Recently I published a collection of essays I’ve written over the years asking and answering the question, What is Church? In that volume, we looked at the development and use of the word church, as well as its relationship to the Koine Greek ekklesia. We also saw that answering the question What is Church? overlapped with the question Who is Church? particularly as it relates to the composition of church and the common assertion that church refers to a religious people.
With this in mind, we saw how it naturally brings up several questions. For instance, do infants belong? What about Israel? These questions, and others like it, naturally arise with an institutional, traditional view of defining church. However, as we learned church is not a precise nor accurate translation for the concept of ekklesia. Furthermore, when people attempt to answer questions about Who is [the] Church, they are not working from the presupposition that church means a gathering, assembly, or even congregation as the word ekklesia denotes. Rather, they already have a preconceived notion, inherited from various traditions, wherein church is viewed as a synonym for the people of God as well as the assumption that it is universal in its definition and institutional in its application. As we have attempted to show already, church as ekklesia is a gathering of God’s people. It comes closest to referring to all of God’s people collectively gathered in its eschatological usage. As we will see, major difficulties arise when this use is applied anachronistically to the present.
As we saw in the previous study, a much more accurate description of church, building off of the use and meaning of ekklesia, brings us to define it as an actual gathering of believers in the name of Christ that is geographically bound and typological of our Lord’s eschatological gathering at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. A local assembly of gathered Christians represents the body of Christ on earth and is typological of the heavenly gathering to come as it disciples and disciplines within the fellowship. When viewed this way, many of the controversies and disagreements over Who is (the) Church? begin to resolve. Conversely, by forcing the universal, people of God meaning into ekklesia, as simply designated by the article “the”, controversies arise. Are infants members of the church? What is the role of regeneration? What is the relationship of Israel to the church? Does the church replace Israel? Are there two peoples of God? Are there multiple ways of salvation, one with reference to Israel and one with reference to the church? Is the church God’s heavenly people, thereby being raptured, while Israel is God’s earthly people, thereby going through the tribulation? And what relationship does the church have with the Kingdom of God?
These age-old questions, and there are many more, have arisen because time and attention has not first been given to What is Church. Precision matters and sloppy usage of church has only led to a litany of historical problems. In this upcoming volume, we want to continue building off of that introductory foundation and start to tackle some of these other questions on the nature of Who is Church. By doing so, we will see the forks in the road that have led to divisions between Baptists and Paedobaptists, the rise of Dispensationalism, how the doctrine of the universal church developed (and eventually why), and the conflation of church with kingdom, both of which have implications for Roman Catholicism.
In wrapping up this brief introduction, let’s turn again to a familiar reference in John Murray to read an otherwise good definition on the identity of church followed by a catastrophic misstep that undoes his definition and introduces the pitfalls and controversies mentioned above.
The church is the assembly of the covenant people of God, the congregation of believers, the household of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ. It consists of men and women called by God the Father into the fellowship of his Son, sanctified in Christ Jesus, regenerated by his Spirit, and united in the faith and confession of Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior. Where there is such a communion in Jesus’ name, there is the church of God. And all throughout the world answering to this description constitute the church of God universal.Murray, John. Collected Writings of John Murray: Vol. The Claims of Truth. pg. 237-238
How can church be an assembly, congregation, and fellowship, then simultaneously refer to the church of God universal which has never assembled, congregated, or fellowshipped together? For the sake of consistency, it can’t. In fact, if it did, then each individual congregation could not be on its own a church of God and in turn the “universal” church would be a collection of local churches. In our previous study was there ever a Scriptural use of church in the singular that referred to a plurality? No, quite the opposite. There are churches in the plural (Galatians 1:2), church in the generic (Acts 9:31), church local (Matthew 18:17), and church eschatological (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22), but never the singular referring to a plurality.
This emphasis on universality then becomes our central issue and what we will look at first. Under the heading of the Universal Church we will look at three particular elements, each of which overlap to inform a study on church. This interrelationship can be seen in the diagram below.
First, we will discuss soteriology, that is the study of salvation, to learn how it relates to answering the question Who is Church, followed secondly by covenant theology, particularly the relationship of Israel to church. Finally, we transition out of covenants and into eschatology, that is the study of end times, to see whether there is validity to equating the Kingdom of God with church, as Augustine presupposed. After looking at these three critical issues, we will conclude by laying out an argument for church as a gathered people.
*Note the above blog post will be the Introduction to the next volume in the Study on Ecclesiology. Several of the chapters have been written as posts already, though not yet assembled as a book. The following posts are anticipated in the outline:
- A Universal Theory of the “Church”
- Christ: Mediator of the New Covenant, Part 1
- Christ, The Mediator of the New Covenant Part 2
- The Necessity of Regeneration
- Regeneration: A New Covenant Promise
- Regeneration and the Necessity of Faith and Repentance
- New Covenant Membership
- The Abrahamic Tipping Point
- Father Abraham
- Were Old Testament People Saved? – Examining the Biblical Narrative, Part 1
- Were Old Testament People Saved? – Examining the Biblical Narrative, Part 2
- Were the Old Testament People Saved? – The Witness of Romans 4
- The New Covenant Constitution of the Church and Dispensationalism
- TBD Kingdom vs Church