A Society of Christians
The word Church in our common discourse is used in a variety of senses. Sometimes it signifies the material building erected for Divine worship; sometimes it means the people usually assembling in such a building; sometimes the aggregate body of the clergy as distinguished from the laity; sometimes the collective body of professing Christians. As general use is the law of language, it does not become us to take exception to the variety of significations that are given to the term by our best writers; nor can we even say that much practical inconvenience arises from them, inasmuch as the accompanying circumstances usually determine the specific sense in which the word is to be understood.
But it is never to be forgotten that, when we come to the interpretation of the word of God, the variety of senses commonly attached to the term is altogether inadmissible, and would, if adopted, darken and corrupt the meaning of Divine revelation. The word Church in Scripture has always one meaning, and one only – an assembly of the people of God – a society of Christians.
The Greek word ecclesia, in its primary and civil sense, means any assembly called together for any purpose (Acts 19:32); but in its appropriated and religious sense, it means a society of Christians, and is invariably translated by the word Church.
Examine the Scriptures from the commencement to the close, and you find that the word Church never has any other meaning but that which we have stated. Let any man who feels disposed to dispute this statement, produce, if he can, any passage from the Word of God where the sense would be impaired, if the phrase society of Christians, or Christian assembly were substituted for the word Church. This, we are persuaded, would be impossible.
Though the meaning of the word Church is in Scripture always the same, let it be observed that its applications are various. It is applied, at the pleasure of the writer, to any society of Christians, however great, or however small. Examples of this fact will not fail to suggest themselves to all who are familiar with the Word of God. We give a few passages as specimens:-
- Col. 4:15. “Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the Church which is in his house.” There the term is applied to a society of Christians so small as to be able to find accommodation in a private dwelling house.
- Acts 11:22. “Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the Church which was in Jerusalem.” There it means a society of Christians residing in the same city, and including, as we know on excellent authority, several thousand persons.
- Acts 7:38. “This is he [Moses] that was in the Church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in Mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us.” Here the word signifies a society of Christians – an assembly of God’s people so large as to include a whole nation, consisting at the time of at least two millions in number. The term is also applied to the people of God in the days of David, when residing in Canaan, spread over a great extent of territory, and amounting to many millions. Heb. 2:12, compared with Psa. 22:22-25.
- 1 Cor. 12:28. “And 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.” Here the term means the society of Christians residing on earth; for it was among them, not among the saints in glory, that God raised up men endowed with apostolic and prophetical gifts.
- Eph. 5:25. “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it.” The word is here used to signify the society of Christians in the largest sense – all for whom Christ died – the whole family of God – all saints in heaven and all believers on earth, viewed as one great company.
Let it be observed, however, that, amid all this variety of application, the word Church never alters its sense. Its meaning in every occurrence is the same. However applied, it never ceases to signify a society of Christians; but whether the society that the inspired writer has in view is great or small, general or particular, is to be learned, not from the term, but from the circumstances in which the term is used. In every instance it is from the context, never from the word itself, that we are to gather whether the society of Christians, intended by the writer, is to be understood of the collective company of God’s people in heaven and earth, or only of those on the earth, in a nation, in a city, or in a private house.
The practice – into which the best expositors of Scripture are occasionally betrayed – of taking up some idea conveyed by the context only, and regarding that idea as entering into the meaning of some particular word, has been shown by a late eminent critic to be the origin of those numerous significations – perplexing by their very multitude – appended almost to every word in our classical dictionaries, and the prolific source of errors in the interpretation of the Word of God.
This is obviously what has led many to suppose that the word Church has two meanings – signifying something different when referring to the universal body of believers, from what it does when denoting the body of believers connected with a particular locality. The truth is, that the word Church has only one meaning, but it has a variety of applications. The term of itself never conveys any idea but a society of Christians; it is the context that invariably determines its general or particular application. It is manifestly inaccurate, therefore, to maintain that an idea, invariably conveyed by the context, enters into the meaning of the term; when, as all must admit, the term, apart from the context, does not suggest either a limited or universal application.
Had we occasion to speak of the several Christian congregations of a province or nation in their separate capacity, it would be quite in accordance with the Scriptural idiom to designate them the Churches of that region. None can forget how frequently the Apostle speaks of the Churches of Syria and Achaia, Galatia and Asia. So, if we required to speak of the individual congregations of Christians in Ireland – the separate Christian societies scattered over the country – we might denominate them the Churches of Ireland, there being nothing in existing ecclesiastical usages to make such language either unintelligible or liable to be misunderstood.
But it deserves to be noticed that, when we use such phrases as the “Established Church of Scotland,” the “Episcopal Church of America,” or the “Presbyterian Church of Ireland,” there is no departure whatever from the Scriptural sense of the word. The meaning of the word in Scripture, as we have seen, invariably is a society of Christians, and this is precisely its meaning in any of the above phrases; the context, at the same time, limiting the Christians in question to those professing certain principles, and belonging to a particular country. When we employ, for instance, such a designation as the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the word Church is used precisely in the Scriptural sense to denote a society of Christians, which we learn from the context professes Presbyterian principles and resides in Ireland.
The propriety of applying the term to signify the Christian people of a country, does not arise from the fact that they are ever assembled in one congregation, either personally or by representatives, but from the fact that the mind contemplates them as a collective body. All saints in heaven and believers on earth are styled the Church, not because they are assembled either literally or figuratively, but because, in the view of the mind, they are regarded as a great society, separated from the world, and united by common principles into one great brotherhood.
And so the Christians of any denomination, though composing a multitude of congregations, may, in their aggregate capacity, be properly styled a Church, not because they are either figuratively or literally assembled, but because, in the view of the mind, they are regarded as a collective body, distinguished from others, and united among themselves, by the profession of a common creed.
Some writers, indeed, give a different account of the matter. They tell us that the universal community of Christians in heaven and on earth is called in Scripture the Church, not because they are viewed as one great brotherhood, united by common principles, but because they “are at all times truly and properly assembled in Jesus.” It is a mere fancy to suppose that the mind ever takes such a fact into account, when employing the term in its universal application; but, if so, it does not alter the case. The Christians of a particular district, or of a province, or of a nation, may be properly designated a Church for the same reasons; because they also “are at all times truly and properly assembled in Jesus.” There is no sense in which all the Christians on earth and in heaven are “assembled in Jesus,” that the Christians of any particular country are not thus assembled. If the whole is assembled, so also are the parts.
Take the matter either way, the Christians of a district, or a province, or a kingdom, holding certain principles in common, if viewed as a collective community, are a Church, exactly in the sense of the Scriptures. They are a Society of Christians.