At the Postconfession class this past week we began a discussion on what the Lord reveals about the church. I mentioned that it’s tempting to build our concept of what the church is on what the eye sees – and that is that there are any number of churches in town, all with different shades and emphases. Are all ‘churches’? If one answers the question with ‘yes’, you end up with saying that it doesn’t really matter which church you attend – as long as you go to church. The practical implication is that the table of the Lord is opened for all who go to church – or at least to a reasonably Biblical church….
As it is, our understanding of what the church is needs to be built up from God’s revelation, and not from our observations. What we see reflects the brokenness of the fall into sin. What God reveals captures what the ascended Son of God is doing today in our fallen world, gathering together those whom the Father has given Him (cf John 17:2). What we believe about the church needs to be determined not by our observations, but by God’s revelation. In this Bit to Read, I take the opportunity to look at how the word ‘church’ is used in the Bible and (therefore) in various reformed confessions. This Bit to Read, then, overlaps somewhat the material of last Wednesday evening.
“Church” in the Bible
The word ‘church’ in our Bibles is a translation of the Greek term ekklesia. The term ekklesia was well known to the early Christians from two sources.
- The word was used in the every day talk of the Greeks to refer to a meeting of the citizens of a given town. The term is used in this fashion in Acts 19, where the town clerk advises the rioting Ephesians that any complaint they have may be brought before the ekklesia (Acts 19:39). All major translations render the word ekklesia here as ‘assembly’, indicating that the term denotes a gathering of the town’s people.
- A second source making the word well known to the early Christians was the Old Testament. Early Christians were familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, be it through the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek (called the Septuagint and denoted by the letters LXX). In fact, the vocabulary used in the LXX has to a large extent determined the content of numerous words used in the New Testament. So it is to the Old Testament that we are to go in our pursuit of the meaning of the term ekklesia.
The term ekklesia occurs some 80 times in the LXX, always as a translation of the Hebrew word qahal (though qahal is not always translated by the word ekklesia). The verb qahal conveys the idea of assembling without regard to purpose. It is used to denote the gathering of an army (I Sam 17:47), for the coming together of an unruly and potentially dangerous crowd (Ps 26:5), for a gathering to ask for idols (Ex 32:1), for anointing Aaron (Lev 8:4), for worship (II Chr 20:26), for the coming together of the people to hear the Word of the Lord (Dt 4:10; 9:10). As a noun, the word qahal indicates that which is assembled (again without regard to purpose), and is translated as assembly, congregation. Most frequently, the term is used to denote assembling together for religious purposes. So the meeting at Mt Sinai is referred to as “the day of the assembly” (Dt 9:10; 10:4; 18:16).
What is unequivocally clear, then, is that the term qahal is used in the Old Testament to refer to a gathering, particularly a gathering of the people of God. That in turn implies that a qahal is not the people of God; qahal is the gathering of the people of God, and may therefore also designate a gathering made up of not all of the people of God (cf II Chr 20:5; 30:25; Neh 5:13; Joel 2:15f). This meaning is conveyed rather well if we translate literally the LXX translation of Dt 4:10: “the day of the church when the Lord said to me, ‘Form the people into a church before Me’” (NIV: “Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when He said to me, ‘Assemble the people before me to me…’”). In sum, the Hebrew term qahal denotes “an assembly or gathering of people; it does not designate an ‘organization’ or ‘society’.”1
1 Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians (Waco: Word Book, 1982,), 58.
The term ekklesia in the New Testament is loaded with the meaning of its parallel term in the Old Testament. When Jesus in Mt 16:18 speaks of building His ekklesia (church) on (the confession of) Peter, the Lord’s meaning was clear to the hearers in so far as it pertained to the word ekklesia. The Lord obviously spoke of constituting a gathering, building an assembly on the foundation of this confession. But this gathering would be distinct from some other gathering, for it would be “My ekklesia, My gathering, My church.”
Similarly, when the apostle Paul addresses his first letter to the Thessalonians with the words “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he employs the term church in the way his readers were used to it from daily society and from the Old Testament; any reader understood Paul was sending his letter to a gathering of the citizens of Thessalonica (and not to all the citizens of Thessalonica in general). But this particular gathering of Thessalonians is distinguished from any secular gatherings of Thessalonians by the addition of the words “in God the Father,” and it is distinguished from the regular synagogue meetings by the use of the additional phrase “in the Lord Jesus Christ”.2 So it is evident that Paul has in mind an actual gathering of the Thessalonian Christians. Yet the closing remarks of the letter betray that not all the Christians of Thessalonica were present, for the apostle instructs that “this letter be read to all the brethren” (I Thess 5:27).
Elsewhere the apostle employs the term in the plural to denote more than one church. So reference is made to “the churches in Galatia” (Gal 1:2; 1 Cor 16:1), “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), “the churches in Macedonia” (2 Cor 8:1), and “the churches of Judea” (Gal 1:22). The reference is to various gatherings in a particular region. That ekklesia refers specifically to a meeting or an assembly is further pointed up 1 Cor 11-14 where expressions as “when you assemble in church” (11:18) and “to speak in church” (14:35) turn up.
The gathering work of the Lord will be completed when Christ returns. So Revelation 14:1 describes the 144,000 souls gathered together on Mt Zion – all the elect of God in one place. Here, finally, the gathering of God’s people will involve exactly the same persons as make up the people of God.
With a view to that completed work (all God’s people gathered together), the apostle already uses the word ‘church’ from time to time to denote simply the people of God (cf Col 1:18,24; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10,21; 5:23ff). Yet the church as people of God without reference to gathering is secondary, and possible only because the apostle reaches forward to the day when the body of the elect is overlaps exactly the persons who are gathered together. It does injustice to the Biblical meaning and usage of the word ekklesia to maintain that the term describes first of all the totality of God’s elect – be it universally or in a given town.
2 Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 36.
In sum: ekklesia in the New Testament does not denote the sum total of the New Testament believers, no more than the Old Testament term qahal denoted the sum total of the Old Testament Israel. Basic to the term as used in the New Testament is the concept of the gathering of (some of) the believers in any given community. DeBres caught this Biblical notion in Article 27 of his Belgic Confession, when he wrote: “We believe and profess” –that’s different than seeing!– “one catholic or universal Church, with is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers….”
That is why we are wrong when we (almost automatically) link in our minds the word ‘church’ and the concept of ‘all the believers of town’ – as if all the believers of Chilliwack together (irrespective of where, of whether, they gather on a given Sunday) constitute the church in Chilliwack – and then each local church is but a small part of that big and real ‘Church of Chilliwack’. Biblically speaking, the church is not the sum total of all the believers of town. Biblically speaking, the church is the gathering of (some of) the believers.
Dr Faber presented a speech at the first meeting of the International Conference of Reformed Churches in Edinburgh, 1985. The paper bore the title, “The Doctrine of the Church in Reformed Confessions” and has been printed in Clarion, Vol 35, #2,3,4. In this speech Dr Faber showed how the confessions of the sixteenth century all reflected this concept of church as assembly. One confession written in the seventeenth century forms an exception. Dr Faber’s article will tell you which confession that is, and why…, and so what.
15 September 2006