Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 30, 1967
NUMBER 30, PAGE 5c-6

New Testament Concepts Of The Church

Gordon Wilson

In this first article it is intended to call attention to the senses in which the word "church" is employed in the New Testament. Then, in later discussions it will be possible to draw out some other concepts connected with the inspired teaching about the church.

Bible students are aware of the fact that the word "church" occurs 75 times in the Authorized Version of the New Testament. In addition, the plural "churches" is found 36 times. This count excludes Acts 7:38 and Acts 19:37, which have nothing to do with the New Testament church. The former has to do with the assemblage of God's people in the period of the Exodus. The latter is not even related in the original language to the usual word for church, but is a word which means "hold places," and has reference to the heathen temples.

The word "church" is used in two senses in the Bible, and a discussion of these two senses will yield four concepts of the church.

First, the church is spoken of in an ecumenical sense, from which all earthly, organizational, and visible considerations are absent. We sometimes, properly, speak of this as the "church universal." The church in the universal sense is composed of all saved individuals in the world. It is not composed of congregations — and such a thought must be eliminated at once. Individuals, not congregations, are the units of the church universal. When congregations in the aggregate are spoken of, it is always as "churches," plural, never as the "church." So, when the church in the universal sense is mentioned, it may mean one of two things. It may mean the church as a relationship between the saved and their Savior. That is, the arrangement designed by God, provided through Christ, and revealed as the Divine plan by the Holy Spirit, for the calling together into a spiritual conjunction of men and the Deity, is referred to as the church. It is this spiritual relationship which shows the manifold wisdom of God unto those powers in the heavenlies who, through the ages, waited and watched for the execution of God's purposes for the salvation of fallen man. Again, the church in the universal sense sometimes means the people themselves, everywhere, who are the units of this spiritual arrangement. This is a distributive use of the word "church" in the universal sense; but it still refers to a saved Savior body, and not to a saved; saved fellowship.

Second. The church is spoken of in a local sense, and this involves the arrangement whereby the saved are related to the rest of the saved. It has to do with those who have banded together to worship and to work collectively in a given community or in a definite place where they have agreed to meet. Thus, when the church local is referred to, it may mean either the congregation as an organization, or it may mean the assembly in which they are together. To say it differently, the local congregation exists, once it has come into existence through voluntary association of the people involved, whether or not the members are actually assembled together. Contrary to what some are now teaching, the local church does exist and can function collectively, by prior agreement, at other times than those when the members are all together. So, this organization or fellowship arrangement is called the church; also the assembly itself is called the church in several places in the First Corinthian epistle.

The Greek word translated "church" is ekklesia (a contraction of "ek", out of; and "kaleo", call). The use of the word in the New Testament suggests the principles which I have mentioned: (1) The church is a spiritual assembly of all the saved with their Savior; (2) the church is that body of Christians who are spiritually assembled with the Lord, throughout the world; (3) the church is a local congregation or assemblage of people into a voluntary working arrangement; and (4) the church is the assembly for worship and edification in one place.

A seeming exception to the above uses of the word "church" is seen in the American Standard Version rendering of Acts 9:31, in which there appears to be a regional use of the word. I do not know all of the manuscript evidence, but it is a fact that the ancient texts contain variations in the reading here, while they contain no variations in the reading of other regional references in the book of Acts, all of which read "churches." plural. If the Authorized Version is correct, there is no problem, and the statement stands that an aggregate of congregations is always spoken of as "churches". If the ASV is right, the statement is probably still true; for it is likely that the writer does not have reference to an aggregate of the congregations in the three provinces, but instead to all saved people irrespective of congregational affiliations. This would be a distributive use of the word church, and would mean as F.F. Bruce suggests in his commentary on Acts in the New International Commentary on the New Testament, the members of the Jerusalem congregation in the dispersion. The contest would suggest as much.

To see the above concepts of the church, the reader should use a good concordance to look up every passage where the word is found, and attempt to identify the sense in which "church" is used in each place.

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