I read of a man who was in town on business; it was going to take about ten days. As he was walking his hotel after dinner one evening he noticed a sign which read “Chinese Laundry.” By that time he had plenty of dirty clothes, so he made a note of the address. In the morning he was back with a big bundle of dirty laundry. When he plopped the big bag down, the clerk demanded to know what he was doing. The man said, “Well, I’ve heard that Chinese Laundry’s do excellent work, so I brought my dirty clothes.” Quickly the young lady replied, “But this isn’t Chinese Laundry; we’re a sign shop.”
Similarly, there are a lot of establishments out there which have the title “church” in window, but actually they are in some kind of other business. Last Sunday, Judy and I were in a modern North American city of 1.4 million people. Our hosts are reasonably sure that there isn’t a scriptural church anywhere in that city or its environs. But we did attend two congregations, both of which THINK they are churches of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the morning we visited a Baptist church of moderate size – with about a hundred people in that service. The pastor had a message on “the New Covenant,” using what he said was Hebrews 8. Sadly, I found it hard to recognize because it was in a translation which I couldn’t recognize. But of course, I can’t immediately recognize any of the versions produced in the last 120 years. The bulletin announced that there was a grandparenting seminar, and that next Saturday the church had tickets for the Calgary Stampeder’s Football game with a tailgate party preceding it. During the announcements, the pastor said that he was excited about his upcoming series of messages in preparation for and concluding on the 500 anniversary of the Reformation – October 31. Following the message, and during the rock-and-roll concert/church service, we attended a Sunday School class where a Korean man with a strong accent tried to read a booklet commenting on an Old Testament passage of scripture. The church is a member of the old Northern Baptist Convention, which became liberal a century ago.
Then at 4:00 in the afternoon we attended Calgary’s Free Reformed Church. It was an interesting, eye-opening service. For example, never have I heard as much public prayer as in that service – long, specific, soul-grabbing prayer. Even though the piano prelude included many of the hymns from our book, all the singing during the service was from a Psalter – nothing but versions of the Psalms. Then I have never heard as many quotations from this Protestant catechism and that Protestant confession, many of which were designed to blast Roman Catholicism. There was far more reference to the Heidelberg Catechism than there was to the New King James Bible the pastor was using. And he was as skilled as the most eloquent Baptist preacher at starting with one Bible verse and running away from there to his theme – which had next to nothing to do with that verse. I don’t know this for a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard the pastor at some point proclaim that his was the only true church of Christ in the city. BUT, the theme of his message was “close communion,” because he believes that all true believers are members of the mystical, universal church, the body of Christ. Would I consider his a Church of Christ? I wouldn’t consider either church we attended one of the Lord’s. And as I say, our hosts don’t know of a single church in that large city which preaches the whole counsel of God.
There are at least six misconceptions about what constitutes “a church.” Some people believe that a true church is the boundless mass of all people who call themselves “Christians.” Like that Reformed pastor, they say that the TRUE CHURCH is mystical and never gathers here on earth. Other people say that any group of three or more Christians constitutes a church. Or any group of people that preaches the Bible and observes the “sacraments.” Or any state approved denomination, like “the Lutheran church” or the “Catholic church.” Some say that a church is all the saved in heaven and earth. Nearly anyone with a religious opinion confuse the church with the “kingdom of God” or the “family of God.”
Most these misconceptions flow from over-active imaginations and cheap dictionaries. There is very, very little scripture which people can even misquote that teach such ideas. For example, there’s not even single hint of the church in any of the 39 books of the Old Testament. But my new Reformed friend would say that there is. Looking into the future, the Book of Revelation doesn’t help the cause of the errorists, because the only kind of churches in Revelation are local assemblies. The Gospels, filled with Jesus’ own words, certainly don’t demand any of the ideas I have just mentioned. And the Book of Acts sounds the death knell to these things. Despite these facts the heresies continue to be zealously preached. And there are basically two books that are misused to teach these errors – Ephesians and Colossians.
Tonight I’d like to take just one of these books and examine the Bible doctrine of Church. The word “Church,” or in the Greek “ecclesia,” is found four times in Colossians. The theme of the book is not the church, but rather the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Despite this fact, let’s look at the church in Colossians.
The first two references we’ll lump together.
Notice verse 16 – “For by (Christ Jesus) were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence….” Now verse 23 – “If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God.”
Without any confusion, we are told that the New Testament church is the body of Christ. You will have a hard time finding a theologian anywhere who will disagree with that. Both the brethren I heard last Sunday would quickly say that, and I think one of them actually did. But the question arises: “What is the body of Christ and, thus, what is the church?” Obviously, this body is not the literal, fleshly body of Jesus. It is not the tabernacle in which Jesus was born, growing from 6 to 186 pounds. It must be then a body of a different kind, perhaps even a metaphor. The church here in Colosse must either be a local congregation or one of the six misconceptions. If we can answer these two questions we’ll be well on way understanding doctrine of the “ecclesia.”
I have never read a scholar or writer who said that Colossians was not originally written to single church. Verse 1 doesn’t say: “To the church of Colosse,” but clearly it was. What it does say – “To the saints and faithful brethren in Colosse.” And verses 18 and 24 both make reference to an “ecclesia” – a church. And of course, “ecclesia” means “assembly” or as more modernly understood – a “congregation.” There is not one competent scholar who will deny that this is meaning of the word “ecclesia.” Even those scholars who reject the doctrine which I teach say that is the meaning of the word.
The question of “what is a church” is actually a question of whether the Bible means what it says. The problem boils down to whether or not God could speak the language which Paul used – Greek. Can the Spirit who inspired Paul to write the Greek word “ecclesia” be trusted to mean what He said? The enemies of our doctrine have needed half a millennia, but they’ve almost succeeded in getting people to believe that black is actually white. In this case – assemblies don’t have to assemble to still be assemblies. Congregations don’t have to congregate to be called congregations. Brethren, that is not logical, not sane, not honest and definitely not Biblical.
Paul told the Corinthians, “Ye are the body of Christ” and essentially he does here as well. What does that say to you? If I told Brother Bill that he is a nice fellow, and I told Brother James that he is a nice person, does that mean that they are the same person – either physically, mystically or spiritually? They are both good people, but they are two separately good people. And they may be nice in two different ways. When Paul tells both the Corinthians and the Colossians that they are the body of Christ, then it must be they are both bodies of Christ separated by several hundred miles.
That upsets the theology of a lot people, but makes it makes a thousand times more sense than implying that they were part of a dissected body or an unassembled assembly. If we took the body of store mannequin and cut it apart, and we all took a part to our various homes, it would be exceedingly weird. After we all got home would we still have a body? That is exactly the kind of body, most Protestants have. “Oh, but you said that the body of Christ may be figurative, so why can’t it be larger life?” Will you draw for me a picture of an Hup-e-sos-ti-mus? Why not? You can’t do it, because it doesn’t exist; I made it up. An illustration can only illustrate something that is real, actual. I ask you, is the church – the body of Christ – real or it is fiction? The body of Christ is not intangible, it can be found, it is the local church. A “body” is the best way to describe its organization and make-up.
In verse 23 Paul says “I am a minister.” To whom did he minister? At times he ministered to the church in Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, but now he was in Colosse. This is what he says in verse 24. What if he said merely, “I am a church minister,” or “I serve God’s church”? The abstract use of some Bible words really confuses some people. The generic or abstract use of language lumps single and individual things together. Colossians 1:4 – “Your faith” – whose faith? The individual’s faiths — many of the people of Colosse. They all had varying degrees of faith, but Paul referred to all their faiths as one. This is what he does with the church – all individual but united in one word. And when the Lord Jesus said, “I will build my church” it was Jerusalem, Antioch, and Post Falls. Colossians 2:11 – “Put off the body of sins.” Did the congregation do that at one time? Each person individually must put off sin. Colossians 2:12 – “buried in baptism.” Was there a huge splash of the whole church? Paul was a minister to the body of Christ – first one body then another and another.
The third and fourth 4th references to “church” in Colossians can be found in 4:15-16.
“Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house. And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.” There are several important things to notice right here. Nymphas was a Christian of the City of Laodicea, perhaps even the pastor. Will you recognize that church was different from the church in Colosse? This would have been a perfect place to teach that they were really only one church. But they were different churches – different bodies of Christ in different cities. And notice, too, that the church is differentiated from those who were called “the brethren.” A brother in Christ is a person who is a part of the family of God. How does one become a part of that family? John 1:12-13 – “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Galatians 3:26 – “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” These brethren of verse15 were saved by the grace of God and thus a part of God’s family. But how does one enter the church? Acts 2:41-42 – “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.”
There is a difference between the family of God and the church of God. The family of God will all rejoice in many the glories of Heaven. The church of God will be there too but rejoicing in many more of the glories of Heaven, because of the rewards of their obedience.
Notice too, that Paul does not “salute the PART of the church which Nymphas’ house.” That is what he would say if believed in a universal church. Turn to Romans 16. Verse 1 – “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea.” Verse 4 – “Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my wellbeloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ.” Verse 16 – “Salute one another with an holy kiss. The churches of Christ salute you.” Verse 23 – “Gaius mine host, and of the whole church, saluteth you.” We could spend the next hour looking at different local churches in the Bible. The only way to find a universal church in the Bible is misinterpret a few scriptures.
The connection between these separated churches is their similar doctrine and their divine Head. Each congregation in Bible is complete in itself in the Lord. Scripturally, they can’t unionize and organize into anything larger than their own assembly. When they transfer allegiance from Christ to directors, presidents and administrators, they have ceased to function as a scriptural church.
Does this mean that they must exist in isolation? Not at all. Because we have one faith, one Lord, and one baptism, we ought to fellowship with others of like faith. No doubt, there were a few differences between the congregation in Colosse and Laodicea, but they were doctrinally similar if not actually twins. And that is why Paul could generalize and “gen-eric-alize.” He could lump them together, but in words only because they were still two separate churches.
This is what the Bible teaches and at the same time what the religions of the world hate. But if we give up this doctrine as I’ve outlined it right here I believe that there would be little reason to exist as a separate church. Give up this doctrine and we might as well join with any other church in town. Is this where we stand as a church.