Ancient Road Publications


The Concept of the “Church” in the New Testament


Introduction.  (Matthew 16:13-18). I call to your attention the promise which Jesus makes in response to Peter’s confession.  He promises to build His “church.”  What is Jesus promising here?  Probably all people who speak English, whether they come from a religious background or not, have some concept which comes to mind when the word “church” is used.  To some…

·           They think of a place (i.e. a building)—maybe a grand European cathedral or a simple wooden country church building.  Is that the “church” which Jesus is talking about?

·           Think of something that is rigid and stuffy—perhaps a time and a place where parents or grandparents made you as a child wear uncomfortable clothes, and sit still while someone talked on and on.  Is that what Christ’s “church” is?

·           Think of people who are judgmental and picky—they see a “church” as a group of gossips, and tattle-tails, who sit back waiting to catch you doing something they think is wrong—Is that what Jesus is promising to “build?”

This morning I’d like for us to consider something very simple and basic, but something of vital importance to our understanding of Scripture, our relationship with God, and ultimately our eternal destiny—What is the concept of the “church” as it is taught in the New Testament?

I.  The General Meaning of Ekklesia.  When Jesus uttered these words He did not do so in English, but in the common language of much of the Mediterranean world of the First Century, koine (or “common”) Greek.  Our English word in translated from the Greek word ekklesia.

A.  Literal meaning.  Ekklesia literally meant “called-out,” yet to what extent this sense applied in its general usage is unclear.  It was a political term which applied to an assembly of citizens “called-out” for a particular purpose.  In Christ, the New Testament teaches that those who follow Christ are “called-out” by the gospel (2 Thess. 2:13-14).  

B.  Greek Usage.  The New Testament shows us how the Greeks used this term, in one passage where it is used three times in ways which do not refer to Christ’s ekklesia.  (Acts 19:32-41).  Here we see a formal and an informal application of this term.  First, the mob that was angry is described as a confused “assembly (ekklesia)” (19:32). The clerk of the city calms down the riotous mood and says their charges must be heard in a “lawful assembly (ekklesia)” (19:39).  Then the mob, or “assembly” is dismissed (19:41).  

1.         We see from this (before looking at all at its application to Christ’s church), that an ekklesia is a group or assembly of people. 

2.         So any reference to a “church” must be understood to be referring to people—not a place, a building, a cathedral, or a little country chapel.  (Note: This is an English application of the word “church”—not a biblical application).

C.  Use of the term in the Greek Old Testament.  The use of this term to apply to people is confirmed in the way this term was used in the Greek Old Testament made before the time of Jesus.  It used ekklesia in reference to the “congregation of the Lord” in the wilderness (Deut. 9:7-10), and to religious assemblies of the people of Israel during the period of the kings (2 Chron. 30:1-5).

1.         The Law of Moses set laws concerning conduct and admittance into the “assembly (ekklesia) of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1-3).

2.         This shows that among the Greek-speaking Jews of New Testament times the “church” or ekklesia was understood to be an assembly of people in a covenant relationship with God, and assemblies of these people assembled for religious or national purposes.

II.  The Lord’s Church.  Jesus does not use a word in Matthew 16:18 which had no conceptual background.  He used a word which the Greek-speaking Jews would have understood in application to Israel and God’s relationship to Israel.  Jesus was declaring that He would establish a new covenant assembly, with its own terms and regulations dictating its conduct and relationship to God through Him.  In the New Testament we see this word used in at least three distinct senses (all of which apply to this new relationship).

A.       Its Universal Sense.  The Hebrew writer speaks of coming to “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven” (Heb 12:18-24).  These are the people of all races, tongues, nationalities, living and dead who are in fellowship with God in Christ.

1.         Over this assembly, this “church,” Christ is the only head (Col. 1:18).  There is no appointed human leadership over the church in its universal sense.  The only headquarters is heaven itself.  The only guidebook is Scripture. 

2.         It is to this congregation, to this “church,” that God adds a person upon his or her obedience to the gospel (Acts 2:47 KJV, NKJV).

B.       Its Local Sense.  Paul addressed 1 and 2 Corinthians “to the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1).  John is commanded to write seven epistles to churches in Asia, including “the church in Smyrna” (Rev. 2:8), “the church in Pergamos” (2:12), “the church in Sardis” (3:1), etc. Now those in each of these churches may well have been a part of the church universally, but only God can know this for sure.  Each of these churches had different problems and degrees of faithfulness. These were local assemblies of Christians, but the church in Corinth was not the church in Smyrna, nor was the church in Sardis the church in Pergamos.

1.         Now we know that the “church” is Christ’s “body” (Eph. 1:22-23) and we know that there is only “one body” (Eph. 4:4). Christ did not build His “churches” and yet ekklesia is used of different assemblies. In fact Paul addressed Galatians to “the churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2).

2.         It is evident that the term “church (ekklesia)” is being used in these references to speak of local assemblies of Christians in a specific place. 

3.         We noted of the universal sense that God “adds” one to the church—we don’t add ourselves, yet we can identify ourselves with a faithful church.  In this it is our responsibility to consider whether a group is sound.  In this it is the responsibility of a congregation to consider if one who seeks to identify with them is faithful.  But this concerns only what we can observe.  God determines who is a part of the Lord’s church in a universal sense.

4.         In this local sense, it is clear that there are to be appointed human leaders over local churches.  Paul told Titus in Crete to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus to “shepherd the church of God”—“among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The elders of Ephesus had no leadership over Corinth.  The elders in the cities in Crete had no leadership over Ephesus, but they were all Christians, serving Christ as the Head.  Yet, there is a third sense…

C.       The Church Assembled.  This third sense is sometimes easy to miss.  In Matthew 18:17 instructions are given regarding treatment of an unrepentant sinner (Matt. 18:15-17).  After several steps are pursued the command is given to “tell it to the church” in the hopes that the sinner might “hear the church.” When is this even possible?  We cannot “tell the church” in its universal sense. Even in a local sense we can only do this when “the church” is actually assembled. This is talking about an actual assembly of a local church.  Let’s notes some further examples of this…

1.         In 1 Corinthians 11Paul rebukes the Corinthians for being divided (1 Cor. 11:17-18).  This is very interesting.  As Christians the Corinthians were a part of the Lord’s church when they obeyed the gospel.  In a local sense, they were members of the church in Corinth from the time they identified with the saints there. Yet, Paul speaks of coming together “as a church” or lit. “in the church.”  This is not talking about being “in” the place of their assembly, rather it is talking about what they did together, with the church assembled. 

2.         This same sense is found in 1 Corinthians regarding women (1 Cor. 14:34-35). This does not mean that a woman must be silent from the moment she is added to Christ’s church universally.  Nor is it speaking of being silent while identified with a local church.  It is talking about regulations that pertain to the local church when assembled “as a church.”

a.          Remember we saw in the Greek OT that the Law dictated rules and restrictions regarding behavior and admittance to the assembly.  1 Cor. 14:34 is just like those types of laws.  We note that it actually appeals to the law, by way of comparison.  Why?  Where is this ordinance?  This is an example of the binding nature of scriptural silence.  The law never grants to a woman the right (nor is there example) of a woman addressing “the assembly” (Gr. ekklesia) of Israel. 

b.         When does this apply?  Acts 18:26 shows that this is not prohibiting any discussions between men and women.  As a result Bible classes that do not constitute the church assembled as a church are not the context here.  This is talking about the church assembled. 

c.          When is the church assembled?  Not just during worship (that’s not the context specified) rather this restriction applies “in the church” (i.e. in the assembly).  When we assemble together as a church and our assembly begins this applies.  Note: Those of us who make announcements need to be careful here.  How often do situations arise when we may have failed to ask a woman about a matter and ask them from the pulpit?  We are asking her to violate 1 Cor. 14:34.  We are “in the church” (i.e. “in the assembly.”).

3.         This sense of ekklesia in reference to an actual assembly is comparable to how we speak of the US Congress.  A representative may be said to be “in congress” as soon as he or she is elected, but there are different rules and restrictions which apply when congress is in session. These rules regulate behavior when “in congress.”  Ekklesia functions in a similar way.  Note: In modern Heb. a church is called a knesset this is the same word they use to refer to their parliamentary assembly.

4.         This sense of what Christians do “as a church” is at the heart of issues of scriptural authority.  There may be many freedoms and responsibilities we have as individuals which we do not have when we function “as a church.”

a.   Parents can discipline children (Eph. 6:4; Heb. 12:3-11).  Is the church given this duty?  Are elders to spank the children of members?  No.  That is an individual responsibility.

b.  As individuals we are to do good to all people as we have opportunity (Gal. 6:10).  “As a church” the only examples of the use of the collection concern matters “for the saints” (1 Cor. 16:1).

c.   Individuals are free to establish and operate organizations for business or good works, but that doesn’t grant the right to the church, “as a church” to do the same.

Conclusion.  There is much more which the New Testament teaches us about the Lord’s church that we have not been able to consider this morning. However, Lord willing this will allow us to understand the biblical concept to which all other teachings on the church which Christ “purchased with His own blood” are applied. 

Kyle Pope 2010

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