Those who teach “church” is different than how
Christ and His apostles taught it,
take it in vain.
One way to talk about anything even remotely Christian is to call it, ‘the church.’
I’m not talking about the church you went to on Sunday, but something larger, like the evangelical church, the emergent church, or the contemporary church.
One early church father, Augustine, called it the Church Militant. Here I hope to show you it is The Church Dissonant.
Read these quotes and see if you can figure out what “church” means to these folks – the last two are a hoot:
“…millennials need the church.”
“the Church cannot change its understanding
of what constitutes “the Church…”
“a man-centered culture of narcissism
has seeped into the church.”
“Do you ever get impatient with your church? Or with church in general? I do. I struggle with church.”
“Research shows that today’s church is known more for
what it hates–what it stands against–
than for what it loves or affirms.”
“Ministries in India are reporting significant
growth in the Christian Church.”
“The church is an institution that Satan has
set up to prevent Christians from
doing the work of the Lord.”
Well, there you go.
What does ‘church’ mean? A world-wide people? The living-on-earth redeemed? A country-wide count? A building? Religious authority? Morality?
People take the word ‘church’ and make it mean just about anything at all. One man wrote this of Christianity:
If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything, designates nothing.B.B Warfield, Redeemer and Redemption, Princeton Review, vol 14, p. 199
So too, if ‘church’ means everything, it means nothing.
Why does such a good word break so bad?
The History Panel
The word “church” has been so malleable for so long it’s hard to recognize it from its humble little origins. It doesn’t come from the Greek word ecclesia, which was the word for “church” in the New Testament. No, “church” comes from “kirk” which came from “kuriakos,“ meaning, “of the Lord.”
Now, ‘of the Lord‘ is a wonderful phrase with a wonderful meaning, but its not a synonym of ecclesia. Not even close. In the words of Jesus and the apostles, ecclesia meant “an assembly” or “a gathering.” This is even true of the Septuagint. But today, after all these centuries, people read “church” in the New Testament and often miss its meaning of “assembly,” a habit that can produce some weird and squirrely thinking, like those quotes above.
Such thinking and speaking creates dissonance, like the phrase “Roman Catholic Church.” In the Scripture and all across the world of Jesus and His apostles, an ecclesia was one assembly. Two of them were two assemblies, or two churches. Short and to the point. There were no multi-site networked institutions called “a church.” After all, an assembly can only be in one place at a time. Otherwise it’s not an assembly.
So just to be clear up front about where the dissonance comes from: every single statement about any type of Christian “church” in Holy Scripture, all 109 times, expresses people physically assembling together. Even the Universal Church assembles together at Christ’s second coming (Eph. 1:22-23, 5:26-27).
It’s common to hear us pastors say, “be the church.” But it’s nonsense. A Christian in the first few centuries would have heard an exhortation to “be an assembly.” That’s like exhorting someone to “be a team!” or “be a group!”
How did things get this way?
As providence would have it, kuriakos eclipsed ecclesia in popular usage by 400 AD. “Church” no longer meant “assembly” but became a fluid word referring to almost anything Christianized. Even the term “Church History” disagrees with the meaning of ecclesia, a “gathering.”
By 800 AD kuriakos got shortened to kirk, and 400 years of middle English massaged kirk to our English ‘church.’ Give or take, we’ve spoken it this way for eight hundred years now.
That’s one reason we define the church in all sorts of ways, and why we all use the word “church” in lots of ways the early Christians wouldn’t have recognized. One book gives five contemporary uses for ‘church,’
“(1) a place of meeting, (2) a local organization of believers,
(3) the universal body of believers, (4) a particular denomination,
for example, the Lutheran Church, and (5) an organization of
believers related to a particular area or nation,
for example, the Church of England.”Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program, 11
I would add two more contemporary uses: time (i.e., the church of the 20th Century church, the early church, the modern church, etc.) and attribution (i.e., the emergent church, the dead church, the evangelical church, the hypocritical church, etc.).
Are such contemporary uses a bad thing? Well, if the doctrine of the church were some relatively insignificant doctrine, like the identification of the horns on Daniel’s beast, then no, it’s not important (Dan. 7:7). Or, if it were just a matter of getting a theological position correctly labeled, like pre-millenialism, a-millenialism, and post-millenialism, then no, its not critical.
But the word “church” isn’t like those things. It is critical. Why? Because Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took the effort to define two meanings for us in Mat. 16:18 and Mat. 18:17, and as this article will try to show, the apostles never once deviated from those two meanings. I won’t argue it here, but when ‘church’ is defined differently than Christ defined it, so too is the success of His gospel. And when His gospel is redefined, people lose their souls.
By faith Christians believe Christ stands preeminent as Lord of the Church and owns all rights of definition. Therefore, everyone who adds or subtracts from His two definitions defects from His Lordship. Some of it is even intentional.
Church on the Move
But there’s another, bigger, reason for why we like to make our own definitions, and it is found in history. By 250 AD ecclesia was on the move.
It began to refer not to an assembly of people meeting to worship Christ, but to a specific type of group that alone was a valid expression of Christianity. What made them valid, and others not? They were connected to a properly elected bishop.
When another bishop started his own church in the same city, sparks flew. According to one bishop, people in that other church couldn’t be forgiven of their sins by Christ.”But if any one objects, by way of saying that Novatian holds the same law which the catholic church holds, baptizes with the same symbol with which we baptize, knows the same God and Father, the same Christ the Son, the same Holy Spirit, and that for this reason he may claim the power of baptizing, namely, that he seems not to differ from us in the baptismal interrogatory; let any one that thinks that this may be objected, know first of all, that them is not one law of the creed, nor the same interrogatory common to us and to schismatics. For when they say, Do you believe the remission of sins and life eternal through the holy church? they lie in their interrogatory, since they have not the church. Then, besides, with their own voice they themselves confess that remission of sins cannot be given except by the holy church; and not having this, they show that sins cannot be remitted among them.” (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 75, 6 Think of how it felt if you were part of a Sunday assembly worshiping Jesus Christ but weren’t approved by a bishop somewhere. Your church wasn’t approved by their church. When you read the apostles, you had no church problems. But when you heard certain bishops, you did.
About sixty years later Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as a legitimate religion and encouraged a hierarchy of bishops.Constantine’s Edict of Milan “…did not make Christianity the state religion, as is generally asserted, but only legalized it, and popularized it. Now people could and did openly desert the old and join the new faith. [The Edict] gave it opportunity for public organization, thus paving the way for the Catholic hierarchy already begun; and marks a new era in the history of the Christian church, because at last a great Roman Emperor and his conquering army had taken up the sword in defense of persecuted Christianity.” Alexander C. Flick, The Rise of the Mediaeval Church, 293. After Nicaea in 325 AD the word catholic took on a new meaning when describing churches and Christians. Before Nicaea it had no sense whatsoever of a hierarchy of bishops, but rather all the Christians living in a locale and meeting as one assembly, ie., one church, and one body.See The Importance of Being Catholic But after Nicaea the meaning of catholic widened to refer to those Christians who accepted the creed developed at the earliest of all church councils, and those churches under bishops ordained and approved by the doctrine of apostolic succession.
Soon after, the great Church Father Augustine wove a history together. Leaving behind the assembly meaning of ecclesia he synthesized a new theology of the ecclesia and provided us with two new terms, “The Church Militant” and “The Church Triumphant.” The first is all Christians on earth, duly organized under rightfully appointed bishops (as he saw it). The second is all who are in heaven, having triumphed over death in fulfillment to Christ’s promise in Mat. 16:18.
So great has been Augustine’s influence that large parts of Christendom no longer consider an assembly gathered to worship Christ a church but as something less, such as a parish in Roman Catholicism and in Eastern Orthodoxy. Even today, when someone refers to “the church” they usually mean some kind of subset of Augustine’s Militant Church:
- the Church in the South…
- the Church in the Deep South…
- the Black Church in the Deep South….
- the persecuted Black Church in the Deep South…
….the list is limitless.
So today, the church is anything, practically anything at all that has any kind of affiliation with Christianity. It’s para-church, Mormon Church, and the unchurched. The word has so many meanings that it almost means nothing.
The Church Militant is the Church Dissonant.
How then does Jesus Christ want you defining the church? In the same way He does.
By preeminence in person and work Jesus Christ has earned the right to define the church, and we owe Him the honor of listening to Him on this matter. Unlike men and women today, He gave it only two meanings which He taught to His apostles during the days of His incarnation.
Meaning 1: The Universal Church
The Universal Church is defined by Jesus Christ in Mat. 16:18:
“I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
The Universal Church exists on both earth and heaven since it is comprised of believers in His gospel on earth, and those already with Him in heaven who died in faith. These are the people who by His gospel overpower death (cf. Rev. 2:11).
Likewise, many in this Universal Church are likely yet to be born, and others in this church are alive now on earth but presently dead in their sins. These people will come to faith by the power of God before they die.
Beside Mat. 16:18, the Universal Church is taught in these texts: Eph. 1:22, 3:21, 5:23, 5:24, 5:25, 5:27, 5:29, 5:32, Col. 1:18, 1:24, Heb. 2:12, 12:23.
The promise of God is that all who believe in the gospel go immediately to heaven upon physical death (2 Cor. 5:8). One Day this Universal Church shall meet as one Church, and forever be with the Lord (1 Thes. 4:17).
One last point that will be important later. The Universal Church has no institutional duties on earth, nor is there any universal-on-earth church taught by Jesus or the apostles. The Universal Church overpowers death and will be forever gathered together by the resurrection power of Christ and is comprised solely of all the New Covenant people for whom Christ died, even those who have yet to be born, or believe. Thus, Mat. 18:16 cannot refer to any earthly group such as the Roman Catholic Church, for when the Universal Church is gathered at the end there shall be no need for ministerial duties or ecclesiastical structure.
Meaning 2: The Local Church
Everybody seems to understand what a local church is. It’s a group of professing Christians who gather weekly to worship Jesus Christ. They may do this obediently or disobediently, but we all get the local church because it is a concrete thing. People gather, and they have a worship service.
Jesus taught the local church by teaching an institutional function of it,
“…tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
This is the function of self-regulation and involves removing a member from itself. If this group of worshippers will not do that their worship will be polluted by disobedience to Christ’s teaching. While both uses of the word ecclesia in this verse require there to be people in the ecclesia, it is best understood as referring to the local church as an institution of discipline based on Christ’s words.
This can be seen in the final phrase, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Even after a person is excommunicated he has ongoing relationships with the people who are still in the church, just as any non-Christian does: the impenitent person doesn’t lose his relationships with the people of the church. Instead, what he loses is his affiliation to that church. He is not a member of it, meaning, he is not a part of that institution designed to honor Christ.
Thus the local church is a group of professing Christians who gather weekly to worship Jesus Christ, and at the same time, it is an institution.
Harmony in the Numbers
Everybody agrees Jesus taught two meanings for church, in large part because the numbers don’t lie.
Let me run a few past you. There are 114 occurrences of ecclesia in the New Testament. Four of them don’t relate to the Christian church – Acts 7:38, 19:32, 39, 40 – and do not factor in ecclesiology except to enforce the fact that an ecclesia in the NT age was always an assembly. Luke, the writer of Acts, had no problem using such an important doctrinal word to describe a group of sinning non-Christians gathered together in an ad hoc assembly (see Acts 19:32ff).
Taking out those four references leaves us with 110 uses of ecclesia in the NT that have the determinative power for the Scriptural doctrine of the church. Of those 110 occurrences, everybody agrees: the great majority refer to the local church.
You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of
the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me
in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone.
This verse speaks of a group of Christians who meet together in a single locale (Philippi). Hence, the people in Philippi who were Christians, together with their church leaders (Phil. 1:1), were a local church when they met for worship (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18).
Christians from every spectrum agree that over 4 out of 5 occurrences of ecclesia in the NT refer to such local churches.
There is another area Christians of almost all affiliations reflect harmony. We agree that fourteen occurrences of ecclesia refer to what is called the “Universal Church.” Mat. 16:18: Mat. 16:18, Eph. 1:22, 3:10, 3:21, 5:23, 5:24, 5:25, 5:27, 5:29, 5:32, Col. 1:18, 1:24, Heb. 2:12, 12:23. Those denying the Universal Church tend toward isolationism and antinomianism. These fourteen verses reflect the Lord’s own establishment of the Universal Church in Mat. 16:18, a body of people not only here on earth, but also in heaven.
These texts, teaching the Universal Church, comprise 13% of all NT uses of ecclesia.
Now let me pull those numbers together.
All professing Christians find harmony with each other, and more importantly, with an astounding 95% of the teachings of the NT on the church.
Why then do we all worship in separate churches away from each other? Because a lot of us don’t limit ourselves to Christ’s two definitions. We adamantly believe and teach there are more than two definitions of the church, even though Jesus nor His apostles ever taught them.
It is our belief in a third meaning of ecclesia that separates us and makes for the Church Dissonant.
A Third Meaning
Like we saw above, a lot of professing Christians don’t conform their beliefs about ecclesia to the two meanings given by Christ in Mat. 16:18 and Mat. 18:17. They rely extensively on a third meaning whose precise definition is illogical, or worse, impossible to pin down.
But please, don’t assume that untrained people are the originators of this loosey-goosey interpretation of “church.” It is part of the academic world and regarded as standard stuff by those who are write books on ecclesiology, such as the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church:
“In Christian usage, the word “church” designates the
liturgical assembly, but also the local community,
or the whole universal community of believers.
These three meanings are inseparable.”
Did you see it? How do they get away with adding a third meaning: “the whole universal community of believers?” That’s nonsense. People who live in the same community live in community with each other, not people who never meet each other in this life. There is no universal community in this life, except in the imagination.
Roman Catholics are hardly the only ones building their whole theological system on this sort of nonsense. Virtually all teachers of ecclesiology do the exact same, for they all have skin in the game. Their own ecclesiastical system that employs them can’t, won’t, and never will, limit themselves to Christ’s two definitions of ecclesia. Maybe you want to stop reading now?
The Sub-Universal Church
Some will look in the Bible for verses that will support their own third meaning (that’s good, right?). And they do find a few verses sprinkled here and there with the word ecclesia that appear to come close to a third meaning of church universal. For example, based about 1 Corinthians 1:2 D.A. Carson claims everyone who calls on Christ in the world is the church,
“This thesis is no mere truism: the church may virtually
be defined as “all those everywhere who call on
the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”Evangelicals, Ecumenism and the Church, p. 368
But that can’t be Paul’s meaning. Paul limits “the church” to those in Corinth only. Here’s the full verse:
“To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those
who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints
by calling, with all who in every place call
on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
their Lord and ours”
(1 Cor. 1:2)
Paul doesn’t call all living Christians “the church at Corinth.” After all, Paul’s letter isn’t written to all the saints everywhere who call on Christ, but just to the church in Corinth, a church which has problems specific to it and it only.
Theologians reference but a few verses when claiming the Bible teaches a third meaning of ecclesia. These verses (Acts 9:31, 1 Cor. 10:32, 12:28, 15:9, Gal. 1:13, and Phil. 3:6) purportedly show the apostles taught a “church” that is smaller than the Universal Church and larger than a local church. Hence, a sub-universal church. Below I’ll look at each and explain why I believe they each reference a specific local church, but for now I only want to make one point, These six verses, though just 5% of ecclesia’s occurrences in the NT are given authority to define the other 95% of the instances of ecclesia in the NT.
What authority is that? It differs from theologian to theologian, but it is always a meaning of the church that reflects their personal ecclesial history.
For one person, these six texts demonstrate that there is a sub-universal church on earth such as the African Church, or even the North African Church. For another person, these texts speak of the Church at the end of the 20th Century. For another these texts provide validate something as modern as the Presbyterian Church of Korea or the Roman Catholic Church or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The list is actually endless. It can be the Black Church, which is different than the Black Church in the South, which is different that the Black Church in the 21st Century. You see, “church” is user-definable.
Can people be a part of thousands of churches? Apparently so. You can be a part of the global church, the urban church, the millennial church, the baby boomer church, the persecuted church, and the transformational church, all at the same time.
And who is in all these churches, exactly? No one knows. Yet it is always called a church – an ecclesia – which means “a gathering,” so all these churches are gatherings that never gather. Nor has any one of these churches, ever since Augustine started this dissonance, ever done the one simple act every actual church does. Not one of them has ever “come together” in order to take the Lord’s Supper. That is something every church that worships Jesus Christ does, and will one day include the Church Universal (Luke 22:16, c.f., 1 Cor. 11:26).
In reality, none of these churches exist except in the imaginations of their creators.
The Prejudice against
Christ’s Two Definitions
Exactly how dominant is this prejudicial idolatry against Christ’s two meanings of church? In the following table I show that when widely respected Christian theologians use the words “church, Church, or churches” in their writings, they make the word “church” refer to their own third meaning 87% of the time, and Christ’s two definitions only 13% of the time.
To arrive at this percentage I sampled over 10% of randomly selected pages from respected books and articles on ecclesiology from virtually every stream of Christian affiliation. I tallied the frequency of each work’s words: “Church, ” “church,” or “churches.” To err on the side of the author, whenever the plural “churches” was used, I always counted that as reflecting Christ’s own second definition of ecclesia, the local church. As well, references to the Universal Church that mirrored Christ’s definition in Mat. 16:18, that is, all the redeemed in both heaven and earth, were also counted as reflecting Christ’s first definition of ecclesia.The tally required context-sensitive reading since some writers use lowercase c, church, to mean something larger than a local church, while others use an uppercase C, Church. Examples of this are the emergent church, the third world church, the contemporary church, the early church, the church in our own day, etc. But most common in my research was capital C Church, as in the Church in the East, the 21st Century Church, etc.
Here’s my results:
3rd Meaning Ratio
“Denominations are not the church, but the church is in them and they are in the church” (p. 61).
Author referred to a 3rd meaning of “church” or “Church” 71% more
Paul S. Minear
“…the church exists for the purpose of an ultimate erasure of the line between church and world. It follows that church-centeredness becomes world-centeredness, because the center of both church and world is the one new Man… (p. 243).
“Much of the thinking about the church currently comes from theologians who are more or less tightly linked to their respective traditions (p. 91).
Fries and Rahner
“In this one Church of Jesus Christ, composed of the uniting churches, there are regional partner churches…” (p. 43).
Gillian R. Evans
Church of England
“If I think you are in Christ’s Church where you are, I shall not want to win you for my Church” (p. 70).
D. A. Carson
“Both inside and outside the borders of evangelicalism there exists an enormous diversity of opinion regarding the nature of the church, her role in the history of redemption, her boundaries, her governance, and her unity.” (p. 348).
Michael J. Svigel
Independent Bible Church
“…several myths have developed regarding the church. As these myths become more deeply ingrained in our evangelical church culture, they weaken the church” (p. 149).
“Is this the Church which is being accused of Protestant tendencies, the Church which has always remained faithful to her tradition… the Church which indeed looks upon the Roman confession as a schism due to innovations? Is it not absolute nonsense to bring such a charge against such a Church?”
Church of Christ, Restorationist
“If the church is to bear witness to its proper telos primarily by its unified life, the living teaching voice of the church that oversees that unified life must itself reflect the one true humanity in Christ” (pp. 198-99.
“The church takes seriously the “cultural mandate” (Gen. 1:28), or the commission enjoined upon all human beings as vice-regents of the King… [It] prepares redeemed “civilian citizens” to participate well in… politics, business, the arts, medicine…athletics, science and technology…” (p. 98).
D. A. Carson
“… the rhetoric of these discussions is almost always over the top: the church must adapt to the postmodern world or it will die” (p. 84).
Church of England
“It is society that the Church must capture, not for the Church, but for this holy gospel and God” (p. 27).
“the Orthodox Church firmly believes that you can go to hell all by yourself, if you want to, without any help from anyone else — but if you want to be saved, the Scripture is clear… you need the Church.”
“The world-wide Church is not… to be described in terms of congregations, but in terms of individual and interrelated Christians” (p. 189).
100% more – no instance of Universal or local church observed
“… the liturgy does not simply speak about the Church in general but presents her by name in the canon of the Mass” (p. 40).
On average, these authors refer to a third meaning of “church” or “Church” 87% more frequently than they do to either of Jesus Christ’s two meanings of ecclesia in the NT. Further, each author’s personal third meaning is almost never clarified, and never argued for from Scripture. It appears most authors assume the reader agrees understands whatever they mean by “the Church.”I did find one book where the ratio of Church to church was about even (1 to 1). That was a book on how Paul did missionary work. I also found one book where the local church was used more than Church – it was a book devoted to Presbyterian church governance. However, I’ve not yet found any books or articles that reflect anywhere near the ratio of the NT: about 90% local church, and 10% Universal Church.
For instance, Frame’s book Evangelical Reunion offers this, “We must first be assured that Jesus Christ established on earth one church, not many denominations,” and calls Adam and Eve the first church (p. 21). This is standard thinking for many, and so Frame never defends this assertion. He’s writing for the home team. But to be sure, none of the other authors listed above mention Adam and Eve as a church. Nor, of course, do Jesus’ apostles who seemed rather certain that they, not Adam and Eve, were the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20).
It’s revealing. These highly educated, broadly read ecclesiastical theologians lack agreement among themselves on the most simple of definitions, what is “the Church?” You would hope those men in the oldest ecclesial traditions would see this the clearest. But sadly, they can be the most blinded: One Orthodox theologian admits to clinging to his communion’s ‘sub-universal church’ ecclesiology, knowing it has led them down a centuries-long cul-de-sac:
“According to universal ecclesiology, the Church is a single
organic whole, including in itself all church units of
any kind, especially those headed by bishops…
Such a concept of the Church has become a habit of thought
and we never question it; we are more inclined to use it to
furnish premises on which to build all theological
discussions about the Church.”
But it is precisely that ‘habit of thought’ that must be taken captive to the Lord Jesus Christ, or expect His judgment. In my opinion, there is no common ground between Christ’s definition of universal ecclesiology, found in Mat. 16:18, and an Orthodox sub-universal ecclesiology.
Those in the oldest traditions are hardly alone in offering such strange fire. If we tallied the many writers listed above, we could tally perhaps thirty to forty definitions of ‘the Church.’
Behold The Church
Earlier we noted that 95% of all uses of ecclesia in the NT, beyond reasonable dispute, fit one of Christ’s two meanings: Universal (Mat. 16:18) or local (Mat. 18:17). In distinction, today’s experts employ a third meaning in almost exact inverse proportion.
We also observed that the apostolic writings only employ Christ’s two meanings, reflecting the fact that they derived their ecclesiology from Him. I’ve also claimed that there is no meaning of ecclesia in their all their writings such as “universal church on earth,” and hope to prove that to you below.
This is more than statistics. I’m arguing for your faith in the Son of God whose every word was from the Father (John 8:28). Faith, in this case, argues that His position as Lord of the Church means He, and He alone, defines what it is. And whatever He leaves out, is not the church.
Only in this way, the way of discipleship and submission to the words of Jesus Christ, can the schism so roundly responsible for so many sins be identified and repented of, while so many dear sheep be protected and fed. If there is in fact no extended, third meaning to ecclesia, then there is no such thing as The Church Militant, and we can repent from The Church Dissonant.
Here then is your faith in Jesus Christ’s words tested. Is He, or is He not, the defining cornerstone of all things church?
Truth is, the foundation of the Church, the apostles, is built off Christ, the One Great Cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). So here’s a little quiz to see how you are tracking. Going from memory here, ask yourself, ‘which one of the following quotes is correct‘:
2 Cor. 11:28
2 Cor. 11:28
“Apart from such external things,
“Apart from such external things,
See? It’s difficult to think about ecclesiology like an apostle. The answer is, “all the churches.”
“First, the primary use of ekklesia as ‘gathering’, ‘assembly’ predominates overwhelmingly in the New Testament – and indeed through the apostolic Fathers to the Apologists. Secondly, no theological constructs are made on the basis of these very extended uses.”P.T. O’Brien, The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity, in “The Church in the Bible and in the World,” ed. DA Carson, 92
Oh really? In the broad arena of ecclesiology, the vast majority of theological construct does exactly that.
But to minimize offense, my contention in the rest of this article is that the 5% of debated texts do not justify a third meaning of ecclesia. Instead, they all reflect Christ’s local church meaning expressed in Mat. 18:17, that is, these texts all refer to both gathered Christians in institution local churches.
The 5% is but six passages, Acts 9:31, 1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13, Phil 3:6, 1 Cor. 12:28, and 1 Cor. 10:32.
1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13, and Phil. 3:6
“I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9)
“I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13)
“…as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Phil. 3:6)
What is Paul’s meaning in these words, “the church of God?”
Option 1. The Church Militant.
That is, Paul is referring to all the Christians living in the world,C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 345 or “The whole body of professing Christians throughout the world.”See #5 at http://www.shalomcommunitylc.com/about/shalom-more-than-peace/
Yet, Saul only persecuted Christians who came from the one church in Jerusalem (Acts 26:10, cf. Acts 8:1, 3), and not the people of any other church, nearby or otherwise. Just that one church. The Jerusalem Christians knew him for his persecutions (Acts 9:26) but the people of the surrounding churches of Judea never knew him as their persecutor, or otherwise (Gal. 1:22). This casts doubt on the claim that the singular noun, “church” is a “collective singular” that includes other churches than the one in Jerusalem.
The collective singular claim is common but has no precedent. The apostolic writers used the plural form, “churches” in distinction from one church (cf. Rev. 2:7-8). Those who claim that the singular form of the word ecclesia could be used to describe multiple ecclesias have yet to provide an unambiguous instance in the Christians Scriptures.”‘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
The claim, mentioned above, that ecclesia in these verses meant “all Christians living in the world” would have been nonsensical to first century people, for an ecclesia was an assembly, or a gathering, of people. The collective singular makes the word mean what it can’t: a collective assembly of assemblies, yet an assembly that never actually assembles.
Nor, as was claimed above, can it be shown from Scripture that Saul persecuted a “the whole body of professing Christians throughout the world,” for such an accomplishment would have required extensive travels through multiple continents to track down all those who became Christians at Pentecost and had gone back to their home countries, and those who had become Christians through their witness. Further, if Saul had persecuted Christians in such foreign regions he would have created a long series of international incidents in violation of Roman law and thereby been arrested multiple times for assault and kidnapping. He was, after all, without authority except in places the Jewish High Priest could oversee, such as the synagogues in Jerusalem, Israel, and Syria (cf. Acts 9:2).
Furthermore, converts from non-Roman territories such as Ethiopia (Acts 8), and “Parthians and Medes and Elamites” (Act 2:9) would have been vigorously protected by their own country’s constabularies. Those governments would have locked up a Roman citizen like Saul entering their own lands to persecute their own citizens.
Truth is, there is no record of Saul traveling to such countries. He only travelled to one, Syria, which because it was governmentally connected to Jerusalem had its synagogue under the Jerusalem chief priest’s authority.
Instead of viewing passages like Gal. 1:13 as teaching a collective singular, Paul used the plural to refer to multiple churches: “I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea which were in Christ” (Gal. 1:22). Thus, when Paul writes, “I persecuted the church,” he refers to the first church, the church in Jerusalem.
Option 2. The Collected Church.
That is, “all local churches in a given area at some point in time.”Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3:199-200
But this assumes what it hopes to prove, that Paul spoke of plural churches using the collective singular church. However, apart from these questioned texts, Paul always uses the plural when referring to more than one church (Rom. 16:4, 16, 1 Cor. 7:17, 11:16, 14:33, 34, 16:1, 19, 2 Cor. 8:1, 18, 19, 23, 24, 11:8, 28, 12:13, Gal. 1:2, 22, 1 Thess. 2:14, 2 Thess. 1:4). This claim also ignores where Paul is specifically described as persecuting only the church in Jerusalem.
Option 3. The General Church.
That is, the Christians as existing on earth in some sort of universal sense but without specifying where or in what context.Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 329-330; Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, 734, n. 107.
But if Luke meant to claim Saul was persecuting the church’s people and not the church, why did he use such an important NT word, ecclesia? Paul’s teaching elsewhere shows he regarded an ecclesia of Jesus Christ as both a people and an institution (i.e., 1 Tim. 3:15). This claim also ignores Acts 8:1, 3, and Acts 26:10.
Option 4. The Universal Church.
That is, all those living on earth, but at this time only made up of the churches in Judea.
“The expression, then, denotes the universal church of his day.” Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians, 537.
“Obviously Paul persecuted local churches, but here he thinks of the church in universal terms.”Tom Schreiner, Galatians, 98
But another commentator counters,
“…there is a serious weakness with this view: ecclesia
can no longer have its usual meaning of ‘gathering’
or ‘assembly,’ since it is difficult to envisage how
the worldwide church could assemble…” Peter O’Brien, Commentary on Philippians, 377-78..
This last commentator is right, and further goes on to describe how to the apostle Paul taught the Universal Church didn’t exist on earth, but also, and especially, in heaven. So he can’t agree to the “universal church” option, nor ought he. Think about it this way. A large portion of the universal Church was unborn when Paul wrote these words, and yet is a part of Christ’s Universal Church through all the age. However, no Christian alive today can say he was persecuted by Saul. So then, in what sense did Saul persecute the universal church?
This option is reflective of an invented meaning of ‘universal church’ that has replaced for many the meaning of ‘Universal Church’ as taught by the apostle Paul, i.e., all those saved in the present age and who are predestined for glory.
Option 5. The Believers in the Jerusalem Church.
“Paul’s persecution was aimed only at the one ecclesia, i.e., the Christian gatherings in Jerusalem, which resulted in a scattered church throughout Judea.” Peter O’Brien, Commentary on Philippians, 376-378.
This is right next to the correct answer, but Saul’s persecution goes beyond only the believers, and all the way to the institution of the church in Jerusalem, since the extent of Paul’s persecution was also aimed at destroying the institutional structures that Christians employed. In Acts 8:3 it is the house gatherings, and in Damascus it was the synagogue (Acts 22:19). Had Paul only wanted to speak of his persecution against people, he likely would have written “I persecuted the believers,” not “I persecuted the church.”
Option 6. The Local Church, Wherever Found.
Writes one commentator,
“The persecution of some churches signals Paul’s intention
to stamp out all churches where ever they may be,
thus wiping all things in any way connected
to the Church of Jesus Christ,
both universal and local.”emphasis mine, Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 334
This seems to be right, although we have no evidence of Paul persecuting any church other than that centered in Jerusalem. Notice that the phrase “the church” in these three verses (1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13, Phil. 3:6) combines two aspects, “the people of the church” and “the institution of the church,” as seen in Paul’s explanatory comment in Gal. 1:13: “I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (not, “destroy them”). Saul’s goal in persecuting the church of God was to destroy both people and institution. In other words, complete eradication of all things church.
“Paul’s statements concerning his own persecution of the “church…”[are] speaking there not of the overall church, but rather of the congregation in Jerusalem.”]Volf, After Our Likeness, 138
“This could be a reference to the church at Jerusalem before it distributed itself into a number of smaller communities in various parts of Judea.”Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 30
This sixth option, then, recognizes Paul’s words as reflecting his desire not only to damage the people, but also eliminate the institutional nature of the Jerusalem church in both it’s structure and goals.
It is at this point some Free Church theologians might have a difficult time with the institutional nature of the NT local church, preferring to think of the church almost exclusively as a gathering of Christians:
“The community of God’s people considered at any
level can be rightly be called ‘a church.'” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 858.
However, Jesus’ ecclesiology will not allow for this. His words establish institutional rules in Mat. 18:17. To see the difference, a professing but impenitent Christian ought to be removed from the church, but will still have ongoing relationships with some or many members, such as family, business associates, and neighbors. However, he has lost all relationship to the church as an institution, for he is not a part of it.
Thus the phrase the church in these three verses (Acts 9:31, 1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13) is not universal in any possible way. It is tied to a series of events that immediately threatened the survival of the church in Jerusalem, and if those events continued, potentially threatened the survival of all churches, both as people and as institutions. Therefore, it is best to regard 1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13, Phil. 3:6 as referring to Christ’s second meaning for ecclesia, the local church.
What about Acts 9:31? Is the use of ecclesia in this text, regional, ethnic, or something more?
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:31) “The range and age of the witnesses that read the singular number [of ecclesia] are superior to those that read the plural.” Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 322-23. The oldest witness is Ƥ74.
Option 1. The Regional Church.
One scholar writes that the church of Acts 9:31 is, “the one community of believers that has local congregations in many regions.” Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, 466 He speaks for many.
But quickly, there are two problems here. What does it mean, concretely, to be “one community… in many regions”? And, ecclesia never meant ‘community’ in the 1st C.contra Kevin Giles, “What on Earth is the Church?, 15-19
Let’s go a bit deeper. This alleged community didn’t share ethnicity, native language, or culture. It was almost 5,000 square miles of terrain, so the Christian people of these regions could not have been in one community.
And as I said, ‘community’ is not a meaning of ecclesia witnessed in any ancient Koiné Greek text whatsoever, either secular or sacred. In other words, taking ecclesia to mean ‘community’ assigns a completely new meaning to the word no ancient author used.
Had Luke wanted to refer to the Christian people spread over these three regions the words “the believers throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” or “those scattered throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” (cf. Acts 11:19) would have carried such a meaning well. But the word ecclesia in every other occurrence in Acts describes those gathered for worship, or Christians who are identified as being of the same city. It carries that same semblance of meaning here, as we will see.
Another scholar writes that Acts 9:31, “refers to a regional entity, one that does not assemble all together but consists of the Jewish and half-Jewish Christians in a geographic area,”Gregg Allison, Strangers and Sojourners, 63. But in what sense is it an entity, that is, “something that exists by itself,” if it never meets together?
Another writes, “…among the Christians of Judea there was only one ekklesia.”L. Cerfaux, The Church in the Theology of St. Paul, 115 Then what shall be made of Paul’s words, “the churches of Judea” (Gal 1:22, 1 Thes. 2:14)?
Another writes, “Luke shows… this extended idea of the church in Acts 9:31…” Which is to say the extended church does not mean a regional church but rather teaches “the church at large.”Rex Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith, first ed., 29.
If Luke is extending the meaning of ecclesia then he must require, first, that they all meet together, or else it can’t be an extension of an ecclesia. As well, it would require that an extended church extend the institutional functions of a smaller church given by Jesus Christ in Mat. 18:17 and the unified partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Yet, there is no evidence of this.
Option 2. The Ethnic Church.
“The occurrence of Galilee at this point probably signifies only the church is now settled and established in all Jewish areas… The church is now at peace and flourishing, and is now ready for further expansion.”C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, 472.
While this recognizes the institutional nature of the NT ecclesia (planned expansion), it relies on a meaning of ecclesia drawn from only itself (i.e., circular reasoning), that of a single entity covering several regions that neither meets together but is, as a church, carrying out any institutional function of expansion. As well, the mention of Samaria is clearly non-Jewish.
Here’s yet another take: “Luke… refers to the sum of Jewish believers over a large area, corresponding to the boundaries of ancient Israel.”David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 317.
But the mention of Samaria in 9:31 is clearly non-Jewish. Besides, Luke wrote “the ecclesia throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria,” not “the believers throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria,” as this view presupposes. As well, this interpretation ignores the institutional aspect of ecclesia entirely.
Option 3. The Body of Christ.
“Notice the he [Luke] uses the word church in the singular to indicate the unity of the body of Christ” Simon Kistemaker, Acts , 353-54.
But the word church does not in itself connote unity, but assembly, since it can contain unbelievers and be filled with strife as in the case of the Corinthians. If Luke wanted to connote unity in the Body of Christ, which likely did exist in the churches throughout the region of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, why didn’t he use words to make the inference of unity clear? Regarding the singular ecclesia, “The singular can hardly be a scribal modification in the interest of expressing the idea of the unity of the church, for in that case we should have expected similar modifications in 15.41 and 16.5, where there is no doubt that the plural number ἐκκλησίαι is the original text.” Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 322-23.
Option 4. The Once Persecuted Church of Jerusalem.
Acts 9:31 refers to the previously persecuted, but now at peace, church of Jerusalem. To this point in the book of Acts, it has been the only church mentioned.
Acts 9:31 forms a “connecting link” to 8:1, 3 that serves two grammatical purposes. It resolves the prior segment on the scattered church of Jerusalem, and introduces a new section in Acts.C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, 472.
“[T]he verse concludes a section about how ‘the church in Jerusalem’ (Acts 8:1) was persecuted and its members scattered.””Church” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. Marshall, Millard, Packer, Wiseman, p. 200
The first two words, “So then” (µὲν οὖν) translate a Greek phrase that often begins a new section, or concludes a completed section (cf. Acts 8:35). Here it does both.
One commentator wrote, “a minor inclusion is thus formed between 8:1 and 9:31, indicating the theme of the church under attack is the controlling motif.”David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 317.
This appears to be correct, since it explains the presence of the the definite article before ecclesia in 9:31, which takes on the force of a demonstrative pronoun (i.e., ‘that church‘), anaphorically pointing back to the prior use of ecclesia at Acts 8:1, 3:cf. Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 141. “That church – the once-persecuted and now-scattered church in Jerusalem – was experiencing peace.”
More grammatical markers strengthen this interpretation. Both 8:1 and 9:31 feature the distributive use of the preposition kata (κατὰ), translated in both texts as “throughout.” Thus the two texts feature prepositional clauses that are strikingly similar, so much so it can be easily heard in English. The Jerusalem church was scattered “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (8:1), and this persecuted church “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace (9:31).
The larger flow of Acts support this geographic expansion. As a result of the scattering, the Jerusalem church took on an expanded role in evangelizing, but retained some institutional ties to the larger region. Peter began to minister throughout that expanded region (Acts 9:32ff), but while doing so, was officially questioned about his activities by certain persons in the remaining Jerusalem church (Acts 11:2ff) showing his relationship with the church in Jerusalem as institutional.
Thus Acts unfolds the story of the institutional role of the church in Jerusalem increasing in geography. How so? Two times Paul brought a financial gift for the “relief of the brethren living in Judea” to the elders in the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:22, 29-30; cf. Acts 21:17-18, Rom. 15:25-26, 30-31, 1 Cor. 16:3, 2 Cor. 1:16, 9:12). Thus in spite of Saul’s persecution, and in lieu of Saul’s subsequent conversion, this church, ‘the once-gathered, now persecuted’ church of Jerusalem, “increased” numerically (ἐπληθύνετο, eplethunto, “increased”).
Hence, in Acts 9:31 Luke is not saying that the churches which existed in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria prior to Saul’s persecution came to attain peace. There never was any persecution of them so far as Luke’s book of Acts tells us, and indeed, no church other than Jerusalem’s is mentioned in Acts until chapter 13. Why then would Luke cite a church attaining peace, when they always had it?
Rather, he is claiming that Saul’s persecution not only scattered many Jerusalem saints but extended the institution of the Jerusalem church to care for its own even after they were scattered. Once scattered, the elders of Jerusalem didn’t wash their hands of them but rather continued to provide all they could.
Pulling it together then, the Jerusalem church was persecuted after the martyrdom of Stephen and many members were subsequently scattered into the surrounding regions (Acts 8:1-3). Being thus distributed, it found peace and increase after Saul’s glorious conversion. “The ‘church’ that by 9:31 was said to enjoy peace, was the Jerusalem church which was now scattered.”John Woodhouse, The Unity of the Church, footnote 4
So then, what is the meaning of ecclesia in Acts 9:31? As with 1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13, and Phil 3:6, the use of ecclesia in Acts 9:31 is that of a local church. Just like Mat. 18:17, it refers to both the people and the institution of a particular church (i.e., Jerusalem). And like 1 Cor. 15:9, Gal. 1:13, and Phil 3:6, it is tied to Saul’s prosecutorial career.
1 Cor. 12:28
Then also there is 1 Cor. 12:28.
“And God has appointed in the church, first apostles,
second prophets, third teachers, then miracles,
then gifts of healings, helps, administrations,
various kinds of tongues”
Is the use of ecclesia in this text universal, local, or something more?
Option 1. The Universal Church.
“First Corinthians 12:28 almost certainly focuses on the universal church: “God appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers.”Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 333
“[O]ne can hardly deny the meaning of… the church-in-general. Thus in 1 Corinthians 12:28 where apostles, prophets, etc., are spoken of as given by God “to the church.” Here it is obviously a matter not only of that which applies to the individual local congregation, but to the church in general.” Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 329.
However, in the NT, the ‘Universal Church” includes those already with Christ in heaven, and those who come to faith long after the 1st century, and shall all be gathered together before Christ in the last day. For both of these groups, the spiritually gifted persons of 12:28 are useless.
Option 2. The Local Church.
“Paul regarded each church [in 1 Cor. 12:28] as having its own apostles (founders), who, in consequence, ranked first within the ministries within that church.” James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 578. This position is the exact opposite of option 1.
Option 3. The Institutional Church.
If we accept that the institutional church in the NT only refers to the local church, we shall be able to make excellent sense of this passage.
It shouldn’t be discounted that the context of 1 Cor. 12:28 is the local church, for the prior context, right up to 1 Cor. 12:27, speaks of the local body of Christ. The word “body” is used a remarkable eighteen times in the previous sixteen verses to speak of the composition and one-another ministry that exists exclusively in the local church at Corinth, climaxing with Paul’s words to this church, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).
Further, we should recognize that Paul first describes a list of church offices that are also spiritual gifts, and then moves to lesser important gifts in the listing of 1 Cor. 12:28. Of the eight gifts mentioned in this verse only one, apostleship, is designed to be used in multiple churches. Thus 1 Cor. 12:28 is far more local church oriented than anything else. For example, what could it possibly mean to the Universal Church to have the gift of helps?
The difficulty comes in rightly assessing the role of apostles in 1 Cor. 12:28. Their ministry was indeed above the local church since Christ entailed upon these men the task of laying the foundation. All churches through the present age are to be built on their apostolic ministry (Eph. 2:17-22). As well, as an apostle Paul doesn’t hesitate to claim authority over all churches (and Christians) (1 Cor. 14:34-38).
So does the prominent placement of “apostles” mean that the ecclesia in 1 Cor. 12:28 refers to an earthly Universal Church? This is unlikely.
First, if 1 Cor. 12:28 refers to a church that never meets together (the Universal Church on earth), then there can be no one-another ministry within itself. Therefore the gifts of 1 Cor. 12:28 have no actual value to the Universal Church on earth. That rules out any sense of Universal Church.
Second, in 1 Cor. 12:28 Paul’s specifies where the gifts operate: “in the church” (ἐν τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ). By using this phrase, Paul was teaching that the Corinthians experienced these gifts during the Corinthian Church’s Sunday worship service (see ἐν [τῇ] ἐκκλησίᾳ in 1 Cor. 11:18, 14:19, 28, 35). This reinforces the connection between the one-another ministry of a local body of Christ in 1 Cor. 12:12-27 and the institutional control and value of those gifts for the greater good in 1 Cor. 12:28.
I believe the right understanding of 1 Cor. 12:28 sees Paul teaching the institutional church, which is to say, the ranking of gifts in 1 Cor. 12:28ff only makes sense when the institutional form of the local church is recognized. This mirrors Jesus’ use of ecclesia in Mat. 18:17 where He refers to both people and institution.
As is well-known, the Corinthians weren’t too keen on any institutional limits on their self-expression during a worship service, but Paul reminds them of God’s ordained arrangement in every local church, “God has appointed in the church…” (1Co 12:28).
There is a priority to be observed in the local church, then, and it begins with apostles and prophets. Today their ministry is made central by the clear exposition of their writings as the non-negotiable focus of a Christian worship service.
1 Cor. 10:32
“Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks
or to the church of God”
(1 Cor. 10:32)
Is the use of ecclesia in this text universal, local, or something more?
Option 1. The Third Race Church
“Even if Gentiles become true or spiritual Jews or part of true/spiritual Israel, in Christ neither they nor converted Jews can simply fall under the category of Jews.”Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 497 In this view, one’s identity, upon becoming a Christian, is so altered that it is no longer correct to be identified as either Jew or Gentile.
But, if Paul is speaking of identity change, why refer to “church” – which is not only people, but an institution? And why would such a major issue such as identity change be referred to so obliquely when never clearly taught in the NT?
Option 2. The Redefined People of God.
“…the phrase the Church of God in this context calls attention… to a discontinuity, as if to imply that ‘the people of God’ are partly redefined.” emphasis original, Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 795.
But how can eating idol food in Corinth offend the people of God, both Jew and Gentile, throughout the existing world? Quite likely many in Corinth’s church didn’t even know it was going on, and likely, many Gentile Christians around the Empire even approved of it (wrongly).
Paul isn’t thinking globally here, but locally, as seen in his words in the same discussion, “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24). That’s why he illustrates his point with a non-Christian neighbor, who being Gentile, invites the Christian to dinner (1 Cor. 10:27-30).
Option 3. The Local Church.
This appears correct.
“Notice that Paul includes the members of the church. They as individual believers have the corporate responsibility of caring for one another. If a weaker member of the church is offended, the entire congregation is offended and should respond.”Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians, 358.; “here [church] probably refers first of all to the church in Corinth”Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, 488, n. 107 “that is, the assembly, probably the local assembly, of God’s people”Barrett, 1 Corinthians, 244.]
The phrase “the church of God” is a repeat of the same phrase in the opening of the letter, “To the church of God which is at Corinth” (1Cor. 1:2),” where it is to be read as a local church (cf. 1 Cor. 11:16).
There are at least two reasons to see this specific text as indeed referring to the local church there in Corinth.
The People. Would the entire church of Corinth (i.e., all the members) have been offended by a single member eating idol food? Not likely, for Paul’s words tell us some in that church had embraced it (1 Cor. 10:21-22). Therefore, “the church” cannot refer to members only.
The Institution. Paul writes “the church” because his words include one of a church’s institutional functions. The function alluded to in this verse is the confrontation and exclusion for impenitent sin, such as eating idol food (1 Cor. 10:14). In other words, if a person in the Corinthian church wishes to eat idol food and the Lord’s Table, they must be removed from the (institutional) church in Corinth. The offense is not merely against people, but to the church as an institution designed to promote worship exclusive to God alone.
How is one man eating idol food a stumbling block to the entire church? He who eats from both the table of demons and the table of the Lord defiles the Lord’s table for all Christians who join are one body with him, thus inviting divine judgment on all (1 Cor. 10:16-17, 21-22). The “offense to the church of God” of 1 Cor. 10:32 is the threat of expulsion through local church discipline (cf. 1 Cor. 11:16, 22).
Therefore, 1 Cor. 10:32 refers not to a general collection of Christians in the world, but the local church at Corinth, which was required to act in an institutional manner against an impenitent man acting in idolatry.
Summing Up the Results
This article has just looked at a handful of verses with the word ecclesia, asking of each the question, does this use of ecclesia match up to either of Christ’s definitions of either the Universal Church (Mat. 16:18), Christ’s definition of the Local Church (Mat. 18:17), or does it represent a third meaning?
This third meaning as we saw earlier represents most contemporary, and many historic uses of the two word phrase, the Church. It often means something like “Christians living on earth,” or might refer to just anything in any way connected to Christianity. It can also refer to an ecclesiastical organization, such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Are any of these third meanings validly derived from the New Testament, or have these few verses been anachronistically interpreted to make Scripture fit them? That is, have we made Scripture fit our ecclesiology, instead of the other way around?
We saw that 95% of all uses of ecclesia in the NT clearly refer to either a local church, or the Universal Church of who will ever believe, and that the remaining 5% are used to provide a connection from the Bible to both contemporary and historic meanings of ecclesia.
But when this 5%, or six verses, are looked at, and all reasonable options considered, the conclusion was here reached and reasons given why ecclesia in each fits Jesus Christ’s previously given meaning in Mat. 18:17 – the local church as both people and institution. This analysis completes the statistics given at the head of the article. Adding in the 5%, we can now see that a full 87% of all uses of ecclesia in the NT refer to the local church, a single body of believers who worship together, while the other 13% refer to the staggering and amazing Universal Church, the group of all who will be in heaven, having been redeemed by Jesus Christ.
There is no third meaning given by God for the church, such as a Universal Church on earth, the Church Militant, or, fill in the blanks: The __________ Church of ______________. Accepting a third meaning for the church has only led to dissonance with the word of God and great schism on earth.
Applying the Ecclesiology of Jesus Christ
If you define the Universal Church as some or all of the Christians on earth but not in heaven, then you are defining the church for yourself. Or, if in any way you define it differently than the two meanings taught by Christ, you are responsible to do two things. First, you should show a text from Scripture that teaches this, especially in light of thirteen other texts that are framed on Christ’s Universal Church definition in Mat. 16:18. Eph. 1:22, 3:10, 3:21, 5:23, 5:24, 5:25, 5:27, 5:29, 5:32, Col. 1:18, 1:24, Heb. 2:12, 12:23
Second, the person subtracting from Christ’s own definition of the Universal Church in Mat. 16:18, and making it refer only to Christians on earth (and not those in heaven too) needs to explain why his definition of the Universal Church is an improvement to that given by Jesus Christ.
This isn’t to say it isn’t permissible for Jesus Christ to append a third meaning to ecclesia in Holy Scripture. Such expansions of meaning are viable in light of progressive revelation. For example, the word “temple” gets expanded in the NT to refer to Christ’s physical body (John 2:21) and also as a metaphor for the Universal Church (Eph. 2:21).
But what ought not happen is that this subtracted meaning of “universal on earth” be only supported by itself. For example, to claim the NT teaches something called “the regional church” based on Acts 9:31, and Acts 9:31 alone, is invalid. There must be more evidence than a single reference, and preferably, a compelling NT example for us to see as well.
Out of Kilter
Am I being too subtle here, or is something out of kilter? If the Bible, the very foundation of every Christian church, never adds, subtracts, or otherwise alters the two meanings of ecclesia as given by Jesus Christ – are we still free to preach, write, and teach authoritatively about the church in a way that disagrees with those two meanings? I wouldn’t think so.
So many believe, preach, and write on a meaning of church that Jesus Christ never revealed. As a direct result Christians worship Jesus Christ in schismed churches in every city and town in the Age of Schism.
The ubiquitous popularity of so many third meanings of the church reflect a stubborn autonomy from Jesus Christ. In some cases they reflect a trenchant rebellion against Him as well. For since there are only two meanings of the church given by Him, then no matter how often we say the church or write the church with our own third meanings, they are all utterly meaningless, and likely offensive.
Dissing Christ, and His Bride
In what other area of Christian theology are the very terms given by Christ Himself so ignored as in ecclesiology? Who gives the time of day to those doctors of theology that add the title “Mother” to the One whom Jesus called “My Father?” Is the Holy Spirit better understood when religious pluralists define Him as a “Cosmic Spirit?” Do we praise and emulate those who call Jesus the big man upstairs?
We esteem Christ’s own definitions of salvation, right? Or can we reach more people if we join in with those who have grown dissatisfied with the forgiveness of sins and think it better to believe in the transmigration of souls? Shall we clasp arms with those for whom holiness is passé and yoga and meditation are trendy?
Why then dismiss Christ on, of all things, the church! It can’t be that He wasn’t clear about it, nor that He has been impotent to save it. Who can measure the offense done Him by His own who sniff down their nose at His clearly defined bride He won to himself and is saving throughout the world?
History and Experience
We live in schism because we believe all kinds of things about the church – both the things that developed in church history, and the present things that have shaped our experience. Schism stubbornly exists because the 95% of agreed upon meanings is not sufficient for us. Church history and experience counts for more, even though we profess Jesus is the infallible Son of God.
Little wonder then that the New Testament’s demands for church unity goes unfulfilled. We can’t even agree on what the church is! So we are church people, living on the same street and in the same city with each other, but holding such differing beliefs about the church that we are irreconcilable to each other. Will we be one church with Christ forever? I doubt it.
We are also unreconciled to the fact that Jesus Christ taught only two meanings on the church either by ignorance or hardness. Hardness is evident in those of us who look outside the New Testament because we believe there is another source from which to learn Christ’s teachings on the church, Church Tradition.
But since these teachings themselves are at variance with Christ’s two meanings as recorded in the gospel of Matthew, such Tradition stands reproved by Jesus Christ and His apostles.
If this is you, your problem is profoundly idolatrous. By His own words, Jesus Christ taught ecclesiology only through His personally chosen witnesses of His incarnation and ascension, not successors.
The NT is adept at describing Christians in different communities but who don’t gather together for church. The biblical writers called them “the people” (Acts 15:14; 18:10; Rom. 9:25 ff; 2 Cor.6:16; Tit. 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:9 ff; Heb. 4:9, 8:10, 10:30, 13:12; Rev. 18:4; 21:3). But “church?”
We ought instead define “the church” as our Lord and His apostles did: Universal and local. And I can think of at least four reasons we should want to limit it to these two.
Obedience. To do the will of God is the purpose of life and the happy expression of the fear of the Lord. But many groups in Christendom explicitly believe that the church is some subset of all Christians on earth in connection with them. The full realm of Episcopal groups, including Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist institutions are built on this false definition, as well as all connectional denominational structures as well.
Not only do the Christian leaders in these groups need to repent, they also need to merge in single, city-wide local churches under biblically qualified elders that worship the Jesus Christ of Scripture, not Tradition.
This responsibility to merge in present day obedience to Titus 1:5 entails upon all independent churches as well.
Judgment. When Paul writes in 1 Cor. 3:10, “like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it,” he used Apollos as an example of a man who built unity (1 Cor. 3:6). The foundation Apollos built on was the body of Christ in Corinth, unified, a single church in Corinth. Had Apollos built another church of Jesus Christ in Corinth alongside the unified body there, he would have earned wood, hay, and stubble in the believer’s judgment.
But he didn’t. And today? Paul’s warning to all who will build churches arrives next: “But each man must be careful how he builds on it.”
Why such a warning?
All work done in any church no matter how noble that uses a foundation of a schismatic ecclesiology will be consumed in judgment even as wood, hay and stubble are consumed in fire. In spite of all appearances in the present, such church work has limited, if any, present value, and certain future shame (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
Conformity. The mark of a disciple of Jesus Christ is increasing conformity to the Word of God in faith and duty. Rom. 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Every third meaning of the church in the mouth’s of Christ’s would-be disciples, when used to teach or exhort, causes a conformity not to Christ, but the world.
One day, due to glorification, we will believe only His two definitions of the church anyway, so we might as well start now.
Clarification. The redeemed men of Jesus’ day refused to see how far the temple in Jerusalem had fallen from its God-ordained purpose, and even after Christ cleansed it they complained. They knew something was wrong but were at a loss as to even diagnose the magnitude of the problem (John 2:13-22).
By limiting our beliefs on all things church to the two meanings given by Christ Himself, we instantly see and separate from the religious menagerie that governs most of what counts for “church” in our day. A true understanding clarifies the many false and damaging ecclesiological doctrines of men.
For more study:
Why you should be in an obedient church, not a true church.
The Body of Christ is precious, where you live.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||B.B Warfield, Redeemer and Redemption, Princeton Review, vol 14, p. 199|
|2.||↑||Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program, 11|
|3.||↑||”But if any one objects, by way of saying that Novatian holds the same law which the catholic church holds, baptizes with the same symbol with which we baptize, knows the same God and Father, the same Christ the Son, the same Holy Spirit, and that for this reason he may claim the power of baptizing, namely, that he seems not to differ from us in the baptismal interrogatory; let any one that thinks that this may be objected, know first of all, that them is not one law of the creed, nor the same interrogatory common to us and to schismatics. For when they say, Do you believe the remission of sins and life eternal through the holy church? they lie in their interrogatory, since they have not the church. Then, besides, with their own voice they themselves confess that remission of sins cannot be given except by the holy church; and not having this, they show that sins cannot be remitted among them.” (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 75, 6|
|4.||↑||Constantine’s Edict of Milan “…did not make Christianity the state religion, as is generally asserted, but only legalized it, and popularized it. Now people could and did openly desert the old and join the new faith. [The Edict] gave it opportunity for public organization, thus paving the way for the Catholic hierarchy already begun; and marks a new era in the history of the Christian church, because at last a great Roman Emperor and his conquering army had taken up the sword in defense of persecuted Christianity.” Alexander C. Flick, The Rise of the Mediaeval Church, 293.|
|5.||↑||See The Importance of Being Catholic|
|6.||↑||Mat. 16:18: Mat. 16:18, Eph. 1:22, 3:10, 3:21, 5:23, 5:24, 5:25, 5:27, 5:29, 5:32, Col. 1:18, 1:24, Heb. 2:12, 12:23. Those denying the Universal Church tend toward isolationism and antinomianism.|
|7.||↑||Evangelicals, Ecumenism and the Church, p. 368|
|8.||↑||The tally required context-sensitive reading since some writers use lowercase c, church, to mean something larger than a local church, while others use an uppercase C, Church. Examples of this are the emergent church, the third world church, the contemporary church, the early church, the church in our own day, etc. But most common in my research was capital C Church, as in the Church in the East, the 21st Century Church, etc.|
|9.||↑||Evans is one of the few authors who takes time to define her terms, “Certain elements or features of a community help to identify it, first as ‘Church’ and secondly as ‘a church’. That is, it must be at the same time the one Church which is the body of Christ; and a distinct ecclesial entity, alongside other churches. And each and all of the churches, and also the one Church, will have certain characteristics which define ‘Church’. This paradoxical state of affairs has to be described in terms of concepts unique to Christian ecclesiology” (pp. 20-21). Her humility in admitting to ecclesiological paradox is appreciated but her paradox is nowhere seen in the NT. It is owing to her attributing a third meaning to Church, that of some sort of global body of Christ.|
|10.||↑||I did find one book where the ratio of Church to church was about even (1 to 1). That was a book on how Paul did missionary work. I also found one book where the local church was used more than Church – it was a book devoted to Presbyterian church governance. However, I’ve not yet found any books or articles that reflect anywhere near the ratio of the NT: about 90% local church, and 10% Universal Church.|
|11.||↑||P.T. O’Brien, The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity, in “The Church in the Bible and in the World,” ed. DA Carson, 92|
|12.||↑||C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 345|
|13.||↑||See #5 at http://www.shalomcommunitylc.com/about/shalom-more-than-peace/|
|14.||↑||”‘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|
|15.||↑||Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3:199-200|
|16.||↑||Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 329-330; Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, 734, n. 107.|
|17.||↑||Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians, 537.|
|18.||↑||Tom Schreiner, Galatians, 98|
|19.||↑||Peter O’Brien, Commentary on Philippians, 377-78.|
|20.||↑||Peter O’Brien, Commentary on Philippians, 376-378.|
|21.||↑||emphasis mine, Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 334|
|22.||↑||]Volf, After Our Likeness, 138|
|23.||↑||Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, 30|
|24.||↑||Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 858.|
|25.||↑||“The range and age of the witnesses that read the singular number [of ecclesia] are superior to those that read the plural.” Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 322-23. The oldest witness is Ƥ74.|
|26.||↑||Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, 466|
|27.||↑||contra Kevin Giles, “What on Earth is the Church?, 15-19|
|28.||↑||Gregg Allison, Strangers and Sojourners, 63.|
|29.||↑||L. Cerfaux, The Church in the Theology of St. Paul, 115|
|30.||↑||Rex Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith, first ed., 29.|
|31, 35.||↑||C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, 472.|
|32, 37.||↑||David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 317.|
|33.||↑||Simon Kistemaker, Acts , 353-54.|
|34.||↑||Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 322-23.|
|36.||↑||”Church” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. Marshall, Millard, Packer, Wiseman, p. 200|
|38.||↑||cf. Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 141.|
|39.||↑||John Woodhouse, The Unity of the Church, footnote 4|
|40.||↑||Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 333|
|41.||↑||Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 329.|
|42.||↑||James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 578.|
|43.||↑||Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 497|
|44.||↑||emphasis original, Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 795.|
|45.||↑||Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians, 358.|
|46.||↑||Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, 488, n. 107|
|47.||↑||Barrett, 1 Corinthians, 244.|
|48.||↑||Eph. 1:22, 3:10, 3:21, 5:23, 5:24, 5:25, 5:27, 5:29, 5:32, Col. 1:18, 1:24, Heb. 2:12, 12:23|