Did the Church exist in the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant (OC)? Yes, it surely did. The Church existed in the Old Testament (OT), but not in the fullness that it exists today since the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to indwell believers and baptize them into the Body of Christ.
The Church existed in the OT as the regenerated people of God, because Jesus Himself revealed that no one enters the Kingdom of God unless they’re born again (Jn 3:3-5). Although the Holy Spirit did not indwell believers, He was with them (Jn 14:16-17), for the Holy Spirit would not be given until the time of Christ, after His ascension (Jn 7:38-39). Yet, they were each born of God, and belonged to God. They were the remnant and redeemed people of God, those who belonged to Christ individually and collectively. They all had Jesus in common. They were a group unto themselves because of their faith in the Christ who was to come, who was promised to His people.
Although the Church existed as the corporate people of God, the Church would not be fully established until the coming of the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant (NC). Those who make the case that OT believers were indwelt by the Holy Spirit, use Romans 8:9 as validation of that notion. However, that is to be understood as believers of the NC since Pentecost, as it was revealed and written about in that context. I believe we must allow Scripture to guide our theology, rather than trying to make Scripture fit our theology.
So what happened on Pentecost? The Holy Spirit came to His people (Acts 1:4-5; Jn 14:16-17,26; Jn 15:26; Jn 16:7-8). That is, He came to indwell his people, both individually (1 Cor 6:19) and corporately (2 Cor 6:16). The Church as we know it today, was fully established on that day, being baptized into the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13). It marked the full establishment of the NC era, which began with Christ’s ministry, His death and resurrection, and His ascension back into Heaven—where He now sits upon His throne reigning over His kingdom, which is His Church (Col 1:13; Col 3:1).
However, even though OT believers were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and not yet baptized into the Body of Christ, in some sense they were were united to Christ because they belonged to Him as children of God…..and in some sense they were untied to each other as children of God, as part of the same family of faith—for John tells us that to be born again is to become a child of God (Jn 1:12-13).
Think of the Church of the OT as a seed that began in the Garden of Eden, and continued to grow into a plant until it reached full growth and full bloom in the coming of the Holy Spirit of the NC on the day of Pentecost. The Church of the OT was the foundation and skeleton of the building, while the Church was finished in the NT with all the rooms and walls inside and enclosed on the outside.
I would like to put this into the context of Baptist Covenant Theology (BCT – which I subscribe to) and New Covenant Theology (NCT), because the two theologies have a lot in common, but disagree on this point about the Church (and a few other areas). One can surely make the case that the Church existed in the OT. That being said, there’s no need to insist that it was in the exact form it is today, as some proponents of BCT believe. Even though I too subscribe to BCT, I don’t share their belief on this point. But I also don’t agree with proponents of NCT, who deny that the Church existed in the OT. However, nothing of major doctrinal significance in the OT under the OC was exactly as it is today under the NC. Everything was either a type and shadow or in process of what it would become under the New Covenant of Christ. This is true of the Church. It was a Church that was incomplete in its form that looked ahead to the time when it would be finished in Christ, which occurred on the day of Pentecost.
I mostly agree with BCT, but there’s no need to insist that the Church in the OT was fully established as it is under the NC. One can have their cake and eat too by allowing the NT Scriptures to provide the needed light to distinguish the difference between the two forms. On the other hand, I believe NCT is wrong in insisting that the Church didn’t exist at all in the OT. There is a happy balance between these two extremes. I believe both sides are guilty of trying to force Scripture into their particular theological system. Again, we must allow Scripture to determine our theology. Using our theological system to determine what Scripture means, is a really bad idea. It leads to erroneous understanding of the Bible.
Furthermore, to say that Pentecost was just about empowering believers is misinterpreting what Jesus taught about the coming of the Holy Spirit in the book of John—where, again, He taught that while the Holy Spirit was with them, He would soon be in them (Acts 1:4-5; Jn 14:16-17,26; Jn 15:26; Jn 16:7-8). The Holy Spirit had not been given at that time (Jn 7:38-39). That came on the day of Pentecost. I don’t know how Jesus could have made it any clearer to misinterpret what He was saying.
We must strive for a unified system of theology, where the theological puzzle pieces fit truly. We should never try to force a particular position or conclusion just so everything lines up in our particular theological system. I believe BCT and NCT have done just that in regard to the nature of the Church in the OT. If there’s something that doesn’t quite line up in our theology, instead of going to great lengths to try to bring unity in our system, we should set it aside until we find the key that genuinely and sensibility fits, where we don’t have to force a particular meaning in order to satisfy the requirements of our system.
There’s no reason to have two different theological systems when the two are so close together, as Baptist Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology are. They’re not that far apart in what they believe. Their understanding of the Church is one area where agreement can be achieved. As one who used to be a proponent of NCT and now a proponent of BCT, I hope the two sides can find more common ground in their theology, because they’re so close in what they believe, there’s no reason they can’t come together at some point as they argue their case and compare their interpretations of Scripture.