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Home The Light Articles from 1999 The Term "Church" As Used In the New Testament

The Term "Church" As Used In the New Testament

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The Term "Church" As Used In the New Testament

The meaning of ekklesia (church) as we break the word down into its stems, ek (out) + klesia (kaleo, to call), has reference to those called out; an assembly. In the New Testament it is almost exclusively used in the context of Christianity. However, Stephen speaks of the "church in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38) in talking about Israel, and the word is used in describing the multitude that came together in the theater at Ephesus, being translated "assembly" (KJV, Acts 19:32,39,41).

In connection with Christianity we find the word ekklesia (church) used in at least three different ways. It is used in (1) a universal sense, in (2) a local sense, and in (3) a local assembled sense. Let us look into this.

(1) Jesus declared, "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18); here it is easy to think of this in terms of the universal church. Then when the Ethiopian on his way back to Ethiopia was baptized in Acts 8, he certainly was not a part of a local church yet, but he was in the universal church (1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 1:18). Contrasting the Old Testament system and the New, and speaking of the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews states in Hebrews 12:22,23, "But ye are come to the general assembly and church of the firstborn [Greek plural, firstborn ones], which are written in heaven."

(2) Next, the term church is used to speak of a community of believers in one location, bound together as a single unit; the local church. This is quite evident in the New Testament, whether reading the book of Acts or the epistles that follow. Paul addressed the epistle of 1 Corinthians to the "church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2).

(3) Finally, the term church is used of the public assembly of Christians in one locality. Paul speaks of the church coming together at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:4; 11:17,18,34) and coming together in one place (1 Cor. 11:20; 14:23). It is in this context that this coming together is called the "church," when Paul said, "Let your women keep silence in the churches" (14:34), meaning they were not to teach in the assemblies. "Church" here refers to the assembly, not the church in a general sense, otherwise the prohibition would be universal (which is unthinkable). In this same 14th chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul, in regulating the assembly so everything would be "done decently and in order," asserted, "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches [assemblies] of the saints" (14:33). Likewise the term church seems to refer to the assembly in Colossians 4:16.

The universal church is not organized, nor is it to be organized. We are to "love the brotherhood" (1 Pet. 2:17), not organize it. The extent of the organization of the church is the local, autonomous church. That is all that there is to it. Local bodies of believers were organized under the oversight of men called elders. Paul and Barnabas "ordained them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23), i.e. in every local church, as they visited the new body of believers in each city. In talking to "the elders of the church" at Ephesus, a local church in Asia, Paul admonished them, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:17,28). Peter admonished the elders in 1 Peter 5:2 to "feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight..." This is referring to a local church. The jurisdiction of the elders is not beyond the local body of Christians. The simplicity of the local unit is likewise seen in Philippians 1:1. Paul and Timothy were preachers who had been sent out from local churches (Acts 13:1-3; etc.), and with others had been instrumental in starting this church. The only ecclesiastical organization started beyond the local church was other local churches.

However, apostasy came early to the original church in their getting away from the simplicity of the local church, setting up district and national organizations, and finally a universal one with the pope at the head of it. Men have never learned their lesson, and the unending cycle continues with each generation and with each denomination in varying degrees. To get away from the local church is to head back toward Rome and denominationalism. It is to presumptuously assume authority beyond what has been given. It is to usurp the responsibility and prerogative of the local church. We need to beware.

Even in the name of co-operation men set up denominational organizations and agencies that are antagonistic to God's plan for the local, independent, and autonomous church. Then unindoctrinated people always take things a step further and solidify a denominational structure. It is always just a matter of time. Even in having religious conventions and gatherings beyond the local church men are presumptuous and speak with audacity when they would appendage and name their gatherings with district, state, or national designations. The universal church is not organized, and no one has the authority to put a name for anything beyond the local assembly in an organizational context. The implication is that they have the authority to do this and are in some sense representing Christians nationally or regionally. It is intimidating to those who do not choose to be part of such gatherings, implying they are out of step. The unindoctrinated think so. It is denominational and represents a denominational mindset (further promoting division).

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