Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
September 13, 1956
NUMBER 19, PAGE 2-3,5b

The New Testament Church (V)

George P. Estes, Maplewood, Missouri

Ecclesia (church) is a collective noun which is singular yet includes a number. Whether few or many depends upon the number who have obeyed the gospel. There are similar words in English like 'people,' 'herd,' 'flock,' etc. Ecclesia is a word with specific meanings and definite limitations. The word includes those who are in fellowship, who are reconciled to God in the same bond of union and excludes all others. The ecclesia is composed of all who belong to Him. Ecclesia is put in contrast to all other forms of society for it is opposed to them.

The city following the word as "the church of God at Corinth," "the church of the Thessalonians" (1 Cor. 1:1; 1 These. 1:2) or a country designates the place. (Gal. 1:22.) Since the word has a local meaning and is used in the singular, the church at Jerusalem, at Corinth can only mean one congregation in each place. If more than one congregation is intended the plural is used. Those who argue that the ecclesia (singular) in Corinth means a plurality of congregations must also concede that baptism has several meanings: sprinkling,-pouring, immersion.

The modifiers "of God," "of Christ" are in the genitive case which indicates (1) possession and (2) source. The church (God's people) belong to God, to Christ who purchased the church. The origin of the church is from God, from Christ who is the author of our salvation.

The plural as "the rest of the churches" (2 Cor. 12:13); "Churches of Judea" (Gal. 1:22) indicates that the congregations stand side by side on equal footing. Note also the interchange of "in Christ" (Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:14) with genitive "of Christ." Ecclesia includes the idea of God's people being gathered together into a body of members where each member finds a place and fulfills a function.

(1) The ecclesia is not an institution, neither is it joined to institutions.

Websters Unabridged Dictionary gives the following definitions for institutions and its related words: "Institution. That which is instituted or established; an established order, principle, law, usage; a system of laws or of polity or of civilization: as the institution of chivalry; the institution of slavery. (2) The corporate body or establishment instituted and organized for public use, or the building occupied by such corporate bodies ... (4) Ecclesiastical. The investment of the clergyman by a competent authority with the spiritualities of his office; contrasted with induction, which confers the temporalities. The establishment of a sacrament especially the eucharist, hence that part of the ritual in baptism or the eucharist at which the words used by Christ in establishing the sacrament are recited."

"Institutional. (1) Pertaining to or enjoined by institutions. Institutional church. A church or one of a body of churches that have made themselves a center of a cluster of auxiliary or dependent societies and agencies engaged in charitable, philanthropic and educational work."

"Institutionalism. 1. The system of institutions. 2. The spirit that exalts established institutions, especially in religion; opposed to individualism."

The above statements prove that an institution is something man-made; that institutions did not originate with the apostate church; that they are auxiliaries or helps.

The institutional church was developed by the Roman Catholics, Calvin and the Protestant Reformers. The New Testament ecclesia is not this historical church. The Roman Catholic church and the Protestant churches are a development and a transformation of the New Testament ecclesia. The Protestant churches claim the church is a means of salvation but not salvation itself; it is therefore to them an institution.

The ecclesia is not a "thing" an "it" but a unity of persons, a people. But the facts of history brought about the distortion of meaning. Linguistic usage in the apostasy powerfully developed the idea of the church into an institutional church. The church as conceived by the Protestants and Catholics brings out the ideas of an institution with all its machinery and paraphernalia — homes, schools and all the auxiliaries attached to the church. These are classified as means or helps to the church. But the New Testament ecclesia is an end in itself; the church is all-sufficient and alone was ordained by God to fulfill its own mission and function on earth. The endeavor to identify or unite the historical churches with the New Testament church is impossible as long as the church is conceived as an institution.

The institutional church involves an erroneous conception and consequent misapplication of one of the most important features of the kingdom-organization. A wrong conception in this works havoc with the preaching of the gospel and the spread of the kingdom.

The perversion and persecution by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages grew chiefly out of the interpretation of the institutional church idea.

"This insight — which an unprejudiced study of the New Testament and the crying need of the church have helped us to reach — may be expressed as follows: the New Testament ecclesia, the fellowship of Jesus Christ, is a pure communion of persons and has nothing of the character of an institution about it; it is therefore misleading to identify anyone of the historically developed churches, which are all marked by the institutional character, with the true Christian communion." (Emil Brunner: The Misunderstanding of the Church, pg. 17.)

The most serious error that has ever entered the thinking of brethren of the Restoration Movement is that of conceiving the church as an institution. These brethren have borrowed the institutional concept from the Catholics and Protestants and those who promote such at the same time promote sectarianism. Homes, schools, societies and centralized control are attached to the institutional concept. It is not possible to substitute or change the divine pattern and at the same time be the New Testament church. Promotion of doctrinal error — institutionalism always culminates in the formation of a sect. The Christian Church is a fine example of this. One cannot promote institutionalism and at the same time restore New Testament Christianity. Christianity can only be restored when the church is restored and since the church is not an institution then it must follow that the promotion of institutionalism cannot possibly restore Christianity. There are brethren today backing institutionalism on the grounds of good works, opinions and expedients. They are attempting to turn the church into a sect. Institutions are secular and for this reason belong in the world as worldly organizations.

In the apostolic age the church did her own work, worship and service and was not aided by institutions for God did not ordain such to do the work of the church. So long as institutions are promoted as the work of the church, the church will not receive her rightful place neither perform her God given tasks.

(2)The New Testament ecclesia is the people of God.

The body of Christ is constituted of nothing but the persons who have obeyed the gospel. Christ is present with them through His word. It is therefore of divine nature. Fellowship with God through Christ and fellowship with brethren are correlative. Equivalent expressions to ecclesia are 'the Israel of God,' `the seed of Abraham,' 'a people of God's own possession,' 'a royal priesthood.' There are no characteristics of an institution about the ecclesia. The idea of an invisible church as formulated by Luther and Calvin is foreign to the New Testament.

(3)There is a divine pattern for the ecclesia.

The perfect divine pattern given by inspiration is the New Testament. The ecclesia itself belongs to the true substance of revelation and constitutes the true end of the latter. Walking in the light of the revealed truth and walking in the fellowship which that truth has brought into being are inseparably bound together.

The New Testament lays down the gospel plan of salvation; the design, purpose and form of the church; the acts of worship, the organization of the church and every detail needed. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17.)

Those who obey the gospel are added to the universal church but organization is given only to the local church.

(4)The New Testament ecclesia is local.

The word ecclesia means the visible congregation. A 'church' is a local body composed of those who have been baptized upon confession of faith voluntarily, banded together for worship, edification and preaching the gospel to the lost. Each congregation was free, independent and administered its own affairs, having no hierarchy or centralized power over it nor external authority controlling it. The word is used prior to the New Testament (Classical Greek) in this sense and usage in the New Testament proves these elements are retained in the New Testament. In any cooperation of congregations these basic concepts must be maintained. Any program that brings the churches into a federation where the work or authority is controlled by one congregation or one group of men violates the very basic meaning of the word and destroys congregational independence. For these reasons the sponsoring churches and the Herald of Truth programs are unscriptural. A brotherhood project demands that there be a center of control. When this is formed, the churches involved in the project are no longer assemblies where each has the oversight of the administration of its own work. In such an arrangement the ecclesia loses its distinctive features. The church revealed in the New Testament is the only divine arrangement given by the wisdom of God. It pleased God to set forth this plan for His will to be accomplished in the days of inspiration. In order to restore the apostolic church, the characteristics of that church must be copied, even its organization. A church must remain a free independent body or assembly, autonomous in the administration of its own affairs and work. It is a serious violation of the New Testament when any church or organization endeavors to intimidate or force a local church into line on any matter whatsoever.

"It must be admitted that the word church is seldom used in the New Testament to designate one universal and comprehensive society. On the contrary, out of the 110 times in which the word occurs, no less than 100 do not contain this note of wide spreading unity. In the overwhelming majority of cases the word church denotes a local Christian society, varying in extent from all Christian congregation within a province of the empire to a small assembly of Christians meeting together in the house of one of the brethren. Paul alone, if we except the one instance in Matt. xvi.18, uses the word in its universal application; and he does it in two epistles only — those to the Ephesians and Colossians — both of them dating from the Roman captivity." (Lindsay: The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, pg. 10.)

Ecclesia occurs 114 times in the Greek Testament. One hundred times it refers to the New Testament church, four times otherwise. Three times, it has no reference to a church. Twice for the mob roused by Demetrius, Acts 19:32, 41. A body assembled for judiciary purposes, Acts 19:39. In Acts 7:38 Stephen is speaking of the assembly before Mt. Sinia.

(1) The universal church.

The few times the word ekklesia is used in the universal sense, the preeminence or authority of Christ is indicated or the relationship of Christ to the church. Not one time in the universal sense is the church presented in its organizational form. These few verses do not set forth the ekklesia in its objective form for work or worship. Christ is the foundation of the church, Matthew 16:18; He is its head, Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 5:23-32, the church is the bride of Christ. In marriage a husband and wife are no longer two but one, Matthew 19:4-6; so Christ and His church. This figure also proves the covenant relationship of Christ and the church. Under the figure of marriage the Covenant between God and the Jews is taught in the book of Hosea.

(2) The commission to the church. The "cleansing (See CHURCH, page 5)

and washing" (Eph. 5:26) is a work which belongs to this present age. "Washing" is baptism, "cleansing" is the result. "By the word" is preaching the gospel. In Ephesians 3:10, the Great Commission is passed on to the church. It is to make known the manifold wisdom of God to the world. This is the functional work of the kingdom, the church. Each congregation must carry on its own work in carrying out the Great Commission.

(3) The local church.

The local church has a collective responsibility for the way in which they observe the Lord's Supper, 1 Corinthians 11:18, and conduct in the assembly, 1 Corinthians 14:19,23.

The local church at Antioch with the work of Saul and Barnabas taught many people, Acts 11:25.

The local church had two classes of officers, bishops and deacons, Phil. 1:1; Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 3:1-3. Acts 20:38 is the local church at Ephesus. These elders were not connected with any other church.

The local church is a self-governing body. Local churches appointed messengers, 2 Corinthians 14:19, 23; determined own customs, 1 Corinthians 11:16; settled own difficulties, where an apostle did not exercise authority over a congregation, 1 Corinthians 5:4,5; 6:4; determined own policies, Acts 15. The offending brother must submit to the local church, Matthew 18:17.

The epistle of Hebrews teaches the Christians access and approach to God which is not by the law of Moses but by Mt. Zion. Hebrews 2:12 is a quote from Psalm 22:22 and presents congregational singing as an act of worship.

In Hebrews 12:23 "you have come" is in the perfect or completed tense. Paul shows how the redeemed have direct access to God who is surrounded by a host of angels as an assembly of citizens enrolled in heaven. This is the church of the firstborn or the church at Jerusalem.

I Corinthians 12:12-17 sets forth the church as a body of which Christ is head. Verse 28 is the local church for "government" is the work of elders and "helps" that of deacons. Paul wrote to the local church at Corinth.

In 1 Timothy 3:15 ekklesia is a synonym of God's household, His family, His children. Paul is stating Timothy's task in Ephesus. Set matters in order in Ephesus, not the church at large. I Timothy 3:1-13, Paul outlines the qualifications of bishops and deacons of the local church at Ephesus and not for the universal church. Bishops and deacons in each local church must meet these requirements. "Household" is the constituency of the church. The local church at Ephesus as God's agency must offer care and fellowship for each Christian in the congregation. So must each other church. The "pillar" and "ground" of the truth teaches each congregation is a deposit of the truth (God's word). God has committed the truth to the church, the church is alone ordained by God with this charge.

The elders of the local church are to visit the sick, James 5:14. The church in Nymphas' house is the local church as is the church of the Laodiceans, Colossians 4 :15, 16.

Saul had persecuted the church (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13) but was unknown by face to those of Judea. It must have been the Jerusalem church he persecuted, Galatians 1:22.

The local church regarded as a divine possession, 1 Corinthians 3:16,17; Romans 16:16 ("church of God" "churches of Christ").

1 Corinthians 10:32 is the conduct of the church toward the pagan world. Romans 16:23 Paul welcomes the Roman brethren or any Christian to the assembly or church in Corinth if perchance they were traveling through Corinth.

Space forbids a detailed study of all the passages where ekklesia occurs. But in all other places ekklesia is to be understood in the local sense. The overwhelming predominant use of the local church by inspired writers convincingly sets forth the pattern of divine organization; that God intended for the apostolic church, the true church to be in this form. Young's Analytical concordance under "church" will designate the other passages where ekklesia occurs.