The question ‘when did the church beginning is a complex one. It is similar to being asked, ‘Kevin, have you stopped beating your wife?’ No matter how I would answer this question, whether yes or no, I will be in hot water! That is because there lies behind the first question another, have I ever ‘beat my wife’. So the answer to this last question, ‘have I ever?’, is what will inform, even define, the answer to the first, ‘have I stopped?’. ‘When did the church begin’ is not altogether different. There is another question subtly lurking behind this one and that is: ‘what is the church?’ Thus, the original question, ‘when...church’, is answered by the definition of the latter, ‘what...church’.
To begin with, we must first consider the term itself, ‘church’. By mere definition the word simply means called out (ones), an assembly gathered for a purpose, a congregation of people, etc. But this does little in advancing an understanding of what the church is, apart from an assembly of people, called out for a purpose. This definition could aptly be applied to the whole of God’s redeemed people across all times. However, Robert Lightner, in his summary of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker. 1986. p. 217), argues that the church is constrained to be a NT-only concept. One reason, among others, is because “the word church does not appear in the Old Testament.” In spite of Dr. Lightner’s important contributions to theological studies, this premise must be dismissed for at least two reasons. First, given such strictures as the etymology of a word in the English Bible, we are also bound to reject the doctrine of the Trinity, for this important term is found in neither the OT nor the New. But this, a most central doctrine, is revealed ubiquitously in concept throughout the scriptures. Second, a careful reading of the KJV has the word ‘church’ coming from both, Stephen, in reference to Israel in their wilderness experience (Acts 7:38), as well as the writer of Hebrews, quoting the words of David, “in the midst of the ‘church’, I will sing your praises” (2:12b cf. Ps 22:22). These two citations do not, in themselves, completely circumvent Lightner’s remarks, for both are still found in the NT. However, they do cause us to pause and ask what word is here being translated ‘church’, because in the original writings the actual word ‘church’ never occurs.
The Greek word back of the English word church is ekklēsia. The real question, therefore, is whether or not this term found in the OT? It is, in fact, in a number of places. Ekklēsia, in the Septuagint (the Greek OT, translated c. 200 B.C.), is the word which translates the Hebrew word qāhāl. (See: Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2ff, 9; 31:30; Josh 9:2; Jda. 20:2; 21:5, 8; Judg 20:2; 21:5, 8; 1 Sam 17:47; 19:20; 1 Kgs 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chr 13:2, 4; 28:2, 8; 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chr 1:3, 5; 6:3, 12f; 7:8; 10:3; 20:5, 14; 23:3; 28:14; 29:23, 28, 31f; 30:2, 4, 13, 17, 23ff; Ezra 2:64; 10:1, 8, 12, 14; Neh 5:7, 13; 7:66; 8:2, 17; 13:1; Ps 21:23, 26; 25:5, 12; 34:18; 39:10; 67:27; 88:6; 106:32; 149:1; Prov 5:14; Job 30:28; Mic 2:5; Joel 2:16; Lam 1:10). As such, the terms seldom refer to anything other than God’s covenant community.
A very noteworthy passage from the list above is Deut 18:15—19, where, in the midst of a clear prophecy from Moses concerning the coming Prophet, Jesus, Moses pointed the people back to the covenant-making event of Sinai (or Horeb as in 4:10) as “day of the assembly, ekklēsia or literally “the day of the ‘church’”. Therefore, based on the application of the word ‘church’ in the original languages, it is safe to conclude that the church transcends the NT, at least in the sense of being God’s people whom he has redeemed and enters into covenant with, despite the variations in the administrations of those covenants. This concept is further supported by multiple NT passages that stress the continuity of the people of God, a point to which I will now turn.
In positing a general continuity among God’s redeemed, throughout the ages, I am not purposing that the NT church has ‘become’ Israel or that the two are without distinctions. I do suggest, however, that to evaluate all the biblical data over the issue through the “Israel-ethnic-nationalism (OT)—over and against—Church-spiritual-universal (NT)” lens leads to severe oversimplification, if not an outright false dichotomy. Rom 9:6—8 seems to prevent us from making such hasty generalizations, as does the passage in Gal 3:15—29, with its parallel theme—not all Israel is Israel/the children of God.
In these and other passages, there is clear evidence that the NT writers made a distinction, not only between Israel and the church (i.e., contemporaneous Judaism and Christianity), but also between Israel (blood and soil) and Israel (those faithful to the covenant of promise, like their father Abraham). Paul, in Eph 2, reminds Gentiles of a time when they were “separated from Christ” (v.12), something that he further connects with being “alienated” and “strangers” from “the commonwealth of Israel” and the “covenants of promise”. However, now “in Christ” they have been “brought near”, and made to be “fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household” (vv. 13, 19), what he later refers to as “a holy temple in the Lord”. In these verses Paul appears to view the church, not as a parenthesis in God’s redemptive plan, but the full realization of it—the anticipation and hope of all the OT revealed religion (see also: Acts 7, 13:13—41).
Heb 11, the ‘hall of faith’ chapter, also tends to blur the line between OT and NT saints. Although the OT saints mentioned in this chapter “died in faith, not having received the things promised” (v.13), they, namely Moses, nevertheless, “considered the reproach of Christ greater...for [they were] he was looking forward to the reward” (v. 26). Thus, there is a general continuity in God’s covenantal people. Moreover, Galatians 3 teaches us that both the OT and NT saints share the same Gospel (v. 8), same kind of faith (v.6—7, 11), same blessings (v. 9) and same kind of redemption (v. 13—14). This is so that the Son, the Messiah and his finished work, might be the very center of all God’s purposes, both in creating and re-creating a people for himself. The greatest distinction being temporal perspectives, they (OT) looked forward; we now look both back and forward.
“It must be admitted by all evangelicals”, says Lightner, “that something new and unique began on the day of Pentecost”. To this, indeed, we all say AMEN! But does it follow from “new—unique” that something altogether different occurred, that is, from a redemptive perspective? Does a radical swing in the Spirit’s administrative or economical work necessitate what Lightner calls a “distinct program”? (Ibid.).
Was not the Holy Spirit at work under the old covenant when he came upon prophets, priests, kings, judges (Jdg 3:10), the elders of Israel (Num 11:25—26), even artisans (Ex 28:3; 31:3) and pagan prophets (e.g., Balaam, Num 24:5)? In fact, the events that surrounded and followed Pentecost were not only prophesied by Joel (2:28ff), but prayed for by Moses (Num 11:29), that “all Yahweh’s people” would enjoy the fullness of the Holy Spirit.
To be sure, something incredibly unique happened on that day (Pentecost), but not something of a different kind, or necessarily a “distinct program”, but perhaps better, the temporal fulfillment of all the types, hopes and anticipations of the OT assembly (or “church”). This is why Peter can refer to the NT church in distinctly OT categories: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Pet 2:9; cf. Ex 19:5—6; Deut 7:6; 10:15; Is 43:20—21; 61:6; 66:21; Mal 3:17). Such is a fitting definition of the true people of God, his church and their mission, in both the Old and New Testaments.
While the living God never changes, his dealings with his people does. Over the ages he has used various means of disclosing himself and his purposes in history and redemption, climaxing in the greatest revelation of all, his gracious Self-disclosure in his Son, Christ Jesus (Heb 1:1—2). Therefore, the church may be defined as the assembly of God’s people, who believing his promises, enjoy the benefits of him being their God and them being his people, a promise that permeates the whole Bible and is made to his people in all dispensations. This assembly is an organic entity, one which grew in the OT era as Yahweh progressively revealed himself to them, culminating in Christ. Having God’s full revelation now, this group of called-out-ones continues to grow, in breadth and by grace, in depth. Thus, given the above, the inter-testamental use of ekklēsia, church, and the solidarity of God’s redeemed throughout the ages, I think it is safe to conclude that the church, in incipient form albeit, began perhaps as early as Abel, being cultivated by God’s progressive self revelation and promises at pivotal junctures in redemptive history (e.g., Abrahamic covenant, the Exodus/Sinai, Davidic covenant, the promised coming of the New Covenant [Jer 31:31ff]), being, finally and fully, realized or completed in Christ’s death, resurrection and exaltation and experienced by his people at the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (“the promise of the Father” Acts 1:4; 2:33). From Pentecost forward, the “tree” (Rom 11:17ff), the church, has reached its full fruit bearing capacity. Nevertheless, even in its “seed” form (Gen 3:15; Gen 17, 22), it was still a tree; as it was as a promising sprout (Is 11:1, 10), still a tree. Today, that tree is living and bearing fruit in fullness of Christ and his Spirit.
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4