The Early Church Fathers On The Church: A Matter Of History

1&2 cen fathers universal church

The Early Church Fathers On The Church

(The First Two Centuries)

            It has been said that those of us who believe that the body of Christ is much larger than the local church, but is composed of all the redeemed, are Protestant in doctrine. It is the intention of this writer to demonstrate from a historical viewpoint that the idea of the church being having not only a local nature, but also a universal nature is a quite ancient teaching. We will study quotations from a few writers from the first and second centuries. It might be that we could study and find ourselves in disagreement with these men on various doctrinal and practical issues. That is not our aim at this time. The aim of this article is to simply consider from a historical perspective whether or not there were any people of the first and second centuries who believed that the church has an universal nature, and that the church is composed of all those who trust Jesus Christ. Again, we are not seeking to establish the doctrinal orthodoxy of those who are quoted, but are studying from an explicitly historical perspective in order to determine the age of the doctrine of the church universal.

 

Defining Terms

            Ante-Nicene- before Nicaea. In AD 325 a council was assembled at Nicaea, in Turkey. Constantine assembled it in order to address some doctrinal issues. The resources from which these quotes come are called the Ante-Nicene Fathers. These are writings that have survived over the centuries, and we are focusing especially on those writers from the first and second centuries AD.

            catholic- universal

Regarding the nature of the church and the writings of these ancient Christians, the editors of the Ante-Nicene Fathers said,  “Too long have they been allowed to speak to the popular mind as if the Fathers were their own; while, to every candid reader, it must be evident that, alike, the testimony, the arguments, and the silence of the Ante-Nicene writers confound all attempts to identify the ecclesiastical establishment of “the Holy Roman Empire,” with “the Holy Catholic Church” of the ancient creeds.[1]

In other words, we must not confuse the word “catholic” with a lower case “c” with the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” simply means universal. Any time this word appears in our article, it NEVER refers to the Romans Catholic Church, but simply to the nature of the church as being universal.

 

Polycarp

Polycarp was born about AD 65, and the exact date of his death is uncertain. His death is believed to be somewhere about AD 116, or even as late as AD 155. What is important to us is his place in history.

Polycarp is said to have been one who knew several of the Apostles, studied under the Apostle John, and wrote a letter to the Philippians, which was the same church to whom Paul wrote.

With these things in mind, though we acknowledge only the authority of Scripture, we yield respect to this elder who has gone before us and was so closely related to the Apostles; and we respect the words of his contemporaries who wrote of him.

“The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium, and to all the congregations2 of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.[2]” This is not a direct quotation from Polycarp, but is extracted from a letter sent from Smyrna to other churches. Let it be noted that it speaks of the congregations of Holy and Catholic (universal) church in every place. Again, we must stress that this does NOT refer to the Roman Catholic Church, which at that time was not in existence at that time. This refers to the universal nature of the church. These Christian brothers, writing about the death of Polycarp, acknowledge that the church has both a local and a universal nature.

 

 

“Now, as soon as he had ceased praying, having made mention of all that had at any time come in contact with him, both small and great, illustrious and obscure, as well as the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, the time of his departure having arrived, they set him upon an ass, and conducted him into the city, the day being that of the great Sabbath.[3]” Once again we see the universal (catholic) nature of the church presented by the writers of this letter, as they declare that it is “throughout the world.”

 

“For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.[4]” We see even more clearly the universal nature of the church in the statement that Jesus is the “Shepherd of the Catholic (universal) church throughout the world.” That is, the universal church is in all of the world. It is not simply local, though the church has a local nature, but it is throughout the world.

 

 

“Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.[5]” Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the universal (Catholic) church. This clearly sets forth the understanding that the existence of the church is both heavenly and earthly, as Jesus is omnipresent.

 

 

 

Justin Martyr 110-165

“Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians), is distinctly proclaimed in like manner in the following words, which teach us also to forget [our] old ancestral customs, when they speak thus: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline thine ear; forget thy people and the house of thy father, and the King shall desire[6]” Note that Justin speaks of the church as being composed of those who believe, and as being one in nature. Let us recall that this was written at least one hundred years before the organization of the Roman Catholic church, and more than one thousand three hundred years before the Protestant Reformation. It is absolutely impossible to be historically accurate and claim that the teaching of the universal nature of the church is of Protestant origin.

 

 

Irenaeus 120-202

“The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,”7 and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,”9 and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.[7]” Let us simply notice that Irenaeus stated that the church was spread throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth.

 

“And again: “God stood in the congregation of the gods, He judges among the gods.” He [here] refers to the Father and the Son, and those who have received the adoption; but these are the Church. For she is the synagogue of God, which God—that is, the Son Himself—has gathered by Himself. Of whom He again speaks: “The God of gods, the Lord hath spoken, and hath called the earth.” Who is meant by God? He of whom He has said, “God shall come openly, our God, and shall not keep silence;”4that is, the Son, who came manifested to men who said, “I have openly appeared to those who seek Me not.” But of what gods [does he speak]? [Of those] to whom He says, “I have said, Ye are gods, and all sons of the Most High.”6 To those, no doubt, who have received the grace of the “adoption, by which we cry, Abba Father.”[8]” Irenaeus stated that the church are those who have received the adoption. Adoption occurs when one trusts Jesus Christ and receives the Holy Spirit: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” (Romans 8:9) “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15) In other words, Irenaeus believed that the church universal was composed of all believers. Again, far from being Protestant theology or ecclesiology, this teaching historically predates both the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church.

 

 

 

“For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth. Those, therefore, who do not partake of Him, are neither nourished into life from the mother’s breasts, nor do they enjoy that most limpid fountain which issues from the body of Christ; but they dig for themselves broken cisterns out of earthly trenches, and drink putrid water out of the mire, fleeing from the faith of the Church lest they be convicted; and rejecting the Spirit, that they may not be instructed.[9]” Once again we find that Irenaeus plainly presents the church as having a universal nature when he says, “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.”

 

“Vain, too, is [the effort of] Marcion and his followers when they [seek to] exclude Abraham from the inheritance, to whom the Spirit through many men, and now by Paul, bears witness, that “he believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” And the Lord [also bears witness to him,] in the first place, indeed, by raising up children to him from the stones, and making his seed as the stars of heaven, saying, “They shall come from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, and shall recline with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven;” 15 and then again by saying to the Jews, “When ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of heaven, but you yourselves cast out.” This, then, is a clear point, that those who disallow his salvation, and frame the idea of another God besides Him who made the promise to Abraham, are outside the kingdom of God, and are disinherited from [the gift of] incorruption, setting at naught and blaspheming God, who introduces, through Jesus Christ, Abraham to the kingdom of heaven, and his seed, that is, the Church, upon which also is conferred the adoption and the inheritance promised to Abraham.[10]” Here Irenaeus declares that the seed of Abraham (He is speaking of all who believe on Jesus Christ.) is the Church.

 

 

“For thus it had behoved the sons of Abraham [to be], whom God has raised up to him from the stones, and caused to take a place beside him who was made the chief and the forerunner of our faith (who did also receive the covenant of circumcision, after that justification by faith which had pertained to him, when he was yet in uncircumcision, so that in him both covenants might be prefigured, that he might be the father of all who follow the Word of God, and who sustain a life of pilgrimage in this world, that is, of those who from among the circumcision and of those from among the uncircumcision are faithful, even as also “Christ is the chief corner-stone,” sustaining all things); and He gathered into the one faith of Abraham those who, from either covenant, are eligible for God’s building. But this faith which is in uncircumcision, as connecting the end with the beginning, has been made [both] the first and the last. For, as I have shown, it existed in Abraham antecedently to circumcision, as it also did in the rest of the righteous who pleased God: and in these last times, it again sprang up among mankind through the coming of the Lord. But circumcision and the law of works occupied the intervening period[11]” Note that Irenaeus speaks of the building of God, the church, are those who are in the one faith of Abraham. In other words, he recognized that the church has a universal nature, and is composed of all those who believe on Jesus Christ.

 

“For the illustrious Church is [now] everywhere, and everywhere is the winepress digged: because those who do receive the Spirit are everywhere.[12]” Once again, more than one thousand three hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, and more than one hundred years before Roman Catholicism, Irenaeus spoke of the church as being those who receive the Spirit. Far from being a historically Protestant doctrine, the doctrine of the universal church being composed of all of the redeemed is a historically ancient doctrine. The innovation comes from those who reject this truth.

 

“If, then, God promised him the inheritance of the land, yet he did not receive it during all the time of his sojourn there, it must be, that together with his seed, that is, those who fear God and believe in Him, he shall receive it at the resurrection of the just. For his seed is the Church, which receives the adoption to God through the Lord, as John the Baptist said: “For God is able from the stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Thus also the apostle says in the Epistle to the Galatians: “But ye, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of the promise.”10 And again, in the same Epistle, he plainly declares that they who have believed in Christ do receive Christ, the promise to Abraham thus saying, “The promises were spoken to Abraham, and to his seed. Now He does not say, And of seeds, as if [He spake] of many, but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” And again, confirming his former words, he says, “Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore, that they which are of faith are the children of Abraham. But the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, declared to Abraham beforehand, That in thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which are of faith shall be blessed with faithful Abraham.”12 Thus, then, they who are of faith shall be blessed with faithful Abraham, and these are the children of Abraham. Now God made promise of the earth to Abraham and his seed; yet neither Abraham nor his seed, that is, those who are justified by faith, do now receive any inheritance in it; but they shall receive it at the resurrection of the just. For God is true and faithful; and on this account He said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”[13]” Note that Irenaeus speaks of Abraham and says, “His seed is the Church, which receives the adoption to God through the Lord.” We cannot but accept that Irenaeus was teaching that the church has a universal aspect to her nature, and that universal church is composed of all who believe on Jesus Christ.

 

 

“Now I have shown a short time ago that the church is the seed of Abraham; and for this reason, that we may know that He who in the New Testament “raises up from the stones children unto Abraham,” is He who will gather, according to the Old Testament, those that shall be saved from all the nations, Jeremiah says: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, who led the children of Israel from the north, and from every region whither they had been driven; He will restore them to their own land which He gave to their fathers.”[14]” Again we read, “The Church is the seed of Abraham.” Could it be stated with any greater plainness that Irenaeus believed that the church is composed of the redeemed, whose faith is in Christ Jesus?

 

Clement of Alexandria 153-193-217

“Come, come, O my young people! For if you become not again as little children, and be born again, as saith the Scripture, you shall not receive the truly existent Father, nor shall you ever enter into the kingdom of heaven. For in what way is a stranger permitted to enter? Well, as I take it, then, when he is enrolled and made a citizen, and receives one to stand to him in the relation of father, then will he be occupied with the Father’s concerns, then shall he be deemed worthy to be made His heir, then will he share the kingdom of the Father with His own dear Son. For this is the first-born Church, composed of many good children; these are “the first-born enrolled in heaven, who hold high festival with so many myriads of angels.”[15]” Clement declares that the church is “composed of… ‘the first-born enrolled in heaven.’” Once again, history bears out that the belief in the church being composed of all the redeemed is of ancient origin, and did not come from Protestantism.

 

“And the Lord is called man, because He is perfect in righteousness. Directly in point is the instance of the apostle, who says, writing the Corinthians: “For I have espoused you to one man, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ,” whether as children or saints, but to the Lord alone. And writing to the Ephesians, he has unfolded in the clearest manner the point in question, speaking to the following effect: “Till we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: that we be no longer children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, by the craft of men, by their cunning in stratagems of deceit; but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up to Him in all things,”9—saying these things in order to the edification of the body of Christ, who is the head and man, the only one perfect in righteousness; and we who are children guarding against the blasts of heresies, which blow to our inflation; and not putting our trust in fathers who teach us otherwise, are then made perfect when we are the church, having received Christ the head.[16]” Once again we see that Clement describes the church universal as being composed of all the redeemed, when he says, “We are the church, having received Christ the head.”

 

“Further release from evils is the beginning of salvation. We then alone, who first have touched the confines of life, are already perfect; and we already live who are separated from death. Salvation, accordingly, is the following of Christ: “For that which is in Him is life.” “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My words, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into condemnation, but hath passed from death to life.”2 Thus believing alone, and regeneration, is perfection in life; for God is never weak. For as His will is work, and this is named the world; so also His counsel is the salvation of men, and this has been called the church. He knows, therefore, whom He has called, and whom He has saved; and at one and the same time He called and saved them. “For ye are,” says the apostle, “taught of God.” It is not then allowable to think of what is taught by Him as imperfect; and what is learned from Him is the eternal salvation of the eternal Saviour, to whom be thanks for ever and ever. Amen. And he who is only regenerated—as the name necessarily indicates—and is enlightened, is delivered forthwith from darkness, and on the instant receives the light.[17]” Clement again says, “His counsel is the salvation of men, and this has been called the church.” Those who are saved are called the church by Clement. Once again, it must be stated that we may not agree with every doctrine taught by these men of old; but our aim is to historically establish the fact that the teaching of the universal nature of the church is much more ancient than Protestantism.

 

“And if the Word, speaking of the Lord by David, sings, “The daughters of kings made Thee glad by honour; the queen stood at Thy right hand, clad in cloth of gold, girt with golden fringes,” it is not luxurious raiment that he indicates; but he shows the immortal adornment, woven of faith, of those that have found mercy, that is, the Church; in which the guileless Jesus shines conspicuous as gold, and the elect are the golden tassels.[18]” Clement speaks of the church as those that have found mercy. What can this be but the teaching that those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ comprise the church universal?

 

“And the earthly Church is the image of the heavenly, as we pray also “that the will of God may be done upon the earth as in heaven.[19]” We once again find the universal aspect of the church’s nature when we find Clement stating that the church is both earthly and heavenly.

 

“From what has been said, then, it is my opinion that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one, and that in it those who according to God’s purpose are just, are enrolled.[20]” This final quotation is very plain in stating that the true church is one church, and that those who are enrolled in it are those who are justified.

 

Conclusion

            Our aim having been to simply determine if any of the ancients of the early church believed that there was a universal nature to the church has presented us with proof that they did believe so. Several times these writers have stated that the church has a local nature, and that the church in her universal nature is composed of all of those who are redeemed through faith in Jesus Christ. While we may find ourselves disagreeing with these ancients on some doctrinal and practical issues, it must be remembered that our aim has been simply to determine what was historically believed among these first and second century writers. We can safely conclude that the belief in the church universal, composed of all of the redeemed is by no means a Protestant invention, nor is it of Roman Catholic origin; but it is much more ancient that either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), v.

[2] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 39.

[3] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 40.

[4] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 43.

[5] Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnæans,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 90.

[6] Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 229.

[7] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 330–331.

[8] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 419.

[9] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 458.

[10] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 470–471.

[11] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 495–496.

[12] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 515.

[13] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 561–562.

[14] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 563–564.

[15] Clement of Alexandria, “Exhortation to the Heathen,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 195.

[16] Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 213.

[17] Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 216.

[18] Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 266.

[19] Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 421.

[20] Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 555.

What Is The Church?

What Is The Church?

            Over the years many people all around the world have asked the question, “What is the church?” It is the aim of this post to answer that question from the most relevant and authoritative of places, the Bible.

            What is the church?  That is what we must determine before we delve into the composition and manifestation of the church.  The most basic meaning of the Greek word ekklesia which is translated “church” in the New Testament is “called out.”  This was a common term for a congregation or an assembly.  It speaks of those who are called out for a specific purpose and was specifically used in this manner when Luke spoke of the Ephesian assembly (which was a tumultuous mob) in Acts 19:32&39 where it is translated “assembly.”  With this in mind we can conclude that the church is a group of people called out by God for His own purpose.  In fact, Peter presents this fact to us very plainly saying, “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”  (1 Peter 2:9)  

The Old Testament Church

            Though very little is said about the nation of Israel being part of God’s church, the Bible does plainly present this fact to us.  Stephen, speaking of Moses, said, “This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us.”  (Acts 7:38)  Now, there are those who would wish to deny that this is indeed a reference to Israel as being a part of God’s church.  They would like to tell us that this is simply an assembly of people, and that is all that ekklesia is meant to convey to us in this context.  The fact remains, however, that the word ekklesia occurs more than 100 times in the New Testament, and only in Acts 19:32&39 is it translated “assembly.”  In every other instance it is translated “church” or “churches.”  The only time it is used to speak of an assembly other than the Lord’s church is in Acts 19:32&39.  The typical usage of ekklesia in the New Testament is in reference to a called out group of people.  That is precisely what the nation of Israel was.  “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.”  (Hosea 11:1) Thus, we can be assured that, though it did not function in the same manner as a New Testament church, there was indeed a church in the Old Testament.

The New Testament Church

            What about New Testament days?  How do we see the church in the New Testament?  First of all, the local church is certainly seen in the New Testament.  The church is there with her leaders, discipline, and ordinances.  At the same time the church is also seen as a larger body that is composed of all who know Jesus.  It is this manifestation of the church that we want to consider.

            When Jesus first mentions the church, He made a special promise to the church that actually demonstrates to us that the church is more than a local body alone.  Jesus said: “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  (Mt 16:18) KJV  Why say that this applies to more than the local church?  Because many local churches have died.  This promise must pertain to some form of church other than the local church.  Local church only proponents may say that this applies to the church in general.  To do so, however, is to concede that there is some form of church beyond the local church.  There is a church that shall never die, according to the promise of Jesus.  What church is it?

            The apostle Paul was one who understood the church to be general in nature and manifesting itself in local assemblies.  It was he who told us “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.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)  Entrance into the body of Christ comes by the baptism with the Holy Spirit (See Galatians 3:26-29).  The question then arises, into what body is one baptized?  Historically, Baptists have required water baptism for local church membership.  I think that is the right thing to do.  If this is so, into what one body is the believer baptized into when baptized with the Holy Spirit?

            Paul’s language again shows us the general nature of the church when he said “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28)  Having just told the Corinthian church that their local assembly was the body of Christ, he proceeds to tell them about the gifts that are given to the church.  The first gift mentioned was apostles.  Were the apostles given to the Corinthian church, or the church general which is composed of Holy Spirit baptized believers?

            There’s hardly another passage in which the church general can be seen more clearly than the following: “He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;  Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;  And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:  And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.   For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.   Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;  And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;  In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:  In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”   (Ephesians 2:14-22)  Paul states that the Jew and the Gentile have been made one.  By the cross the Jews and Gentiles are reconciled into one body.  There is no Gentile church or Jewish church.  There is only the Christian church.  There is no longer Israel as the only chosen of God.  Gentiles are fellow heirs with believing Israel.  We are of the same household as the believing Jew. Together the believing Jew and the believing Gentile are built into God’s holy temple.  By being reconciled to God, we are made into one body, this text tells us. God dwells in this church by the Holy Spirit.  One thing that local church only advocates miss is the fact that the body of Christ is present in this passage, but water baptism is not.  Neither will it serve any purpose to insist that it is implied.  What is expressly stated is that the cross is what brings people into this one body.  The body here is a body composed of the redeemed.

            The church as the body of the redeemed is seen again in Paul’s writings to the church at Ephesus.  “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;  That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,  That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.  So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.   For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:  For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.   For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.    This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.   Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.”  (Ephesians 5:25-33)  How does the church become the church?  By the cross of Christ.  This same Paul said, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”  (Acts 20:28) For whom did Jesus die?  He died for the church.  Who is the church?  Those who have been redeemed: the ones purchased by the blood of Christ.  Local church only advocates must notice that water baptism, as important as it is, is never mentioned in these two texts.  What is mentioned is redemption through the cross of Christ.  The church general is composed of blood bought Christians.

            Finally, the having seen the church as the bride of Christ, we must ask the question of the composition of the bride of Christ.  Who is in the bride?            

The Bride of Christ Composed of All Saints, Both Old Testament And New Testament Saints

            First of all, we must go to the Revelation to see the bride of Christ.  “I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.   Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.   And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.”  (Revelation 19:6-8) Many of those who advocate the local church only position state that  the white robes come from the righteous deeds of the saints.  In other words, the ones who are in the bride of Christ are the saints who live up to a certain standard of righteousness and holiness.  This standard has never been fully defined, to my knowledge.  It is supposed to begin with water baptism into the local church, however. 

            Does the Scripture uphold this view of the robes of righteousness being righteous works?  It is this writer’s contention that the Scriptures do not support that position.  Isaiah rejoiced in God’s grace saying, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.”  (Isaiah 61:10) Isaiah ascribed the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness as being a gratuitous gift from God, not as something done by the saint[1].  Jesus alludes to this in one of His parables:  “When the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:  And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.   Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.   For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:11-14) In Jesus’ day it was common for great men to invite many people to celebrate when family members were married.  We are told by some scholars that often the host would freely provide garments for his guests.  It was a great show of disrespect to one’s host to not wear the provided garments.  Jesus is telling us that we cannot partake of the joy of His kingdom if we do not accept the garments that He gives us.  What is the wedding garment, or the fine linen in which the bride shall be clothed in the day of her marriage to the Lamb?  It is the robe of righteousness.  It is the imputed righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 3:19-28;5:1-3).  Thus it is that the bride who has prepared herself and to whom it has been given to be arrayed in fine linen clean and white is none other than all those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God.  The bride of Christ is composed of those who are justified by faith in Jesus.

            We also see the bride of Christ portrayed in the book of the Revelation as the city New Jerusalem.  “There came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife.   And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.”   (Revelation 21:9-10) One statement especially about this city leads this writer to believe that all of the redeemed of all ages will be a part of the bride of Christ.  That statement is as follows: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.   For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” (Revelation 22:14-15) The reader will quickly notice that the only ones who are without the city are those who are not redeemed.  By this we readily see that the city is populated with the redeemed.  That being so, and the city being the bride, the bride of Christ is composed of all of the redeemed of all ages.  In fact, we find that Abraham and other Old Testament saints anticipated entrance into the New Jerusalem.  “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.    For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.   And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.   But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”  (Hebrews 11:13-16) This writer knows of no city for which they could have been looking other than the New Jerusalem, and God has prepared this city for them.  This being so, we can safely conclude that the church is the redeemed of all the ages.

The Local Church

            While considering these things, it is imperative that we recognize that the church generally is seen and experienced as the local church. What we mean by the local church is the church as it is established and ministers in a certain area. In many places within the New Testament, the church is referred to as being within a particular location. It is for this reason that Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, rather than to the state church of Galatia, composed of all of the Galatian churches. The New Testament knows nothing of a national or state church, but teaches us much about the local church composed of those baptized believers in a particular area. This is readily seen in the book of Acts. “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:41–47) The Jerusalem church was comprised of those believers who were baptized and were joined together in teaching, worship and communion. 

            Many people contend that the belief in the general church constitutes a denial of belief in the local church. This simply is not true, and is an uncharitable statement to make. In fact, the denial of the local church does not logically follow the belief in the larger body of Christ composed of all of the redeemed. Paul told the Corinthians that we are all baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ: “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.” (1 Corinthians 12:13) We know that this is true, because the Spirit that we all receive is the Spirit which was promised (See Ephesians 1:13-14 cf Isaiah 32:12-20;Joel 2:28-32;Acts 2:14-21). Every believer is baptized in/by the Spirit into the body of Christ. In the same chapter, however, Paul explicity tells the Corinthians that they, the local church, were the body of Christ: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) It is impossible to both believe the Bible and reject the truth of the local church. In fact it is no more biblical to deny the local church than it is to deny the church general, composed of all of the redeemed. Scripture teaches us both. 

            We also read Jesus saying, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18–19) Here Jesus tells us that there is a church that is unfailing in her existence. At the same time, this church has certain functions it exercises. This church has authority to bind and loose. That is, she can either declare            something lawful or unlawful, right or wrong, as she has been entrusted with the truth of God and is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). This points further to the exercise of discipline within the body of Christ in which the church has the authority to receive people into the membership and to loose them from their membership by means of excommunication, and to receive them again by means of forgiveness (See Romans 16:17;1 Corinthians 5;2 Thessalonians 3:5-16;Titus 3:10;2 Corinthians 2:1-11). This is worked out within the local body of the church. While it is true that we see in this text the larger body of Christ composed of the redeemed, it also points us to this body being experienced and showing herself in the activities of each local church. This also leads us to understand that each local church is a distinct body, which is autonomous under Christ: no other body has authority over the local church, because Christ and His Word is the authority.

            As Paul taught Timothy concerning the ministry, he wrote to him as one who was laboring in a local church. He told him the qualifications of those who would serve the local body, and told him that he was writing for a purpose: “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:14–15) Paul’s counsel for Timothy was for the purpose of instructing him in how he should conduct himself in the church where he was laboring and leading. The same could be said concerning Paul’s letter to Titus.

            When Jesus gave us instructions concerning relationships, he did so with the understanding that the local church had authority in these matters. “But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:16–20) Not only does the local church have authority in matters of relationships and discipline, but Christ Jesus dwells in the local church. This is why He said that He would be in the middle of the gathering of two or there who get together in His name. When God’s people determine to do God’s work in God’s way, Christ is present with them. Considering the fact that these things always occur in a locality, we can certainly understand that this refers to the actions of a local body.

            Finally, as we consider the gifts and ministries that are given by the Spirit of God, we find that they are found being used within the local body. Paul taught the Roman church about this (Romans 12:1-8). He also went into great detail with the Corinthians concerning this: “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. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: and those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (1 Corinthians 12:13–27) Though there is reference to the general body of Christ, we also find that the gifts of the Spirit have their residence and benefit within the local church. Paul informed Corinth that their local body was the very body of Christ. Each local church is a complete body of Christ, established to carry out the commandments of God in her area.


[1] It is interesting to note that clothes cover, and that the meaning of atonement is covering. There is good reason to think that the robes of righteousness represent both atonement and justification through Christ Jesus our Savior.