Is there One church or many?
Like so many topics, beliefs surrounding questions like this have been used by the devil to divide the body.
Like so many issues, this question is one easily agreed upon by anyone holding the scriptures as the final word on any issue of doctrine.
Words used for “church” in the Bible and their meanings
There were two words predominately used in the New Testament to refer to the gatherings of Christians.
The first word is ekklēsía which means called out ones and is NOT a word exclusive to Christian gatherings, but was in fact first used in reference to people who were called out or assembled in the public affairs of a free state. They were the body of free citizens called together by a herald (kḗrux). This was an ekklēsía!
Ekklēsía as it was used in the scriptures therefore was simply a word of their native tongue Koine Greek which represented a group called together to assemble who belonged to a common division of people.
The other word is synagogue sunagōgḗ. Sunagōgḗ is a femenine noun from sunágō meaning to lead together, assemble. So Sunagōgḗ means a gathering or congregation. It is also used in the Greek Old Testament (septuagint) in Isaiah 37:25.
The gatherings of Jewish believers simply retained the word they had used for years, namely sunagōgḗ (Acts 13:43 [cf. Matthew 4:23; Matthew 6:2; James 2:2; Revelation 2:9; Revelation 3:9]).
In Hebrew 10:25, however, when the gathering of Christians is referred to, it is called not sunagōgḗ, but episunagōgḗ, (sunagōgḗ with the prep. epí) which is translated “the assembling together.”
The Christian community was designated for the first time as the ekklēsía to differentiate it from the Jewish community, sunagōgḗ (Acts 2:47). The term ekklēsía denotes the New Testament community of the redeemed in its threefold aspect.
- All who were called by and to Christ in the fellowship of His salvation, the church worldwide of all times.
- To represent the body of Christ currently present on the earth
- To an individual and local assembly of believers under their pastors.
What is the purpose and function are local church as opposed to the world-wide church?
The world-wide church or the Body of Christ is the family of God. We have been brought into union with God, and the depth and expressions of that union are captured within various terms such as:
- children of God
- family of God
- adopted children of God
- His special people
- His bride
- His friends
- the “church”…and more…
So the world-wide church is simply God’s whole human family.
The local church functions much like natural division in a family. Often, immediate family and nephews & nieces, uncles & aunts, cousins and the like do not always live in that same house or city. So it is with God’s family. Though we are all ONE BODY, we are not all located within reasonable distance from one another, we don’t even all speak the same language. For these reason, the body of Christ in the early years met together in local assemblies rather that all together.
At the start of the Gospel, the Christian message was met with MUCH hostility…mostly from Jews, though gentiles dedicated to the worship of pagan god’s offered much persecution as well. Also many times Rome was no friend to the gospel. As such, people were not lining up to come to Christ. Even in very large cities, there was often only a comparatively small number of people who called upon the name of the Lord. That being true, it was sometimes possible for all the Christians in a city to meet together in one place which apparently happended from time to time in Corinth. Though in many places, either due to size, the availabilty of large buildings and persecution – Christians most often met in homes. Even in these cases, the “church” of a city was always representing ALL believers in that city. They had mulitple pastors or equal authority which served as teachers and overseers of the “flock”.
Now, this introduces another issue which is indirectly connected to the question being addressed in this article.
A New Testament church is set forth in scripture as a body of BELIEVERS – not a place to invite non-believers in order to lead them to the Lord.
The early church gatherings were places of safety both AWAY and SEPARATE from the world and its influence. It was a place where they could worship and praise God in testimony and song. It was also a place to be taught the scriptures and instructed in their meaning and applications so that they would be equipped to GO OUT into their communities and do the work of the ministry (Ephesins 4:11,12).
Today, many treat the local assembly of believers as a place to draw unbelievers in to get the born again. This is a thought the early church would have found both foreign and counterproductive to the actual purpose of their gatherings.
How many local churches were usually in an area?
Like I said above, within a city, there are NO biblical examples of having more than one church. This was true independent of whether they could meet together under one roof or from house to house.
That having been said I do not believe it should be taken as a doctrinal guideline. First, because NO WHERE in the New Testament are we told to regulate how many churches can be in a city. Secondly, in most major countries today, the size of cities are exponentially larger than anything in the 1st century. As such, we’re kinda comparing apples with oranges. It is often a matter of practicality to have more than one church in a city. A sad reality however is that in our day another big reason for multiple churches in one city is due to differences in doctrine which is also, a condition unique from those we read about in the New Testament.
Now, to offer a practical example of the fact that early in the Christian faith each city only had ONE recognized church, consider the letters of Paul to THE CHURCH of Thessalonica and THE CHURCHES of Galatia.
Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. As an individual city, it only had one church even though it was one of the largest cities at the time, having a possible population of over 150,000 people. Of course, of that population, Christians made up an exceedingly small portion especially because as Paul noted in his letter to them, they received the message of the gospel under great affliction (1Thess. 1:5).
Galatia on the other hand was a region and included MANY cities and was generally divided up into northern and southern districts due to many differences between the two in terms of language, nationality and social organization.
The northern portion of Galatia was comprised of smaller, urban cities which were largely agricultural. This included cities such as Pessinus, Ancyra and Tavium.
The southern portion contained many cities which were largely commercial including the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.
The letter Paul wrote to these churches was a circuit letter, intended to be read by all the churches in that region.
Morris says that “It is clear that Paul intended his words to have a wide circulation in the region of Galatia. The letter would be taken to each centre and read there, or several copies would be made and one taken to each church.”
In most cases, rather than pass around the original, multiple copies were made and sent out. This addresses one reason why the Bible, and the New Testament letters in particular, enjoy such a bounty of copies in antiquity. Such has served us well because though in the thousands of copies we have of these letters there are a great number of minor differences, none of them really speak to matters of doctrine or church practise. These differences are differences in spelling, or employ the use of pronouns in some places where the person referenced is already clearly established and such. Exceedingly few call into question a few events and sayings, but NONE of them alter doctrine in any way. That is a real boon for Christianity and the authenticity of its teachings.
So where does the question, ‘Is there One church or many?’ come from?
Well it is not entirely without merit.
Today, some 2,000 years after the inseption of the world-wide church, there are those who so ardently hold to the fact that the church IS composed of the members of the body of Christ, that they miss the undeniable fact that the Bible actually parses out the word “church” so as to include smaller segments of the body – such as local assemblies.
Most likely those who feel so strongly about this, do so because there are those who associate their local body of believers with the building in which they meet. They all but believe the church IS the building. In all reality, I believe such people are extremely few and far between.
In many cases, Christians simply think SO highly of their individual local church that they place it on a pedestal. They both act and talk as if it is the only REAL church in their area. This is of course nonsense and carries with it expressions of a “cultish” behavior which leaves a very bad impression on both the world and other believers. These types of people actually express an ungodly pride in their denomination, it’s affiliations and it’s local manifestation in particular. As such they treat their local church like a sports team, complete with colors, logos, mascots and they have become it’s consummate cheerleaders. Such is a very juvenile way to represent the body of Christ at large… as well as it’s local manifestations. While their excitement and devotion to their local body is commendable on some level, it often appears as if it is support for a TEAM, rather gratitude for being members of Christ’s body.
So the answer to the question, ‘Is there One church or many?’ is there is but ONE church because the church IS Christ’s body.
That body however is divided in time and location. Some have gone on to be with the Lord over 2,000 years ago, some are present on each continent of this earth and further divisions still are seen in it’s local manifestation. It is this last example where we see God having His greatest impact however, since it is the place He chose to appoint Pastors (elders, bishops) to shepherd His sheep.