By Ron Halbrook
The word of God is composed of both milk and meat (Heb. 5:12-14). The Bible includes both simple principles and “some things hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3:16). At best, we all have challenges to overcome in studying God’s word. We need to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). Just as inspired men were gifted to “speak as the oracles of God” and were to speak only God’s word, so we are to “speak the things which become sound doctrine” and nothing else (1 Pet. 4:11; Tit. 2:1; Rev. 22:18-19). As we immerse ourselves in the Bible and Bible language, we equip ourselves to “call Bible things by Bible names.” The more we understand about God’s word, the purer our speech should become.
Some individuals have the knack of creating needless confusion. They think they are teaching the brethren a pure speech at times when they are only making pointless distinctions. Some seem to pride themselves in discovering supposed gross inconsistencies in language commonly used by brethren. Perfectly good synonyms in the English language are labeled “the language of Ashdod,” and speaking a Bible language has been made by some to mean speaking the King James English of 1611. Speaking Bible language and calling Bible things by Bible names does not mean freezing James’ English for ever more, amen! We speak as the Bible speaks when we teach exactly what it teaches-and that does not necessarily mean constant rote recitation of a Bible verse in King James English.
Some think they have discovered earthshaking distinctions by moving, removing, or otherwise rearranging commas, question marks, periods, colons, and other punctuation marks. Occasionally, an observation on some punctuation mark can bring a point into clearer focus; but here again, some brethren seem to pride themselves in juggling the punctuation marks to discover some great truth overlooked by others (and amazingly missed by the translators and grammarians who have spent a lifetime studying such matters!). Doubt and confusion is thus created regarding commonly accepted and sound use of scripture.
We do not mean to question the sincerity of all brethren who may feel safer using one verse than another to teach some Bible truth, or who may raise points for study. We recognize that some even hold personal opinions on some such matters, but they have the good sense to recognize them for nothing more than that-personal opinions. But some are creating needless confusion over such matters. Brethren, there are enough difficulties, challenges, and problems at best. It would be well to use extreme caution, common sense, and patience in further examination before blurting out some “new-found discovery overlooked by most of the brethren.”
Ever so often we are treated to an “appeal for Bible language” by an elimination of the expression “members of the church.” The ignorance of this appeal has probably been exposed a thousand times through the years, but every so often some bright new “scholar” does an “in-depth” study and “discovers” it all over again. It is currently circulating in several places again, so we shall look at it again.
What Is the Church?
The word “church” as used in New Testament times was not just a religious word or used only in a religious context. It meant any “called-out” group. In the Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine points out church “was used among the Greeks of a body of citizens gathered to discuss the affairs of State, Acts 19:39” and even of “a riotous mob” (Acts 19:32,41). The word was applied to “companies of Christians,” either “the whole company of the redeemed throughout the present era” (Matt. 16:18) or “a company consisting of professed believers” as in a given locality (1 Cor. 1:2). Joseph H. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament says “the Greeks” used the term church of various gatherings of people, then “the Israelites” used it of their various assemblies; the word could be used of “any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance” for whatever purpose; because the word basically meant any “gathering” or “assembly” of people, it was properly used of “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship” or “a company of Christians.” The original word is ekklesia.
What are some English words used today which represent the idea found in the Greek word ekklesia. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary reports there is an English word church which is currently used of “a body or organization of religious believers” or “congregation.” Ekklesia is a body or congregation of believers, so “church” is a good translation for today. Searching for synonyms, we find company would fit well because it means an “association” or “fellowship,” “a group of persons.” Assembly will also work, since it means “a company of persons gathered for deliberation, and legislation, worship, or entertainment.” Obviously, many different kinds of groups can be called an assembly and obviously a group of God’s people gathered for worship can be called an assembly.
Some translators have suggested community, which will also convey the idea of ekklesia. A community is “a unified body of individuals,” “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest,” “a group linked together by common policy,” “joint ownership or participation,” “fellowship.” Congregation is sometimes used, and correctly so; it is “an assembly of persons: gathering.” The common, humble word group works very well, meaning “a number of individuals assembled together or having common interests.” The ekklesia is certainly a number of individuals with common interests.
But what is a member? Webster reports it is, “one of the individuals composing a group,” “a constituent part of a whole.” One of the individuals composing the ekklesia is a member of the ekklesia! If the ekklesia is a group, one of its individuals is a member! Since a congregation is “an assembly of persons,” then any one person is “a constituent part of (the) whole”-a member. A community is “a unified body of individuals” and a member is “one of the individuals;” a community has members. An assembly is “a company of persons” and any one person of the whole is a member. A company is “a group” and “a group” has members. A “church” is a body or group or congregation, and any “one of the individuals” composing it is a member-“a constituent part of a whole.” If it is proper to translate ekklesia “church” (or “company,” “assembly,” “community,” “congregation,” “group”)and it is – then it is proper to speak of members of the church.
When the Holy Spirit chose ekklesia, he chose a word which designates a whole or a group. Every whole or group has parts or members, so it is necessarily implied that the ekklesia has parts or members. Yet one cannot find in the Bible the expression “parts of the whole,” “parts of the church,” “members of the whole,” or “members of the church.” The concept of members of the church is revealed through the very word ekklesia. A rose is a rose by any other name-the church has members regardless of how one may choose to express it. Brethren are at liberty to use a synonym for “member” if they wish, but not a liberty to create needless confusion over the matter.
Sometimes brethren object to the expression “bloodbought institution” to describe the church. “The church is not an institution or organization-such terms are not found in the Bible-they are `the language of Ashdod!’ ” Brethren will labor long and hard on such points as though their speech were more sound than others’, then demonstrate their own absurdity by calling the church “an aggregate.” As a brother who witnessed one of these performances said one time, “Since that term was not in the Bible either, I had to go home and look it up in the dictionary!” Some who urge the use of “collective” to the exclusion of other terms apparently have not noticed that it is also in the dictionary but not in the Bible.
A collective is “a number of persons or things considered as one group or whole,” “a collective body: group,” “a cooperative unit or organization.” That describes the church all right, but so does “institution.” Any “significant practice, relationship, or organization,” any “established society” is an institution. Taking another source along with Webster, we learn an institution is “that which is instituted or established,” as under certain principles and laws.
The church is an “organization” because it has “the condition . . . of being organized,” it is an “association, society. ” To “organize” is “to arrange or form into a coherent unity or functioning whole,” “to arrange by systematic planning and united effort.” Yes, the church ,has the condition. of being organized and is therefore an organization. “Aggregate” is also a proper term; it means anything “formed by the collection of units or particles into a body, mass, or amount: COLLECTIVE.” (Notice that “aggregation” is “a group, body, or mass composed of many distinct parts: ASSEMBLAGE”-it has parts or members!)
The charge is made that when we call the church an institution or organization, we are evidencing the denominational idea of institutionalism. We are told we should do everything possible to get people’s minds away from institutionalism, therefore we should drop the use of “institution.” But there is a difference between institution al-ISM and the church being an institution.
“ISM” frequently denotes “abnormal state or condition resulting from excess of a (specified) thing.” Accordingly, the definition of institutionalism is “emphasis on organization (as in religion) at the expense of other factors.” The “ism” carries the significance of undue emphasis, out-of-balance, abuse. The scheme of redemption revealed in the Gospel Age is rational, emotional, and legal in various aspects; it also involves an institution-bought by the blood of Christ, extablished and organized under the direction of Christ, headed by Christ, belonging to him. But the scheme of redemption is not characterized by rationalism, emotionalism, legalism, or institutionalism.
The way to correct the abuse of the gospel by the religious world is not by dropping perfectly good terms and throwing away all helpful synonyms, but by showing what the Bible teaches on each matter in plainness and simplicity. The same is true of terms like grace, faith, love, etc. (To be continued.)
Truth Magazine XXI: 3, pp. 40-41
January 20, 1977