Pretribulationism maintains that since the actual word “church” (ekklēsia) does not appear in chapters 4–21, but is mentioned many times before chapter 4, it is assumed then that the church will be raptured before the events of chapter 4. This is very bad argumentation that is made in popular books, but rejected even by scholarly pretribulationism. Nevertheless, it is often the popular arguments that are influential so I will address this here.
This form of argumentation is called the “word-concept” fallacy, an assumption that studying a word (or phrase) is the same as having studied the entire biblical concept. It is also known as the “concordance” method of interpretation: simply open up a concordance and finger down the page looking for usages of the word “church,” while excluding other terms that describe the church. It can be a beginning point for study, but word (or phrase) studies should certainly not end there. The problem with this method is that it does not take Scripture in a normal, natural, customary sense; hence, it is naive and completely ignores context. I will start with showing the absurdity of this argument by being absurd, followed by a few sensible responses.
First, it may be asked why would the mention of “church” occur at the beginning of Revelation, but not throughout the book? It is erroneous to think that a New Testament writer is required to mention the term “church” throughout his writings to establish the application to the church. Paul only mentioned the term “church” once in the first chapter of his epistle to the Galatians. Do not Galatians chapters 2–6 apply to the church? The same can be said of 2 Thessalonians; the term “church” is only mentioned in chapter one. And in Colossians, the term is mentioned in the first and last chapters of the book. Does not the body of the letter to the Colossians apply to the church? So this method consistently applied is senseless.
Second, the word “church” is absent from the books of Mark, Luke, John, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, and Jude. Does that mean those books do not pertain to the church? It is patently misguided to demand that the New Testament writers must only use the term “church” to discern if a passage applies to the church.
Third, the word “church” is absent from rapture passages: 1Thessalonians 4:13–17 and John 14:1–4. Following their logic, are we right to conclude that the church will not be raptured? Of course not!
Fourth, the word “church” is absent from the heavenly scenes in Revelation 4–5. But heaven is the one place we would expect to find the church where pretribulationism says it will be at that time (because of their allegorical interpretation that sees Revelation 4:1 representing the church being caught up). The word “church” is also absent from Revelation chapters 19–20. Will the church not participate in rejoicing in heaven and the marriage supper of the Lamb? Moreover, the Bride of Christ is found in Revelation 19:7 but the word “church” is never mentioned. Is the Bride then not the church? (cf. Rev 21:2!).
Fifth, nowhere in the book of Revelation does the use of the word “church” ever denote the Church in its totality nor in the sense of the faithful universal church. Every mention of church(es) in Revelation denotes historical local churches in first century Asia Minor. And Revelation is addressed to seven churches not just one, which explains why the term “church” is used frequently at the beginning of the book. (Incidentally, the apostle John in his gospel and epistles never used the term church in the sense of the universal church; instead, he exercised his literary freedom to employ other terms to denote believers who were part of the church.)
Sixth, who are the recipients of the book of Revelation? Revelation 1:1 says, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants (doulos) what must happen very soon” (Rev 1:1). The term used is “servants” (doulos). It will be the servants within the professing church who will endure persecution for their faith. The message is for them: Revelation 22:6 says, “Then the angel said to me, ‘These words are reliable and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must happen soon’” (Rev 22:6). It is the servants/true believers/saints/the elect of God/those who hold to the testimony of Christ who will endure struggle and persecution and be ultimately victorious.
Seventh, the word “saints” is used 59 times in the New Testament to refer to a true believer in Christ, a member of the true church. For example, the apostle Paul, recalling his days when he persecuted the church, equates the church with saints (compare Phil 3:6 and Acts 26:10). Pretribulationism claims that the reference to saints in the book of Revelation is some special group of “tribulation saints.” This falsely creates a new class of Christians apart from the church. Pretribulationism would have us believe that the saints in Revelation 13:7, who are being persecuted by Antichrist, cannot be part of the church; but they fail to see that the saints who are described as the Bride of Christ in Revelation 19:8 are the church! This false distinction is indicative of a flawed theological system forcing itself upon Scripture to reach their preconceived conclusion.