When Were the First Gospel Churches or Church Formed?
WHEN, where, and how the first gospel church originated is in itself a very unessential matter. But with the very general and unscriptural conception of "the church" and "the Catholic Church," with all the ritualism and claimed authority and hierarchical dignities which that idea carries with it, the question becomes important. Pedobaptists hold that "the day of Pentecost" was "the birthday of the church." Baptist hold "generally" that churches were formed during the earthly lifetime of the Lord Jesus. In deciding this it is necessary to repeat the questions, then answers -- what is a church, and were baptized believers assembled for worship a gospel church?
1. What is a Church? It is, in the original words of the Lord and the apostles, an "ecclesia," and of this same Smith's "Bible Dictionary" says (that church): "In accordance with its derivation it originally meant an assembly called out by legitimate authority. This
is the ordinary classical sense of the word." The Lord chose that word with its then general meaning to designate the called-out assembled disciples who met in his name then, or should ever afterward do so, by his authority and for his worship, with purpose of permanent affiliation and fellowship. He therefore told his disciples, not the apostles only, "If thy brother sin against thee, go show him his fault between him and thee alone" (R. V.). "But if he hear thee not, take with thee one or two more" (evidently having those of a similar relation or fellowship). "And if he refuse to hear them tell it to the church (ecclesia), and if he refuse to hear the (ecclesia) church" -- the assembled brethren. This is not a future condition of things. It was the present. There must have been such regular assemblies, then, that could be appealed to, that could hear and decide. And the reason is given for this exercise of authority. "For where two or three are gathered together (or an ecclesia) in my name, there am I in the midst of them," in his divine influence. The Lord Jesus, we repeat, was not speaking of the future. He prefaces this assurance of his presence in the little ecclesia by the other gracious and present assurance.
"Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth, as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them." It was the now. Where two or three are gathered was the now, and
tell it to the ecclesia was the now. There were gatherings in the name of Jesus during his ministry. There were churches to which duties were assigned during his life. Churches were gathered - that is, little assemblies that could hear and admonish while Jesus lived. The birthday of the church or churches is not recorded. But as true as the gospel the birthday of the church was not Pentecost.
II. Were Baptized Believers a Church When Assembled in the Lord's Name? Passing over those baptized by John the Baptist, whose mission was "To make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him" (R. V.), were none of these people who were made ready and prepared for him gathered into an ecclesia, or worshiping assembly? But we read, "After these things," after the preaching of the gospel of salvation from the lips of the Saviour, "then came Jesus and his disciples into Judea, and there he tarried and baptized." John's disciples said to John: "Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan to whom thou hast been witness, behold the same baptizeth and all men come unto him." Again, "When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus baptized not, but his disciples)." He made disciples. They
were believers in him. They were born again. They had eternal life. "Whosoever believeth in him hath eternal life." They were born of the Spirit. They were baptized on a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. They lived in different regions, with love for each other. Did they never meet together? Were there no two or three meeting in Christ's name? Were there no fellowship or affiliation -- no ecclesia or called-out assemblies of the "two or three" in his name, to whom the fault of a brother could be told? No church or churches to hear and decide? Can any one suppose that these baptized believers, born of the Spirit and one in Christ Jesus, never formed themselves into assemblies to worship their Lord and aid each other? "Tell it to the church" shows they did this, and their love for each other and the natural and spiritual attraction of like to like proves that there were little ecclesias - churches - with Christ in their midst before Pentecost.
"For it became him, for whom are all things, . . . in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings." "For which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying . . . in the midst of the (ecclesia) church will I sing praises unto thee."
Jesus sang with his brethren praises in the midst of the church. Then there was a church, or churches, meeting for divine worship before Pente-
cost. It may be said that this is prophetic, but the fact that Paul quoted David's prediction and applies it as fulfilled in the life of Jesus while on earth, consequently there was a church, or churches, before Pentecost, not fully equipped, not fully organized, not fully endowed, yet a church; yet a church, or churches, in the eye of the Lord - guided by his injunction and blessed with his presence.
They met seemingly daily for ten days as a church, and then, after the extraordinary gift of the Spirit - visible and miraculous - there were added unto them - this same one hundred and twenty, in one day, by confession and baptism, three thousand souls - " added to them," called in the last verse (Acts 2) "the church." It was not a new-born or newly constituted ecclesia. The three thousand were not, with the others, organized into a new institution. There is not intimation of the organization or the birth of a church.
It was the one hundred and twenty, with the apostles, to whom the three thousand were added. And they were added to the church. Sure as the stars shine there were churches before Pentecost, and, whatever day was its birthday, it certainly was not the day of Pentecost. It may be remarked that their character as a church, or the "notes of a true church," as creeds say, correspond to nearly all the defintions of a church by "Protestant" councils and confessions. I quote but three" "The
church is a congregation of faithful men where the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments administered according to Christ's ordinances" (Church of England). "A congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly administered" (Lutheran). "A congregation of men embracing the gospel of Christ and rightly administering the sacraments." (Saxon). These one hundred and twenty were a congregation of faithful men; they preached the gospel of Christ and rightfully administered the ordinance, baptism; they were a church, and the blessing of the Pentecost came upon a regular church of the Lord Jesus Christ. I doubt not there were in Galilee and other places assemblies like this, except for the absence of the Twelve, before Pentecost. The only way to evade this scriptural positive is to affirm that the baptisms by John and also by Jesus (by his disciples) were not Christian baptisms. But if so, then the church at Pentecost - the hundred and twenty, called by the inspired apostles "the church" and by Pedobaptists the "first church" - was composed of unbaptized people. None of them was rebaptized, as all admit. The church, therefore, was composed entirely of unbaptized disciples. And baptism is the initiatory ordinance, the door into the church. Is not this an absurdity?
In addition to the foregoing direct truths of
gospel churches during the earthly life of the Lord Jesus, the words of the apostle in Hebrews 2:10, the inspired writer is speaking of the Lord's earthly life.
Is it not strange that ecclesiastics, theological writers, and church creeds affirm that baptism is the door into the church or churches and yet deny that there was a church or churches formed by those baptized disciples, followers of the Lord Jesus?
"Baptism was the initiatory rite into the Christian Church," says Smith's "Bible Dictionary." This dogma is found substantially in every Pedobaptist creed. It is charged against Baptists that they deny church-membership to infants and therefore deny heaven to them because they refuse to baptize them. But here are disciples made by the Lord's personal preaching, born of the Spirit and baptized by him or by his disciples in his presence, yet not in the church, for there was no church according to those very writers. And if infants were lost because not in the church, so were they. Can absurdity go further than this?
If baptism admits into "the Christian church," the baptized by the Lord jesus were in the church, and therefore there was a church or churches before Pentecost, "and Pentecost was not the birthday of the church."
That there was a church or churches before Pentecost is evident from Luke's record in the Acts
of the Apostles. We read that after the Lord's ascension "the disciples were together the evening of the first day of the week." It is not confined to the apostles, for we read, "But Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with them," distinguishing him from the "disciples" by calling him one of the Twelve. Then after eight days the disciples again met and Thomas was with them, an ecclesia. After his ascension "they returned to Jerusalem. And when they were come in (to a dwelling) they went up into an inner chamber where were abiding both Peter (and the ten apostles named) with the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren." These, with one hundred and twenty disciples, made one hundred and forty disciples. Of them it is recorded "they all continued steadfastly in prayer." Was it a church? They were all believers, born of the Spirit, baptized in the Lord's name, and assembled for his worship and to carry out his will. I again ask, Was it an ecclesia? or was there no church born? These one hundred and forty baptized believers voted by ballot or lot for a successor to the fallen Judas, and, under the guidance of the Lord, to whom they earnestly prayed, they chose Matthias, and he was numbred with the Twelve. Their action and choice was recognized and binding.
[Samuel H. Ford, Baptist Waymarks, ABPS, 1903. Typed from the original document by Linda Duvall; the document was provided by Pastor Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. - jrd]
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