The first question which naturally arises is regarding the meaning which ought to be attached to the word “Church.” Different societies or associations of Christians are found claiming to themselves, and denying to others, the character and privileges of a Church of Christ; and opinions widely differing from each other are held as to the meaning of the designation.
Many, perhaps indeed most, of the controversies which have arisen in connection with ecclesiastical theology, are to be traced back to fundamental differences of opinion regarding the essential nature and character of that society which Christ has instituted. The different or opposite notions which men have professed to gather from Scripture, in regard to the origin and essential principles of the Christian Church, have necessarily led to conclusions widely different in regard to its functions, its authority, its ordinances, and its government. It is highly important, therefore, to lay down at the outset those scriptural principles as to the nature and character of the Church of Christ, which may prove to us guiding principles in our subsequent investigations into its powers, and the offices it is appointed to discharge. And the first question which naturally arises is regarding the meaning which ought to be attached to the word “Church.” Different societies or associations of Christians are found claiming to themselves, and denying to others, the character and privileges of a Church of Christ; and opinions widely differing from each other are held as to the meaning of the designation. In such circumstances we must have recourse to the Word of God, in order that, by an examination of its statements, we may ascertain in what sense, or in what senses, the term Church is to be understood by us.
The word ἐκκλησια, which is translated Church in our version of the New Testament, in its primary meaning denotes any assembly gathered together from a promiscuous multitude, whether it be or be not regularly organized, and whether it be for civil or ecclesiastical purposes. Examples both in classical and inspired writers are at hand to prove the extensive meaning of the term; and the same wide signification belongs to the corresponding word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament (qahal). In the application of the term to secular assemblies, we find it used to signify the city council, convened in an orderly manner by the magistrate for the determination of civil matters; as in Acts 19, where the town-clerk of Ephesus is represented as addressing the citizens: “If Demetrius, and the craftsmen who are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open, and there are deputies: let them implead one another. But if ye inquire anything concerning other matters, it shall be determined (ἐν τῃ ἐννομῳ ἐκκλησιᾳ) in a lawful convention.” In a similar application of the term to secular assemblies, we find it employed to denote a riotous assemblage of people, gathered together in a disorderly crowd, for purposes of tumult; as in the same chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, when it is said, in regard to the mob who assaulted Paul and his companions: “Some therefore cried one thing, and some another, for (ἡ ἐκκλησια) the assembly or crowd was confused.” With this wide use of the term, as applied to secular assemblies, it is plain that the precise signification of the word, in any given instance, is to be gathered from the manner in which it is employed, and from the context. The same is true in regard to the use of the term ἐκκλησια, when applied to sacred or ecclesiastical assemblies of people. Here, too, the range of its application is a wide one; and the precise meaning of the word, in any particular case, must be ascertained from the general sense of the passage and from the context. There are five different but closely allied meanings of the term “Church” to be gathered from Scripture.
Five ways the term “Church” is used in Scripture.
I. The Invisible Church.
I. The word Church signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Saviour.
There are many examples in Scripture of the use of the term in this wide sense. The first occasion on which the word occurs in the New Testament is one of these, when our Lord declares that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church” (Mat. 16:18),—language which plainly refers to the society or association of all those who had believed or should believe in Him. All history proves that particular and local Churches may fall away from the faith into complete and final apostasy. The promise of our Lord can apply to no special community except the universal Church of Christ, invisible to human eye, and known only to His, consisting of all true believers, and of none else. Again, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, we are told that Christ “loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). That society of men for whom Christ died, and who shall, each one of them, be presented at last holy and without spot before God, is plainly a society the members of which no man can number or declare by any external mark; which can be restricted to no geographical locality, and can be recognised by no features visible to the outward eye. It is the society of the elect, and not identical with any outward Church or Churches of whatsoever name. It is the spiritual and invisible Church of the Redeemer, known only to Himself, of which Scripture thus speaks; and in entire accordance with this use of the term Church in Scripture to denote a society comprehending the whole body of the elect, and none else, are other names or titles given to it in the New Testament. The Church is at one time spoken of under the mysterious name of the Bride or Spouse of Christ (Song. 2:10 ff.; 4:7, 9 ff.; Eph. 5:32; Rev. 21:2, 9; 22:17),—an expression which can apply to no local or particular Church—to no society, indeed, at all, measured and recognised by the eye of man under any form, or under all forms, of Christian profession,—but must be intended to mark out those, and those only, who have been espoused to Christ through the holy union of His Spirit with theirs. At another time it is spoken of as “the temple of the Holy Ghost,” “a spiritual house,” “an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:5)—language plainly designed to mark out a society defined by no outward limits, but identical with the whole number of spiritual Christians of whatsoever society throughout the world, who have been quickened by the Spirit.
And, finally, the Church is described as “the body of Christ,” all the members of which are united to Him as the Head of life and influence and grace to them (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 3:6; 4:12, 16; Col. 1:18; 2:19)—a description not applicable to any outward body of professing Christians made up of any or all communions, but only to be realized in that great multitude which no man has seen or numbered, who make up the invisible Church of the Redeemer, and whose names are written in heaven. In these passages, and in many others, we have a society defined and described, which embraces the whole number of Christ’s elect, and none but they,—a society not identical with any known on earth, and not to be recognised by any local names or notes or boundaries,—a society marked out from any other by the possession of certain high and mysterious privileges, and standing in a very close and peculiar relation to Christ, but unseen and unknown of man,—a society whose members are unreckoned and unobserved on earth, but all of whom are numbered and known in heaven. Such is the invisible Church of the Redeemer. “The catholic or universal Church,” says the Confession of Faith, “which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” (WCF 25.1).
II. The Visible Church.
II. The term Church is made use of in Scripture to denote the whole body throughout the world of those that outwardly profess the faith of Christ.
Over and above that unseen society, consisting of the whole number of the elect, who are spiritually united to Christ, there is set forth to us in Scripture another society, externally connected with Christ, and standing out visibly before the eyes of the world. This is the visible Church of Christ, known to men by the outward profession of faith in Him, and by the practice of those Church ordinances and observances which He has appointed for His worshippers. It is not to be identified with the invisible Church, for men may belong to the one society, who do not truly belong to the other; and the relation in which the one body stands to Christ is different from the relation occupied by the other. Neither are the two to be wholly placed in opposition to each other; for they form, not so much two separate Churches, as one Church under two distinct and different characters or aspects,—the invisible Church being spiritually united to Christ, the visible being externally united to Him for the sake of the other. This outward society of professing Christians is frequently spoken of and delineated in Scripture under the term Church. It is spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles, when it is said that “the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). It is spoken of in the Epistle to the Corinthians, when mention is made by Paul of the outward provision which God has made for the order and government and edification of the Church: “And God has set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” (1 Cor. 12:28). It is spoken of again, in reference to the same matter, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, when the same inspired writer says that Christ “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). In such passages, it is plain that a visible society of professing Christians is referred to, known and marked out among men by certain outward ordinances and observances peculiar to them, but not to be confounded with the invisible Church made up of the elect. Under the outward form of the visible Church, the invisible society of true believers may to a great extent lie concealed; but under that outward form there may be multitudes also, not truly members of the body of Christ, and only joined to Him by external profession and external ordinances.