The issue that has separated Baptists from Protestants through the centuries has been the nature of the church. Baptists have held that the church is always local in nature, and a visible body, while Protestants, not able to completely free themselves from the influence of their Roman mother, hold that the true church is universal in nature, and therefore invisible. They are not able to distinguish between the kingdom of God into which all believers are born, and the church of God which Jesus called out as a distinct body to serve as the executive of the kingdom.
The only place to determine the true nature of a New Testament church is the New Testament itself. Just what did Jesus declare He was going to build, and what did His apostles and other New Testament writers understand the nature of the churches to whom they ministered and wrote to be? Did Jesus call it together Himself, or did He leave it to the minds of theologians to determine for themselves in later centuries? Does it have distinct teachings set forth in the New Testament, or are men free to make their own?
Just what kind of church did Jesus say He was going to build? When Jesus and John the Baptist came preaching they declared that the "kingdom of heaven [or kingdom of God]" was at hand, and when Jesus spoke to the multitude that believed on Him, He told them about the kingdom of God. He told them that many would "sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:11). When He spoke to Nicodemus about being born again He spoke about entering the kingdom of God, John 3:3, 5. He also told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). But when He took His twelve chosen apostles to upper Galilee for a more intimate discussion He introduced them to a totally different word. There in the regions of Caesarea Philippi He told the twelve that He was going to build His church -- His "ekklesia."
While this was a new word introduced into Jesus' discussion with His disciples, it was not new to the Greek vocabulary in which the record is written, but a term that was well known and commonly understood.
The word is actually a compound of two Greek terms: "ek," meaning "out of," and "kaleo," meaning "to call." There can be little question of the intent of its usage in the New Testament. Even Dr. C. I. Scofield, who is largely responsible for popularizing the universal, invisible church theory through his notes in the Scofield Bible, states that an accurate definition of the word is, "an assembly of called out ones. The word is used of an assembly; the word implies no more."1 If the word implies no more then any other concept of a New Testament church has come from the minds of men and not from the words of Jesus Christ.
An old standard Bible encyclopedia published in 1915,
makes a very clear statement separating the kingdom from the church: The kingdom is quite evidently not the church, for we could hardly proclaim the Church as the first apostles proclaimed the kingdom (Acts 8:12). On the other hand, we certainly cannot say that the Church is an alternative after the rejection of the kingdom. To the extent that the Church is a fellowship of those who have accepted the kingdom, submitted to its rule, and become its heirs, we may rather believe that it is a creation and instrument and therefore a form and manifestation of the kingdom prior to its final establishment in glory.
"While the kingdom is still the theme of apostolic preaching, the word 'church' is regularly used in Acts to denote the company of believers, more especially in the local sense."2
A new work just off the press gives as its primary definition of a church: "A group or assembly of persons called together for a particular purpose."3
The common use of "ekklesia" among the Greeks referred not merely to an ambiguous assembly, but rather to a particular kind of assembly. Dr. Paul Goodwin, for 40 years a professor at the Missionary Baptist Seminary, Little Rock, Arkansas, has clearly presented its use. He says, "A close observation of the word 'ekklesia' [church] reveals three ways in which it is used: namely, (1) Greek; (2) Hebrew; (3) Christian.
"The Greek ekklesia was the assembly of free citizens of a city state. The meeting was usually called by an individual who ran through the streets of the city blowing a horn." As he points out, the only place this usage is found in the New Testament is in Acts 19:35-41, where the town clerk stops a mob and reminds them that there is a lawful assembly (ekklesia) where such matters should be settled. But, as he then states, "even this mob 'called out' to stop the work of Paul and his fellow helpers was called a 'church.' The word used is 'ekklesia' and is translated 'assembly' only three times in all the New Testament. The rest of the time it is translated 'church.' This mob was a crowd of people called out for a purpose, and that means it was a church, but certainly it was not the Lord's church, a New Testament church!
"In Acts 7:38 the assembly of the children of Israel before the tabernacle is called a church. 'This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us.' There were about two million members in the ekklesia [church] in the wilderness. Now no one would say it was a New Testament church, for that was centuries before Christ, but it was a church, nevertheless, and a big one."4
Universal church brethren often use this passage to support their concept that the church is made up of all believers in both Old and New Testaments, but this passage proves more than they can swallow. These brethren want a universal and invisible church, yet no such word is found here. Ekklesia in Acts 7:38 describes a very local and visible assembly. Such a concept would also make national Israel the church in the Old Testament, a concept that Jesus Himself would not recognize in His personal, earthly ministry. This group certainly did not become a part of the church simply adapted to the New Testament period. Instead, John the Baptist upbraided them without mercy, refused to accept them, and made new converts to form a new organization, as is clearly stated in Acts 1:21, 22. If the church of the New Testament can be an invisible body, is it not reasonable to believe that an assembly described in the Old Testament by the same word would also be invisible? Yet, there is no evidence whatever that the congregation of Israel, referred to as "the church in the wilderness," was ever conceived as being invisible. Thus Acts 7:38 sets forth more clearly than ever that the use of "ekklesia" in the New Testament refers to a congregation of people both local and visible, and it is so used consistently throughout the New Testament.
Continuing with his definition of this word, Dr. Goodwin says, "Let us note the Christian aspect of the word 'ekklesia.' When Jesus said, 'Upon this rock I will build my church,' He meant the church as an institution. He used the pronoun 'my' to distinguish His church from the Hebrew and Greek assemblies. Paul referred to the church as an institution when he wrote: '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, the pillar and ground of the truth' (1 Timothy 3:15).
"No reference is made here to any particular church. Timothy was to behave himself in whatever church he happened to be working."5
Jesus did not introduce a new word to His disciples when he announced to them He was going to build His church, but rather He used a word that was commonly used and well understood by them. The difference only being that He was telling them He was going to build His church (ekklesia), and consequently He would establish the laws by which it would be governed. The laws of the New Testament are the laws of that church. They are God-given by its only head and founder, and no man on earth can presume to change its nature or the laws by which it is governed.
1 The Scofield Reference Bible, 1917 edition. Note on Matthew 16:18.
2 The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1915 (1979 edition), Volume 1, p. 693.
3 Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1988, Volume 1, p. 458.
4 Credenda, Seminary Press, 1950, pp. 79-80.
[From I. K. Cross, The Battle for Baptist History, 1990, pp. 7-11. Transcribed and scanned by Jim Duvall.]
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