One of the most confusing aspects of any study of Scripture is the misuse of the word church. The English word church comes from the Greek adjective kyriakos “as used in some phrase as kyriakon doma or kyriake oikia, meaning ‘the Lord’s house,’ i.e., a Christian place of worship.”1 The New Testament word ecclesia does not refer either to a building, or to an institution, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church of America, and the like.
The Old Testament has two words to designate the covenant people: ‘edhah (congregation) and qahal (assembly). The Greek word ecclesia conveys both meanings. As Alfred Plummer noted, “The name ‘Church’ is in itself strong evidence of the connexion [sic] between the Old Covenant and the New.”2 S. C. Gayford said, “Ecclesia is used in NT of a single community of Christians, or of the sum of the single communities, the whole body of Christians.”3 Moshe Weinfeld has written of the Old Testament usage of congregation, that it refers to “the people of Israel” in their “social, military, and sacral capacity,”4 A careful reading of the Old Testament makes clear that congregation includes “church,” “state,” army, and more.
A Covenant People or the Building?
Rather early, however, church came to mean the institution and the building, although this meaning only became fixed in the later “medieval” period. The equation of the institution with the church led to the growth of Rome’s power in the institutional sense. The reading of Scripture made clear how broad the scope of the church is, but the institution claimed the scope and the power of the church. The Reformation did not alter matters; theology changed, but ecclesiology was less altered, and Milton was able to observe rightly, “New presbyter is but old priest writ large.” Subsequent history has not altered that course. Baptists broke with this tradition, but they retained the use of the word church for the local congregation and building and thus read Scripture on the church in terms of a local institution. Thus the institutional frame was still retained.
Some English theologians came up with still another answer. They recognized the broad and inclusive nature of the word church. Plainly, it included people, church, state, school, and more. These men sought to restore the more catholic meaning of the word church, but as opposed to the late medieval inclusion of all spheres and powers under the institution for worship, they included all under the monarch. The nation was to be a covenant nation, both church and state, and it was to be a restoration of the lost unity which Christendom was seeking. Freemantle described the English settlement thus:
It recognizes that the will of Christ resides, not in the ministers of public worship acting separately, but in the whole brotherhood, to which alone we can apply the words, “His body, the fullness of Him who filleth all in all.” And this is consonant with the most ancient opinion and usage of the Church….
We may sum up the Reformation settlement, then, in these terms. The whole body of citizens, which was called by one collective term. “This Church and Realm” (a single word followed by a verb in the singular number), moved together under its sovereign ruler.5
Since the days of Archbishop Laud, the opinion has been fostered that the Church of England is nearest to Rome, and half-way between the Reformation churches and Rome. This is only true if we look at vestments and the like. In its concept of the church, the Church of England is further removed and is diametrically opposite to the Church of Rome. Only a few of the most radical Anabaptists held to a like view of the unity of church and state under the civil order.
Denominational Insights to the Church
We must, however, recognize that Rome, the Baptists, and the Church of England have each in their way called attention to an important aspect of the church but identified it too closely with the institution. The Baptists have recognized the local nature of the worshipping group and the primacy of faith. The Church of England has seen the relationship of the entire people and their institutions to the church of Scripture but has reduced the church to the nation. Finally, the Reformed churches have recognized the centrality of the covenant, but they have reduced the covenant to the community of institutionalized worshippers.
In Hebrews 12:22-24 we meet with a declaration concerning the church which throws much light on the breadth of its meaning:
But ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels.
To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the sprits of just men made perfect,
And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
What Is the Church Really?
First of all, the church is clearly linked to the Old Testament covenant people. It is one body with them. Zion and Jerusalem are terms now applied to the church. What the old was, the new now is. It is not Mount Sinai that we approach but Zion, the established place of God’s people. We are not in the wilderness; in Christ we have entered into the promised land, and we are now to exercise dominion in it.
Second, the church is the City or Kingdom of God. It is thus more than any church (as we call it) or state can be. The boundaries of God’s church include every “church,” state, school, family, individual, institution, etc. which is under Christ’s royal law and rule. But it includes far, far more. In the church are also the wholly sanctified saints in heaven, “an innumerable company of angels,” Christ our Redeemer and King, and God our Judge and Creator. Buchanan notes, of the term “heavenly Jerusalem,” that:
“Heavenly Jerusalem” was not used to mislead the reader into thinking Mount Zion was in heaven, although Jews and Christians believed there was a Jerusalem in heaven as well, but to affirm its divine origin.6
Third, entrance into the church is by regeneration. It is the “church of the firstborn.” Jesus Christ is the firstborn of God, the heir of all things, and we are, by the adoption of grace, sons of God and firstborn heirs in Christ. The firstborn of God is the heir of the Kingdom of God (Mt. 21:38, 43). The covenant people are thus required in Christ to possess God’s earth which the false husbandmen have seized (Mt. 21:33-46).
Fourth, the church is “the general assembly…of the firstborn,” or we can say, the entire assembly. The New English Bible renders it “the full concourse and assembly.” Since it includes angels, it is not limited to men.
Very clearly, the church in Scripture means the Kingdom of God, not merely the worshipping institution or building. It includes all who are in covenant with God, who believe in Christ and who obey His law. It includes all regenerate men, the redeemed in heaven and earth, the angels, true “churches,” Christian states, families, schools, callings, and more. It includes godly men and their possessions, and the earth they subdue in the name of the Lord. The church is very clearly a worshipping local congregation, or a larger group of congregations, but it is far, far more, and we cannot restrict its meaning to an institution nor limit its cosmic scope.
To confound the church of Scripture with the church of history, the institutional church, means that an absorption with the institution rather than the faith ensues. Worship and the growth of an institution take precedence over the application of the faith to every realm and sphere of life.
The result is a radical warping of the entire life of the Christian. His life is then off center, and his daily walk becomes radically different from that required by Scripture.
1. D. W. B. Robinson, “Church” in J. D. Douglas, ed., The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,  1973), 228.
2. Alfred Plummer, “Church,” in James Hasting, ed., Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, I (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,  1919), 204.
3. S. C. Gayford, “Church,” in James Hastings, ed., A Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,  1919), 425.
4. Moshe Weinfeld, “Congregation,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, V, 894.
5. W. H. Freemantle, The World as the Subject of Redemption (New York: Longmans, Green, , 1907), 215, 216.
6. George Wesley Buchanan, To the Hebrews, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), 222.