What is the Church
J. H. Large
FOLLOWING THE INTRODUCTION in the preceding issue we now commence a series of studies having in mind the need to meet with sympathy and understanding the perplexities of young people who contrast the stand taken by their assembly at home with the constitution of other Christian communities with whom a widening experience brings them into contact.
So much depends on having the right background that we judge it will be useful at the outset to turn our attention to the word 'church', because little progress can be made in any subject unless the terms used are defined. We do this at the risk of being tedious to some who will be familiar with the point.
The Greek word ekklesia which occurs well over a hundred times in the New Testament, and means 'a called-out company' is translated by the English word 'church' on all hut three instances relating to the concourse of citizens in Ephesus, Acts 19. 32-41, where the word 'assembly' is used. Apart from this passage and another in Acts 7. 38 where the word is applied to the Israelites as called out of Egypt and led into the wilderness, Christians are always in view - either as the whole company of the redeemed in this dispensation, or as a company in a particular locality. The fact that this one word covers both senses is perhaps intended as an indication that what is true of the whole redeemed company essentially, should be true of each local company representatively.
Unfortunately in modern English the word 'church' has acquired a variety of meanings, some far removed from the thought of the New Testament writers - for example it is used of groups of religious societies organized on a national or a doctrinal basis, of a particular kind of religious building, and even of a professional calling.
This confusion introduces many difficulties and in an attempt to avoid these some Christians prefer 'assembly' whilst others see some advantage in retaining 'church' when referring to the whole company of the redeemed, and using 'assembly' of a local gathering. Whilst this makes a useful distinction it is not in accord with the usage of Scripture as we have mentioned above. Others, again, feel that since 'church' has become so firmly established there are advantages in accepting it. We admit that the question is bristling with difficulties and at this late date it is too much to hope that the confusion can be straightened out, but we do want to stress that if we use the word 'church' we should be at constant pains to insist on its true significance. If this precaution is neglected we shall soon find that what has happened elsewhere is happening among us - namely that precious truth becomes obscured by the unscriptural associations which the expression has acquired. We regret to say that signs are not lacking that this process has already begun, and it should be resisted before it is too late.
However, the point at which we want to arrive is that the ekklesia in its widest sense as embracing the whole company of believers in this dispensation, whether in earth or in heaven, is a unity - ' . . . the ekklesia, which is his (Christ's) body', Eph. i. 22, 23. We are on safe ground only so long as we hold graciously but tenaciously to this blessed truth. We are not now thinking of visible unity brought about by human arrangement (with which we will deal later) but the unity of the Spirit.
It follows that all titles given to members of that one body belong equally to all and we ought to be unwilling to recognize as valid, much less to accept for ourselves, any title which serves to distinguish some from others. Thus all who belong to Christ are 'saints', a word which does not properly carry the meaning usually attached to it - i.e. one whose (often supposed) outstanding piety has merited a special place in the religious calendar - but rather a state of separation, and therefore devotion, to God into which He calls us by His grace. Here again an unfortunate misuse of language has created unnecessary difficulties but we are unwilling to surrender the title simply because the correct use of the word in Christian writings has sometimes been mistaken for conceit or dismissed as sanctimonious. 'Believers', of course, is self explanatory and calls for no comment. 'Christian' signifies an adherent of Christ and whilst many believe that what became a title of honour was first coined by scornful enemies, Acts II. 26, we cling to the idea that the title was given by God. 'Disciple' means a learner, with the implied obligation to put into effect what he learns from his master. We offer no explanation for the fact that this title, common in the Gospels and in Acts does not appear in the Epistles.
'Brethren', of course, serves to stress the relationship established through a common life in Christ and is frequently used in Scripture to emphasize effectively the obligations of loving unity. It was in this sense that the term was widely used by men who were used of God at the beginning of the last century to originate a remarkable movement which did so much to rescue precious truth from a divided Christendom. It is one of the sad ironies of history that the effectiveness of that movement which promised so much has been hampered by the perversion of the term into a label by which the move¬ment is made to appear another division.
We accept the title only in its true sense and if occasionally we are obliged to acknowledge the misused term, in order to avoid tiresome circumlocution, it should be with a kindly and tactful protest. The term 'Plymouth Brethren' we especially repudiate heedless of the unwarranted sanction it receives in certain works of reference. Its only true application is to all believers in towns with that name.
We turn with relief from this distressing anomaly, back to the point that we accept willingly only those designations which serve to witness to the unity of all true believers in Christ.
In apostolic days this truth was wonderfully exemplified in the local gathering, for we read 'They were all with one accord in one place'. 'They that gladly received his word were baptized and there were added to them about three thousand souls'. 'And all that believed were together and had all things common'.
Wherever the Gospel was preached and believed by a sufficient number they were gathered together to form a local community and although conditions would vary from place to place, yet the ground of their gathering was the same. The result was that when a Christian from one town had occasion to visit another town, Christian fellowship presented no problem at all - he simply identified himself with the Christians there who, of course, met on the same ground as he did at home. There was not, and needed not to be, any organized federation of assemblies - he was a member of the one body of Christ and since all Christians met simply in the Name of the Lord Jesus and modelled their assembly life on the apostolic pattern no problem arose. Would that it were so today!
If a first-century Christian could suddenly be transported to a large town in Britain, with what bewilderment he would look for the assembly in that town. If he were to ask a passer-by 'Where do the Christians meet?' he would hardly be able to believe his ears when told 'In about thirty different places!' and he would hardly be able to believe his eyes as he read the various notice boards flaunting names strange and even meaningless to him. If he happened to light on the place where you meet, what would he read on your notice board and how would it strike him?
We own no other ground of meeting than the Name of the Lord Jesus but this means much more than merely putting some such phrase on a notice board - if this were all it could degenerate to yet another religious label. To gather in the Name of the Lord Jesus means to gather by His command and authority and to bow to His will. We do not for a moment infer that Christians who are willing to accept labels thereby intentionally repudiate the authority of Christ but we would respectfully invite them to consider whether it is God-honouring to accept a name other than those given us by Him. If any say there is nothing in a name let them consider how an affectionate husband would feel if his wife, though loyal, chose to be known by the name of another.
We are not Christians suddenly transported from the first to the twentieth century - we have grown up amid this con¬fusion and are not as distressed as we ought to be.
How should we act in a situation so utterly removed from that contemplated in Scripture? This is a very practical question which we have a responsibility to face, but how few in the present generation seem to have carefully and prayerfully weighed it up. In the next issue we will, D.V., indicate how we feel the problem should be approached.
J. H. L.