The hope of the world

The church or the community? On the Relationship between the Christian Church and the Christian Community.


Drs. Gijs van den Brink, ICSA, Amsterdam 1998


The place and the role of the evangelical communities in the Dutch society are linked with that of the church. At the same time the relation is not always clear to a nonmember and sometimes even not to a member.

The relationship between the present-day evangelical communities  and the (protestant) church­es is mostly determined by history. The roots of the present protestant-evangelical communities were established around the year 1800. But the implications of this are usually not realized. On the other hand the relation with the New Testament, as  source of inspiration and even as authorized rule, is very strongly present.

If we want to understand the relationship between the (protestant-) evangelical communities and the churches in Holland and in the Western world in general, we must not only take notice of the historic developments since 1800, but we must also consider the New Testament data. When we have looked at both sections, we are able to evaluate certain aspects.


The first church in Jerusalem


Concerning the first Christian churches in Jerusalem and its vicinity, we have quite good information and we read about them In Acts 2:41-46,

41  Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42  They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. ... 44  All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, [NIV] (see also Acts 1:13; 4:32-35; 5:42; 12:12).

A church whose members met each other daily in the homes, had everything in common and who faithfully followed the teaching of the apostles and the fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. We deliberately quote this section in detail, because it shows that assembling in homes is not an unimportant coincidence, but is an important part of the social context[1].

This kind of church life is best shown by the common meals, which Luke mentions in particular (v.46). Daily there were joint meals in homes. And at least five thousand believers were involved in Jerusalem and  the surrounding area (Acts 4:4)[2]. If we (with Banks and Branick[3]) through archaeological research accept the thesis that on the average 30 people came and ate in each house, then at least 165 houses were involved, where the tables were served daily. For everyone, rich or poor, there was food[4]. To regulate all that, it required a tremendous organization. If we really realize this, then we understand better, why later as the number of  people increased, the apostles said:

"It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables (Acts 6:2)."

Here we see clearly, how important the apostles considered the social aspect of church life. They considered the organization of the common meals just as important as the preaching. It is clear, that this idea of the church is connected with the decision to assemble in homes. The question however is, whether this coming together in homes occurred only in Jerusalem and was just temporarily or whether it served as a pattern, which was widely followed and became a fundamental basis for the Christian church. What Luke' s answer to this question would be, is for no one uncertain.


The meaning of 'ekklesia'

Outside the New Testament in the Greek language ekklesia is the ordinary word for the meeting of all the citizens of a city, a public meeting, which was organized for political reasons[5]. In this sense we find it in Acts 19, where Luke speaks about the ‘public meeting' of Ephesus (v.32,39). If this word in the New Testament is also used for the assembly of believers, the church, then we must bear in mind that  this use of the word is not religious, but that it has a political sound and basically speaks of an actual assembly, an actual coming together. Paul (and the New Testament) used the Greek word ekklesia in connection with the Christian church in three ways.

He used it for the universal Church, the universal Body of Christ, so for the sum total of all Christians. For instance in Colossians 1:18,
"And he (Christ) is the head of the body, the church";

He also used the word for the local church, that is all the Christians in a certain town, village or area. We find this use for example in the letter to the Colossians in chapter 4:16, where Paul says,
"After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea."

In the third instance he used ekklesia for a church, coming together in one place and that was in the New Testament and approximately the first two centuries after Christ the house church. We find this meaning for instance in Colossians 4:15 "Nympha and her house church."

We saw already, that the believers in Jerusalem came together in homes, but the New Testament mentions meetings in homes also in for example Troas and Ephesus in Asia  (Acts 20:8,20­), in Corinth in Greece (Acts 18:7) and in Rome in Italy (Romans 16:5). All over the ancient world in the first century we find churches that assembled in homes and the term "house church" is a stock phrase for Paul (Rom.16:5; 1Cor.16:19; Col.4:15).

Before we go further with this, we will first look at the meaning of the Greek words oikos and oikia, house.


Oikos and oikia

The meaning of these two words overlaps. Both are ordinary words for "house." Oikos more often has the meaning "home," "household" than oikia, which in turn more often has the idea of a building in it[6]. We will discuss both words together in a nutshell. It is important to know, that these words not only mean "house" in the meaning of "home," but also can mean "house" including the people, who live in it, or even just the inhabitants, the family.

In Philippia­ns 4:22 Paul passes on greetings from Caesar's household including the servants of the emperor (cf. Mark 3:25; John 4:53). These and other verses show, that this household cannot be restricted to parents and children and other members of the family, (unless the context makes that clear, as in the case of Noah, Heb.11:7), but that also servants are considered to be part of the "house." It includes the whole house, the so called extended family, where besides father, mother and children also grandparents, uncles and aunts, as well as (when applicable) slaves and their families were a part.


The house church

We already saw, that "the house church" was a common term for Paul. The Greek term is he kat' oikon ekklesia (literally "the in house church"). What is the best way to translate kat' oikon? When kata is followed by a person or matter in the accusative case, as is the case here, there is in general a broad or total contact with that person or matter. In this connection we can translate kata for example as "spread over" or "in every."[7] (e.g. Luke 4:25, a famine "throughout" the land, or in Acts 22:19: Paul persecuted the believers "in every" synagogue) Paul says in Acts 20:20 in Miletus to the elders of Ephesus,
"You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house." (kat' oikous)

So kat' oikous (plural) means "everywhere in the houses," that is in every house separately. Sometimes when kata is followed by an accusative, there is also an idea of repeating in different places or different times. Then the meaning is similar to the English "per." So we can better translate the above mentioned Acts 2:46 "bread breaking in their homes" with "bread breaking per house," that is in every house apart[8]. So the expression "the house church" means actually "the church per house." So Klauck translates as follows: "die sich hausweise konstituierende Kirche."[9]


House church practice

If we look at what is written, we can without any doubt draw the conclusion that the house was the place where the early church met. To these house churches belonged not only the extended family who lived in the house, but also believers who lived in other houses, but who came to that house for daily meetings. Believers of all social levels came together in the houses of rich Christians. It is characteristic that from the beginning, rich as well as poor believers belonged to these house churches. We do find a social attitude, which is demonstrated by voluntarily allowing the house to be used, by common meals and mutual care. (they "had everything in common")

The choice of a house as the place to meet had of course automatically certain implications. So, for instance, the average New Testament church would consist of between 10 and 40 people. As far as the meeting itself was concerned, the elements mentioned in Acts 2:42  were always essential, even in later times: teaching, breaking of bread, prayer and fellowship.

Right from the beginning we find in these house meetings all the characteristics of a church. The house churches of the first century were also important  for the rapid spread of the gospel. In the gospel of Luke we read, that when Jesus sent out the 70 in Israel, he said:

"When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house ...  Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house." (Luke 10:5-7)[10]

Afterwards traveling evangelists and prophets continued to do the same, when they went out. The houses and families who accepted the message became the base for these evangelists, who had to depend on them for accommodation, clothes and care. From the apostolic writ, called "Didache" (ch. XI-XIII), we know that this situation was still the same around 100 AD.[11]


House church ecclesiology

We recognize the phenomenon of the house church also in the NT ecclesiology, the teaching concerning the church. We give a few examples. In Mark 3:31-35 we read that Jesus' family was looking for him. When the people told him that, he said,

"Who are my mother and my brothers?" He looked at those sitting there with him and said: "Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

The relationship of faith is stronger than the relationship of blood. The disciples are closer to Jesus than his nearest relations. The fellowship of believers is the most fundamental family. A family with brothers, sisters and mothers.

And in Mark 10:29-30 the Lord Jesus says,
"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields‑‑and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life."

Besides "mother or father" Jesus also speaks here of "children". In other words, he doesn't speak only of the family in which you are born, but also of the family that someone  has established. Also in that family relationships change, when someone joins the household of God. The most fundamental family is the church family with spiritual brothers, sisters, mothers and children, the family of which God himself is the father and the Lord Jesus the oldest brother.(Heb.2:11-18)

It was not only Jesus who spoke in this way about God's family. Paul too wrote about the church as a family with fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. In 1 Timothy 5:1-2 for instance we read,
"Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity."

He speaks further about "the house of God, which is the church of the living God" (1Tim.3:15), of which Jesus Christ is the foundation (1Cor.3:11) and the chief cornerstone. (Eph.2:20)
The apostle John used the picture of the "household" too. He speaks about fathers, children and young men. (1John 2:12-14)

We will end this New Testament introduction with a quotation from J.C. Hoekendijk:
"The temple is not one of the predecessors of the ecclesia and the ecclesia is not an alternative to the synagogue, the house of instruction. The most clear proof of this fundamental fact was that the people came together in the society, - ‘oikos'."[12]


Development since 1800

For the recent historical background of the evangelical communities we have to go back to the year 1800. What happened in those days? It is the time of the expansion policy of the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. But at that time also another expansion was taking place. In the 18th century, in connection with the increasing sphere of rationalism in the church, there was a lack of motivation for missions. This decrease was followed around 1800 by a new revival. This renewal was ushered in by the English shoemaker and Baptist preacher William Carey. He has become the pioneer of the new missionary movement. A new revival characterized the beginning of the 19th century.

In 1792 Carey was first heard of because of his book, the "Enquiry," and in 1795 the first interdenominational society was established, the London Missionary Society (LMS). That society became an example for the missionary movement in the 19th century. So church historians conclude "that missions in the 19th century had predominantly the character of a society. It is the distinguishing mark for the European missionary organizations until far into the 20th century that they were the initiatives of individual people and organizations and not of churches."[13]

What is the importance of this information?

  1. The agency that sends the people out is from that time on no longer the church, but the society, the association.
  2. The missionaries are not authorized by a professional church status, but what is decisive  is the personal calling and the good understanding, a good knowledge of the Bible and full of  faith and the Holy Spirit.

But also some critical comments are necessary. Although historically understandable as the reaction to a barren rationalistic church, this renewal is also the beginning of individualism and subjectivism ("I don't listen to people, I only listen to God") and sometimes also of separatism, which has put its mark on the evangelical societies right up to our time.

The consciousness that churches exist nowadays in every part of the world, has grown in the course of the 20th century. In addition it is becoming ever clearer that Europe is also a mission field.  Missionary work is done on six continents. For that reason, since the middle of our century, in a very short time, many evangelical societies with a national ministry have come into being. But the structure and the relationship with the church remained the same as before.

Also the evangelical communities belong to this group of societies. They usually have the structure of the independent, interdenominational society (mostly an evangelical foundation).


The community as evangelical organization

Is an evangelical organization the same as a Christian organization?
We can roughly distinguish two types of Christian organizations. (of course there are always borderline situations)

  1. First of all those whose aims are the same as those of a general secular organization, such as Christian publishers, Christian political parties or Christian schools.
  2. Secondly groups whose aims fit in with the task of  the church, for instance organizations in the field of evangelization, missionary work and Bible education.

The organizations of the first main group are possibilities, which individual Christians and churches have within a democratic society. The organizations in the second group on the other hand have one of the tasks of the Christian church as their aim. To this group belong most of the evangelical agencies and also most of the evangelical communities.

That means the following: The Christian community belongs as association in the first place to the church and then in the second place as part of the church to the secular society.

But when we have come to this point, the question arises: in what way does the community belong to the church?


Triple character of the church

First we have to define what we understand by "church." The church has a triple character[14]:

  1. The church as organization, the external, visible form of the church organization.
  2. The church as fellowship, as organism, as the "body of Christ."
  3. The church as ambassador of God who represents Him and goes into the world in His name.  This is called: the missionary ministry of the church. It can express itself in many ways, either through the church as organization, either through activities of individuals or groups.

With this third character of the church we come in my opinion to the heart of the matter as we search in the Bible for the present day evangelical community. Let us therefore go deeper in this aspect of the church.


Community and apostolic ministry

When we read the New Testament, we see that the missionary ministry of the church is basically the ministry of the apostle and his team. There are roughly three characteristic features:

  1. He is personally called by the Lord. The apostle Paul said: "Have I not seen Jesus, our Lord."
  2. Working in new areas, where no one has worked before, is his main task. He is a pioneer, who works in places, where the Gospel has not yet been established.
  3. He has at first, but only for a time the responsibility for teaching and leadership (for the church groups, which he has founded, see the New Testament epistles and especially 2Cor.10-13). When the church group has become mature, then he goes to new areas, where no one has been.

But how independent was the apostle of the church as organization? It is in this connection important to point out that Paul had a strong conviction concerning teamwork. It was important to him that his ministry would be accepted by the apostles in Jerusalem and that all the apostles worked in harmony (Gal. 2).

Further we read for example that his first missionary journey was not his idea, but the Holy Spirit spoke to the prophets and the teachers of the church in Antioch (Acts13:1-3). Moreover it is important to mention that, when there was a problem or a difference of opinion within the apostolic team, there used to be held a conference to solve it. (see Acts 6:2, concerning the question of the Greek speaking widows, and Acts15:1-3 about the basic demands for believers from the Heathens). So we have to conclude, that in addition to a certain independence there was also obedience, consultation and cooperation.




1. The Christian community is not a fellowship outside the church, nor an unnecessary extra to the church, but an essential and fundamental part of the Christian church. The Christian community and the Christian church have one essential aim, namely: fellowship with God and with each other.

2. Most of the present day evangelical communities function as independent interdenominational societies, which had their roots in the 19th century missionary society.

3. As far as an evangelical community is an independent evangelical organization, it has a principal right to exist, as long as it fulfills the apostolical mission of the church. This mission is permanent in its concern for the world: we can think of missions, relieve and development aid.

But this mission is temporary in its concern for the local church: we think then for instance of hospitality and counseling. This means that Christian communities must have:
* either the attitude and the willingness to become part of the local church, when that church has taken over their principles and objectives,
* or be willing to function as local churches themselves, as we see happen in the Christian church of Jerusalem in the first century. The Bible gives us a picture of this church in the book of Acts chapters 2 and 4.

4. After reading the New Testament we wish to see four important characteristics of the Western church-community in the 21th century:



[1] We read that the believers in Jerusalem were also every day in the temple, in Solomon's porch, where the apostles also were (Acts 3:11; 5:12). The assembling in homes was not necessary because there were no other possibilities. They could for example have rented a hall as Paul did in Ephesus, when it was made difficult for him to preach in the local synagogue (Acts 19:8-10).

[2] Two things are not quite clear: has  avndrw/n here the strict meaning ‘men' (only men, excluding women and children), or has it the more general meaning avnqrw,pwn , ‘people'? And are the 5000 mentioned here, to be added to the 3000 that were spoken of earlier (Acts 2:41), or is the 5000 meant as the total number of believers at that time?

With Ernst Haenchen - Die Apostelgeschichte (KEK, 7th.ed. Göttingen, 1977) 213 - and for example the Dutch Groot Nieuws Bijbel (herziene uitgave, Haarlem 1996) we assume that Luke mentions here the total number of Christians at that time, and that avndrw/n is used here in the general meaning of the word, as it is in Luke 11:31 (compare also yucai in Acts 2:41).

Joachim Jeremias assumes that, at the time of Jesus, there were between 25.000 and 30.000 citizens in Jerusalem. [J. Jeremias, "Die Einwohnerzahl z. Zt. Jesu", ZDPV, 63 (1943) 24-31]. The numbers of Josephus (more than a million, Bell.6,420) and Tacitus (600.000, Hist., V,13) are, according to him, greatly exaggerated (TDNT VII, 323). Based on the research of Jeremias and the fact that one fifth or one sixth of the citizens of the city would have come to faith in Jesus, Haenchen says: ‘das zeigt dass die Zahl 5000 nicht statistischen, sondern symbolischen Wert besitzt' (p. 213, note 3). A strange remark for a historian.

To us the remarks of Adolf Schlatter give a better explanation of the situation at that time: ‘Wir haben dabei daran zu denken, dass in Jerusalem alles zur Entscheidung reif war: die Zuhörer lebten in der Schrift und in der Weissagung. Nun wurde ihnen die Frage mit aller Bestimmtheit gestellt: Ist Jesus der Christus, oder ist er es nicht? ... Mit der Ruhe, die die Wahrhaftigkeit gewährt, erklärten die Apostel: wir sahen ihn auferstanden. ... Man kann auch nicht sagen, für Jesu eigene Arbeit wären solche Zahlen eher zu erwarten als für der Jünger. Denn Jesus konnte seinen Hörern die Entscheidung für oder gegen ihn nicht mit derselben Bestimmtheit vorlegen wie die Apostel, die auf das fertige Werk Jesu hinzuzeigen vermochten. Vor dem Kreuz blieb Jesu Ziel und Werk rätselhaft; er konnte es nicht mit Worten deuten; die Tat Gottes allein musste hier Licht schaffen.' A. Schlatter, Die Apostelgeschichte, (Stuttgart, 1948) 49-50.

[3] R. Banks, Paul's Idea of Community. The Early House Churches in their Historical Setting (Grand Rapids, 1980) 41-42; V. Branick, The House Church in the Writings of Paul (Zacchaeus Studies: New Testament,  Wilmington 1989) 39-41.

[4] Jeremias compares this with Jewish practices in the first century and points out that the joint meals in the early church were a part of a social service, such as food-distribution among poor believers. J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jeus, An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period (tr. F.H. and C.H. Cave, Philadelphia, 1969 19772) 131.

[5] W. Bauer, Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, s.v. ekklesia  (Berlin-New York, 1971); G. van den Brink, J. Dekker, J.W. van der Jagt, ed., Studiebijbel, Woordstudies en Concordantie, XII (Soest 1992) 276-280.

[6] Bauer, Wörterbuch, s.v. oikos en  oikia.

[7] Bauer, s.v. kata II, c/d; Liddell-Scott-Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. kata B.II (Oxford 1968);   G. van den Brink e.a., Studiebijbel, XIII (Soest. 1993) 258-259

[8] We cannot accept Jeremias' interpretation that katV oi=kon because of the previous evn tw/| i`erw/| means ‘in the house' in the sense of ‘in a certain house'. J. Jeremias, Jerusalem, 131 n. 20.
There are three arguments against this interpretation: 1. The meaning of  kata + acc.; 2. The continual presence of all the apostles in one house cannot be proved; 3. The number of believers makes this impossible.

[9] H.J. Klauck, `Die Hausgemeinde als Lebensform im Urchristentum', Müncher Theologische Zeitschrift 32 (1981) 2

[10] For the great influence of this pattern in the early church, see: D.L. Matson, Household Conversion Narratives in Acts, Pattern and Interpretation (JSNT Suppl. Series 123) Sheffield 1996.

[11] A.F.J. Klijn, Apostolische Vaders 1 (2e dr., Kampen 1992) 251-253

[12] A. Camps e.a., red., ‘Eerst horen dan Zien, J. C. Hoekendijk (1912-1975)', Wereld en Zending 5/6 (1976) 398.

[13] J.N. Bakhuizen van den Brink, W.F. Dankbaar, Handboek der kerkgeschiedenis IV (Den Haag, 1968) 134, 268

[14] H. Berkhof, Christelijk Geloof (Nijkerk, 1973) 362