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 (p560) 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.

Hort writes that “church” here means the local Jewish assembly to which they both belonged, but 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 (Ephesians 1:20).  The church could not have been an operating entity with functioning spiritual gifts until after Christ’s ascension (Ephesians 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 not have a head until after the resurrection.  The text cited doesn’t teach this.  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 (bottom of p431) 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 (p311):

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.


Are there any other Scriptures which speak to this issue?

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

This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘GOD WILL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN.’  “This is the one who was in the congregation [church] in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. (Acts 7:37-38)

Then the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 22:22:

For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.  For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I WILL PROCLAIM YOUR NAME TO MY BRETHREN, IN THE MIDST OF THE CONGREGATION [church] I WILL SING YOUR PRAISE.” And again, “I WILL PUT MY TRUST IN HIM.” And again, “BEHOLD, I AND THE CHILDREN WHOM GOD HAS GIVEN ME.” (Hebrews 2:10-13)

Here, the author of Hebrews calls the worshipping community of Psalm 22 a church.  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 (p126).  Poole writes (right column, top of p905):

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.

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 teaches us here to understand the term “children of Abraham” not as referring to ethnic Israel but to 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)


Visible & Invisible

Is the distinction between the visible and invisible church taught in Scripture?

As with so many other terms in theology, the terms visible and invisible are not found in the Bible.  For all that, they clearly express truths found in the Bible.


What is the visible church?

The visible church is all those who profess to be believers in Jesus.  The implication here is that not all those who profess to be Christians really are Christians.


What is the invisible church?

These are all those who have been regenerated by the Spirit of God and have put their trust in Jesus and will one day be brought safely to heaven.


Why do Christians find this distinction helpful?

Because the Bible makes it clear that there are many people who profess to be Christians but are not really Christians.  Such people are received into the church because the elders of the church are not able to differentiate between hypocrites and true believers.  Hence, we use the term “visible church” to refer to all those who make this external profession of faith in Christ.  The term “invisible church” is used to refer to true believers.  This is something that is not visible to human persons.


Where does the Bible teach that there are hypocrites in the Christian church?

Jesus makes this point in several parables.  Five of the ten virgins were hypocrites. (Matthew 25:12)  Jesus says that His angels will take out of His kingdom all unbelievers and cast them into judgment. (Matthew 13:41)


Do some object to this distinction?

Yes, Dagg writes (bottom of p122):

Writers on theology have distinguished between the church visible, and the church invisible; but a church in this world to be invisible must consist, not of children of light, but of those whose light is darkness. Were we to use these designations according to their proper import, we might call the saints in heaven the invisible church, because they are removed beyond the reach of human sight; and the saints on earth, the visible church, because they still remain on earth to enlighten this dark world. But the saints above and the saints below, make only one communion, one church; and theologians, when they mean to distinguish these two parts of the one whole from each other, are accustomed to call them the church militant and the church triumphant. By the church invisible, they mean all true Christians; and by the church visible, all those who profess the true religion. The invisible consists wholly of those who are sons of light; and the visible includes sons of light and sons of darkness in one community. We have seen that Christ does not recognize mere professors as his disciples, and that he has taught us not so to recognize them. A universal church, therefore, which consists of all who profess the true religion, is a body which Christ does not own. To be visible saints, a holy life must be superadded to a profession of the true religion; and they who do not exhibit the light of a holy life, whatever their professions may be, have no scriptural claim to be considered members of Christ’s church.


Does Dagg deny that there are hypocrites in the church?

Dagg believes there are hypocrites; he simply objects to calling them the church.  He writes (p123):

Membership in a local church, is not always coincident with membership in the church universal. This appears on the one hand, in the fact that the pure light of a holy life may sometimes be so successfully counterfeited, as to deceive mankind.

He points to the example of Simon the sorcerer who was a hypocrite; but when his hypocrisy was discovered, Peter said that he had no part or lot in this matter.  Dagg goes on to say:

If membership in the local church at Samaria rendered him [Simon] a member of the universal church, the local church had not disowned him. When Paul would have the incestuous person at Corinth excommunicated from that local church, he did not pronounce the sentence of excommunication by his apostolic authority; but left it with the church to perform the act. So Peter did not use his apostolic authority, to exclude the sorcerer from the church at Samaria; but pronounced on his relation to the whole community of the saints. It is hence apparent that membership in a local church may be superadded to profession in those who have no part in the matter. They of whom John says, “They were not of us,” were for a time members of some local church; and so are many to whom the Savior will say in the last day, “I never knew you.”

It’s not clear why Dagg thinks Simon’s profession would have rendered him a member of the universal church.  The Reformed idea is that his profession would have rendered him a member of the visible church, not the universal or invisible church.  Only regeneration could make him a member of the universal church.


But how can he avoid calling hypocrites church when hypocrites cannot be known to be such?

This is not a question he addresses.


Do all Baptist writers reject the distinction between the visible and invisible church?

They do not.  Culver writes:

So the distinction between visible church and invisible church is, properly understood, a very important, necessary, practical matter. The Roman Church of the sixteenth century, of course, vigorously rejected it, holding that the existing, visible hierarchical structure is the one church outside which there is no salvation. Peter was appointed to be the ‘visible foundation’ of the one church. The Roman Mass is ‘a visible sacrifice,’ the hierarchy and priests are a visible structure of administration. ‘The rejection of the hierarchy inevitably [among Albigenses, Waldenes, Hus, Reformers] led to the doctrine of the invisible church.’14 Vatican II and the New Catechism have made some concessions and modifications in the way the matter is stated.  Systematic Theology, p824.


What other objections are brought against this


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top