By Garreth L. Clair
In Matthew 16:13-19 we may read of the promise of Jesus to his disciples to build his church. There is no question, after reading these passages, that it was the intention of Jesus to build a church. The greatest problem to mankind today is to determine if he really did and, if he did, which one is it? One of the reasons many religious people today do not understand the church or what it is, is actually a failure to rightly divide/apply Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15). There are many people today who sing, talk, pray, and discuss the church, but they do not really understand it. Perhaps one way to determine what the church of Christ really is is to determine what it is not. In order to do that, we will, of necessity, have to compare the teaching of some to what the Bible says about the subject. Notice the following points:
1. The church of Christ is not a material building constructed of perishable materials such as brick, wood, etc. (Acts 7:48; 17:24). Fear may come upon the church (Acts 5:11); from this fact it is clear that the people are under consideration. The church has ears to hear (Acts 11: 22). Again, people are under consideration not a building. From these facts, we are forced to the conclusion that the church of Christ is not a building of anything material but is composed of people.
2. The church revealed in the Bible is not a continuation of the Jewish tabernacle, temple, or synagogue. It is not enough to simply dismiss these institutions with a movement of the hand, we must explain their existence and their purpose as well as their demise. Indeed, the Bible points out that in entering Judaism one simply was born into it, but into the Christian era (i.e, into the church of Christ) one must be born again (John 3:3-5). These facts help us to understand the three terms.
A. The tabernacle was a place of worship first used by the Israelites after they came out of Egyptian bondage. The tabernacle was to fill the needs of the Israelites and their worship until the permanent temple was erected (see a good concordance and search under tabernacle for further information).
B. The temple finally erected in Jerusalem by Solomon, David’s son, was a permanent place of worship for the Israelites who were to worship according to the dictates received from God on Mount Sinai (I Chron. 6: 10; etc.). The temple was, finally destroyed completely by Titus as was prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24 (see also Harpers Bible Dictionary, p. 735, seventh edition). As one may observe from the comments in Harpers, the Jewish worship came to an end at its destruction; therefore there was no continuation of the temple and the items in the temple that made the Jewish worship acceptable to God.
C. The Jewish synagogue has existed since the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C. (The Dictionary of Religious Terms by Donald Kauffman, pp. 405 column 2, 1967 Fleming H. Revell, Publishers).
All of these institutions were specifically utilized for Jewish worship which came into existence on Mount Sinai according to the book of Exodus. Since the law of Moses has been blotted out and nailed to the cross of Christ (Col. 2:14), it follows that the institutions utilized under that law are no longer useful to the man who would please God.
3. The church is not a purely social organization to be used for the betterment of society, or for social change, not even for social activities among its members. Although many good social actions follow the deeds of dedicated Christians who may make up the local ekkiesia in a given community, their primary function is spiritual. The social benefits are simply by-products of a spirit of Christ possessed by the membership. When the building where the church meets in a given community is misused for social functions, the nature of the church in its function and ownership is misunderstood.
4. The church is not a political organization any more than it is a social organization. Those who make up the local assembly in a given locality are encouraged to be good citizens in their community and in their country, but the purpose for the church’s existence is not to change the political status of a nation or of the world as such, but to change the life of the individuals who inhabit this globe (Matt. 28:18-20). From this, we know that the church is not a political institution at all.
5. The church is not a denomination as may be observed from the following facts:
A. Protestant denominationalism came into existence as a result of dissatisfaction with the existing Roman Catholic Church. Protestant denominationalism had its beginning with the rebellion of Martin Luther in Germany about 1520.
B. All Protestant denominations have come into existence since Martin Luther’s efforts at reformation began. Please notice the following origins and originators of certain denominations;
(1) Of course the Roman Catholic Church is the first false religious organization having come into existence about 606 A.D., Boniface III becoming the first “universal bishop.”
(2) In 1520, Martin Luther founded the Lutheran Church.
(3) In about 1534 Henry VIII founded the Church of England which became in America the Episcopalian Church.
(4) In 1536 John Calvin founded the Presbyterian Church.
(5) In 1550 Robert Browne founded the Congregational Church.
(6) In 1607 John Smythe founded the Baptist Church.
(7) In 1739 John Wesley founded the Methodist Church.
(8) About 1830 Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church.
(9) About 1830 William Miller founded the Adventists.
(10) About 1866 Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science.
(11) About 1872 Charles T. Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
(12) About 1907 a merger of several smaller groups formed the Nazarene Church.
We could go on and on with this list until we would have named literally hundreds of different religious bodies, yet not one of them is the church you may read about in the Bible. Why? Because the church of Christ is not a denomination; it was not founded by man and is the only church found in the Bible.
After establishing some facts relative to what the church is not, let us examine the Bible to determine what the Church is.
1. The church is a spiritual institution composed of saved people (Acts 2:37-47; 1 Cor. 10:17; Eph. 1:10; 4:4-5; Col. 3:11).
2. The church of Christ is an assembly (from the Greek words from which our English word church comes). The original word ekklesia (English dress), translated church occurs 23 times in Acts, 62 times in Paul’s letters, 2 times in Hebrews, once in James, 3 times in the third epistle of John, and 20 times in the book of Revelation. Jesus did not invent this word (ekklesia). He found the word in common use, as John the immerser proselyted and employed what was at hand.
Among the Greeks, ekklesia was the assembly of the citizens of a free city-state gathered by a herald blowing a horn through the streets. In this sense, the word is used one time in the New Testament (Acts 19:39). The town clerk advised Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen to submit their case to the Greek ekklesia.
Among the Jews, ekkiesia was the congregation of Israel assembled before the tabernacle in the wilderness by the blowing of a silver trumpet. In this sense the word is used 2 times in the New Testament (Acts 7:38; Heb. 2:12). Stephen, rehearsing the history of Israel, says, Christ was in the ekklesia in the wilderness. The Hebrew scribe quotes a prophetic Psalm of David where the sense is “congregation” (Psa. 22:20). Israel in the land of Canaan is never called an ekklesia, not even in the Septuagint.
Both with the Greeks And the Jews the word ecclesia denoted an assembly of the people, not a committee or a council and it never refers to a structure made with hands.
The word as it refers to Christians means either, a “local assembly” or the “universal church” (i.e. the body of Christ, the catholic church, etc.). As we look to the teaching of the Bible in this regard we may see how the words are used and translated in their contexts. Notice the following:
A. In the following passages the word is used to describe a local assembly (i.e. congregation): Acts 5:11; 8:1,3; 9:31; 15:22; 20:28; Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; 4:17, etc.
B. In the following passages reference is generally applied to the universal church: Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; 3:10,21; 5:23,24,25,27,29; Col. 1: 18,24; 1 Tim. 3:15, etc.
Since this is the only way the Greek term ecclesia is used, it behooves us to avoid misusing the term to apply it to buildings, schools, homes, etc. The church of Christ is a building not made with hands, a building composed of saved people. When we fail to appreciate these features of the church we simply are failing to appreciate the relationship which we sustain to Christ who has purchased it with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
3. In the third place the church of Christ is an institution that Christ, its founder, adds the saved to (Acts 2:47). That being true, only the truly saved belong to it. In its local sense anyone may palm themselves off as a member, but in the universal sense only the saved belong to it. This difference is understood when we have properly understood the differences between the church in its local sense and the church in its universal sense.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 1, pp. 10-11
January 7, 1988