The Vault

The Church Universal and its Earthly Form, Part 2: The Church in the New Testament

In the Old Testament the earthly form of the church is national and single; there is only one “church of God.” But in the New Testament it is local and multiple; there are many “churches of God.” The idea of a single ecumenical church is foreign to the New Testament.

The continuity of the people of God in the New Testament with the people of God in the Old Testament is obscured for English readers by the fact that different words are employed to express what is essentially the same idea: the people of God. In the O.T. we have “the congregation,” and in the N.T. we have “the church,” but the concept is one and the same. Here are two examples. In Numbers 27:16 we read of the appointment of Joshua: “Let the Lord appoint a man over the congregation . . . that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.” Then in Psalm 74:2 we have the prayer: “Remember thy congregation which thou hast purchased of old, which thou hast redeemed to be the tribe of thine inheritance.” The Greek word ecclesia in the New Testament exactly represents this “congregation.” Indeed, in the first printed New Testament, that of William ‘Tyndale, the word ecclesia was translated “congregation” throughout. But the forces of conservatism were too strong, and in subsequent revisions the more familiar ecclesiastical word “church” was substituted. Yet Tyndale was right. Had the same word been used throughout (whether “congregation” or “church”) the ordinary English reader would have perceived without further ado one of the fundamental elements in the Biblical doctrine of the church.

The Old Form and the New.

We must now examine the transition from the form of the Church in the Old Testament to its new form after Pentecost. When Jesus was born, the old church of Israel was a broken thing, though there were those who looked for its restoration and rebuilding by God through the faithfulness of a “holy remnant” of true believers. Now the Acts of the Apostles shows us that the first group of Christian disciples were Jews who looked upon themselves as that faithful remnant through their association with Jesus the Messiah. They were members of the visible church of Israel and at first they had no thought of being anything else. They knew that God had visited and redeemed His people and had raised up a mighty salvation for them in the house of His servant David. Their question to the risen Christ, “Wilt thou at this time restore sovereignty to Israel ?” (Acts 1:6), shows that at first they expected the old form of the church to be revived. They turned to their fellow Jews as to the “sons of the covenant which God made with your fathers” (Acts 3:25, 2:29) and exhorted them to be prepared – through repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus-to receive the fulfillment of God’s age-old promises to refresh and restore His people (Acts 3:19-21).

At this stage the new form of the church was still within the womb of the old. It did not immediately become apparent even to the apostles that a new “body” was coming to birth which was entirely distinct from the old “body.” Nor, until the realization was forced upon them by the working of God Himself, did they realise that the old “church of Israel” was ceasing to be “the church of God” and that this solemn prerogative was now resting on the new body which, externally, was still a sect within the church of Israel.

The first occasion in the Acts when the word “church” occurs is in the incident of Ananias and Sapphira (5:11-14). It is just possible that here it is used in a non-technical sense, i.e., “great fear came upon all assembled,” as in Acts 19.32 and 41. But if it really means “church” here, then the word is first used when a distinction became apparent to all Jerusalem between those Jews on whom God’s favour rested and those on whom His judgment fell (c.f. verses 13 and 14). Even more arresting is the second occasion on which the title appears. Here, 7:1, we are told that on the day of Stephen’s death “there arose a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem.” The new body was being violently ejected from, the womb of the old, and it was the new body, not the old, which was called “the church.” It was the first great schism. Israel after the flesh persecuted Israel after the Spirit (Gal. 4:21- 31). The old church excommunicated the new church. As Jesus had said, the house of the Jews was left to them desolate, and the church of God was “scattered abroad” to take a new and hitherto unsuspected form.

Church and Churches.

From now on, or at any rate from the time that the Gentiles were clearly recognised as members with the Jews of the one “people of God,” we encounter a surprising new fact: the form of the church is no longer one – as it had been throughout the Old Testament- but many. There is “the church which was in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:22), but there is also the church at Antioch (Acts 11:26, 12; 13). The first missionary journey resulted in the formation of many “churches” (14:23, 15:16) . And so the story goes on. We may take this terminology for granted now, but we should not overlook the astonishing change which this terminology represents. To the old Jew there was, there could be, but one church on earth, the visible congregation of Israel. But now that august and holy title, the church of God, belonged to groups of believers in many places. Paul writes to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:1), and that little group of faithful at Ephesus is “the flock . . . the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 21:28.) Here, in a local assembly of believers, is the visible, historical form of the church. The church of God on earth, as we see it in the New Testament, is neither national, nor regional, nor ecumenical, but local. The word “church” is never applied to any visible, earthly body larger than a local congregation.

We shall consider the relationship between local churches, and the emergence of national and ecumenical concepts of the church on another occasion

From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, 16 February 1956.

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