THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
The word ecclesia, which in our English Bible is translated church, was by no means a new word when for the first time it was employed by our Lord to denote the society which He declared himself about to build (Matt. 16:18); for, although to His people it now for the first time became Christian in content, it could never become entirely separated in general thinking from its pre- Christian associations, both Jewish and Greek. In fact it is these background associations which give us the present thought content of the word.
Throughout the Greek world it had indicated a regular assembly of citizens in a free state, called out by a herald for the discussion of public business, and suggested a self-governing, democratic society.
To the Jew it stood for the community of Israel, especially in the religious aspects, as the people of God, and suggested the theocratic society whose members are the recognized subjects of the heavenly King. Acts 7:38.
Thus the word came into Christian history with direct associations for both Greek and Jew. It indicated a society of the free, yet whose members must ever be conscious that their freedom springs only from obedience to Him whom they call their Lord and King.
The Church as we know it today has two distinct aspects: Godward it is an organism; manward it is an organization. In the outworking of the divine plan, both these aspects have their distinctive place, as the development of our study will show.
The Church as a Divinely Created Organism
The word church is used in the Gospels only twice, and in both instances we find it on the lips of our Lord himself. The two passages are Matt. 16:18; 18:17. As we pass to the Book of Acts and then to the Pauline Epistles, the word becomes more frequent, and is employed in a threefold sense:
1. The Church Is Seen As A Local Body
That is, a company of Christians in a particular place or district, such as: The church at Jerusalem, Acts 5:11; 8:1. The church at Antioch, Acts 13:1; 15:22. The church at Caesarea, Acts 18:22. See also I Thess. 1:1; I Cor. 1:2; 16:19; II Cor. 1: 2; Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2.
2. The Church Is Also Seen As A Universal Body
The thought here is that of the sum total of all the local churches. Acts 9:31, R.V.; I Cor. 10: 32; 12:28.
3. The Church Is Further Seen As A Spiritual Company
Eph. 1:22; 3:9-11; Col. 1:18, 24. It is this third aspect with which we must first deal, and in doing so, three thoughts will concern us:
a. As to her origin. The Church is a living organism whose origin is divine. It is not the scheme of even the holiest of men; it is the direct creation of an almighty God. Its conception had been in the mind of God from all eternity. Before the world began He saw the Church standing in her entirety, redeemed, called, cleansed, glorified; yet He knew every soul of which it would be composed.
b. As to her present position. That position is directly opposite to the general conception of the present day.
(1) She stands before the world as a separated people. John 17:6-19; II Cor. 6:14-18. That separation is the direct work of the Holy Spirit, ratified by the believing soul.
(2) She stands before the world as a witnessing people. Acts 1:8; Phil. 2:14-16. In the world she is to exert her influence for God and represent her Lord.
(3) She stands before the world as a waiting people. She does not pretend to belong here; she is registered elsewhere. Phil. 3:20; I Thess. 1:9-10.
c. As to her destiny. The Church is as immortal as her Lord. She is to be His companion throughout the eternities; hence she now awaits three grand events: translation: I Thess. 4:16-17; manifestation: Col. 3:1-3; millennial reign: Rev. 20:4-6.
Concerning this Church, the Apostle Paul uses three great figures. It is set forth as: (a) A holy temple -- for divine habitation. Eph. 2:19-22. Also I Pet. 2:5. (b) A living body -- of which Christ is the Head. Eph. 1:22-23; I Cor. 12:23. (c) A chosen bride -- for whom Christ died. His purpose was that He might redeem, purify, and possess. Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:6-9.
Concerning these figures, this fact needs to be plainly emphasized: All three figures -- the temple, the body, and the bride indicate the same people, but in three distinctly differing relationships. We make this emphasis here because of the mixed thinking so often expressed concerning them.
The body, we are told by some, is the Jewish people, while the bride is the Church. Others have argued for two separate companies within the Church, one being the body and the other the bride. Some in a vague way accept the words as synonyms, yet cannot explain why.
The problem clears itself as soon as we recognize the thought context in which these figures are used.
In the body figure, the Church is seen in its present aspect, worldward. It will be noted that whenever the body figure is in view, the aspect is immediate and the tense present. Here the Church is seen as the spiritual instrument through which Christ, by the Holy Spirit, is now contacting the world. "The church, which is his body" (Eph. 1:22-23). "Now ye are the body of Christ" (I Cor. 12:27). See also Ephesians 4; I Corinthians 12.
In the bride figure -- the Church is seen in its prospective aspect Christward. The Church's best days are ahead. The bride is yet to be "made ready." Rev. 19:7. She awaits the hour of her rapture and of her presentation. I Thess. 4:13-18; Eph. 5:27.
In the building figure -- the Church is seen in its progressive aspect, heavenward. Throughout this entire dispensation it is being built together, and therefore groweth into a holy temple in the Lord. Eph. 2:21. As such, it is ever complete in its measure, but still incomplete as to its final structure.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE STUDENT
Get the two aspects concerning the Church clearly in mind. Be sure you understand the distinction between organism and organization.
- Discuss the meaning of the word church.
- Show the word as used in the Gospels.
- Show the threefold sense in which the word is used in the Acts and in the Epistles.
- What of the Church's origin?
- Show the Church's present position.
- Show the Church's destiny.
THE CHURCH AS A HUMANLY PLANNED ORGANIZATION
While it is fundamentally true that the Church is not a human organization, it must also be remembered that the God who brought it into being did so in an intelligent manner, so much so that its preparation, inauguration, organization, and continuation are all clearly traceable in the Word of God and in the history which follows.
1. The Preparation
Although in the mind of God before the foundation of the world, historically the Church had no existence before the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Eph. 1:3-6; 3:1-10. By way of preparation, however, much is recorded:
a. In the Old Testament. All Jewish history is seen as heading toward this end.
b. In the New Testament. In the Gospel narratives distinct foundation work is seen, Jesus and His disciples preparing the way for other days yet to come.
The earth-life of Jesus is declared by Luke to have been simply a beginning. Acts 1:1-2. It was in that beginning that the foundations were laid for the centuries to follow in the Christian Church. Matt. 16:18.
2. The Inauguration
The Day of Pentecost was the Church's birthday. Acts 2. That day placed the newly established Christian community under the jurisdiction of the Holy Ghost.
3. The Organization Here, four considerations present themselves:
a. As to formation. What is a church? A scriptural definition would seem to be as follows: A church is a company of believing souls, separated from the world, with Christ in the midst. Matt. 16:16-18; 18:20; Rev. 1:10-20.
b. As to membership. What are the requisite conditions for membership in the Christian Church? There can be no doubt whatsoever that the basic condition is this, and this alone: a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Each evangelical branch of the Church has taken upon itself to interpret as how deep a saving faith really goes and how that saving faith should be expressed, hence the numerous manuals, articles of faith, rules and regulations, and so forth.
c. As to leadership. What are the offices within the Church? These may be stated under three heads, namely, general, local, occasional.
(1) General. "And he [the risen Lord, the Church's divine Head] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:11-12.)
"And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that..." (I Cor. 12:28).
It will be noted that each of these offices is by divine appointment; moreover, in them there is a distinct divine gradation. It is seldom that more than one is combined in the same person; hence it is written: "But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will" (I Cor. 12:11).
(2) Local. The more local offices are those of the elder, the deacon, and the bishop; as the following scriptures will show: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:4, 6, 22-23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; I Tim. 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; Jas. 5:14; I Pet. 5:1; II John 1; III John 1; Phil. 1:1; I Tim. 3:1-2; Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3: 8-13.
(3) Occasional. Those which we style occasional are the gifts within the Church as recorded in I Cor. 12-14.
d. As to ordinances. The two generally recognized ordinances within the Church are baptism and the Lord's Supper. Matt. 3:13-17; John 4:1-2; Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:41; 8:12, 26-39; 9:18; 10:44-48; 16:33; 19:1-5; Rom. 6:17; Col. 2:12; I Pet. 3:21; Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; I Cor. 11:23-34.
4. The Continuation
The detailed events in the history of the Church are for church history itself to record. It is on the assumption that the general trend is already familiar that we now proceed.
a. The Church has a spiritual authority. Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23. It is only as the Church's spiritual power has weakened that temporal power has been claimed.
b. The Church has a divinely prescribed activity. While as a heavenly people she is to be separate, waiting for her appearing Lord, until the time of His appearing she is located in this present world. Her task is that of witness bearing. She is described by her Lord as light and salt. Matt. 5:13- 16.
c. The Church has direct antagonisms. We have used the word antagonisms, having in mind the widest interpretation of that expression.
(1) She has met, and still meets, antagonisms without. The true Church has always been in an unfriendly world.
She has outlived prejudice. The pagans among whom Christians lived utterly failed to understand them. A number of things seem to have contributed to this: (1) Their sacraments -These, their enemies charged, were the scenes of dark and secret practices. (2) Their sunrise services -- Not able to understand their so frequent meeting together, their enemies soon suggested immoral behavior. (3) Their simplicity -- Not able to understand the absence of images, with which they were so familiar, and the denial of all the gods which they were accustomed to worship, the pagans charged the Christians with atheism.
She has withstood persecution. Here general church history will supply all needed information.
She has survived persistent competition. For her place in the world there have been other contesting systems; among them: Judaism, Mohammedanism, the mystery religions, anti-christian propaganda, the modern cults.
(2) She has found, and still finds, antagonisms within. This brings us to a consideration of the heresies which have arisen within the Church itself. They may be divided into three sections, which here we can only name: the early heresies, the medieval heresies, the later heresies. These must be developed by the student himself.
SUGGESTIONS FOR THE STUDENT
Speaking of the Church's activity, what is to be her attitude toward such questions as:
a. The masses of society?
b. Other religions?
c. The heathen world?
How far is the Church responsible for converting the world?
The fact of the Church's antagonisms presents rich material for study. The reading suggestions will cover the student's needs here.
- What do you understand by the idea of the Church as a planned organization?
- What is recorded by way of preparation -- and where?
- Where do we place the time of the Church's inauguration?
- Discuss the Church's organization.
- What is to be said as to leadership?
- What of the Church's continuation?