When Did the Church Begin? This question is not uncommon, especially among theological students. Sometimes people ask it because they have been exposed to dispensational teaching. In that case, the answer one gives becomes a kind of litmus test to a nest of other questions that dispensationalists pose. People from a dispensational heritage emphasize discontinuity between the covenants, and therefore commonly argue that the church begins at Pentecost; people from a covenant-theology heritage emphasize the continuity of the covenant of grace, think in terms of fulfillment of what was promised, and therefore argue that the “assembly” of the people of God is one, and that therefore it is a mistake to argue that the church begins at Pentecost. Others ask the question in our title because for them the answer is a way of distinguishing between Reformed Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists. Still others ask the question without a theological agenda, but for no other reason than that it deserves to be asked precisely because the answer seems ambiguous in the biblical texts.
It may be helpful to organize the relevant material in several steps.
(1) As for the terminology, although “church” is commonly a NT expression, both the word and the idea surface in the OT too. For example, a not atypical passage pictures God instructing Moses, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children” (Deut 4:10): the verb is קהל in Hebrew and ἐκκλησιάζειν (cognate with ἐκκλησία, “church” or “assembly”) in the Septuagint. Not less important is the fact that NT writers can refer to the OT people of God as the “church”: Stephen speaks of the gathered Israelites in the wilderness as “the assembly [ἐκκλησία] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). The writer to the Hebrews uses OT language to depict Jesus saying that he will sing praise to God: “in the assembly [ἐκκλησία] I will sing your praise” (2:12, citing Ps 22:22). When Christians gather together, the language the writer to the Hebrews uses to describe their assembly bursts with fulfilled typological references to the OT: the writer tells them, “[Y]ou have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church [ἐκκλησία] of the firstborn ... to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:22–24). The reference to Abel inevitably reminds the reader that Christians are “surrounded by ... a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1)—namely, the faithful heroes from Abel through Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Gideon, David, and all the rest of the OT figures (ch. 11). One cannot help but see some kind of profound continuity in the people of God.
(2) The issue is broader than merely terminological. When Jesus declares, in a thoroughly Jewish context, that he will build his church (ἐκκλησία, Matt 16:18), what he has in mind, according to this Gospel, includes Gentiles too (28:18–20). His instructions on how to exercise church [ἐκκλησία] discipline (18:15–20) show how he is willing to blur distinctions we tend to make: the local church (which must be in view in ch. 18) is the outcropping of the entire church (ch. 16), and clearly includes both Jews and Gentiles. They constitute Messiah’s assembly, Messiah’s church. Nowhere is the one-ness of Messiah’s people, Messiah’s church, more powerfully worked out than in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Jewish believers and Gentile believers have been made “one” by Jesus, who is our peace (Eph 2:14). At one time the Gentiles were alienated from God, “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise” (2:12), but now the two groups constitute “one new humanity” (2:15). Gentiles are “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (2:19). This is the church (ἐκκλησία) that Christ loved and for which he died (5:25). One recalls that in the olive tree metaphor (Romans 11), there is but one vine, with branches being broken off from that vine or grafted onto it.
(3) So what do the two camps—those who think the church began at Pentecost, and those who think the church stretches back in time and ultimately includes all of God’s elect—make of such exegetical phenomena? Transparently, different interpretive choices are tied up with each position. The former will observe uses of ἐκκλησία in the LXX, or in the NT referring to the OT people of God, and insist that these are not technical uses of the term: these are references to various “assemblies” but not to the NT “church.” Those NT passages that speak of the oneness of God’s people (e.g., Ephesians) surely establish the difference between that people and the OT assembly, precisely because the OT assembly/church was made up only of Israelites. And thus this first group maintains its position. The latter group will observe the same data and insist that it cannot be wrong to think of the OT assembly of the people of God as the ἐκκλησία when the biblical writers are happy to use that language. To maintain a distinction between “assembly” and “church” when the Greek uses just one word for both is surely no ground for maintaining that the church began at Pentecost, for the church of God is the assembly of God, and it began in OT times. The bringing together of Jews and Gentiles in one olive tree (Romans 11), in one new humanity (Ephesians), does not mean that the post-Pentecost church is a new body, but that it is the same but expanded body.
(4) I have simplified the arguments, of course. The former group has a diversity of stances within its basic position, but is sometimes in danger of dividing what God has put together, not adequately perceiving the oneness, the wholeness, of God’s redemptive purposes. The latter group also has a diversity of stances within its basic position, but is sometimes in danger of overlooking the “new” things associated with the ἐκκλησία from Pentecost on: new creation, new work of the Holy Spirit, new birth, new age, new covenant, and so on.
(5) It begins to appear, then, that both sides of this debate focus attention on slightly different things. If the focus is on the oneness and continuity of the redeemed people of God, all of them secured by the Lord Jesus, surely Scripture demands that we affirm pretty strongly the side of the covenant theologian. The assembly (church) of the firstborn in Hebrews 12 seems to include saints from both covenants, including those alive now, who are “gathered” around the throne of the living God. Add the kind of linguistic evidence I have just briefly surveyed, and the case is pretty strong. Nevertheless, some versions of the Reformed construction may be in danger of flattening out the Bible’s storyline in such a way there is nothing new in the new covenant except increased information. Under this reading, for example, new birth controls conversion in the days of Abraham as much as in the days of John or Paul, the work of the Holy Spirit is entirely the same under the Mosaic covenant as under the new covenant (even though it is very difficult to read John 14–16 in that way), and many NT writers affirm that with the coming, death, resurrection, ascension and ascension of the Son of God we have entered a new age. All sides acknowledge, of course, that it is rather difficult to nail down precisely what the “newness” consists in, but it is surely a mistake to argue that there is nothing new that is connected with the new covenant—or (as I’ve indicated) to argue that the only thing that is new is more information now that we live this side of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, but certainly not new experience. At the very least one must say there is a kind of ratcheting up of various expressions and experiences. For example, expressions such as “I will be their God and they will be my people” are tied under the Mosaic covenant to God’s self-disclosure in the tabernacle, are tied under the new covenant to the mediating work of Christ, and are tied under the final vision of Scripture to the perfections of the new heaven and the new earth.
In short, if one is focusing on God’s one redemptive plan, his one ultimate, saving sacrifice, his one assembly before the throne, his one covenant of grace (though there are some problems with that expression), and his one final purpose for the redeemed, the Reformed heritage, in my view, has it right. The church begins when the first human sinner is redeemed and joined with another redeemed human sinner—indeed, in the mind of God the church begins as far back as the death of the Lamb “who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8). If one is focusing on the “new” (ratcheted up?) things connected with the people of God under the new covenant, I can understand why one looks for a term that applies to them and does not apply to OT saints. The problem, of course, is that a claim like “The church begins at Pentecost” might be uttered within the framework of the kind of nuances I’ve just outlined, but it might be heard to be saying far more things that rightly scandalize Reformed believers; conversely, a claim like “The church is the sum of God’s people under both the old covenant and the new” is perfectly defensible along the lines I’ve outlined here, but it might be heard to be claiming a flattening out of covenantal distinctions that ought to be preserved somehow.
(6) Another element to the debate needs to be acknowledged. Presbyterians have an additional reason for preserving the terminology, in this respect, of covenant theology: they hold that, under both the Mosaic covenant and under the new covenant, the locus of the covenant community, the church, is not to be tightly identified with the locus of the elect. (The folk in Moscow, Idaho, prove to be the exception: they would like to do more to obliterate the distinction!) In other words, the structure of their ecclesiology (ἐκκλησία-ology) provides some pressure to emphasize continuity. By contrast, Reformed Baptists think that under the terms of the new covenant, the locus of the covenant community, the church, is ideally to be identified with the locus of the elect—and this is different from the way things work under the old covenant. This difference of opinion is of course tied to their respective understandings of circumcision/baptism. Presbyterians argue that both circumcision and baptism mark entrance into the covenant community, without saying anything decisive about entrance into the empirical community of the redeemed/elect. Reformed Baptists claim that both circumcision and baptism mark entrance into the covenant community, but that under the terms of the new covenant entrance into the new covenant community also marks entrance into the empirical community of the elect/redeemed: the new covenant is in this respect different from the Mosaic covenant, and that is part, at least, of what makes it “new.” This tying together of the redeemed and the covenant community is admittedly different from the way things work under the old covenant. So at this juncture their ecclesiology exercises a subtle pressure toward a measure of discontinuity.
(7) In any case, some parallels can be drawn between two formally similar questions, viz., “When did the church begin?” and “When did the messianic kingdom dawn?” This is not the place to tease out the answers to the latter question in any detail. Yet students of Scripture often point out that in one sense the kingdom dawned when he ascended to his Father’s right hand where he must reign until he has vanquished the last enemy. Yet the passion narratives make much of Jesus reigning from the cross (esp. Matthew and John). Still earlier, the kingdom is dawning in Jesus’s public ministry, even his work through his disciples, so much so that he sees Satan fall from heaven (Luke 10). In fact, Jesus is born king of the Jews (Matthew 2). Even though there are more texts that tie Jesus’s kingly reign to his resurrection and ascension, the range of options as to when the messianic kingdom dawned is actually a good thing, an evocative thing, laced with imagination-stirring complexity. Similarly, the question as to when the church began can be answered with some pretty straightforward exegeses of particular texts—but then, when one has taken a deep breath and looked around again, one finds layers of God-given and imagination-stirring subtlety that demands slightly different answers in different contexts.
Dane Ortlund has faithfully served as the Ethics and Pastoralia Book Review Editor for Themelios since 2011, in addition to his work as executive vice president of Bible publishing and Bible publisher at Crossway. We thank God for Dane’s outstanding contribution to the journal and wish him well in his transition. Succeeding Dane is Jeremy Kimble, Assistant Professor of Theology at Cedarville. Jeremy completed his PhD in 2013 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of That His Spirit May Be Saved: Church Discipline as a Means to Repentance and Perseverance (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013) and has contributed one article and various book reviews to Themelios. Jeremy can be contacted at [email protected].