“Church” (Greek ekklesia) is the term chosen by Jesus to describe the collective of the people who would follow after and serve Him in His Kingdom (Matthew 16:18, 18:17). An ekklesia is an assembly, referring equally to a group of people physically together (an assemblage) as well as a group of people with a shared identity (whether physically together or not). The New Testament describes ekklesiai as highly organized as a deliberative legislative body in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:39) and as disorganized as the riot which plagued the same city (cf. Acts 19:32).
When ekklesia is used to speak of God’s people, it often is used to describe all Christians at all times. The nature of the ekklesia is communicated through three predominant metaphorical images. The church is described in terms of a body (Colossians 1:18): it is one body (Ephesians 4:4), consisting of Jesus as its Head and all faithful Christians as the various parts of the body (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 5:23-24). The church is also described in terms of a temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17): Jesus is its cornerstone, the Apostles and prophets the foundation, and all faithful Christians as the stones comprising the Temple’s walls (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:3-5). The church is also described as the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15): God is the Father, Jesus is the elder Brother, and all faithful Christians are sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 8:14-17, Colossians 1:2, Hebrews 2:11-17).
These images are more functionally applied on a more local level in the New Testament: the ekklesia of a given city or area, like the ekklesia of Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2) or the ekklesia in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Whereas there is only one ekklesia on the “universal” level (Ephesians 4:4), the New Testament speaks of many of these ekklesiai in the different cities and regions around the Mediterranean Sea. The “local” church was the collective of individuals who identified themselves as members of said church and, whenever possible, were under the oversight of qualified men who served as elders for that “local” church (1 Timothy 3:1-8, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-4). In the first century, the “local” congregation with elders would also have qualified deacons serving in whatever capacity was needed (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:9-12), perhaps an evangelist promoting the Gospel (Ephesians 4:11), and prophets exhorting believers to faithfulness (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1-33, Ephesians 4:11). The members of the “local” church were to assemble on the first day of the week to devote themselves to the Apostles’ teachings, to observe the Lord’s Supper, to hear the Scriptures read and its message preached, and to sing, pray, and give (Acts 2:42, 20:7, 1 Corinthians 14:14-19, 16:1-3, 1 Timothy 4:13). As a collective they were to give benevolence to Christians in need and to support the work of evangelism (Acts 11:27-30, 1 Corinthians 9:3-15, Philippians 4:14-17). They were to diligently build the church up in love, ever growing stronger in its connection with Jesus the Head (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Yet changes began as soon as the apostolic period ended. Within a generation a bishop would be installed over the elders over a congregation. Over the next thousand years the “catholic” church in the west and east would develop a more streamlined hierarchy of rulers, and envision the church as an institution more than a collective of people. By 1000 the “catholic” church maintained political power and perceived religious authority, claiming for itself the right to decide who was in and who was not, believing God to be bound to do whatever they decided in binding and loosing. The work of the church was expanded well beyond anything seen in the New Testament.
The Reformation in the sixteenth century gained momentum as a reaction to many of the excesses of the Roman Catholic institution, but it would spawn all sorts of different forms of church governance and understandings of the work of the church. Some maintained a strongly defined pattern of leaders and invested their leaders with great authority; others sought to have no authority figures whatsoever; many were somewhere in between. Many still looked to these religious organizations to provide benevolence, education, hospital care, and such things for everyone in the community. By the nineteenth century, many such religious organizations began to strongly emphasize those works over the work of evangelism.
21st century America has inherited all of these different traditions and understandings of the nature and work of the church. There is a strong tendency to proclaim tolerance and inclusiveness and thus to minimize the importance of these differences. It is now fashionable to believe that God always intended for such “variety” to exist, and that all of these different denominations are really just different expressions of Jesus’ one church. To many people today, the differences between, say, the Baptist church and the Methodist church are equivalent to the differences between the church in Corinth and the church in Philippi.
Yet on what basis do they make such claims? Where is the evidence to show that God has little concern with how the church is organized and with the work it chooses to accomplish? How can anyone be so sure that these differences are not really meaningful and important?
The discussion must come back to the record of the establishment of the church and its functions by God in Christ as revealed in the New Testament. In that record Paul reveals how he set forth the same guidelines in all the churches (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:17). The same gospel was to be preached, believed, and obeyed among the churches of Galatia as in Jerusalem, Corinth, and Rome (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). Elders were appointed in the mostly Jewish church in Jerusalem and the mostly Gentile church in Philippi (Acts 11:30, Philippians 1:1); the Apostle Peter himself told elders to shepherd and oversee the local congregation “as a fellow-elder” (1 Peter 5:1-4). The differences among local congregations involved geography and the peculiar characteristics of the members; the differences did not involve doctrines, work, or governance!
In 1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Paul intends for the Christians in Corinth to learn from the example of Israel in the past so as to not follow after the same pattern of disobedience. We have examples in Scripture for our learning, to follow after what is good, and reject what is evil (cf. Romans 15:4). Let us therefore make an appeal for the restoration of the New Testament church: not following after the patterns of disobedience which led to apostolic censure, but the pursuit of those things toward which they exhorted, encouraged, and praised. There will be some differences: certain gifts, like prophecy and speaking in tongues, have passed away (1 Corinthians 13:8-10); 21st century America is different in many ways from the 1st century Mediterranean world. But that which we can share in common is far greater! We can know for certain that if we understand the nature of the church (ekklesia) as it was properly understood in the first century, establish the God-given form of governance and direction for local churches, and follow the pattern of benevolence, evangelism, and edification as practiced in the New Testament church, we can be confident that such glorifies and honors God. If we follow after the divergent paths that have come after the New Testament, on what basis can we ever be sure that we honor God? How can we be sure that we have not made a god out of our own views if we diverge from the pattern which God has provided? If we really believe that Jesus is Lord, and that the church should be subject to Him (cf. Ephesians 5:23-24), should we not trust in the way He guided His Apostles to establish the church in the first century and follow the same path? How else can we do all things in His name (Colossians 3:17)?
The church should be the people of God who submit to the will of Jesus, not a religious institution or organization following after the philosophies and traditions of men. Let us seek to manifest the New Testament church in the twenty-first century and glorify and honor Jesus our Savior!