Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
July 19, 1956

The New Testament Church (I)

George P. Estes, Maplewood, Missouri

Introduction: The Need of the Study

(1) The men who undertook the task of restoring New Testament Christianity realized that their efforts would Abe fruitless and their task impossible unless the church first be restored in its true apostolic form and organization. They believed the church to be God's house on earth and through it and by it God's will and work is to be done.

John Glas of Scotland was one of the early restorers. In 1727, while a minister of the Scottish church, he came to the conviction that the New Testament church had no connection with the state; that the "National Covenant" in 'Scotland was without authority. He found no warrant for synods and other law making bodies to fix standards of doctrine for the whole church and to discipline it. He organized an independent congregation which had autonomous church rule. It adopted weekly communion believing this to be the practice of the apostolic church. It conducted its own affairs, worship and established its own ministry. Glas rejected the ordained ministry and believed each church in the New Testament era had a plurality of elders; that there was mutual edification and public worship was not conducted by a clergy class. Glas believed this congregation should follow the first Christians, being guided only by the New Testament. (W. E. Garrison: An American Religious Movement, pp. 20-21.)

Before Alexander Campbell lost his doctrinal bearing and began his apostasy he wrote in the Christian Baptist: "The church of Jesus Christ is the only institution left on earth to do this — to illuminate and reform the world.. When MODELLED after the plan taught in the New Testament it is the consummation of the wisdom of God to bring the saving light. It is the pillar and support of the truth." (I ,pg. 16.)

(2) Closely connected with the above is this fact: When the purpose, design, form or organization of the apostolic church is changed by altering it or making substitutions for the divine pattern, digression sets in at that point, at that time. This can be clearly seen in the apostasy of the apostolic church and the rise and development of the Missionary Society during the Restoration Movement. In both instances the local church pattern was abandoned and the church was conceived of on a larger scale — from the local to the universal. Apostasy began when the local church organization was destroyed.

(3) What constitutes congregational independence and how can churches cooperate? The answers to these questions have been the source of more trouble than any other during the Restoration Movement. Answers to these questions can be satisfactorily given when the meaning of the word "church" and its usage is properly understood.

(4) For the past forty years a study of the church has been seriously neglected. As a result the brotherhood is again confronted with the same problems of congregational independence and congregational cooperation. These issues have pushed themselves into the foreground at different intervals during the Restoration Movement resulting in strife and division. The doctrine about the church must be settled once for all to avoid further trouble in the future.

(5) The following article will deal with the primary and main points of doctrine about the church. No claim is made that the subject will be exhausted or covered in every detail. Further inquiry may be made. The following aspects of the church will be discussed: (a) Etymology of the word ecclesia; (b) Its meaning and usage in Classical Greek; (c) The Hebrew words for assembly and congregation; their meaning and use; (these will serve as a background for the New Testament); (d) Meaning and use of the word "ecclesia" in the New Testament; (e) The body of Christ; (f) Formation of the church; (g) Church organization; (h) Polity; (i) Unity and other studies.

(6) F.J.A. Hort in the Christian Ecclesia rejects the word "church" as a translation of ecclesia. He says the word church neither adequately represents nor conveys the true meaning of ecclesia. The word "church" is ambiguous and "carries with it associations derived from the institutions and doctrines of later times." (pg. 1) It "cannot at present without a constant mental effort be made to convey the full and exact force which originally belonged to ecclesia." (pg. 1) 'Congregation' suggests some of the elements of the meaning. This was the English translation throughout Henry VIII's reign. "The substitution of 'church' being due to the Genevan revisers; and it held its ground in the Bishop's Bible in no less a primary passage than Matthew XVI.18 till the Jacobean revision of 1611, which we call the authorized version .... But 'congregation' has disturbing associations of its own which render it unsuitable for our special purpose; and moreover its use in what might seem a rivalry to so venerable, and rightly venerable, a word as 'church' and the full breadth of its meaning, 'Ecclesia' is the only perfectly colorless word within our reach, carrying us back to the beginnings of Christian history, and enabling us to get behind words and names to the simple facts which they originally denoted." (pg. 2)

Hort was a conservative and fair scholar and never made statements without foundation. For these reasons the things he said above must not be considered lightly even though one might not agree with them. The value of Hort's statements show that there are many misapprehensions adhering to the word "church"; that there are foreign and false meanings attached to the word "church" which have accumulated through associations and usage that are not inherent in ecclesia. On the other hand to transliterate ecclesia into English text would only add to the confusion and would not clarify the meaning of the word. A translation is therefore essential. Furthermore, 'assembly' and 'congregation' as translations of "ecclesia" can also be criticized. 'Church' is a fixed word in the vocabulary and thinking of people. If freed from erroneous meanings, it serves the purpose as well as any other word.

H. E. Dana in A Manual of Ecclesiology suggests three solutions: (1) Revolutionize the meaning, that is render ecclesia by some other English word such as 'assembly' or 'congregation.' (2) Transliterate it as baptism. (3) Retain the word 'church' but put an independent construction upon it. Dana considers the last the best. (pg. 21) Most will agree that this is the most sensible procedure. This will be considered further under the heading of Etymology.