Articles

Dispensationalism: A Mutilated Ecclesiology

This article first appeared in the March 1, 1967 issue of The Standard Bearer, under the rubric "Trying the Spirits". It was written by Rev.Robert C. Harbach, a PRC minister.

"I will build My Church" (Mt. 16:18). These words of Christ are appealed to by dispensationalists in their attempt to prove that there was no church in the Old Testament. They insist that such saints as Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel, Malachi and John the Baptist were not in the church. The words, "I will build My, Church" are said to be in the future tense, implying that the Church did not then exist, nor prior to that time, but was yet to be established at Pentecost. At this point in his reference Bible, Scofield, on the Greek word forchurch, ekklesia, says that it means "an assembly of called out ones" and "implies no more." So that Israel in the Old Testament, in Egypt for example, was simply an assembly. What Scofield means here is thatekklesia does not necessarily mean church and definitely does not mean so here. But the word ekklesia, to get at the truth of the matter, contains not only the meaning of the term church, but also the extent of its membership. It signifies a separated company. "The Church of God" is synonymous with "the elect of God." For the Church is neither broader nor narrower in scope than the whole election of grace. This we can prove with the greatest ease and clarity. Compare Col. 1:24, where Paul speaks of his "sufferings" for Christ's "body's sake, which is the church," with II Tim. 2:10 where Paul says he endured those sufferings "for the elect's sakes." The inference is that the Church and the elect are one and the same!The same evidence we have in Eph. 5:25-27 where it is stated: "Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it..." Here the teaching is that Christ loved a people prior to His giving Himself for them. Who are they? N.T. saints only? The O.T. saints He also loved prior to His giving Himself for them. "I have loved thee with an everlasting love" (Jer. 31:3). Both Old and New Testament believers are "the saints that are in the earth...the excellent in whom is all My delight." (Ps. 16:3

"I will build My Church" makes not so much a reference to the future (I shall) as to the promise (I will). The Lord does not teach here that there was no church in the old dispensation. There was such a church, but the stones and the materials of it, although provided and amassed, were not yet put into place. This awaited the laying of the "Sure Foundation." The "living stones" were cut out beforehand, but could not be actually built in O.T. times to then form the completed habitation of God through the Spirit, because the building was to be raised upon Jesus Christ crucified and risen as the sure foundation and chief cornerstone. 

Therefore, "I will build My Church" does not mean, "I will bring into existence My church." Nor does it mean, "I will begin to build My Church." It means, "I willcontinue to build it." For the building had already been begun in the making ready of the stones and materials. That was the O.T. stage of the Church. The N.T. phase was in the putting of the stones together upon the cornerstone. Jesus was referring only to this latter operation. The O.T. church is symbolized in David and his reign, while the N.T. church is typified in Solomon and his reign. David provided all the building materials for the temple of Solomon. Of Solomon's actually raising of the edifice it is said that "the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither." (I Kings 6:7) The O.T. church was a readying of the stones and a providing of the materials for the building. There were living stones, but they were not yet set on the foundation (except in plan and principle), for the simple reason that the foundation stone had not yet been formed (from the Virgin!). The N.T. church was in the bringing of all the materials to the erection site and the actual framing of them together. The O.T. church was in that dispensation so readied that when the N.T. church was built "there was neither hammer nor axe, nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was in building." There was an O.T. church; it was then a prepared work. The N.T. church is the finished building. Proof? This: "Prepare thy workwithout and make it fit for thyself in the field; andafterwards build thine house." (Prov. 24:27) The church of the old dispensation was being prepared without and made fit in the field. Afterwards in the church of the new dispensation the building of the prepared house was accomplished. It was in two different forms in the two dispensations, but throughout it is the same house! 

Not only is Dispensationalism far wrong, then, in its shallow interpretation of Matt. 16:18; but also in its claim that the body of Christ is never mentioned in the Old Testament, it is fundamentally mistaken. But before we turn to O.T. Scripture, which is most irrefutable and abundant on the subject, let us form in our minds some idea of the body of Christ. Here is an illustration: "And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, 'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?'! (Acts 9:4). It would take an extremely carnal eye, indeed, not to see in these words any reference to the body (the church) of Christ. For it is undeniably there. Saul learned then that he had not been prosecuting heretics and extremists, but had been persecuting no less than the Lord of Glory. That is not difficult to see. Christ and His people are so united that what is done to Christ's members is done to Him. He and they are one, "members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones." (Eph. 5:30) He and they are one spirit. (I Cor. 6:17) Whenthey are persecuted, He is persecuted. "In all theiraffliction He was afflicted," (Isa. 63:9) i.e., "all the members suffer with" any suffering member. (I Cor. 12:26) When they suffer, the Head suffers too. This truth runs so deeply and widely throughout the Old Testament that it cannot be as Scofield claimed, an entirely unheard of new truth revealed exclusively through the Apostle Paul. Hence, the body of Christ is found revealed in the Old Testament. This contention we will now proceed convincingly and conclusively to prove. 

"The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be." (Gn. 49: 10) This is the O.T. form of the N.T. prophecy where the Messiah "should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad." (Jn. 11:52) The same truth is more highly developed in Eph. 1:10, "That in the dispensation of the fullness of times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth, even in Him." What is here in view is not something yet to occur in the future, but that which has been accomplished ever since God set Christ "at His own right hand" and "hath put all under His feet, and gave Him, the head over all, to the church." (1:20, 22) He has assumed this authority far above all principality (1:21), and is thus over all things whatsoever. They are under Him now, (Matt. 28:18), so that He is the head of the church. In this dispensation of the fullness of times the Shiloh prophecy has its fulfillment. 

"And Moses said (to Pharaoh), Thus saith the Lord, 'About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die..and all these thy servants shall come down unto Me, saying, Get thee out, and all the people that follow Thee! and after that I will go out."' (Ex. 11:4,5,8) In verse 4 the first personal pronoun is emphatic, i.e., the Lord will act here by no instrumentality, but wholly of Himself. So that the antecedents to these pronouns is the Lord alone, who said, "I will go out," thus expressing His identity with His people in the exodus — the Head intimately united with His body. 

"The land shall not be sold, forever; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with Me." (Lev. 25:23) The N.T. expression of this thought is had in, "They are not of the world even as I am not of the world." (John 17:16) Again God is graciously identified with His people. David saw this spiritual union as a ground for answered prayer, "Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not Thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with Thee, a sojourner as all my fathers were." (Ps. 39:12

"All My bones shall say, 'Lord, who is like unto Thee, which deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him; yea, the poor and the needy from him that spoileth him.' " (Ps. 35:10) A parallel passage we have inIsa. 26:19, "Thy dead shall live. My dead body— they shall arise! Awake and sing ye that dwell in the dust!" How utterly insupportable is the contention that the body of Christ is a spiritual reality unknown to the O.T.! In this Messianic Psalm Christ speaks, as verses 7, 11-16, 19 undeniably show. He speaks as Head of the Church, His body, and makes reference to His members. "For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones." (Eph. 5:30

Psalm 40 is another where Christ speaks of Himself and His body. That this is a messianic Psalm is plain from a comparison of verses 6-7 with Heb. 10. Verse 1 presents a foreview of Christ in Gethsemane; verse 2, He is delivered from the sufferings of Gethsemane and the curse of the cross through the resurrection; verse 3 records His praise for that deliverance, "He hath put a new song in My mouth, even praise unto our God." In victory over death the Redeemer is quite conscious of the spiritual union between Him and the redeemed. He constantly delights in it. This is the covenant idea. "Many, O Lord , My God, are Thy wonderful works, which Thou hast done, and Thy thoughts which are tous-ward." (vs. 5) Christ in the O.T. insisted that the Head and the members of His body are one in God's sight. 

According to Dispensationalism, the Church in union with Christ, and especially conceived of as the body of Christ, is not revealed in the O.T. How foreign to Scripture this poverty-stricken view! How far short of the whole range of the Old Testament! But very much more proof that the body of Christ is revealed therein can be furnished, and, D.V., will be.

Last modified on 20 September 2014
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Harbach, Robert

Rev. Robert C. Harbach (1914-1996) was born in Riverdale, MD on July 27, 1914. He graduated from the Protestant Reformed Seminary in 1955 and was ordained in October of that year.  He served congregations in Lynden, Washington (1955-1963), Kalamazoo, Michigan (1963-1974), and as Home Missionary (1974-1979).  He retired from the active ministry in 1979.  He passed to glory on December 14, 1996.

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