By Charles H. Welch
The English word ‘church’ has come down to us from the Greek through the Gothic. Walafrid Strabo, who wrote about A.D. 840 gives as the explanation of the word ‘kyrch’ the Greek kuriake, a word that means ‘related to the Lord’, as he kuriake hemera ‘the Lord’s day’. The Scottish word ‘kirk’ retains the sound of the Greek original still. In ordinary parlance, the word church can refer both to the body of worshippers assembled together, or to the building in which they are met, but there is no instance in the New Testament where the word ‘church’ refers to a building. In the ministry of Paul a transition in the usage of the word is observable which is dispensationally important. Before Acts 28 and while the hope of Israel still obtained, the apostle addressed six epistles to different companies of believers. ‘Unto the churches of Galatia’, ‘Unto the church of the Thessalonians’, ‘Unto the church of God which is at Corinth’. Thus five of these early epistles use the word ‘church’ in a local sense. Romans is the exception in this group, this epistle is not addressed to ‘the church which is at Rome’ but ‘To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints’ (Rom. 1:7), the word church being reserved for the last chapter, where it occurs five times.
This prepares the way for the great change which meets us in Ephesians and Colossians. In these great epistles of the Mystery, the word church is not used in the opening salutation, but is invested with new glory, the first occurrence being in Ephesians 1:22,23, ‘The church which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all’. The word translated ‘church’, is with one exception the translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which becomes in English ecclesia and enters into the composition of such words as ecclesiastical etc. The one exception is Acts 19:37, ‘robbers of churches’, which the R.V. more correctly renders ‘robbers of temples’. Ekklesia occurs in the New Testament 115 times, three of these occurrences being translated ‘assembly’ the rest ‘church’. The Septuagint version uses the word about eighty times, but we will defer their examination until we have finished our survey of the usage of the word in the New Testament.
The following extract from Trench on the Synonyms of the New Testament is of interest:
The LXX uses the word ekklesia to translate the Hebrew qahal. Qahal means to call, to assemble, and the noun form means a congregation or assembly. Solomon is called koheleth the Preacher, translated by the LXX ekklesiastes. The earliest known occurrence of the word is found in Job 30:28, ‘I cried in the congregation’. In the books of the law, qahal is rendered by the Greek word sunagoge, showing that the synagogue is the beginning of the New Testament church. Stephen in his speech which ended in his martyrdom referred to the history of Israel, and dwells for considerable length upon the one great leader Moses, saying in Acts 7:38:
The people of Israel, looked upon as ‘a called-out assembly’ were ‘the Church’ of that period.
In the nineteenth chapter of Acts, a reference is made to the Greek usage of the word ekklesia. The concourse of people gathered to the theatre at Ephesus is referred to as an ekklesia, ‘the assembly was confused’ (Acts 19:32). Upon the arrival of the town clerk, he reproved the people for the rashness of their proceedings saying: ‘If ye inquire anything concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly (ekklesia)’ (Acts 19:39), and having thus spoken he dismissed the assembly (Acts 19:41). Here the word is used in its original sense, a called-out people, assembled for a particular purpose. It will be seen, therefore, that it is not enough to point to the word ‘church’ and thereby set aside the distinctive callings of God. The kingdom as announced in Matthew is not to be contrasted with a church, but is in itself to be viewed as a company of called-out ones. The reference to the church in Matthew 16:18 does not look to the subject of subsequent revelation reserved for the prison ministry of Paul, but to the calling that was announced in the Gospel of the Kingdom. There was a ‘church’ before Pentecost, as Matthew 18:17 makes clear.
In the Prison Epistles (See under PRISON EPISTLES) the word ekklesia is advanced to its highest conception. It
is ‘the body of Christ’, it will be ‘the fulness of Him that filleth all in all’. It will be seen that it is not enough to say:
‘The church began at Pentecost’, we must go further, and define what church is in view. Under the heading ekklesiaor ‘called-out company’ we find the following different assemblies, ranging from the nation of Israel separated from
all the nations of the earth down to the church to which Philemon acted as host. Before, therefore, we build up any
doctrine upon the presence of the word ‘church’ in any passage of Scripture we should consult the context and
realize the dispensation in which any particular church finds its calling and sphere.
We believe that the earnest student who obeys the injunction of 2 Timothy 2:15 and discovers under which of these heads ‘the church’ under examination falls, will have no difficulty in correctly relating any church mentioned in the New Testament with its respective calling and dispensation.