"Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of truth." — (Psalm 60:4)
"Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain, exalt the voice unto them." — (Isaiah 13:2)
Devoted To The Defense Of The Church Against All Errors And Innovations
Vol.V No.VII Pg.9
February 1943

The Uses Of The Word Church

Cled E. Wallace

The denominational press and popular speech betray some confusion regarding the proper use of the terms "church" and "churches." In speech and press "church" often means a denomination, such as the Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, Baptist Church, etc. Or sometimes the term "church," or "Christian church," is used in a general sense to include all sorts of organizations in religion, Protestant and Catholic, who accept Jesus Christ as the divine author of Christianity. "Churches" sometimes refers to the denominations themselves; and sometimes to the congregations within the denomination or under its jurisdiction. Then nearly everybody seems to "go to church," and refers to the meetinghouse as "the church." It is quite singular that none of these uses is found in the New Testament. It is somewhat astonishing and rather disconcerting to find so many religious people using these Bible terms, and yet rarely ever using them in a Bible sense. It reflects a wide departure in both speech and practice from that perfect system revealed in the New Testament.

The term "church," or "churches," is said to occur one hundred and ten times in the New Testament. These occurrences are sufficient in number and clear enough in character to remove all confusion as to the origin and nature of the New Testament institution. In our English Bible the word "church" is not found at all in the Old Testament. The first instance of its use is in Matt. 16:18, where Jesus said: "Upon this rock I will build my church." The word is always translated from the Greek word "ecclesia;" but the word "ecclesia" is not always translated "church," even in the Bible. It is found many times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and often refers to the congregation of Israel. Why is it never translated "church" in the Old Testament if the same word is often, if not always, translated "church" in the New Testament? This much seems certain: Our translators recognized that when Jesus promised to build his "ecclesia," it was something entirely new and different from anything in the Old Testament designated by the word "ecclesia" or any other word. They denoted the difference by the new word "church." Had they uniformly translated the word "ecclesia," "assembly," or "congregation," we could almost, if not quite, as easily have discovered the difference in the context. The New Testament church had no established existence in the Old Testament; nor at any time or place prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The word "ecclesia," according to Thayer, harks back to "ekkaleo." "Ek" is a preposition which means "from" or "out of ." "Kaleo" means "I call." "Ecclesia," then, means an assembly or congregation. In the community or city government of the Greeks, the citizens were called together to deliberate on matters of common interest. This was the original "ecclesia." It was not the church of Jesus Christ, however. When Demetrius and his excited silversmiths managed to fill the Ephesian theater with a howling mob, it is said that the "ecclesia," or assembly, was in confusion; and the town clerk spoke to it; quieted it, and finally dismissed it. He did not dismiss the church of the Lord, even if he did dismiss an "ecclesia." Party passion can make a church of the Lord disgrace itself by acting very much like this Ephesian "ecclesia" did. It has happened.

Sometimes in the New Testament the word "church" means a congregation, literally assembled, and probably includes only those who are thus assembled. "For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and I partly believe it." (1 Cor. 11:18.) "I thank God, I speak with tongues more than you all: howbeit in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue." (1 Cor. 14:18,19.) "As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: ... for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church." (1 Cor. 14:33-35.) The apostle here evidently refers to assemblies of the saints literally come together.

But the word is not always used in such a restricted sense. "The church of God which is at Corinth" (I Cor. 1:2) was the church seven days in the week, even when the members were not literally assembled. They were "the called out" of the Lord at Corinth, "even them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus." There were such churches in many localities. Hence, we read about "the churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16) ; "the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus" (I Thess. 2:14) ; "the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2) ; and "the seven churches that are in Asia." (Rev. 1:4.) These churches are not denominational bodies differing in such matters as doctrine, organization, and worship. They were the same in kind. For instance, we read about Paul and Barnabas appointing "for them elders in every church." (Acts 14:23.) Paul was not a general supervisor of denominational or interdenominational activities.

The word "church" has still a more extended range of use in the New Testament. "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, being edified; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy" Spirit, was multiplied." (Acts 9:31.) The word "church" is here used in the singular number, and yet it obviously includes all the churches and Christians in the territory designated. Why should a single one be excluded? And yet they were never all literally assembled in one place nor did they all belong to the same congregation. But they were the Lord's "ecclesia" or "called out" people in the territory described in the text.

The Lord Jesus is said to be "the head of the church, being himself the savior of the body." (Eph. 5:23.) All Jews and Gentiles are reconciled in this church, which is the body of Christ. (Eph. 2:13-16; Col. 1:18; Eph. 1: 22,23.) The word "church" is thus extended to include all of the Lord's called-out people wherever they may be found. It is not, then, a literal, physical assembly, but a spiritual body with a spiritual basis of association and communion. It is the holy temple of the Lord built of spiritual stones, a habitation of God in the Spirit. In this universal use of the word "church" there is not a Christian in all the world who does not belong to it. And it follows that he became a member of it at the same time and in the same way he became a Christian. "For ye are all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ." (Gal. 3:26,27.)

Inasmuch as some Baptists are inveighing against this use of the word "church," we call attention to some things some scholarly Baptists have said on the question. Some years ago the then editor of the Baptist and Reflector said:

The word "church" is used in the New Testament one hundred and ten times; in ninety-two instances out of the one hundred and ten it refers to a local congregation; in the other cases it refers to a "spiritual body, over which Christ is head, and in which every Christian is a member,

The Baptist and Reflector used to know the truth on this point. Some who now write for that paper do not.