Peter O’Brien in his commentaries on Ephesians and Colossians, in his article on the church in the IVP Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, and in his extensive chapter on the heavenly assembly in The Church in the Bible and the World (edited by D.A. Carson) has argued for the eschatological orientation of the NT term “ekklesia.” His arguments are persuasive and worthy of consideration for understanding the NT language of church and churches–though not all agree. (I look forward to Gregg Allison’s book on ecclesiology and his interaction with O’Brien).
Nevertheless, one person who does agree with O’Brien is W.E. Vine, the early twentieth-century philogist who is most well-known for his Expository Dictionary of OT and NT Words. Reading W.E. Vine’s commentary on “the church” in Colossians 1:18 (in Volume 2 of The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine), I found a helpful discussion on the subject. In it Vine makes an appeal for the plain reading of the Bible and concludes that the New Testament conception of the universal church is a heavenly concept. He writes:
The word ‘church,’ as used in this and similar passages [Col. 1:18, 24; cf. Eph. 1], contemplates the entire company as it will be seen when the Lord comes to receive it to Himself. it is nowhere in Scripture viewed as an earthly organization established in the world, it is heavenly in its design, establishment and destiny. Its individual members are incorporated into it as each one is born of God through faith in Christ. At no period can all the bleivers living in the world have constituted the church. They could not at that particular time be spoke of the body of Christ. Most of the church had not come into existence in the early part of the present era. At the present time most of those who form part of it are in Heaven (they are not ceased to be members because they are there [cf. Heb. 12:23]). By some the term “the church” is applied to all the believers living in the world at any time, but such a view is not borne out by the teaching of the New Testament. Belivers are formed into local churches, each of which is called a ‘body’ (1 Cor. 12:27). But nowhere are the churches in any district or country or in the world organized into an entity or body.
Local churches, Scripturally formed, are visible communities, professing the same faith, governed by the same Lord, but this has never afforded any found for their external amalgation of for their being considered a church. There is no such phrase in Scripture as “The Church on earth,” nor is the whole number of believers on earth viewed as, or spoke of, the church of God. The idea is a pure inference and conveys a false impression, being a contravention of the teaching of Christ and the apostles (Comments on Colossians 1:18, p. 341-342).
May the Lord Jesus Christ give a greater love for his church as we understand it in its local and heavenly expressions.
Sola Deo Gloria, dss