In the past few months, I’ve observed a trend online in which some Christian folks who claim to be “watching the church in Nigeria” virulently attack churches in a manner that sounds more cultic than Biblical, and they succeed in brainwashing their followers because many seem to be ignorant of basic ecclesiology. In my interaction with Catholics too, I also find out that they have a rather idiosyncratic and elastic definition of the word “church.” This area seems to be the benchmark of their deception.
Interestingly, this confusion wasn’t unknown in the early church. For example, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in contending against the Novatian schism wrote that: the catholic church is “the sole Ark of salvation” and that “he cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother … He that rends and divides the church of Christ cannot possess the clothing of Christ” (Henry Scowcroft Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, London, 1967, 108)
The major snag in Cyprian’s view is his refusal to clearly distinguish between what is meant by “visible” and “invisible” church. This is also the same error prevalent today, hence a succinct look at ecclesiology will help.
Ecclesiology is a combination of two words: Greek “Ecclesia” meaning church, and English “logy” meaning study. Therefore, ecclesiology is the study about the church of Jesus Christ.
Smith’s Bible Dictionary says:
“Ecclesia (ekklesia) the Greek word for church, originally meant an assembly called out by the magistrate, or by the legitimate authority. It was in this last sense that the word was adapted and applied by the writers of the New Testament to the Christian congregation. In the one Gospel of St. Matthew the church is spoken of no less than thirty-six times as “the kingdom.” Other descriptions or titles are hardly found in the evangelists. It is Christ’s household.”
The New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia has this to say about “ecclesia”:
“Although Gk. Ekklesia became a distinctively Christian word, it has both a Greek and an OT history. In the Greek world it was used of a public assembly summoned by a herald (ek, “out,” and kalein, “to call; cf. Acts 19:32, 39f). In the LXX it was used for the Heb. Qahal, which denotes the congregation or people of Israel, especially as gathered before the Lord (cf. Acts 7:32).”
Easton’s Bible Dictionary has this to say about the word “Church”:
“Derived probably from the Greek kuriakon (i.e., “the Lord’s house), which was used by ancient authors for the place of worship. In the New Testament it is the translation of the Greek word ecclesia, which is synonymous with the Hebrew kahal of the Old Testament, both words meaning simply an assembly, the character of which can only be known from the connection in which the word is found.”
The word “Ecclesia” appears in the NT 115 times and in each case except 5, it refers to the Church of Christ. The word nowhere refers to a building or a denomination as it is commonly used today. It is used for the Church of Christ in two major ways:
1. The Invisible Church
The invisible church is the combination of all the regenerated persons since the beginning of the church till the second coming of Christ. It consists of the whole body of the redeemed in all nations, all those whom the Father has given to Christ.
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18)
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over … If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15, 17).
“Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the Church of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:32)
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).
The invisible church is made up of all born again Christians in all nations, hence it’s also called the universal church. It is from this word universal that the Greek adjective katholikos is derived. Tragically, the word ‘catholic’ has been snagged on by Roman Catholicism and much baggage has been read into its meaning. But in its proper usage, the term “universal” cannot be “Roman” anymore than it’s “Gaelic”” or “Egyptian.” So the term Roman Catholic is an oxymoron.
Once a person is saved, he/she automatically becomes a member of the invisible church regardless of tribe, race, language or nationality. One doesn’t become a member of the invisible church by natural birth, joining a local church or by marriage but by repentance and belief in the Gospel (Acts 2:47).
The invisible church is the only body of Christ. Christ has one Body, not many bodies. Therefore, neither a local church nor an individual Christian should regard itself or himself as the body or a body of Christ. They are simply a part of Christ’s body. “The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12).
2. The Visible churches
These are the assemblies of believers in various locations such as provinces, cities, or homes etc. Wherever the children of God may be gathering, whether it’s a living room, classroom or church building, they are the visible churches of Christ and Christ is in their midst (Matt. 18:20). It is called ‘visible’ because its members are known and its assembles are public.
“News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch” (Acts 11:22)
“And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.” (Acts 15:4)
“And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily” (Acts 16:5)
“… All the churches of Christ send greetings” (Romans 16:16)
“The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor. 16:19).
“Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house” (Col. 4:15)
“John, to the seven churches in the province of Asia” (Rev. 1:4)
While the invisible church is one and indivisible, the visible churches are many. Not every member of the visible churches is a part of the invisible church. The invisible church is within the visible. In the visible church is a mixture of “wheat and chaff;” of saints and sinners. In fact, some visible churches are not true churches of Christ.
While the invisible church has Christ alone as its head (cf. Eph. 5:23), visible churches are led by ordained ministers, elders, pastors, deacons etc. The visible church can be also be divided by schism, heresies, rebellion or drift into apostasy (1Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:6, 1 Tim. 6:3-5, 2 John 10)
No church can save, Jesus does. No church died on the cross for our sins, Jesus did. No church is the Ark of salvation, Jesus is. To become a part of the invisible church “whose names are written in Heaven” (Heb. 12:2), you first need to acknowledge you have been a sinner, repent and believe the Gospel. Then in order for a believer to grow in love, faith and mutual nurture, he/she needs to be part of a visible church.