“Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him [be] glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
(Please note: I apologize for the length and detail of this series, and to be honest, I realize it will not be easily consumed by some of its readers. I normally do not post articles of this length or depth, but I feel obligated to write this posting based upon feedback I have received from the Importance Of The Local Assembly series that was recently published. So for the many who have shown interest and/or curiosity on this subject, here is the information you have requested. My apology to those who lack interest or the time to read this study. It is understandable.)
Facts about the word “church” as used in the King James Version of the Bible….
1. The word “church” is not used in the Old Testament.
2. The word “church” is used in 111 verses in the New Testament.
3. Every occurrence of the word “church” is translated from the Greek word “ekklesia” in the NT.
In this study, I would like to study the definition and contextual usage of this Greek word “ekklesia”, with the intent of answering the following questions…
“When the Bible speaks of a “church” is it referring to an invisible, universal assembly made up of all believers in Christ;…. or, is it referring to visible, local assembly whose membership is limited to baptized believers;…. or, does the Bible speak of both types of “churches” that are differentiated by the context in which they are used?”
Let us all ask the Lord for grace, a spirit open to truth, clarity of thought, and accuracy as we work our way through the Holy Scriptures…
A. (Matthew 16:16-20);
B. (Act 2:42-47); (Act 7:37-41); (Act 12:1-4); (Act 15:1-4); (Act 19:29-34); (Act 19:35-41); (Act 20:17-28)
C. (Romans 16:21-24)
D. (1 Corinth 6:1-5); (1 Corinth 10:24-33); (1 Corinth 11:19-24); (1 Corinth 12:27-31); (1 Corinth 15:1-11)
E. (Galatians 1:11-13)
F. (Ephesians 1:16-23); (Ephesians 3:8-12); (Ephesians 3:14-21); (Ephesians 5:22-33)
G. (Philippians 3:4-6)
H. (Colossians 1:14-29)
I. (1 Timothy 3:14-16); (1 Timothy 5:9-16)
J. (Hebrews 2:10-13)
K. (James 5:12-18)
L. (3 John 1:5-10)
A basic principle used in this study:
You must take the normal, usual usage and meaning of a word unless the context CLEARLY DICTATES ANOTHER MEANING is ABSOLUTELY necessary.
This is the core principle upon which this study is based. Both the details, and conclusion, of this study rest heavily upon this principle. We will be finding the common, basic usage and definition of “ekklesia” as found in the Scriptures, and then attempt to consistently apply that meaning to each text.
The common definition of the word “ekklesia”:
The basic meaning of “ekklesia” is “called out from”, or “to separate by summons”.
Therefore, based upon the definition of “ekklesia”, we find no indication of which type of assembly we are speaking of whenever we find the word being used.
However, this is only half of our “equation”. Next we have to look at the USAGE of the word “ekklesia” in the Holy Bible.
The common usage of the word “ekklesia”:
I am forced to conclude that the common usage of the term in the NT is “local visible assembly”. This definition clearly applies in at least 80 verses (that’s over 70 percent of the time) the word is used. There was only, at the most, 32 verses that it could mean a invisible, universal assembly (that’s less than 30%).
Therefore, for this study, we will be using THE COMMON DEFINITION OF “EKKLESIA” WILL BE “A LOCAL VISIBLE ASSEMBLY”.
Based upon our earlier discussion under the heading “A basic principle used in this study” This will be our process…
1. We will look at the context of each of the 32 Scriptures where “ekklesia” could mean an “invisible universal assembly”.
2. We will see if each one could allow us to use our common definition a “local visible assembly” .
3. If the context allows “ekklesia” to hold to its common definition, that will be the definition we assign to that text.
4. If the context forbids that the common definition of ekklesia can be used, we will then attempt to determine the definition of “ekklesia” for that text.
For more detailed information on the above sections, please see part one of our study…
A verse by verse study of the “questionable” texts that use the word “ekklesia”:
“These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how 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. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” (1 Timothy 3:14-16)
Paul is instructing Timothy, the young pastor of a local church. He is explaining to Timothy the importance of teaching the truth to the members of the assembly. The local assembly is the storehouse of the truths of God in New Testament times. Here, the local assembly is described as: the “house of God”, it is where God’s people meet for intimate worship, communion and nourishment from His Word; and the “pillar and ground of the truth”, the assembly that has been authorized to “hold up the truth for all to see” and “defend the truth so it cannot be moved, nor go out of existence”.
The usage of “ekklesia”
The local church easily fits the context here. No need to look further.
“Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. And withal they learn [to be] idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside after Satan. If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.” (1 Timothy 5:9-16)
Paul is instructing Timothy on the proper administration of permanent church aid to widows within the local assembly. They were to only aid those who were 60 years old and faithful to Christ. He warns that, at times, younger widows can turn from the service of Christ and live carnal lives characterized by fleshly pursuits. Paul says, instead of receiving younger widows into the group receiving permanent church support, they should remarry, be supported by their new husband, and raise children that honor God. Also, those widows with Christian families still living are to look to them for financial aid, apart from aid from the local assembly.
The usage of “ekklesia”
The local assembly is clearly in view here, based upon the nature of the instructions given to Timothy. Timothy has absolutely no authority over a universal, invisible assembly of believers and also it is impossible for a universal assembly, as a body, to support anyone. The local assembly easily fits in this context.
“For it became him, for whom [are] all things, and by whom [are] all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who 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 church will I sing praise unto thee. And again, I will put my trust in him. And again, Behold I and the children which God hath given me.” (Hebrews 2:10-13)
Christ’s exultation following His perfect obedience on the cross is being described. His death on the cross resulted in our sanctification and adoption into His family. The local church membership is made up of individuals who have adopted into the family of God, His brethren.
A prophecy found in Psalm 22:22 promises that Christ would sing praises to His Father in the midst of the assembly. These praises were another act of Christ’s submission and obedience. He chose to glorify and honor His Father in heaven, instead of praising Himself through song. This prophecy was fulfilled when Christ sang during the local church meeting that was called to observe the Lord’s supper…
“And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed [it], and brake [it], and gave [it] to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave [it] to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom. And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.”
The usage of “ekklesia”
Clearly, the singing of Christ was performed during a local church assembly. No need to look further.
“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and [your] nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation. Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess [your] faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit. (James 5:12-18)
We have described instructions for Christians touching upon many different life situations: Do not swear nor take oaths, simply speak honestly and cultivate and honest testimony among all; when afflicted, seek the Lord’s grace and intervention through prayer; when merry, show your joy to others through songs that honor the Lord; when sick, call the elders of the local assembly and receive their prayers and application of oil (commonly used for symbolic anointing and medication); when committed sin has become public, publically confess the sin and ask for prayer of other members of the local assembly. Why do all this? Because prayer is a powerful thing, especially when the prayer is performed in the context of a local church meeting….
“Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)
The usage of “ekklesia”
The word “church” used in the generalized sense. In other words… “whatever local church of which you are a member”.
The above actions can only be performed in the context of a local assembly of believers. Who would the elders of a universal church be? How can the elders of a universal church all meet in one place? How can we confess our public sins to the universal church? Etc etc… Obviously, this is a local assembly being talked about.
“Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well: Because that for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellowhelpers to the truth. I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth [them] out of the church.” (3 John 1:5-10)
Here John is addressing Gaius, who faithfully ministered to others. John reviews the faithful acts of Gaius. Firstly, he reminded Gaius of his faithful ministering to his family and spiritual brothers and also to strangers. Those he had helped had then gone before the local assembly and told of his charitable deeds.
John encourages Gaius to continue to help other Christians whom may come his way during their travels. By helping those Christians, he shares in the ministry they are performing.
John had written to the local church to encourage them to help the traveling Christians, but Diotrephes, due to his desire for attention, did not receive the travelers. But instead, he forbad the other members of the local assembly to help these traveling ones. If a member chose to help the travelers, he would cast them out of the local assembly. John says that when he arrives at this church he would deal with the situation.
The usage of “ekklesia”
Easily, we can see a local church must be being talked about. A letter cannot be sent to an invisible world-wide assembly. Christians cannot come before a universal assembly and speak of blessings they had received, they cannot be cast out of a universal assembly, nor can one person forbid all living Christians to do anything. Obviously this speaks of the local assembly in Gaius’ area.
Please take notice:
Any text that you do not see listed (unless I misread it) clearly indicate the word church is a local assembly. For example the phrase “church at Jerusalem” clearly is referring to the local church at Jerusalem. Also there may be a few instances where the context clearly indicated a local assembly was in view like “the church that is in thy house” which clearly disallows the universal church usage. I saw no reason to include these types of texts in the discussion we are having.
THE PRACTICAL APPLICATION:
As you can see, based upon my understanding of these Scriptures, there is not one text found in the Bible that dictates we must view the Biblical concept of a church as “an invisible universal assembly”.
Certainly we know that all who are saved make up “the family of God”, “the kingdom of God”, and “the saints”, however, the more I look into this subject, I am hesitant to refer to all who are saved as “the church of God”.
Why is this an important issue? I believe there is much to be learned about a local assembly that previously have been missed by attributing various texts to all who are saved, when they correctly apply to local assemblies.
The role and importance of the local assembly is enhanced through this understanding of the meaning of the word “church” as found in the New Testament Scriptures. As a matter of fact, the local assembly when viewed from this perspective, becomes the supreme instrument of the Lord in the proclamation, retention and defense of the truth of the Word.
There is no other organization on the face of the planet earth that comes close to holding the authority, purpose and value to the cause of Christ than His local churches on earth. How can we begin to take the local assembly so lightly?
Let me remind you that I have tried to find every section of Scripture where the word “church” could be referring to an invisible assembly. If, during your studies, you find any other text that could refer to a universal church. Please let me know. For my own use, and the benefit of those who read this study, I would like this study to be as complete as possible.
Also, if you see things in the context of the above passages that you believe absolutely disallow the local assembly definition of “church” please let me know by comment or email. Again, I certainly am a fallen, sinful, human who is capable of misunderstanding a context or entirely missing it, therefore it is very possible I have missed something in this study. Please point it out to me so I can study and, hopefully, come to an understanding of the issue and then address it in a future comment.
May the Lord bless you as you seek His truth.
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May the Lord bless your study of His Word. Like God’s Word… may your soul’s salvation and your life’s faithfulness be “Settled in Heaven.”