(originally written c. 1988. Latest rev. January, 2009)
When one talks about the church what is at stake is the way in which the Christian life is organized. I believe that the Bible teaches us that believers should be united to the visible community of the redeemed meeting for worship, instruction, and fellowship in an organized, disciplined, way. If I am wrong, then millions of dollars and millions of hours and lives are being sadly misspent.
Certainly there are strong individual elements to the Christian faith. No one else can believe for you. God does speak to individual hearts in His Word. He gives new life to individuals. The Bible, however, does not stop there: “it deals with man, not only as a solitary unit in his relation to God, but also as a member of a spiritual society, gathered together in the name of Jesus…not an accidental or voluntary union which has grown up of itself: it is a union designed beforehand, appointed from the beginning by God, and plainly contemplated and required in every page of the New Testament Scriptures.”1
One of the strongest themes in Patristic and Medieval theology was the importance of the Church as a visible institution. The original evangelicals, i.e. the confessional Protestants of the sixteenth-century Reofrmation, were “a people of the book” and also a people of the church. American evangelicalism, however, has a mixed record on the doctrine of the Church. Though the church was still relatively important for most segments of evangelicalism through most of the 19th century, its importance was slipping. By the middle of this century, evangelicalism had virtually lost any notion of the church as a visible institution. It has not always been so. For the better part of Christian history, the doctrine of the Church has been considered a central part of the Christian confession.
The Apostles’ Creed says:
I believe the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins…. 2
Remember that these clauses in the Creed come under the heading of the Holy Spirit. In the conception of the Creed, the “holy catholic” church is an assembly under the Holy Spirit.
A key to a balanced ecclesiology is to keep together the “one,” that is the “church universal” (holy catholic church) and the “many,” that is, church particular or communion of the saints. A well-known 16th century Protestant catechism describes the holy catholicity of the church thus:
That, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself to everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of the same.3
It handles the particular under “communion:”
What do you understand by the ‘communion of saints’?
First, that believers, one and all, as members of the Lord Jesus Christ, are partakers with Him in all His treasures and gifts; secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members.4
According to God’s Word the gathering of God’s people is a different sort of association from most other groups. There are very few associations we are compelled to join. Of course, from a political or legal perspective membership or association with the Church of Christ is voluntary. The government cannot force you to subscribe to a confession or to join the Church. It is God’s Word, not the state, which forces us to unite with the church.
First of all, we have to know we mean when we talk about the Church. We must define our terms. The English word “Church” can be traced back through the Scots “Kirk” to the Middle English Chirche, perhaps to a late Greek expression Kyriakon, that which belongs to the Lord, or the Lord’s House.
Israel and the New Covenant Church
In order to properly understand the biblical doctrine of the church, it is crucial to get to grips with the relations between Israel and the New covenant people of God. The fundamental questions is this: How are sinners saved and how were they saved under the old covenant?
If we say, with the Protestant Reformation, “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone,” then we will have to minimize the essential differences between the Old Covenant people of God and the New. That is, the difference is not that between works and grace since all sinners who have been saved, have been saved by grace. Rather, it is a question of administration or economy. How has God administered salvation in the various epochs of redemption?
What is the Covenant?
The term covenant is a very frequent word in the Bible.5 Covenant describes the way God relates to His people. It is generally said to involve the notion of a binding oath between Yahweh and his people in which he promises his people to be their God and his people, in response to God’s grace, swear complete fidelity to Yahweh. The covenant is signed and sealed in blood.
We can better understand the biblical notion of covenant if we substitute the word promise. God made a promise of salvation to Adam, after the fall, in the garden.6 He made a promise to save Noah through the flood and to preserve him and us after it.7 He promised to be Abraham’s God and a God to Abraham’s children.8 God’s covenant with believers is so important that it is nearly impossible to correctly understand the Bible while ignoring the covenant.9 In Genesis 17 Yahweh speaks to Abraham about his covenant:
I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner–those who are not your offspring….My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Gen 17:10-14).
Is There Still A Covenant?
Just as God made a covenant with Abraham, he promised a New Covenant to come later.10 He made this New Covenant in the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.11 The Lord Jesus consciously and specifically established “The New covenant.”12 The Apostle Paul said he was “a servant of the New covenant.”13 How can this be if there is but one covenant of Grace? The New Covenant is new as contrasted with Moses, but not as contrasted with Abraham.14
This is the point of Galatians 3:1-29; 4:21-31, and 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 where Paul says that the glory of the Old Covenant was fading but the glory of the New Covenant is permanent. The message of Hebrews chapters 3-10 is that the Old Covenant (under Moses) was preparatory to the New Covenant. The fundamental theme of Hebrews 11 is that Abraham had a New Covenant faith, that is, he anticipated a heavenly city and to the redemption which we have in Christ.15
The Promise Remains, The Circumstances Change
Now that the promise of the covenant has been fulfilled the circumstances of the covenant have changed. We who live on this side of the Cross view things differently because we live in the days of fulfillment. In biblical terms, we live in the “last days.” 16 We have the completed Bible and the gift of the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit. 17
The Old Covenant was designed to direct attention forward to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.18 The old signs like Passover and circumcision along with the other bloody sacrifices and ceremonies have been replaced. Yet we still live in covenantal arrangement with God, and the bloody pictures of Christ have been replaced with un-bloody signs (reminders) and seals.
Why is the Covenant Important?
The covenant of Grace unifies all of Scripture.19 God made a salvation promise to Adam and Eve.20 God repeated that promise to Abraham. Paul calls Abraham “the father” of all believers.21 All believers are saved because of God’s faithfulness to his Covenant promise.22
How Were Covenants Made?
Circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant given to Abraham in Genesis 17:10-14. The covenant and the sign are so closely identified that the Lord calls the sign of circumcision, “My covenant.” Anyone who did not take the sign would be “cut off” from the covenant people.23 In the Old Covenant Scriptures the phrase “to make a covenant” is expressed with the words: “to cut a covenant,” that is, to perform the cutting away of the foreskin of the penis of the uncircumcised adult male or the eight-day old Hebrew infant. 24 To be circumcised is to be identified with God and to be “cut off” from the world and to be included with God’s people.
In the Old covenant, implied in the act of circumcision is the taking of an oath: “If I do not keep the covenant, may the destruction which is illustrated by the cutting of the foreskin, actually happen to me.” 25 This is why the Lord speaks of covenant breakers being “cut off” in Genesis 17:14. In Exodus 4:25, 12:15,30:33,38; Leviticus 7:20-25; Psalm 37; Ezekiel 14:8-17, 25:7-16. Scripture uses the same verb for “cutting off” of covenant breakers as it does for the “cutting” of a covenant in Genesis 15:18.
Yahweh placed Himself under this curse in Genesis 15:17-21. Yahweh sealed his promise to Abraham by passing between the pieces as a sign that he would keep His promise to Abraham. Yahweh received the curse upon Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ who was “stricken by God, smitten by Him and afflicted…cut off from the land of the living” Galatians 3:13, 14. 2 Corinthians 5:21 clearly teach that Jesus became sin and endured the curses of covenant breaking for those who believe.26
What are the Relations Between the Covenants?
The Lord Jesus has fulfilled the bloody signs and types of circumcision and has replaced them with un-bloody signs.27 2 Timothy 2:11; Romans 6:2, 5, 6, 8 teach that, by faith, all believers died with Christ. If Christ died an accursed death and we died with Christ, then by faith in Christ we have undergone the curse implied by circumcision. Colossians 2:20; Philippians 3:3 explicitly say that by faith, in Christ’s death, all believers have undergone circumcision. Romans 6:2-10 says that we are baptized into Christ’s death. That is, when the sign of the covenant is applied, the recipient is identified with Jesus’ death and the cursedness of Christ.
The main difference is that what the Old Covenant promised through ceremonies and sacrifices, the New Covenant reveals as fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. Part of our problem as late 20th century believers is that we are largely ignorant of the Old Covenant Scriptures. This was not the case among first century believers. The New Covenant Scriptures refer constantly to the Old Covenant. Romans 3:21, 9:27, 11:13-32; Luke 24:27; Hebrews 9:15, and the whole of ch.11 all teach that the Covenant of Grace instituted by God through Abraham continues into the New Covenant. God’s Word clearly teaches that New Covenant believers are the New Covenant Israel.28 Everyone who believes is the true son of Abraham.29 Romans 9:6-9 teaches that a Jew is one who loves the Messiah Jesus and trusts him only for salvation.30 Thus we cannot say that there are two completely different ‘churches’ or peoples of God. Paul teaches clearly in Romans 2:29; 4 [all]; 9:6-9 and Jesus teaches explicitly in John 8:31-58 no one is saved by being Jewish.31
The Church in the Old Covenant
In the Old Covenant Scriptures the primary Hebrew word for Church Qahal refers to the regular, visible, institutional, assembly of God’s people. There is another Hebrew phrase ‘Edah but this phrase is usually synonymous with Qahal . The difference between the two words is that the Qahal usually refers to the assembly of God’s people and the ‘Edah describes the people of God whether or not they are assembled.
The Covenant Community Assembled Before Sinai
In the Old Covenant the Qahal usually gathered for religious purposes, though sometimes for other purposes like national defense, which is a religious activity in the Old Covenant. One of the clearest texts for understanding Qahal is Deuteronomy 9:10. Moses says,
Yahweh gave to me the two tablets of stone written by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments Yahweh proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of Ha Qahal (i.e., the assembly, See Deut 10:4; 18:16).
The Old Covenant body of believers are those who were assembled and constituted the people of God by the voice of God Himself. Just as when at Creation God spoke and all things came into being, at Sinai, God speaks and creates His Covenant people out of refugees from Egypt. God creates them by fiat. God declares that He will be their God and they will be His people. They become a Covenant Qahal.
Not only was the assembly of Israel gathered before Him: the holy ones of heaven attended the Lord of Hosts (Ps 68:7,17; Heb 2:2). Sinai became the throne of the God of heaven and earth; assembled around Him were all the holy ones of heaven; gathered at His feet were his saints, the holy ones of earth (Deut 33:3).32
The Qahal is a solemn assembly because it stands before God (Deut. 31:31; 23:3; Judges 20:2; 2 Chronicles 20:13). The gathering of the Qahal is sacred because it is the duly constituted gathering of the Covenant people of God to hear the voice of God and even to meet with God Himself at the door of the tent of meeting (Josh 8:34,35; Deut 31:11,12; Exodus 34:29-35). It is when Israel is convened as the Qahal that God Himself dwells in their midst (Ex 29:42-46).
The Covenant Community is a Worshipping Assembly
In the era of David and Solomon the “great assembly” of the Qahal is convened by David to secure Solomon succession to the throne (1 Chron 28:1,2,8; 29:10,20). In 1 Chronicles 29:10 David blesses the Lord before the Qahal and in turn the whole Qahal blesses the Lord. The Psalms, according the headings, were written for use in the Qahal. In Psalm 68 we read of a parallel between worship in heaven and worship on Sinai. The impression is that just as God is in the midst of His Hosts in heaven, He was in the midst of His people at Sinai.
Later, part of the Joel’s promise of restoration of the people of God includes the sounding of the trumpet, a call to worship, the convening of the Qahal for solemn service (Joel 2.15-17). These are but a few examples of the visible, duly constituted, stated, formal, assembly of God’s people as the Qahal to worship and to praise the God of the Covenant and to hear His Word. The center of the life of the Old Covenant community of the redeemed was the tabernacle. In Exodus 29:42-46 we see how God arranged to meet with His people at the Tabernacle to speak to them, where His Shekinah Glory-Spirit would be present. It was there Aaron and his sons were to serve as priests. As a result,
[t]hey will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.
On the whole, the use of Qahal in the Old Covenant Scriptures points to a concrete conception of the Covenantal Community of God’s people, who, when gathered together, constitute the Covenant Assembly. Everyone who was eligible needed to gain admittance into this assembly by the taking of the Covenant sign of circumcision (Gen 17:9-14). Circumcision is a self conscious identification with the people of God. Everyone who received the sign of the Covenant was responsible for all the law of the Lord. Everyone who did not take the sign of the Covenant was liable to the judgment-wrath of God. (See Exodus 4:18-26).
The sum of God’s Covenant with His people is this: to be their God and a God to their children (Gen 17:7,8; Acts 2:39; Revelation 21:3). An important part of God’s Covenantal relations with His people include meeting with them in a locale as the Assembly of God’s people. Keeping in mind the promises of Jeremiah 31:31-34, that God would come even closer to His people in the New Covenant, then we would expect the Qahal or Ekklesia to play an even more important role in the life of God’s people in the period after the Old Covenant.
The Ekklesia in the New Covenant
Where Hebrew says Qahal referring to the visible assembly of God’s people, the Greek Scriptures have Ekklesia. A good example is Deutronomy 23:2,4 which uses the phrase Qahal Yaweh which the Greek translation of the Old Covenant translates Ekklesia Kyriou or “Church of the Lord.” 33
The New Covenant Assembly of the Lord
In the New Covenant Scriptures the word Qahal is translated by the Greek word Ekklesia (assembly) and sometimes with the verb Ekklektoi (“elect,” Revelation 17:14). Ekklesia occurs over 100 times in the New Covenant Scriptures. Usually it refers to a local identifiable circle of believers. In example: .”..great fear seized the whole Ekklesia…” Acts 5:11. Paul speaks about the “Churches in the province of Asia,” “the Churches” in Ciclicia, Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Judea (cf. Acts 15:41; 1 Corinthians 16:1,19; Galatians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Corinthians 8:1; Galatians 1:21). These passages refer to local assemblies. When the New Covenant Scriptures speak about the Church .”..it becomes apparent that the notion of assembly or congregation is in the forefront.”34
The largest number of occurrences of the word Ekklesia are classified by Murray as “instances of particularization” where Ekklesia is used to describe the Church in Jerusalem, (Acts 8:1; 11:22) Antioch, (Acts 11:26; 14, 27; 15:3) Ephesus, (Acts 20:17, 28), at Cenchrea, (Romans 16:1), in Laodicia, (Colossians 4:16), and in Thessalonica (1 Thess 1:1). These Churches could also be called “city Churches,” the word Ekklesia is used in the singular to describe the Christians living in that city.
Sometimes Ekklesia is used in the New Covenant Scriptures to describe a gathering of believers meeting in someone’s house. This is true in 1 Corinthians 16.19 .”.. Ekklesia that meets at their house.” In Romans 16.23 Paul seems to indicate he had been worshipping at a house Ekklesia (cf. Philemon 2). There is no evidence from the New Covenant Scriptures that these were not actual, formal assemblies of God’s people.
Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself establishes the visible, New Covenant assembly in Matthew 16.15-19. Jesus asks His disciples for their confession about Him.
‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be hound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Notice that Jesus solicits this confession. This divinely revealed confession given to Peter comes as a sharp contrast to the other confessions about Jesus’ identity. Now that Peter has confessed who Jesus is, Jesus is now confessing who Peter is!
Peter is addressed as “the rock,” but only as a Christ confessing Disciple/Apostle. It is true that in the original Jesus says, “You are Petros?…” then “on this Petra I will build….” Petros is masculine and Petra feminine. The reason for the difference is that Petros is a proper name belonging to Peter. It must be masculine. Petra, on the other hand, does not need to be masculine to describe Peter. Matthew 7:24 uses the word Petra in a to describe a foundational stone. The word Petros is Jesus’ way of describing Peter the Christ confessor.
Peter’s confession is crucial to understanding the passage. Just a few verses later Peter blurts out that Jesus should not be put to death. For that confession Peter is called Satan and Skandalon i.e., the Devil and the rock of offense (cf. Isaiah 8:14. Both passages are a play on words. In the first passage the play is on Petros and Petra and in this passage the play is on the relationship between Skandalon and Peter’s Aramaic name, Cephas which was the word used to describe the rock of offense. So, Peter the question is not whether Peter will be a rock, the question is, what sort of rock will he be? When he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Peter is a Christ confessing foundation stone. When he fails to confess, he is a stumbling stone (temptation) and Satan.
According Acts 4:11 Jesus is the cornerstone. According to 1 Peter 2.4-8 Jesus is the rock of offense. 2 Corinthians 10:4 says that “The rock was Christ.” Consistently in the Old Covenant God is said to be the “rock of my salvation.”35 Only those who confess that Jesus is the Christ are united to Him. So, it is only because he is united to Christ by faith that a Christ confessing apostle is said to be a rock.
The authority of the keys is not given to Peter alone. In Matthew 18:18 and in John 20:21-23 Jesus gives the same authority to the whole company of Christ confessing apostles. So in his confession of Jesus as Messiah, Peter represents the other Apostles, whom Paul calls the “foundation of the Church” (Ephesians 2:20). This passage echoes 1 Timothy 3:15 where Paul says that the Ekklesia is the pillar and ground of the truth and the “fullness of him who fills all in all.”36
A Mixed but Disciplined Visible Assembly of Saints
The visible church is always going to be a “mixed” assembly.
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'” (Matt 13:25-30).
It is not, however, to be an undisciplined assembly. In Matthew 18:15-20 the visible assembly of the saints is presupposed. The problem is what to do when a brother sins. The solution involves confrontation by fellow believers. Our Lord’s instructions to the Church.
If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church, and if he refuses even to listen to the Church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
The Lord says, “tell it to the Ekklesia.” It is impossible to conceive of how this could be accomplished outside the realm of the visible local, or associated regional assembly. It should be remembered that, at this point in the history of redemption, God’s people had only the Old Covenant Scriptures and there was no developed conception yet of a universal Ekklesia beyond the Qahal of the Old Covenant. To read “Church universal” here for Ekklesia would involve stretching the text beyond its limits.
Also implied by this verse is a stable membership. Were this Ekklesia envisioned as a floating conglomeration of free agents, then the declaration regarding the offender would have little or no effect. If there is no visible Church body assumed, who would make the determination regarding guilt? To whom would the announcement be made? One might as well shout the results of the congregation’s discipline process to the wind.
Jesus Himself here lays the foundation for the visible Church. Jesus self-consciously established the organization of the visible Church.37 This view is reinforced by John 20:21-23 where Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and gives the disciples/Apostles the authority to bind and loose sins. Murray says,
When Jesus speaks of ‘my Church’, he is thinking of those gathered and knit together after the pattern provided by the Old Testament as the people for his possession, as the community which he is to constitute, and which stands in relation to him comparable to the congregation of the Lord in the Old Testament.”38
The Holy Catholic Church
Paul wrote these lines in a circular letter to local Churches in Asia Minor beginning with the Ephesian Christians. This letter and other Apostolic letters along with the Old Covenant were read in the weekly gathering of Christians. No New Covenant writer ever addressed letters to the Church “invisible” as such. New Covenant epistles are always addressed or sent to at least one or more persons or congregations.
The whole idea of a universal or “catholic” Church consisting of all believers of all times is dependent upon the existence of local bodies of believers. To speak of universals without particular constituents means that the universal does not exist. It is a figment of the imagination. Murray writes,
…whether the church is viewed as the broader communion of the saints or as the unit or assembly of believers in a home or town or city, it is always a visible observable entity.39
I can speak to you about the whole of a given automobile. But if, when you ask me if mirrors or doors belong to this car, I say no and then it turns out that there are no tires, no chassis, no engine etc. then you have a right to say to me: It sounds to me as if your car does not exist! Of course you would be right.
The same thing is true then of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12. We cannot exercise our gifts in the Body of Christ outside of the local Church. There must be some group somewhere exercising these gifts. This is the only way that we can understand Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian Ekklesia regarding cliques in the Church (1 Cor 3:1-9) and to expel the immoral person among them who was unrepentant (1 Cor 5:1-12). Church discipline presupposes the existence of the visible organized (even official) Church. This line of argument is especially relevant in view of chapter 11.
We have been arguing throughout that the by definition the Qahal or the Ekklesia is those who are constituted as the visible, institutional, Covenant community. Yet we know from the history of the Old Covenant that there were those in the Qahal who were not partakers in Christ by faith. Thus it is not impossible for there to be hypocrisy in the visible, assembled, institutional Church (2 Tim 2:20; 1 John 2:19; Hebr 6:4-12).
The Body is the Qahal
In Ephesians 2:12 Paul implies that those who belonged to the visible community in the Old Covenant were in a certain sense (by virtue of being united to the Covenant people) Christ’s, while Gentiles by the fact of their race were not. Certainly not every circumcised Jew was the true–Spiritual–seed of Abraham, yet this does not stop Paul from identifying the whole community with Christ.
Another way to think about the relation of the universal to the particular in reference to the Church is to use the word “generic” for the word universal. In the Matthew passage especially, the usage of the word Ekklesia is “generic.“40 The reference is not to any one local assembly, but this does not mean that it is not spoken to the visible community of God’s Covenant people. Other examples of such a “generic” use which clearly refers to visible assemblies considered collectively are 1 Corinthians 15:59; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3.6 where Paul describes how he “laid waste “the Church.” (See 1 Cor 12:28; 10:32; see the arguments relating to connectionalism below).
There is strong continuity between the Ekklesia of the New Covenant and the Qahal of the Old Covenant. There does not seem to be warrant in the New Covenant for describing the New Covenant Church as exclusively a “spiritual” Church as if it were therefore “ethereal” or less concrete than the Old Covenant “Church.”
We must not think of the Church as existing apart from the visible assembly of God’s people. There are “generic” or “universal” connotations to the term Ekklesia but our understanding of the “invisibility” of the Ekklesia is tempered by remembering that the Ekklesia considered as the (Holy) Spiritual “body of Christ” is made up of Christians united to the visible, institutional Ekklesia.
Assembly of the Ascended Lord
The book of Acts provides several instructive passages proving the existence of a New Covenant Qahal gathered around the Word of God. Stephen (Acts 7:38), in the course of his defense appeals to Moses whom he describes as being with the Ekklesia in the desert. Stephen sees a great deal of continuity between the New Covenant Church with the Old Covenant Community.
Luke says that news of the progress of the gospel at Antioch reached “the ears of the Ekklesia ” at Jerusalem (Acts 11:22). In vs.26 we read of Barnabas and Saul meeting with the Ekklesia in Antioch. These two uses seem to favor a visible assembly of people with a stable (if growing!) constituency, similar to the Qahal in the Old Covenant.
In Acts 12:1 Herod arrests (literally) “some from the Church….” Interestingly the NIV renders this phrase “some who belonged to the Church.” This is a correct translation. How else could Herod arrest Christians? They were identified by their confession of Christ and their attendance at the visible assembly of God’s people. Again, Luke supposes that we understand a stable constituency here.
Thus in 12:5 the people praying for Peter’s release from prison are identified as the “ Ekklesia .” In vs.12 we discover this Ekklesia to be a group of people gathered together in prayer. Acts 13.1 records the names of several office holders in the Ekklesia at Antioch. The Lord instructs them to set apart (ordain or sanctify) Paul and Barnabas for the work to which He had called them. In so doing these officers placed their hands on Paul and Barnabas and send them off (vs.3). We can only conclude from this passage that Luke is describing the operations of a visible assembled community of believers.
Likewise in Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas are said to be appointing elders in every Ekklesia. When they returned to Antioch (14:27) they gathered the Church and gave a missions report! 16:5 speaks of “Churches” being strengthened in faith and growing in numbers. Upon his arrival at Ephesus (Acts 18:22) Paul greets the Ekklesia. In his farewell address to the Elders of the Ekklesia of Ephesus, Paul exhorts them to keep watch over the Ekklesia of God. Again, unless a visible assembly is envisioned, the “greeting” and the “overseeing” make little sense (Acts 20:28-31).
The Regional Assembly
In other New Covenant passages: Romans 16:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; the Apostle addresses himself to visible assemblies of God’s people in the various regions. Sometimes Paul addresses several Churches in one region such as in 1 Corinthians 16:1,19; 2 Corinthians 8:1; Galatians 1:2; and sometimes he speaks of “Churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:4) or distinguishing local assemblies by background rather than by geography, “Churches of the Gentiles” (Romans 16:4). In these instances the Apostle speaks of the Churches inclusively in the plural. That is, somehow these are individual congregations bound together.
Come to a Better Zion
The writer to the Hebrews (12:18-29) builds his argument for the importance of the visible assembly in the New Covenant by comparing our assembly with the Qahal assembled at Sinai. He tells us that we have not come to Mount Sinai with its fire, darkness, tempest, and trumpet (12:18,19). Instead we have come to the mountain that was the goal of the desert pilgrimage–to Mount Zion. The Mount Zion to which we have come, however, is not the earthly city where Herod’s Temple stood. No, we are come to the Zion above, to the assembly of God in heaven.41
Rather than making the visible assembling together of God’s people less important, the Ekklesia is more important because we now have “the awesome privilege of gathering with the saints and angels with Christ in glory…As we gather we stand in the presence of the Lord.”42
Don’t Forsake the Assembly
Hebrews 10:25 confirms our understanding of 12:18-29. Were it the case that transition to the New Covenant makes the visible, gathered institutional community obsolete, then we would not expect these words. Instead we find a clear and strong exhortation not to take the attitude that we can get along without the Church. God’s Word says:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
If author William Lane is correct about the situation into which this epistle was sent, then these believers were under two threats, one external (the state) and one internal (i.e., Judaizers). The former is most important for our purposes. The reason he mentions the gruesome suffering undergone by Old Covenant (ch. 11) is to encourage his readers persevere.43
Thus it is significant that the author tells theses persecuted Christians not to forsake gathering together. He is calling them to put their very lives on the line by visibly assembling together. To trivialize this passage by saying, “I obey this verse by getting together with my Christian friends” is to do despite to the blood of the martyrs which was shed for the sake of gathering together and worse than that, it is to disobey the Word of God.
Corpus Christi (Christ’s Body)
Sometimes the Church is described not as Ekklesia but as a “body.” Paul writes to the Corinthian Church,
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” and the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor (1 Cor 12:21).
And he goes on to say in verse 27:
Now you are the Body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
The “body” which Paul describes is rightly understood as those who are by faith united with Christ. Put in the language of John 15, the body consists of those branches grafted by faith onto the vine who is Christ. Still the question of the relationship between the “body of Christ” and Church as institute remains. Going back to 1 Corinthians 10:17 may help. Paul teaches that, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of one loaf.”
Though composed of many individuals, the Corinthian Church is united by faith in one Christ. This unity is illustrated by the loaf. In vs.16 he identifies the loaf as our “participation in the body of Christ”
As in chapter 12 the idea of the “body” is closely related to the visible instituted Church in which the Lord’s Supper is administered. The union of the several individual believers with Christ results in visibly unity with one another, illustrated by the Supper.
What Paul’s usage of the image of the “body” in this context shows is that just as the “mystical” (Spiritual) body is necessary to the Ekklesia also the Ekklesia is necessary to the body. Organism (the body) is never contemplated outside of the organization in either the Old Covenant or New Covenant Scriptures. For example, when Paul addresses the Corinthians he does not distinguish between regenerate and unregenerate hearers of the letter (1 Cor 1:1,2). He addresses the entire assembly as if they were all saints. We know however from chapter five that not everyone belonging to the Corinthian Church was sanctified!
The Bride of Christ
In Ephesians 5:23 Paul exhorts husbands to,
love their wives as Christ loved the Ekklesia, His body, of which He is the Savior. Now as the Ekklesia submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
According to 1 Corinthians 11:4 and 14:26-40 the problem is a lack of propriety in worship. Such advice envisions a local body of believers gathered together on a regular basis for worship. The solution is for everything to done decently and in order in worship (cf. 1 Timothy 2:15). The same is true for his rebuke to them regarding their conduct at the Lord’s Table. In 1 Corinthians 14:16 Paul even describes a situation in which a visitor is in Church to worship and does not understand what is taking place! Surely Paul conceives of the Ekklesia as an observable gathering of God’s people, along the lines of the Old Covenant Qahal .
Connectionalism in the New Testament
Closely related to the Biblical understanding of the relationship of the Church Universal to the Church individually considered is the question of connectionalism in the New Covenant. It is often assumed in the American Church that the New Testament Churches were independent of one another and autonomous, that is, subject to no one’s authority but their own. In fact this is less a New Covenant picture than an amalgam of the historic Anabaptist view of the Church with traditional American self reliance.
Connectionalism is sometimes portrayed by its opponents as a Roman Catholic corruption of the true Church. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The First Synod
There are clear New Covenant precedents for regional (and even larger) assemblies of Churches, considered as one “Church.” God gives a mandate for a larger system of Church co-operation and government in Acts 15. A council of Church elders and Apostles was called in Jerusalem to decide the question: what must a Gentile do to enter the church? In verse 19 we see the conclusions of James which the Council adopted:
It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood.
Now look at verse 30 where we see that Apostle Paul and Barnabas have been delegated by the Council to deliver the decree of the council, notice the reaction of the recipients: The men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the Church together, and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message.
Notice the context. The Apostle Paul who received his gospel not from men (Gal 1:12) but directly from the ascended Lord Jesus, is delegated first by the visible, instituted, Church in Antioch to go to Jerusalem. This is no casual gathering of believers which sent Paul and Barnabas, but a rightly ordered gathering whose authority Paul recognized. That means that Paul submitted to the will of the local Church to have this question decided by the larger body. Paul himself was “sent” by the Church. The Apostle recognized that the Lord has given the broader Church authority (derived from the Word of God) to decide questions in the Church according to the Scriptures.
Here is the first regional assembly or general synod. At this synod there were missions reports, speeches, discussion over the meaning of various passages of Scripture and even heated theological argument (vv.7-11) and finally agreement. The assembly concluded that circumcision is not necessary for salvation. Converts were exhorted to avoid sexual immorality and sacrifices offered to idols.
The assembly drafted a letter which was taken around to various Churches and presented as the decision of the body. This is not just an advisory decision. James considered the decision of the Council binding on all those to whom the letter was to be sent. Notice that in verse 22 it is the “whole church” which has sent Paul and Barnabas. Thus the larger assembly assumed that it had authority to delegate Paul and Barnabas as ambassadors for the larger, visible, connected, Church which had arrived at a unified conclusion.
Because the decision was binding the Churches received with joy, since now Gentiles could be let into the Church without the whole Old Covenant dietary law being imposed on them. These churches were in some official arrangement so that the delegates to this council had real authority, just as the Elders and Pastors in 1 Timothy have real authority derived from Scripture.
Another consideration in favor of connectionalism, that is, organized visible connections between local Churches is the way Luke uses the singular Ekklesia to describe several bodies at once. Acts 8:3 says that Paul was going about destroying the Church in Jerusalem, which consisted of more than one congregation, yet is spoken of as one body.
Another important passage is Acts 9:31. There is a difficulty here because there is a textual question. The Textus Receptus (the Greek Text behind the Authorized Version of 1611) and the Majority Text (the Greek text behind the New King James Version) reads Churches.” The oldest and most reliable manuscripts, however, read “Church.”44
It is significant that Luke uses the singular to describe several local Church bodies in the region. He apparently feels comfortable speaking of several Churches as though they are one. Luke speaks this way because he conceives the various Churches as being bound together in unity under the authority of the Scriptures.
Offices in the Church45
Another indication that the visible, local and even regional, institutional, assembly was important in the New Covenant organization of the Ekklesia is the establishment of authoritative offices in the Church. Contrary to some views which say that all such offices are man-made, there is clear divine and Biblical warrant for three offices in the Church of Jesus Christ. How could the Apostles establish (Acts 6) offices and describe the function of these offices in the visible, institutional Church, if there is no such thing as offices or an institutional Church?
In 1 Timothy 3:1-11 Paul lays out specific requirements for those who aspire to fulfill the office of overseer/elder. He does the same thing in Titus 1:5-9. Hebrews 13:7-17 also describes the type of relationship expected in the New Covenant Church between elders and the congregation. In James 5:14 the Word of God instructs those who are physically ill to call for the elders of the Church to come and pray with him and anoint him with oil.
1 Peter 5:1-4 addresses those who fulfill the office of elder in the Church. We know this because Peter identifies himself as a fellow elder. It seems unlikely that he is referring to his age. Vs.2 instructs them to be shepherds of the flock, not to be greedy, (vs.3) not to lord it over those whom God has put under them, to be examples to the flock, (vs.4) to remember their accountability to the Divine Shepherd who will one day make the final pastoral visit.
Scripture also speaks clearly about the office of “deacon.” The Apostles instituted this office in Acts 6:1-7 as a measure to allow them to better use their time to advance the gospel. As with the office of elder Paul lays out specific guidelines for the office of deacon in 1 Timothy 3:12,13. It seems difficult to imagine that the Lord, through His Apostles, established these offices if there were no visible Qahal or Ekklesia in which to serve.
Membership in the Local Church-Body
We can complete the last part of the task by looking at a couple of new considerations as well as drawing relevant conclusions from our earlier arguments regarding the nature and unity of the Church.
There is a widespread notion that a truly Spirit-led congregation would not keep anything so earthy as membership records. This is an unfounded and unbiblical assumption which does not square with biblical history and teaching.
In the Old Covenant, God is a bookkeeper. In Exodus 32:32 we see a very interesting phrase. In a prayer, Moses pleads with God not to blot him out of “the Book you have written.” The Lord replies to Moses that He will indeed blot anyone who sins out of His “Book.”46 David declares in Psalm 9.5 that the Lord has “blotted out” the name of his enemies forever.47 In Psalm 40:7 David is assured that his righteousness is written on God’s scroll.
Many of these same themes regarding the “Book of Life” are evident in the Revelation of the Apostle John. To the Church in Sardis the Lord Jesus writes that He will not “blot out his name from the Book of Life” who is faithful and obedient to the Lord. Revelation 13:8; 17:8; 20:12,15; also refer to the Book of Life. It would seem that we are to conceive of a divinely kept book in which are recorded the names of all believers of all ages. This is not to say that there is an actual book, though there may well be.
In Psalm 69:28 David prays for the utter destruction of enemies and for them to be blotted out of “the Book of Life” and not to be listed with the righteous. In this same Psalm vv.9,10 David turns from the “book” to speak twice of the Qahal (which is translated in the LXX with Ekklesia and Synagogue (cf. Deuteronomy 9:10,14 where these two ideas are also closely connected). There is a close connection in David’s mind between the Qahal and the “book.”
Because God is revealed as a book keeper His Covenant people were also (according to the commandments of God) also book keepers.
There is significant evidence that in the Old Covenant there were membership rolls with the names of all the Covenant families and the Covenant heads of households. Genesis 5:1ff. speaks of the “book of the generations.” Moses worked from existing books in compiling his (selective) genealogies. This idea of membership roll figured conspicuously in the life of the Qahal. Later after the exile when the beginnings of the Synagogue can be traced, there is archeological evidence that there were membership rolls there as well. It took at least twelve men in good standing in the community to form a synagogue.
God commanded Moses in Exodus 17:14 to write down the destruction of the Amelakites because without this record there would not be any. In turn (Deutronomy 25.19), God will “blot out” the Amelakites. In Exodus 24:7 we read of the “Book of the Covenant” which contained the laws by which God’s Covenant people were to live. God commanded Moses to take a census of the people and to make a record of them (Exodus 30:11). Psalm 87:6 speaks of a “register of the peoples” (NIV). Ezekiel 13:9 speaks of a “register of the house of Israel” (NASB). There was a written record of the descendents of Aaron (Nu 3:10). It would seem to be beyond controversy that God’s people kept written records during the Mosaic theocracy. The question remains then whether similar practices continued into the New Covenant era.
There is a great deal of unity and continuity between the Old Covenant conception of the Qahal and the New Covenant Ekklesia. Thus there is good reason to suspect that there is continuity in the practice of record keeping. Remember that in both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, one had to join the visible assembly and take the sign of the Covenant.
The most obvious examples of this sort of record keeping are the genealogies of Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. We know from Acts that the Apostles met first in the temple, and then later during missionary journeys, in the synagogue. The organization of the synagogue did play some roll in the beginning of the visible Church. We see in Luke 4:18ff. that there was a reading of the Scriptures and an exposition of the Scriptures in the Synagogue. This practice was continued in the early New Covenant Church.
Another piece of evidence which adds to the presumption of Church membership in the New Covenant Church is the mention in Acts 16:5 that the Church grew greatly in numbers. If the Church in the New Covenant largely equals the Qahal of the Old Covenant and if it grew in numbers then we can fairly say that these converts ‘joined’ the Church.
There is positive evidence of record keeping (membership lists) in the New Covenant Church. The problem in the daily distribution of bread in Acts 6:1 assumes some sort of record keeping of eligible widows. In 1 Timothy 5:9-16 Paul speaks explicitly about a list of names of Christian widows who were eligible for financial assistance from the Church. He even lays out the qualifications to be on the list. If the Church kept such lists for financial aid, can we reasonably assume that these widows were not on a membership roll? Moreover we cannot help but notice that again Paul’s instructions regarding widows presupposes some sort of organized visible body of Christ who administered this aid to its members.
The Church is the people of God assembled together under the authority of the Word of God for worship, instruction, and mutual edification. By his Word through the Apostles, God has ordained that we unite together to accomplish these purposes. The organized Church is not a mistake, but instead, the Biblical and Apostolic institution for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
*I owe the expression “Christ Confessing Covenant Community” to my dear friend Derke Bergmsa.
1 James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1848), 2. This essay has been strongly influenced by an early version of the material which is now published in Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995).
2 The Latin text says, “Credo in Spiritum sanctum; sanctam ecclesiam catholicam.” Historically Protestants have sometimes been reluctant to repeat the preposition “in.” Properly one believes ‘in’ the Spirit, because God is the proper object of faith. One believes the holy catholic (universal) church when she speaks as such, as in the Creeds.
3 Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Q.54.
4 Ibid., Q.55.
5 The division of the English Bible into two “Testaments” is somewhat misleading. A testament is a means of disposing of property after death. The basis for the use of the word testament lies in the traditional interpretation of Hebrews 9:15-16 which appears to refer to a testament rather than a covenant. It is possible that Hebrews 9:15-16 refers to the testamentary disposition of an estate. There is, however, an equally probable interpretation of this passage which understands it to refer to the making of a covenant.
First, one must remember that the testamentary concept is certainly not the primary in the Biblical notion of a covenant. The OT term is Berith or Covenant which occurs more than 250 times throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures. Nearly all major O.T. scholars agree that the Covenant is a major unifying theme of the Old Covenant Scriptures. In the New Covenant Scriptures the Greek word for Covenant (Diatheke) occurs 33 times. The idea, however, of the Berith/Diatheke (covenant) underlies all of the New Covenant Scriptures and covenantal language is common in the N.T. See Acts 2:39; Acts 7:1-53; Romans 4:17, 2 Corinthians 3:7-17; Galatians ch’s 3 and 4 [all]; Hebrews 7:22; ch.8 [all]; 9 [all]; 10:16,29; 12:24; 13:20.
Second, it should be noted that the language of Hebrews 9 closely parallels the Covenant making language in the Old Covenant where covenants are ‘cut’ and enforced through the (symbolic-ritual) death of the covenant maker. Thus Hebrews says that the covenant is not in force while the covenant maker is alive because a covenant maker had to ‘die’ in the process. When in Gen. 15.9-17 Yahweh passed through the pieces in the torch or those men in Jeremiah 34.18-19 walked between the pieces , they ‘died’ symbolically. When Christ died in fact he did so taking on the curse of covenant breakers. In this view the word translated testament in Hebrews 9.15-16 is more accurately translated by the English word Covenant. See M. G. Kline, By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids, 1968).
6 Genesis 3.14-16.
7 Genesis 6.18; 9:9-17.
8 Genesis 15:1-18; 17 [all]; 1 Chronicles 16:16; Ps 105:8; Acts 3:25; 7 [all]; Romans 4 [all]; 9 [all]; Galatians 3 [all].
9 The Biblical teaching of the covenant is perhaps the sharpest dividing line between the Baptist and Reformed understandings of the Bible. Baptist scholars do write about the covenant. Reformed scholars, however, have been working out the relations between the covenant of grace and baptism since Huldrych Zwingli wrote on baptism in 1525. For a notable attempt to synthesize the Biblical teaching on the covenant with a Baptist position see Paul Jewett’s article Baptism, in The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Marshallton, 1964), 2.517-26.
10 Jeremiah 31.32,33; Ezekiel 34:35.
11 Luke 22:20; 2 Corinthians 3:7-18; Hebrews 8:1-10:18.
12 Luke 22:20.
13 2 Corinthians 3:6.
14 Luke 1:54,55,72,73; Acts chapter 7.
15 1 Peter 1:10-12.
16 Hebrews 1:2; 1 Peter 1:20.
17 John 14:25-27; 15:26,27.
18 This is why the Bible speaks of ‘types’ and ‘shadows.” See Romans 5:14 (NIV-uses “pattern”); 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Hebrews 8 [all].
19 Compare Jeremiah 31.31-34 with Hebrews 7.22, chapter 8, 9:15, 10:24.
20 See Genesis 3:14-16. Jesus fulfilled this promise by his death on the Cross.
21 Romans 4:11,17.
22 Ephesians 2:1-22, gentiles were brought into covenant relationship with God by faith; compare Romans 11:17-24.
23 God nearly took Moses’ life because he failed to circumcise his second son! See Exodus 4:24-26. On the threats attached to circumcisions see Genesis 17:14.
24 Genesis 15.18, Exodus 24.8, 34.27; Deuteronomy 4.23,5.2, 9.9.
25 For a clear example of this curse bearing see the book of Jeremiah. Repeatedly God prosecutes Israel for failing to live up to the “terms of the covenant.” In 34: 17-20 the Lord says, “The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf. I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beast s of the earth.” This is a direct re-enactment of the covenant-oath ceremony of Genesis 15:8-21. God graciously, sovereignly enters into a covenant with his people, i.e., “I will be your God, you will be my people.” That Covenant-oath-promise is always sealed in blood. This is a common practice of the Ancient Near Eastern world. See K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (Downers Grove, 1966); M. G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids, 1972); ibid, Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids, 1963); George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, 1955). This is not just an Old Covenant occurrence. In Galatians 5:12, Paul wishes this very curse upon enemies of the gospel.
26 See the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Isaiah 53:4,8; Hebrews 13:12; see the section above on being “cut off” from the covenant. See also Deuteronomy 21:22,23.
27 Hebrews 9:11-10:1.
28 Ephesians 2:1-13 3:6; 1 Peter 2:9,10, 4:17.
29 Romans 4:11,17.
30 1 Corinthians 10:3; Ephesians 2:8-9.
31 Galatians 5:2-6.
32 E. P. Clowney, Living in Christ’s Church (Philadelphia, 1986), 9.
33 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. s.v. Qahal.
34 J. Murray, “The Nature and Unity of The Church,” The Collected Writings of John Murray 4 vols (Edinburgh, 1976-82), 1.323.
35 See Deuteronomy 32.4-37 2 Samuel 22.47; Psalm 18; 42.9; 62.2,6,7.
36 Ephesians 3.23. See. Acts 5.1-11, 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 7.5-13 for examples of the use of the “keys.”
37 See H. Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, ch.8.
38 Murray, “Nature and Unity…” p.323.
39 “Nature and Unity….,” 326.
40 Murray, 323.
41 Clowney, Christ’s Church, .11.
42 Ibid, p.12.
43 W. L. Lane, Call to Commitment: Responding to the Message of Hebrews (Nashville, 1985).
44 Used in translations such as the NIV, NASB, ASV.
45 For a clear and helpful discussion of the threefold structure of the special offices in Scripture see Derke Bergsma, “Prophets, Priests and Kings: Biblical Offices,” in John Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church (Wheaton: Crossways, 1998).
46 See 2 Kings 23:21.
47 See Deuteronomy 9:14
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