WHAT THE CHURCH IS
Lesson 1


Outline of Lesson 1

I. The Church Defined.

  1. Etymological Definition.
  2. Theological Definition.
  3. Analogical Definition.

II. Nature of the Church.

  1. Composed of Human Beings On Earth.
  2. Is Essentially Independent.
  3. Church Government.

I. The Church Defined

1. Etymological definition.

The Greek word translated church in the New Testament is ekklesia, a compound word composed of ek, meaning "from." or "out of," and kaleo. "to call." Together the two words mean, called from, or out of, denoting a company of people chosen and called.

There are three stages of meaning of ekklesia, is follows: (1) The Greek usage, specifying a lawful assembly of persons assembled in a city to transact business. They were called out from among the whole population. (2) Jewish. The term was applied to the company of Israelites in the wilderness, whom God had chosen and called out of Egypt (Acts 7:38). The same word is employed in the Septuagint (Greek) version of Psalm 22:22, a prophecy of our Lord’s singing in His church. A fulfillment of this prophecy is seen in Matthew 26:30 where it is said that Christ sang after instituting and partaking of His Supper. The prophecy is quoted in Hebrews 2:12. (3) The higher Christian sense. When employed in the Christian or New Testament sense, ekklesia designates a company or assembly or congregation of persons chosen by the Lord, whom He has called out and separated from the world. In all three uses—Greek, Jewish and Christian—the assembly was called out for a definite purpose. In the Christian sense, the purpose of the assembly is to worship and serve the Lord. While the word is applied to the confused mob at Ephesus (Acts 19:32), still we know those people had been called out by Silversmith Demetrius (Acts 19:25) for the purpose of considering their business and idolatrous worship in the light of the effects the Apostle Paul’s preaching was having upon them.

Of the hundred and fifteen or more times the term ekklesia is used in the New Testament, it is used a hundred and ten times in reference to the institution known as the church. In these instances the original classical idea prevails, being an organized assembly. The term, then, was not coined by our Lord, nor His disciples. as they found it already in use, and its etymological meaning, therefore, was carried over into Christian literature. When Christ says, "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18), the possessive pronoun "my" distinguishes His ekklesia or assembly from that of the Greeks. It is His ekklesia frequently mentioned in the New Testament writings.

The word "church" is used in two ways in the New Testament. In its primary sense it means a visible, local congregation, or an organized company of disciples meeting at a given place and for a given purpose. More than ninety of the hundred and ten instances in which "ekklesia is rendered church in the New Testament," says Dr. Hiscox, are applied to a visible, local congregation or assembly. "This is the primary and literal signification of the word. Thus it is said, ‘Paul called the elders of the church’, ‘The church of God at Corinth’; ‘The seven churches of Asia’; ‘The churches of Galatia.’"

In its secondary sense, the word "church" is used with an abstract, or figurative, or institutional meaning. In only a few instances is the word thus used. Jesus says: "Upon this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16 :18) . While this may indicate His ekklesia as an institution as distinguished from that of the Greeks, it is a fact that Christ established a visible, local congregation which followed with Him in His travels. As pointed out by Dr. B. H. Carroll, although the church may be referred to in its institutional sense, "whenever the abstract or generic finds concrete expression, or takes operative shape, it is always a particular assembly."

For instance, we frequently speak of a man being tried before the jury, an institution of law. But when the jury is in operation, it is always a particular group of persons. There can be no such thing as a universal jury, whether visible or invisible. Neither can there be a universal church, except only as an institution and referred to in an abstract sense. As Dr. Hiscox further points out: "To call the aggregate of those who profess the Christian faith—of all names in all the world—‘the Christian Church,’ is a misuse of the word not warranted by the Scriptures. There is no such thing as a universal church on earth embraced in one grand communion. Equally baseless and unsupported by Scripture is the claim that all the religious congregations of a nation, or of a given form of faith in a nation, constitute a national, or denominational church. It contradicts the New Testament idea" (Directory for Baptist Churches, pp. 25, 26) .

The theory of a universal church finds no proof, as frequently claimed, in Ephesians 5:23: "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body." If by "the church" is meant a universal church, then by "the husband" would necessarily mean a universal husband? In this instance, the word "husband" designates a family relationship which may be affirmed of all married men; and the word "church" designates the kind, the genus, of institution which is applicable to all groups of like constitution.

2. Theological Definition.

A church is a congregation of baptized believers united by covenant to carry into effect the will of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The New Hampshire Confession defines a church in this way: "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. exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His word" (Article XIII).

In both definitions a congregation must be hound together by covenant in one body to attain a common objective. People of like faith and order mad; assemble for worship without forming a church, instance gatherings in an associational capacity.

The Church of England defines a church .in this way: "A congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinances, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same" (Thirty-Nine Articles, Article XIX).

The Westminster Assembly defines a church after this manner: "Particular Churches in the primitive times were made up of visible saints, viz., of such as being of age, professing faith in Christ, according to the rules of faith and life taught by Christ as his Apostles, and of their children."

The Augsburg Confession says: "A congregation of saints, in which the gospel is purely preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered" (Augsburg Confession, Article VII).

In 1643 seven Baptist churches in London set forth this statement: "Jesus Christ hath on the earth a spiritual kingdom which is His church, whom He hath purchased and redeemed to Himself, as a peculiar inheritance: which church is a company of visible saints, called and separated from the world by the Word and Spirit of God, to the visible profession of. the faith of the gospel; being baptized into that faith, and joined to the Lord. and to each other, by mutual agreement, in the practical enjoyment of the ordinances by Christ their head and King."

The foregoing definitions speak of a local congregation. With the Baptists this is the primary meaning of a church, but with others a congregation is but one unit of a universal church. Baptists have never issued. a confession which they made binding on the churches, for the Scriptures constitute their only creed.

The Greek Catholic Church offers this definition: "The church is a divinely instituted community of men, united by the orthodox faith, the law of God, the Hierarchy, and the sacraments."

The Roman Catholic Church says: "The company of Christians knit together by the profession of the same faith,. and the. communion of the same sacraments, under the government of lawful pastors, and especially of the Roman bishop, as the only vicar of Christ on earth."

Baptists may be said to be the only ones who, by virtue of their constitutional belief, are qualified to give a Scriptural definition of a church. When Protestants look beyond a local congregation, their idea of the church, is a universal, invisible body; and the Catholics, a universal, visible body.

3. Analogical Definitions.

The New Testament employs certain analogies or relations of likeness between churches and the nature and purpose of their work. In this way what a church really is may more closely be understood than by any lexicon or theological definition we might give. The following are some of the analogies with a descriptive word following each one

Pillar and ground of the truthsupport. ". . . the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth," (1 Tim. 3:15b). This specifies the church to be the main support of truth, which has held true in all ages since the days of Christ on earth. If, as some claim, the church ceased to exist during the Dark Ages, truth perished from the earth, as a bridge would collapse, were its pillars pulled from beneath it.

House—,a place of dwelling. "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. . ." (1 Tim. 3:15a). As a house its members should live in it daily, by way of honorable Christian conduct and devotion to its ideals. We should not neglect the "assembling of ourselves together" (Heb. 10 :25). In the Old Testament economy, David sought to "dwell in the house of the Lord" all the days of his life (Ps. 27 :4) .

Flock—denoting special care. "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood," (Acts 20:28). Christ is the true Shepherd who cares for His flock, even giving His life for the sheep. "Fear not, little flock" (Luke 12:32), is our Lord’s gentle admonition to His sheep.

Saltpreserving and flavoring qualities. "Ye are the salt of the earth," (Matthew 5:13). The Master spoke this to His church that had followed Him into the mountain. Salt preserves meats by arresting the chemical action of decomposition and flavors foods. The ancient pagans considered salt as a substance "dear to the gods." Homer sang of "divine salt." The ancient Germans built their temples of worship in salt districts. Without salt life on earth would perish, and no food would be palatable to the taste. This pictures the worth of a church to community life. It helps to preserve a better kind of life and makes a community a desirable place in which to live.

Light—a mission of righteousness. "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid," (Matthew 5:14). A church is a divinely appointed lighthouse which is equipped to emit rays of gospel light into a darkened world. This mission is world wide. The Apostle Paul speaks of the "light of the glorious gospel of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:4), which is designed to shine unto the lost.

Temple—a, place of worship. "In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord," (Eph. 2:21). The word temple means sanctuary, a building dedicated to the purpose of worship. As applied to the church institution, it denotes an assembly which carries on the worship of God. For a church to be used for secular causes is to degrade her high and holy purpose.

Bodyspecifying unity. "There is one body," (Eph. 4:4). That is, one of a kind, not one in the sense of a universal body composed of all professed Christians in the world. When we consider the common faith which is peculiar to all churches of like communion, we take note of the prevailing unity. In an abstract sense all who are members of churches and hold to a common belief compose a body, but the Scriptures do not teach that all the saved, regardless of their church affiliation, compose a universal church.

Bridedenoting affinity. "He that hath the bride is the bridegroom," (John 3:29). Our Lord, while on earth, had His bride, the church. In a generic sense, the churches of our Lord constitute the bride of Christ. now betrothed to Him. When He comes again they shall be ceremonially married in the royal palace of the universe, as we are told in Revelation 19:7: "Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him. For the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready." Then only the saved who were and are members of Scriptural churches will be recognized as the bride. All others who are saved will be guests at the royal wedding. Salvation alone does not make one a part of the bride any more than being a woman makes her a bride. It is basic, like being a woman is essential to being a bride, still one may be a woman without being a bride.

II. The Nature of a Church

By the nature of a church is meant her character or constitution, or her distinguishing qualities. The church is the only divinely organized community on earth. It was organized by Christ in person and commissioned to carry out His will in all the world. The following facts show what the nature of the church is.

  1. Church members are literal human beings, not angels, or spirits. Only people are subject to gospel address, who are required to profess faith in Christ and be baptized in order to become members. "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls," (Acts 2:41).

    The earth is the only location of the church, not part of it on earth and part in heaven. Death removes a person from church membership. As the church was commissioned by Christ to preach the gospel and administer the ordinances until He shall come again, it is unreasonable to hold that any part thereof could thus operate in heaven. The family of God, consisting of all the redeemed in all ages, resides both in heaven and on earth (Eph. 4:15). Therefore the church and the family of God are not synonymous terms, the latter being far more comprehensive in scope.

    Some speak of "the church in the aggregate," meaning the assembly of all the redeemed in all ages who shall be gathered by the Lord unto Himself in glory. Only in the sense of the redeemed having been called out of the world and gathered unto the Lord can such an assembly be termed the ekklesia or church. In this sense is the word ekklesia applied to the whole assembly of the Israelites whom God called out of Egypt and assembled in the wilderness. Such an assembly in glory does not now exist in fact but in concept only. Moreover, the ordinary and theological definition of ekklesia is not applicable to the future assembly in glory, for this assembly will not require an observance of the church ordinances. Therefore this assembly cannot be equated with that founded and commissioned by Christ.

  2. (1) Because the congregation founded by Christ multiplied by certain of her members going abroad and establishing like churches. "`And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily" (Acts 16:5).

    (2) Because a church is recognized by Christ as being the highest ecclesiastical tribunal on earth. "And if he shall neglect to hear them (the one or two witnesses) tell it unto the church . . . Verily I say unto you. Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven," (Matthew 18:17a, 18). This was spoken by our Lord to a local congregation, for how could anything be reported to a universal church? Whatever a church does, according to the divine will, is approved in heaven. And there can be no appeal by anyone from the authority of a local church.

    (3) Because the churches. in the very nature of their existence as separate congregations, do not constitute a hierarchy. Hence the Scriptures speak of "the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2), not "the church of Galatia"; "the seven churches" of Asia (Rev. 1:20), not "the church of Asia," etc. Accordingly, it would be a misnomer to speak of: "The Church of America," or "The Church of Europe," or the church of any state.

    The Roman Catholic system is that of a hierarchy, founded by Constantine the Great in the fourth century. It is a body of ecclesiastical rulers disposed organically in ranks and orders each subordinate to the one above it, with the Pope as the chief, the Pontifex Maximus, to whom the Catholic congregations throughout the world are subject.

    Other denominations, such as the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, compound their congregations in one ecclesiastical system; making the word "church" mean the aggregate of all their local congregations. In all these human systems the local church loses its meaning in the light of the Scriptures.

    (4) Because the Scriptures recognize the equality of churches. They are not equal in numbers, or material possessions, or even resourcefulness, but as units in all associated capacity. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 the Apostle Paul likens a church to the human body—made up of many members but still one body. One man may be much larger than another, still the smaller man is as much man as the other. He has as much right as a citizen and can vote at the polls as often as the larger man.

    In sum, the nature of the church is shown by the fact it is local as to sphere, visible as to appearance and independent as to relationship. This is corroborated by history. Dr. Thomas Armitage points out the independence and equality of churches when he says: "All the Apostolic churches were independent of each other, and equal in rank and authority. No general council was held or known in this century" (History of the Baptists, p. 160).

    Three significant facts are shown: (1) The first century churches were independent of each other, being self-governing and autonomous bodies; (2) they were equal in rank and authority; and (3) no general council was known in the first century, that is, apart from the churches. Inter-church councils were held in New Testament times, instance the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), but as Mosheim testifies, "It was not until the second century" that many traces of councils apart from church authority appeared.

    After saying that all New Testament churches were independent in nature, although bound together by the common tie of faith and practice, Mosheim declares, "That every one of them enjoyed the same rights, and was considered as being on a footing of the most perfect equality with the rest" (Mosheim’s Historical Commentaries, Vol. 1, p. 196) .

    Edward Gibbon, famous historian, says of sister churches: "United only by the ties of faith and charity. Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution by which the Christians were governed for more than a hundred years after the death of the apostles. Every society formed within itself a separate and independent republic; and although the most distant of these little states maintained a mutual, as well as a friendly, intercourse of letters and deputation, the Christian world was not yet connected by a supreme or legislative assembly" (Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, pp. 554, 558).

    Writing strictly as a secular historian. Gibbon says that for more than a hundred years after the death of the apostles, Christianity knew nothing of "any supreme or legislative assembly," while at the same time the churches did have general messenger assemblies or associations but not "supreme or legislative assembly," such as were instituted by heretical teachers in the early centuries, who perverted the Scriptural plan of church polity. They maintained a "mutual as well as friendly intercourse of letters and deputations," that is, as we would say, messengers.

    Dr. John T. Christian, in his "History of the Baptists," Vol. 1. p. 14: "In the New Testament sense of the church there can be no such an organization as a National or General Church, covering a large district or country, composed of a number of local organizations. The church, in the Scriptural sense, is always an independent, local organization."

    Dr. David Benedict, "History of Baptists." p. 332: "In process of time, so strongly were many inclined to constitute these bodies (associations and general assemblies) into courts of appeal, that it was found necessary to define their powers, and make them merely advisory councils, as Baptists in all ages and countries have done."

Three forms of church government or polity are generally recognized by the denominations—Congregational, Presbyterial, and Episcopal. The first means government by the congregation—a democracy with all the members of a congregation exercising equal suffrage. The Presbyterial form is a government by the presbyters or elders. The Episcopal is a government by the rule of bishops.

Baptists champion the Congregational form, which is maintained by the following Scriptural reasons:

(1) A church may receive members (Rom. 14:1).

(2) A church may dismiss members (1 Cor. 5 :13; 2 Cor. 2:6 ; 2 Thess. 3 :6) .

The Corinthian church expelled from membership an incestuous man by majority vote. "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many." The word "many" comes from an original word meaning "majority." This shows the church maintained a democratic polity.

(3) A whole church voted in the election of an apostle (Acts 1:26).

(4) A whole church acted in the election and ordination of the first deacons (Acts 6:2-6).

(5) A whole church acted in sending forth missionaries (Acts 13:1-2; 14:26-27).

Questions on Lesson 1

1. What is the etymological definition of the word church?

2. What is a theological definition of church?

3. Name the analogical definitions.

4. What is meant by the nature of a church?

5. Give some reasons for your answer.

6. What does Historian Edward Gibbon say of the early churches?

7. What do Drs. John T. Christian and David Benedict say relative to the nature of the church?

8. What is meant by church government?

9. Name the three principal forms of church government.

10. Which one is Scriptural? Give five reasons for your answer.