After all Scripture seems to recognise only two of importance – the universal Church and the local Church.
Paul rightly identifies that the only ‘entity’ that scripture recognises is the church. However, it seems to me there are at least four, possibly five, ways in which the New Testament uses the word ekklesia, translated as ‘church’, which I thought I would just list here:
- The majority of uses of ekklesia to describe an assembly at a particular location. For example Paul writes to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1) and to “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1, 2 Th. 1:1). In the book of Acts, Luke describes the particular churches in Jerusalem (Ac. 8:1, 11:22, 15:4, 22), Antioch (Ac. 11:26, 13:1, 15:3) and Ephesus (Ac. 20:17, 28). From these verses we see local congregations of the faithful.
- A second use of ekklesia is to describe the whole body of such faithful believers all over the world at a any point in history. In other words, this singular noun is used to describe the aggregate of all the individual churches. For example, Paul describes in 1 Co. 12:28 “the church” has been given gifts. By including the gift of apostleship, Paul is thinking more widely than the congregation at Corinth. Apostleship was a given to the church as a whole for that early period of history.
- A third use of ekklesia in the New Testament is to describe the whole body of the church, gathered from throughout all ages and places, which is spiritually united to Christ. For example, in Matthew 16:18, Jesus looks to the future of the church and its ultimate destiny as the body that will prevail over the gates of Hell. Paul, in Ephesians 5:25-27, also sees into the future where the church will be cleansed and purified in preparation for her presentation to Christ at the eschatological wedding. In these examples the church is contemplated in its final, completed state.
- A fourth and less certain use of ekklesia is found in Ac. 9:31. In some readings the word is singular (as rendered, for example, in the NIV) and on others plural (as rendered in the NKJV). If plural, then this use falls into the first category listed above. If the singular reading is correct, and it seems to be the most reliable, then this adds a new use, for clearly a collection of local churches can still be called a “church”. So, for example, it would not be unscriptural to make reference to ‘the church in Derby’.
- The final use is found in Mt. 18:17 where Jesus outlines the process of discipline for sin. Some have argued that ‘church’ here is a representative body of the elders. However, I personally am not convinced of this.