Doctrine of the Church in Ephesians

Fred L. Fisher  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 6 - Fall 1963

There can be no doubt that the doctrine of the church in Ephesians represents a special problem in a study of the New Testament. There is a majesty in the concept of the church here which transcends anything else in the New Testament. If Paul wrote this book, as is most likely, he has either developed his idea of the church beyond that of his other letters or else that which he calls the church in this letter is something different from the thing he calls the church in his other letters.

An overwhelming majority of scholars has adopted the latter view. Reputable scholars, almost without exception, have contended that the “church.” of Ephesians and Colossians is the universal church rather than the local church or churches. A. T. Robertson defines it as the “universal spiritual church or kingdom of God.”[1]Archibald Thomas Robertson, The Epistles of Paul, Vol. IV Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), p. 522. E. C. Dargan says that the term ekklesia (Greek for church) in this letter “denotes the whole body of true believers in Christ on earth and in heaven and in all ages.”[2]E. C. Dargan, Ecclesiology: A Study of the Churches (Louisville, Kentucky: Charles T. Dearing, 1897), p. 49. H. E. Dana asserts that Paul uses the term “to represent spiritual Israel: it is hence purely a spiritual conception, connoting a mystical fellowship of the saints.”[3]Harvey Eugene Dana, A Manual of Ecclesiology (Kansas City: Central Seminary Press, 1944), p. 56.

With these Baptist scholars most other writers on the subject are in agreement, though the definition of the universal church is different in each case. One hesitates to question the conclusion of so many reputable scholars. But it is always the duty of the New Testament student to ask: are they right? We must not be so awed by the fame of any man or group of men that we will be afraid to test their conclusions by the facts.

Before we can hope to understand Paul’s doctrine of the church in Ephesians, we must notice the fallacy of some common ideas about the letter which are usual in the realm of New Testament study.

The first of these is the belief that ekklesia is used both in the universal and in the local sense in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. If one approaches the Ephesian letter with the supposition that the word can in itself mean either the “universal” or the “local” church, he will almost inevitably conclude that it is the “universal” church in this letter. But this is a false premise. The Greek word was never used in either secular or religious Greek for anything other than a “convened” assembly of people.

Ekklesia is used approximately one hundred times in the Greek Old Testament, always as a translation of qahal or one of its derivatives. I have studied the context of each usage of the word and have come to believe that it is always used in the sense of a “convened assembly.” Five times it is used to designate the congregation of Israel in the wilderness; twenty-eight times the word designates an assembly of some or all of the people for some special purpose; sixty-four times it designates a meeting of the people for worship. There is not a single passage where the context suggests that ekklesia is used to designate Israel except as assembled.

After my original research, Dr. Eduard Schweizer of the University of Zurich published an article that confirmed my findings. He said:

The Septuagint used the word ‘church’ over eighty times. Apart from wholly unimportant exceptions, it always means a specific assembly of the people where they gathered for a definite purpose and dispersed again when the business at hand was completed . . . Greek usage knows no other possibilities. The meaning is simply an assembly of people as they come together at a public gathering to pass a resolution, or as they spontaneously congregated, for example, when there was a riot.[4]Edward Scheizer, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament Teaching Regarding the Church,” Theology Today, XIII (January, 1957).

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that this study of the use of ekklesia in the Septuagint brings us to the New Testament with only one established meaning for ekklesia. This should lead us to expect to find the word used in the New Testament in the sense of an assembly of people, and only in this sense. We must approach the study of the church in Ephesians with this under­ standing. Unless there is sufficient evidence to force us to believe that Paul used the word in another than the ordinary sense, we must assume that he used it in the only sense known to his day.

Secondly, we must divest ourselves of the supposition that to say a thing is true of one person ·or group does not mean that it is true only of that one person or group. Paul says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). Some have supposed that this proves that the “church” must include all those whom Christ loved and for whom he died. However, Paul also says, “Christ loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Surely he did not mean that Christ died only for him. Nor did Christ die only for one local church. He died for every individual person and every individual church. This verse does not in any way force us to include all Christians in the concept of the church which we find in Ephesians.

Finally, we must divest ourselves of the idea that Ephesians is a “catholic” epistle, i.e., one written to all Christians. Although the words, “in Ephesus,” are probably not a part of the original letter, the evidence of the letter is that it was written either to a particular church or to a particular group of churches as a circular letter. Paul shows a definite knowledge of these readers; he has heard about their faith; he prays for them (Eph. 1:15-20). He tells them that he is sending Tychicus to tell them of his affairs and to comfort them (Eph. 6:21-22). Both of these statements indicate that the recipients of the letter were a definable group in the mind of Paul. Even if we assume that this is a circular letter, it was designed to be read in turn by each church. The message of the letter was to be applied to that church by that church. The concept of the church would be most likely to be that of a local congregation.

In the next place, it is important for an understanding of Paul’s language to remember that the church had a rival among the people to whom he wrote. One solid result of historical investigation is that there was a widespread and persistent gnostic-like heresy in the churches of Asia Minor from about 50 A. D. onward, developing into a full-grown Gnosticism in the second century. One of the ideas propounded by that heresy was that faith was for the many; knowledge was for the elite. There is little doubt that these heretics banded together in some kind of mystic society and claimed a spiritual superiority to the “common” Christians and to the church. Such a condition seems to have advanced by the time John wrote his first epistle to the place where a definite division had occurred in the churches. “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). This division was in the making when Paul wrote Ephesians to the churches in the same territory. This would account for the majestic utterances of Paul with regard to the church if we suppose that the local church was the church he had in mind.

In his language there is always to be recognized an implied contrast. Thus a full understanding of some of his statements would read like this: “It was the church, not the mystic society, which is the true body of Christ.” We have heard modern preachers make just such statement when some organization or group in the church sought to elevate its interests above those of the whole congregation. We have also heard language of this kind in regard to the local church when members tended to glorify some secular organization above the church of Jesus Christ.

With these preliminary considerations out of the way, let us turn to the evidence of the letter itself. We are looking for two things. (1) Is there any evidence that forces us to give another than a local meaning to Paul’s use of the term, ekklesia? The evidence must be unusually strong since there is no precedent for any other meaning. (2) Is there any evidence which supports the idea that Paul did use the term, ekklesia, in its usual sense? If the second is true and the first is not, we will be forced to adopt the local meaning for ekklesia in Ephesians.

The term, ekklesia, is used nine times in this epistle (1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32). Seven times the church is called a body, (Greek, soma), with the implication that it is the body of Christ (1:23; 2:16; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30). Thirteen times the church is addressed by the plural pronoun, you (Greek, humeis) (1:15-20; 2:1, 11, 22; 3:11, 13, 16-19; 4:1-3; 17; 5:1-20, 21; 6:1-20, 21). Six other terms are used for the church in the letter (cf. 1:23; 2:19; 2:21; 3:15; 5:26). Only a careful study of all of these passages can uncover the evidence for a valid conclusion as to the meaning given to ekklesia in this epistle. Such a study shows that the meaning in Ephesians is the same as in the common use of the term, a convened assembly—what we call a local church.

In the first place, we notice that there are some passages in Ephesians which demand a local meaning for ekklesia. One of these is found in Ephesians 2:19-22. One translation of this passage is:

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

This is the RSV translation—the italics are mine to call your attention to the vital words for our study. While most other English translations agree with this one, there is no more flagrant mistranslation of the Greek in the RSV. The ASV translates it correctly—again the italics are mine.

In whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.

The translation turns on the Greek term for “the whole structure” (RSV) or “each several building” (ASV). The Greek is pasa oikodoma. It is a well authenticated fact of the Greek language that the adjective, pas, in the singular and without the article, as it appears here, is properly translated “each” or “every.” Thus, it is not the “whole structure” which grows into a holy temple but “each several building.” The correctness of this translation is recognized by most commentators, though many of them seek to explain the passage as having to do with the universal church. The RSV compounds its error of translation by supplying an “it” in verse 22, thus saying that the readers of this epistle are being incorporated into “it,” i.e., the universal church. The Greek does not have the “it.” It says simply: “you are being built into a habitation of God in the Spirit.” That is, you readers, as one of the “several buildings” are being built into a “holy temple,” a dwelling place for God in the Spirit. This is in line with .Paul’s statement to the church at Corinth that they were the temple of the Lord (1 Cor. 3:16-17). This passage establishes (beyond doubt in my mind) that Paul is speaking of local churches in this letter.

Another way of approaching an understanding of Paul’s meaning is to study the functions assigned to the church by the writer. It is self-evident, I think, that the universal church could never be a functioning reality. Even if you reduce the idea of the universal church to include all Christians on earth, it would seem impossible to think of such a fellowship as a functioning body. For a group of people to function as a unity demands not only like nature but the possibility of communication, common immediate aims, and concerted action. This is an impossibility without some kind of localness. Even in our day of television, radio, and speedy travel, a concerted action by all the world’s Christians is beyond the dream of the wildest visionary. Thus, if Paul thinks of the ekklesia of Ephesians as a functioning body, we must assume that it is a local body.

In chapter four (4:1-16), we find a passage in which the ekklesia is thought of as a functioning body. Paul opens this paragraph by pleading with his readers to live a life worthy of their Christian profession, one element pf which is a loving forbearance of one another, a quality which demands a social context for its practice. He then urges them to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” another expression which demands a social context and that a local one. In verses 11-16, he identifies the gifts that the ascended Christ gave to men as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors/teachers. Men who have received these gifts are to exercise them to the end that the saints might be equipped for service and the body of Christ built up. The aim of the body of Christ in its ministry is to bring Christians to full maturity of life, give them an unshakeable stability of faith, and lead them to grow up into Christ. This function of the body is achieved when “every part is working properly” (one of the happiest RSV translations). In this whole passage, we have, in the immediate foreground of the writer’s thought, the idea of the church as a local, functioning, redemptive society of men. It is in just such a society that Chris­ tians learn to practice the virtues of Christ, that the ministry has an opportunity to exercise its gifts, and that the children of God are nurtured to full strength in Christ. A spiritual, universal church could never fulfill the functions of the church as set forth in this passage.

In chapter five (5:1-20), we have another passage of like import. Paul is dealing here with the kind of life a Christian ought to live. He is thinking, not of the Christian in isolation, but of the Christian in his church fellowship. True, some of the things he says could be applied individually, but some of them demand a church fellowship, particularly, the admonition to Christians to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (5:18 RSV).

This would seem to be sufficient evidence to force us to believe that Paul is talking about the local church in this letter. Some remain unconvinced. The reason is that the evidence is not all on one side. There are passages which seem to speak of the church in a larger sense than a local church. At least this is so at first glance. We need to examine these to see if they force us to accept a universal concept of the church. If they do not force it, if there is a way to interpret the passages as relating to the local church, the case must be closed.

One passage is Ephesians 1:22, 23.

he appointed him (Christ) head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills the universe with all things (my translation).

It might appear to the English reader that if the church is the “fullness” of God, nothing less than the universal church could be meant. Two considerations, however, make such an assumption unnecessary.

One is the possibility, argued by S. D. F. Salmond[5]The Epistle to the Ephesians, Vol. III of The Expositor’s Greek Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912), p. 281. that the “fullness” is used in the passive sense in this verse. Hence, the church would be that “which is filled” by him who fills everything everywhere (Goodspeed). He bases his argument on two things. One is the usual meaning of Greek nouns ending in ma. Such nouns are usually passive in meaning. Salmond, however, feels that the more weighty consideration is that this whole paragraph is teaching “what Christ does and is in relation to the universe and the church, not what the Church is to him or does for him.”[6]Ibid., p. 281. It is certainly true that this passage does not force us to assume the universal idea of church. The passage is capable of being applied to the local churches which, in contrast to the mystic societies, are the recipients of the fullness of God.

However, C. F. D. Moule[7]The Epistles of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians, Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1933), p. 167. suggests another explanation of the verse which is more appealing to me. He takes the “fullness” to be in apposition with Christ rather than with the church. The church is then only said to be the body of Christ; Christ is said to be the fullness of God. Maule believes this interpretation is more consistent with other New Testament uses of “fulness” (cf. Col. 1:19 and 2:9). Thus “Christ is thought of as containing, representing, all that God is, and the destiny of Christians, as the body of Christ, is to enter, in him, into that wealth and completeness.”[8]Ibid., p. 169. Whether we agree with Salmond or Maule, the passage is in favor of the local meaning of church, rather than against it.

Another passage which might be appealed to as supporting a universal concept of the church is Ephesians 4:4. We have already dealt with the paragraph as a whole. It reads:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you are called in one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. (Italics mine).

The writer is saying that there is a seven-fold unity which lays the foundation for his admonition to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It might seem that if there is only “one body,” this body must be thought of as the universal rather than the local church. Certainly, one God means one and only one. However, if we analyze this passage, we find that there is in this list two kinds of things. One 1s that which has an absolute unity: “one Spirit . . . one Lord . . . one God and Father.” But there is also in this list that which has qualitative unity: “one hope . . . one faith . . . one baptism.” In this second group, the meaning is that there is one kind of hope, faith, and baptism. Each Christian has the same kind of thing. Numerically, there are as many hopes, faiths, and baptisms as there are Christians. To which group does “one body” belong? The decision will rest on the presuppositions of the exegete. There is no reason why it cannot be thought of as qualitative, “one kind of body.” In view of the context in this whole paragraph this seems to be the correct solution.

“Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25) is capable of being interpreted in the local sense. We have noticed this above and need not repeat our discussion. That the church might be presented before him in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:27) may give us greater pause. If this refers to the future presentation of all the redeemed, 1t would seem to make the church universal. However, we need to compare Col. 1:21-22:

And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled m his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.

The Colossians passage is addressed to a local church and says essentially the same thing as the Ephesians passage. This proves that the concept could be applied to a local chute or to an individual. For our purpose, this is all that need be said.

The study of the meaning of ekklesia in Ephesians may be said to support the conclusion that the term is always used in the local sense. It need not be maintained that it always refers to some particular local congregation; it may refer to the quality of thing which is found embodied in and only in a local congregation. This is what is known as the “generic” use of a word and this kind of usage is found in the New Testament.

Let us now turn our attention to an interpretation of Paul’s concept of the church found in Ephesians. First, we note that Paul thinks of the church as the “body of Christ” and Christ as the “head of the church.” This is manifestly a figure of speech. The church could not be literally the body of Christ. What is Paul attempting to express in this colorful figure?

He means to say that the church is the means by which Christ lives and ministers in the world since his ascension. Another way of saying the same thing is to say that the church, each church, is the continuing incarnation of Christ on earth. The church does not replace Christ or usurp his place in the hearts of men. It is the way by which the living Christ continues his own ministry in the world. It may not be the only way; God cannot be restricted in his way. But the New Testament makes it clear that the church is the primary medium of divine action in the world.

The thought of a church as the ”body of Christ” emphasizes the importance and dignity of every local church. It also lays upon each church a tremendous responsibility. First, we have the responsibility of actually letting Christ live and express himself in the life of the church. The church does not exist to serve Christ but to embody him. This is why Paul is so insistent on the unity of the church fellowship. A church that is split by factions and torn by the insistence of individuals on having their own way cannot embody Christ. When the church meets, it should be so bathed in the Spirit of God that the presence of Christ is apparent to all who attend the meeting.

The second responsibility stressed by this figure of speech is the responsibility of letting Christ rule the church. We often speak of the “autonomy” of the local church and mean by that a church is “self-governing.” This is a sacred Baptist principle and must not be surrendered. It means that no other church no denominational agency, no governmental body has the right to dictate to the local church regarding its own internal affairs. However, this principle must not obliterate the fact that a church is not really self-governing; at least, it should not be. “The most real thing in the Church is not its democracy, but Christ’s absolute monarchy. Christianity is a monarchy; and it is not a constitutional monarchy either, nor an elective, but an absolute.”[9]Peter T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1953), p. 63.

It is true that a church is ordinarily thought of as a democracy, at least among Baptists and others who have a congregational form of church government. Each member is thus given an equal voice in the affairs of the church, but we should not think of each member as having equal authority. No member has any authority; Christ has it all. Each member is given an equal voice in church affairs simply because each member has access to the Lord of the church. The purpose of voting is not to decide what we think is best for the church; it is to express the will of our Lord. Wisdom in church affairs does not depend upon experience, training, age, or any other human factor; it depends upon communion with Christ. Divine wisdom is a gift, a divine leadership of God’s people as they face the decisions of life. The privilege of voting in a church is to be taken as a responsibility to seek out and express the will of Christ.

Concerning the early churches, it has been said,

Their Lord is not a lost leader, tenderly remembered since he fell in battle with the hosts of evil; he is still their living commander, able to direct them day by day as new contingencies arise . . . . he is something far more than their memory of him. He is an active Mind, an awesome Presence, a mighty Power working in their midst.[10]Walter Marshal Horton, “The Christian Community: Its Lord and Fellowship,” Interpretation, IV (October, 1950), pp. 393-94.

This must be the way of our churches today if we deserve to be called the body of Christ.

The next figure of speech used by Paul for the church is that each church is to be a temple of God, a “habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-22). The Greek word that is used for “temple” is the word for inner sanctuary. Remember that Paul is talking about the church, not the church building. We have a modern tendency to glorify the buildings of the church, to call our auditoriums “sanctuaries.” This is contrary to the teachings of the New Testament. God dwells in the hearts of the people. Worship is a matter of the heart. The buildings only serve to provide a meeting place for the church.

This figure means that the church is a divine institution. It is the only divine institution in the world aside from the home. There is a tendency in modern thought to belittle the churches. Such a tendency would have shocked Paul. He thought of each body of Christians as a colony of heaven, a dwelling place of God. The body might be composed of the poor and lowly. They might be poor in possession and weak in worldly power; but they were the temple of God. We need to recapture, in our day, the conception of the dignity and worth of each individual church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

But the figure means more. The church is not a temple of God unless God actually dwells and reigns in the hearts of the people. The first obligation of a church is to be sure of its proper relationship with God. It has been suggested that the very name, ekklesia, was chosen for the Christian groups because it marked them off as separate from the rest of the world. The ancient world was filled with religious groups, both Jewish and pagan, which used a variety of terms to designate themselves. In the midst of this environment, Christianity took its stand against the world and against all other religions. There must be no confusion at this point. Therefore, the common Greek terms for religious bodies were rejected and a term which was essentially political in its meaning chosen. The Christian groups were the churches of God. They stood up against the world as a witness to the presence of God in the world. So it should be and must be with us if we are to fulfill our call to be the people of God in a perverse world.

The final passage which we will have space to study is Eph. 4:11-16; 1t teaches that the church is to be a ministering fellowship. Verse 11 lists the gifts of Christ to his churches: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Verse 12 tells of the ministry that these men are to perform in the churches; 1t consists of perfecting the saints for the work of the ministry.

One is likely to miss the significance of this statement if he is not careful. Authorized Version has obscured the relation of the clauses by the insertion of a comma. The work of the pastors is to perfect the saints; the saints are to perform the work of the ministry. Verse 12 should read: “for the perfecting (fitting out) of the saints so that they may perform the work of the ministry which results in the building up of the body of Christ.”

The word for “perfecting” has the idea of “equipping” something for a particular task through training and discipline. This is the work of the pastors and teachers and others who are the gifts of Christ to his church. Once equipped, the saints, i.e., the people of God, are to perform the work of the ministry to the end that the body of Christ may be built up. This is to continue until all reach unity of faith, maturity of character, and stability of mind. Verse 16 tells us that the whole body is thus dependent on the proper functioning of each individual part.

Here is a graphic picture of the ideal of church ministry. All too often, our churches have degenerated into societies of people who have ministers; they should be societies of people who are ministers. One writer, in speaking of New Testament Times, says:

At this period, we find no trace of a division of Christians into clergy and laity. All formed the elect people, and conversely, this people was collectively a people of priests and prophets. There were no passive members. The most humble had their share of activity and were by no means least necessary.[11]Auguste Sabatier, The Religions of Authority and the Religion of the Spirit (London: Williams and Norgate, 1904), pp. 71-72. Quoted in Elton Trueblood, Alternative to Futility (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948), pp. 73-74.

Another has said,

In the beginning of the Christian cause all were ministers. Member equaled evangelist equaled missionary. There was no place within the society for the observer, the mere supporter or the nominal member.[12]Trueblood, p. 73.

One of the most dangerous tendencies in our modern Christian life is the increasing gap between the “professional” religious worker and the common Christian. Our language is strained to the breaking point in trying to express ourselves and make some distinction between those whose Christian service involves spending all their time in the work of the church and who are supported by the gifts of others so that they may do so and those Christians whose service is rendered in the everyday walks of life from which they earn their living and then, in addition, give of their money to support their church and of their time in the service of the church. Our common terminology is to say that one class of Christians are in “full-time Christian service” and the other class ‘of Christians are laymen or laywomen. This is contrary to the spirit of the New Testament. All Christians are supposed to be “in full-time Christian service.”

In the performance of the ministry of the church there is room for participants only; there can be no spectators. The task ‘of the ministry demands the combined efforts of all members. Someone has said that the average church is composed of workers, jerkers, and shirkers. The fact of the matter is that only workers can be a functioning part of a church. We recognize, of course, that, in actual practice, there will be a wide divergency between the talents and effectiveness of the various members of the church. The point is, in the ideal for the church found in the New Testament, no member should be satisfied unless he is contributing his full share to the common task of the church.


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