by David E. West, England
If the proverbial ‘man in the street’ were to be asked "What is the church?" or "What is a church?" answers would most probably conform to the standard definitions found in any English dictionary, namely, either a particular denomination or sect of Christians or a building set apart or consecrated for Christian worship.
However, in the New Testament the word "church" is the translation of the Greek word ekklesia that is made up of a preposition ek meaning ‘out of’ and a verb kaleo which means ‘to call or summon’.
This word, ekklesia, is used by Stephen in his defence when he refers to Israel as "the church in the wilderness" Acts 7.38; the nation had been called out from the land of Egypt. Luke uses the same word to describe an Ephesian mob "the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together" Acts 19.32; and when he writes concerning the regular legal assembly at Ephesus, quoting the words of the "townclerk", "But if ye inquire any thing concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly" Acts 19.39.
The word ekklesia is never used in the New Testament of a building. It is a great achievement of the powers of darkness, influencing the very thinking of people, to direct attention to buildings rather than to companies of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. An examination of certain expressions employed will reveal how ridiculous it is to attempt to fit the modern usage of the word "church" as a building into the New Testament:
- "Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus … Likewise greet the church that is in their house" Rom.16.3,5.
- "As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison" Acts 8.3.
- "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified" Acts 9.31.
- "Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem" Acts 11.22.
In the light of what has been written above, it should be observed that sadly (in the opinion of the present writer) there is a trend in certain parts of the United Kingdom to change the name ‘Gospel Hall’ (pointing to a place where the glad tidings are preached) to ‘Evangelical Church’.
It becomes clear as we read through the New Testament that there are two distinct aspects of the church and that neither of these agrees with the common religious uses of the word indicated in the dictionary definitions.
It is important to observe that the term is used in a wide aspect of all who are saved in this day of grace; it is frequently designated by such terms as the universal church, the mystical church or the dispensational church but it needs to be borne in mind that these terms are not used as such in the New Testament. Every true believer from the sudden birth of the Church at Pentecost to the sudden rapture of believers when the Lord Himself descends to the air for His own, is part of this "church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all" Eph.1.22,23. It is used in this sense in the following quotations:
"For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church" Eph.5.23.
"Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it" Eph.5.25.
"And He is the head of the body, the church" Col.1.18.
"But ye are come unto … the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven" Heb.12.22,23.
Those who constitute the Church, having been called out from this world, are so vitally linked to the Head in heaven that they, spiritually, are His body. This truth, developed in the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, is positional: it is true of every believer irrespective of what his spiritual condition might be.
Although this aspect of the Church is eternal in its Divine concept, and believers of this present dispensation were "chosen … in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world" Eph.1.4, and are spoken of as being "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit" 1 Pet.1.2, nevertheless the Church, as such, is not referred to in the Old Testament. However, pictures and foreshadowings of the Church are found in the Old Testament. Thus Israel "the church in the wilderness" Acts 7.38, was a ‘called-out’ company from Egypt and also a ‘brought-in’ company to Canaan. Again, Adam and Eve (although not mentioned by name) are viewed in Ephesians chapter 5 as a picture of Christ and His Church.
In Ephesians chapters 2 and 3 Paul develops the great dispensational truth of the Church as being comprised of both Jew and Gentile brought together in one body; he speaks of it as being a mystery, a truth previously hidden in the thoughts of God, but now fully revealed, "the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ" Eph.3.9.
The second aspect of the word ‘church’ is of a ‘called-out’ company of believers who meet regularly in a particular locality. It needs to be noted that whereas there is one Church, there are many churches (local); hence the title of this chapter. Such local companies are designated:
- "Churches of God", "But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God" 1 Cor.11.16; this tells us of their origin, they are "of God"; the term "church of God" always refers to such a local company.
- "Churches of Christ", "The churches of Christ salute you" Rom.16.16; this speaks of their possession, they belong to Christ.
- "Churches of the Saints", "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints" 1 Cor.14.33; this reminds us of their composition, they are comprised of sanctified ones, those set apart for God.
- Then in the New Testament the following terms are also found:
- "Churches of the Gentiles", "Greet Priscilla and Aquila … who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles" Rom.16.3,4; it is evident that, although most local churches were composed of both Jews and Gentiles in those early days, some were made up of just Gentile believers.
- "Churches of Galatia", "Paul, an apostle … unto the churches of Galatia" Gal.1.1,2; Paul did not write to the church of Galatia but to the churches of Galatia, thus recognising the autonomy of each such church.
- "Churches of Judaea", "I … was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ" Gal.1.21,22.
- "The Seven Churches which are in Asia", "John to the seven churches which are in Asia" Rev.1.4; note the plurals, i.e. "churches of Judaea", "churches … in Asia", not "the Church of Judaea", etc. as "the Church of England".
These then are the only two concepts of the church in the Scriptures. Interestingly, both aspects are alluded to by the Lord Jesus, according to the record in Matthew’s Gospel. There we read, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church" Matt.16.18. The rock was the confession made by Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" Matt.16.16. The expression "I will build" should be noted; this was yet future when the Lord Jesus spoke these words. The Church in its wider aspect came into being at Pentecost.
The Lord Jesus subsequently referred to what would later be understood to be the local church when an offended brother, having followed the procedures laid down and having failed to have his personal case dealt with, should finally "tell it unto the church" Matt.18.17. He could hardly tell this to any but a local church, nor could any but such a local company deal with it.
Local churches or assemblies are composed of baptised believers, "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" Acts 2.41, gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" Matt.18.20. Such companies meet regularly, "they continued stedfastly" Acts 2.42, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" Heb.10.25, in a particular locality, e.g. "the church of God which is at Corinth" 1 Cor.1.2, according to the New Testament pattern.
Each assembly is a spiritual fellowship, meeting for the breaking of bread, worship and prayer and the teaching of the Word of God. Such a company acknowledges the sole authority of the Word and the sovereign control of the Lord through the Holy Spirit Who indwells them, "Know ye not that ye (the assembly at Corinth) are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" 1 Cor.3.16. Spiritual gifts are recognised which are exercised under the control of the Spirit and for the edification of the church. The members of a local assembly practise in worship and prayer the priesthood of all believers and, by godly living and the judging of sin in their own lives and in the assembly collectively, recognise the holiness of the assembly as the temple of God.
The Church in its dispensational character, embracing every believer of this present age, is described under a number of figures; similar figures are used for the local assembly, but the distinction is always clear.
As a Building
The church is viewed as a spiritual edifice, a holy temple, and a sanctuary "for an habitation of God through the Spirit" Eph.2.22. Christ Himself is the Builder, "upon this rock I will build My church" Matt.16.18. The foundation is the ‘bedrock’ confession made by Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" Matt.16.16. Nothing can hinder the building of this edifice, "and the gates of hell (Gk. hades) shall not prevail against it" Matt.16.18. Jesus Christ is the chief corner stone, "And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (i.e. the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, in their teaching), Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone" Eph.2.20. Peter having written, "Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house" 1 Pet.2.5, goes on to quote from the prophecy of Isaiah, "Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone" 1 Pet.2.6. The corner stone was laid at the foundation as a strong angle stone and gave strength and character to the building. All the living stones in this building are built in relation to Jesus Christ. The fact that the building is not yet complete and is in the process of being built is made clear, "In whom (Jesus Christ) all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord" Eph.2.21.
The local assembly at Corinth is described, not only as a tilled field, but also as a building, "ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building" 1 Cor.3.9. When the church at Corinth is pictured in this way, Paul himself is said to have laid the foundation, "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder (architect), I have laid the foundation" 1 Cor.3.10; the foundation was Jesus Christ, "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" 1 Cor.3.11. There were other builders, e.g., teachers, who were warned to take care how they built upon the foundation, "But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon" 1 Cor.3.10.
The distinction is very clear; when Christ is the Builder, there can be no flaw in the work, however, when men are the builders, there can be failure and their work will be investigated at the Judgment Seat of Christ, "Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is" 1 Cor.3.12,13.
As a Body
The Church in its wider aspect is clearly viewed as the body of Christ, "the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all" Eph.1.22,23; this body is spiritual. Although the choice and purpose of God to form one body out of Jew and Gentile were in the eternal past, the choice became manifest and the purpose was fulfilled in time. There was a day when the body, the Church, came into being. The Church is seen as the whole body constituted one organic unity on the Day of Pentecost, Acts chapter 2; on that occasion in one Spirit were all believers of this present dispensation baptised into one body, irrespective of nationality, social status or even time, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free" 1 Cor.12.13. The verb translated "are baptized" is in the aorist or point tense in the Greek. This indicates firstly that in Paul’s time, this baptism had already taken place and secondly, it was something that must be regarded as a unique, never-to-be-repeated event.
The body, in the mind of God, was complete at Pentecost even though, of course, millions have since been added to the Church. The figure of a body would impress upon us the fact of the completeness of the baptism – it is something finished. It would not be correct to suggest that a believer is baptised into the one body at conversion. We never read of a believer being put into the body, or added to the body, nor becoming a member on believing. He is a member of it and was constituted so at Pentecost, but at conversion, he begins to function as a member.
In the Epistle to the Ephesians the body is viewed as the complement to the Head whereas in the Epistle to the Colossians the body is seen as complete in the Head, "And He is the head of the body, the church" Col.1.18. Multitudes of believers who are part of this body are now in heaven, they are "absent from the body (their bodies), and … present with the Lord" 2 Cor.5.8. Thus it would not be scriptural to speak of the whole company of believers living in the world at any one time as being ‘the church on earth’. A vital unity is indicated between Christ the Head and believers as members of His body.
However, "the church of God" – an expression describing a local company of Christians – is also viewed as a body, e.g., the church at Corinth, "Now ye are [the] body of Christ, and members in particular" 1 Cor.12.27. It is important to note that the definite article is not present here in the original Greek language of the New Testament. Whilst this body is distinguished from "the church, which is His body" Eph.1.22,23, it should, nevertheless, be characteristic of it in its unity. It is sad that at Corinth, the very opposite was true, for Paul says "I hear that there be divisions (schisms) among you" 1 Cor.11.18.
The relationship of each member to "the church, which is His body" is based solely upon salvation; thus, "that He might reconcile both (Jew and Gentile) unto God in one body by the cross" Eph.2.16, and, "That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body" Eph.3.6.
However, when the truth of the local assembly is considered, it is found that it is entered by reception; an example of this is seen in the case of Saul of Tarsus who "assayed to join himself to the disciples" Acts 9.26. Such reception will have been preceded by salvation and baptism: this is clear from the familiar passage in Acts chapter 2 where "they that gladly received his (Peter’s) word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" Acts 2.41.
When writing to the believers at Corinth, Paul mentions a situation where "the whole church (local) be come together into one place … and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers" 1 Cor.14.23, who evidently do not form part of it. The identity of the "unbelievers" is clear. Those who are "unlearned" are distinct from the "unbelievers": the reference therefore is to those who are saved but who lack instruction. Such are members of "the church, which is His body" but are not yet members of the local assembly.
Then again, although the truth of "the body" is not set forth as such in the Epistle to the Galatians, nevertheless, Paul writing concerning the wider aspect of the Church says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" Gal.3.28. Yet in the local assembly, there is, of course, a distinction between the sexes, thus for instance, "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak" 1Cor.14.34, and "I will therefore that men (the males) pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting" 1 Tim.2.8. The truth of headship is set forth in the opening section of 1 Corinthians chapter 11; there it is taught that in the gatherings of the local assembly, the woman is to have her head covered, whilst the man is to have his head uncovered.
As the Bride
‘The bride of Christ’ is an expression not found, as such, in the Scriptures. However, the concept is strongly implied in Ephesians chapter 5, "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church" vv.31, 32. The present writer is convinced that "the bride, the Lamb’s wife" Rev.21.9, is one and the same as "the church, which is His body". She is viewed as absolutely pure and prepared, "His wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness (righteous acts) of saints" Rev.19.7,8. Nothing but reality marks the Church in her bridal character.
However, the story is different in 2 Corinthians chapter 11, where the local assembly at Corinth is viewed as "a chaste virgin … espoused … to one husband" v.2, ready to be presented by Paul to Christ. Whilst the assembly is set forth as a virgin awaiting marriage, Paul has fears that she might become defiled, "But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ" v.3. Christ has no such fears regarding His bride, there is no possibility of defilement in her.
As a Flock
The Lord Jesus said, "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold (Gk. aule): them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice; and there shall be one fold (Gk. poimne – the word means ‘flock’), and one shepherd" Jn.10.16. The one flock comprises the whole family of God made up of believing Jews and Gentiles. Under the old covenant, Israel was kept within the boundary walls of the Law; under the new economy, the flock of true believers is kept together by attraction to the Shepherd. "A fold is a circumference without a centre; a flock has a centre without a circumference" (H. P. Barker).
The local assembly is also referred to as "the flock". Paul says to the elders of the church at Ephesus, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God" Acts 20.28. Clearly the "flock" is "the church of God", the local assembly at Ephesus. Peter, who himself was exhorted by the Lord Jesus to "Feed My sheep" Jn.21.17, writes to fellow-elders, "Feed the flock of God which is among you" 1 Pet.5.2.
The New Jerusalem
The apostle John writes, "And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven" Rev.21.2. Thus the term "new Jerusalem" is used symbolically of the Church in its wider aspect; it is not to be confused with a restored Jerusalem on the Millennial earth. Twice in Revelation chapter 21 the holy city is seen coming down from God out of heaven (the third heaven untouched by the dissolution of the former things). The coming down of v.2 takes place 1000 years after the coming down of v.10. The latter is at the commencement of the Millennial age, but the former is in eternity. The term "city" is suggestive of the Lord’s administrative centre; in the midst of His glorified Church He will exercise universal government. This symbolism is not used of the local church.
One New Man
The enmity that existed between Jew and Gentile in a former day has now been abolished in Christianity. The result is that corporately in the Church there is no longer "the twain", Jew and Gentile, but a new creation in Christ, "for to make in Himself of twain one new man" Eph.2.15. Again this symbolism is not used of the local church.
Paul wrote that "we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones" Eph.5.30, and since no saint can be severed from "the church, which is His body", this underlines the indissoluble relationship of the believer with Christ! However, it is very different when we come to 1 Corinthians chapter 5 and see that it is possible for one to be put away from the local assembly for moral evil, "But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat … Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" vv.11,13. One propagating false doctrine would also come under the discipline of the assembly. Paul speaks of Hymenaeus and Alexander who were guilty of blaspheming, i.e. speaking contemptuously of God and His Word, and in the exercise of his apostolic authority Paul adds, "whom I have delivered unto Satan" 1 Tim.1.20. Thus discipline by a local assembly may necessitate excommunication, but nothing can sever a believer from the body of Christ.
Finally, "the church, which is His body" has eternal character. It will be brought into His immediate presence and presented to Him, glorified, "that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" Eph.5.27. The Church will be the nearest to Him as His body and the dearest to Him as His bride. However, it is clear that a local church can be removed in judgment. The Lord Jesus says through the angel of the church of Ephesus, "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" Rev.2.5. The solemn fact is that the possibility of the removal of the testimony is not for moral evil or for doctrinal error, but for leaving their first love.
It should be noted that the testimony of every local assembly will terminate when the Lord Himself returns for His own: there will be no local churches in heaven!