It is imperative in rightly dividing the word of truth that we understand what the Bible teaches about the church. The word “church” occurs 77 times in the KJB and 37 times in the plural for a total of 114 references. There is no need to run to the Greek to understand the word (ekklesia), for its definition is clear when you study the English word as it is used in the KJB. It is a special Bible word that refers to an assembly called out by God in every reference except one. Nowhere in the Bible is it used in reference to a denomination or a building.
In Acts 19, the KJB translators translated the Greek word ekklesia as “assembly” three times instead of “church” because it is not referring to God’s church (v.32, 39, 41). In putting “assembly” instead of “church,” the KJB makes a doctrinal difference between an unruly union mob and an orderly congregation of God’s people. However, they translated a different Greek word (hierosulous) as “robbers of churches” (Acts 19:37). The modern versions say “temples” instead of “churches.” I believe the Spirit of God led the translators to say “churches” in order to teach us that buildings in which people worship idols would be known as churches. There are many so-called churches today that are not really God’s church because they are preaching a false gospel and teaching false doctrine. Satan has counterfeit churches (mystery of iniquity).
If we study the word “church” as it used in the Bible without trying to prove any preconceived ideas, and we just let the Bible say what it plainly says, as we compare scripture with scripture, we will learn that are different churches that exist in different dispensations. The context determines which church is being referred to. It is great blunder to assume that the word church is used exclusively for this present age. That is why I shy away from using the term “Church Age.” Dispensationalists like Scofield, Larkin, Chafer, and Ryrie emphasized the difference between Israel and the Church. However, Israel was, and will yet be, a church.
Failure to recognize the different churches in the Bible will lead to doctrinal and practical problems. There is much bad doctrine about the church because of a failure to rightly divide the different churches in the Bible. For example, that is why some think there is only a local and visible church and that you must be water baptized to be a member of it. The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1646 says that, “the church is a company of VISIBLE saints, called and separated from the world by the Word and Spirit of God, to the VISIBLE profession of the faith; being BAPTIZED into that faith” (Article 33).
The church that God is building in this present dispensation (from salvation of Paul to the rapture) is made up of all those who believe the gospel of the grace of God. Immediately upon salvation we are baptized by one Spirit into one body (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:13). All believers in this present age are members of "the church, which is His body (Eph. 1:15-23). This church could not exist before the ascension of Christ, otherwise it would have been a headless body! The word “church” is used nine times in Ephesians, and in every case it is referring to the one true and spiritual church that God is building in this present age.
Consider some distinct truth from Ephesians about the church God is building in this age:
1. Christ is the Head (1:22-23; 5:22-33)
2. Heavenly calling and position (2:5-7)
3. One NEW man, neither Jew nor Gentile (2:11-18)
4. Mystery hid in God (3:1-12)
5. Unity of the Spirit (4:1-6)
The members of the Body of Christ should assemble together locally, if at all possible, for the work of the ministry (one Body, many local churches). The local church is a visible representation of the Body of Christ in a community. The apostle Paul started local churches and wrote epistles to local churches (Phil. 1:1). The local church is an assembly of believers that is organized according to the order set forth in Paul’s epistles. We must not require more of people than God does to be part of our local church. There is not one instance of the apostle Paul requiring water baptism for church membership. He does not even mention water baptism in the pastoral epistles!
By comparing spiritual things with spiritual, we learn there are different churches in the Bible.
1. There was church in the wilderness (Acts 7:37-38). That church was very different than the Body of Christ! They were baptized unto Moses (1 Cor. 10:1) and brought under the covenant of Law. They were an earthly people with earthly blessings and an earthly inheritance. There was certainly a difference between Jew and Gentile in that church. Throughout the OT we read about the “congregation” (363x’s, see Ex. 16:1-4).
2. There is a kingdom church in prophecy (Ps. 22:22; Heb. 2:12). This cannot be the church which was a mystery hid in God. The church in prophecy is the church Christ spoke of in His earthly ministry (Matt. 16:13-28). Israel will be called out of the nations and assembled in their land (Ezek. 11:17; 36:24-28). They will be the "church of the firstborn" under the new covenant (Heb. 12:18-29).
3. There was a “little flock” of believing Jews in the earthly ministry of Christ that was called out of apostate Israel (Matt. 18:15-20). They were called out by believing the gospel of the kingdom. Repentance and water baptism were required to be part of that church. It was called the “church at Jerusalem” in the book of Acts. The 3,000 Jews that repented on the Day of Pentecost were added to a church that already existed (Acts 2:36-47). They were “in Christ” (on this side of cross all are either in Adam or in Christ, 1 Cor. 15:22) and were a “church of God.” It was the church that Saul of Tarsus persecuted and “wasted” (no one can waste the Body of Christ). The events of early Acts concern what was spoken by the prophets since the world began (Acts 3:21). The kingdom church was phased out through a transition after God raised up the apostle Paul.
4. There will be churches in the future tribulation period (Rev. 2-3). The seven churches are representative churches of the tribulation saints (John writes from a future standpoint, Rev. 1:10-11). The seven letters deal with the problems they will have to overcome in order to obtain the promised blessings of the kingdom (e.g. 2:7, 11, 26). The whole book of Revelation is sent to the seven churches for their instruction (1:3-4; 22:16).