THE MEANING OF 'EKKLESIA
I went to great length to examine the usage of ekklesia in the Greek New Testament. Ekklesia is the Greek word translated church in our English Bible. My examination revealed that in 97 of the 115 passages the word has the primary and literal meaning of a local, visible assembly. In none of these 97 verses did the word church mean a universal, invisible church consisting of all the elect.
There remains 18 more verses to be examined. These are the debatable passages. Most theologians maintain the word church takes on a new meaning in these verses. They say that the 18 remaining passages use the word church in the larger sense, meaning a big universal church. This new meaning is contrary to the primary and literal meaning of ekklesia, and this new meaning is contradictory to the local idea which permeates the entire New Testament. The big church idea has been invented from theological necessity, not from etymological requirement.
But do these remaining 18 verses authorize a new meaning of the word church? Or, does the word retain its primary meaning of a local, visible body of baptized believers? From what we have already seen the odds are 97 to 18 against such a new meaning. Nevertheless, the Biblical answer can be discovered only by a careful examination of these remaining 18 verses. If the word church has a new meaning the text and context should give sufficient evidence to warrant this new meaning. On the other hand, if such a meaning is not required, then we have every reason to reject the universal, invisible church theory as totally without scriptural warrant.
THE GENERIC USE OF A WORD
I believe that in a number of the remaining 18 verses the word church is used in the generic sense. In such a case the word may be singular and yet not refer to any particular object of the class but to every object of that class. Let me illustrate what I mean by a word being used abstractly, or generically. "The home is a Divine institution." The word home is used generically or abstractly in this sentence. The definite article with the word does not mean there is one particular home singled out from the rest. The word home has not taken on a new meaning; it retains its common meaning. There is no such thing as a universal, invisible home.
The word church is used abstractly in some of these debatable verses, not referring to any particular church at any definite place, but to the church as an institution. When a concrete application of the word is made it must be to a particular local church somewhere. Most Bible scholars chose to ignore the abstract usage of the word church in the Bible, although they will freely concede such is true of other words. Rather than allowing the word to retain its common meaning throughout the New Testament, a most reasonable and logical thing to do, they ascribe a new meaning to the word. They say it must mean a universal, invisible church. ekklesia never had such a meaning in the Greek writings. This new meaning is contrary to the primary and literal meaning of ekklesia. If I can give a word a new meaning so as to fit my creed when the common meaning makes good sense, then I can change the entire Bible to suit my fancy and the next person can do the same!
I shall take these verses in the order in which they occur in the books of the New Testament. The first one to be considered is Matthew 16:18. In this verse Jesus said: "And I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Jesus is using the word church here in the generic, abstract, or institutional sense. He refers to the church as a Divine institution against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail. Yet it would have been understood by His hearers in a special sense as applicable to them.
Jesus spoke here to His disciples (Matt. 16:13), the company of baptized believers which followed Him from the baptism of John (Acts 1:21-22). It was to the same group of baptized disciples He gave the rules of church discipline, the Lord's Supper, and the Great Commission. There can be no doubt that Jesus addressed His words to a local, visible body of baptized believers who constitute the first New Testament church in the world.
The ordinary sense makes perfectly good sense in Matthew 16:18. First, the words were addressed to a local, visible body of baptized believers. They were not addressed to the elect of all ages. Second, those who heard these words would have understood ekklesia in its primary and ordinary sense. I say this because I cannot believe the Master Teacher would have intended a common word to have a new meaning without some word of explanation. Third, by reading the Gospels and the Book of Acts, we see the kind of church which Christ built. He personally built the church which later became known as the Jerusalem Church. Through this mother church He built other churches, all such churches were local, visible bodies like the first church.
The fourth reason I believe 'ekklesia must be understood in its primary sense is because Jesus used this word 23 times, 3 times in Matthew and 20 times in Revelation. Twenty-one of these times the word is admitted by most as having the common meaning. Then why give it a new meaning in Matthew 16:18? Remember, the odds are 22 to 1 that Christ used it in its primary meaning. It seems to me to be the height of folly to assume that our Lord announced He would build a universal, invisible church, and then he never mentioned this church again while speaking 22 other times about a church He never promised to build!
Some seem to think the big church is referred to in Matthew 18:17. The passage says: "And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican." This is surely a reference to the church which Christ had already founded. A person could only tell of a personal offense to a local church of baptized believers. It would be impossible to tell such to "the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one." Matthew 18:17 reveals that the church the matter can be told to can discipline a member. This can never be said of the so- called big church of Pedobaptists.
Then there is Acts 20:28 which reads: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." These words were addressed to the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:17), and they can point only to the local church at Ephesus. These elders had a flock, a local assembly. They were to feed this church and keep heretics out of it (Acts 10:29). Such things could only be done in a local, visible body of baptized believers.
But an objector will say, "This church was purchased by the blood of Christ. This must mean all the elect for whom Christ died." Not so! The Scriptures elsewhere limit the death of Christ to Israel (John 11:51) and to Paul (Gal. 2:20). Acts 20:28 teaches that the Ephesian Church was a blood- bought church, and such is true of every New Testament Baptist Church in the world.
I CORINTHIANS 10:32
Next is I Corinthians 10:32 which declares: "Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God." The common meaning again makes good sense. At least two times Paul referred to the Corinthian church as "the church of God" (I Cor. 1:2; 11:22). It is only logical and proper to believe he used the word church in the same sense here.
An objector will say, "But this is the church in the broadest sense, which embraces the whole number of the elect. This must be so for the passage speaks of Jews and Gentiles." This reasoning ignores the fact that many churches had both Jews and Gentiles in their membership. Also the offense mentioned in this verse was to individual Jews and Gentiles. Hence it must have referred to those living in the community where the Corinthian church was located. Paul is merely telling the Corinthian Church not to offend different racial groups nor the church of which they were members. It would have been impossible for them to have offended dead Jews and Gentiles as well as Jews and Gentiles not born.
I CORINTHIANS 12:28
Another passage is I Corinthians 12:28 which says: "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues."
Universal, invisible church contenders maintain that the apostles were not officers of a local church. They affirm that the ministry of the apostles was for all believers. But in what sense can it be said the apostles were ministers to the elect in the Old Testament time? Remember, the universal, invisible church "consists of the whole number of the elect, that HAVE BEEN, are, or shall be gathered into one."
This contention ignores the fact that Jesus only personally set apostles in one church, the first church known as the Jerusalem Church (Matt. 10:1-4; Acts 8:1). These men worked with other local churches. They never at any time worked with the elect "that had been." The word church in this passage means the church in an institutional sense, with a particular reference to the Jerusalem church. The word church in I Corinthians 12:28 makes good sense in the local sense, and there is no reason to seek some other sense. Why would Paul have suddenly given the word church a new meaning in this verse without any notice or explanation? If he had done so would the Corinthians have understood him?
Universal church men consider the Book of Ephesians their stronghold. One passage they rely upon to teach their doctrine is Ephesians 1:22 which reads: "And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church." Here the word church is used generically, abstractly, or in the institutional sense. It states a truth which applies to each true New Testament church. Jesus Christ is the sovereign Ruler over each church, just as He is the head of every man (I Cor. 11:3).
Some attempt to make the word church to mean in this verse the totality of all the redeemed of all ages. The context will not allow such a broad meaning of the word church in this verse. Christ was made the head of the church following His resurrection from the dead (Eph. 1:20-23). This precludes the covenant theologian's definition of the church. Nor is there any reason to see the universal, invisible church of the dispensationalists. The Lord rules over those in His churches in a more definite sense than over all believers. Those believers outside the purview of the churches are in a state of disobedience concerning the ordinances.
When you hear someone say, "The husband is the head of his home," no one understands such a speaker is referring to a big universal home made up of all the little homes. They know the speaker has used the word home in the institutional sense. Then why can't they see that the word church is used in the institutional sense in Ephesians 1:22? The head of the church is locally and visibly present in Heaven at the Father's right hand. Likewise, His body on earth is local and visible; otherwise, you have a visible Head and an invisible body - a monstrous thing, a spooky church!
Next I call attention to Ephesians 3:10 "To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God." Some think the word church is expanded so as to comprehend all the saved in this verse. Such a new meaning is not at all necessary, unless you have a theory to defend. Again the word church is used generically. No single local church could monopolize such glorious work as is here referred to. It is the church institution which makes known the wisdom of God to men and angels. This institution only has God's command to teach all things Christ commanded by the authority of Heaven (Matt. 28:19-20).
Verse 21, of Ephesians Chapter 3, goes on to say: "Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end." This is another generic usage. God receives glory through the church as an institution. This means He receives it in each local assembly of baptized believers. Everything done in the church according to God's revealed will is to His glory. Preaching, teaching, praying, singing, giving, ordination of officers, and the administration of the ordinances are all to God's glory by Jesus Christ (I Cor. 14:23-24; II Cor. 8:19-23). God can receive no glory from an invisible church. But He can and does receive glory from the institution He founded "unto all generations of the age of ages."
EPHESIANS 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32
One of the chief proof texts of universal church men is said to be Ephesians 5. Others see in Ephesians 5 a church in prospect (generally called "the glory church"). Listen to the passage: "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the Saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it ... That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish ... For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church ... This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church."
In this portion of Scripture Paul's primary object is to expound marriage. To do this he uses the relationship between Christ and the church as an illustration of the relationship which ought to exist between husband and wife. (See especially verses 23-25). What is said in these verses is as applicable to one church as another, just as what is said of the marriage relation is equally applicable to all husbands and wives.
Paul does not in Ephesian 5 introduce a new teaching about some universal, invisible church. It would be exactly as sensible to argue from this verse for the existence of a universal, invisible wife as a universal, invisible church. One is just as Scriptural as the other.
Look at the verse: "The husband is the head of the wife."
Does this mean that there is a great big universal, invisible wife who includes all the little wives? Our opponents would say no. But then they turn around and say that the rest of the verse, "even as Christ is the head of the church," means that there is a universal, invisible church. They ignore the word "even" which means in the same way. To be consistent our opponent should believe in both a universal, invisible church and a universal, invisible wife. However, it would be much more sensible and Scriptural to see that the word wife and church are used generically in this verse.
Some Baptists contend the word church is used in Ephesians 5 in a broad sense and not to a particular church. They say such a church has no real existence now except in the preparation of its members. They say it is not yet a church except in purpose, plan, and prospect. They say it is a church by anticipation. Then they go on to make this church in prospect include all the saved. Such Baptists have two kinds of churches in the Bible just as much as the Protestants.
I do not believe in the so-called glory church of the future any more than a universal, invisible church at present. First, the apostle does not speak here in the future tense. "Christ is (not shall be) the head of the church." "The church is (not shall be) subject to Christ." There would have been no point in using the relationship between Christ and the church to illustrate the relationship which ought to exist between husband and wife, unless the relationship between Christ and the church already existed and was fairly well understood by the Ephesian Church.
COLOSSIANS 1:18, 24
It is urged by some that Colossians 1:18 teaches the big church theory: "And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence." This means that Christ is the head of each local church, just as He is the head of every man (I Cor. 11:3).
Colossians 1:24 reads: "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church." Some make a big to do over the word body in this verse. They insist it means some big universal body consisting of the general community of all believers. I do not deny the church is the body of Christ. The Colossian Church was the body of Christ, and the church in the institutional sense is the body of Christ.
To understand a symbol we must first understand the reality of the symbol. The body of a man is something both local and visible. The same may be said of the bodies of both plants and animals. Never does the word body mean a universal, invisible nothing. There is no such thing as a scattered, invisible, mystic, non-functioning body. A heap of heads, hands, and hearts do not make a body. Miscellaneous, scattered, unattached units do not make a body. Neither can invisible members scattered throughout the world and divided by centuries make up the body of Christ.
Every local church in the apostolic age was the body of Christ in that place. The Corinthian Church was "the body of Christ" in the city of Corinth (I Cor. 12:27). The body in Ephesians 1:23; 4:4,12,16; 5:30 was the church body at Ephesus. Paul called the Ephesian Church "a building fitly framed together" (2:21), "built together" (2:2), and "fitly joined together" (4:16). Such togetherness can only be said of a local assembly of baptized believers. It cannot be said of some future church not yet joined together. Even so, the body in Colossians means the church at Colosse (1:1-2). All the body at Colosse was "knit together" (2:18), and they had all been "buried with him in baptism" (2:12).
According to Ephesians 4:4, "There is one body" as to kind in this gospel age. If it is the universal, invisible body, then there is no local and particular body. On the other hand, if it is the local body (a thing which harmonizes with the Bible's definition of the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:27), then there is no such thing as a universal, invisible body. One must either give up the local church or the big church. There are no more two kinds of bodies of Christ than there are two kinds of faith or two kinds of God. The baptism which puts one in the body in Ephesians 4:5 is water baptism, seeing it is a baptism which follows faith: "One Lord, one faith, one baptism." Water baptism puts one in a local church, not some invisible church.
I TIMOTHY 3:15
Another debatable verse is I Timothy 3:15 which says: "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how that thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." Some would make "the church of the living God" the big church. Others expand the term "the house of God" to mean the whole body of believers. This is all wrong.
Beginning at chapter 1 of the Book we can see the church of the living God is the church at Ephesus. In chapter 3 the context is about bishops and deacons, the officers of a local church. Thus Paul is telling Timothy about behavior in the church at Ephesus. How could Timothy be responsible to conduct himself properly in the universal, invisible church? Behaving in a universal, invisible church is absurd! How could millions of believers, divided by centuries, teaching doctrines opposed to each other, be considered "the pillar and ground of the truth"? Only a true local church which holds to sound doctrine can be considered the pillar and ground of the truth.
The chief proof text for either the universal, invisible church or the glory church is supposed to be Hebrews 12:22-24. It is written: "But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel."
Many are absolutely sure the word church means something quite different than its common meaning in these verses. Here they say it definitely means a universal, invisible church. Others would refer it to a future glory church consisting of all believers. A brief examination of the verse excludes both ideas. This cannot refer to the universal, invisible church of all believers, for the writer says, "Ye are come." The invisible church has not come together as some of its members are unborn. Nor can it point to some sort of a visible glory church to be gathered in Heaven at some future day. "Ye are come" militates strongly against the glory church idea. The writer does not speak in Hebrews 12:22-24 of a future church, but of a present church.
This section of Hebrews 12 contrasts the Old Testament dispensation with the New Testament dispensation, the earthly Mount Sinai with spiritual Mount Zion. The writer shows the excellencies of the New Covenant are far superior to the Law Covenant. This is being done as a means of causing the Hebrews to persevere in their Christian profession.
We cannot understand this to mean these Jewish Christians had literally come to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, for that was as true of the whole Jewish nation as of those the apostle addressed. Nor can we understand that they were literally in Heaven, for none to whom he wrote were in Heaven at the time he spoke. He must have meant that by the characteristics of the new dispensation the Hebrew Christians had done these things. He is showing the blessings which presently belong to the gospel dispensation. These are not future but present. Hence he says: "Ye are come."
Mount Zion speaks of the gospel church as a Divine institution. The Hebrews had come to Mount Zion by becoming members of the New Testament church. "The city of the living God" is another reference to the church. The church is compared to a city (Matt. 5:13-16) and a building (Matt. 16:18; I Cor. 3:9; Eph. 2:19-22). "The heavenly Jerusalem" speaks of the church as it is the future home of the bride (Rev. 21:9-10). The "myriads of angels in full assembly" (improved translation) show how baptized believers in a church are social worshippers with angels (I Cor. 11:10; Eph. 3:10).
All these things were so because they were come into the church of the firstborn. Those in the church in the Hebrew Epistle were registered in Heaven, but they were not yet in Heaven. "God the Judge of all" shows how God is the qualified Judge of all, especially those in the church (I Peter 4:17). "The spirits of just men made perfect" means justified men made perfect in Christ. The church is a fellowship of such men, and in Christ they are as perfect on earth as they ever will be in Heaven (Col. 2:10). "To Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling" means the Hebrew Christians had come to Christ by faith (Rom. 3:25) and been sprinkled with His precious blood (Heb. 10:22). Church members symbolize this blessed relationship by the observation of the Lord's Supper in a local church (Matt. 26:27-30).
Thus we have concluded our examination of every one of the 115 verses in the New Testament dealing with the church. Out of the entire 115 we have not found one single verse which teaches the universal, invisible church. Therefore, I conclude the term "invisible" church is most appropriate as the big church is no place found in the New Testament. In the New Testament there is no reference which does not fall under the local idea or one of its logical derivatives, which is simply the local idea in another form. The Bible is utterly innocent of the inward conflict of the theory of a universal, invisible church. It is everywhere self consistent. The Landmark position is overwhelmingly affirmed by the Word of God.
The common sense impression made by reading texts in which the word church occurs and a critical examination of doubtful passages demonstrate the actual church of the New Testament is a local society and never anything but a local society. The real church of Christ is a local body, of a definite doctrinal constitution such as is indispensable to the "unity of the Spirit" of which it is the embodiment. I believe this to be the teachings of the Holy Bible. I must stand upon these truths even if most of the world calls me a "misguided fanatic."