The English word ‘church’ has come down to us from the Greek through the
Gothic. Walafrid Strabo, who wrote about A.D. 840 gives as the explanation of
the word ‘kyrch’ the Greek kuriake, a word that means
‘related to the Lord’, as he
kuriake hemera ‘the Lord’s
day’. The Scottish word ‘kirk’ retains the sound of the Greek original still. In
ordinary parlance, the word church can refer both to the body of worshippers
assembled together, or to the building in which they are met, but there is no
instance in the New Testament where the word ‘church’ refers to a building. In
the ministry of Paul a transition in the usage of the word is observable which
is dispensationally important. Before Acts 28 and while the hope of Israel still
obtained, the apostle addressed six epistles to different companies of
believers. ‘Unto the churches of
Galatia’, ‘Unto the church of the
Thessalonians’, ‘Unto the church of God
which is at Corinth’. Thus five of these early epistles use the word ‘church’ in
a local sense. Romans is the exception in this group, this epistle is not
addressed to ‘the church which is at Rome’ but ‘To all that be in Rome, beloved
of God, called to be saints’ (Rom. 1:7), the word church being reserved for the
last chapter, where it occurs five times.
This prepares the way for the great change which meets us in Ephesians and
Colossians. In these great epistles of the Mystery, the word church is not used
in the opening salutation, but is invested with new glory, the first occurrence
being in Ephesians 1:22,23, ‘The church which is His body, the fullness of Him
that filleth all in all’. The word translated ‘church’, is with one exception
the translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which becomes in
English ecclesia and enters into the composition of such words as ecclesiastical
etc. The one exception is Acts 19:37, ‘robbers of churches’, which the R.V. more
correctly renders ‘robbers of temples’. Ekklesia occurs in the New
Testament 115 times, three of these occurrences being translated ‘assembly’ the
rest ‘church’. The Septuagint version uses the word about eighty times, but we
will defer their examination until we have finished our survey of the usage of
the word in the New Testament.
The following extract from Trench on the Synonyms of the New Testament is of
‘There are words whose history it is peculiarly interesting to watch, as
they obtain a deeper meaning, and receive a new consecration, in the Christian
Church; which, even while it did not invent, has yet assumed them into its
service, and employed them in a far loftier sense than any to which the world
had ever put them before. The very word by which the Church is named is itself
an example - a more illustrious one could scarcely be found - of this gradual
ennobling of a word. For we have it in three distinct stages of meaning - the
heathen, the Jewish, and the Christian. In respect of the first, as all know,
was the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the
rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs. That they were
summoned is expressed in the latter
part of the word; that they were summoned out
of the whole population, a large, but at the same time a select portion
of it, including neither the populace, nor strangers, nor yet those who had
forfeited their civic rights, this is expressed in the first. Both the
calling and the calling
out, are moments to be remembered, when
the word is assumed into a higher Christian sense, for in them the chief part
of its peculiar adaptation to its auguster uses lies. It is interesting to
observe how, on one occasion in the New Testament the word returns to this its
earlier significance (Acts 19:32,39,41)’.
The LXX uses the word ekklesia to
translate the Hebrew
qahal. Qahal means
to call, to assemble, and the noun form means a congregation or assembly.
Solomon is called
koheleth the Preacher, translated by the LXX ekklesiastes.
The earliest known occurrence of the word is found in Job 30:28, ‘I cried in the
congregation’. In the books of the law, qahal
is rendered by the Greek word sunagoge, showing that the
synagogue is the beginning of the New Testament church. Stephen in his speech
which ended in his martyrdom referred to the history of Israel, and dwells for
considerable length upon the one great leader Moses, saying in Acts 7:38:
‘This is he, that was in the CHURCH in
the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai’.
The people of Israel, looked upon as ‘a called-out assembly’ were ‘the
Church’ of that period.
In the nineteenth chapter of Acts, a reference is made to the Greek usage of
the word ekklesia.
The concourse of people gathered to the theatre at Ephesus is referred to as an
‘the assembly was confused’ (Acts 19:32). Upon the arrival of the town clerk, he
reproved the people for the rashness of their proceedings saying: ‘If ye inquire
anything concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly (ekklesia)’
(Acts 19:39), and having thus spoken he dismissed the assembly (Acts 19:41).
Here the word is used in its original sense, a called-out people, assembled for
a particular purpose. It will be seen, therefore, that it is not enough to point
to the word ‘church’ and thereby set aside the distinctive callings of God. The
kingdom as announced in Matthew is not to be contrasted with a church, but is in
itself to be viewed as a company of called-out ones. The reference to the church
in Matthew 16:18 does not look to the subject of subsequent revelation reserved
for the prison ministry of Paul, but to the calling that was announced in the
Gospel of the Kingdom. There was a ‘church’ before Pentecost, as Matthew 18:17
In the Prison Epistles (See under PRISON
EPISTLES) the word ekklesia is advanced to
its highest conception. It is ‘the body of Christ’, it will be ‘the fulness of
Him that filleth all in all’. It will be seen that it is not enough to say: ‘The
church began at Pentecost’, we must go further, and define what church is in
view. Under the heading ekklesiaor ‘called-out
company’ we find the following different assemblies, ranging from the nation of
Israel separated from all the nations of the earth down to the church to which
Philemon acted as host. Before, therefore, we build up any doctrine upon the
presence of the word ‘church’ in any passage of Scripture we should consult the
context and realize the dispensation in which any particular church finds its
calling and sphere.
The nation of Israel viewed as distinct in their calling to be a kingdom
of Priests in the earth (Acts 7:38). In this light it will be perceived that
some care must be exercised when we are seeking to differentiate between the
Kingdom and the Church.
The Church spoken of as existing in the days of Christ’s earthly ministry
before either His sacrificial death, or before the day of Pentecost (Matt.
The Church concerning which Christ spoke as future, and built upon the
rock, and confession ‘Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God’ related
to Peter with his keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:18).
The Church which was formed in the day of Pentecost, which
partly fulfilled the prophecy of Joel 2:28,29.
awaits complete fulfilment until the future day of the Lord.
is inseparable from the enduement of spiritual gifts.
is inseparable from the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6; 2:30,31).
is inseparable from baptism for the remission of sins. This Church is
related to the dispersion (Jas. 1:1; 5:14).
The Church of God, which Paul persecuted before his conversion in Acts 9
(Gal. 1:13, 1 Cor. 15:9; Phil. 3:6) and which continued to assemble and to
grow under his subsequent ministry (1 Cor. 1:2; 11:16; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess.
The Church of God, called in the same chapter, the Church of the living
God (1 Tim. 3:5,15) to whom was directed that ministry of re-adjustment which
had in view the building up of the body of Christ until all arrived in the
unity of the faith, etc. (Eph. 4:11-13).
The Church of the One Body, the calling that goes back before the
foundation of the world, and ascends to the position ‘far above all’ where
Christ sits. This church is entirely disassociated from all previous
companies, having no relation with Israel, Abraham or New Covenant, but
filling the great dispensational parenthesis of Israel’s blindness, which fell
on that nation in Acts 28. The status, calling and constitution of this Church
can be gathered by reading Ephesians and Colossians, remembering as the
reading progresses, ever to ‘try the things that differ’.
The seven Churches of Asia (Rev. 1 to 3), one of them namely the Church at
Pergamos, will be in the city ‘where Satan’s seat is’ (Rev. 2:13). These seven
churches will resume where the Church of Pentecost left off and carry the
fulfilment of Joel 2:28,29 through to its end. In these Churches there will be
some who will ‘say they are Jews and are not’ (Rev. 2:9). This company, though
enumerated separately, really falls under heading No. 4, but owing to the
setting aside of Israel at the coming in of the dispensation of the Mystery,
we have listed these Churches separately.
We believe that the earnest student who obeys the injunction of 2 Timothy
2:15 and discovers under which of these heads ‘the church’ under examination
falls, will have no difficulty in correctly relating any church mentioned in the
New Testament with its respective calling and dispensation.