Jesus Christ explains how He relates to the churches
of Christendom in the book of Revelation.
If you love music then you know that ebony and ivory belong together. Why, they even live together in perfect harmony, side by side on the piano keyboard of Sir Paul McCartney.
Ebony and ivory are like a lot of things that go together, like chocolate and peanut butter. Like pizza and pepperoni.
Even more, some things belong together and should never be separated. Like Jesus and churches.
We find Him together with churches in the last book of the Bible. More than anywhere else in Scripture, the book of Revelation is about Jesus and churches. It’s not like any other place in Holy Writ. In Revelation Jesus isn’t together with individuals, but with churches. All of them.
He and churches belong together. After His apostle Paul, no one uses the word “church” more than Jesus Christ in the New Testament. He rules, they submit.
Or at least, that’s how the song is supposed to go. Twenty percent of all the instances of the “ecclesia” in the Bible are found in Revelation, all spoken directly from the risen Jesus Christ. And yet, most churches He spoke to did not submit to Him and so, according to His own words, the professing Christians in them were bound for eternal judgment – unless they repented. Just like today.
Now, we usually think of the book of Revelation as teaching the end of all things. But more than any other book in the Bible, Revelation is about the risen Christ and churches. His declarations in it tell us how He relates to churches through the present age.
Therefore, the book of Revelation does a lot more than teach us the end of all things. It teaches us three unchanging truths about ecclesiology directly from the Risen Christ:
- Christ Only Speaks to Individual Churches
- Christ is Not a Baptist
- Christ Passes over Schismatics
If you wish to scroll down, each of these is a separate header.
An Analogy: Marriage and Divorce
But first, a quick analogy, that of husband and wife.
As you may know, a wife who defines her relationship to her husband only by her emotional love for him is vulnerable. If he fails her, or if the relationship suffers great stress, she may well lose her love for him and end up schisming the marriage with a divorce.
To make her and her marriage strong she needs to learn God’s design for marriage. Or to put it another way, she needs to understand the institution of marriage as taught by the Lord. When she learns His definitions of wife and husband, she is greatly helped if and when her husband fails her. The better she understands the institution of marriage, the better armed she is against marital schism – divorce.
So too Christians, not understanding the institution of the church, often schism when they emotionally fall out of love with each other. And like a divorce, the result is typically great agony and pain.
If only they had understood the doctrine of the church as taught by Jesus Christ Himself in Revelation 1-3, they would not have schismed. Indeed, they could not have.
Like a wife learns to love her husband biblically by knowing God’s design for marriage, Christians learn to love each other by knowing God’s design for the church. But such learning will likely involve repentance.
Can a whole church repent? Well, Jesus commanded repentance from five of the seven churches He addressed, so yes. We should hope so, at least, for those that don’t repent face Him in judgment.Ephesus (Rev. 2:5); Pergamum (Rev. 2:16); Thyatira (Rev. 2:21); Sardis (Rev. 3:3); and Laodicea (Rev. 3:19).
The seven churches of Revelation have been thought to represent a timeline of church history, with Laodicea, the seventh, representing the state of “the church” just before Jesus comes back. The problem with this line of thinking is that the there is nothing in Jesus’ words to imply He is giving a timeline.
This subjectivity of the interpretation is its undoing, for everybody who has taught this idea always puts the last church, Laodicea, in the era in which they are living. In contrast, each letter is addressed to one and only one very real geographic church that existed in a real time. None of the letters are addressed to a church age. Thus, it’s better to just read each church’s letter the way Jesus addressed them instead of imposing an overarching idea upon it that is never discussed in the text itself.
I also take Revelation’s author to be the Apostle John at the end of the 1st Century, the writer of the gospel and 3 letters that bear his name in the NT. I also believe the entire book has application to our lives right now even though parts of the book refer to the future. After describing the eternal state, Jesus still says, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches” (Rev. 22:16).
1) The Risen Christ Only
Speaks to Individual Churches
Our orientation to the risen Christ’s theology of the church begins when we observe what He did and did not say in Revelation 1-3. He spoke only to individual local churches, for example:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:”
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:”
All seven churches received the exact same definition: church. He never addressed them collectively, as in “the Church” nor did He speak to any other ecclesiastical institution such as denomination or hierarchical Church.
Nor did He address multiple churches in a single city, not even in the highly-populated city of Ephesus. He didn’t even refer to a group of independent churches as a single “citywide-church.”
The point is simple. What the ascended Lord calls “church”…. that, and that alone, is church. Individual Christians may believe anything they want about uppercase “C” Church or lower “c” church, but only what the risen Christ calls church is church. The Universal Church will gather in the future but for today, Jesus Christ only speaks to local churches on earth.
And when He speaks, He defines.The writers of the New Testament only teach church in two forms, universal and local. 14 verses in the NT refer to the Universal Church, that is, the entire group of persons redeemed by the sacrifice of the Christ. This group is comprised of 1) those who are already in heaven (Heb. 12:23), 2) those who walk by faith in Christ on earth, and 3) those yet to come to faith. The Universal Church transcends and overpowers the grave through Christ’s resurrection. Other verses that refer to the Universal Church are Eph. 1:22, 3:21, 5:23, 5:24, 5:25, 5:27, 5:29, 5:32, Col. 1:18, and Col. 1:24, Heb. 2:12, 12:23. The church universal is not yet a visible reality but rather a theological reality that won’t be visibly gathered as one until Christ returns. All other texts in the NT that include the word ecclesia refer to a visible gathered group that is called to obediently worship Jesus Christ on the Lord’s Day of every week. 96 of the 110 religious occurrences of this word, or about 87% of the NT uses are local, visible, churches. Jesus Himself made this distinction in His first coming prophetic ministry. He taught once (and only once) on the Universal Church (Mat. 16:18), and once (and only once) on the local church (Mat. 18:17).
Trust Repent and Obey
His seven letters to the churches all begin with His own ascription of glory to Himself, and in most cases, end with promised punishments to the churches if they won’t change course immediately and repent. How bad are the punishments of Jesus Christ to the churches?
“The One who has the sharp two-edged sword says this…
Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly,
and I will make war… with the sword of My mouth”
(Rev. 2:12, 16).
“because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold,
I will spit you out of My mouth”
Both describe the punishment of hell showing that Jesus often relates to churches, even today, with the severest of punishments and judgments. Why would He, of all Persons, do that? After all, aren’t they, His churches?
Yes. Well, sort of. He never addresses an “invisible church,” does He? Instead, He always addresses visible churches with words calculated to remove their self-confidence. Such threats are aimed at both the people of the church and to each church as an institution. True, He wants each person in the churches to feel anxious and deeply concerned about their church’s obedience to Him. But He does so in order that the church may identify itself the way He identifies it.
No Longer the Humble Slave
This is certainly different than the gospels where Jesus is the Man of Sorrows and generally solicitous to those who profess Him before men. Revelation presents Jesus as He is now, in resurrected glory with all authority and power. This authority and power is exactly how Jesus relates to all churches today.
To understand the Jesus of Revelation is to understand how He presently regards churches. Revelation is bracingly direct. Nowhere else in the Bible does Jesus use His own unmediated words to address a single church but in Revelation. And here He speaks not just to one, but seven. This is a critical and remarkable event. Everywhere else in Scripture Jesus speaks through chosen men and their experiences to address one or more churches. But here in Revelation He directly addresses seven churches.
Such words ought not be mistaken as man’s words. His words are perfectly suited to His present authority. They require that we who are in churches today hear them and respond to His them much as Peter, James and John were told to listen to the direct voice of Christ: “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” (Luke 9:35). Revelation 1-3 is Christ speaking to you, in your church, from heaven. In two of the seven churches (Smyrna and Philadelphia) the tension those churches were meant to feel was the threat to their faith by promised future persecution. On these two churches Jesus smiles.
But it is in the other five churches that the tension is laced with a frown. Will they, or will they not, repent? It won’t be enough for the individual members of the churches who are sinning to repent. These five churches, as five institutions, need to repent. This tension… that of His frown, is what we ought to feel today who are not undergoing direct persecution. Only when we see how far we’ve fallen from Christ as churches can we repent and end our schisming. If we think of these letters as approving of our churches in their present institutional structures and goals then we misunderstand them. To us too it is written, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7).
What Do You Mean, The Church?
Lining up our present day understanding of Church with Jesus’ words isn’t easy for us. It isn’t that His words are hard to understand but that they are so different. Jesus doesn’t address any of the seven churches in the way we often speak of churches nowadays. He calls each church, the church (singular). We get that: the church in Ephesus, Smyrna, etc.
But as was already asserted, whenever the risen Lord refers to a group of churches He always calls them what they are: “churches“: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 1:11, 20, 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29, 3:6, 13, 22, 22:16).
Let put some flesh on this. Every denomination regards itself as a Church (capital ‘C’). This is true about the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), for example. They refer to themselves as a Church. But Jesus Christ does not. They are churches, plural.
Let’s trot out a couple more. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) refer to their separate organizations as a capital “C” “Church.” The organizations are actually comprised of churches, schools, administrative personnel, and possibly printing operations.
When they call themselves a Church they mean to be understood as a collective subsidiary of churches and other functions. This is different than the risen Christ who writes letters to the churches in Revelation.
But we all tend to do it. We do the same thing when we speak of “the church in America” or “the evangelical church” or just “the Church” when really referring to “churches.” Jesus had the chance to speak that way about churches in Revelation. He could have called the seven churches the Church of Asia. But He didn’t. Because they weren’t.
“‘Church’ in the NT, however, renders Gk. ekklesia, which mostly designates a local congregation of Christians and never a building. Although we often speak of these congregations collectively as the NT church or the early church, no NT writer uses ekklesia in this collective way.” ’Church’ in New Bible Dictionary, IVP, 199
Twelve times He called them the churches and not once the Church. It’s the way God Himself speaks about multiple local churches in Scripture, and it flies in the face of so much of what we might count precious and even integral to our Christian faith.I recognize some people use Acts 9:31, 1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13 and Phil. 3:6 to support “the Church.” But all four references arise out Saul’s prosecutorial endeavors and deserve some attention. Acts 9:31 ascribes peace to the previously persecuted and now scattered church of Jerusalem distributed (κατὰ) geographically through several regions outside of Jerusalem (“Ἡ µὲν οὖν ἐκκλησία καθ ὅλης…”). The other three references are about the depth of Saul’s prosecutorial desires. Saul’s goal wasn’t only to persecute Christians within the churches, but more, to destroy the very institution of the church, wherever he could find it. Had Saul only been intent on persecuting the Christians and not the institution itself the better term would have been “Christians,” not “the church” (cf. Acts 26:10-11). Thus the phrase “the church” incorporates both people and institution in these four verses. For more please read The Church Dissonant
The Roman Catholic Church does not regard itself a denomination and regards itself The Church (capital C). So too, Eastern Orthodox won’t consider themselves a denomination, but each grouping, such as The Russian Orthodox Church, calls itself the Church. But their capital ‘C’ Church ecclesiology contradicts the ecclesiology of Jesus Christ in Revelation 1-3.As an aside, it also contradicts the apostle Paul’s ecclesiology. He taught that the defining institutional activity of a church is it’s meeting together every week for worship (1 Cor. 11:18).
So if you attend a church and it calls itself either The Church or a Church, then your ecclesiastical group identifies itself differently than how the risen Christ does. In Scripture He speaks only to individual churches. Not once has He, the Lord of the Church, ever spoken to an entity on earth called a capital “C” Church.I’m not the only one pointing this out. One Orthodox theologian admits a tension that can only be explained as denominationally limited to both Roman Catholics and Orthodox: “But as for finding out the relationship between the different church units, particularly the diocesan church and the universal Church—that question is still not quite clarified.” But the book of Revelation is by definition clarification. As I said above, He could have called all seven, the Church of Asia, or the Church under the Bishop John, or a hundred other things. But the Lord of the Church did not aggregate the seven churches or collected them into any singular word form.
We need to learn from Christ. Churches, plural, is exactly what the seven churches of Asia were. Church is not. In fact, the plural word “churches” occurs more in Revelation than any book of the New Testament. Which leads us to an important conclusion.
Jesus’ Non-Relationship with “The Church”
If the seven churches of Revelation really were one Church then they must have been connected together in some way that would be explained in John’s text. But there isn’t anything in the text of Revelation that connects the seven together except the plural word “churches.”
If they were in any way One Church under a bishop, or One Church under a synod, or if these seven churches gathered together for accountability in some other form, it wasn’t recognized by Jesus Christ. And so today when anyone claims these governmental forms are what Jesus wants churches to have then they are either believing in a different Jesus than He who speaks in Revelation, or they are without knowledge. They have missed the fact that Jesus ignored all these connectional forms of Church, thereby assessing their value to Him as nothing.
Say, for instance, a bishop was over the seven churches, as Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and other groups claim. If this is true then Jesus would have held that bishop responsible in large degree for the spiritual condition of those seven churches. But if that were the case, then why did Jesus ignore the bishop? Under this ecclesial framework he, the bishop, would have been responsible to fix the problems.
There are only two explanations. Either the bishop existed but Jesus did not hold him accountable, or there was no such bishop. The fact that Jesus does address an angel in each church and holds him accountable for the spiritual condition of that individual church bears testimony that there was no bishop over all the churches. In fact, each angel in each church was directly accountable to implement changes immediately based on Christ’s words to him, not the words of an overseeing bishop.There are several views on the identity of “the angel.” The view I take is that of a lead teaching elder. The Jesus of Revelation 2-3 nullifies episcopal polity. To Jesus, there is no such thing as an episcopal church of any kind.
Stay with me here. Let’s assume that the seven churches met in synod or assembly every so often. In such synods representatives from each church would have been responsible to judge matters pertaining to the seven churches in an ecclesiastical court. In this case, the representatives rule over the seven churches on theological disputes and difficult matters.
Now if Jesus wanted such representative assemblies or bishops to rule over the seven churches then why does He not speak to that group in Revelation 2-3? If He holds this assembly accountable in any way, even partially, for the spiritual condition and practices of those seven churches, why not hold them accountable for the problems of those churches? His speaking nothing to such a group implies such a group either didn’t exist, or if it did, He could care less. Either way, He had a non-relationship with it.
Because Jesus speaks nothing to these ecclesiastical entities they account for nothing in Christ’s reality. Which is to say, they mean nothing to Him. Oh, they are the religious institutions of men to be sure. But the risen Son of God walks among the seven lampstands which are the seven churches (Rev. 1:20-2:1). He does not walk among church councils, synods, assemblies, presbyteries, bishops, or conventions. His own blood-bought people may pray and give and serve and rule in these groups but they are so meaningless to Jesus that He has nothing to say to them. He walks among the churches.
Does Seven Mean One?
According to some, when Jesus addressed seven churches He was really addressing all churches since seven is alleged to be the number of completeness.
“The seven lampstands represent the church (Rev. 1:20).”G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 206.
“Seven is the biblical number suggesting fullness and completeness;
thus the seer is writing for the whole church.” http://www.usccb.org/bible/revelation.
Is there proof of this? Allegedly so. The same writers claim that the phrase “from the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (Rev. 1:4) means the one Holy Spirit. And since the number seven means one there, it also means one everywhere else. Therefore the seven churches mean the one Church.
But this ignores that the Rev. 1:4 states these seven churches exist “in Asia.” In other words the seven churches are geographically identified in only one part of the world. Rev. 1:11 picks this up and further specifies which seven cities in Asia these seven churches exist. So if the churches are really one church, why then does Jesus addresses each church individually, and never collectively?
There is another reason to reject the interpretation that the number seven implies wholeness here. The “seven spirits” may be a rank of angel and not the Holy Spirit.Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint 1998, p. 47-50. Either way, the “Holy Spirit” is always and only singular in Jesus’ letters to the churches, but “the churches” are always and only plural.In Rev. 2:29 Jesus identifies the Holy Spirit’s auditory relationship to the churches, “He who has ears let him hear what the Spirit….” But only a few words later Jesus claims to have “the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 3:1). The Holy Spirit is directed toward the churches while the seven spirits are directed toward Christ. The text gives no explanation for the numerical mismatch if the two persons are the in fact the same Person. Jesus also has the “seven stars” in Rev. 3:1 which are clearly seven different messengers, not one whole messenger, thus making the numerical mismatch of 2:29 and 3:1 even more pronounced. In Rev. 3:1 “seven” does not mean oneness, or wholeness, but rather, “seven.” This phrase is emphatically repeated seven times in Revelation 2-3. In other words, even if the “seven spirits” means the one Holy Spirit, the plural word, “churches” can never refer to One Church but always to seven individual churches.
Using allegorical interpretation such as “seven means one” to establish or support one’s understanding of the church is not helpful in establishing doctrine.It is really the province of false teachers who twist Scripture in order to deny its plain and literal meanings, like the Christ-denying heresy of Swedenborg.
One Candelabra or Seven Lampstands?
Moving on, how then can we understand what “the churches” are? Simple. They aren’t an aggregate. They are not seven churches called “the Church” but seven individual churches called “churches.”
In Rev. 1:12 and Rev. 1:20 Jesus is in the midst of seven golden lampstands, not one lampstand with seven branches. Each lampstand represents a distinct church: “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20). And when Jesus addresses the church in Ephesus he identifies it as a single lampstand (Rev. 2:5). It should be obvious that each church is a separate lampstand and not a part of a candelabra, that is, a single lampstand with seven branches.Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, 437. Jesus does not walk among a candelabra, but seven distinct lampstands.
Just Who Does Jesus Think We Are?
Now, this is all very surprising because bishops and councils and synods and conventions are all really, really good ideas. As Revelation 2-3 shows individual churches are always running into trouble. Aren’t they in need of the resources of outside oversight? Such benefits seem to be too many to ignore.
As well there are lots of verses extolling how good it is to be surrounded by wise men and how a cord of three strands is not quickly broken (Pro. 11:14, Ecc. 4:12). There is safety in numbers and weak churches can be quickly led astray by false teaching. Shouldn’t we be grateful for any reasonable form of church hierarchy? And even though far from perfect, such ecclesiastical organizations better fulfill Jesus prayer “that we might be one,” right? (John 17:21). And if two-thousand years of church history has taught us anything, it is that the ecclesiastical institutions that have stood the test of time are episcopal. So shouldn’t Revelation should be read in light of what has worked for so many years?
Could it be that Christ’s ecclesiology in Revelation reflects an immaturity in both the state of the church and possibly in His own wisdom? After all, He doesn’t collectivize churches in Revelation 1-3 like we do – into the Church. Revelation was written at the end of the 1st Century and as we now know, church history goes for at least 19 more centuries. Can’t we at least agree that the state of the Church at this time was not as developed as it today?
If this is true then Revelation 1-3 is not a reliable source of information on a mature approach to church and churches. We must rely on our teachings and our beliefs that we assume reflect a more mature ecclesiastical wisdom than that expressed by Jesus Christ in Revelation.
Which leads us to a question. Who does Jesus think we are? Who does Jesus think we are, in our churches? As He defines us, is He schizophrenic, confused, imprecise, unsure? Or is He competent, precise, and true?
Are we to Him members of a visible local church, a earthly universal church, a church group (such as a Lutheran Church), part of a movement such as the Protestant Church, and at the same time part of the Church in America? Are we all of those things to Him, and at the same time part of the Evangelical Church, the Church of the 21st Century, the Invisible Church, and finally, just, “the Church?” Are we all of these things to Him? In our important connection to church, just who are we… to Him?
We have a precise and true answer.
Seven times Jesus writes, “’He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches,” not “let Him hear what the Spirit says to the Church.” We can deny it or allegorize it, but like a drum beat His words pound this truth over and over when we read sacred Scripture.
And it is this. As far as our life on earth goes, each of us is only in a local church and nothing more. Anything more and we’ve misunderstood who we are to Christ ecclesiastically.
But this is actually helpful. Just like in the seven churches of Asia in the 1st C, every person through the rest of church history is known by Jesus as in a church. In a single local church is where the NT addresses us. Jesus does not speak to anyone about their responsibilities to Him in their connection to any earthly capital ‘C’ Church. All of these earthy capital ‘C’ labels have been created by men.
You can be certain that He regards you just as He regarded the people in the seven churches of Asia: accountable to His word in a church. Jesus meets you as He walks among the lampstands, which are the churches. He does not walk among the denominations, the Holy See of Rome or Constantinople, or any ecclesiastical hierarchy outside of the local church.
So if your ecclesiastical identification is different than the risen Christ’s, you are an ecclesiastical idolater, and you need to be instructed once again in the things of the glorious Son of God.
In Rev. 1:13-18 Jesus identifies Himself to each church with titles such as “Son of Man” and “I am the first and the last.” By these self-designated titles He asserts His full deity (Rev. 1:13, Rev. 1:17, Rev. 2:8).
Unlike you and I, the eternal Son does not learn ecclesiology by trial and error and change His mind on it as time goes by. Therefore, if you take your ecclesiastical identity from an organization larger than your local church, then you are presuming Jesus changed how He relates to His people as time went along in church history.
You are implying that His original plan for “churches” was crippled by error and a lack of foresight. For that ignoble reason, your ecclesiastical identity expresses ecclesiastical idolatry.
I can hear what some are thinking. “You’re saying the denominations have to go back to being “just” churches with no connection, and the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox have to sell off everything and disband. You just think every church has to become a Baptist church.”
Not. At. All.
2) Christ is Not a Baptist
Actually, the Baptists and all the other hundreds of thousands of independent churches like the one I pastor need to repent just like every other self-defined ecclesiastical group. In what way? Just like all the other schismed churches of Christendom, we too must lose our independent self-identity and arrogance. We must humble ourselves and unify in every place and city so our ecclesiastical identity lines up with the only ecclesiastical identity defined by Jesus Christ.
Like other ecclesial organizations who must repent of their identity as Church, if independent churches wish to end schism, we must repent of our identity as individual Churches and merge into the local body of Christ.
One Church in Every Locale
Let me take a rabbit trail here by speaking of the local body of Christ for a couple of paragraphs. Then, when we get back to Revelation, the local body of Christ will be understood as equalling the one church in each city Jesus writes to.
The local body of Christ is visible only when all the Christians who live near each other worshiped together in the same ecclesia every Sunday. The support for this starts by stringing some verses together from 1 Corinthians. Start with 1 Cor. 1:2 and then reference the following in order: 1 Cor. 10:17, 1 Cor. 11:18, 11:20, NKJV, 1 Cor. 12:27, and 1 Cor. 14:23, NKJV, all the while seeing how the terms “church,” “body, “in one place,” and “whole body” are co-extensive. The same people belong to each term, and meet in on one place.Please read The Local Body of Christ for more information.
This ecclesiastical identification of local body = local church is exact only when there is one church of all the believers in a region. This contradicts the Baptistic (or Free Church) ideal that a local region can have multiple churches but still have one body of Christ.“Each community [i.e., church], however small, represents the total community or the church.” Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1033. It’s like saying a severed foot represents an entire body. This matches precisely with the use of “body” in several of Paul’s NT letters (i.e., 1 Cor. 12:27, Eph. 4:16, Col. 3:16). This was also true in the ancient world where an ecclesia was an entire city’s citizens gathering in one group for political deliberation.NIDNTT, 1:291.
One ecclesia, one body. One gathering, one church. Seven times Jesus wrote to one and only one church in every city. If you read the original Greek all seven churches are addressed this way: “to the… in Ephesus church” (Rev. 2:1, Τῷ… ἐν Ἐφέσῳ ἐκκλησίας). Jesus identified each individual church by its geography. There was no other ecclesiastical organization in Ephesus to Jesus but the one He addressed. The same was true for the other six churches. He used the exact same form of “the in ______ church” for each, with the result that Jesus never addressed more than one church in a locale.
So too Paul. The Corinthians are “the church of God which exists-in-Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1). The Thessalonians are “the church of the Thessalonians in God” (1 Thess. 1:1). The Philippians have but one church in their locale (Phil. 1:1, Phil. 4:15). There are also numerous texts where the apostles call the single gathering of Christians in a city the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:27), a metaphor that connotes not only unity and wholeness but also a functioning entity that serves itself. Only when the local church is also the one local body of Christ can it “grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15). No person and no church can be left out of the one body that gathers every Sunday since that growth is defined as “the proper working of each individual part, which causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16).
None of this bodes well for Free Churches in the judgment.
The Independent Church Dilemma
The autonomy of Free Church theology presupposes there should be multiple bodies of Christ in a single locale. This form of church is known by several names, such as congregational, independent, self-governing, or Baptist. All may be collected under the category, “Free Church.”
Now if we believe that Christ has but one glorified human body in heaven, and we further believe that He has but one universal body of all who will be saved, how can we believe that the local expression of His body is separate churches? How do separated pieces of a body represent unity?
Paul knew this. Multiple local churches of Christians in the same locale testify to a divided Christ (1 Cor. 1:10-13). And the question, “Which church around here is the body of Christ?” is a question Free Church ecclesiology can’t handle. The Free Church advocate, “All of them” lest he include every form of church imaginable including heretical forms, nor can he say, “none of them” lest he leave his own church out.
The last alternative is “some of them” leaving him stuck. Christ has multiple, detached-from-each-other, bodies, but only in some of the churches in a locale? Which ones?
When Spurgeon was told to preach to the elect only, he quipped, “Fine. Show me the yellow strip on their backs and I’ll preach to them only!” So too, which churches are bodies of Christ in a given locale?
The dilemma isn’t just how to relate one body and many churches. It’s also how to relate to the apostolic writings.
One Baptist struggles with this. In one place he writes:
“…it is a fascinating fact that the New Testament never
speaks of churches (plural) in a city (singular).”This is written by John Hammett in his fine book, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches on page 180.
That’s exactly right. But it contradicts what he wrote earlier in the book:
“there is nothing in New Testament usage that implies that the
oneness of the churches in a city was organizational
or institutional…” (emphasis mine, p. 30).
Which is it? Churches in a city, or a single church in a city?
The confusion goes deeper, for his second quote above has a further problem. Paul does indeed teach that the oneness of the church in a city was organizational. When he opens his letter to the Philippians he addresses both its oneness and institutional character:
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi,
including the overseers and deacons.”
“All the saints in Philippi” is oneness, and “the overseers and deacons” is institutionality (c.f., Phil. 4:15).
So too in Ephesus. Notice the singular “church” in both verses:
“From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called
to him the elders of the church
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which
the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd
the church of God which He purchased
with His own blood.
The elders in v. 17 are institutionality, and “all the flock,” which is “the church of God” in v. 28, is oneness.
Free Church ecclesiology is frustrated because it wants its theory of independence and unity at the same time. It can’t be reconciled with the results of Christ’s atoning death and its result here on earth: one church existing as one body (Eph. 5:25, Eph. 5:30) in each locale (Rom. 12:4-5, 1 Cor. 12:27, Eph. 4:12, 16, Col. 3:15). As a defective Christology cum ecclesiology, independent ecclesiology represents a significant challenge to healing a schismed body. It remains the ecclesiology of Diotrephes who never imagined “The Elder” would come to him from another church and rebuke his evil deeds in front of all (3 John 1:1, 10-11).
Worse, this theology assumes that whenever men form a separate churches, so too they form the body of Christ. Another Baptist claimed this when he wrote:
“It is this mutual consent, confederation,
and union of persons into one body,
as a particular church that makes that church
distinct from any other church.”emphasis mine, Samuel Jones, Polity, p. 142. Jones identifies the body as the body of Christ two sentences later.
It’s ecclesiastic Pelagianism that replaces the supernatural baptism of Christ, which alone forms His body, with the power of men forming His body.
Multiple Churches in a Single City?
If you’re tempted to believe that the one church in Ephesus was actually a collection of multiple churches or parishes in that city then you’ve projected a misunderstanding on Revelation 1-3. The solution to this idea is straightforward. When Jesus refers to a single church in these chapters He uses the singular ecclesia and when He refers to more than one church He uses the plural ecclesiais. The idea that He uses the singular church to refer to multiple churches is not only confusing but misinterprets the repetition He gives in Revelation 2-3.
One man writes,
“In cities like Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome the Christians
multiplied so rapidly that they could not possibly meet in one
assembly; and even if they could have found a large
enough venue, it was impolitic to meet that way
and draw attention to their numbers.”D.A. Carson, “Evangelicals, Ecumenism and the Church” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 364-365.
This renowned scholar misses the text, though. In Revelation 1:20 each church in each city is a single lampstand.
To prove it, consider Rev. 2:5, where Jesus threatens removal of the one lampstand from Ephesus. If Ephesus contained multiple churches, and Jesus was going to remove their collective lampstand, then Jesus made a mistake by calling the seven churches seven lampstands only six verses earlier in Rev. 1:20. It’s the plural-singular problem again.
Or, if Jesus only removed one of the many churches in Ephesus’ lampstand, then why did He did He not write anything to those other, more obedient, churches in that city? After all, only one church in Ephesus “put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2).
If there were other churches in Ephesus, and Jesus didn’t write them, then only one conclusion can be made. Jesus addressed a church other than them as “the church in Ephesus.” Such passing-over silence is then judgment. He did not regard them as His own, and yet given this alleged reconstruction, the other churches were more righteous than the church about to lose it’s lampstand, for the other alleged churches weren’t threatened with anything. The only conclusion is that Jesus was confused or ignorant.
It’s sad how we justify schism with cockamamie interpretations that defy simple words. 100 years after Paul wrote Romans Justin Martyr described the churches everywhere, and especially in Rome, as being one church containing all who lived in and around the city, numbering in the what, thousands?:
“On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country
gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles
or the writings of the prophets are read,
as long as time permits…
Sunday is the day on which we all
hold our common assembly.”
(Justin Martyr, Apology, 1:67).
Maybe the Orthodox theologians have something that we need to hear: gathering together as one body makes the church, the church (1 Cor. 10:16-17, 11:18).Too bad they then claim the bishop is critical to the church since that goes against 1 Cor. 11:18-20, 1 Cor. 14:23-40 where the emphasis is the body and not any one man’s alleged giftedness, or charism. It may be impolitic for schismatics, but too bad. Christ is not divided (1 Cor. 1:13, 1 Cor. 10:16-17, 1 Cor. 12:27). We need to regain some comfort with the phrase, “whole church.” Luke tells us the all the Christians in Jerusalem gathered as “the whole church” in the temple (Acts 2:46, Acts 5:11-12, cf. 1 Cor. 14:23, Rom. 16:23). Likewise, Paul’s commands are from Christ, and if all the Christians in those cities do not assemble together, they cannot be obeyed (i.e., Col. 3:14-15, Eph. 6:18; Rom. 12:4-5, 16:16-19).
Perhaps the main reason we all want to read multiple churches in a single city into Revelation 1-3 is the very real struggle we all have in matching up Scripture to our present day church scene. Our experience has always been multiple churches in a single city and never the local body of Christ in a single unity worshiping together. So it is natural to modify Scripture to our understanding in order to support our experience.
If this is your struggle then it is no different than the misunderstanding that Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox have with Revelation 1-3. This section of Scripture just presents such a different ecclesiastical reality than any of us have ever experienced and are theologically committed to that we probably want it to repent so we don’t have to. One church in one locale just sounds wrong and dangerous. Except that it is the true ecclesiology of Jesus Christ.If you are struggling with this because you see “house churches” in the NT, please read the article on “House Churches in the New Testament”
3) Christ Passes over Schismatics
Jesus Christ is well aware of schism. It’s those who form them He ignores.
He instructed Paul to condemn “factions” as one of the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). He had Paul instruct the Christians in the church at Rome “keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances” (Rom. 16:17-18). What we want to know is, does He address schismatics and include them as part of His institutional church and as part of His body?
We don’t have to read far in Revelation 2 to find a clear answer. The church in Ephesus is the first addressed in that chapter and it had known schisms since its earliest days some forty years prior. Long ago Paul had warned the church’s elders that some of their own would schism and lead people out of the church (Acts 20:29-30) in order to form their own competing groups. In the letters to Timothy, which were written as Timothy ministered in the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3), Paul mentioned heretics like Hymenaues, Alexander, and Philetus, men who had been removed from the church in Ephesus and almost certainly continued their own error-filled ministries in Ephesus. Yet not a single schismed group is ever addressed by Jesus.
And yet to gain credibility and followers the schismatics would call their group a “church.” And I’m not talking about heretical groups like Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. This practice is well attested through history, and even today, all kinds of schismatic Christian groups borrow on the capital of the word “church” to gain credibility. By the time Revelation was written the church in Ephesus was forty years in existence, long enough for it to have experienced multiple exoduses of disgruntled and misled people. John the apostle, who lived in Ephesus in his later years, wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
But the church in Ephesus wasn’t affected by internal schism alone. Recently the Ephesian church had fended off an external schism when they “put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2). Jesus was honored by their loyalty and praised the church for it. But unless the false apostles had left the city they were still working in it to reproduce their own churches in Ephesus as of the writing of Revelation 2:1-7. Likely they stayed. Such men were like the “wild beasts” Paul fought in Ephesus in the founding years of the church (1 Cor. 15:32), driven to tear apart for the sake of schism.
A populous city like Ephesus, with many in it who had abandoned the one church comprised of the true saints, was a likely destination for all kinds of pseudo-Christians starting their own churches. Every pseudo-sect claiming Christ would have planted a church there for both the likelihood of success and to claim a feather in its cap, for Ephesus was the second largest city of the Roman Empire, after Rome. But Jesus spoke only “to the church in Ephesus” (Rev. 2:1). He utterly ignored the schismed groups of whatever shape, history, and variety they came in. They were not His church, He walked not among them, and He had nothing to say to them. So too did Paul: “But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Cor. 14:38).
And to make matters worse, the church of Ephesus was in danger itself. Jesus was about to remove their lampstand from them (Rev. 2:5).Removal of a church’s lampstand is the removal of their power, as a church, to give the light of the gospel. Beale, Revelation, 231-232. But the removal of a lampstand is not the removal of a church. From that time forward Ephesus had a church that met weekly but had no fruitful body of Christ in it (cf. Mat. 5:13-16). The in-Ephesus church was now no different to the Lord than a schism.
Jesus refuses to address the schismed churches in Ephesus because of who He is, the Judge of the churches. As Judge He ignores them, rendering to them the same judgment He promised the church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:5). They are irrelevant. The church in Ephesus walked away from Him and He in turn walked away from it. As a result the church there was no different to Him than an impenitent schismed church today.
Oh, it still met for Sunday worship, had activities and programs, but had lost the power to shine forth the light of the gospel. Such schismed church are ignored by Christ, being already in the place of His judgment.
Again, why don’t we read about the schismed churches in the apostolic writings? The story of all the schismed churches is a story untold in the apostolic deposit because their writings are the revelation from Jesus who is in unity with the Father and the Spirit. Just as they don’t exist in schism, neither does the church Jesus defines through the holy apostles.
In the New Testament, Jesus defines the local church, and it is always the local body of Christ.
Nor does Jesus define the many capital ‘C’ ecclesiastical organizations claiming to be “Church” or the many independent lower case ‘c’ churches that resist merging. In order to be the body of Christ, each church must at least do what it takes to start the process of merging in every city, town, and region into the one body of Christ.
Revelation 1-3 refuses to define these schismed entities as “church” because they aren’t His institutional church any more than divorce is marriage. Jesus Christ forms His ecclesiastical identity of each Christian in the church each gathers in on Sunday, and secondarily by the spiritual condition of that individual church. This is the clear ecclesiology of Revelation 1-3.
Adding to the example of one church in every city is the precept of Titus 1:5, “appoint elders in every city.” It is an apostolic decree that merged the schismed ecclesiastical groups in the cities of Crete into one church under one set of qualified elders in every city. More on this mandate can be found here.
When and if that happens then the local body of Christ will visibly represent the universal body of Christ and in each locale “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). As well, Christ will no longer be displayed to the world as schismed from His Father. The one body of Christ will be able to point out their schismed opponents (Titus 2:8) with justice and precision in every locale, without being tainted by their disobedience. And those whom God saves in each locale will honor the glorious Son of God who bore in His earthly body our sins on the cross, providing us all with forgiveness and equal access to God.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Ephesus (Rev. 2:5); Pergamum (Rev. 2:16); Thyatira (Rev. 2:21); Sardis (Rev. 3:3); and Laodicea (Rev. 3:19).|
|2.||↑||The writers of the New Testament only teach church in two forms, universal and local. 14 verses in the NT refer to the Universal Church, that is, the entire group of persons redeemed by the sacrifice of the Christ. This group is comprised of 1) those who are already in heaven (Heb. 12:23), 2) those who walk by faith in Christ on earth, and 3) those yet to come to faith. The Universal Church transcends and overpowers the grave through Christ’s resurrection. Other verses that refer to the Universal Church are Eph. 1:22, 3:21, 5:23, 5:24, 5:25, 5:27, 5:29, 5:32, Col. 1:18, and Col. 1:24, Heb. 2:12, 12:23. The church universal is not yet a visible reality but rather a theological reality that won’t be visibly gathered as one until Christ returns. All other texts in the NT that include the word ecclesia refer to a visible gathered group that is called to obediently worship Jesus Christ on the Lord’s Day of every week. 96 of the 110 religious occurrences of this word, or about 87% of the NT uses are local, visible, churches. Jesus Himself made this distinction in His first coming prophetic ministry. He taught once (and only once) on the Universal Church (Mat. 16:18), and once (and only once) on the local church (Mat. 18:17).|
|3.||↑||’Church’ in New Bible Dictionary, IVP, 199|
|4.||↑||I recognize some people use Acts 9:31, 1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13 and Phil. 3:6 to support “the Church.” But all four references arise out Saul’s prosecutorial endeavors and deserve some attention. Acts 9:31 ascribes peace to the previously persecuted and now scattered church of Jerusalem distributed (κατὰ) geographically through several regions outside of Jerusalem (“Ἡ µὲν οὖν ἐκκλησία καθ ὅλης…”). The other three references are about the depth of Saul’s prosecutorial desires. Saul’s goal wasn’t only to persecute Christians within the churches, but more, to destroy the very institution of the church, wherever he could find it. Had Saul only been intent on persecuting the Christians and not the institution itself the better term would have been “Christians,” not “the church” (cf. Acts 26:10-11). Thus the phrase “the church” incorporates both people and institution in these four verses. For more please read The Church Dissonant|
|5.||↑||As an aside, it also contradicts the apostle Paul’s ecclesiology. He taught that the defining institutional activity of a church is it’s meeting together every week for worship (1 Cor. 11:18).|
|6.||↑||I’m not the only one pointing this out. One Orthodox theologian admits a tension that can only be explained as denominationally limited to both Roman Catholics and Orthodox: “But as for finding out the relationship between the different church units, particularly the diocesan church and the universal Church—that question is still not quite clarified.” But the book of Revelation is by definition clarification. As I said above, He could have called all seven, the Church of Asia, or the Church under the Bishop John, or a hundred other things. But the Lord of the Church did not aggregate the seven churches or collected them into any singular word form.|
|7.||↑||There are several views on the identity of “the angel.” The view I take is that of a lead teaching elder.|
|8.||↑||G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 206.|
|10.||↑||Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint 1998, p. 47-50.|
|11.||↑||In Rev. 2:29 Jesus identifies the Holy Spirit’s auditory relationship to the churches, “He who has ears let him hear what the Spirit….” But only a few words later Jesus claims to have “the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 3:1). The Holy Spirit is directed toward the churches while the seven spirits are directed toward Christ. The text gives no explanation for the numerical mismatch if the two persons are the in fact the same Person. Jesus also has the “seven stars” in Rev. 3:1 which are clearly seven different messengers, not one whole messenger, thus making the numerical mismatch of 2:29 and 3:1 even more pronounced. In Rev. 3:1 “seven” does not mean oneness, or wholeness, but rather, “seven.”|
|12.||↑||It is really the province of false teachers who twist Scripture in order to deny its plain and literal meanings, like the Christ-denying heresy of Swedenborg.|
|13.||↑||Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, 437.|
|14.||↑||Please read The Local Body of Christ for more information.|
|15.||↑||“Each community [i.e., church], however small, represents the total community or the church.” Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 1033. It’s like saying a severed foot represents an entire body.|
|17.||↑||This is written by John Hammett in his fine book, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches on page 180.|
|18.||↑||emphasis mine, Samuel Jones, Polity, p. 142. Jones identifies the body as the body of Christ two sentences later.|
|19.||↑||D.A. Carson, “Evangelicals, Ecumenism and the Church” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 364-365.|
|20.||↑||Too bad they then claim the bishop is critical to the church since that goes against 1 Cor. 11:18-20, 1 Cor. 14:23-40 where the emphasis is the body and not any one man’s alleged giftedness, or charism.|
|21.||↑||If you are struggling with this because you see “house churches” in the NT, please read the article on “House Churches in the New Testament”|
|22.||↑||Removal of a church’s lampstand is the removal of their power, as a church, to give the light of the gospel. Beale, Revelation, 231-232.|