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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Wendell Rone, 1945
According to the Baptists “There is no word in Christian literature whose primary meaning is so fully agreed upon as the term translated Church; and yet there is no word in that literature (not excepting Baptism) whose meaning has been so perverted and made the basis of subversive error."
The term "Church" is used in the English Bible to translate the Greek word ecclesia, from the verb ekkaleo, "to call together, to convene." Its primary meaning, etymologically, is:
"An organized assembly, whose members have been called out from private homes or businesses to attend to public affairs. The definition necessarily implies prescribed conditions of membership.
"This meaning, substantially; applies alike to the ecclesia of a self-governing Greek City-State (Acts 19:39), the Old Testament ecclesia or convocation of National Israel (Acts 7:38), and the New Testament ecclesia."
Ecclesia, denoting the institution founded by our Lord Jesus Christ, and referred to by Him as "My ecclesia" in contrast to that of the Jews and the Greeks, is found in the New Testament a total of 109 times, and always it retains its primary and simple meaning, a public assembly or congregation. No elaborate proof of the meaning of the word translated "Church" is necessary as the majority of Biblical scholars are agreed on it.
In 96 out of the 109 times the word ecclesia is used in a Christian sense in the Greek New Testament, its reference is unmistakably to a local congregation or assembly of Christ's people, in keeping with the primary and simple meaning of the term. There is sharp division of opinion among Baptist scholars over the meaning of the remaining 13 instances: Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10; 3:21; 5:23; 5:24; 5:25; 5:27; 5:29; 5:32; Colossians 1:18; 1:24; and Hebrews 12:23. From these passages many Baptist Bible students deduce that the term "Church" refers to a "universal, invisible Church," "the entire community of the redeemed," "the body of Christ," and other kindred and descriptive terms, all setting forth the concept of all believers of all time, in heaven and on earth, as composing "the Church."
The author has always rejected this view, believing that those who hold to it have confused the Kingdom of God and the Church, making them one and the same thing. We do not believe that the New Testament will warrant such a conclusion. In the Author's opinion, the disputed passages above may be classified as follows:
a. The Church referred to as an institution, i.e., in the abstract or generic sense. Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10; 3:21; 5:23; 5:24; 5:25; 5:29; 5:32; Colossians 1:18; 1:24. But in application the generic and abstract become particular, individual, and concretely evident.
b. The Church referred to as "in glory," i.e., prospective rather than actual. Ephesians 5:27; Hebrews 12:23.
This "general assembly" has not met as yet, but it will meet in God's appointed time. But the term "Church" still retains its meaning, a congregation or assembly, and it will meet in a place, Heaven. The Greek term "Ecclesia" is never used in Biblical or classical Greek in an unassembled sense.
The Author makes the contention, furthermore, that the terms "body," "temple of the Lord," "house of God," "flock," etc., are figures of speech, and as such are applicable to particular congregations of the people of the Lord, but these terms are never used to refer to all of the particular congregations as a whole or collectively. It is highly doubtful if the notion of universality (catholicity), either "visible" or "invisible," is allowed to attach itself to the term ecclesia in the usage of either the Apostles or the early Christian writers.
"The two ideas, that of a local organism on the one side, and that of a scattered and unaffiliated world-community on the other are too incongruous to dwell harmoniously together under a common designation. To admit the idea of a Church universal, at all, is to make that 'The Church,' and relatively to derogate from the importance of, and the honor due to, the local Churches. . . . As every idea seeks to embody itself, he who regards himself as a member of the Church universal (either `visible' or `invisible' W. H. R.) will naturally seek to adjust himself to the demands of the larger, as more important than the smaller, body to which he belongs.
John Henry Newman, smitten with enthusiasm for the Church universal, which must from its very nature be one and historically continuous, went logically to Rome. Others, dreaming of a like Church as essentially ideal in organization, have looked contemptuously on the `sects'; exhorting men to join a kind of `choir invisible,' where denominationalism shall no longer hinder the communion of saints. Such sentimentalism is apt to degenerate into a Christianity as 'invisible' as the vaporous constituency to which it fancies itself allied. He who loves the Church universal, while despising the Church particular, is of no particular use to either. God `setteth the solitary in families.' This is as true in the religious as in the social sphere, and 'free love' is as disreputable and baneful in one as in the other."
Baptists, believing that the "local" Church is the only one with which we can be concerned in an active manner in this world, have stated that:
"A visible Church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel; observing the ordinances of Christ; governed by His laws; and exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word." New Hampshire Confession of Faith, ARTICLE 13
"The individual Church may be defined as that smaller community of regenerate persons, who, in any given community, unite themselves voluntarily together, in accordance with Christ's laws, for the purpose of securing the complete establishment of His Kingdom in themselves and in the world."
"They (Baptists) hold that a Church is a company of disciples, baptized on a profession of their faith in Christ, united in covenant to maintain the ordinances of the Gospel, and the public worship of God; to live godly lives, and to spread abroad the knowledge of Christ as the Saviour of men."
"A Church is a congregation of Christ's baptized disciples acknowledging Him as their Head, relying on His atoning sacrifice for justification before God, united in the belief of the Gospel, agreeing to maintain its ordinances and obey its precepts, meeting together for worship, and co-operating for the extension of Christ's Kingdom in the world."