What is the church?

In the New Testament, the apostles chose the word ecclesia or εκκλησια as the term used to designate all the disciples of Jesus.  The translators of the New Testament have translated this word using the English word “church.”  Ecclesiology is the study of the church or the ecclesia.


What is a church?

A church is a gathering of those who love and believe in Jesus.


Where does the Bible teach this?

We see it in the Paul’s greeting to the church at Corinth:

Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours… (1 Corinthians 1:1-2)

Note that the church here is further defined as “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul does the same in the next letter to Corinth where he calls the church at Corinth “saints.”

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia: (2 Corinthians 1:1)

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he greets the church and then thanks God that they:

  1. are steadfastly hoping in God (1 Thessalonians 1:3);
  2. were chosen by God (1 Thessalonians 1:4);
  3. had received both the word of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit (1Thessalonians 1:5).

Similar greetings are given in Paul’s second letter to Thessalonica.  Paul greets the church that meets in the house of Apphia and Archippus as those who have love and faith in the Jesus. (Philemon 5)


How does Scripture teach us about the church?

It does so first in the Old Testament where the church is mostly limited to the nation of Israel.  Then, Jesus came and announced the arrival of the “kingdom of God”.  Finally, the apostles taught many things about the church in their letters.


The Old Testament


How can we speak of the church in the Old Testament when the word is never found there?

It is true the word “church” is not found in the Old Testament.  For all that, it is clearly present.


Some preachers teach that the church did not exist in the Old Testament.

Yes, this is the distinctive teaching of the dispensationalists.  “The church did not exist in Old Testament times but was constituted on the Day of Pentecost. It is distinct to this present time period.”  Ryrie, Basic Theology, page 463.  Kelly insists that the church is something entirely new unheard of in the OT.

Here [in Ephesians 3:9] you have a positive statement that the secret was a something not revealed in other ages—not that it was obscurely intimated or badly understood, but it was not revealed at all. It was a secret kept hid, as the apostle lets us know in Romans 16. “Now to him that is of power to stablish you … according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest.” It was only now divulged. It was not that the thing had been predicted by the prophets, and only now laid hold of by faith. In truth it was now made manifest, now published and taught; it never had been before.


What reasons do they give in support of this teaching?

Ryrie gives four reasons. Basic Theology, page 463


What is the first?

He points to the future tense of the verb “build” in Matthew 16 as proof that Jesus was going to build something that He had not yet begun.  He was not going to continue building something He had already started but was going to start something entirely new.

 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:18)


What can be said to this?

Jesus Himself did not see the church as entirely new since He tells those who are not able to resolve a conflict to bring it before the church.  “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)  This verse assumes that something called “church” was already in existence.


What does the term “church” mean here?

It refers to some Jewish-Christian assembly who were followers of Jesus which at that time had the right to make judgments on these issues.  Zahn writes:

It is further presupposed [in Matthew’s gospel]…  that now a Church bound together by Christian confession exists as an independent body alongside of the Jewish people, identifying themselves with their rulers (Matthew 16:18; 17:24–27; 18:17; 21:41–43), and that this Church, whose nucleus was gathered from the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 10:6; 15:24; 19:28), was nevertheless hated and persecuted by the Jews (Matthew 5:10–12; 10:17–26; 23:34–36), whereas it opened its doors more and more to the Gentiles (Matthew 8:10–12; 21:43; 22:8–10; 24:14; 25:32; 26:13; 28:19, 20, cf. 2:1–12; 3:9; 5:13, 14; 13:38).  None of these facts are concealed or apologised for, but all are clearly brought out and defended. source

Hort writes that “church” here means the local Jewish assembly to which they both belonged.  Broadus says this is impossible because Jesus would not have made the promises He does in the following verses if it referred to a Jewish synagogue.


What is Ryrie’s second reason?

His second and third reasons are similar.  He writes: “The church could have no functioning Head until after the resurrection of Christ; therefore, it could not exist until some time after He rose from the dead (Eph. 1:20).  The church could not have been an operating entity with functioning spiritual gifts until after Christ’s ascension (Eph. 4:7–12).”


What can be said to these?

First, these are system arguments, not exegetical.  It’s not at all clear that the church could have had no head until after the resurrection.  The text cited certainly doesn’t support this idea.  In terms of the ascension, one could believe there was a church in the Old Testament and still grant this reason.


What is Ryrie’s fourth reason?

This is another exegetical argument.  Ryrie points to Ephesians 3:5–6 and Colossians 1:26 as proof that the idea of the church was not known in the Old Testament.

  • By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit;  [to be specific,] that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. (Ephesians 3:4-7)
  • Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.  Of [this church] I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the [preaching of] the word of God, [that is,] the mystery which has been hidden from the [past] ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:24-27)


What can be said to these texts?

First, the whole weight of the dispensationalist argument rests on whether it can be shown that these texts teach that there was nothing whatsoever of the church in the Old Testament.  It is entirely new.  This is impossible in Ephesians 3 since the apostle says “…as it has now been revealed…” where the conjunction “as” shows that the church was not completely absent in the Old Testament writings.


Does not Paul say that the prophets wrote about this mystery?

He does.  Paul write in Romans 16:

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; (Romans 16:25-26)

The Scriptures of the prophets is a reference to the Old Testament prophets and the inspired writings they wrote.  The dispensationalists, however, teach that the “Scriptures of the prophets” here are the New Testament Scriptures.  Kelly writes:

There is no doubt that the “scriptures of the prophets,” alluded to here, are New Testament scriptures. It is, properly speaking, “by prophetic scriptures,” not referring to Old Testament prophets at all; and for this reason—“Now is made manifest, and by prophetic scriptures … made known to all nations.” Had the meaning been Old Testament prophets, what could have been more extraordinary than such an expression? He might have said, It was revealed to the prophets, but now it is understood. But he says, It is now made manifest. “Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” There were inspired men, not apostles, who were prophets. To both of these it was now revealed; but we cannot say that “prophetic scriptures” in Romans 16 extend beyond the writings of Paul, which develop this blessed secret of God. source

Darby also:

Now the apostle [in Romans 16:25-26] informs us distinctly, that the mystery, the assembly, and the gathering together in one of all things under Christ, had been entirely unknown: God had been silent on that subject in the times which were defined by the word “ages,” the assembly not forming a part of that course of events, and of the ways of God on earth. But the mystery was now revealed and communicated to the Gentiles by prophetic writings—not “the writings of the prophets.” The epistles addressed to the Gentiles possessed this character; they were prophetic writings—a fresh proof of the character of the epistles in the New Testament.


What is meant here by “Scriptures of the prophets?”

Nearly every commentator on this verse understands this to be a reference to the writings of the Old Testament prophets.  Stuart writes about this mystery:

Three things are predicated of the μυστήριον which he mentions in Romans 16:25; (1) That it was kept in a hidden or concealed state down to the time when the Old Testament dispensation commenced. (2) That it was disclosed, i.e., comparatively brought to light (φανερωθέντος) by the ancient Scriptures. (3) That it was fully published or made known (γνωρισθέντος) under the gospel dispensation. Φανερωθέντος νῦν here means the same in all essential respects as the μαρτυρουμένη ὑπό τοῦ νόμου καὶ τῶν προφητῶν of Romans 3:21. There is a concurrent testimony, declaration, or disclosure, by the ancient prophetic writings, which gives force to the new testimony under the gospel dispensation. source


If there was no understanding of the church in the Old Testament, why does Paul say in Ephesians that the church has been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets?  The prophets were in the Old Testament, were they not?

Here, the word “prophets” is used to refer to the prophets of the New Testament era. (Ephesians 4:11)  The reason for this is the order in which they are listed here, first apostles then prophets.  Beet writes:

Prophets: conspicuously mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:28 as holding the second rank in the Church. And this is indisputably the meaning of the same word in Ephesians 3:5, 4:11. As in the Old Testament, they were men who spoke under special inspiration: see note under 1 Corinthians 14:40.  Had the reference here been to the OT prophets, the order would have been inverted, prophets and apostles. source


Are there any other Scriptures which speak to this issue?

Yes, there are two places in Scripture where the nation of Israel is called the church.  Stephen, in his defense before the Sanhedrin, calls Israel the church

This is he that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel that spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received living oracles to give unto us: (Acts 7:38)

Then the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 22:22:

For both He that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, In the midst of the congregation [church] will I sing thy praise. (Hebrews 2:11-12)

These verses make it clear that the people of God in the Old Testament were understood to be, in some sense, the church.


What other Scriptures speak to this issue?

Consider all the labels which Peter applies to the followers of Christ.  All of these labels were reserved for the people of Israel, but now Peter applies them to the church.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

See the Old Testament references for each of these labels in Weidner.  Poole writes:

He shows that those dignities and privileges, which were mentioned by Moses as belonging to their forefathers, did much more belong to them; and that they had the real exhibition in Christ, of those good things whereof their fathers had but a taste, and which the rest of the Jews had lost by their unbelief. source

The Bible Knowledge Commentary gives the dispensational understanding of these verses.

While these descriptions of the church are similar to those used of Israel in the Old Testament, this in no way indicates that the church supplants Israel and assumes the national blessings promised to Israel (and to be fulfilled in the Millennium). Peter just used similar terms to point up similar truths. As Israel was “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God,” so too believers today are chosen, are priests, are holy, and belong to God.  Similarity does not mean identity.


Is there yet more teaching in Scripture on this point?

There is.  Paul says that all believers, both Jew and Gentile, are now the children of Abraham.

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)


How does Paul’s teaching that all believers are the children of Abraham help us understand the presence of the church in the Old Testament?

Paul’s teaching shows us that the term “children of Abraham” is not to be understood of ethnic Israel but is to be understood of the spiritual Israel; i.e. all those who have been baptized into Christ.  In other words, there is continuity between the children of Abraham in the Old Testament, which is ethnic Israel and the church in the New Testament which is Jew and Gentile in one body.  Later, Paul will call all those who live out of this gospel the “Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:16)



The Kingdom of God

What is the kingdom of God?

The kingdom of God was at the center of Jesus’ teaching. He announced at the very beginning of His ministry, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)


What did He mean by the kingdom of God?

Jesus did not mean to announce that He had now established a new territory over which He was going to rule as we might think of the term “kingdom.”  Jesus’ kingdom was not a domain won by conquest or purchased with money.  In fact, Jesus said that His kingdom did not come in a visible way or with visible signs.

Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; (Luke 17:20)

Note that the kingdom of God is not something visible that can be seen with our eyes.


If Jesus’ kingdom was not visible, then what does it mean to say that it is “at hand” or that it has come?

Jesus’ kingdom comes when people submit to God’s rule and bow before Him as their king.  This is why it is invisible.  It is something that takes place deep in the heart of a man or woman and is not something that can be seen with the human eye.


This implies that no one before the coming of Jesus submitted to God’s rule.

In the Old Testament, people certainly did submit to God and follow Him.  In this sense, the kingdom of God has always been.  The term “kingdom of God”, however, has a specific meaning in the Bible.  It is a term which refers to that time when the King would come to earth and begin to take back what He lost in the fall. (Gen 3)  This was prophesied in the Old Testament and began with the coming of Jesus who is the King of the kingdom. It will be finished at the time of the great consummation when Jesus will deliver up the kingdom to the Father (1Cor 15:24) and history will come to an end. (Rev 21:6)


Why is this important for our understanding of the church?

It helps us understand the difference between the kingdom of God and the church. The kingdom of God is invisible while the church is visible.


How does the kingdom of God become visible to a human eye?

Because those who have submitted to God’s rule gather together in a group and worship their king.  In this gathering, they become visible.  This visible gathering is called “church”.


Where does the Bible teach this?

We can see this in the very term “church” or ecclesia or εκκλησια. This term was not a word that Christians invented. This word was commonly used in the Greco-Roman world for a gathering of any kind. This can be seen even in the Bible itself.


Where does the Bible use the word ecclesia or εκκλησια but not referring to Christians?

Recall that when Paul was in Ephesus, he provoked a riot because his preaching threatened the trade of the silversmiths. (Acts 19:25f) The mob which formed is called an ecclesia.

Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly [ecclesia] was in confusion; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together. … But if ye seek anything about other matters, it shall be settled in the regular assembly [ecclesia]. …  And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the assembly [ecclesia]. (Acts 19:323941)


What can we learn from this usage of the word ecclesia?

That the central idea behind the word ecclesia is a gathering of some kind. In Acts 19:32, the gathering is an unruly mob; in Acts 19:39, the gathering is an orderly political body. In either usage, however, the word is used to refer to some kind of gathering. This is likely why the apostles chose to use this word to define the followers of Christ. Where as the kingdom of God is something invisible, the church is something visible and constitutes a gathering of Christian believers.  The apostles often chose words which were already existence in the society of their time and used them to articulate Christian concepts;  see Robertson for a long list of such words. source


Who are members of the church?

The members of the church are those who are citizens, we might say, of the kingdom of God. They are those who have submitted to the Great King, are living under His protection, and are obeying His laws.


If we want to understand the church, is it not appropriate to understand what Jesus teaches about the kingdom of God?

Yes, this is certainly correct. See here.



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