What is a Gospel Church?
THE word which the Lord Jesus selected to designate his associated people means in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, a called-out assembly. It is ecclesia, and this word occurs three times in the discourses of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is for the first time used by him in Matt. 16:18, though there it may have a figurative application. Its literal meaning - that is, its real meaning -- is evident from the Lord's use of it in Matt. 18:17. In the first instance the Lord's words are, "Upon this rock I will build my church." In the second, "If he shall neglect to hear them (the two or three) tell it to the church," and "If he neglect to hear the achurch, let him be to thee as an heathen man and a publican." Here the church of course means a body of people, larger and more authoritative than the "two or three" whom the offended brother has to take with him to the offender.
It was a body or assemblage that could hear the complaint, decide or adjudge - a united congregation of believers. It cannot be supposed that our
Lord used the word in these plain instructions in a different sense from the one in the sixteenth chapter, "Upon this rock will I build my church." If he had, then these disciples would not have understood what he meant by such a body. The word must certainly have the same meaning in both instances, and if in the last instance it means a literal assembly, it must in the first mean a literal assembly. Dean Alford, an Episcopalian, so declares. Stier, a Lutheran, an eminent Greek lexicographer, says: "In the second instance, 'Tell it to the church,' it obtains a more special significance; yet it evidently points back to the first, so that the fundamental idea can only be the same." The "Pulpit Commentary" gives this testimony: "The word translated church, 'ecclesia,' Matthew 16:18, is found the first time in the New Testament; it is derived from a verb meaning 'to call out,' and in classic Greek denotes the regular legislative assembly of a people. Ecclesia has been that which designates the Christian society, and has been in all ages and countries." Liddell and Scott (the standard Greek lexicon, with all scholars and in all colleges and universities) defines ecclesia "an assembly called out." The ecclesia was common among the Greeks. According to Trench, "ecclesia was a lawful assembly of a free Greek city of those who were worthy and well qualified as citizens for the
transaction of public affairs." Robinson's Greek lexicon: "The word ecclesia was common among the Jews as meaning a congregation, an assembly."
Thayer, in his lexicon of the New Testament Greek, collates critically the usage of the word from Thucydides to the end of the New Testament period, and finds it everywhere to mean an assembly real and visible: "The word ecclesia is found in the Greek translation of the New Testament seventy-four times, and is always used in the translation of the Hebrew word 'kahal,' to call together. No other Hewbrew word is so translated. Kahal is found in the Hebrew Scriptures on hundred and twenty-four times, and translated seventy-four times ecclesia, forty-seven times synagogue, twice plethos, and once Sanhedrin."
We read of the "churches of the Gentiles," "So ordain we in all the churches," "The churches of the Macedonians," "The seven churches which are in Asia." We nowhere read of the church of Asia, or the church of Macedonia. There is no instance of the word church in the singular, used to describe the churches as a whole, that is, the aggregated local assemblies. "The church" (Acts 9:31), or "churches," as in many manuscripts, is no exception, as we shall show.
It is as clear as the sunlight from the New Testament, that there was no such thing as a general church under apostolic ministry. Baptist sometimes
speak of the Baptist Church when they mean the aggregate of the churches. It is the influence of others upon them. "The Methodist Church of America," "The Lutheran Church," "The Presbyterian Chuch," why not the "Baptist Church"? Because there is, there can be, no gospel church but a real, local, a worshiping congregation of Christ's people. Custom is masterful. Baptists must fling off its mastery and cling to God's truth. We as churches are one, as the forest is one. Baptist churches are distinct and separate as the trees are distinct and separate. The forest is not a great tree. It would be ridiculous to call it "the tree." The aggregation is not a great church. It is ridiculous to call it one. The apple orchard is not the apple tree. The tree would still be a tree were all the others cut down. The denomination is not the church. That individual body would still be a church were every other removed or dead. It is the church, though a thousand others surround it. Baptists are formed into churches, but these churches are not the church, or "branches of the church."
[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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