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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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The Greek word εκκλησια , so rendered, denotes an assembly met about business, whether spiritual or temporal, Acts 19:32 ; Acts 19:39 . It is understood also of the collective body of Christians, or all those over the face of the earth who profess to believe in Christ, and acknowledge him to be the Saviour of mankind; this is called the visible church. But, by the word church, we are more strictly to understand the whole body of God's true people, in every period of time: this is the invisible or spiritual church. The people of God on earth are called the church militant, and those in heaven the church triumphant. It has been remarked by Dr. John Owen, that sin having entered into the world, God was pleased to found his church (the catholic or universal church) in the promise of the Messiah given to Adam; that this promise contained in it something of the nature of a covenant, including the grace which God designed to show to sinners in the Messiah, and the obedience which he required from them; and that consequently, from its first promulgation, that promise became the sole foundation of the church and of the whole worship of God therein. Prior to the days of Abraham, this church, though scattered up and down the world, and subject to many changes in its worship through the addition of new revelations, was still but one and the same, because founded in the same covenant, and interested thereby in all the benefits or privileges that God had granted, or would at any time grant. In process of time, God was pleased to restrict his church, as far as visible acknowledgment went, in a great measure, to the seed of Abraham. With the latter he renewed his covenant, requiring that he should walk before him and be upright. He also constituted him the father of the faithful, or of all them that believe, and the "heir of the world." So that since the days of Abraham, the church has, in every age, been founded upon the covenant made with that patriarch, and on the work of redemption which was to be performed according to that covenant. Now wheresoever this covenant made with Abraham is, and with whomsoever it is established, with them is the church of God, and to them all the promises and privileges of the church really belong. Hence we may learn that at the coming of the Messiah, there was not one church taken away and another set up in its room; but the church continued the same, in those that were the children of Abraham, according to the faith. It is common with divines to speak of the Jewish and the Christian churches, as though they were two distinct and totally different things; but that is not a correct view of the matter. The Christian church is not another church, but the very same that was before the coming of Christ, having the same faith with it, and interested in the same covenant. Great alterations indeed were made in the outward state and condition of the church, by the coming of the Messiah. The carnal privilege of the Jews, in their separation from other nations to give birth to the Messiah, then failed, and with that also their claim on that account to be the children of Abraham. The ordinances of worship suited to that state of things then expired, and came to an end. New ordinances of worship were appointed, suitable to the new light and grace which were then bestowed upon the church. The Gentiles came into the faith of Abraham along with the Jews, being made joint partakers with them in his blessing. But none of these things, nor the whole collectively, did make such an alteration in the church, but that it was still one and the same. The olive tree was still the same, only some branches were broken off, and others grafted into it. The Jews fell, and the Gentiles came in their room. And this may enable us to determine the difference between the Jews and Christians relative to the Old Testament promises. They are all made to the church. No individual has any interest in them except by virtue of his membership with the church. The church is, and always was, one and the same. The Jewish plea, is, that the church is with them, because they are the children of Abraham according to the flesh. Christians reply, that their privilege on that ground was of another nature, and ended with the coming of the Messiah: that the church of God, unto whom all the promises belong, are only those who are heirs of the faith of Abraham, believing as he did, and are consequently interested in his covenant. These are Zion, Jerusalem, Israel, Jacob, the temple, or church of God.

2. By a particular church we understand an assembly of Christians united together, and meeting in one place, for the solemn worship of God. To this agrees the definition given by the compilers of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England: "A congregation of faithful men, in which the true word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ's ordinances, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same," Acts 9:31 ; Acts 20:17 ; Galatians 1:2 ; Galatians 1:22 ; 1 Corinthians 14:34 ; Colossians 4:15 . The word is now also used to denote any particular denomination of Christians, distinguished by particular doctrines, ceremonies, &c, as the Romish church, the Greek church, the English church, &c.

3. On the subject of the church, opinions as opposite or varying as possible have been held, from that of the Papists, who contend for its visible unity throughout the world under a visible head, down to that of the Independents, who consider the universal church as composed of congregational churches, each perfect in itself, and entirely independent of every other. The first opinion is manifestly contradicted by the language of the Apostles, who, while they teach that there is but one church, composed of believers throughout the world, think it not at all inconsistent with this to speak of "the churches of Judea," "of Achaia," "the seven churches of Asia," "the church at Ephesus," &c. Among themselves the Apostles had no common head; but planted churches and gave directions for their government, in most cases without any apparent correspondence with each other. The Popish doctrine is certainly not found in their writings; and so far were they from making provision for the government of this one supposed church, by the appointment of one visible and exclusive head, that they provide for the future government of the respective churches raised up by them in a totally different manner, that is, by the ordination of ministers for each church, who are indifferently called bishops, and presbyters, and pastors. The only unity of which they speak is the unity of the whole church in Christ, the invisible head, by faith; and the unity produced by "fervent love toward each other." Nor has the Popish doctrine of the visible unity of the church any countenance from early antiquity. The best ecclesiastical historians have showed, that, through the greater part of the second century, the Christian churches were independent of each other. "Each Christian assembly," says Mosheim, "was a little state governed by its own laws, which were either enacted, or at least, approved, by the society. But in process of time, all the churches of a province were formed into one large ecclesiastical body, which, like confederate states, assembled at certain times in order to deliberate about the common interests of the whole." So far indeed this union of churches appears to have been a wise and useful arrangement, although afterward it was carried to an injurious extreme, until finally it gave birth to the assumptions of the bishop of Rome, as universal bishop; a claim, however, which, when most successful, was but partially submitted to, the eastern churches having, for the most part, always maintained their independence. To very large association of churches of any kind existed till toward the close of the second century, which sufficiently refutes the papal argument from antiquity. The independence of the early Christian churches does not, however, appear to have resembled that of the churches which, in modern times, are called Independent. During the lives of the Apostles and Evangelists they were certainly subject to their counsel and control, which proves that the independency of separate societies was not the first form of the church. It may, indeed, be allowed, that some of the smaller and more insulated churches might, after the death of the Apostles and Evangelists, retain this form for some considerable time; but the larger churches, in the chief cities, and those planted in populous neighbourhoods, had many presbyters, and, as the members multiplied, they had several separate assemblies or congregations, yet all under the same common government. And when churches were raised up in the neighbourhood of cities, the appointment of chorepiscopi, or country bishops, and of visiting presbyters, both acting under the presbytery of the city, with the bishop at its head, is sufficiently in proof, that the ancient churches, especially the larger and more prosperous of them, existed in that form which, in modern times, we should call a religious connection, subject to a common government. This appears to have arisen out of the very circumstance of the increase of the church, through the zeal of the first Christians; and it was doubtless much more in the spirit of the very first discipline exercised by the Apostles and Evangelists, (when none of the churches were independent, but remained under the government of those who had been chiefly instrumental in raising them up,) to place themselves under a common inspection, and to unite the weak with the strong, and the newly converted with those who were "in Christ before them." There was also in this, greater security afforded both for the continuance of wholesome doctrine, and of godly discipline.

4. Church members are those who compose or belong to the visible church. As to the real church, the true members of it are such as come out from the world, 2 Corinthians 6:17 ; who are born again, 1 Peter 1:23 ; or made new creatures, 2 Corinthians 5:17 ; whose faith works by love to God and all mankind, Galatians 5:6 ; James 2:14 ; James 2:26 ; who walk in all the ordinances of the Lord blameless. None but such are members of the true church; nor should any be admitted into any particular church without some evidence of their earnestly seeking this state of salvation.

5. Church fellowship is the communion that the members enjoy one with another. The ends of church fellowship are, the maintenance and exhibition of a system of sound doctrine; the support of the ordinances of evangelical worship in their purity and simplicity; the impartial exercise of church government and discipline; the promotion of holiness in all manner of conversation. The more particular duties are, earnest study to keep peace and unity; bearing of one another's burdens, Galatians 6:1-2 ; earnest endeavours to prevent each other's stumbling, 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 ; Hebrews 10:24-27 ; Romans 14:13 ; steadfast continuance in the faith and worship of the Gospel, Acts 2:42 ; praying for and sympathizing with each other, 1 Samuel 12:23 ; Ephesians 6:18 . The advantages are, peculiar incitement to holiness; the right to some promises applicable to none but those who attend the ordinances of God. and hold communion with the saints, Psalms 92:13 ; Psalms 132:13 ; Psalms 132:16 ; Psalms 36:8 ; Jeremiah 31:12 ; the being placed under the watchful eye of pastors, Hebrews 13:7 ; that they may restore each other if they fall, Galatians 6:1 ; and the more effectually promote the cause of true religion.

6. As to church order and discipline, without entering into the discussion of the many questions which have been raised on this subject, and argued in so many distinct treatises, it may be sufficient generally to observe, that the church of Christ being a visible and permanent society, bound to observe certain rites, and to obey, certain rules, the existence of government in it is necessarily supposed. All religious rites suppose order, all order direction and control, and these a directive and controlling power. Again: all laws are nugatory without enforcement, in the present mixed and imperfect state of society; and all enforcement supposes an executive. If baptism be the door of admission into the church, some must judge of the fitness of candidates, and administrators of the rite must be appointed; if the Lord's Supper must be partaken of, the times and the mode are to be determined, the qualifications of communicants judged of, and the administration placed in suitable hands; if worship must be social and public, here again there must be an appointment of times, an order, and an administration; if the word of God is to be read and preached, then readers and preachers are necessary; if the continuance of any one in the fellowship of Christians be conditional upon good conduct, so that the purity and credit of the church may be guarded, then the power of enforcing discipline must be lodged some where. Thus government flows necessarily from the very nature of the institution of the Christian church; and since this institution has the authority of Christ and his Apostles, it is not to be supposed, that its government was left unprovided for; and if they have in fact made such a provision, it is no more a matter of mere option with Christians whether they will be subject to government in the church, than it is optional with them to confess Christ by becoming its members. The nature of this government, and the persons to whom it is committed, are both points which we must briefly examine by the light of the Holy Scriptures. As to the first, it is wholly spiritual:— "My kingdom," says our Lord, "is not of this world." The church is a society founded upon faith, and united by mutual love, for the personal edification of its members in holiness, and for the religious benefit of the world. The nature of its government is thus determined; it is concerned only with spiritual objects. It cannot employ force to compel men into its pale; for the only door of the church is faith, to which there can be no compulsion;— "he that believeth and is baptized" becomes a member. It cannot inflict pains and penalties upon the disobedient and refractory, like civil governments; for the only punitive discipline authorized in the New Testament, is comprised in "admonition," "reproof," "sharp rebukes," and, finally, "excision from the society." The last will be better understood, if we consider the special relations in which true Christians stand to each other, and the duties resulting from them. They are members of one body, and are therefore bound to tenderness and sympathy; they are the conjoint instructers of others, and are therefore to strive to be of "one judgment;" they are brethren, and they are to love one another as such, that is, with an affection more special than that general good will which they are commanded to bear to all mankind; they are therefore to seek the intimacy of friendly society among themselves, and, except in the ordinary and courteous intercourse of life, they are bound to keep themselves separate from the world; they are enjoined to do good unto all men, but "especially to them that are of the household of faith;" and they are forbidden "to eat" at the Lord's table with immoral persons, that is, with those who, although they continue their Christian profession, dishonour it by their practice. With these relations of Christians to each other and to the world, and their correspondent duties, before our minds, we may easily interpret the nature of that extreme discipline which is vested in the church. "Persons who will not hear the church" are to be held "as Heathen men and publicans," as those who are not members of it; that is, they are to be separated from it, and regarded as of "the world," quite out of the range of the above mentioned relations of Christians to each other, and their correspondent duties; but still, like "Heathen men and publicans" they are to be the objects of pity, and general benevolence. Nor is this extreme discipline to be hastily inflicted before "a first and second admonition," nor before those who are "spiritual" have attempted "to restore a brother overtaken by a fault;" and when the "wicked person" is "put away," still the door is to be kept open for his reception again upon repentance. The true excommunication of the Christian church is therefore a merciful and considerate separation of an incorrigible offender from the body of Christians, without any infliction of civil pains or penalties. "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which ye have received from us," 2 Thessalonians 3:6 . "Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump," 1 Corinthians 5:7 . "But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner: with such a one, no not to eat," 1 Corinthians 5:11 . This then is the moral discipline which is imperative upon the church of Christ, and its government is criminally defective whenever it is not enforced. On the other hand, the disabilities and penalties which established churches in different places have connected with these sentences of excommunication, have no countenance at all in Scripture, and are wholly inconsistent with the spiritual character and ends of the Christian association.

7. As to the persons to whom the government of the church is committed, it is necessary to consider the composition, so to speak, of the primitive church, as stated in the New Testament. A full enunciation of these offices we find in Ephesians 4:11 : "And he gave some, Apostles; and some, Prophets; and some, Evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." Of these, the office of Apostle is allowed by all to have been confined to those immediately commissioned by Christ to witness the fact of his miracles, and of his resurrection from the dead, and to reveal the complete system of Christian doctrine and duty; confirming their extraordinary mission by miracles wrought by themselves. If by "prophets" we are to understand persons who foretold future events, then the office was from its very nature extraordinary, and the gift of prophecy has passed away with the other miraculous endowments of the first age of Christianity. If, with others, we understand that these prophets were extraordinary teachers raised up until the churches were settled under permanent qualified instructers; still the office was temporary. The "Evangelists" are generally understood to be assistants of the Apostles, who acted under their especial authority and direction. Of this number were Timothy and Titus; and as the Apostle Paul directed them to ordain bishops or presbyters in the several churches, but gave them no authority to ordain successors to themselves in their particular office as Evangelists, it is clear that the Evangelists must also be reckoned among the number of extraordinary and temporary ministers suited to the first age of Christianity. Whether by "pastors and teachers" two offices be meant, or one, has been disputed. The change in the mode of expression seems to favour the latter view, and so the text is interpreted by St. Jerom, and St. Augustine; but the point is of little consequence. A pastor was a teacher, although every teacher might not be a pastor; but in many cases his office might be one of subordinate instruction, whether as an expounder of doctrine, a catechist, or even a more private instructer of those who as yet were unacquainted with the first principles of the Gospel of Christ. The term pastor implies the duties both of instruction and of government, of feeding and of ruling the flock of Christ; and, as the presbyters or bishops were ordained in the several churches, both by the Apostles and Evangelists, and rules are left by St. Paul as to their appointment, there can be no doubt but that these are the "pastors" spoken of in the Epistle to the Ephesians, and that they were designed to be the permanent ministers of the church; and that with them both the government of the church and the performance of its leading religious services were deposited. Deacons had the charge of the gifts and offerings for charitable purposes, although, it appears from Justin Martyr, not in every instance; for he speaks of the weekly oblations as being deposited with the chief minister, and distributed by him. These pastors appear to have been indifferently called BISHOPS and PRESBYTERS, and with them the regulation of the churches was, doubtless, deposited; not without checks and guards, the principal of which, however, was, in the primitive church, and continues to be in all modern churches which have no support from the magistracy, or are made independent of the people by endowments, the voluntariness of the association. A perfect religious liberty is always supposed by the Apostles to exist among Christians; no compulsion of the civil power is any where assumed by them as the basis of their advices or directions; no binding of the members to one church, without liberty to join another, by any ties but those involved in moral considerations, of sufficient weight, however, to prevent the evils of faction and schism. It was this which created a natural and competent check upon the ministers of the church; for being only sustained by the opinion of the churches, they could not but have respect to it; and it was this which gave to the sound part of a fallen church the advantage of renouncing, upon sufficient and well-weighed grounds, their communion with it, and of kindling up the light of a pure ministry and a holy discipline, by forming a separate association, bearing its testimony against errors in doctrine, and failures in practice. Nor is it to be conceived, that, had this simple principle of perfect religious liberty been left unviolated through subsequent ages, the church could ever have become so corrupt, or with such difficulty and slowness have been recovered from its fall. This ancient Christian liberty has happily been restored in a few parts of Christendom. See EPISCOPACY and See PRESBYTERIANISM .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Church'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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