There is a lot of discussion today on what the church is. Some believe the Church is an organization established by Jesus that is subdivided in a hierarchal manner. Against this is the view that the Church is composed of all believers and is thus invisible. Churches, then, are congregations of individual members of the Church. Still others focus on the local church, arguing that the New Testament never speaks of a universal church and that, if we do speak of one, we simply are referring to the totality of the individual churches.
The best way to discover the biblical view of the church is to look at the biblical evidence, which starts with the word the NT consistently uses to describe it: ecclesia.
Many have pointed out that ecclesia is based on two Greek words that that mean “out of” and “to call,” and therefore ecclesia means “the called out ones.” It is then asserted that because God has called believers out of the world, the Church is all believers. This, of course, ties neatly into the popular Protestant view and is used to bolster its credibility.
The NT’s usage of ecclesia, however, makes this difficult to hold. First, while some have gone too far in arguing that the NT never speaks of a universal ecclesia, it is true that the local ecclesia is the primary focus. This is evident when we consider that it is often used in the plural, “the churches” (see Acts 15:41; Rom. 16:4, etc.). Second, churches are often designated by places (in both singular and plural!), so we see the church at Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), in people’s homes (Col. 4:15), and in the regions of Asia (1 Cor. 16:19) and Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1), etc. In short, the NT does not distinguish between a universal church and local churches; still less does it use different words for the “Church” and local “congregations”! Wherever these popular distinctions come from, it is not Scripture.
Another problem with defining ecclesia as “the called out ones” is that it is exclusively used in the Greek translation of the OT (with which the first Christians were very familiar) to translate the word qahal, which simply means “assembly.” Along with several other words, it is very often used to describe the “assembly of the LORD,” that is, the nation of Israel. Israel was “called out,” but qahal itself has no such concept. The fact that ecclesia translates qahal implies that individual election, however true it may be, probably isn’t part of its meaning. This is confirmed by other NT usage of ecclesia. In Acts 19:32-41, it is used three times of an angry mob of pagans. This is perfectly consistent with ecclesia’s broader Greek usage.
In short, an ecclesia is nothing more than an assembly. Who or what is being assembled, though, is more important that the assembling itself. In light of this, the common description of the ecclesia as being “of God” (“the church(es) of God”; see Acts 20:28, etc.) is significant. It is the people whom God has assembled at a particular place and time. Not surprisingly, this is the same way the concept is found in the OT, in both the Hebrew and Greek versions.
All this leads to a basic understanding of what the church of God—the ecclesia tou theou—is. It also allows us to see how with one word the NT can recognize a universal church while emphasizing local churches. The ecclesia is not all of believers of all time, subdivided into local bodies. It is true that God has called out people for His name throughout history, but we cannot read that into the meaning ecclesia, especially when the NT refuses to do so. It seems, rather, that the ecclesia is simply the people whom God has gathered for His purposes. The ecclesia in Jerusalem was just as much the ecclesia as the ecclesia in Antioch. These bodies were not parts of a larger body called the Church. Rather, each body, in itself, is fully the Church—the ecclesia. This is reinforced by the fact that the ecclesia is also called Christ’s body (Eph. 1:22-23, etc.) over which He is the head. Yet isn’t Christ the direct head of the local church? Again, the NT makes no distinction that would allow us to say otherwise. Each group of people whom God has gathered is His ecclesia, and Christ is the head of that body.
We should not imagine the ecclesia is an invisible body of which we are part. It is, rather, fully visible in every congregation. The ecclesia is God’s people gathered together to serve His purposes. It is only from that perspective that a proper model of church governance and the relationship between its members can be established.