By Elder S. H. Ford, D.D., LL.D.
There is no one word in Christian literature whose primary meaning is so fully agreed upon as the term translated church; and yet there is no word in that literature (not excepting Baptism) whose meaning has been so perverted and made the basis of subversive error.
Ecclesia — from the Greek word (ekkaleo) to call together or convene — simply means a public assembly or congregation. Any one reading the account of the Ephesians gathered in the theater—especially if the word had been rendered as it is when a gospel congregation is spoken of — will at once see the real meaning of ecclesia; as correctly and clearly as though he or she had consulted a pile of lexicons. We read (Acts 19:32): "Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the (ekklesia) assembly was divided." Suppose it had been rendered "for the church was divided" (a church of maddened idolaters!), would this have been as correct as the translation of the same word "the church in thy house" or "tell it to the church?" Yes. It is the same word; it has the same meaning and is in every other case rendered church in the versions of the New Testament.
But no elaborate proof of the meaning of this word translated church is necessary. That its primary or literal meaning is an assembly, is undisputed. And it should have been so rendered wherever it occurs — especially when Stephen said: "This is he who was in the (ecclesia) assembly in the wilderness," — not church in the wilderness. And also in the quotation from Psalms 26:12 and 68:2: "In the midst of the church will I sing praises unto Thee." In the version of the Old Testament the same word ecclesia occurs, and in our English version this is rendered "in the midst of the congregation." Why was it not rendered congregation in the New Testament? The translators were forbidden to do so for a purpose. The revised version puts congregation in the margin, while the American revisers insisted on having it in the text.
But, we repeat, it is settled that ecclesia means an assembly, and that a gospel church is a called out assembly of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This description of a church is given in unmistakable language in the thirty-nine articles of the Church of England: "A church is an assembly of faithful men where the word of God is preached and the sacraments rightly administered."
And now let it be remembered, that nowhere in God's word is such ecclesia (church) distinguished by any appellation distinguishing it as a universal or general or local church, except the place where it assembled. Thus is mention made of "all the churches of the Gentiles" (Romans 16:4) which included nearly
all the churches then on earth, but they are not called the universal church to distinguish them from the one which Paul immediately mentions: "Greet the church which is in thy house."
But while assembly is acknowledged to be the primary or literal meaning of ecclesia the question occurs, has it other meanings? Does it mean the aggregate of believers or the saints of all ages — "a universal, invisible assembly?"
Let us calmly, in the light of Scripture and fact, examine and answer these questions.
The language of that great philologist, William Carson, in regard to the meaning of the word baptize, will apply with double force to the meaning of the word church. He says: —
"Parkhurst gives six meanings to the word baptizo. I undertake to prove it has but one; yet he and I do not differ as to the primary meaning of this; word. I blame him for giving different meanings when there is no real difference in the meanings of this word. He assigns it figurative meanings; I maintain that in figures there are no different meanings of the word. It is only a figurative application. The meaning of the word is always the same. Not that any one need to have a figurative application explained in any other way than by giving the proper meaning of the word."
In other words, baptism has but one meaning. It always means dip. But it has figurative application, such as baptized in the Holy Spirit, in which figurative application there is a resemblance to an immersion.
Now church has but one meaning — an assembly. But it has figurative applications, such as the "church of the first-born whose names are written in heaven," in which figurative application there is a resemblance to a church or called out assembly. It is not a church in fact, no more than the bestowment of the Holy Spirit was an immersion in fact. It is a figurative application of the word to an ideal gathering of the redeemed.
This will appear more evident and edifying if we turn to the meaning of other words or things which are figuratively applied to the aggregate of believers and also to the "whole number of the elect that have been or shall be gathered in one [assembly] under Christ" (London Confession of Faith). They are called —
The Bride — The Lamb's Wife When John the Baptist was told of the increase of the Lord's disciples he answered: "He that hath the bride is the bridegroom." Having direct reference to those who believed on the Son and had everlasting life. Paul, addressing the Corinthians, wrote: "For I have espoused you to one husband that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." And then in Ephesians, where he uses the word church in its figurative application more than it is used in all the New Testament besides, he changes the figure abruptly (we may say) from a woman to an assembly. "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it."
He compares the redeemed to a wife, and then to an assembly, or church. He drops the personal figure, and says, "that he might present it a glorious assembly without spot or wrinkle." The basis of these figures are the redeemed — an ideal bride, wife, assembly.
And so in Revelation 19:7: "Let us be glad and rejoice and give honor to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb is come and His wife has made herself ready." An ideal bride, as John A. Broadus called the invisible church, "an ideal assembly of real Christians."
Now a bride, a wife, a virgin, each means a woman, and means nothing else. Literally, that is really, believers in the aggregate, or "the whole number of the elect," are not a bride, a wife, or a woman. They are individual persons. These terms have not two meanings, the one a woman, the other meaning the believers or the elect. No; it is simply and plainly a figurative application of the word bride, just as is the figurative application of the word church. The believers in the aggregate, the elect of all ages, are no more a universal church than they are a universal bride, and making this figure a fact as Rome has done, using the term Mother Church, and representing the imaginary thought as she with personal individual attributes and actions, is a monstrons error. But we have just as much right and warrant to call the redeemed the universal bride or wife as we have to call them the universal church. They are neither in fact, but only in figure.
The Redeemed are Compared to a House "In whom ye also are builded for an habitation [dwelling house] of God through the Spirit." Ephesians 2:22. The imagery of a building or house runs through the New Testament Scriptures.
Wherever our word edify is met with, the idea of a building is represented. And we venture the remark that "the aggregate of believers" and "the whole company of the elect" are more frequently represented as a building or house, than they are as an assembly, that is, church. But we know that a house is a material structure. The redeemed or believers are not a house in fact, they are only so by a figurative application of this word or thing. And to build a theory or draw a distinction, or teach a doctrine on the ground that "all believers" or "the elect" are called a "spiritual house" is a mischievous perversion.
We might go on to mention the many other figurative applications of liberal terms, to the redeemed. They are called a city, as in some respects they resemble one, with its walls, its watchmen, its gates, and its towers.
They are called a garden, a flock, an army. But surely it need not be urged that they are in fact none of these. A universal garden, a universal flock, a universal army, or a universal house, or bride, is no more a figure of speech than is a universal church — that is, a universal assembly. There is no such thing in fact. It is a figurative application.
It is frequently said the church is compared to a bride. We deny this, and challenge the production of a single instance where the church is compared to any of those objects to which the redeemed are likened. It is the saved who are compared to an assembly, or ideal church, and to a bride, and to a building, not the church or a church. But by a strange deception, (we might say) a mental strabismus, the redeemed are compared to an assembly, and then this figurative application of an assembly (as though it were literal) is made the basis of another figure of speech, as bride or house; that is, one highly-wrought metaphor is made the groundwork of another highly-wrought metaphor. We repeat it: God's redeemed are figuratively likened to an assembly, but that assembly is never compared to a bride or a wife or a house. It is the redeemed ones themselves that are so compared; and not one figure compared to another figure.
As well might we take the metaphor of a lamb as figuratively applied to the Lord Jesus, and make this the basis of like figurative application of another. He is called the Lamb of God; but the Lamb is never called the door. He has these various figurative names — the Lamb, the Lion, the Shepherd, the Vine. But to say that the Lamb is compared to a Lion, or a Vine, or a Door is like calling by a metaphor the redeemed a bride and then calling the bride an assembly or church, or a house, or a garden. It is Jesus personally who is figuratively, not really, a Lamb, a Door, a Vine, is
Bread. It is the redeemed personally who are figuratively, not really, called a bride, a house, a church. And it is misleading as it is wrong to make the figure a fact and build a theory on the perversion.
The Redeemed are Called Christ's Body This image assumes the form or thought of a reality more frequently than any of the other collateral figures by which believers are pictured to the mind.
This word, like all others, has but one literal or ground meaning — a material organized substance. But it has many figurative applications, which are called definitions. One of these is a reality as opposed to representation, as "the shadows of things to come, but the body is Christ."
Not that those shadows had a body — that is, a material substance by which a shadow was cast, but just as a shadow must have a substance to cause it, so Christ was the substance or cause of "the shadows of things to come," and as literally rendered "but the body is Christ."
But especially is this word used to describe the redeemed of all ages. We read in 1 Corinthians 12: "For as the body is one [that is, of course, the physical body] "and hath many members, and all the members of that one body being many are one body, so also Christ is one."
Here is simply taught the oneness of Christ and His redeemed. The language is addressed to the members of the church of Corinth, "the sanctified
in Christ Jesus." They were in Him and are therefore pictured as a complete body. But surely it is but a picture — a figurative application of the word body; and stripped of its figurative language is simply this: "All believers are one with Christ." But not a real universal body, no more than a real universal church.
The Apostle says: "For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body." But first the Spirit does not literally baptize the believer; and secondly, we, cannot be literally immersed into a body, especially as it is a human, or real body, that is figured.
The body of the Lord Jesus is at the right hand of God. That glorious body is distinct from anything else in the universe. No being can become an actual or real part of it. It is impossible. And yet the believer is said to be a member of "His, body, His flesh, and His bones," and the redeemed are said to be a body of which He is (not the body itself), but the head. Surely any one who will exercise the reasoning power God has given him will see and know that "the aggregate of believers," or "elect of all ages," are not a BODY, are not the LORD'S BODY — that there is no such a body as that in all God's universe; but it is a figurative application of the word body, just as it is the figurative application of the term bride, or building, or vineyard, or city, or flock, or church.
The term MYSTICAL applied to body or church is also misleading. It is (to use an obsolete word) mystigogical. It properly means "obscure," and then unrevealed, and then emblematical or figurative. It is in this last sense that it is applied to the body
of Christ. We speak of the mystical body of Christ, we do not (or cannot properly) mean the Lord's body really, but something else which His glorified body represents. So that when we use, or see used, the term mystical before body or bride or church, let us at once understand that it is a supposed or figurative body — something that does not really exist at all — that is presented, but which is an illustrative picture of the redeemed of all ages.
In conclusion we hope to be pardoned for repeating with all the emphasis we can give, that:
A "church," like a body, is a literal, actual thing. It is a real assembly. To speak of a universal assembly or church — having the supposed functions or "notes" of it, as of a real literal church, is just as illogical and as unwarranted as to speak of the universal body having the supposed functions or "notes" of it as of a real literal body. Body when applied to the redeemed is a figure, not a reality. Church when applied to the redeemed is a figure, not a reality. There never has been in fact anything of the kind. A church is a company of baptized believers joined together for the service of God — a real, actual, veritable assembly, and nothing else is a church.
In view of these facts, and of the mischievous errors into which the perversion of the meaning of church has led, surely when men of discrimination — teachers of the people — are speaking of the aggregate of believers, of all times and climes, and of all the elect of all ages, they should use these terms and not the misused words "UNIVERSAL CHURCH."
Is There a Catholic or Universal Church?
As an appendix to the foregoing article we affirm that there is no such a thing in existence as a catholic — that is, universal, church. Church means always an assembly. It means nothing else. If the persons supposed to constitute it have never assembled it is not an assembly or church. The thing is absurd. There cannot be a meeting until persons meet. There cannot be a convention till persons convene or come together. There cannot be a church until (to coin a word) persons are churched, that is, assembled. There never was a universal assembly of professed Christians, or, as the expression is, the aggregate of believers on earth.
The term is not found anywhere in God's word. The inspired apostles use no term that is its equivalent. It is foreign to the New Testament. It has no real meaning.
The term is found in the so-called Apostle's creed. But while it is certain this was not composed until centuries after the apostolic age, it is also true that the word catholic was inserted in it long after it appeared, and change after change occurred in it till at length it assumed its present form, I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. The word is for the first time used, or found, in
the very questionable epistles of Ignatius. In his supposed epistle to the Smyrneans he says: "Wherever the bishop (pastor) shall be seen let the people also be, as where Jesus Christ is there is the catholic church." Here it is evident it is a real assembly, a local church, the one body with its pastor worshiping at Smyrna, to which he refers. It was not a. universal or supposed assembly, or the churches in Asia Minor, or the aggregate of believers; but the one real assembly or church. But it soon obtained a different meaning. The churches, as the apostles called them, were made or conceived to be one church — the church; and thus received the name catholic. Words govern things, and the word catholic has been a governing, a misleading word, prolific of soul-ruining error, and of terrible oppression.
The term catholic is affixed to some of the epistles, as Peter, John, James, and Jude. But no such word is found in any of the old manuscripts; and it is well known that the term was prefixed to them in the year 1549 by the famous French printer, Robert Stephens. It is rendered in King James' version "general" before these epistles; but is omitted in our revised version as unauthorized. ( ) means universal. Catholic church means a universal church. We repeat there is no sucth thing. And the fact that the Philadelphia Confession of Faith adopts this word gives it no weight. For that confession says in its 31st article: "We believe that laying on of hands with prayer upon baptized
believers as such is an ordinance of Christ, and ought to be submitted to by all such persons as are permitted to participate of the Lord's Supper." But Baptists never have been unanimous in regard to this. Danvers, shortly after the confession was issued, wrote a treatise in opposition to it. The Philadelphia Confession adopted it. But it has been almost universally abandoned. Indeed, Baptists have no authorized confessions. But though this London and Philadelphia Confession says, "The catholic church or universal church consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one in Christ," they affirm of these elect, that "they are called out of the world through the ministry of the word," and "Those Christ, called He commanded to walk together as particular churches." The members of these particular clmrches are saints by calling, "visibly manifesting and evidencing in and by their profession," " and willingly consent to walk together according to the appointment of Christ."
So that while, as the confession says, "The catholic or universal church — the elect that ever have been, are, or shall be only with respect to the eternal work of the spirit and truth of grace — may be called universal, these elect are commanded to walk in particular societies or churches, visibly manifesting their call by walking together in their professed subjection to the ordinances of the gospel." Thus it is. Catholic church is all the elect; the elect are called to particular churches in subjection
to the ordinances, and the only universality is "the internal work of the spirit " whose operation is as the viewless wind.
What is there in this resembling a positive, a real, a veritable universal church? — an assembly which never assembled? It is the "baseless fabric of a vision."
[Published in Christian Repository, September, 1899.]
[From Ben M. Bogard, editor, Pillars of Orthodoxy, or Defenders of the Faith, 1900 - jrd
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