The Expository Files.


"Church" Is A Collective Noun

New Testament Church Series #4

Not only do we learn something about "church" from the definitions and a consideration of its two spiritual usages ("universal" and "local" church), we are also enlightened when we consider the fact that "church" and "ekklesia" are collective nouns.

A Collective Noun
A collective noun is one "which in the singular form denotes a collection of individuals (e.g., army, orchestra, crowd): it is treated as singular when the collection is thought of as a whole and as plural when the individual members are thought of as acting separately." Webster. We can illustrate a collective noun in relation to its constituent parts with the following simple illustration:

Juror                             Jurors                         Jury
Link                              Links                         Chain

The Collective Noun "Church"
But our interest lies in a New Testament example of this concept and Matt. 18:15-17 gives an excellent illustration of some things regarding the collective noun "church": "15. And if thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone: if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he hear thee not, take with thee one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established.

 17 And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church: and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican."

Vs. 15 shows a single Christian acting when someone has sinned against him: "go show him his fault between thee and him alone".

Vs. 16 finds a plurality of Christians involved when the offending brother won't listen to the one he's sinned against: "take with thee one or two more".

Vs. 17 has "the church" involved when the efforts in vs. 16 have failed: "tell it unto the church: and if he refuse to hear the church..."

Continuing with the illustration above, let's examine the collective noun "church" in relation to its constituent elements and then suggest a number of practical lessons:

Christian                              Christians                      Local Church
Matt. 18:15                          Matt. 18:16                  Matt. 18:17
Christian                              Christians                      Universal Church
Acts 8:38-39                        1 Pet. 1:1                     Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet. 2:17

Lesson 1: A single unit of a collective noun is not the same thing as the collective. For instance, one link isn't the same thing as a chain, one soldier isn't the same thing as the army, etc.

Therefore, a single Christian is not "a church". In spite of what some say, one Christian is not "the church in a community if he/she is the only one there." The Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40) was a lone Christian but wasn't "the church" or "a church".

Lesson 2: Similarly, a plurality of units is not the same thing as the collective (many links aren't necessarily a chain, many soldiers not necessarily an army).

And this is why a plurality of Christians is not necessarily a church. In order to have a "local church" there must be more than just a plurality of saints. Those saints must be assembled together or "collected" in some fashion, just as one connects the plurality of links in order to form a chain. A clear distinction is made in our text between the plural, "one or two more", and the collective, "the church". If the "one or two more" constituted "the church" why are they told to "tell it to the church"?

Lesson 3: Just because the constituent elements of a collective noun act in some fashion, it doesn't mean the collective is acting. And just because one of those constituent elements has the right to engage in some activity it doesn't necessarily follow that the collective has that right. One soldier may go AWOL but that doesn't mean the entire battalion, regiment, or army has done so. And, a soldier may have the right to form some political action organization; but will anyone grant to the army the same privilege?

This is one reason we maintain that when an individual Christian or a plurality of Christians engage in some action it is not necessarily the same thing as "the church" acting. The single Christian acting in Matt. 18:15 was not the same thing as the church acting in vs. 17. And this is also one reason why we affirm that just because the individual Christian may be authorized to act in some capacity, it does not automatically follow that the local church may do so. Paul, along with Aquilla and Priscilla, made tents (Acts 18:3). But who will affirm that the church in Corinth could have, as a church, opened up the same sort of business? The right of a local church to act in some manner must be found independent of the right of the saint to act.

Lesson 4: Collective nouns "collect" or bring together that which we find in the corresponding singular and plural nouns.

And this is why we contend that "church," whether "universal" or "local" is composed of people, saints, individual Christians. The New Testament passages speaking of the "universal church" say nothing at all about "the churches" in various locations around the world making up what Jesus called "my church". We read of "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:1-2), "the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2), and "the churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16) but nothing is said to indicate that each of the separate churches were units of some bigger church.

Along this same line we might point out that a collectivity of Christian is called a "church" but there is not a scriptural name for a collectivity of local churches. A collectivity of congregations does have a name but we have to go outside of the New Testament to find it. That word is "denomination" and it accurately describes a collectivity of local congregations whether that collectivity is temporary or permanent and whether or not the churches involved are churches of Christ or Baptist churches. 1 Pet. 2:17, speaking of the "church universal", uses the significant word "brotherhood". The word "hood" is "a suffix denoting (a)state, quality, character, condition, as in childhood; (b) the whole group of (a specified class, profession, etc.), as in brotherhood. It is equivalent to -head in such words as Godhead." Webster. "Brotherhood", then, describes a "hood" of brothers---a group of people who sustain a "brother" relation to one another. But if the "universal church" is composed of local churches Peter would have used some term such as "churchhood"---a group of churches sustaining a "sister" relation to one another, a "sisterhood" of churches.

Church                                       Churches                            ?????? (Denomination)
1 Cor. 1:2                                   Rom. 16:16                        ??????

A failure to realize the simple truths contained in a consideration of "church" being a collective noun have led well-intentioned people into many unauthorized areas and practices. Those who have fallen for the "whatever the individual Christian can do the church can do" philosophy have assigned to local churches activities that are foreign to those authorized in the New Testament. And Robert Turner has wisely observed, "When one begins to think of the u. body of Christ as a 'churchhood' instead of a brotherhood; and assign that u. body some collective function; the warnings of church history are ignored and the errors of institutionalism come piling upon us." The Cogdell-Turner Discussion, p. 20

Let's stick with the simple truths from the New Testament and avoid the pitfalls that come from using human wisdom.l.

By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.4; April 1998