Autonomy and Authority - 3
Two Uses of the Word “ekklesia”
To help us understand more fully he nature of the assembly we must distinguish its two aspects in the NT. Our word for ‘church' or ‘assembly' is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia (lit. “called out”) and, apart from three isolated occurrences, is applied exclusively to the believers in Christ of this present dispensation who have been “called out” to God and salvation by the message of the Gospel.
Firstly, it is used to describe the total number of the redeemed throughout the whole church-age from Pentecost to the Parousia when Christ will return for His Church. This is seen in the Lord's revelation to Peter, “I will build my Church” (Matt.16.18), and again in its description as, “the Church which is His Body”(Eph.1.22-23). Here then is “the Body” aspect of the Church which includes all true believers in our Lord Jesus Christ whoever they are and wherever they may be found throughout the world, in addition to all who are already at Home in heaven with the Lord. They have believed in Christ, are partakers of His life, and been brought into an indissoluble union with Him being “baptised into one body” (1 Cor.12.13).
All believers therefore are members of the body of Christ and united to Him its Head in an organic unity. Describing this aspect of the ekklesia J.M. Davies in his book The Lord and the Churches writes, “The Church then is the aggregate of all who have been constituted members of the body of Christ, all true believers in our Lord Jesus Christ irrespective of racial or national difference, denominational affiliation, or of spiritual growth and enlightenment. Automatically this cancels out the idea that the Church and Christendom are synonymous. The latter includes all the mass who profess to bear the name of Christ, even though that profession bears no resemblance to what is essentially true of Christianity or Christian experience”.
Secondly, ekklesia is used of a company of believers who come together in their own locality to worship God and witness for Christ, and to corporately give expression to their supernatural life in Jesus Christ. These assemblies are clearly designated throughout the NT in reference to the place where they gathered, so we read of “the church of God which is at Corinth ” (1 Cor.1.2) or, “the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Phil ippi ” ( Phil .1.1), and again, Paul referring to Priscilla and Aquila writes of “the Church that is in their house” (Rom.16.5). Never in the NT do we read of an amalgamation of assemblies distinguished by a group name—they are always “local” assemblies having their individual entities and addressed as such as we have just seen.
Again, these assemblies are never addressed as district, regional, nationals, or international churches (the reference in Galatians 1.22 to “the Churches of Judea” obviously refers to all the individual assemblies throughout the Judean region and not to a confederation or union of churches), only and ever as assemblies in a locality. And these assemblies never had any central authority or power to control them. They were autonomous and under the Lordship of Christ alone, and free from all outside interference bringing them into bondage to the rule of men.
The Church historian E.H. Broadbent in The Pilgrim Church distinguishes these two aspects of God's ekklesia , that is “the Body” and “local” aspects of the Church, when he comments, “The New Testament reveals the Church of Christ , born again through faith in the Son of God and so made partakers of the Divine and Eternal Life (John 3.16). As this Body, the whole Church of Christ , cannot be seen and cannot act in any one place, since many of its members are already with Christ and others scattered throughout the world, it is appointed to be actually known and to bear its testimony in the form of churches of God in various places and at different times. Each of these local assemblies consists of those disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ who, in the place where they live, gather together in His Name. To such the presence of the Lord in their midst is promised and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit is given in different ways through all the members (Mat.18.20; 1 Cor.12.7). Each of these churches stands in direct relationship to the Lord, draws its authority from Him and is responsible to Him (Rev. 2 & 3). There is no suggestion that one church should control another or that any organised union of churches should exist, but an intimate personal fellowship unites them (Acts 15.36; 11.27-30 etc)”.
Also emphasising this same truth of local assembly autonomy and that one assembly has no right of control over any other, the Greek scholar and exegete W.E. Vine writing from the aspect of church unity, wrote, “ There is no hint anywhere in the New Testament, of anything like a unity consisting of the combination of a number of communities, or assemblies, delimited by geographical conditions, or formed into earthly associations or circles of fellowship, nor is there any hint of a number of churches bound together by the bonds either of formulated religious creeds or of human tradition. No matter whether such communities are organised by mutual consent or under a church council or any form of ecclesiastical authority centralised in a given locality, all such combinations are a distinct departure from the plain teaching of Christ and His apostles. They do not constitute the unity spoken of in Eph.4.3 or any other part of the Word of God. They are the outcome of human conceptions and operations. They satisfy the aspirations of men but are contrary to the mind of the Lord” ( The Church and the Churches ).
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