When people hear the dispensational idea1 that the doctrine for the church today is found in Paul’s epistles alone, the natural question arises:
Was there a church before Paul?
Of course there was! Consider this mention of the church before Paul was saved:
“And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” – Acts 2:47
The Lord gives instructions concerning the church in Matt 16:18 and Matt 18:17.
Paul himself says before he was saved he “persecuted the church of God”, which is evidenced by Luke in Acts 8:3:
“As for Saul, he made havock of the church,” – Acts 8:3
If that were not enough evidence of a church before Paul there is also Stephen’s Holy Spirit inspired sermon in Acts 7 where he references the church before Christ!
“This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina,” – Acts 7:38
Apparently, there was a church in the wilderness that received the law of God at Mt. Sinai!
The word ‘church’ is not found anywhere in the old testament, but the Hebrew equivalent is translated ‘congregation’ and that is found hundreds of times referring often to the congregation of Israel as Stephen did.
It is clear that the church, or God’s congregation, is found throughout the scripture, but certainly the church of today is different than the congregation Moses led through the wilderness. But how?
Moving from Generic to Specific
The word ‘church’ in the Bible is a generic word, like children. We can say a father has children, and it would be true that everywhere we see one of his children we know it is the father’s child.
However, this does not respect the differences in the specific children. We don’t know which child we are looking at without further description.
One child may be a boy, another a girl. One child may be given the mature task of watching the other children, while to another sweeping the floor, and another washing the dishes.
It is likely that there is an oldest child, and a newest child. There would be a time the newest child did not exist, but the father still had children. There was a time the newest child was born, and the father now has a new different child.
We can find the word church or congregation throughout scripture, and that would be like saying a father has always had children. However, if we are to learn our unique responsibilities and identity, we must respect that just as a father can have different children, there are also different churches in scripture.
What is the Church
It has been repeated ad nauseam that the church is a called out assembly, ecclesia, or a gathering of the people of God. However, this fails to identify changes in the nature, operation, and message of God’s people throughout scripture.
The nature of the “church in the wilderness” was that of a nation from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The nature of the church today is not that of a nation, but a new creature called the body of Christ, a spiritual body made of people from all nations.
The operation of the “church in the wilderness” was according to the covenants God had given them. The operation of the church today is according to the fellowship of the mystery of Christ.
The message of the “church in the wilderness” was that of God’s law, righteousness, and kingdom on the earth. The message of the church today is that of the gospel of God’s grace, free justification by faith, and being seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Always There But Different
That there has been a church throughout scripture is clear. Just as clear should be the understanding that there have been different churches based on their nature, operation, and message. This has always been the dispensational idea.
The church in the wilderness is not the church of today, the body of Christ. Likewise, the church at Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) which was at Pentecost had a different nature, operation, and message than does the church today.
If we describe the church not by its general definition as the “people of God” but by its nature, operation, and message, then we do not find the church of today in Matthew 16, Acts 2, or Acts 7, but in Paul’s epistles which exclusively describe the mystery of the church, the one Body of Christ.
Was there a church before Paul? Certainly. Did it have the same nature, operation, and message as the church the apostle Paul describes? No.
Will all things be gathered together in Christ in the fullness of times? Yes (Eph 1:10).
Yes, there was a church before Paul, but it was different.