CHRIST HAS ONLY ONE KIND OF CHURCH ACCORDING TO THE NEW TESTAMENT
"And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence." (Colossians 1:18.)
Proponents of the universal church idea abuse and misinterpret the epistles of Ephesians and Colossians perhaps more than any other part of the New Testament in their vain attempts to produce some scriptural support for their fantastic theories. In another study I have shown how the use of the word "church" in Ephesians corresponds to the abstract, generic, institutional, or distributive use of other singular nouns with plural connections. Let us now examine the same subject in Paul's letter to the Colossians.
In the first place it is axiomatic that words ought to be understood in their ordinary sense unless the context demands otherwise, or unless the writer or speaker explains that he is using a word in a sense different from what would be naturally understood by his readers or hearers. The question in Biblical interpretation is not what meaning modern religionists may like to read into the scriptures, but what meaning was clearly intended to be conveyed by the original writers, according to the ordinary usages of language.
Meaning of Ekklesia
Honest translation requires that the Greek word ekklesia be rendered "assembly" or "congregation" - a fact attested by competent scholarship and easily confirmed by anyone who will examine the word in context in all its occurrences in the New Testament. The fact is so self-evident that even the most rabid advocates of a universal church are compelled to recognize a literal assembly in the great majority of all Biblical uses of the word.
Satan's ministers, enemies of our Lord's church, needed about half a thousand years to get much acceptance of the idea of "universal" or "catholic" church in opposition to New Testament churches, and a thousand years more to sell the idea of a "universal invisible" church. Of course, a universal or worldwide assembly is a contradiction in terms, and even more so is an invisible assembly of visible mortals. There is no such confusion in the New Testament.
Stubbornly shutting their eyes to the abstract use of singular nouns, enemies of our Lord's real churches dream of what they call "the true church" as something that exists only in imagination, something that never assembles, something supposed to include all Christians and yet leaving them all out of any definite or recognizable obligations to Christ.
For readers whose minds are open, I cite a few of more than a dozen instances in Colossians of various singular nouns used with the definite article and with plurality of application: that is, the singular does not have an immediate particular reference, nor does it suggest anything universal; but it is to be applied plurally (distributively) according to context.
Colossians 1:4: "Your faith" and "love" The possessive pronoun is plural; the "faith" and "love" are singular. Not universal faith and love, but individually and collectively the faith and love of all the Colossian saints.
Colossians 2:11: "Ye are circumcised. . . in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh." Note the plural subject. The Colossians did not all at once put off one big universal body of sins, but each of them individually put off the body of the sins of his own flesh.
Colossians 2:12: (Literally) "Buried with him in the baptism." The subject is still plural, but "the baptism" (singular) is not one big universal invisible splash; the reference is to the baptism of each individual.
Colossians 3:8: "Your mouth." Plural possessive (genitive) pronoun; singular "mouth." Devotees of a universal church may have nightmares about a universal mouth; other readers will have better sense
The Church The Body
"Ekklesia," traditionally mistranslated "church," appears four times in the letter to the Colossians. The first two times, in verses 18 and 24 of the first chapter, it is figuratively declared to be the body of Christ
Very little intelligence and only a moderate amount of thinking will be needed to discern how apt is this figure when applied to an organized assembly and how ridiculous it is to try to apply it to the imaginary "universal church." Reduce a human body to smoke and ashes, dispel the smoke around the world, and scatter the ashes across six continents and seven seas: then try to get some work done by that "universal body"!
The figure of the church as the body of Christ is enlarged upon in Romans 12 and in I Corinthians 12. It is a beautiful and meaningful figure when we think of a real union of God's people organized under the headship of Christ, holding a common faith and purpose, bound together in mutual love, sharing one other's joys and sorrows, believing and obeying the word of God in the unity of the Spirit.
Enemies of Christ's church are they who destroy this figure, making it ridiculous with their "invisible church" nonsense. The figurative body of Christ of the New Testament is no mere figment of the imagination, but can be found in real life wherever an assembly of baptized believers, recognizing only Christ as their Head, carry on business for Him.
Suffering For the Church
In verse 23 of Col. 1, Paul says he became a minister of the gospel; in verses 24 and 25 he says he became a minister of the church. There can be a difference, but Paul was both. In verse 24 he wrote of himself as one "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church."
Perhaps we shall never fully understand this Scripture in this life. Certainly we must not confuse the meritorious, substitutionary sufferings of Christ which He alone bore for our redemption with other sufferings in which we are called upon to share.
Whether we can understand it or not, Christ and His apostles had an interest not only in individual souls but also in the church as an institution. Those ministers of the gospel who attach no importance to the church, who imply that "one church is as good as another," who thereby despise the only kind of church that Jesus ever organized, are surely not led by the Spirit of Christ or of Paul.
The Church in a House
In Colossians 4:15 is the third mention of "church" in this letter: "Salute . . . Nymphas, and the church which is in his house."
Notice: not that part of the church which is in his house, as it would have to read if the church were something scattered all over the world, but "the church which is in his house." Whether Nymphas had a very large house, or whether the church that met there was a rather small church, we are not told.
What we are told is enough to let us know (1) that the church is not universal; (2) that a church is something different from a house; and (3) that a church may be contained in a house. All this is obvious in a single verse.
Churches in Fellowship
Fourth mention of the word "church" in Colossians is in 4:16: "And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea."
The only organic connection between real New Testament churches is that they have the same Head, but this is enough. We are complete in Him. (Colossians 2:10.) Real churches cannot scripturally join together to form a higher organization, whatever it may be called, to exercise authority over them. When they transfer their allegiance from Christ to men, they cease to be Christ's churches.
But this does not mean that churches ought to exist in isolation. On the contrary, having one Lord, one faith, one baptism, etc., we have every reason to enjoy and profit from fellowship with one another.
No doubt there were differences between the local conditions and circumstances of the Colossian church and those of the Laodicean church, but their needs and interests were similar enough that an apostolic letter to either church merited the attention of the other.
It is not good for a church to cut itself off from others of like precious faith. New Testament churches enjoyed fellowship with one another in the worship and praise of God, in ministering to the needy, and in missionary undertakings. If we will maintain good fellowship with our Head, we shall also have good fellowship with one another.
[From the Ashland Avenue Baptist newspaper, January 20, 1975, pp. 1, 3-4. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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