ek•kle•si•a (part 2)

In my earlier post I defended the notion of calling the body of Christ “the universal Church.” My point was based on the idea that the meaning of ekklesia, the Greek word for church, was advanced beyond its original simple meaning of ‘assembly’ (from secular Greek usage) to refer to any body of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ whether they were in assembly at any given point in time or not.

From Eph 1.22-23, 1 Cor 12.13, and Heb 12.23, the data points to something more than a local body. I recognize that some will try to work these passages into a local-only view. I don’t agree with their conclusions but appreciate the valiant effort.

Today I want to contrast the two ideas and address a few other passages that require an additional term in the concept of the church as the body of Christ.

The passages above point to the body that is the saints of all ages, all part of the body of Christ. Many other passages point to specific local churches. Almost all the introductory passages to the epistles do: 1 Cor 1.2, 1 Thess 1.1, for example.

There is a third use of the word church in the New Testament that is quite curious. Some of the references are Acts 9.31, 1 Cor 15.9 and 1 Cor 10.32. Let me point out what I mean:

NAU  Acts 9:31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.

KJV  Acts 9:31 Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.

Notice that there is a difference here between the New American and the King James versions. The NAU has church, singular, and the KJV has churches. This reflects a textual difference. I don’t want to get into the manuscript debate here, but the singular seems to have much better evidence in this case.

Taking the word as singular then, what are we to make of that? The “church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria”  cannot be just one local church, can it? Nor can it be, as the Bible Knowledge Commentary puts it “the universal church as it was dispersed in the Holy Land.”1 The reason this can’t be the universal church is that it doesn’t include any churches outside these three regions,2 nor does it include any saints already in heaven at that point in time. Now on to the next passage:

NAU  1 Corinthians 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Again we have the singular here, and no textual variant this time. Paul’s persecution was not of every single local church that existed at that time.3 As far as we know, Paul’s activities were confined first to Jerusalem and then he moved from there to attack Christians in Syria. So Paul persecuted Christians in more than one local church, but not in every local church. Yet he refers to the “church” singular (not “churches”) that he persecuted. This is not exactly the universal church either, so what is it? One more reference…

NAU  1 Corinthians 10:32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God;

Here Paul calls on the saints in Corinth to give no offense to the church (singular) of God in their use of idol meat. Does he mean only the local church in Corinth? Ryrie says, “Giving no offense to the church of God must relate to visible groups, yet not all of them even in a region. It  must concern any aspect of the visible church one comes in contact with.”4

From these three references it appears that the term church refers to something more than one local body and something less than the totality of the universal body. Ryrie’s term for this is the visible church. The ideal condition of the visible church is that it be entirely made up of believers, but experience and the Scriptures tell us that this is not always so.

In any case, the point we are making is that the term church as used in the New Testament, has three basic references. It can refer to the entire body of Christ, whether on earth or in heaven. It can refer to a local body, a local church. And it can refer to the visible collection of local churches in a city or a region.

While one must appreciate that the vast majority of references in the New Testament refer to local churches, the Scripture itself uses the term in other ways. It is legitimate for us to do so as well.



  1. Stanley D. Toussaint, “Acts,” ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 378. []
  2. there must have been a church in Damascus, for example, because Paul had been going after it in the beginning of the chapter []
  3. Remember, there are churches in Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee, Samaria and Syria at this point. []
  4. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 457–458. []


  1. Don,

    Even though I believe we should receive the text the churches received, as you have shown, Acts 9:31 hurts a “universal church” belief. If “the church” were all believers, then there would be no believers outside of those few regions. What about the Ethiopian eunuch, who was saved by this time? When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. “The church” is used as a generic, singular noun, one of two usages of the singular noun. If I said, the city-state in Greece, would that mean there was a universal, invisible city state in Greece? How people understood he ecclesia is how they understood it in the Dialogues of Plato as just one of many, many examples. There was no existent universal, invisible, nebulous, something-or-other. You have to read that in to get it out. Just take the plain sense. Singular noun, generic usage, or singular noun, particular usage. There is no mystical usage of the singular noun.

    • Hi Kent

      Well, you are arguing against something I haven’t said. What I am arguing for is the concept of the visible church from Acts 9.31. This is not the universal church, but it is not the local church either.

      I see that you have written on the subject over at your place. I’ll head over there to chime in there, but here is something I’d like to hear you address: why is the idea of local church only so important? Or, to put it another way, why is the idea of the universal church dangerous? I’d really like to read what you think about all that.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Ted Bigelow says:


    The passages you have looked at in this post, Acts 9:31 and 1 Cor. 10:32, are a bit troublesome to interpret since they don’t seem to fit into either a local or universal use of ecclesia. However, I do think they both fit into the local meaning of ecclesia.

    Re: Acts 9:31. (assuming ecclesia in the sg. is original)

    Luke’s preposition in the phrase,” the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace” is kata. It is not the standard accusative use of kata with the meaning “according to,” but instead the distributive meaning of kata is best: “the church distributed throughout…..” (http://forthright.antville.org/stories/978482/).

    The distributive use of kata is extremely common in the NT. If i am correct, then Acts 9:31 points to the previously persecuted church of Jerusalem, now distributed throughout Israel, enjoying peace. This renders Acts 9:31 a local use of ecclesia, and not a new or unique category, such as “visible.”. The definite article (he) at the front of Luke’s sentence might also provide a “see previous use of” function – i.e., see my previous use of “ecclesia” – which is Acts 8:3, the church in Jerusalem.

    Re. 1 Cor. 10:32

    Your argument that this refers to more than a local church is based on a comment by Dr. Ryrie that is itself confusing, to me anyway. What does he mean, “Giving no offense to the church of God must relate to visible groups, yet not all of them even in a region?” Does he mean that Corinth had multiple churches? Does he mean that if a Christian ate idol food in Corinth he offended the church in Cenchrea?

    I would be surprised at either answer. The first (multiple churches in Corinth) is rather easily disproven, and the second is illogical. How can a Xtn eating idol food in Corinth offend *the church* in Cenchrea? Could he offend some of the Christians there? Sure. But the church, i.e., each and every Christian in that city? Not unless a whole lot of tattling went on in Cenchrea.

    Ryrie’s use of the term, “visible church,” if it means less than the universal church, is not novel. After all, the universal church includes those who are heaven and who are thus invisible.

    But to claim the visible church is something more than a local church is nonsensical since the local church is only visible when it gathers together, physically. Only then is it visible. Visibility depends upon a physical gathering, and thus locality.

    Beside, if two churches gather together physically for some special event (and are thus visible), they are still two churches, gathered together only for a special event (not for Sunday after Sunday worship). The NT has a word for them, “churches”

    • Ted, given that you teach the doctrine of a universal church, I am not sure why you seem to be contending with me here.

      As for Acts 9.31, I don’t see how your argument changes what I said at all. The singular still refers to more than one iteration of a local church, it does not in this case refer to the universal church as I showed. So what is it?

      On 1 Cor 10.32, the point Ryrie makes (and I agree with him) is that scandalous behaviour affects Christians in other churches. We don’t need to specify which other churches for this to be true. For a relatively current example, when Jimmy Swaggert had his problems, his bad reputation created problems for Christians and churches in other areas. This would be especially true of those closely associated with him, but even here in the far off corners of North America, we had the jokes and scorn thrown in our face. It had its effect.

      Finally, I looked at your web-site (but deleted your link to it). Do I know you from somewhere? Your picture looks quite familiar, but I can’t recall where and how, if indeed we have met somewhere.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Don, we’ve never met so far as I know.

    The reason I posted was to challenge what I perceive as an overstatement on your part – which you mention in your response above: “The singular still refers to more than one iteration of a local church…”

    An iteration of local churches is a plurality of local churches, which in the NT is not called a church, but churches. That’s not what Acts 9:31, or 1 Cor. 10:32 is teaching – see the distinction between individual Christians and churches I make above.

    As for those who deny a universal church, I’ve never understood the attraction myself.


    • Ted, it must be a memory of some on-line contact then… CBMW, perhaps? SBCnet? To mention two haunts of ancient on-line past…

      On this point: If the singular is correct (and we are assuming it is), you have a singular noun referring to multiple separate churches. That makes it mean something different from a local church. I have shown, I think, that it can’t mean ‘universal’ here. So it has to mean something different from universal and local.

      The fact that there are a plurality of local churches called “church” [singular] is the point.

      I don’t know how to make it any clearer than that.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

      • Don,

        Your point has always been clear.

        Its just that the text at these verses, and indeed language itself, recommends us to keep singular nouns to refer to singular referents, and plural nouns to refer to plural referents.

        The word “church” in the NT means a singular church. The word “churches” in the NT refers to plural churches.

        I don’t know how the Lord could make it any clearer than that.

        • Yes, so the singular thing the word refers to is the visible church, not to any individual church.

          Don Johnson
          Jer 33.3

  4. Brian says:

    I’ve watched this conversation since it’s inception with some interest. To Kent, in your initial posting here you speak of a “generic” use of the singular noun, so would you be willing to say that there is the local manifestation of “the church,” i.e. ___________ Baptist Church of _____________ city, and then there is His body, the church, “the generic church” representing the combining of all local churches in a “generic” sense? I use “Baptist” Church only as a mere reference point. By it’s use I do not imply that I am a landmarkist. I use the term merely for illustrative purposes.