A great many ecclesiastical leaders today are admittedly uncertain as to just what the Church is. One modem theologian has written a book whose title sums up what is in the minds of many people: The Misunderstanding of the Church. Small wonder, then, that confusion about the Church is common in the minds of “ordinary” Christians, especially in view of the increasing extent to which – the Church.. is in the news. The ecumenical movement is increasingly influential, and denominational mergers are occurring with more frequency than had been thought possible.
Among (and sometimes even within) the various groups of “Christians,” there is considerable difference of opinion about matters of form, church government, mode of baptism, essential doctrines, etc. Some competing groups profess to be “the one ‘true’ Church.” It is especially important, in view of all the conflicting voices heard today, that every Christian know what the Bible teaches about the Church.
In the New Testament, the Greek word ekklēsia, translated “church,” means a “called out” group, or “assembly” – not necessarily a religious one. The Ephesus town clerk, trying to quell a nearriot, said, “If ye enquire anything concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly [ekklēsia]” (Acts 19:39).
Applied to Christians, “the Church” means those who have been called out to Jesus Christ. In the New Testament it “mostly means a local congregation of Christians, and never a building….Although we often speak of these congregations collectively as the New Testament Church, or the Early Church, no New Testament writer uses ekklēsia in this collective way. Its commonest use was for the public assembly of citizens duly summoned, which was a feature of all the cities outside Judea where the Gospel was planted.”39 The term also applied to the Universal Church, the body of Christ: “[God] hath put all things under [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the Church, which is His body” (Eph. 1:22, 23).
The New Testament Church, then, is defined in two ways. First, it is “the whole company of regenerate persons…in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 5:24, 25; Heb. 12:23).40 This is the universal invisible Church. It is universal in that it includes all true believers in every place, and those who have gone on as well as those still alive. It is invisible in that it is not apparent in its entirety at any given time or place.
Second, there is also the individual local group, or church, through which the Universal Church is evident. “The individual church may be defined as that smaller company of regenerate persons who, in any given community, unite themselves voluntarily together in accordance with Christ’s laws, for the purpose of securing the complete establishment of His kingdom in themselves and in the world.”41
People in View
In both definitions, people are in view – not buildings. Today we use the word “church” in several additional ways. In answer to the question, “Where is your church?” we are more likely to answer, “At 18th and Green Streets” than “At County Hospital, Joe’s Texaco Station, Motorola, and Circle Campus.” A church is where its members are at any given time. Part of our problem, in reaching the world today, results from our “building” mentality. When we think of the activities of the church we tend to think only of what goes on within the four walls of the church building, rather than what takes place in the world through what believers say, do, and are.
God has always had His people. From the time of the Fall, when God gave Adam and Eve His promise of the Redeemer (Gen. 3:15), all who have believed His promises have been His people. God called Abraham and promised him, “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). He established an eternal covenant with the nation of Israel as His “chosen people.” They were not chosen because of inherent superiority over other racial or ethnic groups. “The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people, for ye were the fewest of all people, but because the Lord loved you, and because He would keep the oath which He had sworn unto your fathers” (Deut. 7:7, 8).
Merely being born into the nation of Israel did not make a person one of God’s people spiritually: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew which is one in the Spirit, and not in the letter” (Rom. 2:28, 29). Many who were not Jews physically became Jews spiritually by recognizing Jehovah as the true and living God and turning from idols to Him. Perhaps the most dramatic example of conversion to Judaism was in the days of Esther, after the Jews’ deliverance from Haman. “In every province and in every city, whithersoever the King’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews” (Es. 8:17). The occasion is still celebrated today in the Feast of Purim.
Members of the Church are to have an intimate relationship with each other as well as to Christ. Therefore what hurts one member will hurt all, and when one member is honored, all the others will rejoice with him (cf. 1 Cor. 12:26).
The Church was first mentioned by Jesus: “Upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). On another occasion He described the simplest form of a church, saying, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).
Began at Pentecost
The Christian Church, as such, came into being with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. After Peter’s sermon on that occasion, “they that received his word were baptized; and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers….And the Lord added to them day by day those that were being saved” (Acts 2:41, 42, 47, ASV, marg.). The Church was born in Jerusalem. It at first consisted mainly of Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Many of them were Hellenists – that is, Greek-speaking Jews – who had been scattered all over the empire. Many came to Jerusalem regularly as pilgrims.
The Church was at first considered a sect within Judaism. One of Paul’s accusers referred to him “as a mover of sedition among all the Jews through – out the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). The Roman government gave Christians the same exemption from military service it gave the Jews. The first Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continued to recognize their obligations to the Mosaic Law and still participated in the worship services of the Temple or synagogue.
Increasingly, however, Jewish proselytes (Gentiles who had embraced Judaism) believed the Gospel and came into the Church. Philip preached the good news in Samaria and later baptized an Ethiopian to whom he had witnessed (Acts 8). Only after a vision from the Lord did the universal scope of the Gospel finally get through to reluctant Peter (Acts 10:9-16). He later explained to Cornelius, a Gentile, that it had been “unlawful for a Jew to keep company or come unto one of another nation; but God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” ( v. 28).
On hearing Cornelius’ declaration of faith, Peter uttered the historic words, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation He that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is accepted with Him” (v. 34, 35). As if to vouch for the truth of what Peter was saying, the Holy Spirit came on his listeners. most of whom were Gentiles. as he spoke. The Jews with Peter were amazed that Gentiles also received the Holy Spirit, but Peter baptized them.
Other Christian Jews preached the Gospel in Antioch, where a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles came into existence (Acts 13:1). It was here that believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26) , or “Christ’s men.”
What relationship Gentile converts should have to the Law and circumcision was the first great question the Early Church had to decide. A council held in Jerusalem made the momentous declaration, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication, from which if ye keep yourselves ye shall do well” (Acts 15:28, 29).
New Testament Figures
The figures used in the New Testament to describe the Church are instructive. One is the “body of Christ.” Christ is the head of the body. Every member functions under His leadership and in dependence on each other member. “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and an the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12; cf. Eph. 4:4; Col. 3:15).
Christ leads the Church, and it is to be subject to Him (Eph. 5:23, 24). He is the source of its unity – S”for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Some Christians make few practical applications of this unity.
The Church is also compared to a building: “Ye [believers] also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). This household of God is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief Cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). This building, or temple, is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit; it is comprised of all individuals indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19ff.). God Himself dwells within the Church, so whoever attacks the Church attacks God. In criticizing the Church, we must be careful we are not criticizing God.
The Church is called the Bride of Christ. Marriage illustrates Christ’s relationship to the Church (Eph. 5:25-27, 31, 32; cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7; 22:17). This figure powerfully displays Christ’s intense love for His Church and His total commitment to her.
The Church in the New Testament apparently was relatively simple. There were no denominations, though Paul rebuked party spirit among the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:3-8). How, then, have we come to the complex situation in which we find the Church today?
There are, of course, numerous historical reasons, such as persecutions, heresy, and formation of national churches. But part of the reason for the development of differing groups of believers is the fact that the New Testament gives only limited instruction about church organization and practice. Sincere Christians, all claiming scriptural authority, have always differed in the interpretation of certain passages and teachings of the New Testament. It is important, therefore, to trace the discernible lines of the New Testament Church pattern and to understand some of the major interpretations of them.
Requirements for Church membership are implicit in The Acts. The first was belief in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38). Faith in Christ, which normally includes repentance for sin, is the spiritual prerequisite to new life and membership in the body of Christ. When people asked Jesus the question, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” He answered, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent” (John 6:28, 29).
Baptism was to follow faith, as an open confession of trust in Christ, though some earnest Christians believe that the “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and that water baptism is not God’s purpose for Christians today.
Adherence to revealed truth, among early Christians, was the standard. “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles. doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Paul warns of false teachers arising within the Church (Phil. 3:2), and Peter echoes the same solemn theme. Throughout the New Testament there is emphasis on doctrinal purity and holiness of life. Doctrinal and moral impurity are to be purged from the Church (1 Cor. 5:7).
God’s “called out” people were designated “saints” (Eph. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; Phil. 1:1). They met together for worship and mutual upbuilding of spiritual life (1 Cor. 14:3, 5. 19; Col. 3:16). The Church was an evangelizing fellowship whose purpose was the communication and preservation of the Gospel message throughout the whole world (Matt. 28:19, 20; Acts 1:8). Paul’s letters placed little stress on evangelism, possibly because early believers were naturally and effectively evangelistic. He wrote to the Thessalonians, “For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God is spread abroad, so that we need not to speak anything” (1 Thes. 1:8, sco).
Christians were to be servants, meeting the physical and spiritual needs of both believers and unbelievers. “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Christ Himself was the example; He “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38).
As Leon Morris puts it. “During the history of the Church there have been many variations from the New Testament pattern. Indeed, there are so many gaps in our knowledge of what went on in New Testament times that we cannot be quite sure what constituted that pattern. Even those groups who claim to model their polity exactly on the New Testament cannot be certain they have succeeded….No attempt seems to have been made to fasten any pattern on succeeding generations, for no authoritative directions were given as to the mode and perpetuation of the ministry. Ministerial forms have evolved in a variety of ways.”42
That there was some organization at the local level in New Testament times seems clear. There were stated meetings (Acts 20:7); elected deacons (Acts 6:5,6); membership discipline (1 Cor. 5:13); letters of commendation (Acts 18:27); and lists of widows for support (1 Tim. 5:9).
God gave spiritual gifts to the Church. “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, 12). The purpose of these gifts is “the perfection of the saints for the work of the ministry.” There is no clear distinction between clergy and laity, either in terms of church government or spiritual ministry.
Periods of Ministry
Hammond outlines the three periods in the New Testament ministry:43
1. The first period. (a) Our Lord’s ministry with the 70 whom He commissioned; (b) the apostolic ministry of those who had specially delegated authority from the Lord to give authoritative leadership in the Church after Pentecost; and (c) the ministry of deacons, elders, and bishops. The three pastoral epistles (1, 2 Tim.; Titus) give the principles of and qualifications for the ministry.
2. The transitional period. During most of the lifetime of the apostles, and until the New Testament had been circulated to the various Christian communities, there were special gifts, such as prophecy, in the Church. The object of these was to enable the local community to receive the New Testament revelation of Christ direct from the Spirit of God. When the apostles had completed their work, some of these “gifts” ceased. For instance, there was not an unending succession of apostles and prophets (cf. Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11).
3. The permanent ministry. A bishop, or elder, was to teach spiritual truth and exercise rule and discipline in the local church (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7). “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the Word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their manner of life” (Heb. 13:17, sco; cf. 1 Tim. 5:17).
Deacons helped in administering the business of a church (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-12), though it is clear there are spiritual overtones to their activity.
In view of the many denominations and sects throughout Church History, it is surprising that all forms of Church government and views of the ministry fall generally into one of three groupings: the episcopal,* the presbyterial, or the congregational.44
In the episcopalian system, the church is governed by bishops, but there are also presbyters (or priests) and deacons. The only one in this system who has power to ordain is the bishop. The bishops trace their office back many centuries. Some, in fact, claim to trace the line back to the apostles – hence the term so often used: “apostolic succession.” Among” other groups, the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal, Methodist, and some Lutheran churches have the episcopal form of government.
This system is admittedly not found in the New Testament. A full episcopalian system had not yet developed. Those who hold to this type of church government, however, feel that it was a natural development in the Second Century Church. They see, in the work of some New Testament figures, a transition between the itinerant ministry of the apostles and the more settled ministry of the later bishops. Timothy and Titus had a good deal of authority over a number of churches, yet lacked the wide apostolic authority of Paul. James of Jerusalem was, it is felt, an example of an apostle who had a localized ministry but was more like a later bishop than like Paul. The development of episcopacy is traced through the Early Church Fathers.
It is significant, many feel, that there is no trace of a struggle to establish the episcopalian system. If a divinely established presbyterial or congregational system had been overthrown, it is argued, a bitter conflict between the two factions would have been inevitable. By the Second Century, however, without any such conflict, the episcopal system predominated throughout the whole Church.
In presbyterianism, the Church is governed by elders. Presbyterians recognize that in the New Testament the term “elder” and “bishop” are used interchangeably and that they are clearly the most important element in the local ministry. In each local church, it would seem, a number of elders formed a kind of committee to handle church affairs. Elders in New Testament times acted with the apostles (Acts 15) – an indication of their importance. When the apostles passed from the scene, elders were the leading officers.
The local congregation seems also to have had a voice in the selection of men for the ministry. They chose the seven deacons (Acts 6:1-6) and apparently had a hand in setting aside Paul and Barnabas for missionary work (13:1-3). Presbyterians believe in the equality of elders, in the right of the people to take part (through their representatives) in the government of a church, and in the unity of the Church through a graduated series of church courts which express and exercise the common authority of the Church as a divine society.
John Dall distinguishes presbyterianism from the other two systems as follows: “As opposed to prelacy, the presbyterial type of government rests upon the equality of ministerial status and seeks to give ecclesiastical power to the members of the Church instead of to clerical individuals or councils; as opposed to congregationalism, it seeks to realize the unity of the Church by entrusting to a carefully devised system of graded church courts legislative, executive, and judicial – not merely advisory – powers.”45
Presbyterians usually make a distinction between teaching and ruling elders (1 Tim. 5:17). The teaching elder is the principal order of ministry. He is ordained by the laying on of the hands of other elders. This is, in the presbyterial view, ordination to the universal Church and not to Some small section of it.
Ruling elders are chosen by the congregation and admitted to their office by ordination. They may not preach, baptize, or administer Communion, but they assist in the government of the church and in the exercise of discipline. They also have responsibility for the financial affairs of the church. Some presbyterians feel that the office of ruling elder is the same as that of teaching elder, but others regard ruling elders as laymen.
Presbyterians account for the development of a universal episcopal system by saying that “monarchial” bishops gained the supremacy over presbyters in the Church just after the apostolic age. They explain that church problems involving persecution and heresy could more easily be met by such a central authority. But this development, presbyterians maintain, was not in harmony with the essential nature of the ministry as revealed in the New Testament. They also believe that their system preserves the “episcopacy” through its “moderators” and general assembly, and that this preservation is not at the expense of ministerial equality.
The third basic form of Church government is congregationalism. Every group whose emphasis is on the autonomy of the local congregation would be included here. Such groups include Baptists, the Open Brethren, Christians (Disciples), Evangelical Free Churches, and some Bible and other independent Churches. Followers of this polity hold that no man or group of men should exercise authority over a local congregation of Christ’s Church. With some exceptions, these churches have two types of ministers – pastors and deacons. Pastors have oversight of the congregation. They are usually ordained or set apart in a service attended by representatives of other similar congregations, though neither their participation nor approval is necessary. Deacons (or, sometimes, elders) are generally assigned the responsibility of watching over the spiritual and material needs of the local congregation. Their office is usually regarded as purely local. Congregationalists, as most other Protestants, deny that ordination imparts special grace to a man.
Two basic ideas are behind the congregational view of the ministry. One is that Christ is the Head of His Church and, as such, is in living and vital contact with it. As our physical heads need no intermediary to control our bodies, so it is with the Head of the Church and His body. It is not two or three officials, but two or three believers, gathered together in His name, in whose midst Christ promises to be (Matt. 18:20).
The second basic idea, common to most other Protestants as well, is the priesthood of all believers (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). Strictly speaking, there are no laymen in the Church. All believers are priests ( 1 Peter 2:9) – that is, representatives of God to witness and minister to men in His name and power.
Further, the emphasis in the New Testament seems to be on the local church. There is no evidence of presbyterial or episcopal control of the Church as a whole. Bishops and elders appear to have exercised their control within a local congregation, but not beyond it. The episcopal system did not appear until the Second Century.
Almost all churches fit into one of the above three groupings so far as polity is concerned.
There are numerous differences of opinion about the number and nature of “ordinances – In the Church. Ordinances – some call them “sacraments” – are outward rites that signify or represent spiritual grace or blessing. The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, confirmation, penance, orders, matrimony, and extreme unction. Protestants maintain, however, that Scripture recognizes only two ordinances – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Roman Catholics teach that objective merit or grace is conferred by the sacraments. In contrast to this mechanical, almost magical, view, most Protestants emphasize faith and the working of God directly in the believer.
The meaning of baptism is perhaps most fully explained in Romans 6:1-4 (though some Christians insist that this chapter does not have baptism with water in view). Baptism has been called “an outward sign of an inward grace,” a declaration and public identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Protestants are divided on whether baptism should be administered only to those who are believers, who in it make a public profession of faith, or whether infants also should be baptized. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and others practice infant baptism. Baptists, Disciples, and a great number of independent churches, hold to believers’ baptism only. The former group use various modes of baptizing; the latter use immersion.
Most Christians agree on their obligation to observe the Lord’s request, “This do in remembrance of Me.” The Lord’s Supper was to be a memorial and a “showing forth,” or declaration, of His death till He returns (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
Roman Catholics teach that in the Lord’s Supper the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of our Lord, though their appearance remains the same. This view is called transubstantiation. They further teach that the body and blood of Christ, are offered every time a mass is observed. Scripture, however, emphatically contradicts such ideas. Christ’s death on the cross was a complete and fully effective sacrifice, and He died once for all (Heb. 10:10; cf. 7:27; 9:12).
Lutherans believe in consubstantiation. In this view Christ is present with the unchanged substance of the bread.
Most Protestants, however, believe either that the elements are only a symbolic memorial or that by faith the believer, in the communion, enters into a special spiritual union with the glorified Christ.
Though participation in neither of these ordinances is necessary for salvation, every true believer should want to show his devotion to Christ by following Him in baptism and by remembering Him in the Lord’s Supper.
Each genuine Christian, regardless of denomination, is spiritually one with every other believer. All are in the Church Universal. We are united in Christ, who is our life. There is no such thing as ‘lone-wolf’ Christianity. If we are obedient to our Lord, we will identify with and join other believers for worship and service. In so doing, we not only contribute our own unique gifts to the fellowship, to be used by God to help bless others, but are ourselves blessed.
For Further Reading
Bainton, Roland H. The Church of Our Fathers (revised ed. ). New York: Charles Scribners, 1950.
Bruce, F. F. The Spreading Flame. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953.
Flew, R. Newton. Jesus and His Church (new ed.). Naperville, Ill.: Allenson, 1956.
Latourette, Kenneth S. Christianity Through the Ages. New York: Harper, 1965.
* These terms, as here used, refer to systems of church government rather than to denominations.