The Church of Christ
Part I, ch. 1.
Many, perhaps indeed most, of the controversies which have arisen in connection with ecclesiastical theology, are to be traced back to fundamental differences of opinion regarding the essential nature and character of that society which Christ has instituted. The different or opposite notions which men have professed to gather from Scripture, in regard to the origin and essential principles of the Christian Church, have necessarily led to conclusions widely different in regard to its functions, its authority, its ordinances, and its government. It is highly important, therefore, to lay down at the outset those scriptural principles as to the nature and character of the Church of Christ, which may prove to us guiding principles in our subsequent investigations into its powers, and the offices it is appointed to discharge. And the first question which naturally arises is regarding the meaning which ought to be attached to the word “Church.” Different societies or associations of Christians are found claiming to themselves, and denying to others, the character and privileges of a Church of Christ; and opinions widely differing from each other are held as to the meaning of the designation. In such circumstances we must have recourse to the Word of God, in order that, by an examination of its statements, we may ascertain in what sense, or in what senses, the term Church is to be understood by us.
The word ἐκκλησια, which is translated Church in our version of the New Testament, in its primary meaning denotes any assembly gathered together from a promiscuous multitude, whether it be or be not regularly organized, and whether it be for civil or ecclesiastical purposes. Examples both in classical and inspired writers are at hand to prove the extensive meaning of the term; and the same wide signification belongs to the corresponding word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament (qahal). In the application of the term to secular assemblies, we find it used to signify the city council, convened in an orderly manner by the magistrate for the determination of civil matters; as in Acts 19, where the town-clerk of Ephesus is represented as addressing the citizens: “If Demetrius, and the craftsmen who are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open, and there are deputies: let them implead one another. But if ye inquire anything concerning other matters, it shall be determined (ἐν τῃ ἐννομῳ ἐκκλησιᾳ) in a lawful convention.” In a similar application of the term to secular assemblies, we find it employed to denote a riotous assemblage of people, gathered together in a disorderly crowd, for purposes of tumult; as in the same chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when it is said, in regard to the mob who assaulted Paul and his companions: “Some therefore cried one thing, and some another, for (ἡ ἐκκλησια) the assembly or crowd was confused.” With this wide use of the term, as applied to secular assemblies, it is plain that the precise signification of the word, in any given instance, is to be gathered from the manner in which it is employed, and from the context. The same is true in regard to the use of the term ἐκκλησια, when applied to sacred or ecclesiastical assemblies of people. Here, too, the range of its application is a wide one; and the precise meaning of the word, in any particular case, must be ascertained from the general sense of the passage and from the context. There are five different but closely allied meanings of the term “Church” to be gathered from Scripture.
Five ways the term “Church” is used in Scripture.
I. The Invisible Church.
I. The word Church signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Saviour.
There are many examples in Scripture of the use of the term in this wide sense. The first occasion on which the word occurs in the New Testament is one of these, when our Lord declares that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church” (Mat. 16:18),—language which plainly refers to the society or association of all those who had believed or should believe in Him. All history proves that particular and local Churches may fall away from the faith into complete and final apostasy. The promise of our Lord can apply to no special community except the universal Church of Christ, invisible to human eye, and known only to His, consisting of all true believers, and of none else. Again, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, we are told that Christ “loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). That society of men for whom Christ died, and who shall, each one of them, be presented at last holy and without spot before God, is plainly a society the members of which no man can number or declare by any external mark; which can be restricted to no geographical locality, and can be recognised by no features visible to the outward eye. It is the society of the elect, and not identical with any outward Church or Churches of whatsoever name. It is the spiritual and invisible Church of the Redeemer, known only to Himself, of which Scripture thus speaks; and in entire accordance with this use of the term Church in Scripture to denote a society comprehending the whole body of the elect, and none else, are other names or titles given to it in the New Testament. The Church is at one time spoken of under the mysterious name of the Bride or Spouse of Christ (Song. 2:10 ff.; 4:7, 9 ff.; Eph. 5:32; Rev. 21:2, 9; 22:17),—an expression which can apply to no local or particular Church—to no society, indeed, at all, measured and recognised by the eye of man under any form, or under all forms, of Christian profession,—but must be intended to mark out those, and those only, who have been espoused to Christ through the holy union of His Spirit with theirs. At another time it is spoken of as “the temple of the Holy Ghost,” “a spiritual house,” “an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:5)—language plainly designed to mark out a society defined by no outward limits, but identical with the whole number of spiritual Christians of whatsoever society throughout the world, who have been quickened by the Spirit.
And, finally, the Church is described as “the body of Christ,” all the members of which are united to Him as the Head of life and influence and grace to them (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 3:6; 4:12, 16; Col. 1:18; 2:19)—a description not applicable to any outward body of professing Christians made up of any or all communions, but only to be realized in that great multitude which no man has seen or numbered, who make up the invisible Church of the Redeemer, and whose names are written in heaven. In these passages, and in many others, we have a society defined and described, which embraces the whole number of Christ’s elect, and none but they,—a society not identical with any known on earth, and not to be recognised by any local names or notes or boundaries,—a society marked out from any other by the possession of certain high and mysterious privileges, and standing in a very close and peculiar relation to Christ, but unseen and unknown of man,—a society whose members are unreckoned and unobserved on earth, but all of whom are numbered and known in heaven. Such is the invisible Church of the Redeemer. “The catholic or universal Church,” says the Confession of Faith, “which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” (WCF 25.1).
II. The Visible Church.
II. The term Church is made use of in Scripture to denote the whole body throughout the world of those that outwardly profess the faith of Christ.
Over and above that unseen society, consisting of the whole number of the elect, who are spiritually united to Christ, there is set forth to us in Scripture another society, externally connected with Christ, and standing out visibly before the eyes of the world. This is the visible Church of Christ, known to men by the outward profession of faith in Him, and by the practice of those Church ordinances and observances which He has appointed for His worshippers. It is not to be identified with the invisible Church, for men may belong to the one society, who do not truly belong to the other; and the relation in which the one body stands to Christ is different from the relation occupied by the other. Neither are the two to be wholly placed in opposition to each other; for they form, not so much two separate Churches, as one Church under two distinct and different characters or aspects,—the invisible Church being spiritually united to Christ, the visible being externally united to Him for the sake of the other. This outward society of professing Christians is frequently spoken of and delineated in Scripture under the term Church. It is spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles, when it is said that “the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). It is spoken of in the Epistle to the Corinthians, when mention is made by Paul of the outward provision which God has made for the order and government and edification of the Church: “And God has set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” (1 Cor. 12:28). It is spoken of again, in reference to the same matter, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, when the same inspired writer says that Christ “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). In such passages, it is plain that a visible society of professing Christians is referred to, known and marked out among men by certain outward ordinances and observances peculiar to them, but not to be confounded with the invisible Church made up of the elect. Under the outward form of the visible Church, the invisible society of true believers may to a great extent lie concealed; but under that outward form there may be multitudes also, not truly members of the body of Christ, and only joined to Him by external profession and external ordinances.
That a Church visible and outward, known and recognised by the profession of the faith of Christ and the administration of Christ’s ordinances, and yet not to be identified with the invisible society of true believers, is acknowledged and described in Scripture, may be distinctly ascertained, from a careful consideration of the various acceptations in which the word Church is made use of in the New Testament. But if additional evidence were desired on this point, it would be found in various parables of our Lord, in which He more especially describes the visible Church under the expressive title of “the kingdom of heaven.” “The kingdom of heaven,” said our Lord on one occasion, “is like unto a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.” (Mat. 13:47-49). This separation of the good from the evil in His kingdom or visible Church is to take place, as He expressly adds, “at the end of the world,” when “the angels shall sever the wicked from among the just,”—the visible Church in this world being made up, in the meantime, of a multitude of true and feigned believers under one common profession, and yet being recognised by Christ as His Church. “The kingdom of heaven,” said our Lord in another parable, “is like unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.” And was this introduction of the tares into the visible Church inconsistent with its character as a Church, and immediately to be remedied by their removal? “Nay,” continues the parable, “lest, while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.” (Mat. 13:24-30, 36-43). To exactly the same effect is that remarkable similitude, in which our Lord likens the relation between Himself and His Church to the union subsisting between the vine and the branches. “I am the true vine,” said He, “and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit He taketh away; and every branch that beareth fruit He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered” (John 15:1-8). It is plain that in such language our Lord recognised a twofold union to Himself,—one, a living union, like that of the fruitful branch in the vine; the other, a dead or mere external union, such as the unfruitful branch in the vine, that was cast forth and withered; and such precisely is the two-fold connection with Christ, exemplified in the case respectively of the invisible and the visible Church. Those who are united to the Saviour by a living union,—unseen indeed of men, but known to Him,—constitute that society of believers spoken of in Scripture as the spiritual or invisible Church of Christ. Those, on the other hand, who are united to the Saviour by an external union of outward profession and outward privileges, known and seen of men, numbering among them the true believers in Christ, but not exclusively made up of true believers, constitute the visible Church. “The visible Church,” says the Confession of Faith, “which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children, and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (WCF 25.2).
III. The Local Congregation.
III. The term Church is frequently employed in Scripture to denote the body of believers in any particular place, associated together in the worship of God.
This third meaning of the word lies on the very surface of Scripture, and requires almost no illustration. Even in the case of two or three professing Christians, met together for prayer and worship, whether publicly or in private houses, the term ἐκκλησια is applied to them in the New Testament; and that, too, before such a congregation might be organized, by having regular office-bearers and minister appointed over them. In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that Paul and Barnabas “ordained them elders in every Church” as they journeyed through Lystra and Iconium and Antioch (Acts 14:23),—language which plainly recognises the congregation of professing believers as a Church, even previously to the ordination of office-bearers among them. The body of believers in any particular place associating together for worship, whether numerous or not, have the true character of a Church of Christ. Thus the Apostle Paul on some occasions recognises as a Church the meeting of believers in the private house of some one or other of his converts. “Greet,” says he in the Epistle to the Romans, “Priscilla and Aquila, my helpers in Christ Jesus; likewise greet the Church that is in their house” (Rom. 16:3-4). In his Epistle to the Corinthians the same apostle sends to his converts, first, the salutation of the Churches of Asia, and second, the salutation of the congregation or Church assembling in the house of Aquila and Priscilla. “The Churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the Church that is in their house.” (1 Cor. 16:19). In like manner, in the Epistle to the Colossians, we hear, “Salute Nymphas, and the Church which is in his house;” and in the Epistle to Philemon, “To the Church in thy house: grace and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ;” (Col. 4:15; Philem. 1:23)—so numerous and distinct are the testimonies to this third meaning of the term Church, as a company of professing Christians, however small, associated together in any one place for the worship and service of God.
IV. A Group of Congregations.
IV. The word Church is applied in the New Testament to a number of congregations associated together under a common government.
It is not necessary to suppose that the term “Church,” when used in reference to the society of professing Christians belonging to one locality, was limited to a single congregation meeting in one building. On the contrary, there seems to be the strongest evidence for assuming that a plurality of congregations, meeting for worship in separate houses, but connected together under one ecclesiastical order, was designated by the general term of a Church. It is not necessary at this stage to enter at length into the discussion of a point, which will more naturally fall to be argued when we come to speak of the government of the Church. It may be enough at present simply to indicate the kind of argument by which it can be shown that the word Church is not restricted in its application to a single congregation, but is used in reference to more than one connected together under one common ecclesiastical arrangement. This will sufficiently appear if we take the case of the converts at Jerusalem, who are spoken of under the general name of “the Church at Jerusalem,” but who, nevertheless, must have constituted more than one congregation in that city. There is enough recorded in the Acts of the Apostles regarding the vast number of Christians at Jerusalem, to forbid the supposition that they could have met all together in one congregation, or under one roof, for their ordinary religious services. On one occasion—that of the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost—we are expressly told that “there were added” to the number of believers previously at Jerusalem “about three thousand souls.” After this it is declared that “daily the Lord added to the Church such as should be saved” (Acts 2:41, 47). At a later period still, when Peter had preached after healing the lame man at the gate of the temple, we are told that “many of them that heard the word believed; and the number of the men (ἀνδρων) was about five thousand” (Acts 4:4)—a number evidently exclusive of women. Even this vast number of converts was still further augmented; for in the next chapter we are told that “believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (Acts 5:14). And at a subsequent date we have the testimony of James, speaking to Paul respecting the converts at Jerusalem: “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands (literally, myriads, ποσαι μυριαδες) of Jews there are which believe” (Acts 21:20).
With such facts as these before us regarding the multitudes of converts at Jerusalem, it seems impossible to maintain that the Church there consisted of no more than one solitary congregation, worshipping together under a single roof. No one building could have contained the many thousands of believers that crowded Jerusalem at that time in the fulness of a Pentecostal harvest; nor is it possible, except under the influence of some misleading theory, to believe that they formed no more than one congregation. The conclusion, then, seems to be inevitable, that when we read of the Church at Jerusalem, we find the term applied, not to a single congregation of believers, but to a plurality of congregations, connected together as one body or Church by means of a common government. An examination of the cases of the Church at Corinth and the Church of Ephesus would lead to a similar conclusion, and would justify us in affirming that the word Church in these instances also denotes, not a single congregation of worshippers, but several congregations associated together by vicinity of place, but still more by a common ecclesiastical rule and order. I do not stop at present to inquire under what form of government separate congregations were thus connected together. The fact that they were so is all that is necessary for us to know in assigning to the term Church this fourth signification.
V. The Representatives of the Church.
V. The word Church is applied, in the New Testament, to the body of professing believers in any place, as represented by their rulers and office-bearers.
The principle of representation is fully and frequently recognised in Scripture as having a place in the dispensations of God, as well as in the ordinary transactions of life; nor can it seem anything new to find the body of believers in any given place represented by their office-bearers, and the term primarily descriptive of the one applied to the other. An example of this application of the term Church is to be found in Matthew 18, when our Lord is laying down the principles on which a Christian ought to proceed in the case of a brother who has trespassed against him. If, after dealing with the offender as to his fault, first in private with himself alone, and then in the presence of two or three witnesses, he shall still neglect to hear and acknowledge his offence, the command of our Lord is to “tell it to the Church.” In such an injunction our Lord referred to the synagogue Court known and established among the Jews, which had its elders and officers for the decision of such matters of discipline; and in the expression “the Church,” which He made use of, the Jews who heard Him must have understood the authorized rulers, as distinct from the ruled, to be the parties who were to determine in such controversies. An impartial consideration of this text in its connection seems to justify the assertion that the word Church is in Scripture, among its other meanings, employed to denote the rulers or office-bearers of the Christian society.
The relationship of the five uses of the term.
Such are the five different senses in which the word Church is used in the New Testament Scriptures; and it is not unimportant to remark the connection between them, and the order in which they stand related to each other. The primary and normal idea of the Church, as set forth in Scripture, is unquestionably that of a body of men spiritually united to Christ, and, in consequence of that union, one with each other, as they are one with Him. From this fundamental idea of the universal invisible Church of Christ, all the others are derived. Add to this first idea of a Church, as indicated in Scripture, an outward provision of government, ordinances, and office-bearers, appointed for the purpose of ministering to the edification of its members, and you have the visible Church, as laid down in the New Testament,—an outward society formed upon the inward and spiritual one, and established and maintained in the world for its benefit. Add to this second scriptural idea of a Church the further notion of locality, so that instead of being viewed in its universal character as extending over all the world, it is viewed in its local character as existing in certain places, and limited to them,—and you learn the third meaning of the term as found in the New Testament, namely, a body of professing Christians assembling together in one place for the worship and service of God. Further still, annex to this third notion of the Church, as existing in particular localities and congregations, the additional idea of co-operation and union under some one form of ecclesiastical government, and you arrive at the fourth meaning of the word Church in Scripture,—a number of particular congregations associated together under one Church order and authority. And lastly, to this fourth idea of a Church conjoin the principle of representation, so largely developed both in the dispensations of God and in the arrangements of civil society, and you reach the fifth and final use of the term as found in the Bible, namely, to denote a society or societies of professing Christians, as represented by their office-bearers and rulers. From the single germ of one believer or of several believers, vitally united to a Saviour, and in the enjoyment of the privileges belonging to that union, it is not difficult to trace the Church of Christ under all the different yet closely allied characters in which it is defined and delineated in Scripture.
The Importance of distinguishing the use of the term “church.“
It is of great importance, at the outset, to fix with some measure of precision the different significations in which the word Church is used in Scripture, because of the opposite opinions entertained by different parties as to this matter,—opinions which cannot fail to bear directly or indirectly upon every step in our subsequent discussions.
For example, the Romanist sets himself in opposition to the first of those meanings which we have found to be attached in Scripture to the term Church. He is prepared to deny altogether, or, if not to deny abstractly, yet practically to set aside, the idea of an invisible Church as the primary and fundamental one, and to substitute that of a visible Church in its stead. Bossuet, in his Variations of the Protestant Churches, goes so far as to charge upon the Reformers the invention of the idea of a Church invisible, with a view to meet the alleged difficulty, so often urged by Romanists, of the visible existence of no Church, identical in principles and character with the Reformed before the Reformation. And more recent Romanist controversialists, if they do not in so many terms deny the existence of a Church invisible, endeavour to substitute in its stead that of a visible body as the leading and normal idea of the Christian society. Now, concede to Romanists the position they are so anxious to assume, and deny that there is an invisible and spiritual Church at all, or at least that this is the primary and leading idea of the Christian society; grant that the outward and visible Church is the source from which the inward and invisible is derived,—and you open up the way for some of the worst and most characteristic errors of Popery. That single admission with respect to the fundamental idea of the Christian society, prepares the way for making communion with an outward Church take the place of a spiritual reality, and substituting the external charm of priestly arts and sacramental grace for the living union of the soul to the Saviour.
Or, take another example from the case of the Independents. Independents deny the second of the five meanings which we have found ascribed to the word Church in Scripture. They repudiate altogether the idea of a visible Church, sustaining a real, although external, relation to Christ, and composed of His professing people. Now, concede to the Independents this position, and set aside the idea of a visible Church with its outward order and privileges, and you concede to them at the same time all that is necessary to determine in their favour the question regarding the character and qualifications of Church members, and to establish their principles on the subject of “pure communion.” In like manner the Independents reject the fourth and fifth meanings of the word Church. They deny that it is ever found in Scripture to signify either a plurality of congregations under one government, or simply the representatives or office-bearers of the congregation as contradistinguished from the congregation itself. Here, too, the difference of opinion in regard to the use and meaning of the term in Scripture is a fundamental one, giving rise to other and no less fundamental differences at future stages of the discussion. Admit the narrow position taken up by the Independents in regard to the true meaning and nature of a Church as defined in Scripture, restrict the term to one or other of the two significations of either the invisible Church at large, or a single congregation of believers in a particular locality, and you, in fact, concede every principle that is necessary for them to establish their views as to the form of the Church, and the nature of its government.
There cannot be, in fact, a more important question, or one in the determination of which more fundamental principles are involved, than that in regard to the real nature of the Christian Church, as delineated in Scripture; and if we have succeeded in discovering the meaning of the term according to New Testament usage, we shall have done much to prepare the way for our future discussions.