The Church

Course: Understanding Theology

Lecture: The Church


The church of Jesus Christ clearly is, in the New Testament, one of the focal points. Jesus in Matthew 16 says, “I will build my church.” Clearly, the New Testament calls us to be involved members of local churches and to seek with Christ to be involved through our witness and use of gifts in the body of Christ in building up the church. This is really at the very heart of God’s own purposes for his Christian people in this age in which we live.

The word church derives from the Greek word ekklesia, which really is a combination of two words together. It comes from ek, a preposition, which refers to “out of” and kaleo, which means, “to call.” So the ekklesia is the “called out people.” That is really a marvelous way to think of the church. We have been called out of darkness into light. We have been called out of the dominion of Satan to the kingdom of his beloved Son. We have been called out really to be citizens of another age and yet we are still in this age in order to make a difference and penetrate it.

In the New Testament it is clear that the term ekklesia is sometimes used of local churches. For example, the church of the Thessalonians or even in Colossians 4:15, the church that is gathered at Nympha’s house. It is clear that local churches are in mind in using the term ekklesia, but also the term ekklesia is used of what might be called the universal church. That is all Christian people, all true followers of Christ regardless of their membership in any particular local church. Think, for example, of Galatians 1:13 where Paul says, “I persecuted the church of God.” There he does not have in mind any one particular local church but Christians, basically, those followers of Christ. You can see also some other passages on the universal church: 1 Corinthians 10:32, 1 Corinthians 15:9, and Ephesians 3:10.

I. The Universal Church

Because of this we are going to take a look both at the universal church and then local churches. I think it is important to go in that order because we can see, first of all in the universal church, the ideal or the identity of really what the church is to be and examine that and then take a look at local churches understanding that any church that really is a local church needs to live out the identity of what Church is supposed to be. 

A. The Nature of the Church

What are the defining elements of the nature of the church of Jesus Christ? Let’s consider six of these. 

1. Christ is Lord of the Church.

Again, Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “I will build my church.” And there is no question but that the most central idea that we need to understand in relation to the church is that Christ is its Lord, is her Lord. Think of the metaphors that we will look at in a few moments. The Body of Christ, who is the head of the body? Christ. The church is the bride of Christ. Who is the bridegroom? It is Christ. The church is a building. What is the cornerstone of this building? It is Christ. The church as Christ’s flock, well, who is the shepherd of the flock? It is Christ. It is so clear that Christ is the central figure, the heart, and the one who provides for and moves and directs and governs, leads and rules over his church. We really ought to avoid the language that indicates individual local churches are, as it were, the possession of certain people whether they be pastors or others and realize that any local church that really is a church is owned and ruled by Christ; he is Lord of the Church. 

2. The Church is formed by the Spirit.

Here I have in mind the fact that the church of Jesus Christ came about in Acts 2 where the Spirit came upon the disciples who were waiting in Jerusalem and at that point they were given power to become witnesses of this gospel and go into the world and present the gospel and make disciples of all the nations as Jesus had commanded in Matthew 28.

I do not think that it is best to talk about the church in the same way in regard to Old Testament Israel. I know in some traditions there is really no hesitation in doing this, but remember Jesus did say in Matthew 16, “I will build my church,” future tense. There is a sense in which the church is unlike the people of God that existed before. And part of what distinguishes the church is the fact that now these believers have been given under the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant that was under Moses, not what was enforced for the people of Israel, but now under the New Covenant the people are given the Spirit by which that law becomes internalized and that the law of God. Think of Jeremiah 31, “I will write my law on their hearts,” and the Spirit of God will work in the hearts of people so that we are transformed to become more like Christ by the Spirit and we are enabled and empowered by that Spirit to be witnesses of Christ. So the church is very clearly a community of those who have received and are living in the power of and are witnessing by the enablement of the Spirit.

Now one more comment on this. Even though it is true that the church is a group of people who possess the Spirit or, if you will, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit as Paul would put it in 1 Corinthians 3, while that is true notice that the first point of the nature of the church is that Christ is Lord of the church. The second point is that we are formed by the Spirit. I think it is important because really Jesus said in John 16 that, “When the Spirit comes he will not speak on his own initiative but what he hears from me he will speak, he will glorify me,” John 16:14. We ought to see a Spirit-filled community, that is, the church of Jesus Christ as manifesting, not so much the Spirit, as manifesting Christ, as exalting Christ. The Spirit’s goal is to glorify not himself but Christ. So even here we see that the Spirit’s presence in the church is itself pointing to Christ, wanting to honor Christ and exhibiting the centrality and the lordship of Christ. 

3. Jew and Gentile United.

The church is a new community of people that is not ethnic, it is not national, but it is rather made up of both Jews and Gentiles and in ways that Paul will talk about in the book of Galatians; slaves and free, male and female, all are brought together as one in Christ. There is a sense in which this was anticipated in the Old Testament. Even to Abraham God promised in Genesis 12 in the Abrahamic Covenant, “through you Abraham all the nations will be blessed.” The nations would refer to Gentile nations also.

In fact, we even have in the Old Testament examples and statements of a time when the Gentile nations will come and worship with Israel together. Consider Isaiah 2 where this beautiful truth is proclaimed. Isaiah 2:2, “Now it will come about in the last days that the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains and will be raised above the hills and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say let us go up to the mountain of the Lord that we may worship at the house of the God of Jacob and he may teach us concerning his ways, ….”

While it is true that the Old Testament anticipated Jews and Gentiles worshiping together, what is new and distinctive, it really is what Paul calls the mystery of the church in the New Testament, is that Jew and Gentile will be united in one body in Christ. Unlike in the Old Testament when a Gentile joined with Jews in worship of the one true God what had to happen? The Gentile had to come under the Law of Moses, the Gentile would have to be circumcised, would have to accept the rituals of Judaism and so really essentially become a Jew, be a proselyte to Judaism. But in Christ this is not the case. This is why Paul had to battle so much over the question of circumcision; it was precisely because if Jews insisted that Gentiles continue to be circumcised they were indicating that somehow Gentiles were brought in under Judaism and this just was not the case.

Paul would insist that it is circumcision or not circumcision, it does not matter, that we are all one in Christ. So the Jew and Gentile union in the church clearly is a distinctive new reality where our identity is not ethnicity, it is not nationality, it is not even the Jewish heritage per say, although, that has been formative in bringing the church to where it is, but we are identified together, whether Jew or Gentile, as followers of Christ, we are united in one body in him. I would encourage you to read very carefully Ephesians 2 and 3 to see the way in which this is celebrated by the apostle Paul and implications that has for understanding the church correctly. 

4. Community of the New Covenant

I mentioned this a moment ago but let me elaborate just a bit here. The book of Hebrews 6–8 indicate that the Old Covenant has passed away and the New Covenant has come. In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul refers to himself as a minister of the New Covenant. Of course, Jesus spoke of the cup that represented his shed blood as the cup of the New Covenant in Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 11. So we should think of ourselves as participants within a covenant, but it is not the covenant of Moses, we are not under the law, the law of Moses, per say, we are rather under the New Covenant in which that law of Moses, that is the heart of it, the moral commandments of that law are now internalized, not written on stone any longer but written on our hearts by the Spirit.

In the New Covenant we are called to be a holy people, we are called to be an obedient people and we are empowered by the Spirit to live new lives before him and this New Covenant will not fail. This is the beauty of it over the Old Covenant. Its very purpose was to fail, honestly, because God wanted to show that if he left it up to us to keep the law and obey him we would never do it. So in the New Covenant now he provides the empowerment by the Spirit to carry out the law. This is precisely Paul’s point in Romans 8:3-4 where he says, “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh.” his point there is, there is nothing wrong with the law, he said that in chapter 7; the law is holy, righteous, and good but what the law could not do is make us keep it. Our flesh resisted it. Our flesh rejected it. So, “What the law could not do, weak as it was for the flesh, God did, sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh in order that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled.” How will this happen given our flesh? “Not in those who walk according to the flesh but those who walk according to the Spirit.”

So the Spirit within us enables law-keeping, transformation into the likeness of Christ. Think of the implications of this as you think of local churches. The church needs to be on exhibition to the world, that this is where the likeness of Christ is happening. Progressive sanctification is happening, renewal by the power of the Spirit is happening in local churches. Hence, the gifting of the Spirit given to the body of Christ so that we can become more like Christ for the common good, for the edification of the body until we are mature and like Christ. The New Covenant of the church is a covenant by which God declares, “I will make this my people. I will make them holy. I will put my law within them. I will give my Spirit to them and they will walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my covenants, my commandments.”

5. Testifying Community

This happens in a lot of different ways. It happens as the church testifies of the gospel. “We are empowered,” Acts 1:8, “by the Holy Spirit to bear witness of Christ.” What a privilege it is to be able to share the only good news there is for sinners and that is that God has provided a way, the only way that there is by which sinners may be saved through faith in Christ. The testifying also takes place in the preaching of the gospel and in the instruction that takes place of the saints whether that is through the teaching office or preaching ministry of the church. The testifying community is also manifest in participation in the ordinances. Baptism testifies to the death and resurrection of Christ. Clearly the Lord’s Supper testifies to our common salvation in the broken body and shed blood of Christ.

I think I would add here that the church testifies even by its church discipline. When discipline takes place there is a testifying to those in the church and without that the church seeks purity; that we long to be a people who are pure before God and; therefore, we take seriously the requirement that we be a holy people and when there is a clear violation of that and lack of repentance, then discipline that takes places manifests the insistence of Christ and the church on seeking purity of those who are a part. 

6. WorshipPing Community

Not only worshipping individually as we pray and seek to give honor to God in our lives, but corporately as we come together and seek to give God praise. We are told in Hebrews not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together but rather to come together and be instructed together and worship together. Worship, by the way, is more than singing on Sunday mornings. It is the whole of what takes place as we come together corporately. We worship through prayer; we worship in the preaching of the word, to be certain. What an important aspect of the service where we submit our minds and hearts and all of our attention to the instruction of God’s word, to hear his voice and be made more of what we are called to be through the preaching of the word. And, of course, we do worship in expressing praise and adoration to God and singing to him of our faith and the faith of the church in him.

The church then, as you can see from these various aspects, is centered around Christ, empowered by the Spirit, united together so we do not have divisions and factions but united together of groups that were formerly alienated but we are one now in Christ. We do so as a people under a New Covenant that promises empowerment for witness, an empowerment for transformation. So we testify of this. We gladly proclaim the glory of this reality and we give praise to God for the joy and privilege of being his people.

B. NT Metaphors for the Church

Let us move next then to the metaphors of the church that are given to us in the New Testament. There are some beautiful ones that we need to spend a few moment considering; four of them that I have here.

1. The Body of Christ

This metaphor in one sense is clear right from the very outset because we realize a body has a head and then it has the body. It is clear from the way that the New Testament develops this that the headship of Christ indicates his lordship, rulership, that he is the one who is over the church and the body of Christ indicates both our connection to that head, our following the lead of that head, our dependence upon that head but also the interdependence of the body on one another.

Consider with me just a few passages that speak of the headship of Christ and then the body of Christ together. Ephesians 1:20 and following is a very helpful passage on the headship of Christ. We read in verse 20 that, “God, brought about through Christ, our salvation when he raised him from the dead, seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and power, and dominion and authority, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things in subjection under his feet and gave him as head,” there it is, “over all things to the church which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

It is very clear from this passage that the headship of Christ indicates his supreme authority. He has been given a name above every name. He has been given rulership and authority over every power and dominion and rule that is there and he has been made head over all things, that is, everything in the universe, every power, every name, every force, he has been made head over all things for the sake of the church. So Christ is the supreme authority of everything in the universe, yes, but particularly of the church as he functions as its Ruler and Director and Lord.

Consider with me another passage concerning the dependence of the body upon the head. Look a little bit later in Ephesians 4:15-16. We are told there to “Speak the truth in love and grow up into all aspects into Christ who is the head,” so here we have this metaphor being used again, “from whom the whole body being fitted together and held together by what every joint supplies according to the proper working of each individual part causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” It is very interesting, the dependence of the body on the head, not only to direct it and rule it, to be the authority over, but also to provide everything that is needed, for every aspect of the body is dependent upon the head.

Then there is also an interdependence of the body on itself, if you will. Look in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul develops this more fully than, perhaps, anywhere else in Scripture. It is very interesting in this passage that he highlights the importance of every part of the body rather than picking out certain ones and saying that others are unimportant. Look at 1 Corinthians 12:14, “For the body is not one member but many. If the foot says, ‘Because I’m not a hand, I’m not part of the body,’ it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I’m not an eye, I’m not a part of the body,’ it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body just as he desired.” The point of this is that we need one another in the body of Christ in order to grow and develop. The gifts are given for the growth of the body.

We all should approach our relationship to the body of Christ then in two ways. One is being a giver. We all have gifts by which we are able to contribute to the wellbeing of the body of Christ. We should have the mindset of meeting with others whether it is a small group or in our congregational settings; we should meet with other Christian believers and have the mindset, God has gifted me to give to others and provide for them something that would help them grow in Christ from my gifting. But we should also have the attitude as we meet together, God has gifted others to give to me something that I may grow in Christ and be open to the ministry of other people in our lives. Thinking of both of these things I think in crucial and we see that clearly in this metaphor of the church as the body of Christ.

2. The Bride of Christ

Christ is the bridegroom. We are told in Scripture that marriage, the marriage relationship, was from the very beginning (Paul indicates this to us in Ephesians 5) meant to portray as the husband loves the wife and the wife submitted to her husband, this was to demonstrate from the very beginning, believe it or not, the reality of Christ in his relationship with the church. That is what Paul means when he says in Ephesians 5 that this is a mystery. And this is Christ in the church. The mystery, for Paul does not mean something hard to figure out, but rather it is a truth previously concealed now revealed. That truth is marriage all along has meant to portray this. This is the way Christ and the church relate together.

Christ is the head of the church, he is the authority over the church, the church submits to Christ, carries out the will of Christ, is in that sense the helpmeet for Christ. Marriage pictures that very reality as husbands function as Christ functions toward the church; husbands function that way toward their wives, loving their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Wives submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ and thereby manifests to a watching world the relationship of Christ and the church through marriage.

We not only have marriage in Ephesians 5 indicated as an analogy of Christ and the church but we also have actual statements that indicate that Christ is the bridegroom and we are the bride. Think, for example, of 2 Corinthians 11:2 Paul says there, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealously for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin.” I am a father of two daughters and this verse just speaks volumes to me because what Paul is saying here is he has had the privilege of betrothing this young maiden, the church, to this future bridegroom and he wants to present the young maiden, this young woman, to the bridegroom pure and that is really how he sees his pastoral role is to bring about purity in the church because the wedding day is coming. He wants the bride to come to that wedding day pure, a virgin, and not spoiled, in this case by idolatry, by turning to other suitors, other loves. But rather have one undivided loyalty and love for their husband, Christ.

Think, for example, in Revelation 19:7-9 and Revelation 21:9 where we are told of the future day where the marriage supper of the Lamb will take place and we are actually as the church made ready for this wedding, clothed with white garments and are presented to Christ in this great marriage supper. There is a very real sense in which Christian people, men and women alike, ought to think of themselves as constituting the bride of Christ. This may be difficult for men to do, at least I find it not the most natural thing to do, to think of myself in the role of a woman or in particular the role of a wife to a husband where the requirement is to yield and submit to the will of the husband. But clearly this is the place that God has called men and woman alike to think of themselves part of what constitutes the bride of Christ and be committed to him alone, be loyal to him alone and be submissive to him alone. This is the role we have as the bride of Christ. 

3. The Church as a Building

Ephesians 2:19-22 and 1 Peter 2:4-7 both develop this notion of the church as a building in which Christ is the foundation and the cornerstone of that. In 1 Peter 2 it is very interesting that the stones that are spoken of there that make up this building are living stones; they are not dead, cold, hard stones but vibrant alive stones. That is because we are connected to Christ. I think this is the point that he is making. It is a spiritual house he says. Verse 5, “You also as living stones are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.” The cornerstone of this is the stone that was rejected but in fact is precious in the sight of God.

So Christ, although he was rejected as we know in the New Testament by everyone except for just the very, very few of his disciples who stayed with him to the end, the women in particular who were with him at the cross and John who was there but rejected by almost everyone, is in fact the cornerstone of the church and the one that is the basis by which the church is built and it is built upon the basis of this living Christ and so we are living stones.

Ephesians 2 helps us also in understanding that the church is build upon a foundation of not only Christ but also Christ and the apostles and prophets. We read in 2:19, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but fellow citizens with the saints enter of God’s household having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone in which the whole building being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord in which you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” Here Paul makes clear that the apostles and prophets, and by the way, I believe in the book of Ephesians these must be New Testament prophets, by the way, not Old Testament prophets. If you want to check that out look at 3:5 and again 4:11 seem to indicate these are New Testament prophets.

So the New Testament apostles and prophets provide this foundation and Christ is the cornerstone. The point of Christ being the cornerstone is simply this. The cornerstone was the most important, single most important stone of the church because it provided the shape and the direction for the building. This cornerstone needed to be exactly 90 degrees squared, perpendicular to the ground so that the walls would go in the direction both horizontally and vertically that they should and so Christ as the cornerstone sets the direction for the church and is the key foundation stone for the church.

4. The Church as Christ’s Flock

Here in John 10 in particular we see this beautiful statement of Christ that he is, “the good shepherd” and that he “lays down his life for the sheep,” in John 10:11. Elsewhere Christ is called the “great Shepherd of the sheep,” Hebrews 13:20; or the “Chief Shepherd,” 1 Peter 5:4; or “the Shepherd and guardian of your souls,” 1 Peter 2:25.

These are all beautiful expressions that indicate that we the sheep follow the shepherd. In fact, this is so clear in John 10 that the main responsibility of the sheep in this metaphor is hear the voice and follow and that is really it. Sheep are not supposed to figure out where to go, where the green pasture is, where the cool water is, consult with the shepherd and negotiate things and figure out what they should do and where they should go. No. They are to hear the voice of the shepherd and follow. It is pretty simple isn’t it? And yet it is difficult for us to do because of ongoing sin that causes us to hear other voices as well. But Christ’s sheep, he said, are marked by this, “they hear my voice and they follow me.”

The shepherd on his part, his responsibility is caring for the sheep, protecting them, guarding them, even from the enemy that comes and taking them to cool waters to drink and pastures to feed. The church as the flock of Christ emphasizes the importance of us being listening and obedient to Christ and it gives us the assurance that he is watching over us moment by moment to protect and to provide for all that we need insuring our welfare as the sheep of his flock. 

II. Local Congregations or Churches

We change our attention now to local churches and some of the issues that relate. All of the things we have talked about previously need to be true, as it were, of the very fabric and the ideals and the goals of individual churches. Here we will take a look at some of the specific questions that come up with local churches and how they are organized, how they function, how they work.

A. Offices in the Local Church

It is very clear in the New Testament that there are two offices, elders and deacons. 

1. Elders

The term elder in the New Testament comes from the term presbyteroi sometimes translated also “presbyter” and it is synonymous really with another Greek term episkopos, which is a term by which we obviously get the Episcopalian form of church government, but also it is translated as “bishop” or “overseer” and these really all refer to one office. There is not a separate office of presbyters and a separate office of episkopoi. No. There is one office and I will just call it the office of elder. For evidence of that you might want to take a look at Philippians 1:1 where Paul refers to those in the church and in this formal salutation at the beginning and he refers to the overseers and deacons, it does not say anything about the presbyters. You know what an odd thing if he had left them. Probably even clearer is Titus 1:5-7 where presbyteroi and episkopoi are used interchangeably. So we will just assume there is this one office that these two terms are meant to convey.

What is the main function of elders in the church? It is clear in 1 Timothy 3 and also as confirmed by other parts of 1 Timothy that the main function of elders is really in two areas, authority or rulership and in teaching. When you compare the qualifications of elders versus deacons in 1 Timothy 3 you see that Paul puts a special emphasis on the qualification of an elder who must be able to manage his own household. Why is this? Verse 4. Well, because verse 5, “If a man doesn’t know how to manage his household, how will he take care of the church of God?” So there is rulership or authority component that is involved in elders but also elders are to be, in verse 2, able to teach and that is not stated for deacons. While many of the character qualities are the same for elders and deacons, the functions of rulership and of teaching are distinctive of elders.

I think this explains why, in 1 Timothy 2:12 when he forbids a woman, as Paul says it here, “to teach or exercise authority over a man,” he really has in mind there the two main functions that elders are to carry out. He might have said in 1 Timothy 2:12, “But I don’t allow a woman to be an elder.” But in fact he did not say that. He did say the functions and I think that is important in light of questions that come up; we will talk about this in a moment, of role of women in ministry. The functions of teaching and exercising authority are what are forbidden in relation to men for women to do, not just being an elder. But, nonetheless, I think it does indicate that this is what is distinctive of elders. Also in 1 Timothy 5:17, “Elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” There again you see that these are the main components. You might want to look also at Titus 1:9 and Hebrews 13:17 to see that this is the case. 

2. Deacons

Deacons really function in relation to what their name actually means. The term diakonos means servant. In a very true sense deacons are to provide servant kind of ministries to the body of Christ and many people believe, myself included, that it is very likely that the office of deacon arose out of the incident we read about in Acts 6 where we see there that a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of the food and we have a form of the term diakonos used there as a verb in serving the food. So the twelve summon the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables; therefore, select from among you seven men of good reputation full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom that we may put in charge of this work and we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

It seems as though this is really what the function of deacons is to be in the church is to be a servant ministry in various kinds of capacities, in the daily practical needs of people whether it be helping them with things that they need in their home, helping them with emotional issues, helping them with material or financial matters. I mean, very practically serving food as was the case in Acts 6. In a very real sense elders and deacons compliment each other. Elders primarily responsible for the spiritual needs and growth of Christian people, helping them to grow in Christ, teaching them, instructing them, praying for them and deacons being responsible for the everyday physical needs of Christian people.

3. Role of Men and Women in Ministry

One of the major questions that has been raised in the church has been the question of the relationship of men and women in ministry. While this is very complex, I would encourage you if you would like to look at a web site for the Counsel on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, www.cbmw.org, and there are many, many resources there.

Let me just mention to you in the brief moments that I have here that this is another area where we find today that Evangelical people are quite divided. The Egalitarian movement argues that, in fact, there ought not be gender distinctions in the role of women in ministry, that qualified women who are gifted and able ought to be able to serve in every capacity as qualified men are able to do.

I believe, and of course, in this I stand with the long tradition of the church that is now being challenged by the Egalitarian movement that, in fact, the Bible has made clear that while women are gifted and women are extremely important to ministry in the church in many, many ways that God has deemed it good and right for qualified men to serve in the capacities of the teaching and preaching and rulership ministries in the church. This is clear in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I don’t allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.”

Now, Paul does not give as his reason there that women are not instructed in this culture nearly sufficiently to be qualified teachers, if they were that would be fine. No, he does not say that. He says rather that Adam was created first and then Eve. In other words he goes back to the created order and he indicates God established in the very creation the very notion of male headship, and he expects that male headship to be acknowledged in the home and in the church where the leadership of the church and its main teaching ministry is to be carried out by qualified men.

B. Organization of the Local Church

There have been through the history of the church three primary structures that have been given for church organization, Episcopalianism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism. Let me just say at the very beginning of this that the reason that these three persist, I believe, is that the New Testament does not in precision and with great clarity designate that the church ought to be structured and organized just a particular way. There is not a manual that comes in the New Testament for the organization of the church. So all of us in looking at the data try to put together the best we can from the material that is there. Some of it is descriptive in nature and because of that we are not sure if we should take it prescriptively. But nonetheless, we look at the data of Scripture and obviously Christian people have decided differently on this matter. 

1. Episcopalianism

The Episcopalian form of church government is the government of the church by bishops or by the episkopoi and this simply means that in Episcopalian church governance they see individual local churches as being ruled ultimately by a bishop who has governance over a number of local churches.

This is true, of course, in the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The Roman Catholic Church actually is Episcopalian; it is just that they have even a more elaborate hierarchy. They do not stop with bishops but they have archbishops and cardinals and of course the pope is then the Vicar of Christ, as they think of him, over the entirety of the Roman Catholic Church. But it likewise has an Episcopalian form of church government.

One of the things that argues in favor of the Episcopalian view, this was the form of church government that developed early in the early church. I believe this was largely due to the fact that there were so many controversies, there was so much persecution that Christian people were desperately in need of voices who would function sort of like the apostles did in the New Testament, voices that would give instruction to churches and things that ought to be believed and ways in which we ought to live and so this Episcopalian form of church government developed.

It is an altogether legitimate question, though, whether or not this Episcopalian form of church government in fact reflects what the New Testament at least hints at or gives some direction toward. In my own view it is a mistake to replace the apostles of the New Testament with bishops in the early church, because the apostles ended their particular role and then it was to be replaced by pastors of local churches in terms of the ongoing teaching ministry of the church and the role of apostle ended, I believe, in the New Testament. 

2. Presbyterianism

The Presbyterian form of church government consists of the churches rulership by presbyters or, as it were, a group of representatives who act as a governing body over a group of churches. So rather than having one bishop over several churches, here instead you have selected delegates or representatives called presbyters from a variety of local churches who gather together in a presbytery and in that presbytery they make decisions and rulings and provide governance over the churches underneath their particular rulership.

In this case it involves a governance that is something like in the United States, the republican form of government that we have with selected representatives that go to congress, to the House and the Senate who act as our representatives. It is something like that in terms of church governance. People from each individual church are selected and go and represent the church and its governance.

Presbyterians will site Acts 15 as an example of this where the Jerusalem Council met and instruction was given to all of the churches from this group that met. But I find it interesting there that in Acts 15 that it really is the churches responsibility then to act upon these things and carry them out and so I do not know that Acts 15 is in any way definitive in indicating a Presbyterian form of church government, though one can see how Presbyterians in particular would go that direction with it. 

3. Congregationalism

It is the governance of the church by its own local members. Each individual church has autonomy from other local churches. That is not to say that churches do not have formal or informal relationships with others. For example, I teach at a Southern Baptist seminary and I attend a Southern Baptist church and our church has a formal relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention and other Southern Baptist churches and yet the decision-making in regard to our church is a function of our own church. What money we give to missions whether it is the cooperative program or any other monies is a decision we make in our church and we are not told by a bishop nor are we told by a presbytery. We are not told by some kind of denominational governing board what our budget should be or how much money we should give to one thing or another. No, our church is an autonomous, in our case, Baptist church and this is true for Congregational churches generally and that is that they are governed within themselves.

Another element that is sometimes true, often true, of Congregational churches is that they will often times see the governance as taking place through a type of democratic process in the church of voting, and this may or may not be the case, that is, the autonomy of the local church is the central idea within congregationalism. Whether or not you actually have members who vote on everything that happens and that is the way decisions are made or not will vary among congregational churches. Some will have a governing board within the church, say the elder board, who will make most of the decisions of the church and yet if it is a congregational church there will be opportunity for the whole congregation to voice its approval or disapproval of especially significant items that are brought to the church body.

In favor of the Congregational form of church government would be a couple of things I could mention briefly. Both in Acts 6 and Acts 13 we see there the whole church involved. Do you remember in Acts 6 that we read a moment ago in relation to deacons when the apostles are made aware of the women who are being overlooked in the serving of the food they call the whole congregation together and say select for yourselves these men of good reputation and so on. It looks like this is a matter for the whole church to decide. Likewise in Acts 13, the sending out of the missionaries, the whole church designates those who are sent out as missionaries.

I think also instructive is in Matthew 18 where Jesus refers there to discipline that may be needed to take place in the church that he gives a certain order of steps that ought to be followed and that ends with after you have talked to the person and if there still is no change that takes place then take it to the whole church, he says, and then things can be settled there. In other words church discipline is really based upon this passage and seems to involve the whole church that is required to function in it. Look for this, if you will, at Matthew 18:15-17. 

C. Ordinances: Baptism and The Lord’s Supper

We turn now in our final moments to the last item here and that is ordinances of the local church and there are two of these, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, both of them gospel ordinances. They are both demonstrations in physical visible ways of the reality of the saving work of Christ on our behalf. 

1. Baptism

It is a beautiful display of the cleansing that takes place and the renewal of life that takes place. For both baptism and The Lord’s Supper there, of course, is tremendous difference of opinion among Bible-believing Christians. I can only mention very, very briefly what is held by various traditions.

In baptism you have some who would argue for infant baptism, or sometimes called paedobaptism, and many of these argue for this as it being connected with the circumcision that was done to children in Israel in the Old Testament and now in the New Testament, Israel, the church, they would argue that children should be baptized to be separated as members of the believing community understanding that a day is needed in the future for them to place their own saving faith in Christ, but nonetheless their baptism indicates that they are part of this believing community. Roman Catholics believe in paedobaptism. They believe through it salvation actually occurs in the lives of those infants that are baptized. That is not held in the Reformed tradition.

Baptists hold the view that only believers should be baptized that, in fact, the very ordinance of baptism itself is meant to signify outwardly of the inner reality that someone has, in fact, died with Christ and been raised with Christ and hence for a Baptist the mode of baptism, clearly the preferred mode is not sprinkling, but emersion where the very symbolism of going under the water indicating one’s identification with Christ in his death and coming out of the water indicating one’s identification with Christ’s resurrection is so beautifully displayed. 

2. The Lord’s Supper

There are really four different views that are held in the church. The Roman Catholics hold the transubstantiation view, which says essentially that in the very sacrament of the mass as it takes place the substance of the bread and wine is replaced with the substance of the body and the blood of Christ, so a transference of substance that takes place. There is no biblical support for this. Jesus when he said, “This is my body broken for you,” clearly was not indicating his physical body was actually being passed to the disciples as he handed them the bread. It just seems that Jesus was using there the kind of language he used elsewhere when he said, “I am the good shepherd,” or “I am the door,” or “I am the true vine,” or different expressions like this.

The Lutheran view holds what is called consubstantiation and that is that there is in, with, and under the actual substance of the bread and wine, the substance of the body and blood of Christ. They are not identical to the Roman Catholic view but they hold something very similar to it.

The Reformed view holds that in the Lord’s Supper Christ is present but not in a physical way; they believe he is present spiritually and thereby is actually partaken of as the bread and wine are consumed, we actually eat Christ but not physically, but we take in his presence into our lives and grace is granted, is given in the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper with the Reformed view.

The final view that is held by most Baptists comes from the Zwinglian tradition and this is called the memorial view and it states simply that the purpose of The Lord’s Supper is stated by Jesus when he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The main purpose is for believers to reflect deeply upon the reality of the death and resurrection of Christ on their behalf and their identification with him, to confess sins, yes, to be renewed spiritually, but not because of the elements per say, but because of what those elements symbolize, namely the death and resurrection of Christ on our behalf.

©2004 Bruce Ware