Baptist History Homepage

By Buell H. Kazee

Concepts and Uses of the Word "Church"

Chapter 1

     In any study of the subject here undertaken, it seems necessary, even though we must repeat what is found in so many works of this nature, to indicate the various uses of the word "church" or the Greek ekklesia from which our word "church" is translated.

     1. It is used in the historical sense.
      This use indicates the whole field of ecclesiastical activity in history since the days of Jesus here on earth. It refers to no particular church or denomination, but carries the idea of church activity in history whatever the persuasion or belief. Thus we may speak of "the church in history," summarizing in this phrase the whole church movement in the last two thousand years.

     2. The denominational sense.
      This use of the word includes a whole denomination as one church, such as, "The Roman Catholic Church," "The Presbyterian Church," "The Episcopalian Church," or "The Methodist Church." (The Baptist denomination does not so employ the term because it recognizes itself to be only a denomination of churches.)

     3. The model sense.
     In this use we speak of "a scriptural church," or, "the church of the New Testament," meaning the kind of church described and indicated in the New Testament but nowhere visibly located. There are visible examples of this wherever a true local church is found, but the model church is drawn from the teachings of the Scripture rather than from a specific example.

     4. The generic or institutional sense.
     In this sense the word indicates a type of institution as differentiated from other kinds of institutions. Thus we speak of "the church" as we do "the home" or "the school." Such uses of words indicate a particular realm of institutional life known by that respective term. A good example of the Biblical use of a word in this way is the word "man" in Genesis 1: 26. Here God

p. 2
says, "Let us make man in our own image." Although Adam was the first specific example of this being, we understand the term "man" to mean man in general, including all his race, rather than just the one individual man. Yet, we never see the individual man except in a local, visible body and in a specific place. Thus, by the word ekklesia Jesus could have been speaking of the type of institution He would build. Matthew 16:18 could be a good example of this use of the word, while Matthew 18:17 is a definite example. The latter not only refers to the church as an institution, but it also proves that wherever this church exists, the brother who is to "tell it to the church" must find one that is local and visible.

     5. The local, visible sense.
     Here we are on undisputed scriptural grounds. At least three places (Acts 19:32, 39, and 41) show the use of the word ekklesia as meaning an assembly which is not a church as we know the institution. Here the simple, basic meaning of the word ekklesia is intended, and it is rightly translated, not "church," but "assembly." However, the word is used in most instances in the New Testament in the sense of a local, religious assembly which we translate "church." Such uses are indicated in such passages as Acts 13:1, "Now there were in the church which was at Antioch . . . ," and Acts 14:23, "And when they had ordained them elders in every church . . ." Various estimates are given by scholars as to the number of times the word is used in this sense in the New Testament, but most of them hold to an estimate of about eighty-five times.

     6. Other uses.
     We group the other uses here because they intermingle in their meanings, depending on the particular concept of the writer or speaker. These uses divide themselves into about three general divisions, and yet, they are not always distinct from each other.

     First, there is what some call the "general" or "spiritual" church without specific identification. An instance of this is one by Dr. A. T. Robertson, late professor of Greek in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an internationally known interpreter of the New Testament. In his Word Pictures, commenting on Colosssians. 1:18, he says of ekklesia that "this is the general sense of ekklesia, not of a local body, assembly, or organization." 1

p. 3
     In Ephesians 1:22 he refers to it as "the universal spiritual church or kingdom as in Colossians 1:18, 24."2 He identifies it with the "one new man" or body of Christ in Ephesians 2:16, and says:
Paul piles up metaphors to express his idea of the kingdom of God with Christ as King (the church, the body, the commonwealth of Israel, oneness, one new man in Christ, fellow-citizens, the family of God, the temple of God).3
     To the careless reader, this could sound like a great utterance, but if the ekklesia is all this, it baffles the imagination.

     The late Dr. William O. Carver, a colleague of Dr. Robertson in the same seminary, joins him in a general way. He calls the ekklesia "the universal spiritual body of Christ,"4 and further clarifies his opinion by stating that "the church in Ephesians and Colossians is the spiritual body of Christ, constituted of all who are children of God through the calling of God, and through their 'faith in the Lord Jesus.'"5

     Both of these scholars present views which are defined only by concepts that are undefined. For instance, if we knew exactly what "the universal spiritual body of Christ" is, and were sure that there is one, we might then have some idea of what the ekklesia in this general sense is.

     A second view, closely allied to the preceding one, is the popular "universal-invisible" church concept. It is not clear whether or not the views represented above are meant to be identical with the "universal-invisible" concept, but, of course, they do overlap with it. There is a slight difference, it seems, between them. The "general" or "spiritual" church view seems to contain more of the idea that this "church" is merely the spiritual identification of the children of God, whereas, the universal-invisible church concept seems to lay more emphasis on this "church" as a living, functioning body of Christ in the world at any given time. That is, it seems to be the thought of the advocates of this latter view that this is the church through which the Lord is carrying out His purposes in this age. This phase of the subject will be dealt with at length later.

     Third, as will also be seen later on, there are two other views

p. 4
of the invisible church, both of which find difficulties in identification, but which, as we see it, find more favor in the Scriptures. They are (1), the "ideal" or "spiritual Israel" view of Dr. H. E. Dana, and (2), the "glory church" view of Dr. B. H. Carroll. Both will be discussed in their proper order.

     The views of a "general" or "spiritual church" and the universal-invisible church concept, together with the two views indicated in the preceding paragraph, constitute a realm of vagaries, speculation, division of opinion, and, one might add, confusion. Speaking generally, there is in the minds of many scholars some sort of universal, invisible, spiritual body called a church, which includes all or some part of the saved at some given time, and the advocates of this view contend that in the New Testament there are uses of the word ekklesia which mean this church. We shall examine this matter more extensively in the next chapter.



1 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1931), Vol. 4, p. 479.
2 Ibid., p. 522.
3 Ibid., p. 527.
4 William Owen Carver, The Glory of God in the Christian Calling, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1949), p. 34.
5 Ibid., p. 56.

[Buell H. Kazee, The Church and the Ordinances, Lexington, KY, 1965, pp. 1-4.]

Chapter 2

Buell Kazee Index
Baptist HIstory Homepage