In this article: Bible's use of "ekklesia" Society's use of the word "church" God's use of the word "church" Eternal and External churches The Old Testament "church", Israel Eternal vs. External Israel Eternal vs. External church The church and the gates of Hell Where is truth on earth? No church is 100% true
The Church - what is it and why won't the gates of hell prevail against it?
Bible's use of "ekklesia"
Ultimately, it is not important how you or I use the term "church", but rather it is important to determine how God defines the term "church" and how it is used in His Word.
The Greek word that is typically translated "church" from the New Testament manuscripts is the word "ekklesia".
The word ekklesia means an assembly...an assembly of what? Assembly of people of course.
The word ekklesia can also translated as the word "assembly" as seen in Acts 19:
Acts 19:29 And the whole city was filled with confusion: and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul's companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theatre.
Acts 19:30 And when Paul would have entered in unto the people, the disciples did not allow him.
Acts 19:31 And certain chief men of Asia, which were his friends, sent to him and urged him that he would not venture himself into the theatre.
Acts 19:32 Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly [ekklesia] was confused; and the majority didn't know why they had come together.
Acts 19:33 And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander beckoned with the hand, and would have made his defense unto the people.
Acts 19:34 But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for two hours "Great is Diana of the Ephesians".
Acts 19:35 And when the town clerk had quieted the people, he said, You men of Ephesus, what man is there that doesn't know that the city of the Ephesians is a worshiper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter?
Acts 19:36 Seeing then that these things cannot be spoken against, you ought to be quiet, and to do nothing rashly.
Acts 19:37 For you have brought these men here, which are neither robbers of churches, nor blasphemers of your goddess.
Acts 19:38 Therefore if Demetrius, and the craftsmen which are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open, and there are deputies: let them bring charges against one another.
Acts 19:39 But if you want any thing beyond this, it shall be settled in a lawful assembly [ekklesia].
Acts 19:40 For we are in danger of being called into question for this day's uproar, since there was no cause whereby we may give an account of this disorderly gathering.
Acts 19:41 And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the assembly [ekklesia].
Substitute the word "church" for the word "assembly" in the above passage and see how well the term "church" fits. It is the same Greek word for "church", but it clearly does not mean an assembly of believing Christians here.
What is the modern view of what a Church is? I can see at least four different meanings commonly used for the word. This gets a bit analytical, sorry
about that in advance.
- One can refer a physical building as being a church. It is a place where worshipers gather to worship.
- Church can refer to the actual hour or so long ceremony that takes place at the physical building: i.e. someone may ask "How was church today?"
- It can mean a group of people. It can refer to a local body of people who attend
a ceremony in which God is worshiped. For example, I think that the assembly of people who attend
First Christian Church of New England could be called a church, just as the 7
different churches were referred to in the book of Revelation in chapters 2 and 3,
and throughout the New Testament:
Corinthians I 1:1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,
Corinthians I 1:2 Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:
Thessalonians I 1:1 Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians
In the Corinthians passage above, the church of God is equated to the word "them". Our idea of a church can also mean the group of people who collectively make up Christ's Body as shown below:
Ephesians 1:22 And has put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church,
Ephesians 1:23 Which is his body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.
Romans 12:4 For as we have many members in one body, and all members do not have the same office:
Romans 12:5 So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
Corinthians I 12:12 For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
Corinthians I 12:13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
Corinthians I 12:14 For the body is not one member, but many.
Corinthians I 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
A church could also refer to a group of people who profess the same beliefs: i.e. the United Methodist Church.
- Fourth and finally, the meaning for the word Church seems to be a reference to an "Ecclesiastical organization and authority" - Webster's Dictionary. When I hear of "Church doctrine", this is the meaning for the word "church" that I think of. It seems to be a loosely defined group of people or counsels that have the authority to declare the doctrines of a Church. The Pope is a part of this group in the Catholic Church for which this meaning of the word "Church" would apply.
When the Bible uses the word "church", it uses the third definition given above.
I cannot remember finding references in the Bible where a building is called a
church, nor is the worship ceremony called "church". I cannot recall anywhere
in Scripture where the term "church" refers to an ecclesiastical ruling body
that has the authority over all other local churches. When God uses the term
"church", He is referring to an assembly of God's individual people. The collection
of these people form a church in a local area, and, in a universal sense, they form
the church (the Body) of Christ. This meaning of the word church can be broken down
into three different forms:
- A local "church" would consist of a group of people who make some sort of a profession of faith in Christ. Within this local "church" exists both sheep and wolves or wheat and tares. A clear example of a wolf within a local church would be Jezebel in Revelation2. Another example was the wicked person within the Corinthian church in which Paul had to instruct the church to: Corinthians I 5:13 ...Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. Even among Jesus' own disciples, there existed a wolf (Judas).
- In a very general way, the word "church" could be used to describe the assembly
of all the people who relate to the name of Jesus Christ worldwide. That is any
who would call themselves Christian. This assembly would naturally be the sum of
all the people in the smaller local churches.
As we saw above, wolves and sheep exist in these smaller local churches, so, as a result, they are present in the larger worldwide Christian church. In some cases, a local church in one location is more faithful to Jesus than a local church in another location. Compare the faithful church in Smyrna to the dead church Sardis in Revelation 2 and 3. Some have called this definition of the word "church" as the external (or visible) church.
- Finally, the word "church" is used to describe God's saints. His sheep - no wolves, just the sheep. The eternal (or invisible) church. This assembly is a subset of the general worldwide Christian assembly; i.e. the assembly of all the sheep within the assembly of the sheep and wolves.
A is a subset of B
To make it clearer, perhaps I can use a mathematical formula. In the following discussion, let's use these shorthand representations:
1 = God's saint (a sheep).
0 = A wolf (a tare) (one who is not a saint of God)
Worldwide External church = Church of Ephesus + Corinthian church + church of Sardis + ... or:
Worldwide External church = External church B1 + External church B2 + External church B3 + ... where:
External church B1 = 1+1+0+1+0+0+0+1+1+0+0+1+1+1+0+0+...
External church B2 = 0+0+1+0+0+0+0+1+0+0+0+0+1+0+0+1+...
External church B3 = 1+1+1+0+0+1+1+1+1+1+1+0+1+1+1+0+...
Therefore: Worldwide External church = 1+0+0+0+1+1+0+1+1+1+0+0+0+1+0+0+1+...And God's Eternal church is made up only of His saints who are found within the External church:
Eternal church of God = 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+...
Eternal church A = 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+...
Finally, we see that the Eternal church of God (A) is found as a subset within the External church (B) of God as illustrated in the picture.
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It is important here that we look at history and see how God spoke of His Old Testament "Church",
Israel (the assembly of His chosen people, the children of Abraham), to see if He had 2 different meanings for the word "Israel". One for the
external nation (or assembly) and one for the eternal Israel i.e. the true (eternal) church found within
the visible (external) church. Ancient Israel was obviously considered an assembly
(church) of people. In many ways, we can call the nation of Israel (the children
of Abraham) the Old Testament "church". The OT church has much in common with the NT church:
- God used them to write the O.T. (like He used the N.T. church to write the N.T.)
- They gathered together and worshiped God weekly.
- They were God's chosen people.
- They were the bride of God:
Jeremiah 3:1 They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but you have played the harlot with many lovers; your return again to me, says the LORD....
Jeremiah 3:8 And I saw, when for all the reasons where backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.
Jeremiah 3:20 Surely as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, says the LORD.
In many places, Israel is accused of committing adultery with heathen nations and gods against God. God would not use the term adultery unless He considered Israel His bride. The N.T. church is considered the bride of Christ not only by God in the Book of Revelation, but also by the Catholic Catechism 797, and 808.
Further, in the N.T., God calls the nation of Israel "the church in the wilderness":
Acts 7:38 This is he, that was in the church [ekklesia] in the wilderness with the angel which spoke to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us:
The nation of Israel was also called an assembly of God's people in numerous places:
Ezekiel 13:9 And mine hand shall be upon the prophets that see vanity, and that divine lies: they shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel,...
Jeremiah 26:16-17 Then said the princes and all the people unto the priests and to the prophets...Then rose up certain of the elders of the land, and spoke to all the assembly of the people, saying,
Psalms 111:1 Praise you the LORD. I will praise the LORD with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation.
Psalms 89:7 God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him
Psalms 22:16 For dogs have surrounded me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
Judges 20:1 Then all the children of Israel went out, and the congregation was gathered together as one man, from Dan even to Beersheba, with the land of Gilead, unto the LORD in Mizpeh.
Judges 20:2 And the chief of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand footmen that drew sword.
Numbers 14:5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel.
Numbers 10:2 Make two trumpets of silver; of a whole piece shall you make them: that you may use them for the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps.
Numbers 10:3 And when they shall blow with them, all the assembly shall assemble themselves to thee at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
Exodus 12:6 And you shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.
Now, if that we can say that O.T. Israel equals the O.T. assembly (church) of God, then we can examine how God uses the term "Israel", or "Jews", or "children of Abraham" in His Word and draw parallels with how He uses the NT term "church".
He uses these terms in two different ways:
- God uses these terms in the obvious earthly physical fashion that we are all aware of: He uses them to describe the actual physical descendants of Abraham... national Israel. This would be equivalent to my usage of the term "external church".
- God also uses the above terms in a spiritual fashion to describe His saints. In the Old Testament, these saints resided within the nation of Israel. This would be equivalent to my usage of the term "eternal church".
Romans 2:28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
Romans 2:29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Romans 9:6 Not as though the word of God has taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel:
Romans 9:7 Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall your seed be called.
Romans 9:8 That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.
Galatians 3:7 Know therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.
Galatians 6:16 And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
John 1:47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and says of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! (Nathanael was obviously a Jew, but, he was revealed to be a true Israelite in that he had no guile because he was cleansed of his guile by the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world (Rev13:8). He was a living saint)
John 8:39 They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus says unto them, If you were Abraham's children, you would do the works of Abraham.
Revelation 3:9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you.
Galatians 3:29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise Go to top
As seen above, Old Testament Israel is directly related to the New Testament Church. Both are the bride of God. Both have wolves as well as sheep in them. The sheep within them are a remnant. The sheep within them are both saved by the Blood of Christ. Both the Old Testament and New Testament remnants together as well as future saints form the complete Body of Christ. Old Testament Israel can be thought of as a foreshadow of the New Testament Church. They looked forward, and we look backward to Christ's life on earth. We can expect that God would use similar manners in dealing with the two assemblies. In fact, He does.
Based upon how God has two different Israels in view as seen in the previous section, we can expect that He
also speaks of two different churches. One is the true church (the eternal
church), and one is the larger physical worldwide Christian church (external
church); inside of which the true church exists as a remnant.
Romans 9:27 Esaias also cries concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved:
Isaiah 1:9 Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.
Romans 11:5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.
The all-important question is "which of these meanings for the word "church" is
Jesus talking about in Matthew16:18-19?" Is He talking about an external physical
church, a local physical church, or the eternal church? The only possible meaning
for the word church as used in this verse refers to the third definition above:
His saints. The whole eternal church is the assembly of all of the saints who
ever lived and ever will live. They are all saved through His Blood. They are
also known as His Bride, His Body. It is the assembly of His saints. In this
way, Jesus can truly say that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it
[the eternal church]." He has already paid the price for His Church... His saints.
No one can snatch His Church out of His Hand:
John 10:27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
John 10:28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.
John 10:29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.
If Jesus is talking about the physical external church in Matthew16:18-19 and
elsewhere, then the promises of Christ have been made to all members in that
physical church. How then, can we reconcile all the passages about false prophets
within the physical (external) church that God repeatedly warns about in the N.T.:
Peter II 2:1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who secretly shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction
Acts 20:29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
Acts 20:30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
...as well as many others.
Now to highlight the difference between the physical assembly and the eternal
assembly, Jesus tells us that while false prophets and wolves are raiding the external physical church
as seen below, the eternal church (elect) remains safe because Jesus has already
bought them with His blood.
Matthew 24:24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
Does God ever speak of a "true" church? The closest He gets to this is Matthew16:18-19
which I discussed above. A true eternal earthly physical church does not exist.
Not the church I attend, nor the Catholic Church. All have sheep and wolves in them.
All have true and false doctrines. We are only human. God does have something to say
about where Truth can be found though:
John 17:17 Sanctify them through your truth: your word [the Father's... or God's] is truth.
Psalms 119:140 Your word is very pure...
Psalms 119:142 Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is the truth.
Psalms 119:151 You are near, O LORD; and all your commandments are truth.
Proverbs 30:5 Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
Psalms 12:6 The words of the LORD are pure words...
Only one Truth exists. It is found in the Word of God. Many interpretations may
exist on many not so clear things found in Scripture, but, as it is said that in the Bible, "the main things are the
plain things, and the plain things are main things..." it is just that most people
are not motivated to read enough of the Bible to determine what the main plain things are.
People need to go back to the Bible and get Biblically literate again. If one becomes Bible literate, it quickly becomes apparent that many churches and cults and anything in between hold to interpretations of Scripture based upon a few
selected favorite verses while many other verses that address the subject are totally
ignored either out of ignorance that they exist, or out of less than honorable motives.
The cults like Jim Jones are famous for basing an outrageous belief system on a handful of
verses that are taken out of context and/or are not interpreted correctly. The outrageous beliefs can be easily identified most of the time by looking to see what
the rest of the Bible says about it - becoming Bible literate. Satan used these same tricks. He even tried this trick
Matthew 4:5 Then the devil takes him up into the holy city, and sets him on a pinnacle of the temple,
Matthew 4:6 And says unto him, If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down: for it is written, He shall command his angels concerning you: and in their hands they shall bear you up, lest at any time you strike your foot against a stone.
And how did Jesus (our great Example) expose the evil teaching of Satan? He appealed to Scripture of course:
Matthew 4:7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, You shall not tempt the Lord your God.
All of Scripture needs to be taken into account. Jesus easily rebuked Satan's attempt at misinterpreting Scripture by using Scripture itself. He knew the whole of Scripture to quote back a plain main teaching to Satan and expose his evil intentions. We will never be as knowledgeable about Scripture as He was, but we can be knowledgeable enough to spot contradictions to the “main things”. Most of the time only part of Scripture is needed to expose heresy, but we are blessed nowadays with all of it. We need to be familiar with it so that we can spot heresy when we see it.
Churches are made up of men. Men are sinful. Churches are NOT the ultimate source of Truth. God's Word is.Go to top
While I cannot speak for all churches, I know that the church I currently attend does not dare make the claim that they contain the whole truth. They speak of the Bible as being the sole source for truth. They claim only to try and expound the Scriptures to the best of their ability (trusting that they will be used of the Holy Spirit to bring forth Truth) and be as faithful to it as possible. The congregation is frequently taught not to take the pastor's word for what he thinks the Bible says, but that we should "check it out for ourselves". After all, eternity is at stake. Not one church contains the exact truth because we are all just humans, and therefore subject to sin, and subject to sinful interpretations of the Truth.Go to top