In enquiring of the Scriptures what they have to teach us concerning the subject of the Church, it will, first of all, be necessary to examine the meaning of the word, for the word is a very ambiguous term in Christendom today.
Let us listen to four different answers to the question; what is the Church?
1. “I belong to the Roman Catholic Church,” cries one; he sees it as a system.
2. “I live near my church,” says a second; he sees it as a building.
3. “Yesterday I attended church in a schoolhouse,” intimates a third; he sees it as a service.
4. “I am a member of the Lutheran Church,” delares a fourth; he sees it as a denomination.
Do any of these definitions agree with the Word of God? We shall see. Dictionary-wise, all four definitions are acceptable.
Two original words will be found in an up-to-date lexicon. For the sake of simplicity we will call them ekklesia and cirice. The former is found in the New Testament, but the latter, which is Anglo-Saxon (better known as the German kirchie, from a late Greek word, meaning “The Lord’s House”), is never used in Scripture to denote the Church.
The King James Bible, called at times The Authorized Version, invariably renders ekklesia “Church,” except in three interesting instances in Acts 19. There the word is used of the guild of silver craftsmen, and is called “assembly” (Vv. 32, 39, 41). These men were called together by their leader Demetrius, and, although called unlawfully at first, they constituted an ekklesia (an assembly), since the word is composed of two words, ek (out) and kaleo (to call). They formed an assembly of silversmiths, so, considered etymologically, the word has no mystic meaning.
In another instance (Acts 7:38) the word is used of Israel. Stephen recounts the history of his people, and calls them “The Church in the Wilderness.” God had called-out the nation from among all the other nations, so, once again, we have clearly demonstrated what the word ekklesia means.
When the town clerk of Ephesus admonished Demetrius for the unlawful assembling that day, he protested that the apostles, against whom the silversmiths had their grievance, were not “robbers of churches;” here the word is hieron, meaning a temple.
So much for the meaning of the word; now let us consider the subject.
There are many terms in the New Testament used to describe the Church, “The Church of God,” “The Church of Ephesus,” “My Church,” etc.; but, since it is not our intention so much in this article to cover details as it is to get a sane and Scriptural understanding of what the Church is, we shall not examine these different titles. Suffice it to say that the Church we are considering is composed of all true believers in the Lord Jesus since Pentecost; it is His Church.
We learn from the words of the Saviour, “I will build My Church,” that the Church is future to the days in which He uttered them. An examination of the following Scriptures reveals it is definitely a New Testament creation, and is not seen until Pentecost.
Ephesians 3:1-10: Here we learn that Jews and Gentiles, united in Christ, compose the Church, and are called the “same body.” Furthermore, since the Church is described by Paul as a “Mystery” (a secret) we appreciate his saying that it was “hidden in other ages.” The Church was always in the eternal purposes of God, but it is not until the times of the New Testament that she is brought into existence. Previous to Pentecost Israel was His peculiar treasure; now, in this day, and until that day when He deals with Israel again as a nation, both Jews and Gentiles are seen in this wonderful new creation, the Church.
1 Corinthians 12:13: From this passage we learn that it was on the Day of Pentecost that all believers were baptized in one Spirit into the one body; it was an event complete in itself, as the verb “are … baptized” (the aroist tense) indicates. Participation in the body is contingent upon this baptism; so there could be no “Church which is His body” until the Holy Spirit had been given.
1 Corinthians 12:28: The Apostle here sets in order God’s gifts to the Church. Let us note that order, “First apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers,” etc. The “prophets” here must not be confused with the prophets of the Old Testament, for had the Church existed in Old Testament times, then of necessity, the prophets would have taken precedence over the apostles and would have been mentioned first. Consider the clear statement of Eph. 2:20.
Broadly speaking, there are two aspects of the Church, the Catholic and the local. (It should be plainly understood that no single group of professing Christians should dare to assume that they are “The Catholic Church.” The term relates alone to the universal body of believers.) When the Apostle says, “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it” (Eph. 5:25), we know that the whole Church is in view. When he wrote, “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2), we know he specifically had in mind a part of the whole. However, so homogeneous is the whole that one does not feel the word “part” should be stressed; for that which characterizes the entire Church should be seen in that which professes to represent it as the whole. One might think of homogenized milk in which a spoonful contains the constituent parts of the whole.
In the early days of the Church’s history this peculiar homogeneousness was clearly manifest. If we, as a group of believers today, desire that this might also be manifested among us then let us have three earmarks of every New Testament local church.
Gathered Alone to the Name of the Lord Jesus - (Matt. 18:20. 1 Cor. 1:2)
No name, no matter how honoured that name may be, must be attached to the people of God, either directly or by inference. Paul frowns upon the nomenclature common in Christendom today, with his rebuke to the church at Corinth, “Now this I say that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ” (Chap. 1:12). With withering scorn he asks, “Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (V. 13). How carnal and childish did he make them seem as he wrote, “Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul or Apollos, or Cephas; … all are yours; and ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (Chap. 3:2123).
He censures all parties, even those who proudly say, “I of Christ.” It was true that they were “of Christ,” but that was ground common to all of God’s beloved people. No distinguishing name should be assumed that does not belong to every true child of God.
Let there be no center-famed Bible expositor, particular truth, spiritual zeal, or form of church government appear as the center of the Church, no one but Christ should hold that place. In glory we all shall be one for the simple reason that there He will have His true place “in the midst.” Given that place in the gatherings of His people now, and we have the only effective antidote to the divisions in the Church.
Controlled Alone by the Holy Spirit - (1 Cor. 12:7-11)
The Holy Spirit is the true “Vicar of Christ” on earth. The Lord Jesus sent Him into the world to guard His interests among His own; and, receiving recognition, He will guide them into all truth.
A careful reading of the Book of the Acts (The Acts of the Holy Spirit) will reveal that the churches in the early days were spiritually impotent apart from the operation of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Times have changed and innovations have crept in, but let us be perfectly clear on this truism, There is no substitute for the Holy Spirit’s energy. A church may have organization, money, talent, etc., but if its confidence rests in anything short of Him, it builds upon sand. Let, then, every local group of believers demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is the Divine Controller of the Catholic Church.
Regulated Alone by the Word of God - (2 Tim. 3:16-17. 1 Cor. 11:23; 14:36-37)
The New Testament Church is called “The temple of God” (1 Cor. 3:16); it is the place of His dwelling. In the structures of the Old Testament, the Tabernacle and the Temple, we see literal buildings raised according to Divine plans. It cannot be otherwise in the spiritual building of the New Testament. Paul says, “As a wise masterbuilder I have laid the foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10). Here the word carries the thought of a person building with a plan in his hand. The place in which a local church meets may be built to any man’s specifications, but the order, function, and government of the saints meeting there must be “according to the pattern” given in the Word of God. Creeds may be adopted, and “articles of faith” be subscribed, but where they run counter to the plainly revealed Word of God they must be rejected.