Many Churches, One Kingdom
Updated: Sep 23
Let's define church.
Does "church" refer to an invisible collection of believers from all around the world (commonly known as the "universal church"), or is it a local autonomous assembly of believers? Let's first look at the Greek word itself.
In the Greek New Testament (GNT), the word for church is εκκλησια which is extensively defined as an assembly. It is "an assembly of Christians gathered for worship" (Thayer's Greek Lexicon). You are not part of a church if you do not physically gather together with other believers in the name of Jesus Christ. There is no such thing as "online church", and this is why it is crucial for believers to assemble together no matter what is going on in the world, whether it be tyranny, war, or during plagues both real and contrived.
Further, εκκλησια comes from two words (it's fairly common in Greek to combine words) εκ and καλεω. Εκ, meaning from, or out of, and καλεω, meaning to call. So a church is a called out assembly. We have been called out from the world. However there are cases in Scripture where there is a "church" but not of Christians (such is the case for every Catholic church by the way). In these cases it is a an assembly of people called out of a population for a specific purpose. Acts 19:32 is a prominent example which reads, "Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together."
On the word assembly in this passage, Adam Clarke comments, "The same word which we translate church; and thus we find that it signifies any assembly, good or bad, lawful, or unlawful; and that only the circumstances of the case can determine the precise nature of the assembly to which this word is applied."
Its Use in the New Testament
In its various forms, εκκλησια is used over 100 times in the GNT, and almost every single instance is a clear description of a local assembly. Here are just a few examples:
Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.
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.
Salute one another with an holy kiss. The churches of Christ salute you.
1 Corinthians 7:17
But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.
1 Corinthians 16:1
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.
2 Corinthians 8:24
Wherefore shew ye to them, and before the churches, the proof of your love, and of our boasting on your behalf.
Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.
And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house.
We also have the letters to the churches in Asia seen in Revelation chapters 1-3, in addition to many more places in Scripture.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
On this verse above, Jack Hyles writes, "If anything refutes the invisible church, this is it. Jesus compares Himself and His church to a man and wife. Consequently, if there an invisible church, then a man has an invisible wife. Jesus does not love an invisible church. He could have chosen another relationship to compare it with. He could have chosen angels because they are invisible to us. He could have used spirits or souls, but He chose to use the visibility of a man and his wife. Jesus is talking about a visible organization which is His church and His body."
So now that we have firmly established that the church is a local, visible, assembly of believers (assuming a Christian church), what about some passages that make it seem like the church is one large invisible collective? First, as with any doctrine, Scripture must interpret Scripture. We must take the clear passages of Scripture to help us understand passages that are opaque or more difficult to understand.
People frequently misuse difficult passages in order to try and "overrule" clear doctrine. This is often done with Hebrews 6 when people try and disprove the fact of eternal security. There are many undeniable verses that show that believers cannot lose our salvation, yet those who want to "earn their way to Heaven" will point to the difficult passage in Hebrews 6 as "proof" that salvation can be lost. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way, and that is a dishonest misuse of God's Word. Hebrews 6 can be rightly understood in light of other sections of Scripture, but that will have to wait for another time.
Jumping back on track, let's look at a couple "difficult" verses where people get confused about the usage of "church."
We are the sons and daughters of God our Father. We are brothers and sisters in the faith. We are joint heirs with Jesus. But being family, we do not all reside in the same house. - Pastor Marvin McKenzie
The first use of church comes in the hotly debated passage in Matthew 16:18, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
So what church did Jesus start? The very next time that church is mentioned in the Bible it is at Matthew 18:17. Does this sounds like an invisible body comprising all believers? "And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." This is clearly a local assembly of believers that could decide on such matters, and the same principle we read about in 1 Corinthians 6:1-6, where yet again a local assembly of believers is the obvious meaning of "church."
What about verses that talk about Christ being the head of the church such as in Ephesians 5:23? The body of believers in a local assembly has Christ as their head, their leadership. Christ claims ownership over each body of believers.
Another passage is Hebrews 12:22-23 which reads, "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 spirits of just men made perfect." Here we see a mount Sion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, a company of angels, names written in Heaven, and spirits of just men made perfect. This is not talking about an earthly church but a heavenly one. This is describing our future state where all believers will be one church, but that has not happened yet.
Colossians 1:12-13 Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.
So there are many churches, but sincere believers are all citizens together of the one Kingdom of God.
Here is a quick article for further reading on this topic: https://mmckenzie.substack.com/p/does-the-bible-teach-a-holy-catholic?r=1iq47h&s=w&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
And here's a free book all about the church: https://jesus-is-savior.com/Books,%20Tracts%20&%20Preaching/Printed%20Books/Dr%20Jack%20Hyles/the_church.htm
And here's a good sermon: