Q&A: When Did the Church Begin?

When Did the Church Begin?

Question

In Acts 7:38, Stephen used the word "church" in reference to the time of Moses. I understand that the word "church" translates the Greek word ekklesia, which means "called out ones." Most people I talk to say the church began in the New Testiment times. But aren't the Hebrews the "called out people" of the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 7:6-8), the people God called to himself? Doesn't the Bible's vocabulary of "church" help refute Dispensationalism's assertion that the church is an entirely distinct entity from God's people in the Old Testament?

Answer

First, please let me respond with some general comments on vocabulary, etymology and meaning. Then I'll try to apply those ideas to the specific issues you raise.

It's true that the etymology of the word ekklesia, translated "church" in most Bibles, means "called out." But a word's meaning is determined by its use, not by its etymology. The etymology often agrees with a word's use, which is why it can be helpful to look at etymology. But as often as not, there are significant differences between a word's etymology and its meaning.

For example, when in English we say that someone is "courteous," we rarely mean that he or she exhibits the patterns of behavior that typically characterize a royal court. Instead, we simply mean that the person has a gracious manner and observes common forms of etiquette. The ideas of "courtesy" and "courtliness" are related, and were perhaps originally identical, but they are no longer one and the same. So, it is better to define terms on the basis of the ideas they represent, and the manner in which they are used, rather than on the sole basis of etymology.

That being said, with regard to the Greek word ekklesia, its etymology actually can be helpful in some ways. The word is a compound formed by putting a preposition (ek) meaning "out" in front of a noun (klesis) that means "summons" or "invitation." And this corresponds fairly well to the way the word is used in Scripture. Generally, it identifies an "assembly" of people. It does not primarily refer to those that God has "called" or "set apart" unto himself, but rather to a gathering or meeting of individuals for any purpose. Now, this is not to say that the biblical writers did not see special meaning in the term as a word play, and prefer it for that reason. But the word was not commonly used in the first century to identify those who had been "called out of the world." Instead, it was broadly understood to refer to those who had been "called to the meeting."

It's not hard to see how the meaning of "meeting" or "assembly" derived from the word "call." Even in English we speak of "calling" meetings to order and of "calling" for an assembly. In the biblical vocabulary, those who attended the assemblies were "called out." Now, this was true whether or not there had been an actual summons or invitation sent out. Any gathering could potentially constitute an assembly, including regular scheduled meetings that required no invitation (much like modern church services). So, in this sense, "church" is a generic word meaning "assembly." And of course, there have been assemblies all throughout history.

But theologians often use the word "church" as a technical term that refers to "God's people," without reference to them even being assembled. The word is sometimes used this way in the Bible, so it is not completely foreign to Scripture. But the important question is not "Is the word used this way in the Bible?" but "Is this idea true to Scripture?"

We have many technical theological terms that never appear in the Bible, we have some that are used in the same way the Bible uses them, and we have some that are used in different ways than the Bible uses them. This can be confusing when we are not familiar with the technical use of the term, which probably means that theologians should take greater care in choosing their words. But the question of accuracy and truth should be determined by what any given theologian "means" rather than by the specific words he uses.

In the Reformed tradition, it is common to speak of God's people at all times as the "church." We sometimes distinguish between the "Old Testament church" and the "New Testament church." And we have no aversion to applying the term "assembly" or "church" to God's special covenant people, regardless of the word's etymology.

But even within the Reformed tradition, there are those who prefer to use the word "church" to refer only to the "New Testament church." This is not because they believe there were no assembly and no calling by God in the Old Testament. Rather, it is because they want to distinguish clearly between people groups in the Testaments, and because they believe that there are substantive differences between the two groups. They agree that there were assemblies at all times, and that God has always had a special people whom he has called to himself. But they prefer, for pedagogical reasons, to use the word "church" to refer only to the New Testament age.

With regard to Dispensationalism, the better responses to this error focus on the meaning of its theology rather than on its vocabulary. In my experience, a fuller understanding of the way biblical and theological vocabulary works helps one spot the errors of Dispensational teaching. Often, poor theological arguments rely on "slight of hand," where arguments about vocabulary are used to distract from substantive issues, or where a theologian equivocates on the use of a particular term (n.b., those who make these errors rarely do it on purpose).

For example, consider this false statement, "The word 'church' is used differently in the Old and New Testaments, therefore God's people in the New Testament are different from God's people in the Old Testament." I have heard well-meaning Christians make this argument. The argument is false in several ways, and could be addressed in a number of manners. But the response that gets to the heart of the issue is this: "Yes, the word 'church' is used differently. That is because the Old Testament uses different words to identify the people of God than the New Testament uses. But regardless of their differences in vocabulary, both Testaments identify the people of God as a unified group in all ages."

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.