Among the religious-minded people, today, the church is many things. The word "church" conveys various meanings and is subject to many usages. The word "ecclesiology" is from the Greek "ecclesia" and the word "logy" which, when combined, denotes a study of the "ecclesia" or the teachings, doctrines, and science about the church. This essay will treat the various concepts people have held, and do hold, concerning the "ecclesia of God."
It has been evident for some time that the word "church" bears inherent weaknesses as the proper and sufficient word to translate the Greek word "ecclesia." The word "church" conveys to our minds a religious significance which the Greek word "ecclesia" did not inherently convey. The more I study and investigate the matter, the more I am convinced that if the translators had used other words which did accurately convey the inherent meaning of the word "ecclesia" at least some of our present-day problems would have been less severe. But since they did not and since the word "church" is very likely to stay within our common vocabularies, we will proceed with this study using the word "church," but assigning to this word the appropriate translated meanings of the word "ecclesia." When we use the word in this study we want everyone to know how we are using the word and what we mean.
By "the church" we mean that group, gathering, or congregation of saved people who have been called by God through the gospel, out of darkness into the light - into Christ. We mean all Christians, saints, in their spiritual relationship with God, who have been gathered from among the world unto Christ. We mean people, who through their own personal faith and obedience to Christ, belong to Christ; who are joined to Christ, regardless of their geographical situation upon this earth, and by so being, constitute "the brotherhood." By "the church" we mean any part or portion of this brotherhood living in close or relative proximity to others. By "the church" we mean to use it as it is found in Acts 9:31: "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, being edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, was multiplied." (ASV.) We shall use the expression as found in Gal. 1: 13 and Acts 8:3 where we learn that Paul said, "I persecuted the church of God ..." and where Luke records, "Saul laid waste to the church, entering into every house, and dragging men and women, committed them to prison." By such usages of the word "church" no universal institution or local organization is under consideration whatsoever, but, rather, a class of people; that particular class of people who has been truly gathered unto Christ and claim Him as their Lord, King, Master, and Saviour.
The Will of God is addressed by God through Christ to responsible individuals in this world; and the individual, being the only entity possessing the capabilities to respond to God by faith, is the only entity to stand accountable before God in the judgement day. Since, therefore, the gospel system, is a system wholly predicated upon the individual's personal response by faith to the expressed will of God, it is presumptuous for us to think God has addressed His will to organized functional group units of His people expecting these organized groups to function "as one." I deny the idea that God has addressed parts of His will to the individual and other parts of His will to the organized functional group unit - "the local church," as most people refer to it. This brings us up to the matter of the differing and varying concepts which people have of "the church." Does the Bible teach an "organized, functional unit" concept, or is this concept derived from without the Bible and implanted into the Scriptures? This "organized, functional group-unit" concept is just one of many concepts people hold. Let us examine several of them:
"A cordial welcome is extended by this church to all who enter her doors. We trust that your time spent in this house of worship has been both pleasant and profitable to you. This is the Lord's church, it is open to those who find happiness in worship, and to those who are seeking refuge and peace of mind. The Church of God, the Book of God, and the day of God are a sacred trinity in this congregation."
The above is the expression of welcome found on the front of a bulletin published by our brethren. It should be blatantly apparent to even the novice that something is horribly wrong in their concept of "the church." These brethren make no distinction between the "ecclesia" of God and the building of brick, mortar, and glass. Here the "church" is represented as having "doors." The church which has the doors, through which people may enter, is the church which is extending the welcome, and is further identified as being a house in which to express worship, and in which people, finding it open, may come in and secure refuge and peace of mind. "This is the Lord's church," the caption states. What is the Lord's church? The building, with doors? Notice the last sentence in which "The Church of God" is held as part of a sacred trinity "in this congregation." This ambiguous concept allows "The Church of God" to be something wholly different than, and separate from, "this congregation." This is equivalent to stating "this congregation" is not "The Church of God." If that be the case the congregation has no lawful right to congregate. No wonder the church everywhere is in such a state of confusion, strife, and discord, when erroneous and ambiguous concepts as this prevails in the minds of the people.
It is true that God's people, the church, are represented in the will of God as constituting a "house" and a "household." The apostle Peter speaks of the church as being "living stones, built up a spiritual house;" and the writer to the Hebrews declares, "Moses was faithful, as a servant in his house, but Christ, as a Son over his own house, whose house we are." In these instances the Lord's people are represented as a building and as a family. The "household of God" is the family of God, and the "spiritual house" is the temple structure in which God dwells through the spirit. (Eph. 2:18-22.)
By far the most prevailing concept of "the church" is that the church is some kind of religious institution - some sort of abstract institutional entity- into which people who obey the gospel are ushered, and for which Christ died, to bring it into existence on the day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, in A.D. 33. This concept allows us to speak of "the church" as an "it" or some other abstract substantive.
I readily admit that I did not give up this concept easily. It had been preached and instilled into my mind from my early youth. I heard teachers and gospel preachers proclaim there is only one grand and glorious blood-bought institution and this institution was formed on the day of Pentecost by Christ, who was made the Head of the institution. I heard preachers wax eloquent in Ephesians chapter 5 concerning this institution - how this institution is subject to Christ and how He desires this institution to be without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. I heard how this institution is loved by Christ and how this institution is bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh; and how Paul declared he was speaking of a mystery but he meant Christ and this institution, the church.
I was taught that this institution was essential to our salvation and how that God placed salvation in this institution, and. I was informed the blood of Christ "purchased' this institution, so if any desired to be saved they must come into this institution in order to reach the blood. Now, all thin sounded pretty convincing. I, somehow, never got around to asking the teachers and preachers where the Scriptures taught such an institutional concept of God's saved people. Perhaps, it never occurred to them to investigate their institutional concept.
When I began making talks and doing a little preaching I parroted the traditional "institutional" jargon about "the church." But the more I studied and the more I thought about this concept, the more impersonal salvation became. It didn't appear to be a "Saviour" to "Saved" relationship at all; but rather, and "Institution" to "member" relationship. Christ seemed to be my Head only to the extent that He was the head of the institution and I had become a member of the institution.
I heard people talking about working for the church and bringing reproach upon the church - that glorious restitution and I heard people talk about so and so who had "left the church" and had not been "faithful to the church." People were members of the church but did not think of themselves as being "members of Christ." We gave money to "the church." We did "church work." Preachers wrote in the papers they were taking "the church" to areas where no one had ever heard of "the church;" and they were preaching "the church" and telling people about "the church" in efforts to get them to "come into the church."
I began to get my eyes open. We have a very bad case of "churchanity" and ecclesiolatry. We don't really love Christ; we love the church - the institution! We don't serve and work for our Lord; we serve and work for the church - the institution! We don't go tell people about the crucified and risen Lord and His reign from heaven, we go tell them about the institution! We don't take the truth of the gospel to people and try to convince them to obey the truth, we try to convince them that the church (of Christ), His divine institution, is the right institution! So what happens? People join the Church of Christ. They are sold that the Church of Christ is "right." They have an institutional concept of salvation and life in Christ. Whatever the Church of Christ is doing at the time they come into that institution must be right for the Church of Christ is right. So with most of this present generation, the word church signifies to their mind a religious institution.
But this concept and method of operation and proclamation is wholly foreign to the Scriptures. Study Paul's concept of his salvation and relationship to Christ. Do you perceive him to hold an impersonal, institutional concept of fellowship with Christ through fellowship with an abstract, institutional substantive? "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me: and that life which I now live in the flesh I live in faith, which is in the Son of God, WHO LOVED ME AND GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR ME." (Gal. 2:20.) These words indicate a person to person relationship; a Saviour to saved communion. Paul lived in Christ and Christ lived in Paul. This is an individual and personal matter between each obedient believer and his own Lord, Jesus. Jesus taught this union between life and lifeseekers, "Abide in Me and I in thee!" (John 15:4) Union and life with God is not a matter of coming into some "institution" but coming into Christ, establishing fellowship with God through Jesus, our Life. All those who, having obeyed the will of God, are in Christ and thus are His "ecclesia" - His gathered out from among the world; His assembly of people. Where in this concept is there room or need for this sectarian and denominational concept of "the institution," or the "invisible church of Christ?"
Time and space will prevent me from providing you with all the various institutional concepts brethren hold. I dare say I could not for I know not all such concepts. But here are two:
"The church is the greatest institution in the world; the most glorious institution in the world; the only divinely purposed institution in which to save souls." Brethren, take a long, hard look at that concept. Where in all the Scriptures is there anything written to warrant such a concept? This concept demands the church to be some type of corporate, self-subsistent entity which exists distinct from the people God saves. The word "ecclesia" just does not have that inherent meaning.
Notice this quote:
"Nineteen hundred years ago the church of Christ was established ... It was the original church before human changes marred its beauty. It was the original church before other organizations were founded to assist or oppose or ape or contradict her. To compliment her with originality, to honor her claim as being the original church, does not give one human church an advantage over any other human church. It gives her glory over all human churches ... It is common to find her called the church of Christ in histories and various religious books. They give her that title to impress upon the reader they are not speaking of later developments, nor taking issue in any controversy, they are speaking of Christ's church as she was in the beginning. The title for the church is well chosen for those purposes ... It was Christ who spoke of her and said, 'I will build my church.' (Matt. 16: 18.) ... It was on that first Pentecost after his resurrection 1900 years ago, that Jesus established his church ... This was the beginning of the church. Then and there she received her life and it was the beginning ... The church then was the church God had planned. (Eph. 3:10-11.) She was the church Christ had purchased with his own blood ... He had given her every morsel of doctrine that she preached ... She was the divine institution without addition or subtraction, without change or modification. Being divine in her origin, her mission and destiny."
This entity, of which this writer speaks so marvelously, exists only in his imagination. From the above, it would appear he thinks Christ established on Pentecost, in Jerusalem, long ago, a definite, organized, religious institution: a complete, self-subsistent, self-sustaining, truth-teaching, soul-receiving, institutional entity to which Christ gave life. This original entity with her perfection and beauty was capable of being marred, corrupted, and blemished by human wisdom and changes.
This destructive work of human efforts is, supposedly, what the reformation movement was all about. Men laboured diligently and sincerely to restore "the institution" to its original beauty, glory, and unmarred splendor. Innovations, corruptions, and human defilements over the centuries had corroded and eroded the divine structure. The original institution with her worship, doctrines, and practices, had fallen into disarray and needed a complete overhaul. The Roman Catholics still maintain theirs in the original "institution" and true Church of Christ. Institutional chain-rattling continues to be a big argument when people talk of their institutions. The "reformers" sought to bring about the much needed repairs to this original institution. They succeeded only in starting other institutions in which some of the reforms were incorporated.
This common concept of what happened to that original glorious institution is not what happened at all. No institution became corrupt and defiled because no institution existed in the first place. But, rather, the gospel, God's power to draw men unto Christ fell into disrespect. Truth was allowed to fall to the street. The word and will of God was perverted and the hearts of men and women turned away from the truth and turned unto fables. Men ceased to have a love in their hearts for the truth that they might be saved. One by one people fell away from God. They, one by one, individually, departed from the light and began to walk in darkness while they showed an outward appearance of walking in light. They had a form of godliness but denied the power thereof. God's will and God's ways fell into disuse. Religious exercises and forms of piety were maintained but God did not reign in their hearts. His government from heaven, though not one mite diminished, was ignored.
The so-called "Restoration Movement" did not restore the original "institution." That movement by God-fearing, truth-seeking, and heaven-loving men pointed the hearts of men and women back to our Lord and King. That movement restored love of truth to the hearts of honest souls. People, one by one, began to let Christ reign and rule in their hearts by the law, the gospel. Truth prevailed and people in obedience to it came into communion with God through Christ. I thank God for the sacrificial labours those men, in ages past, gave in order that people might know the truth and be saved. As people obeyed God no institutional relationship was established; neither was the "original institution" restored, but love and respect for truth was restored to the hearts of thousands wandering in darkness and sin. Thank God for Christ, the means of our salvation, and the gospel, God's power to enlighten our minds and draw us to Christ.
The institutional concept gives rise to a legion of ills, many of which we have already upon us in epidemic degree. Since people conceive the church to be an institution it is no small wonder that we form other institutions to aid the "mother institution." Hardly a month goes by without an announcement that another institution is being founded by which "the church" will be able to do the work that God has given His people to do. Local institutional organizations, called "the local congregation," build and maintain these as subsidiary organizations by which the parent organization-institution accomplished a certain work.
We hear the cry, "The church of Christ is right!" Preachers run ads in the magazines and newspapers declaring that fact. People are exhorted by these ads to "examine the church of Christ" and are given 10 reasons why "The Church of Christ" is worth investigating. I am constrained to wonder which "sect" of this institution should be investigated? Since the institution called the "Church of Christ" is right, which sect or splinter groups of this institution is right? Which one do they want investigated? Shall they investigate the "One Cup" brethren? "No Class?" "No women teachers?" "Hard Wine?" "Liberal?" "Anti?" "Conservative?" "Instrumental Music?" "Hatters?" "Loyal?" "Faithful?" "Institutional?" Or is it the intent for the public to ignore the "church of Christ" in this world and just investigate the "church of Christ" you can read about in the New Testament? Which church of Christ would you suggest they begin with? Corinth? Laodicea? Personally, I would much rather they not investigate any former or present-day group of believers, in an effort to prove to them, and establish in their minds, that the "church of Christ" is right.
The Scriptures are right! The revealed gospel of the Son of God is that to which we must point their minds. Let's not try to convert people to the church of Christ, but let us point them to Christ and His pure word of truth. Let us ask them to investigate the truth of the gospel! Let us tell them of the Lord's government from heaven and that reign of God which began when the law went forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Every time a preacher goes forth preaching "the church of Christ," his converts, most likely, will be Church of Christers;" and all know we have enough of that kind of converts already! These "Church of Christers" will have you to know they belong to "The Church of Christ." They boast of their institutions, their schools and colleges. They point with pride to the "Church of Christ preachers." They praise their radio and television work and gladly discuss the fact that "The Church of Christ" is one of the leading religious institutions of the world. Truly, indeed, the "Church of Christ" has finally arrived! Yes, arrived, indeed! But with all the fruits of institutions: the competitive spirit, the party spirit, and party pride!
This concept demands that every gathering of God's people in a community, as a worshipping assembly, be organized into a "functional-unit" with a governing organization over this functional unit, called, "the eldership." Subordinate to this governing board of officers, who direct the work and worship of this functional unit, there is appointed another body of officers called "Deacons." This organization is denoted as a "local church" or a "local congregation." It is thought to be a corporate entity in which the individual becomes amenable to the will of the unit: but more especially, to the authority of the eldership. In this organization these people are to act "as one." And, supposedly, to this organized-functional-unit God has directed certain parts and portions of His revealed will, expecting from this organized-functional-unit certain response and group obedience. This group responsibility, which has been enjoined upon the organization, by law addressed to the organization, is supposedly three-fold: (1) Evangelism, (2) Edification, and (3) Benevolence. This organized-functional-unit-responsibility is supposedly entirely separate from, and in addition to, the responsibility God has enjoined upon the "Individual Christian." Thus, according to this concept, there are some things God requires a Christian to do because he is an individual; and there are some other things which God requires of the organization to which the individual belongs, because it is a corporate, organized, functional entity. And, according to this concept, there are some things this corporate, organized, functional entity cannot do (no expressed authority) in its organized entity existence, but which each individual member of that entity may do.
The concept described above is very much like the relationship a person in society sustains to a club or fraternal organization. Each individual club member is no less a club member every day of the week and may do as he pleases, but when acting with other members of the club, under the club officers, doing the club work, it is not the individual doing anything, but the club. So you have "club" action and individual action. The above is how many look upon the congregation of worshippers in a community. They are to be organized into some kind of spiritual or religious "club." Qualified "club" officers are to be selected and installed into official position within the club structure. Subordinate officers are installed under the "eldership." The "eldership" runs the club work and is supposedly vested with authority from heaven to make all the decisions for the club. These "officials" of the club are responsible for the club property and manage the club funds. This local church-club is very much like any business organization with various departments and department heads. The "eldership" of the club looks about its membership for personnel to staff their organization. Their first task, usually, is to hire a professional preacher to come in and "take over the work." when this preacher is hired he understands he "gets the work." If the club is large enough "the board of directors" will seek and "Associate Minister" to work with or under the other preacher. The "Minister" generally understands he is working for the church and is responsible directly to the "elders" as his overseers. They have the exclusive right to hire and fire this "manager."
If the company or club prospers under the teaching and guidance of the "hired manager" he will very likely get a raise in salary. This manager usually stays until some of the club members or stockholders in the company get their feathers ruffled or get tired of hearing him preach, then he is off to "get the work" with another club - another organized religious company.
Now, let it be clearly understood, I do not hold any "club" concept of "the church." I abhor such a concept. It is completely foreign to the teachings and principles of God's will. I have never called the local body of believers" a club!" I do say some of the brethren have such a concept and preach that concept! One preacher declared in his treatment of the church: "THE CHURCH IS LIKENED TO A CLUB; FOR A LOCAL CLUB TO EXIST THERE MUST BE ORGANIZATION ... CONSIDER A GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO DECIDE TO WORK TOGETHER WITHOUT ANYONE TO PLAN THE WORK. THERE WOULD BE CHAOS ..." And, as another preacher explained his feelings, when the value of a certain type of radio work was being discussed: "My experience has been that the type of people who write in to that kind of radio program would not be the type of people you would want anyway!" This typifies the common attitude of people who hold the local-club concept. I am not saying this preacher holds such a concept - I say it typifies the attitude of those who do hold "the club concept." To them there are some folks they do not want to hold membership in their club. It has been evident for a long time that there are classes of people in this world who aren't acceptable to other classes. The poor, the uneducated, the social under-dogs, the "hicks," are not "our concern." If they show up at the "club meetings," they are endured but not encouraged or used. They don't dress good enough to be used in the assemblies. They never could be recognized for a leading part in the common effort. Thus, feeling unwanted and shunned, the club maintains its upper-to-middle bracket status, and these "unacceptables" and "unwanted ones" soon drift off to an assembly where they feel more at home; or, they become discouraged because they do not feel comfortable among the "elite" of the club, and go back into the walks of the world. What a shame! What evils this "club" concept has brought about!
The local assembly of saints is the direct result and consequence of each child of God responding to the Lord's will as pertains to meeting upon the Lord's day to break bread and express worship with one another. This assembly of the saints is a specific fellowship in which is continued the individual spiritual relationship and fellowship which exists between each person and God! Nothing is altered or obviated by reason of a person assembling with other Christians! The Christians in a community, knowing the Lord's will, agree among themselves to meet together in a place where each saint may offer up to his Lord, and Father, the worship of his heart. This is a worshipping assembly. They meet to worship and be edified. They separate to work and serve.
In response, further, to the will of God, the saints look out among them and select the qualified, elder men of their number to be their spiritual guides and overseers. These men are recognized and approved by the brethren - not to form an organization or to be officers of an organization - but to take the Word of God a d e shepherds of the flock, the teachers of the blind, the supporters of the weak, the admonishers of the unruly, the leaders of the way of truth, the rulers who administer the word of God to the people, the guardians of the people's spiritual welfare, the healers of the sick, the helpers to the helpless, the watchmen in the night, and the examples of the Way! The tool of their trade is the gospel, the word of God. With God's word they rule! They are workers within a fellowship and not investitured officers of a functional-unit organization. They are authorized by God to work as pastors, leaders, and guides. The members are to hold such competent men in high regard because of the work they are doing - and not because of some authoritative post into which they may think they have been installed. (1 Thess. 5: 12.)
Jesus declared in language too plain to misunderstand that within the government administered by Him from Heaven there would not be any posts or positions of dominion into which men would be installed and from which "offices" they would exercise themselves as "lords" and "benefactors." (Luke 22:25.) Greatness under His reign from heaven was not to be accounted as that prevailing among the governments of the Gentiles; but rather, greatness was to be reckoned by humble service rendered. (Luke 22:26-27; Mk. 9:33-37; Matt. 17:24; 18:4.) Neither was greatness to be considered within His government on the basis of the prevailing Jewish system. (Matt. 23: 1-12.) Thus, we may know assuredly that the common practice of "rankings" within the local assembly, in which the "Eldership" is the highest rank or position one may occupy, and under whom is the subordinate ranks of the "Deacons" and finally the lowest rank - the "rank and file" membership, is not of God, but denominational in concept and sectarian in its very nature. Our present-day "Local Club-organization (church) with its club programs, club work, club loyalty, club officers, club treasury, and club membership," is wholly foreign to the true nature of our spiritual relationship and communion with God and with one another in Christ Jesus our Lord. May God hasten the day when we all may truly recognize our Saviour as our One Lord, our Head, and our King. May the day soon come when we all may come to a true realization of these false and erroneous concepts of God's ecclesia, the church. May the day soon be ours when we will have the courage to change those concepts when we discern the true spiritual fellowship we all have as partakers of the One Bread, Christ Jesus.
He that hath ears, let him hear!
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was written by Harold Spurlock, a beloved brother now deceased. It first appeared in The Sentinel of Truth, in the 1960's. It as been revised for use in The Examiner. Read it carefully.