Derived probably from the Greek kuriakon (i.e., “the Lord’s house”), which was used by ancient authors for the place of worship.
In the New Testament, it is the translation of the Greek word ecclesia, which is synonymous with the Hebrew kahal of the Old Testament, both words meaning simply an assembly, the character of which can only be known from the connection in which the word is found.
There is no clear instance of its being used for a place of meeting or of worship, although in post-apostolic times it early received this meaning. Nor is this word ever used to denote the inhabitants of a country united in the same profession, as when we say the “Church of England,” the “Church of Scotland,” etc.
We find the word ecclesia used in the following senses in the New Testament:
It is translated “assembly” in the ordinary classical sense (Acts 19:32, 39, 41).
It denotes the whole body of the redeemed, all those whom the Father has given to Christ, the invisible “catholic” [universal] church [Note: “catholic” in this context means, the universal church, not the Roman Catholic Church.] (Ephesians 5:23, 25, 27, 29; Hebrews 12:23).
A few Christians associated together in observing the ordinances of the gospel are an ecclesia (Romans 16:5; Col. 4:15).
All the Christians in a particular city, whether they assembled together in one place or in several places for religious worship, were an ecclesia. Thus all the disciples in Antioch, forming several congregations, were one church (Acts 13:1); so also we read of the “church of God at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2), “the church at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1), “the church of Ephesus” (Rev. 2:1), etc.
The whole body of professing Christians throughout the world (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Matthew 16:18) are the church of Christ.
The church visible “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children.” It is called “visible” because its members are known and its assemblies are public. Here there is a mixture of “wheat and chaff,” of saints and sinners.
“God has commanded his people to organize themselves into distinct visible ecclesiastical communities, with constitutions, laws, and officers, badges, ordinances, and discipline, for the great purpose of giving visibility to his kingdom, of making known the gospel of that kingdom, and of gathering in all its elect subjects. Each one of these distinct organized communities which is faithful to the great King is an integral part of the visible church, and all together constitute the ‘catholic’ or universal visible church.”
The visible church
A credible profession of the true religion constitutes a person a member of this church. This is “the kingdom of heaven,” whose character and progress are set forth in the parables recorded in Matthew 13.
The children of all who thus profess the true religion are members of the visible church along with their parents. Children are included in every covenant God ever made with man. They go along with their parents (Genesis 9:9-17; 12:1-3; 17:7; Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 29:10-13). Peter, on the day of Pentecost, at the beginning of the New Testament dispensation, announces the same great principle.
“The promise [just as to Abraham and his seed the promises were made] is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:38,39).
The children of believing parents are “holy,” i.e., are “saints,” a title which designates the members of the Christian church (1 Corinthians 7:14).
The invisible church
The church invisible “consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ, the head thereof.” This is a pure society, the church in which Christ dwells.
It is the body of Christ. it is called “invisible” because the greater part of those who constitute it are already in heaven or are yet unborn, and also because its members still on Earth cannot certainly be distinguished.
The qualifications of membership in it are internal and are hidden. It is unseen except by Him who “searches the heart.” “The Lord knoweth them that are his” (2 Tim. 2:19).
The church to which the attributes, prerogatives, and promises appertaining to Christ’s kingdom belong, is a spiritual body consisting of all true believers, i.e., the church invisible.
ITS UNITY—God has ever had only one church on Earth. We sometimes speak of the Old Testament Church and of the New Testament church, but they are one and the same. The Old Testament church was not to be changed but enlarged (Isaiah 49:13-23; 60:1-14). When the Jews are at length restored, they will not enter a new church, but will be grafted again into “their own olive tree” (Romans 11:18-24; compare Ephesians 2:11-22). The apostles did not set up a new organization. Under their ministry, disciples were “added” to the “church” already existing (Acts 2:47).
ITS UNIVERSALITY—It is the “catholic” church; not confined to any particular country or outward organization, but comprehending all believers throughout the whole world.
ITS PERPETUITY—It will continue through all ages to the end of the world. It can never be destroyed. It is an “everlasting kindgdom.”