YOU ASK ME, Were there not churches in scripture? I answer, there were; but what are churches? The effect of the question is to bring out the state of the mind. Most Christians would immediately think of what are called churches in the religious world, perhaps in Christendom at large. They would think of the Presbyterian church, or Congregational and Baptist churches, or else of the Church of Rome, or the like. The person who lived habitually in the mind of scripture would think of Corinth or others which we meet with in Scripture. Are then the facts which exist in Christendom, or the thoughts there current, different from the facts found in Scripture, or the thoughts formed by it? Let us inquire into this, not with a haughty heart, but if we find all gone far away from the scriptural state in principle and practice—if we find all ruined, instead of power in the Holy Ghost and unity—a fair show in the flesh, let us mourn in heart, and cry to the Lord. He will meet us in our need.
What were churches in scriptural times? “Church” means simply an assembly, or, from local use in Greek, an assembly of privileged persons, of citizens. The whole multitude of believers gathered into one by the Holy Spirit formed the assembly or church. Only here of course it was God’s assembly; of course those in Rome or Corinth could not meet in Jerusalem. Hence there were assemblies in different places, forming each locally God’s assembly in the place. It may be well very briefly to examine how the assembly is viewed in scripture as a whole, before we speak of local assemblies. It is viewed first as the habitation of God; and then as the body of Christ. In one sense the church is not yet formed, not complete. All that shall be united to Christ in glory form part of it.
“I will build my church says Jesus, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This will be infallibly accomplished. So Peter, evidently alluding to this, says, “to whom coining, as unto a living stone, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house”; so Ephesians 2: 21, “in whom the whole building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.” This is yet unfinished, and still goes on; and, though at first a public and evident body (the Lord adding daily to the church such as should be saved), it is become what is called the invisible church. It is invisible: though, if it was to be the light of the world, it is hard to tell the value of an invisible light. If it is acknowledged to have fallen for ages into corruption and iniquity, a very Babylon in character, that has not been the light of the world. The persecuted saints—for God has surely had a people—gave their testimony; but the public body in the world was darkness, not light in it.
But there is another way in which God’s assembly is spoken of, and still first as the house, a habitation of Gods that is, as established by the instrumentality of man, and under the responsibility of man. “As a wise master- builder,” says Paul, “I have laid the foundation, but let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon.” There is human instrumentality and human responsibility. It was a large body formed on earth which was God’s house or temple, the Holy Ghost dwelling in it down here as descended on the thy of Pentecost 1 Cor. 3:16, not the body; there can be no wood and hay and stubble, which is to be burned, in that. Again, “ye are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” Eph. 2:22.
This is a very interesting and precious truth. I mean God’s dwelling down here in His house prepared for Him according to His will. God never dwelt with Adam innocent, though He visited him, nor with Abraham though He visited and singularly blessed him; but the moment Israel was redeemed out of Egypt, God came and dwelt among them. The dwelling of God with men is the fruit of redemption. (See Ex. 29: 46).
The true redemption has been accomplished, and God has formed a habitation for Himself where He dwells by the Spirit. It is so indeed as to the individual 1 Cor. 6:19; but I now speak of the assembly, the house of the living God. This is now on the earth, the habitation of God by the Spirit. He dwells and walks among us. We are God’s building. Man may have built in wood and hay and stubble; but God has not yet executed judgment to remove the house out of His sight, though judgment will begin there.
The assembly is also the body of Christ (Eph. 1:23). It is by one Spirit we are baptized into one body. This, though the final completeness of it will be in heaven, yet is established on earth, for the baptism of the Holy Spirit was His coming down—the thy of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 1 Cor. 12 13). That this is on earth is further clear, for in the same chapter we find He has set in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, where we have miracles; gifts of healing, clearly on earth. Where, remark also, they are set in the whole church, members of such or such a kind in the one whole body. Such is the church or assembly as depicted in Scripture.
What were churches or assemblies? These were local. The apostle could say, “To the church of God which is at Corinth.” It represented the whole unity of the body in that place. “Ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” Two bodies of Christ, even in one place, representatively there could not be. In Galatia, which was a large province, we read of the churches of Galatia. So in Thessalonica, a city of Macedonia, we have the assembly of the Thessalonians. So in the seven churches; so John writes to the assembly. So everywhere there was God’s assembly in any given place which could be distinctly addressed as such. In Acts 20:17 he calls for the elders of the assembly. There were several appointed by the Holy Spirit to be overseers of God’s flock. Hence Titus was left in Crete to ordain them in every city. We have (Acts 11: 22) the assembly which was in Jerusalem, though it was exceedingly numerous; in Acts 13:1, the assembly that was at Antioch. So Paul (Acts 14: 21-23) returns to Lystra, Derbe and Iconium, and chooses for them elders in every assembly. All Scripture clearly shows there was one assembly in a place, which was God’s assembly.
Churches as buildings they had none; the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; and hence they met in houses where they could; but all formed one assembly. God’s assembly in that place, the elders being elders in the whole as one body. The local assembly represented the whole assembly of God, as 1 Corinthians shows us plainly. The position which Christians who composed it held was that of members of Christ, of the whole body of Christ. The only membership known in Scripture is membership of Christ’s body; as an eye, a hand, etc.; ministry was directly connected with this last thought. When Christ ascended up on high, He gave gifts to men, apostles) prophets: they were the foundation Eph., 2:20; evangelists, pastors, teachers: these were set in the whole church or assembly. (1 Cor., 12).
If a man was a teacher at Ephesus, he was such at Corinth. Even as to miraculous gifts, a man spoke with tongues where he was. The gift belonged to no particular assembly, but was that member or gift in the whole body on earth, wrought by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor., 12), and by which a man was a servant of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:11, we have the Holy Spirit on earth distributing them as they then were. In Ephesians 4 they are given from J Christ on high, and only such referred to as ministered to the perfecting of the saints and edifying of the body till we all grow to the stature of Christ. They were the talents with which a man was bound to trade, if he knew the master, in virtue of having them: “as every man has received the gift, so minister the same, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” 1 Peter, 4:10. They were to wait on their prophesying or  exhorting. Rules are given for their exercise in Scripture. Women were to keep silence in the assemblies.