“For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”
The New Testament is filled with mysteries, particularly the book of Ephesians, which is Paul’s epistle of mystical Christian realities. However, the Greek adjective Megas is used in reference to a mystery only twice in the Bible. In Ephesians, Paul describes marriage as a great mystery, stating, “This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32, LSB). The other occurrence is in 1 Timothy 3:14-16, which states, “by common confession, great is the mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16, LSB). In both instances, this MegaMystery pertains to “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, LSB).
My good friend John Reisinger and I were both simultaneously, yet separately and independently, struck with the crying need for a better understanding of this great mystery. He was somewhat more diligent in addressing it and has already published a five-part series in Sound of Grace titled “Ekklesia,” which I wholeheartedly applaud. If you have not received this excellent work, you can order copies via Amazon under the title The New Covenant Church – Ekklesia – of Christ.
So why am I proceeding with my offering, given that John has already done exceptional work on the subject? While John’s ministry has been widespread and comprehensive, it has been particularly focused on Reformed Baptist churches. His soul has been intensely provoked by the error and abuse prevalent among many of these deep water Presbyterians. Consequently, these matters are understandably the main focus of his conclusions regarding the nature of the Christian church. On the other hand, my concern is considerably broader. Ignorance and error about this great and glorious mystery are at the root of all sorts of weaknesses, abuse, and false doctrine in Christian churches of virtually every stripe in existence. This first part will mainly address the identity of what we call the church. There is a great deal of MegaConfusion in this area.
Two Confusing Words
The Greek word rendered church in the English Bible is ekklesia. It is a combination of two other words, a preposition ek, meaning out, and a derivative of the verb kaleo, meaning to call. Hence, the word has reference to the called out. While churches are commonly referred to as assemblies, and ekklesia is indeed translated as assembly three times in reference to a civic gathering in the English Bible, the concept of an assembly is not implicitly conveyed in the word ekklesia. More will be said about this later. It’s important to emphasize that ekklesia can only be applied to a specific, chosen group of people. It cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be rightly applied to a building, an organization, an institution, or an establishment.
The English word church is derived from a translation of the Greek kuriakon, meaning house of the Lord, which always references a pagan temple of idols. The word is nowhere in the Bible used in reference to God’s people, the Christian church. The rendering of ekklesia as church, therefore, is not an honest translation but an erroneously contrived interpretation. Doubtlessly, this was based on a flawed ecclesiology. Precisely who to blame and why is anyone’s guess. It is likely the Reformers, wishing to nullify the Roman Catholic claim to the one universal church, thought to do so by turning people’s attention to an individual local church by identifying it with the building in which the people met. Whatever the cause, the curse of this error rests heavily upon us today. The failure of the term church to accurately represent the true essence of ekklesia has led to the wrongful legitimation of a wide range of entities, from superficial or insincere church-like organizations to more concerning deviations. At the same time, the genuine body of believers called out by the Lord often goes largely unrecognized or ignored. A great mystery indeed!
This word confusion is further aggravated by the usage of the word church. It is used as a denomination in distinction from all other denominations of Christianity. It is used as a building where people meet for religious purposes. It is used by all Christians in a state or nation. It is used in the name of a particular association of professing Christians who regularly assemble in a specific locality. Then, it is also used by all the elect and redeemed people of God. The last two are the only biblical usages of ekklesia regarding professing Christianity. Of these two, only one can fully represent the essential meaning of the word, the other being a secondary usage. It is vitally important that the ekklesia upon which our eyes are focused and which we have in our minds is the one Jesus spoke of when He said, “[U]pon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18, LSB). If our idea of the church does not meet the criteria for that one, we have no interest in it whatsoever. It is merely another human organization, is nothing and will come to nothing.
Only One People of God
When Jesus announced the building of His church, He was, on the one hand, speaking of something new, but on the other hand, he was only stating an ancient reality in new terms. Since the creation, God has never been without a people to bear His Name, reflect His image, and prophesy His word. And He has never had more than one people at a time to do that. That one people have always been indivisible. They have gone under many various names, each one describing a particular property or characteristic or nature of such people, but in every case, the same one people. The oneness of God’s people was expounded in particular in a previous Gatepost article entitled God’s People Are One. For the present purposes, we will simply call attention to oneness in Creation, oneness in the Fall, oneness in election and redemption, oneness in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Romans 2:28-29; Philippians 3:3; Galatians 3:29), and oneness in Christ (Ephesians 2:13-15). There is a difference between God’s Old Covenant people, who were merely an outward people and not necessarily regenerate, and God’s New Covenant people, who are an inward people, meaning people of the heart, and who are all regenerate. But even among the Old Covenant outward people, there were those of the inward spiritual character of the New Covenant. These are all of that great company of eternally elect people who constitute the one people, the one Ekklesia of the Living God of all ages (Matthew 8:11-12).
There are those who contrive distinctions between many concurrent peoples of God. According to these theories, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, redeemed ethnic Israel, and the church are all entirely different entities with entirely different eschatological destinies. Even the redeemed will be divided in glory, some on earth, some inside the holy city, some outside, some included in the Bride, others merely guests. These various peoples of God permit vital criteria of the one true church to be stripped from her and bestowed upon these other entities, leaving the Ekklesia of God to be whatever is necessary to fit man’s own arrogated purposes.
I wish to assert at the outset that irrespective of the many names and figures and states in which we find the people of God in the scriptures, if they are indeed God’s evangelically elect people, those people are the true Ekklesia, the church of the living God. By evangelically elect, I mean their standing before God has always been according to the gospel. Abraham and Abraham’s seed must be included since he was justified by faith. Lot, who is declared just and a righteous soul, must also be included in those saved by the merits of Jesus Christ, called out to His Ekklesia. All Israel who are such inwardly, who are circumcised in heart (Romans 2:28-29), must be counted as part of the Ekklesia of God. Such inward circumcision can only come by divine regeneration, the birth from above wrought by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven by the Lord Jesus. Can the true church be described in any more concise yet comprehensive terms than in Philippians 3:3? The indisputable connection between spiritual Israel in the Old Covenant and the New Covenant church is firmly established by the fact that the New Covenant was not established with an entirely different people, but with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
We have this Ekklesia of Christ, prefigured, prophesied, and described in the Old Testament as Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the Temple where God dwells and from which proceeds God’s prophetic word, where offerings are made and received, and prayers are made, heard, and answered. Christ, in His church, is Daniel’s Rock carved out of the mountain (Daniel 2), which grinds all the governments of men to powder and becomes a mountain filling the whole earth. She is the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, the light of the world, a city set on a hill, the pillar and ground of truth. She is the bride of Christ, His body in distinction from Himself as Head. She is the temple of God, a habitation of God by the Spirit. She is a holy nation made up of kings and priests unto God. She is the whole family of God in heaven and earth. John saw the church in the New Jerusalem descending from heaven (Revelation 21:1-3). We who come to Christ do not come to Mount Sinai, but to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the festal gathering and assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22–24, LSB).
The Church That Christ Builds
In the interest of simplicity, in the remainder of this paper, I will use the word church to designate the Ekklesia of Christ. There are absolute criteria that the church must meet. Otherwise, it is not the church of the living God.
The criteria are as follows:
- This church is inseparably identified with Christ. The MegaMystery in 1 Timothy 3:16 is prefaced by Paul’s introduction of the subject of “the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” A declaration of the saga of the Divine incarnation, preaching, and glorification of Christ immediately follows this. The church is the single cause of the incarnation. Christ came down to redeem for Himself a Bride. The MegaMystery of Ephesians 5:32 illustrates the bonding of man and woman by the inseparability of the one body of Christ and His church. Every member of this church is a member of Christ and every other member of Christ (Ephesians 4:25; 5:30). There are no hypocrites or false professors in her. There are no unconverted covenant children in her. Each individual member, together with this whole church, has a real organic mystical union with Christ. We are each and every one members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones (Ephesians 5:30). This is graphically illustrated in Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:21-24). We really do participate in His Life (Galatians 2:20). Christianity is not imitating Christ but partaking of Him (1 Corinthians 10:17; Hebrews 3:14).
- Christ is the ultimate Head of this church. She has real infallible government and leadership. (Romans 8:14; John 14:18-23). All humanly contrived church governments are fallible, whether they be episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational. They all claim Christ’s headship but obviously do not have it, for they all make terrible blunders, abuses, and ungodly actions. Christ does not rule and guide as an organic Head in either the denominational or the local church. Men do. Neither of these could possibly be what Jesus spoke of in Matthew 16.
- All the elect of God constitutes this church, all of those for whom Christ died, all that shall finally be saved. Every single saint belongs to this church. It is this church, these particular souls whom the Father gave to the son (John 6:37-39). All of them will surely come to Christ, for He effectually calls them out to Himself (John 6:44). They are the Ekklesia, and all who come to Christ will surely be received.
- It is this church, and only this church, that has genuine and authentic spiritual unity. They all believe the same thing regarding essential truth and spiritual life. Select a score of them utterly isolated geographically, culturally, tribally, and ethically. Then, examine them concerning their faith. It will be found that they are in exact agreement concerning the One True God, the Savior, repentance, faith, spiritual life, righteousness, godliness, the Word of God, the resurrection, judgment, and eternal life. Paul’s request that the Corinthian church be perfectly joined in the same mind and same judgment is perfectly reasonable. It could not be otherwise in the church that Christ builds since they are all taught by Him (John 6:45; Ephesians 4:21), indwelled by the same Spirit, and partakers of the same mystical body. One body absolutely mandates one Lord, the Head, and one faith, one baptism. Without this fundamental spiritual unity, the intercessory prayer of our Lord is made vain (John 17:20-23), and we may have no confidence in the efficiency of His present intercession. Our hope is in vain. We are still in our sins! Needless to say, this unity is not, nor will it ever be, found to live and survive in a denominational church or among local churches. In fact, it is one of the primary activities of denominations to promote disunity with other Christians by preaching their creeds and confessions rather than the Word of God.
- All members of this church have true holiness. They are not sinners. They are saints. Every one of them! They were sanctified by the Holy Spirit when He called them by regeneration of the Spirit and the Word of God. (John 17:17; Ephesians 5:26; 1 Corinthians 6:11). Separation is a condition without which none will be received as God’s children (2 Corinthians 6:17-18), and without this holiness, none shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). Such one hundred percent holiness is not found either in the denominational or the local church.
- It is this church and this church only, which is the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city set on a hill, and the pillar and support of the truth. She is the one upon which the Holy Spirit falls and makes men witnesses of Christ, and by whose love all men recognize the disciples of Christ. The world encounters the institutional church and is utterly unimpressed. It sees in it the same politics, divisions, fleshy, petty, jealousies, envies, strife, hatred, greed, pride, unbelief, and foolishness that is found in every other organization of this world. Organizations and institutions make no impact on souls. Only God, in a bona fide Christian, can do that. Let a sinner meet the church of the Living God in one God-filled Christian, and he will never again be able to convince himself that God did not redemptively visit this earth in the person of Jesus Christ. He may never be converted; he may hate and persecute the church, but he can never dismiss it from his mind. It is this church, and this church alone, that does greater works than Christ did through the power of the Holy Spirit.
- This church, and this church alone, is invincible, indestructible, incorruptible, and absolutely secure, both in each and every member and her entirety. None of her numbers shall ever fall away, apostatize, and perish. All other churches will very soon apostatize, dwindle away to nothing, close their doors, sell out, and disappear. In twenty centuries of our Lord’s reign and Headship, everything that has been polluted by man’s tools has perished, while the one church that He built abides. Every local church and every denomination has found its way into the same ecclesiastical dunghill. None of these can be the church that Christ built.
The members of this church have been, and yet are, persecuted, oppressed, tortured, beaten, murdered, hounded out of society, and driven to the wilderness and the caves in the earth. She has often survived there, her enemies foolishly imagining they have driven her out of existence. However, this process only enhances her purity and strength, and she reemerges in her original purity without any alteration. You might encounter numerous complaints regarding the lamentable state of the contemporary church. In such instances, you can be certain that the speaker is not referring to the one true church of the Living God but rather the unfortunate distortion found within denominational and local congregations. The Bride of Christ is not declining. If anything, she is becoming more glorious. Christ is doing to her according to his unchanging and indefeatable purpose and presenting her to Himself unblemished without spot or wrinkle. This MegaMystery is not something created out of time and mortality. She and her Husband are eternal entities. She has ever existed in the Mind of the Almighty, having been brought into manifest light in the fullness of time. And because she always has been, she forever will be. That is our personal future. We have obtained an inheritance according to His predestined purpose among them that are sanctified.
All of this being true, the one true church of the Living God, the one that Christ is building, His Body and His Bride can only be the invisible, or universal, Ekklesia, the called out of God. She is invisible because she is one with the kingdom of God, just as Christ explained to the Pharisees that the kingdom does not arrive in observable ways (Luke 17:20-24). She is universal in that she cannot be localized. Like salt and light, she permeates every corner of the earth simultaneously, spanning from one end of the world to the other (Luke 17:23-24). She literally fills the earth (Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45). If an answer as to where the Kingdom and the church may be found, the answer must be that she is wherever Christ is; in His presence, both the Kingdom and the Bride are found (Luke 17:37). She is irresistibly called out to Him.
The big question looming now is, “What about the local church, which is a powerful living reality abundantly testified in the epistles?” That will be our next subject.
For further reading
Conrad Murrell served in evangelistic ministry for over 50 years and was powerfully used by God in many Assemblies of God and Baptist churches in the United States and around the world. Throughout that time, Conrad pastored churches in Texas and Louisiana, successfully hosted numerous Bible conferences, engaged in continuous itinerant preaching, and diligently evangelized throughout the United States and Mexico. In addition to his fruitful ministry, he also wrote several books, many of which are read worldwide today. Mack Tomlinson's biography of Conrad Murrell is a testimony of God's grace and truth in the life of a man called by God for the proclamation of the Gospel.
Conrad Murrell was a significant contemporary and friend to two of the 20th Century's leading experts on revival, Leonard Ravenhill and Richard Owen Roberts, as well as a dearly loved co-laborer and associate of several other significant evangelists of our age, such as Manley Beasley and Al Whittinghill. Like them, he was a committed, passionate, and anointed itinerant minister. He was a man's man, a man of conviction and grit, but most importantly, he was God's man—a man completely devoted to his Lord and Savior.
November 4, 2023
More from Conrad Murrell
When God speaks to wicked men, they hear no voice from heaven. Rather, they experience His displeasure. He terrifies and troubles them.
The blessed man rests under the shadow of the wings of the Almighty. The righteousness of Christ is his hope and refuge.
It is significant that this book of blessed meditations, often set to music and sung, begins with a contrast between the two men who make up the whole of humanity. While there is an infinite variety in the human race, the contrasts set forth here are the only ones that matter in the end.
There is a principle of hermeneutics (the science of Scripture interpretation) that states the first time a subject is mentioned in the Bible, all its foundational principles are present. How valid this is in all cases we are not prepared to argue, but it seems to hold well in the subject of faith.
Faith is often preached as a tool to obtain blessings from God. It is a gimmick which, when used correctly, can produce an abundance of worldly possessions. Prosperity and success are indicative of nothing. They certainly do not testify of faith.
All the false ideas of faith must be cast down, or they will constantly rear themselves up in the reader’s mind, taking exception to revealed truth.
Do you desire to know what work it is that God wants you to do? Then this is it. Believe Him.