Distinguishing Between God’s Congregation and His Kingdom
WHAT is God’s congregation? What is God’s kingdom? In what ways does the Bible distinguish between the two? For our answers let us go, not to the many conflicting opinions of theologians, Catholic and Protestant, but to God’s own Word, heeding the apostle’s advice: “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.”—Rom. 3:4.
When referring to God’s congregation, the Christian Greek Scripture writers employed the word ekklesía, from which comes our English word “ecclesia.” It, in turn, is derived from two Greek roots, ek, “out,” and kaleín, “to call.” It has the meaning of a group of persons, an assembly or a congregation, called out or called together, officially or unofficially.
Regarding ekklesía, the Imperial Bible Dictionary states: “The word ekklesía never, in the New Testament, signifies the actual building in which Christians assembled for public worship; the first mention of regular structures of that kind occurs long after the apostolic age.” This being so, it is better to render it “congregation” or “assembly,” as does the New World Translation, than “church,” as do most other English versions. To most persons “church” suggests a building for religious worship rather than the congregation engaging in worship.
The word ekklesía itself does not have a religious denotation, although it has come to have religious associations. The use of it for a secular assembly is found at Acts 19:29-41, where we read of an assembly of Ephesians called out or gathered together to protest the effect that the preaching of the apostle Paul and his companions had on shrine making.
It might be said that Noah and his family were God’s first ecclesia or congregation, for they certainly were called out or separated from their contemporaries, the wicked antediluvians, both by their pure worship of God and by their work in building the ark.
The first ones, however, to be specifically named an ecclesia or congregation in the Scriptures were the sons of Israel. Repeatedly the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures employs the term ekklesía to refer to this congregation, from the time of Moses onward. (Deut. 9:10) Thus also the psalmist David wrote: “In the middle of the congregation I shall praise you.” Luke used this same word in quoting Stephen’s reference to the nation of Israel in the wilderness: “This is he [Moses] that came to be among the congregation in the wilderness.”—Ps. 22:22; Acts 7:38.
Certainly the nation of Israel was an ekklesía, or congregation, for God, through Moses, did call them out of Egypt, even as he later said through his prophet: “When Israel was a boy, then I proceeded to love him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” In the Septuagint the word for “called” here comes from the same root as does ecclesia.—Hos. 11:1.
THE CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION OF GOD
The nation of Israel continued to be God’s assembly, ecclesia or congregation only until Pentecost, A.D. 33; thereafter God began to call out another congregation, the Christian congregation. The first ones to comprise it were called out from the rejected Jewish congregation, rejected because of its unfaithfulness in rejecting God’s Son and their Messiah. Beginning with Cornelius, members of this Christian congregation were also called out from the Gentile nations. Properly it is called the Christian congregation, for Jesus Christ spoke of it as “my congregation.” And fittingly he did so, for “Christ also loved the congregation and delivered up himself for it.” But, even more, it is “the congregation of God,” for it includes both Jesus and his body of footstep followers.—Matt. 16:18; Eph. 5:25; Acts 20:28; Gal. 1:13.
While the term ekklesía or congregation is never applied to a building, the Christian Greek Scripture writers used it in at least four different ways. First of all, the term is used to apply to the entire “congregation of the firstborn who have been enrolled in the heavens,” and which other scriptures show to be limited to 144,000. The term is also applied to all the called-out ones living at a certain time. Thus Paul admonishes Christians to “keep from becoming causes for stumbling to Jews as well as Greeks,” that is, outsiders, and “to the congregation of God.”—Heb. 12:23; 1 Cor. 10:32; Rev. 7:4; 14:1, 3.
All those called out or congregated as Christians in a certain geographical location are likewise referred to as a congregation: “the congregation which was in Jerusalem,” ‘the congregation that is in Corinth,’ the ‘congregation in Ephesus, in Smyrna, in Pergamum, in Thyatira, in Sardis, in Philadelphia and in Laodicea,’ and so forth. (Acts 8:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; Rev. 1:11) Not that these acted at all independently of one another. They all recognized the authority of the governing body at Jerusalem, which consisted of the apostles and other older men there. In the days of the apostles there were no rival sees or bishoprics such as later developed, with the pope of Rome at last winning out over the others.—Acts 15:22-41; 16:4, 5.
And finally, the term ekklesía is used to name a group of called-out ones that happened to meet regularly in a certain home. These too were termed a congregation: “Give my greetings to Prisca and Aquila my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, . . . and greet the congregation that is in their house.” Paul’s letter to Philemon is addressed, among others, “to the congregation that is in your house.”—Rom. 16:3-5; Philem. 2.
Today there is but a small remnant, some 13,000, of those that profess to belong to the “congregation of God.” These are scattered among 20,000 congregations in 176 different lands, being associated with some 800,000 active Christians who make no profession to being of those “who have been enrolled in the heavens.” These were termed by Jesus as his “other sheep” that are not of his heavenly fold and are described as “a great crowd, which no man was able to number, . . . standing before the throne [of God] and before the Lamb.” Since these manifest the same faith and works as do those belonging to the heavenly fold, these have come to be associated with the present “Christian congregation” on earth.—John 10:16; Rev. 7:9.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
What is the kingdom of God? According to popular Protestant theologians, it is “the organization of humanity through love.” These religious leaders claim that it is the duty of the Christian congregation to influence legislation in the interest of the laboring man and the oppressed races. They preach what they call “a social gospel,” and would in this way bring about the kingdom of God in the minds and hearts of men. However, such religious leaders err both as to what is the purpose or commission of the Christian congregation and what is the kingdom of God.
God’s commission to the Christian congregation ever since Pentecost is not to bring about the kingdom of God but is, first of all, to “bear witness to the truth” as did Jesus Christ. Why did God turn “his attention to the nations”? “To take out of them a people for his name.” Yes, these are ‘called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light for the express purpose of declaring abroad the excellencies of God.’ And secondly, God’s purpose for them is their sanctification, their preparing themselves for a place in the heavenly kingdom by faithfulness to their preaching commission and by following an upright course, thus conquering the world under Satan’s control. Jesus said: “To the one that conquers I will grant to sit down with me in my throne, even as I conquered and sat down with my Father in his throne.”—John 18:37; Acts 15:14; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:21.
As for the kingdom of God, it is a real government. Basileía is the word invariably rendered “kingdom” in the Christian Greek Scriptures. It is defined as “a kingdom, realm, the region or country governed by a king; kingly power, authority, dominion, reign; royal dignity, the title and honor of king.”
True, Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21, AV) However, he was here speaking to the Pharisees, whom he described as hypocrites and of their father the Devil. Surely God’s kingdom could not be in them. A better rendering reads: “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” He could say this because basileía also applies to the king of a kingdom, the “royal dignity.”—Luke 17:21; see also RS, AV, margin.
Jesus Christ commanded his followers to pray for God’s kingdom to come and coupled that petition with the one for God’s will to be done on earth. If the coming of God’s kingdom depends upon the professedly Christian congregations’ succeeding in causing God’s will to be done on earth it will never come, for there is more violation of God’s will on earth today than there ever was. The powers of wickedness are too strongly entrenched and selfishness is too strongly ingrained in the hearts of men for imperfect humans ever to succeed in bringing about God’s kingdom.
Concerning the wicked and oppressive nations of earth God says to his Son: “You will break them with an iron scepter, as though a potter’s vessel you will dash them to pieces.” God’s kingdom will “crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.” Once the earth has been rid of wickedness all remaining inhabitants will learn righteousness, including those to be born and those raised from the dead. More than that, God’s kingdom will transform the entire earth into a paradise, and Christ will keep on reigning until all his enemies, including death itself, are destroyed. Then there will be no more tears, for “death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be any more. The former things have passed away.”—Ps. 2:9; Dan. 2:44; Rev. 21:4.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN THE TWO
While the Scriptures at times appear to use the expressions “congregation” and “kingdom” interchangeably, there are a number of distinctions between the two that we do well to note. Thus the Christian congregation is termed the offspring or “the sons of the kingdom,” but never is it spoken of as the sons of the congregation. “Kingdom” therefore is a far more inclusive term than is “congregation.” In fact, Jehovah God himself is the Source of the Kingdom, since he is also said to ‘give the kingdom.’ Besides, a kingdom has not only a royal family but also subjects and a domain.—Matt. 13:38; Rev. 11:17; Dan. 4:17, 25.
Then again, while the congregation of God began at Pentecost, fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicates that the kingdom of God began in 1914, after Jesus, likened to “a certain man of noble birth,” received his kingdom and returned. For nineteen centuries, therefore, the Christian congregation, present all along upon earth, has been praying for the coming of God’s kingdom. Those who have become impatient and have wanted to rule before God’s due time have seriously erred and lost out on the heavenly hope. There were such in Paul’s day, at Corinth, and they were severely reprimanded by that apostle. When we read that God has “transplanted us [those of the Christian congregation] into the kingdom of the Son of his love,” it therefore can only mean that their allegiance has been transferred, not that they are to rule while on earth.—Luke 19:12; 1 Cor. 4:8; Col. 1:13.
Further, we have noted that there were many congregations of Christians in early times, even as there are now, but there is ever only one Kingdom. At any time since Pentecost those called out to be members of the body of Christ were the Christian congregation, but these could not be spoken of as a kingdom. Also, the Christian congregation or ekklesía are called-out ones from the earth and in relation to the earth and are therefore primarily the Christian congregation while on earth. The Kingdom, however, is primarily a heavenly one and will be ruling from the heavens although extending its blessings to the earth.
We should not overlook the fact that membership in the Christian congregation precedes membership in God’s kingdom. One becomes a member of the congregation of God by taking certain steps, the steps of knowledge, faith, repentance, conversion and dedication and by God’s then consecrating such a one, begetting such a one with his holy spirit to a heavenly hope. But membership in the kingdom of God comes only after having proved faithful: “We must enter into the kingdom of God through many tribulations.” And, finally, some day the Christian congregation on earth will end, when its last members have died and been raised in the first resurrection. The kingdom of God, however, will never end.—Acts 14:22; Isa. 9:7; Luke 1:33.
Thus we have had clearly brought to our attention what is God’s congregation, ekklesía or called-out ones, what is God’s kingdom, the basileía, and that, while these two involve each other, there are many respects in which we must distinguish between the two.