Reading again a booklet on the supposed various sorts of "churches," which was published some years ago, I am astounded at the complexity its author has managed to bring into a very simple subject.
My own studies have convinced me that God's truth, as revealed to us, is essentially simple and uncomplicated. This does not mean that all His truth is free from complexity, but only what He has elected to reveal to us. Many, many questions arise in our minds, as we study the Word, that are wholly unanswerable; not that no answers exist, but simply that none of them are revealed. Sometimes we can deduce answers from the truths that have been revealed, though such deductions are almost always coloured by the fallibility that results from our mortality; but nearly always the less cautious sort of expositor deduces them from notions which he or others have themselves added to the Word of God. These deductions are the factor that creates the complications; and preoccupation with such questions is a sure sign of spiritual immaturity.
The author of the booklet finds a number of "churches" which, according to him, are quite different companies of people. Some, he alleges, are even groups of "churches" belonging to the same company within the group, but a different company from any outside the group. These are listed by him as the churches of the nationals (his very odd translation of ethnE, Gentiles) and the churches of the saints, who (apparently) in his view do not consist of people out of the Gentiles. Also there are "the churches of Christ," "the churches of God" and "the churches which are in Asia"—five sets in all. In addition we find "the church of God," "the church which is Christ's body," "the church of the first-born," "the church in the wilderness" and what the Lord Jesus called "My church" (Matt. 16:18)—another five companies of people, according to this author, though he says elsewhere: "The Scriptures speak of some eight different ecclesias." For anyone who really likes that sort of thing, here is a most superb tangle to be sorted out. This author's production reads like a lecture by a university professor on some subject so well understood that no cavil is possible and so complex that prolonged concentrated study coupled with a very good memory is necessary for following it at all.
Then there are what this writer calls "Unholy Ecclesias," though this term is never found in Scripture. These appear to include the assembled company at Ephesus, also called a "church" in the sense of a called-out company, though no translator seems to have been foolish enough to use that word in Acts 19. The C.V. has simply transliterated the Greek. All most puzzling! That is, if we must assume that each is a separate and distinct called-out company. Yet must we?
Why should we? The expression "the church of God," wherever we find it, means, taken literally and without injecting complications, "the called-out company that is God's"—just that, and no more. If any person is one of the people that God has called out from the rest of humanity to be His, then that person belongs to "the called-out company that is God's" or the church of God. That is so, whether the person in question was the Apostle Peter or one of those who heard and followed him, or the Apostle Paul or one who followed him; whether the call was at Pentecost, or now, or in days to come after 1. Thess. 4:13-17 has been fulfilled.
This is so obvious that any clear-headed person can only marvel at the complications that have been introduced in its place. The author of the booklet searches for the beginning of "the church of God" and finds it early in the Gospels, not apparently having even the faintest notion that the word ekklEsia, church, is not to be found anywhere in them except Matthew 16:18. There Christ says: "I shall be building the church of Me," to be very literal. Yet our author specifically distinguishes between "the church of God" and "My church." The former he confines to various companies locally established, the latter to the Twelve. What a mix-up!
Presently this writer finds other distinct churches—or so he thinks. One is "the church which is Christ's body." He denies, by implication at any rate, that this can possibly overlap any of the other "churches" he defines. Yet why should this be denied? Can anyone reasonably assert that "the church which is Christ's body" does not comprise God's people, is not God's, is not God's called-out company, is not a company that belongs to Christ? Scripture leaves something to our common sense. It does not tell us the obvious, and nobody who is not a fool would expect it to do so. If you are one of God's called-out people, you belong to His church, God's church; and if you are one of them at this present time, when Paul's Evangel is in force, then you belong to the church which is Christ's body. You cannot help it! Yet that fact does not mean that you have ceased to be one of God's people, and therefore to be one of God's called-out company.
Yet we must not deduce that everyone without exception who belongs to God's called-out company must also be a member of the church which is Christ's body. During present conditions everyone is; but these conditions were not always so, and in days to come will cease to be so. Everyone who belongs to God's church is also a member of the church which is Christ's body while Paul's Evangel, the Evangel of the uncircumcision, is in operation—but only in those circumstances and not in other circumstances. Some time in the future, God's called-out company, God's church, will consist of people called out to become the Bride, the Lamb's wife.
Blame does not rest wholly on teachers such as this writer. Part rests on people who, though sound at heart, are not precise enough in thought and language. The author of the booklet trades on this sort of vagueness when he quotes from someone: "That part of the ecclesia of God which is in Christ Jesus, which is figured by the body of Christ." But, at the present time, the whole of the "ecclesia of God" is "figured by the body of Christ," not merely a part of it. In days to come the whole of the "ecclesia of God" will be figured by the "bride." In short, it all depends on what period of time we are thinking about, what evangel happens to be in force during that period of time.
This teacher may be correct when he asserts that "in no instance can it be found, either in Classic or Sacred Greek, that one ekklEsia or out-called company is ever made up of 'a part' of a different ekklEsia," but his point is irrelevant. At this moment, the "out-called company which is Christ's body" IS "the church of God," not a part of it; it IS what the Lord Jesus called "My church" in Matt. 16:18; it includes all "the churches of the Gentiles" in existence at the present moment (Rom. 16:4), not a part of them; it includes all "the churches of the saints" in existence at the present moment (1. Cor. 14:33); it includes "the churches of God which are in Judea," if any still exist (1. Thess. 2:14) and did when this epistle was written; it includes "the churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16), and not merely a part of any of them.
Yet, after we have been snatched away, there will no longer exist on earth any out-called company "which is Christ's body." Christ's ekklEsia will also be "the ekklEsia of God" (how could it be otherwise ?), it will include all existing out-called companies of the saints, all existing called-out companies in Judea and everywhere else, including the seven "which are in Asia" at the time.
Why complicate all this? Surely it is not only simple as it stands but wholly Scriptural. The author of the booklet has complicated it all enormously with the distinctions he produces—but only by adding ideas of his own to Scripture. The complications are not in the Word itself.
For instance, he tells us that "careful examination of the mission and ministry of our Lord reveals that, when He said 'My ecclesia,' He was specifically and exclusively speaking of the twelve apostles, . . .." Needless to say, careful examination has failed to disclose any such thing; which is what might be expected when an idea is founded on such a flimsy basis. This notion is no more than a wild guess, the character of which is in no way concealed by describing it as "careful examination."
As a writer of fiction the author of this booklet certainly excels. He tells us (p. 19) that Paul preached no less than five distinct evangels. In view of this remarkable announcement it is not surprising that we are presently told by him that after Paul was separated in Acts 13:1, 2 no less than fifteen years elapsed before he made his first public mention of "the church which is Christ's body." How this writer has discovered that, he does not say; but it is not difficult to deduce. He notes the references in 1. Cor. 12:12-13, 27, assumes that this is the earliest state ment in the Greek Scriptures, and then assumes that because Paul did not write it earlier it was a secret which he had held back till then. By such methods it is possible to "prove" almost anything!
Another example of mishandling the Word comes in a discussion of 1. Cor. 14:34, where "but let them be subject according as the Law is saying" presently becomes for him, "they must live 'according as the law is saying.'"
The discussion in the foregoing is necessarily more critical than constructive, so we had best wind up with a careful, and reverent, examination of the various "churches" specified in the Greek Scriptures.
In this respect, Acts is the most difficult and the most instructive book; for the occurrences of ekklEsia in it set out the widest usages of the word. We find this particularly in Acts 19:32, 41, where a mob of people in Ephesus is described as the "ekklEsia" there; and in 19:39 is a reference to "the legal ekklEsia" or "the legal assembly," plainly a properly convened court of law. Yet in Acts 20:17, Paul calls for "the elders" of the ekklEsia at Ephesus, obviously referring to what is in Acts 2:47 (some texts); 5:11; 12:5, the "ekklEsia" or "church," as also in Matt. 18:17. Collectively, we find mention of the churches of the whole of Judea and Galilee and Samaria in Acts 9:31, "the church" in Antioch in Acts 11:26; 13:1; 14:27; 15:3 and "the church which is in Jerusalem," directly or by implication, in Acts 8:1, 3; 11 :22; 15:4, 22. In Acts 13:1 is the expression, literally, "according to those being out-called" and in 14:23, literally, "yet electing to them according to out-called elders." Rotherham (2nd edition) translates these, respectively, by "throughout the existing assembly" and "appointing (by vote) for them, in each assembly, elders." These seem to give the sense. The last reference in Acts (20:28) is to "the church of God." Anyone who can find anything "dispensational" in all this must have remarkable powers of imagination; for in the historical summary in Acts 7 there is even a reference to the church or called-out company "in the wilderness." There can be no doubt what Luke meant by the word ekklEsia, and certainly it has nothing in common with the fanciful distinctions we first examined.
Let us, then, turn elsewhere and see what we can find. The references to "churches" in Revelation are all associated with future conditions in the Lordly Day, and need not detain us in this study. The plural, churches, occurs elsewhere in "the churches of the Christ" (Rom. 16:16), "the churches of God" (1. Cor. 11:16; 1. Thess. 2:15; 2. Thess. 1:4), "the churches of the Gentiles" (Rom. 16:4), "the churches of Judea" (Gal. 1:2), see Acts 9:31 above. We find "in all the churches" in 1. Cor. 7:17 and "in all the churches of the saints" (1. Cor. 14:33; 2. Cor. 8:18), "other churches" (2. Cor. 11:8), "the churches of Galatia" (1. Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2), "of Asia" (1. Cor. 16:19), "of Macedonia" (2. Cor, 8:1); also "the remaining churches" (2. Cor. 12:13). "apostles of churches" (2. Cor. 8:23) and simply "the churches" (1. Cor. 14:34; 2. Cor. 8:19, 24; 11:28).
Although the writer of the booklet does refer to "the churches of God" and "the churches of Christ," he does not appear to explain what he supposes is meant by this difference in terms; which is strange in view of the lengths to which he carries his analyses elsewhere. "The churches of God" occurs in 1. Cor. 11:16; 1. Thess. 2:14; 2. Thess. 1:4, and "the churches of Christ" in Rom. 16:16. The expression "the church of Christ" is nowhere to be found; but the first reference to "one body," in Rom. 12:4, 5 says plainly that we "are one body in Christ." Also, our bodies are Christ's members (1. Cor. 6:15). The bread which we are breaking is communion of the body of the Christ (10:16). See also 12:12, 27. The church which is Christ's body is specified in Eph. 1:20 with 23; it is the body of the Christ (4:12); see also Eph. 5:23-25, 30; Col. 1:24; 2:17; 3:15. So when we speak of "the church which is His body," we mean that it is Christ's body.
There is only one such church, one such out-called company; but it is scattered throughout the world; and it is to such local assemblies as these units that Paul is referring to when writing of "the churches of Christ." On the other hand, "the churches of God" are necessarily more universal ideas. In 2. Thess. 1:4 Paul is plainly referring primarily to out-called companies or churches which were to a large extent part of the church which is Christ's body, but not necessarily exclusively so. For "the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus" (1. Thess. 2:14) were from the context Jewish in origin and what follows in vv. 15, 16 is obviously a reference to the Circumcisionist party; and in 1. Cor. 11:16 "the churches of God" appears to be quite universal. However, the touchstone in this matter is furnished by 1. Cor. 15:9, for there "the church of God" which Paul persecuted was the church in existence before he was called and before there was any "church which is Christ's body." So we conclude that "the churches of Christ" are necessarily assemblies which collectively constitute His body; whereas the church or churches "of God" can cover any assembly which is God's at any time, now or after we have been snatched away.
Even more numerous than references to "churches" are those to the single word "church." We find "the church in Cenchrea" (Rom. 16:1), "the church of the Thessalonians" (1. Thess. 1:1; 2. Thess. 1:1) and "the Laodicea church" (Col. 4:16). Smaller out-called companies still are "the church at their house" (Rom. 16:1; 1. Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2). Coming to the supposedly "dispensational" terms, we find "the church of God" in 1. Cor. 1:2; 2. Cor. 1:1 and 1. Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; Gal. 1:13 and "God's church" in 1. Tim. 3:5, 15 (literally, church of God living). The first two, above, specify a particular "church of God," namely, "that which is in Corinth," which disposes of any "dispensational" tag to the term. "The church" appears right through the epistles: Rom. 16:23; 1. Cor. 4:17; 6:4; 12:28; 14:5, 12, 23; Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32; Phil. 3:6; Col. 1:18, 24; 1. Tim. 5:16; James 5:14; 3. John 9, 10. Lastly "church" without any article. We find "in church" in 1. Cor. 11:18; 14:19, 28, 35, where Paul evidently has no particular assembly in mind. There remains every passage where ekklEsia occurs by itself: 1. Cor. 14:4; Phil. 4:15 ("not a single church"); Heb. 2:12; 12:23; 3. John 6. Rotherham renders Heb. 12:23 by, "and unto an assembly of first-born ones, enrolled in heaven."
Analysed thus rationally, all the astonishing—and most confusing—"dispensational" ideas which have been woven around this very ordinary Common noun, ekklEsia, can be seen to be mere cobwebs, only to be swept away at one touch of common-sense.
R.B.W. Last updated 13.4.2006