When did the church begin?
In Ephesians 3:2, Paul wrote about the “Dispensation of the Grace of God” in which there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, as God is now offering salvation freely by grace through faith to all who believe. The believers today make up the church, the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27). The moment we believe, we are baptized by the Spirit into the Body (I Corinthians 12:12). We are also sealed by that Spirit until the day of redemption, which gives us eternal security (2 Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13, 4:30). We can only learn these precious truths and so much more through “the Mystery,” which was the special body of revelation committed only to the Apostle Paul (Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 3:1-7; Colossians 1:25-26). As Scofield famously wrote, “In [Paul’s] writings alone we find the doctrine, position, walk, and destiny of the church.”
Reading the word "church" in the Gospels or perhaps in the book of Acts does not necessarily mean it's a reference to the church today. We are certainly not Israel today, and yet Israel, under the leadership of Moses in the Old Testament was called "the church in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38). A "church" (ekklesia in the Greek) simply means a "called-out assembly." Christ's disciples were called "a church" (Matthew 18:17). The "church" referenced in Acts 2 at Pentecost was a continuation of the called-out "little flock" of Israelites to whom was promised a literal, earthly kingdom with Christ sitting on David's throne (Acts 2:30). If the Israelites had repented and accepted Christ as their Messiah, then they would have received the promised earthly kingdom (Acts 1:6,7; 2:30-39). Instead, they rejected Christ once more and following the stoning of Stephen, who right before his death saw Jesus standing in judgment (Acts 7:55), Paul tells us that God set Israel aside temporarily "until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in" (Romans 11:25). We who are saved today in the "Dispensation of Grace" play a different role than Israel in God's eternal purpose to glorify His Son (Ephesians 1:8-12). Yet, Israel will one day be saved and they will fulfill God's role for them to establish their long promised and prophesied earthly kingdom (Romans 11:11, 26). The church today is part of that special revelation given only to the Apostle Paul whereby we learn that we are members of the Body of Christ and that this was a "mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints" (Colossians 1:24-27).
Many dispensationalists (including Scofield) believe that today’s church, the Body of Christ, began in Acts 2 at Pentecost. We feel strongly that the Body of Christ began with the conversion of Paul in Acts 9. We believe this for a number of reasons but, for example, Paul wrote in I Timothy 1:16, “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.”
For those who may have grown up in the traditional view that the church began in Acts 2, I thought I might share an excerpt from Charles F. Baker’s book, A Dispensational Theology*, in which he wonderfully and succinctly provides 5 reasons why the church did not begin in Acts 2. Also included below is a list of 8 reasons why the church did not begin after Acts 28 either, as some believe. I pray that this not only proves edifying but also that readers will make up their own minds like those noble Bereans (Acts 17:10-11) who “searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
Here’s the excerpt:
Reasons Why This Dispensation Did Not Begin at Acts 2
1. Everything that happened at Pentecost was in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Could that which was made known to the sons of men in other generations be the same as that which was never made known to them? (Acts 2:16; 3:24 cf. Ephesians 3:5, 9; Colossians 1:25, 26).
2. The Body of Christ of this dispensation is a joint-body of Jews and Gentiles, but the ministry of Pentecost and for some seven or eight years thereafter was to the Jews only (Ephesians 3:6 cf. Acts 2:14, 22; 3:12, 25, 26; 4:8; 5:31; 11:19). If it is argued that God began the Body of Christ secretly at Pentecost, not revealing it until Paul came upon the scene, it must be admitted that the message being dispensed between Pentecost and Paul was that of the prophets and not that of the Pauline revelation.
3. The Scripture states that Pentecost ushered in the last days of Israel (Acts 2:17). There is no hint that Pentecost was the first day of a new and hitherto unpredicted dispensation.
4. The first real offer of the [physical, earthly] kingdom was given to Israel after the day of Pentecost (Acts 3:19-21). Christ Himself made it very clear that He had to first suffer before the glories of the kingdom could come in (Luke 24:26 cf. 1 Peter 1:11). If God had already begun this present dispensation it seems highly unlikely that He would have then offered to send Jesus back to establish the kingdom of the millennial dispensation.
5. Paul teaches that it was because of Israel's being cast aside that reconciliation was sent to the Gentiles, which marked the beginning of this dispensation (Romans 11:11, 12, 15). But Israel was not cast aside at Pentecost; rather the message was sent to them first of all (Acts 3:26).
Reasons Why This Dispensation Did Not Begin At or After Acts 28
1. The fact that Israel had already fallen is clearly set forth before the close of the Acts. In fact, it is set forth in Paul's earliest epistle (1 Thessalonians 2:16). This is why we have taken the position as stated earlier that we believe that the present dispensation began with Paul before he wrote his first epistle. Romans 11 also clearly speaks of Israel's fall before Acts 28.
2. The Body of Christ of this dispensation is definitely addressed in Paul's epistles written during the Acts period (1 Corinthians 12:13, 27; Romans 12:5).
3. The mystery is likewise revealed in Paul's earlier epistles (1 Corinthians 2:7; 15:51; Romans 16:25).
4. Paul was in prison in Acts 28 for preaching the mystery (Ephesians 6:19, 20). Advocates of the Acts 28 view admit that Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians were written during that imprisonment. Paul must, therefore, have preached the mystery before Acts 28.
5. The gospel of the grace of God which is the message of the dispensation of the grace of God was the subject of Paul's preaching in Acts 20:24, and he had by no means just begun that ministry.
6. There was a good work begun in the Philippian believers in Acts 16, and after Acts 28 these same believers were having the same good work carried on in themselves (Philippians 1:5, 6). There could not have been, therefore, any change of dispensation between these two points.
7. There is only one Body of Christ, according to Ephesians 4:4, but if the Body of 1 Corinthians 12:13 is a different Body then there are two bodies.
8. Both the pre-prison and the prison epistles of Paul:
(1) Link this One Body with One Spirit and One Baptism (Ephesians 4:4, 5 cf. I Corinthians 12:13).
(2) Teach that this One Body is composed of believing Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:16 cf. I Corinthians 12:13).
(3) Teach reconciliation of believing Jews and Gentiles on the basis of the Cross (Ephesians 2:14-16 cf. 2 Corinthians 5:14-21).
(4) Associate the message with God's purpose which He purposed before the ages (Ephesians 1:3, 4, 9 cf. 1 Corinthians 2:7).