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Question and Answer

When Was the Church Established?

Question:

I notice in Acts 7:38 that Stephen actually uses the word "church" in reference to the time of Moses. I understand that the word Church comes from the Greek word ekklesia , which means "called out ones." The main question is that most people believe that the Church began in the New Testament times (usually at the time of Pentecost).

Are not the Hebrews themselves the "called out people" of the Old Testament? If I am to believe Scripture, then, those people who tell me that the Church started in the New Testament times don't seem to be reading the same Bible at all or seem to be misleading me. Can you help me with the seemingly irreconcilable difference between what I hear in the various Bible studies I attend and from behind the pulpit on one hand and what my Bible plainly makes reference to on the other?

Answer:

Your question elicits my sympathy because I too suffered from the lack of clear teaching on this subject in the early years of my Christian life.

There is a sense, of course, in which the Christian church began in the first century. We can see this from the fact that it was "in Antioch [that] the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26). But there is also a sense in which the Christian church is simply a renovated extension of the true Israel of God which is made up of those who, in faith, looked for Christ's coming (before he came) and those who believe in him now that he has come. And there is a large body of teaching in the New Testament that makes this very clear indeed. Let me give you a few examples.

In his letter to the Ephesians the apostle Paul reminds the Gentiles of the fact that before Christ came they were "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (2:12). But then he immediately adds that "now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been made near by the blood of Christ" (v. 13).

What happened with the coming of the promised savior, then, was that "the middle wall of division" between Jew and Gentile was "broken down" (v. 14) "so as to create in himself one new man from the two" (v. 15).

The same thing is represented in a different way in Paul's letter to the Romans (chapter 11). In this instance he likens the change to a process of cutting off dead branches from a great olive tree (the unbelieving Jews of that day) and the engrafting of new branches (the believing Gentiles of that time).

So, while there is something very new indeed about the Christian church, in comparison with the historical period prior to the coming of Christ, it is still often spoken of in terms of that Old Testament background.

In Galatians 3, for example, the great blessing that has now come upon the Gentiles is summed up like this: "if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (3:29). The promise referred to is the one recorded in Genesis 22:18 where God said to him, "in your seed all nations of the earth shall be blessed."

It is for such reasons as briefly outlined above that our church speaks this way of the church in chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession:

The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.

There are those who constantly refer to their church as a New Testament church. We who hold to the Reformed faith believe it is more important to speak of the church in a way that does justice to the whole history of God's covenant purpose. We think the Old Testament preparation for the coming of Christ is important to understand as well as the New Testament fulfillment. We also believe that we ought to constantly experience—in the preaching of the whole Bible and in our experience as believers—a living fellowship and communion with all who belong to Jesus. And that certainly includes those who lived in the time of Moses.


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