What Is The Church?
As Jesus traveled. through the coasts of Caesarea Philippi., He announced to the disciples generally; and to Peter particularly, plans for the establishment of His church. "And I. say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will -build my church; and the gates of hell shall rot prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). This is the first of many times that we read of the church in the New Testament. Luke provides us with ample evidence of the implementation of this purpose to build His church. Paul had much to say about the blood-bought body of Christ. "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it" (Eph. 5:25). Anything important enough for the Son of God to give up the glories of heaven and to die on the cross in order to bring into existence, ought to be important enough to hold the attention of each of us.
What was this church which the Lord was promising to build? What are we talking about when we use the word? Do we mean the same thing that Jesus meant when He used the word? We need to be informed of the meaning of this word, but evidence is to be seen on every hand that people are uninformed or misinformed concerning the nature of the church. Thus, we want to present information pertaining to the meaning of the word "church" and to consider the various usages of the word in modern society.
The Word Church and Its Usage
The word "church is an English word, but it is used to translate the Greek word ekklesia. The Greek word simply means to "call out" or to "summon forth." According to the Englishman's Greek Concordance, the word ekklesia is used 115 times in the New Testament. It is derived from the Greek preposition ek meaning "out" or "out from", plus the Greek verb kaleo which means "to call" or "to summon." Therefore, Thayer's Greek Lexicon says that the term means "the called out." Thayer also says that the word means "a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place: an assembly" (pp. 195-196). Thus, it is used in both a secular and a religious sense. Trench points out that the word was used to describe "the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs" (Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, pp. 1, 2). In this sense; it has no religious significance at all. It might refer to an unlawful assembly as well as to a lawful one, or to a political rally as well as to a riot. Such an assembly is described in Acts 19. This passage records a scene in the city of Ephesus. A man named Demetrius stirred up a mob against Paul because his business of making silver shrines was being jeopardized by Maul's preaching. The town clerk, trying to calm the angry, mob, stated that if any of these men had a matter against Paul and his fellow-workers, they should take it up in the proper "lawful assembly" (v. 39). The statement of the town clerk implied that the mob assembly was not a lawful one. The word used to describe this mob is ekklesia. This is the same word that, elsewhere in the New Testament, is translated "church." There are at least three times in the New Testament where ekklesia is used to refer to an assembly that was not religious in character. In each instance the translators used the word "assembly" (Acts 19:32, 39, 41; also 7:38).
The word ekklesia was used by the Lord to refer to those who have been called out of one relationship into another. This expression "the called out," designates the relationship of "people" to the world and to God: they are called out of the world into the fellowship of His Son. Jesus said, "If ye were of the world the world would love its own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you" (John 15:19). R.L. Whiteside made the following observation: "Christ's followers form a class to themselves, differing from everything else. They are in the world, but not of the world. They must keep themselves unspotted from the world (James 1:27). `Be ye separate.' They have been translated out of darkness into the kingdom of Christ and those in the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). There are two classes in the world, viz., those in the kingdom of Christ and those in the kingdom of darkness, the saved and the unsaved. Everyone who has obeyed the Savior's invitation to come to him has crossed the line that separates the kingdom of darkness from the kingdom of light. He has been called out of darkness into light, and is therefore one of the `called out.' He is therefore a part, a member, of the church, the ekklesia" (Doctrinal Discourses, p. 9).
The English word "church" is also of Greek derivation, with its root meaning going back to the word kuriakos, meaning "of, or belonging to the Lord." This word is used twice in the New Testament: in reference to the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:20) and in connection with the Lord's day (Rev. 1:10). In each instance, the meaning is that the "Supper" and the "Day," in a special sense, belong to the Lord.
Keeping these definitions in mind, we should be able to understand what the church really is. It is "God's called out"; it is an assembly of those who in a very special sense "belong to the Lord." The church is "people" called by the gospel for the purpose of glorifying God (1 Peter 2:9; 2 Thess. 2:14).
The Church General and Particular (Universal and Local)
Sometimes the church is spoken of in the New Testament in general terms without reference to a particular location (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22, 23; etc). In such passages, the reference is to the saints, disciples, or people of God in general. When a person obeys the gospel of Christ, the Lord adds that person to His church (Acts 2:47). In this sense, it includes all the saved of all the earth. It has no earthly organization. It has no earthly structure or arrangement by which it can function. There is absolutely no legislative body or governing council with earthly headquarters. Christ is the only head of His church (Eph. 5:23). There are a number of terms that are used in reference to the "universal church." If we are thinking of the governmental aspect, it is the "kingdom," with Christ as its king. If we are thinking of the family feature, it is the "house of God." If we are thinking of the worship feature, it is the "temple of God"; if we are speaking of the unity feature, it is the "body of Christ"; if we are referring to the work feature, it is the "vineyard of God."
Not only do we use the word "church" in the universal sense, but we also use the word in a local or congregational sense. Thus we find reference to "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2). Paul referred to the ". . . saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi" (Phil. 1:1). The local church is a material, earthly "gathering together." It is people working together, engaging in specific activities and with functions assigned to them - functions which are not assigned to the church universal.
When this distinction is not recognized, the result will inevitably be apostasy. This was the fatal error which led to the development of Roman Catholicism. They sought to make the church universal into a functional unit, in precisely the same sense as the local church is a functioning body. The results are evident. This tragic mistake has been made over and over. Protestant bodies have sought to activate the church universal through their councils and synods; others among those sympathetic to the restoration plea have sought to activate the universal church through missionary societies and brotherhood elderships. Thus, history continues to repeat itself.
How The Word "Church" Is Misused
Because people have lost sight of what the church is, many false concepts have arisen. To many people, the word "church" simply means the building, a house made of brick and mortar. The building is not the church; it is simply a place where the church meets. Christ did not die for a building but for people. I received a notice in the mail the other day stating information concerning a church that was for sale. Obviously, the word "church" was being used in an unscriptural way. I realize, of course, that by a figure of speech known as metonymy the word "church" may be used to designate the building; but literally and scripturally, it is something far different.
There are others who use the word "church" to refer to human denominations, such as "the Baptist Church" or "the Methodist Church." The Bible, however, does not use the word in this way. These references are to religious bodies which, if part of the church at all, would be smaller than the church universal but larger than the church in the local sense. The word "church" is simply not used with reference to a human denomination. The word "denomination" is defined as "a class distinction; name; epithet; appellation." As the word is used in the religious world, it refers to making distinctions among people in regard to religious matters. It is a word that is synonymous with division. This is exactly what Paul condemned in Corinth. Some were saying, "I am of Paul; and I am of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; lest any should say that I have baptized in mine own name" (1 Cor. 1:12-15).
The Catholic church teaches that the church is a "law-making" organization. Catholics teach that God did not intend that the Bible alone should be a guide to salvation. They ignore the fact that this was the claim being made by the inspired apostles in such passages as 2 Tim. 3:16, 17 and 2 Pet. 1:3. To show that I am not misrepresenting the Catholic position, let me quote from one of their catechisms. Under the heading, "The Church," Question no. 1, "Did God intend that the Bible alone should be the guide to salvation? No, because certain things in the Bible can be misunderstood, and because the Bible does not have everything God taught" (A Catechism For Adults, by W.J. Cogan, p. 51). The proof texts given to support this position are 2 Pet. 1:20 and 2 Pet. 3:16. Even a casual glance at these verses, shows that they have been perverted. Peter was saying in 2 Pet. 1:20 that Scripture did not originate with man, but rather, with God. The context is talking about the origin of revelation, not forbidding man from drawing conclusions in regard to scripture. The Catholic Church would have us believe that only the "infallible church" through the "infallible pope" can interpret the Scriptures. Those who draw such conclusions would do well to read again 2 Pet. 2:16 as it relates to distorting the Scriptures.
Again, from the Catechism, Question no. 2: "What did Jesus do to make sure that His teaching would never be misunderstood? He established a church (1 Tim. 3:16)" (Ibid., p. 51). Here again, they have perverted the Scriptures. The passage says that the church is "the pillar and ground of truth," but that is a far cry from saying that the church is the Lord's agent to infallibly interpret Scripture. If this was the case, the church has done a poor job because there have only been approximately eight passages of Scripture "infallibly" interpreted by the Catholic Church, but she has been busy making and binding many man-made laws. This sinful action is predicated upon a faulty concept of the Lord's church.
The Premillennialist would have us believe that the church is an afterthought in the mind of God. The teaching is that Jesus came to the earth to set up an earthly kingdom, but because He was rejected by the Jews, He postponed the establishment of His kingdom and substituted the church in its place. What does this concept do to the church? It relegates it to a position of virtual insignificance. The Bible, however, teaches that the church was a part of God's eternal plan (Eph. 3:10, l1). Obviously, the theory of Premillennialism cannot be true if Jesus has already established His kingdom. The Hebrew writer states that we have received a kingdom (Heb. 12:28); Paul said that people were being translated into the kingdom during his lifetime (Col. 1:13). Jesus said that it would be established during the lifetime of some of those who were standing there listening to Him (Mk. 9:1).
There are some who think of the church as nothing more than a "sanctified social club." If one has lost faith in the Bible as the word of God, then it logically follows that he will have little interest in the statement of Paul in 1 Tim. 3:15 concerning the church being the "pillar and ground of truth." Therefore, many have sought to transform the church into an institution with no loftier purpose than to provide for the physical and carnal wishes of her members. That is why we hear so much about church ball teams, church exercise classes, church day-care centers, etc. Obviously, many are struggling to find some meaningful reason for the church to exist. They have simply forgotten that the church consists of people who are called out of the world into a new relationship with Christ and who band together in local congregations with a specific function to perform, spreading the gospel of Christ to a lost and dying world.
From the beginning of time, God planned and purposed a spiritual body for man's development and preparation for an eternal home. Jesus died on the cross to bring this church into existence. That one church still exists as long as people respond to the call of the gospel and submit to the sovereignty of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Your salvation, your relationship to Christ, your eternal hope depends upon your being faithful as a member of that church.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 1, pp. 2-5