By Earl Kimbrough
Each generation of Christians sees the rise of teachers in the church similar to those whom Paul describes as men of “profane and vain babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20). Professing superior enlightenment and virtue, they lead astray unwary disciples of the Lord with pretentious discussions and erroneous doctrines that contradict the teaching of Christ. A blight of this kind is now infecting some faithful congregations with discord and rebellion through an attractive bi-monthly journal called The Examiner, published by Truth and Freedom Ministry, Inc., of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and edited by Charles A. Holt.
The Examiner is filled with teaching that will disrupt any church where it takes root. Among other things, it claims the churches of Christ are a denomination, denies authority for a church treasury, and views gospel preachers as hirelings. However, its predominant perversions center in the nature of the church, the role of elders, and church membership. In regard to the local church, it teaches that there is no such thing as “the local church,” that the word church (ekkIesia) has no geographic Imitation, that “the local church” is not a functioning unit, and that there can be only one congregation in a city. Look at some of the editor’s assertions.
The Church Local And Universal
“The New Testament never speaks of either ‘the local church’ or ‘the universal church.’ It does speak often of ‘the church’ and that term means the same thing in every instance. It always refers to disciples, saints, believers, God’s people . . . It refers to God’s people, as an assembly or congregation of people under God and Christ” (The Examiner, Vol. 1, p. 25).
The fact that the words local and universal are not found in the New Testament in reference to the church does not mean the ideas are absent. Universal means “of, for, effecting, or including all or the whole of something; not limited or restricted” (New World Dictionary). When Jesus said, “. . on this rock I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18), He included all it embraces, the whole church. In other words, He spoke of the church universally (cf. Eph. 1:22,23). Local means “relating to place, of, characteristic of, or confined to a particular place or district” (NWD). “The church of God at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2) refers to the church that was “of, characteristic of, or confined to” Corinth. When Paul spoke of the church in that city, he spoke of the church in its local sense (cf. Acts 13:1).
Of course, the root meaning of “church” remains the same, but the word is not always used the same way. Basically it denotes “that which is called out,” or a “body of people.” But how is it used?. The Septuagint uses it to translate the Hebrew word quhal, “which . . . comes from a root which means ‘to summon… (William Barclay, New Testament Words). “In the Sept. it is used to designate the gathering of Israel, summoned for any definite purpose” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary). “The Greeks used it to describe a body of citizens gathered to discuss the affairs of state, Acts 19:39” (Ibid.). Stephen applied it to Israel in the wilderness (Acts 7:38) and Luke to a mob at Ephesus (Acts 19:32,41).
Even in reference to Christians, the word is not always used the same way. “It has two applications to companies of Christians, (a) to the whole company of the redeemed through the present era, the company of which Christ said, “I will build My Church”. . . (b) in the singular number, to a company consisting of professed believers, e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:2 . . . and in the plural, with reference to churches in a district” (Vine). So it is proper to speak of the universal church, the whole company of the redeemed, and of the local church, the company of the redeemed at a given place. “Universal” and “local” convey precisely what the New Testament teaches about the church.
No Geographic Limitations
“The word ‘church’ (ecclesia) has no inherent restrictions or limitations relative to geography or place. It refers to the same people, all of them, that Jesus spoke of when He promised, ‘Upon this rock I will build My church’ (Matt. 16:18). The meaning is upon this rock I will build, establish, My people” (The Examiner, Vol. 1, p. 25).
“Inherent” signifies the basic nature of a thing, that which is its “natural and inseparable quality” (NWD). The “inherent” meaning of “church” is “a body of people.” This idea belongs to the word regardless of how it is used. But when a noun is modified by a limiting word or phrase, the limitation is not nullified by the fact that the noun itself has no inherent limitation. The purpose of an adjective or an adjective phrase is “to limit or qualify a noun” (NWD). Paul limits the use of “church” in 1 Corinthians 1:2. “Of God” and “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus” limit the word to Christians. It shows that he is not talking about Israel in the wilderness or a mob at Ephesus. “At Corinth” further limits the word to the saints in that place. It shows that he is not talking about the whole company of the redeemed, nor the church in Jerusalem. The word “church” is limited or qualified by the context of every passage where it refers to a congregation, such as “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess. 1:1).
But in trying to wedge Christ’s promise into the idea that the word church always means “the same people, all of them, that Jesus spoke of” in Matthew 16:18, The Examiner says Jesus meant “upon this rock I will build, establish, My people.” If this had been what the Lord meant, He most likely would have used laos instead of ekkiesia. When God spoke of Christians as people, He used the former word: “I will call them My people flaos), who were not My people” (Rom. 9:25). The word church does not mean people as such, but it carries the idea of “a body or company of people.”
Attempting to explain away phrases that limit the church geographically, The Examiner says, “the church in Jerusalem . . . simply means that portion of God’s people in Jerusalem and its environs” (Vol. 1, p. 26). But Luke does not say “God’s people in Jerusalem. ” He says, God’s “church in Jerusalem” (Acts 11:22). In using the word church, both Christ and Luke speak of a body or company of Christians: Christ, the whole company, and Luke, a local company. Calling a local church a “portion of God’s people” does not help because a portion of anything is not all of it. Luke does not use “church” to signify “the same people, all of them” that Christ spoke of in Matthew 16:18. He refers only to “the church in Jerusalem.”
No Local Church Organization “The local ecclesia of Christ has reference to nothing more than disciples or saints … and there is no requirement (pattern) from God that they form or constitute themselves into – an organic institutional body corporate or functional unit for doing any work ordained by God” (The Examiner, Vol. 1, p. 25).
Philippians is addressed, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). This shows that there is more to the local church than saints or disciples. The saints at Philippi were a body or company of disciples, a church (Phil. 4:15), organized with “bishops and deacons. ” Paul also makes this an example for all churches, saying, “The things which you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9; 1 Cor. 4:17). Here is apostolic authority (requirement) for the local church, a company of saints overseen by bishops and served by deacons. This is all we contend for by way of organization (cf. 1 Pet. 4:11).
Calling the local church “an organic institutional body corporate or functional unit” does not comport with language commonly used by our brethren, but properly defined, the terms could be correctly applied to the church. However, their use in The Examiner is apparently designed to make “the local church” (“the saints . . . with the bishops and deacons”) seem like something more than that. It labors to define the terms in such a way as to make “the local church” mean an organization separate from its members. It is not, and faithful brethren do not teach that it is. But when men set out to teach false doctrine, they nearly always employ terms that lend themselves to confusion, manipulation, and, where necessary, backtracking.
Only One Church in Each City
“In every place where the word ‘church’ (ecclesia) is used in connection with a city, it is always singular . . . . Let this fact register in your mind. It is a vital point …. God’s people were not divided into independent, autonomous, functional and operational units, such as we have in the ‘local church,’ body corporate today” (The Examiner, Vol. 1, p. 27,28).
The fact that there may have been only one church in a city does not limit a city to one. There was only one congregation in the whole world at one time. The Examiner offers no scriptural basis for its plan of one church per city, except for a gross distortion of 1 Corinthians 1:10- 13. The editor thinks Paul condemns the saints at Corinth for being divided into four different congregations (such as the Northside church and the Eastside church). Even a cursory reading of the text should make it clear that the division at Corinth was within that one church.
While the editor says this is a “vital point,” he admits a touch of scepticism. His says: “This matter requires a lot of careful study. I am not sure that I fully understand (it). ” Some who read his contradictory comments on the church might wonder if he partially understands it. The New Testament places no restriction whatever on the distance between churches and this is the issue that must be addressed here. His doctrine of only one church in a city subjects the church to arbitrary boundaries set by the caprice of civil authorities. Such a limitation would leave room for only one church in New York City.
David Lipscomb asks a question The Examiner should answer: “Why should there be limitation to the number of churches in a city, but none in a country or state?” (Questions Answered, p. 127) There was a church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2) and also a church about five miles down the road in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1), Corinth’s port on the Saronic Gulf. Laodicea, Colossae, and Hierapolis were closer than churches in some of our cities. Romans 16 indicates more than one church in Rome. So having several churches in a metropolitan area accords with the New Testament.
The Examiner’s peculiar ideas about the local church are untrue. They are also apparently impractical. After a score of years in which its editor has been teaching and honing his theories, neither he nor his followers can point to a single congregation that conforms to them. If so where is it? Trot it out and let us have a look at a non-church “portion of God’s people” in operation. The failure here is not surprising for The Examiner’s teaching is not calculated to build churches. The editor says he cannot find anything in the Bible about “starting a church,’ ‘building up a church,’ or ‘growing a church.”‘ Maybe he can’t, but if he looked closely enough I’m sure he would find something about teaching false doctrine and sowing discord among brethren.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 20, pp. 609, 630-631
October 16, 1986