions in the 5th century, the (Roman) Church for centuries became the primary link to Roman civilization for Medieval Western Europe and an important channel of influence in the West for the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, emperors. While, in the West, Christianity struggled as the so-called orthodox (i.e. Roman) Church competed against the Arian Christian and pagan faiths of the Germanic rulers, the Eastern Romans spread Christianity to the pagan Slavs establishing the Church in what is now Russia, Central Europe and Eastern Europe. The reign of Charlemagne in Western Europe is particularly noted for bringing the last major Western tribes outside of the Church into communion with Rome, in part through conquest and forced conversion.
Starting in the 7th century the Islamic Caliphates rose and gradually began to conquer larger and larger areas of the Christian world. Excepting southern Spain and a few smaller areas, Northern and western Europe for centuries escaped largely unscathed by Islamic expansion in great part because Constantinople and its empire acted as a magnet for the onslaught. The challenge presented by the Muslims would help to solidify the religious identity of eastern Christians even as it gradually weakened the Eastern Empire.
Although there had long been frictions between the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Western Pope) and the other patriarchs, Rome's changing allegiance from Constantinople to the Frankish king Charlemagne set the Church on a course towards separation. The political and theological divisions would grow until Rome excommunicated the East in the 11th century, ultimately leading to the division of the Church into the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Eastern Orthodox) Churches.
As a result of the redevelopment of Western Europe, and the gradual fall of the Eastern Roman Empire to the Arabs and Turks (helped by warfare against Eastern Christians). The final Fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD resulted in Eastern scholars fleeing the Moslem hordes bringing ancient manuscripts to the West, which was a factor in the beginning of the period of the Western Renaissance there. Rome came to be seen by the Western Church as Christianity's heartland. Some Eastern churches even broke with Eastern Orthodoxy and entered into communion with Rome. The changes brought on by the Renaissance eventually led to the Protestant Reformation during which the Protestant Lutheran and the Reformed followers of Calvin, Hus, Zwingli, Melancthon, Knox, and others split from the Roman Catholic Church. At this time, a series of non-theological disputes also led to the English Reformation which led to the independence of the Anglican Communion. Then during the Age of Exploration and the Age of Imperialism, Western Europe spread the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant and Reformed Churches around the world, especially in the Americas. These developments in turn have led to Christianity's being the largest religion in the world today.
The word "church" is used as the translation for the 114 occurrences of the term ekklesia in the New Testament. In the New Testament, ekklesia is used to refer either to disciples of a single locality ("To the ekklesia of God in Corinth...", 1 Corinthians 1:2), or to the entire body of believers in Christ ("And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it", Matthew 16:18).
The notion goes back to Early Christianity. The pronunciation that outside of the Church, there is no salvation (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus) goes back to Cyprian (d. 258), and is maintained by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches to the present day. The doctrine of the universal Church was made explicit in the Apostles' Creed. The emphasis on the unity of the Church Universal is made in the Unam sanctam bull of 1302, an extreme statemnt of Papal supremacy.
The less common Protestant notion of the universal, invisible church is the revival of a concept originally taught by St. Augustine of Hippo as part of his refutation of the Donatist sect. It 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 saved, while the visible church contains some individuals who are saved and others who are unsaved. (Compare .)
In Christian theology the term is often used to imply 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.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, the earliest known writer to use the phrase "the Catholic church", excluded from it heterodox groups whose teaching and practice conflicted with those of the bishops of the Roman-Catholic church. In keeping with this idea, many churches and communions see groups that it judges to be in a state of heresy or schism with their church or communion as not part of the catholic Church. E.g. the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches follow this doctrine.
for the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches, this document closes the argument about the identification of the Catholic Church with the Church of Christ. The Vatican was asked specifically: What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church? The Vatican responded that Christ "established here on earth" only one Church and instituted it as a "visible and spiritual community". The Catholic Church from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. "This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic…"
Some Anglicans see their communion as a component part of the Catholic Church, albeit not subject to the Holy See of Rome, and maintain beliefs and practices akin to those of the Roman-Catholic church. They are however not recognised by Roman-Catholic or Orthodox tradition as being part of them.
Most other Protestant denominations interpret "catholic", especially in its creedal context, as referring to the concept of the eternal church of Christ and the Elect, referenced in the Bible in phrases such as "body of Christ and "great cloud of witnesses. Expressed in the language of traditional Roman Catholicism this Protestant interpretation of the words "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" identifies the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" exclusively with the Church Triumphant - i.e. the church that exists "in heaven" or in eternity as opposed to the Church Militant which is the communion of the faithful here on Earth. They view this understanding of "catholic" as necessarily distinct from any concrete expression in an institutional Church. In this last sense, "catholic" tends to be written with a lower-case "c".
Both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches claim to be the original Christian Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church supports this claim by citing primarily it's holding to traditions and beliefs of the original Christian Church. It also supports this claim by showing that 4 out of the 5 original Apostolic Sees (excluding Rome) are still a part of it. The Oriental Orthodox churches claims are similar to those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, excluding the claim to the Apostolic Sees.
This distinction can be seen as originating with the biblical proscriptions against false prophets. "Orthodoxy" means both "true glory" and "correct teaching" this theological term is explicitly used by Orthodox Christians to refer to themselves as a shorthand for "the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, Orthodox and Orthoprax, Church of Jesus Christ and His saints." In the same manner, the Roman-Catholic church describes itself as orthodox, meaning having possession of the whole faith. Of course, other Christian denominations, who disbelieve the claims of the Orthodox Churches refer to her thus as the "Eastern Orthodox" churches.
This concept of "orthodoxy" began to take on particular significance during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, the first to actively promote Christianity. Constantine convened the first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicea, which attempted to provide the first universal creed of the Christian faith.
The major issue of this and other councils during the fourth century was the christological debate between Arianism and trinitarianism. Trinitarianism is the official doctrine of the Catholic church and is strongly associated with the term "orthodoxy", although some modern non-trinitarian churches dispute this usage. Churches that subscribe to the Nicene Creed, the first official trinitarian creed, are sometimes referred to as "orthodox"
The doctrine of "apostolic succession" 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. Modern bishops, therefore, must be viewed as an unbroken line of leadership from the original apostles. Note that this doctrine is distinct from that of Papal supremacy, which grants the Roman-Catholic bishop of Rome special powers in the Roman-Catholic church.
The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox churches, the Anglican Church Communion and others interpret the adjective "apostolic" as referring not only to the Church's origin from Christ's Apostles and their teachings, but also to the Church's structure around bishops who have succeeded the apostles by unbroken succession transmitted by episcopal consecration (laying on of hands), which is traceable to the Apostles themselves.
According to Christian tradition the "authority" of Jesus Christ to preach, to teach, and to do all the things that He had done while on Earth came from God. Before Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven He had given His apostles and disciples the authority to preach (that may include teaching, exhorting, rebuking, correcting) and to baptize. This "authority" was passed on by the apostles to the disciples, and was to be passed from one generation of disciples to the next until His second coming. The passing on of this authority had been conducted solely by the church. This passing on of authority was sometimes called the anointing or appointing of pastors or leaders of a church.
(Membership in the Christian church has traditionally been defined by baptism. The church administers Christianity's sacred acts: baptism, the Lord's supper, worship, etc.)
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 Church visible 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.
The visible church 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.
Some say that no reference to the church is ever made in the Bible that is not referring to a local visible body, such as the church in someone's house or the church as Ephesus. They believe that the term is sometimes used in an institutional sense in which the term refers to all of a certain type, meaning all of the local visible churches.
One significant controversy is simply the definition of the notion Christian church or Catholic church. To some degree this controversy is related to the Nicene Creed, to which virtually all modern denominations subscribe albeit in somewhat different forms, which specifically references a catholic, or universal, church.
Both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church each traditionally regard themselves as the one true and unique church of Christ, hence the names. The formulation of this principle by the Roman Catholic Church in the document Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council appeared to some as ambiguous. Pope John Paul II responded in Dominus Jesus that people outside of Catholic Church are "in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation". Non-Catholic Christian communities have "defects." In 2007 the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated the teachings of Dominus Jesus, explaining why Catholic Church insists on its interpretation, that there is only one Christian Church, which is the Catholic Church.
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.
Note that in classical times the term Catholic Church came to be most widely used in reference to the official Roman Imperial church from which the Catholic church, and all of its split offs descend directly or indirectly. The term, however, dates back to the Apostles' Creed which predates the official sanction of the Church by the Empire.
Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and some others have always referred to themselves as the Catholic church. 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 Roman Catholic Church because of its size and influence in the West (although in formal contexts most other churches still reject this naming).
These Churches believe that the term one in the Nicene Creed describes and prescribes a visible institutional unity, not only geographically, throughout the world, but also historically, throughout history. They see unity as one of the four marks that the Creed attributes to the genuine Church, and the essence of a mark is that it be visible. A Church whose identity and belief varied from country to country and from age to age would not be "one".
In the New Testament, the word "Church" or "assembly" - (translations for ekklesia) - normally refers to believers on earth, and they conclude that the Creed's description "one" must be applicable to the Church on earth and must not be reserved for some eschatological reality. The only exception to the normal New Testament use of the word "ἐκκλησία" is the mention of the "ἐκκλησία of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven" in ; and even there the Christians to whom the letter is addressed are associated with that heavenly Church ("you have come to..."). In line with this passage, the ancient Churches mentioned see the saints too - that is, the holy dead - as part of the one Church and not as ex-members, so that Christians both in the present life and the afterlife form a single Church.
Many Baptist and Congregationalist theologians accept the local sense as the only valid application of the term church, in so doing rejecting wholesale the notion of a universal (catholic) church. These people argue that all uses of the Greek word ekklesia in the New Testament are speaking of either a particular local group, or of the notion of "church" in the abstract, and never of a single, worldwide church.
Many Anglicans, Lutherans, Old Catholics, and Independent Catholics view unity as a mark of catholicity, but see the institutional unity of the Catholic Church as manifested in the shared Apostolic Succession of their episcopacies, rather than a shared episcopal hierarchy or rites.
Reformed Christians hold that every person justified by faith in the Gospel committed to the Apostles is a member of "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church". From this perspective, the real unity and holiness of the whole church established through the Apostles is yet to be revealed; and meanwhile, the extent and peace of the church on earth is imperfectly realized in a visible way.
The right to be considered the first or oldest Christian Church is claimed by the Greek Orthodox Church (the New Testament was written in Greek), the Roman Catholic Church (Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome), the Armenian Apostolic Church (the first Christian church to be recognized by a state) and many others.
Many churches claim to maintain Apostolic succession. Apostolic succession means that the bishops of a given denomination form part of an unbroken chain going back to the original 12 apostles. Orthodox Churches, Eastern non-Orthodox Churches (e.g. Nestorians, Monophysites), the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans, and even some Lutherans (e.g. Sweden) claim to maintain apostolic succession. Most Christian denominations recognize the pope as the true Bishop of Rome but the Bishop of Rome claims these other denominations are "deficient" without him.
Outside of the Roman Catholic Church, most Christians have argued that Scripture (or tradition) in no way designates Saint Peter as having unique authority over the Church. When Paul and Peter met in Antioch, Paul needed to correct Peter because Peter was not acting in line with the Gospel. There is no evidence that Paul was in any way submissive to Peter as "pope". (Galatians 2)
Other debates include the following:
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