When the church began is an age old debate. But what is meant by “when did the church begin?”
To ask when the church began is not to ask when the church was first in the mind of God. This would not distinguish it from the beginning of all things, since God purposed all things before the world began (1 Cor 2:7; 2 Tim 1:9).
It is not to ask when did Christ begin, since that is an altogether different question. Christ as the Son is eternal and has no beginning. His humanity began with the virgin conception. The glorified Christ in heaven began with his resurrection and ascension.
To ask when the church began is a search for the first potentiality of church ministry. The beginning of the church cannot be found where the ministry of the church is absent or impossible.
However, the most popular theories regarding when the church began do just that.
Theory: The church began at the first mention of a people of God.
If this be true, then we would find a church in the wilderness with Moses (Acts 7:35). After all, ‘church’ simply means congregation of God’s people. This is the position held by those who believe in only one people of God throughout the Bible.
This simplistic view of the church neglects to appreciate the vast differences in nature and operation of Israel then and the church today.
It could be said the only way the church today resembles the church of the wilderness (Israel) is that both are of God.
Israel in the wilderness is hardly the ministry pattern for the church today.
Theory: The church began when Christ was first preached.
If this be true, then the church began with John the Baptist, the forerunner, and the Messiah’s ministry of the kingdom before the cross.
Whereas Israel had not yet received its Messiah, Peter knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, the promised Messiah (Matt 16:16-18).
However, at this time there is still a general absence of the church’s ministry as evidenced from Peter’s ignorance of the cross (Matt 16:21-23).
In the Messiah’s ministry, salvation was of the Jews (John 4:22); ministry did not include the Gentiles (Matt 10:5; Matt 15:24-26); they were under the law (Matt 5:17-19, 23:2-3); and, most importantly, when they preached the gospel of the kingdom they did not understand the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Mark 9:31-32)!
The work of the cross would most definitely be required for the church to minister Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). No, that the church began before the cross will not work.
Theory: The church began when Christ resurrected and sent the Holy Ghost from heaven.
If this be true then the church began with Peter and the disciples at Pentecost. This is the most popular answer to when the church began.
Peter and the disciples knew of Christ’s death and resurrection according to the scriptures. The resurrection of Christ is necessary for the church to exist.
They were baptized with the Holy Ghost empowering them to speak and to act. The Spirit is necessary for the church to exist.
Certainly the church could not begin earlier than this point. However, the presence of things that are necessary for the church to operate does not mean the church is in operation.
A look at the ministry of the “church in Jerusalem” at Pentecost will reveal that its operation does not align with that given to church today.
Nothing that happened in Peter’s Pentecostal ministry was according to the mystery of Christ and the church. Nothing Peter preached at Pentecost was the subject of the mystery of Christ.
Everything he preached about Christ, his death, and resurrection was spoken by the prophets since the world began (Acts 2:16, 2:25, 3:21).
Peter did not expound on the nature of the new creature of Christ (2 Cor 5:17); or the unsearchable riches of God’s grace (Eph 3:8); or the union of the church with Christ, the fellowship of the mystery (Eph 3:9; Eph 4:3-6; 1 Cor 10:16).
He spoke only of those things that were foretold by the prophets about Christ, the kingdom, and salvation (Acts 3:24, 4:12).
The church which is the body of Christ operates according to the mystery of Christ (Eph 5:32, 1 Cor 2:7, Rom 16:25).
Filled with the Spirit, the disciples in Acts 2 sold all their possessions (Acts 2:44-45); continued in the temple (Acts 3:1); ministered to Israel only (Acts 2:22, 3:12); preached prophecy (Acts 3:18-22); and performed the supernatural signs of the kingdom (Acts 4:22).
Their ministry was a continuation of what had been preached before (Acts 1:22). Their message had changed, but only slightly, and it was certainly no mystery hidden from ages past (Col 1:26).
They were not operating according to the spiritual realities of the mystery church when Peter slew Ananias and Sapphira in the Spirit (Acts 5:1-10).
If the church began at Pentecost the Spirit that empowered them certainly did not want these apostles to know about it.
Theory: The church began when God revealed it.
“This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” – Eph 5:32
The origin of the church’s ministry cannot be found in the wilderness with Moses, in Israel with the Messiah, or in Jerusalem at Pentecost.
When God revealed the knowledge of the mystery concerning Christ and His church to Paul, the ministry of the church began, and with it the pattern and origin of the church of today.
“Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery…” – Col 1:25-26
Before Paul the mystery operation of the church was kept secret. It was not possible anyone could minister according to it.
The confusion over when the church began can be attributed to the general ignorance of the mystery of Christ and His church revealed to the apostle Paul.