What is the Church?
by John H. Essex


This question is prompted by another question sometimes asked: namely, to what denomination do you belong?

The answer is that we belong to no denomination, but simply (we believe) to that ecclesia which is the body of Christ. We use the word ‘ecclesia’ in preference to the more common term ‘church’ because ‘ecclesia’ gives an exact definition of what the church is. It is a Greek word, carried over into English, meaning ‘a called-out company’ or (literally) ‘out-called ones’. The word ‘church’, on the other hand, is often used of the building of bricks or stone in which worshippers congregate. In Paul’s writings, the ecclesia is itself described as a building, but a spiritual one made up of persons (1 Cor. 3:9; Eph. 2:19-22). Moreover, it is not a man-made structure, but one being built and maintained by God.

The moment we think of a called out company, three questions arise. Who does the calling? Who are the called ones? For what reason are they called?

In the case of the ecclesia which is the body of Christ, the scriptures are clear: it is God Who does the calling. Romans 8:28-31 reads,

"Now we are aware that God is working all together for the good of those who are loving God, who are called according to the purpose that, whom He foreknew, He designates beforehand also, to be conformed to the image of His Son, for Him to be firstborn among many brethren. Now whom He designates beforehand, these He calls also, and whom He calls, these He justifies also; now whom He justifies, these He glorifies also."

It is quite plain that God does all these things.

A description of those who are the called ones of this present era is given in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.

"You are observing your calling, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh; not many powerful, not many noble, but the stupid of the world God chooses, that He may be disgrac-ing the wise, and the weak of the world God chooses, that He may be disgracing the strong, and the ignoble of the world, and the contemptible God chooses, and that which is not, that He should be discarding that which is, so that no flesh at all should be boasting in God’s sight. Yet you, of Him, are in Christ Jesus, Who became to us wisdom from God, besides righteousness and holiness and deliverance, that according as it is written, He Who is boasting, in the Lord let him be boast-ing."

The members of the ecclesia are chosen for no merits of their own, but simply that God may be glorified in them. (2 Cor. 12:9; Eph. 3:20, 21).

The reason for their calling is "that now may be made known to the sovereignties and the authorities among the celestials, through the ecclesia, the multifarious wisdom of God" (Eph. 3:10), and that in the eons to come God may be able, because of His kindness to us in Christ Jesus, to use us to display "the transcendent riches of His grace" to all the uni¬verse (Eph. 2:6, 7). The ecclesia is the body of Christ, "the complement by which all in all is being completed." (Eph. 1:23). In the ecclesia, as in Christ Jesus, God is to find glory "throughout all the generations of the eon of the eons." (Eph. 3:21). It is evident from this that we shall be used of God in the bringing of His all-embracing purpose to its grand consummation.

Is there, then, one church or many? At the present time, there is only one ecclesia. How can there be more than one when there is "one body and one spirit, according as you were called also with one expectation of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who is over all and through all and in all?" (Eph. 4:4-6). There is no unity to be made within the ecclesia, only a unity to be kept. The unity was made at the beginning by God when He chose all the members in Christ. (Eph. 1:4; 4:3). The only way we can keep the unity of the spirit within the ecclesia is to be bearing with one another in love. (Eph. 4:2).

Sects and denominations are the result of discords within the ecclesia; they threaten to divide rather than to unite. Even in Paul’s day, there was the beginning of sects, when some said, "I am of Paul", "I am of Apollos", "I am of Cephas (Peter)" and "I am of Christ." Paul asked those in Corinth who were making these claims, "Is Christ divided?" And he charged those who were making these divisions as being ‘fleshly’. (1 Cor. 3:3, 4).

For legal purposes (for example, so that specific groups of believers may buy or rent buildings, or have money in banks) certain titles or designations may be necessary, but they should not be regarded as possessing any special spiritual value. Above all, no sect or denomination or group may claim for itself or its members the exclusive right to call itself the ecclesia of God. It may be that members of the ecclesia are to be found in every denomination — only the Lord knows those who are His — but one thing is certain. Those who claim to be exclusive are taking up an untenable position, for they are denying God the right to choose the members of the ecclesia — something which is His sole prerogative.

Finally, let us satisfy ourselves on one further point. When God calls, He does not take ‘no’ for an answer, for He calls only those whom He foreknew and designated beforehand, and these He justifies and eventually glorifies. No one can expel anyone else from the ecclesia. Nor can any member say of another, "I have no need of you." (1 Cor. 12:21). Each member of the ecclesia is necessary to the welfare of the whole, and God has "placed the members, each one of them, in the body according as He wills." (vs. 18 & 28). God does not err in His choosings, or fail in His accomplishments. The ecclesia is His achievement, and He is able to do "superexcessively above all that we are asking or apprehending." (Eph. 2:10; 3:20).

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