Course: A Guide to Christian Beliefs
Lecture: The Christian Community
"Sir, you wish to serve God and go to heaven? Remember that you cannot serve him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them; the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion."
These famous words of an unknown friend of John Wesley emphasize the vital fact that we cannot be Christians on our own, unless perhaps we are on a desert island with no Man Friday around. It is not, however, in the first instance, a matter of making companions, as if the Christian community were something we create. Rather, a person cannot become a Christian by faith in Jesus Christ, without at the same time becoming a member of the people of God along with all our fellow believers and sharing in the life of the church (1 Corinthians 1:26). Indeed, we could not have come to know Jesus without the testimony of other Christians, their work in translating and distributing the Bible, and their prayers for us. Jesus came not to save individuals in isolation from one another, but to found a new community of people who would build one another up in the faith and evangelize the world. We must now explore what is meant by the church and what are its functions.
The Nature of the Church (Matthew 16:13-28)
If there was one phrase which Jesus used more than any other in his teaching it was the "kingdom (or kingship) of God" (Mark 1:14f.). By this phrase he meant both the sovereign, saving action of God, revealed in his own ministry, and the sphere where God's blessings are available, both now and in the next world. Clearly this phrase is a corporate one, showing that the purpose of God was the establishment of a people who would own God as king through Jesus Christ. This people is the church.
The church, of course, is not the same thing as the kingdom of God. The latter term primarily refers to the action of God, his kingship, while the former indicates a group of people. The problem of terminology is further complicated by the fact that the word "church" is used in a variety of senses. Properly speaking, it means the people of God, but in modern usage it has come very often to refer to a human organization or to a building, and it is impossible to reverse this development in the use of the word. We can, however, gain some clarity by distinguishing between the "visible" church, which consists of all the people who are outwardly members of it, and the "invisible" church, which consists of all people who truly have faith in Jesus Christ (cf. 1 John 2:19). It is the members of the "invisible" church who have accepted the kingship of God and entered into the blessings of his rule. At the same time, the church is the means by which God extends his rule.
The establishment of the church was the climax of God's plan for mankind. The Old Testament tells the story of how God chose the nation of Israel so that they might be his people and he might be their God (1 Samuel 12:12). Sadly the story tells how Israel time and again refused to accept God as king (1 Samuel 8:7). When Jesus came, he brought God's last appeal to Israel, but by and large the people rejected him. So he turned to his small group of twelve disciples and announced that the blessings of God's kingship were for them and not for disobedient Israel. They were to be the nucleus of a new Israel, the church of God (Matthew 21:43; 16:18; Luke 12:32). The church can thus be understood as the new Israel, composed of those who accept Jesus as the Messiah, and entry to it is by becoming a disciple of Jesus and owning him as Lord.
We can therefore speak of the church as having existed in the Old Testament (Acts 7:38), being composed of the Jewish people. Already at this stage it included those who were truly God's people and those who were so only outwardly and nominally. The church began anew in the company of Jesus' disciples. But its real beginning is to be seen on the Day of Pentecost. Only then was the kingdom of God manifested in power by the victory of Jesus on the cross and by the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples. Properly speaking, we should reserve the name of "church" for the new people of God who came into being at Pentecost.
But it will already have become apparent that the New Testament church is continuous with the Old Testament people of God. The Jews are not excluded from the new people of God, provided that they believe in Jesus as the Messiah; but the church has replaced the race of the Jews as the Israel of God. This can be seen from the way in which the words used to describe the church have often a background in the Old Testament descriptions of the people of God. The word church itself (Gk. ekklēsia) is found in the Greek version of the Old Testament to mean the assembly of God's people. Christians are the people of God, and the significant thing is that this people includes both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ (Acts 15:14; Romans 9:24–26; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9f.). They are called the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:12, 19). They are the flock of God, and he is their Shepherd (Luke 12:32; John 10:1–16, 26–29; Acts 20–28; 1 Peter 5:3). They are the bride of Christ, just as the old Israel was the bride of Yahweh (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:22ff.).
The church can also be said to take over the functions of the temple in the Old Testament. The temple was the dwelling place of God (although, of course, his presence was not confined to it, 2 Chronicles 6:2, 18–21). Just as individual Christians are now temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), so the church corporately is the temple or dwelling place of God (1 Corinthians 3:16f.; Ephesians 2:19–22). It amounts to the same thing when the church is said to be a building in process of construction by God (1 Corinthians 3:9; Ephesians 2:19f.; 1 Peter 2:5) or to be God's household (Galatians 6:10).
The New Testament, however, goes beyond the Old Testament revelation, when it describes the church as the body of Christ (Romans 12:4f.; 1 Corinthians 12:12ff.; Ephesians 1:22f.; 4:4, 12, 15f.; 5:23). This phrase, especially loved by Paul, indicates that the church is composed of various individual members united to one another and to Christ as their Head in the closest possible manner, like the different parts of a human body. The power of Christ permeates the whole (like the sap running through the branches of the vine, John 15:5), and the different members assist one another to perform their functions in a true spiritual unity. In this sense, the church can be described as having an organic unity, but it should be noted that the parts of the body in the metaphor correspond to the individual members of the church rather than to different local groups of Christians or even to whole denominations.
The Life of the Church (Acts 11:19–30)
If we accept the evidence of the book of Acts, the most characteristic function of the church is witness and mission. As Jesus was sent by his Father to bring salvation to mankind, so he sent and still sends the church to bring the good news of salvation to the world (John 17:18, 20). The word "apostle" is connected with the verb "to send" and is used of those who were sent out to continue and extend the work of Jesus (Luke 9:1f.). In Acts the Twelve are regarded as being especially qualified to bear personal testimony to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:21f.), but the task of witness is by no means confined to them. Even persons primarily appointed to look after domestic arrangements in the church figure as preachers and evangelists (Acts 6). The very structure of the book of Acts confirms that the church is essentially a body of people with a mission. It began with Jerusalem, and moved out into Judaea and Samaria, and then spread to the ends of the earth. The gift of the Spirit to the church was to equip it with power and divine eloquence for evangelism, and to guide its members where and how to bear their witness (Romans 15:18f.; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 2 Corinthians 6:6). The preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles is the offering which the church makes to God (Romans 15:16). The church is called to perform the task of the Servant of Yahweh (Acts 13:47; cf. Isaiah 49:6). This may involve much sacrifice and suffering (Colossians 1:24ff.; 2 Corinthians 11:23–28; 12:10) as the church faces satanic opposition (2 Corinthians 11:12–15; 1 Thessalonians 2:18; 1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 12:17), but it is the necessary prelude to the coming of Christ in glory to reign (Mark 13:10). It is, however, a task which is certain of success (Matthew 16:18), for by the power of God a people who fear him will be gathered out of every nation (Romans 11:25–36; Revelation 5:9).
The effect of evangelism is the gathering together of the new people of God in the church. According to the brief summary of the life of the early church in Acts 2:42, the first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. There is some dispute whether these four elements represent four different activities carried on by the church at different times, or constitute the four parts of an early church meeting. In any case, here we have four basic aspects of the life of the church. First comes the teaching of the apostles. This is clearly not evangelistic preaching, but rather the instruction of the members of the church in their faith and its practical consequences. When the church is said to be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20), the meaning is that its basis is apostolic teaching, originally verbal and later committed to written expression in Scripture. It is by this teaching that the church exists. The words of Jesus are its food (John 6:63) and the apostolic teaching is the Spirit–inspired continuation and development of the teaching of Jesus. Consequently, in the later books of the New Testament we find exhortation to Christians to hold fast to apostolic teaching (1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 1:13f.; 3:14–17). However much the church must seek the guidance of the Spirit to enable it to express the Word of God in a relevant and meaningful manner for each new situation, the fact is that the Word of God has been given to the church in the apostolic teaching, which is the faith "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).
Second comes fellowship (1 John 1:1–7). This word means the sharing of several people in a common possession, and it expresses the fundamental idea in the common life of Christians. The church is a company of people who have one Lord and who share together in one gift of salvation in Jesus Christ (Titus 1:4; Jude 3). Although the members of the church may differ in age, sex, race, colour, wealth, social status and ability, they are joined together as one people (Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Colossians 3:11). They share in one Spirit (Ephesians 4:3f.; Philippians 2:1), and they must exercise mutual generosity as regards their material possessions (Acts 2:44; 4:32; Galatians 6:6). As Christ's disciples they are called to share with him in suffering for the sake of the gospel (Philippians 3:10; Revelation 1:9), and are promised a share in his glory and kingly rule (2 Timothy 2:12). In this way God, Christ and all Christians are brought together into an intimate union through the Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 John 1:3–7).
The doctrine of fellowship has two important consequences. Those who share in the fellowship of the church must love one another. We have seen earlier that the characteristic of God's love is that it is not motivated by selfish gain, but loves to give freely without any partiality. Christians are to love one another in that spirit, since that is how Christ loves them (1 John 4:7, 11; Ephesians 5:2). Christian love is "the greatest thing in the world" (1 Corinthians 13). So the essence of Christian ethics is the command to love one another. It is summed up in the golden rule: "Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them" (Matthew 7:12). Such love is, of course, not confined to members of the Christian fellowship, but is to extend to all people (Luke 10:25–37; Galatians 6:10) and to find expression in material concern and generosity (James 2:15f.; 1 John 3:17f.). It is this love thst breaks down the barriers of race, sex and class. What is meant is that such love is not restricted by differences of this kind, and that it decisively alters the significance that may have come to be attached to them, although it does not necessarily remove them. Christian love treats people of all colours with equal generosity: it makes the colour of a person's skin a matter of indifference; but it cannot actually alter the physical colour of the skin, any more than it can make a male into a female. In the same way it can transform the master-servant relationship to such an extent as to show that it is wrong to treat another person as a slave, although it does not lead to a society in which nobody can be commanded to do anything.
The other consequence of fellowship is that the church ought to be a unity. The New Testament knows of only one church, since Christ cannot be shared out among competing and rival groups of Christians (1 Corinthians 1:10, 13). All the members of one particular local church should therefore be at one in their allegiance to Christ. Nevertheless, the New Testament writers admit that not all persons who outwardly belong to the church have a true allegiance to Jesus; this fact becomes particularly evident when people cease to come to the church or publicly walk out of it (1 John 2:19). There may be differences in belief between the members, and hence there may need to be divisions, so that the ones who are in the right may become apparent (1 Corinthians 11:19). But this situation is not the ideal, and Christians should seek to agree in the truth and in their common faith in Jesus.
In the same way, since there is only one church (Ephesians 4:4) which finds expression in local groups of believers, each of which can be called a church, it follows that such local churches should exist side by side in unity of belief and love. Church divisions should be geographical, rather than being based on differences of doctrine or practice. Our modern conception of denominations is quite foreign to the New Testament. From the point of view of John, the church to which he writes is the church, and those who went out of it to start their own rival group (1 John 2:19) are not truly a church because they do not truly believe in Jesus and love their fellow-Christians (cf. 1 John 3:23). In the modern situation we should probably want to deny that some groups that claim to be Christian churches are really churches because their beliefs are false — if, for example, they deny the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. But we should not deny the name of church to groups which differ from us on some peripheral issue, such as the method of church government. Where such matters cannot be clearly settled by the evidence of Scripture, we must respect the opinions of other Christians. From this it follows that all Christian churches should seek unity in belief and mutual love, while respecting the rights of each particular group to serve God and organize itself according to its own understanding of Scripture. It is clearly wrong to suggest that there should be uniformity of conduct of church services or methods of church government. The idea of one super-denomination which would embrace all existing denominations is one that is impossible to achieve, but the ideal of all Christian churches loving one another and attempting to come to a common understanding of the truth is basic and essential.
The third aspect of church life in Acts 2:42 is the breaking of bread, which is discussed below. The fourth element is prayer. Prayer has various aspects. In the New Testament we find the church and its members offering praise to God for all that he has done for them (Acts 2:47), seeking power and guidance (Acts 4:23–31; 13:1–3), and confessing sin and claiming forgiveness (Acts 8:24; Luke 18:13f.). It lived by the promise of Jesus that if it asked anything in his name God would do it (John 16:23f.). Such prayer might be offered to God in the form of hymns and songs (Colossians 3:16).
We tend to group these last mentioned activities under the heading of worship. They constitute the service of God. The church has taken over the function of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), and its task is to offer spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Peter 2:5, 9). This, of course, does not mean that the church makes a sin-offering to God; that has been done once and for all by Christ and cannot be repeated (Hebrews 9:24–28). New Testament worship corresponds rather to the thank offerings and communion offerings that had their place in the Old Testament ritual.
Unfortunately, there has been a tendency to understand worship as what the church offers to God in terms of prayers and similar acts, and then to regard the main purpose of church "services" as being the offering of worship of this kind to God. The result of this has been an impoverishment of the life of the church. First, it should be stressed that the actual term "worship" is remarkably rare in the New Testament, and that correspondingly we hear very little of church meetings called together simply to offer worship to God. To be sure, worship is part of the church's service to God (Hebrews 13:15; cf. Revelation 5:11–14; 7:9–12). But it is not the whole of it.
So, second, it must be insisted that the church's primary task is not to worship God, but to serve God, and this it does by carrying out the activities of witness and the building up of Christians in their faith. Paul served God in the gospel of his Son (Romans 1:9) by preaching the gospel. Christians serve God by putting their lives at this disposal for whatever he may call them to do (Romans 12:1). The performing of deeds of love is the kind of offering that pleases God (Hebrews 13:16). In short, the church is called to serve God. Worship in the strict sense is part of that service, but by no means the whole.
Third, it follows that if we think of a meeting of the church as being essentially a means of worshipping God in the narrow sense we seriously curtail its intended function and give it a wrong shape. We do not come to church primarily to serve God by offering him our worship but to let him serve us by ministering his Word to us. The Son of man came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). When the church insists on serving the Son of man, rather than being served by him, it has got its priorities wrong. The purposes of meetings of Christens include the apostles" teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread and prayers.
The Means of Grace (Acts 2:37-47)
God's Word and his gifts come to us in various ways which have come to be known as "the means of grace." In this section we will consider the nature of these gifts, and in the following section we will discuss the way in which these are mediated to us by human agencies.
Both as individuals and in company with our fellow Christians, we receive salvation by hearing the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:14–17) and by the accompanying work of the Holy Spirit in making our hearts receptive to it (1 Thessalonians 1:5f.). There are two principal ways in which this happens — through the preaching of the gospel and through the sacraments.
It has been said that God had only one Son and he made him a preacher. In the early church the work of Jesus in preaching was carried on as one of its main activities. Right from the Day of Pentecost the apostles and their associates preached to unbelievers and taught believers. The content of their preaching was not simply human words, for through it the Word of God was conveyed to the hearers (1 Thessalonians 2:13). It possessed power to convert and save because the Holy Spirit was active in the proclamation. Those who preached it did not rely on eloquence, still less on deceitful means of persuasion, to get their message across (1 Corinthians 2:1–5; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:5), but trusted in the power of God (2 Corinthians 2:13–16) and were aided by the prayers of their fellow Christians (Ephesians 6:18–20). Such preaching produced faith in the hearers (1 Corinthians 2:4f.) and acted like spiritual milk in nourishing Christians (1 Peter 2:2). Although the New Testament usually refers to this activity as proclamation, it was of course not confined to "sermons" and the spoken word; it included personal conversation and the use of letters and other types of literature. The modern use of visual and other aids to make the message clear and plain is thoroughly in harmony with the spirit of the New Testament.
Alongside the preaching of the Word, we have the sacraments of the Word, the visible means of proclaiming the grace of God. The word "sacrament" is not found in the New Testament, but came into use quite early to describe the dramatic signs or acts which are means of grace for believers. Two such signs are recognized in Protestant churches: baptism and the Lord's Supper. The justification for linking them together is to be found in 1 Corinthians 10:1-14, where Paul points to foreshadowings of them in the Old Testament; and also in the fact that both rest on the example and command of Jesus, who appointed them for universal observance in the church (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23–27). Ever since the Day of Pentecost they have been observed by Christians (Acts 2:41f.).
The sacraments are outward signs through which God makes known his love to us and we pledge ourselves to be his people. They are visible and audible presentations of the gospel. Just as we receive the grace of God through the preaching of the Word, so we also receive grace through the sacraments of the Word. But perhaps we should be more precise. Confusion has been caused by thinking of "grace" as a kind of "substance" given to us by God — as if along with the bread and wine of the supper God gives us a portion of "grace." But there is no such "thing" as grace; to speak of "grace" is to refer to the gracious action of God. The sacraments, therefore, should be understood as ways in which God tells us of his gracious disposition to us, and acts graciously towards us by cleansing us from our sins and giving us spiritual sustenance. Although, therefore, some Protestants are chary of saying that anything happens in the sacraments and insist that they are mere symbols of spiritual realities, it would be better to say that God speaks to us and tells us of his love both in the preached Word and in the sacraments, and that in the sacraments we are able to express outwardly the inward commitment of our hearts.
We cannot dispense with the sacraments, because they are commanded by God. He has provided them for our good, so that by the most simple means he may assure us of his saving purpose for us and we may indicate our acceptance of his grace. The sacraments are not the only "means of grace", nor are they the indispensable means, but ordinarily God wills that all Christians should receive these pledges and tokens of his salvation.
Baptism in water was administered by John the Baptist to all who repented and sought forgiveness of their sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. He prophesied that the coming Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit. The word baptism can thus refer to an outward act of cleansing with water or to the reception of the Holy Spirit. There is a third way in which the word is used. Jesus spoke of his death on the cross as a baptism (Luke 12:50). Here he was using an Old Testament metaphor in which suffering and calamity are likened to the experience of sinking into water or being swallowed up by the sea (Psalm 69:1f., 14f.). This may suggest that because Jesus endured a "baptism" of suffering, those who believe in him and submit to water baptism receive the benefits of his suffering for them.
Christian baptism, as distinct from John's baptism or Jesus' baptism of suffering, is a sign that we are cleansed from our sins and forgiven, because of what Christ has done for us (Ephesians 5:26). It is also the outward sign corresponding to the inward reception of the Spirit, who also descended on Jesus at his baptism (Acts 2:38). It takes place "in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38), thus indicating that the baptized belong to Christ. They are united with Jesus, and hence they become sharers in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:1–11). Finally, they are baptized "into the body" (see 1 Corinthians 12:13) and thus become members of the church. Baptism by water is, in short, the outward reception of the grace of God, through which a person is united by faith to Jesus Christ as his Saviour and becomes a member of God's people. Naturally the reception of salvation is not tied to the moment of baptism, but rather water baptism and Spirit baptism form two parts of one single act of Christian initiation.
Three methods of baptism have been practiced in the Christian church: total immersion in water, affusion, i.e., the pouring of water over a person standing in a pool, and sprinkling, which is a development from affusion. Immersion aptly symbolizes death and resurrection with Jesus. Affusion, however, equally aptly symbolizes the pouring out of the Spirit, and it is impossible to see how the idea of baptism with the Spirit could ever have arisen if the practice of affusion was not used. It is in fact most probable that both methods of baptism, immersion and affusion, were practiced side by side in the church in New Testament times, and it is not possible to affirm on scriptural grounds that either one or the other is the only "proper" mode of baptism.
Baptism is at one and the same time a symbol of God's grace and of our response. The "conditions" for baptism are thus the hearing of the Word of God, repentance from sin, and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38; 18:8). These are not "conditions" in the sense that they represent a standard that we must attain in order to be fit for baptism. Rather, they are the characteristics of a faith that, in response to God's call, joyfully accepts the gospel, believes in Christ and publicly confesses its allegiance.
The practice of baptizing infants (as distinct from believing children) grew up very early in the church. The analogies of the covenant (cf. Acts 2:39) and circumcision (Colossians 2:11f.) in the Old Testament, the strong sense of family kinship in the New Testament, by which the members of a household joined its head in becoming Christians (Acts 16:15, 34; 18:8), and the place allotted by Jesus to children (Luke has "infants") in the kingdom of God (Luke 18:15–17), have all combined to suggest to many Christians that the baptism of infants is in line with New Testament teaching, even if it is not explicitly taught. In such cases the act of baptism clearly cannot have its usual significance, since the conditions have not been fulfilled and the infant cannot be said to have been converted. The child still has to make his or her own response to the gospel. It can, therefore, be argued that the parents' desire to dedicate their child to God and to pray for its salvation might be better expressed in a service of thanksgiving and prayer (although admittedly this is not clearly attested in Scripture; see, however, Luke 2:22–24), so that the child may experience personally the full significance of baptism when he or she has come to conscious faith in Jesus. On the other hand, however, it can be claimed that infant baptism expresses the fact that salvation is available for those so baptized and the prayerful confidence of the parents that their child will grow up to complete his or her baptism by conscious faith in Christ.
Baptism is the once–for–all symbol of our conversion and entry upon the Christian life by the grace of God. The Lord's Supper (or Breaking of bread) is the sign of the Lord's continual grace to us, the "bread for pilgrims." When Jesus gathered with his disciples for their last meal together, he took a loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it into pieces and distributed it to them with the words, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." As the meal progressed, he took a cup of red wine, gave thanks for it, and as he passed it round, said, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:19f.; the wording differs slightly in the other Gospels and in 1 Corinthians 11:23–25). This simple rite was observed by his disciples, at first as part of a communal church meal, Sunday by Sunday.
What did it mean? Before Jesus died, when he inaugurated the feast, it was an acted prophecy that his body was about to be broken and his blood to be shed, in order that God's new covenant with the new Israel might be ratified. By giving the bread and wine to his disciples, Jesus was inviting them to share in the blessings of the new covenant. For us, now that Christ has in fact died and risen from the dead, the Lord's Supper means five things.
First, it reminds us of his death and its meaning for us. We do this in remembrance of him, so that as we receive the bread and wine we may remember that he died for our salvation (1 Corinthians 11:25).
Second, as we give thanks to God for the bread and wine (which are in themselves tokens of God's daily provision for our bodily needs), so we thank him for the gift of salvation which they represent. This element of thanksgiving (Greek eucharistia) is expressed by the use of the term "Eucharist" as a name for the Supper.
Third, the Bible often speaks of the life to come as a banquet (Luke 22:29f.). The Supper is a foretaste of that banquet, for at it we show forth the Lord's death until he comes and faith is replaced by sight. Thus the Supper is a prophetic anticipation of the time of full salvation.
Fourth, Christians who look forward to communion with Christ at his heavenly table can have fellowship with him here and now. He is present as host to give us spiritual blessings, which are signified by the bread and wine (cf. Matthew 18:20). The cup is a sharing in his blood, and the bread is a sharing in his body (1 Corinthians 10:16), so that the Supper is a visible sign of the way in which we who believe in Christ are spiritually nourished by him (John 6:51–58).
Fifth, the one loaf which is shared at the Supper is a symbol of the unity of God's people with one another as members of the one body (1 Corinthians 10:17). At the Supper where they worship and adore the one Lord Jesus Christ and receive his grace, Christians are united in fellowship as the one people of God.
The Ministry of the Church (Ephesians 4:1–16)
No human society ever made any headway without the appointment of certain of its members to do various tasks on behalf of the other members and to administer law and order. Thus even from a purely human view we can see the wisdom of the church's appointing various persons to carry on its work. But the task of ministry in the church is not simply a matter of human convenience. God has appointed that there should be a ministry in the church. Jesus himself came to be a servant (Mark 10:45; the word used here is also translated as "minister" elsewhere). Jesus is the pattern for the various other servants whom God appoints in his church. The ministry of the church is thus appointed by God (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11) in order that the church may grow to maturity (Ephesians 4:12f.).
In many churches today an accident of terminology has led to a restriction in the scope of ministry. The word "minister" (i.e., servant) is used in the New Testament either for any person who has a task to perform in the church (Ephesians 3:7; 6:21) or for the group of persons who, along with the bishops (or overseers), had a specific function in the local church (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8–13). In the latter case the translation "deacon" has become standard. Today, however, we often restrict the term "minister" to one person in the local church, who is expected to fulfil a variety of different tasks of ministry, with the result that we are tempted to think that all the ministry in the church should rest on his shoulders. This produces a situation rather like that of a factory with a hundred directors and one worker: the output is minimal. We need to recover the New Testament emphasis on the ministry of a much larger group of people. Indeed it might not be a bad thing if we stopped talking about "the minister" and even better if we abandoned dressing him up in fancy clothes and calling him "Rev." — practices which are certainly not commanded in the New Testament and which are perhaps contrary to its spirit (Matthew 23:8–12).
A false view of ministry has sometimes arisen from confusion between ministry and priesthood. As we have already seen, the church is a kingdom of priests, and every member of it can be regarded as a priest (Revelation 1:6). This means that every Christian has the right to approach God and the duty to offer themselves as a sacrifice to the service of God. Each of us has no need of any specially appointed human priest to act as our mediator before God, since Jesus Christ alone is the Mediator (Hebrews 10:21). Each Christian has the right to approach God on behalf of our fellow Christians in prayer (James 5:16). All Christians are thus priests, and a person specially called to a task of ministry is no more and no less a priest than any other believer. Although the English word "priest" is in fact derived from the Greek "presbyter" (or elder), the word has so much taken on the meaning of one who offers sacrifice that it is misleading to use it of a minister.
If all Christians are priests, they may also all be regarded as having some task of ministry to perform in the church for its benefit as a whole (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:24). It is in this context that we should direct our attention to what Paul teaches about the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12; 14), since it is clear that these gifts are primarily intended for the benefit of the church as a whole, although of course they may also profit the person who possesses them. He teaches that there is a variety of gifts which include miraculous powers of prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues, as well as the apparently more ordinary gifts of uttering wisdom and knowledge and even of performing acts of Christian service and generosity (cf. Romans 12:6–8). These gifts are allotted by the Spirit according to his own purpose (1 Corinthians 12:11). There is, therefore, no reason to suppose that any particular gift should be regarded as the mark of the Spirit–filled believer, although all Christians should strive to be such people that the Spirit can work through them for the highest good of the church (1 Corinthians 12:31).
There is some debate whether certain of these gifts (such as prophecy and speaking in tongues) were manifested only during the early days of the church or were intended to be perpetual. It can be argued that such gifts as prophecy were necessary before the church had the guidance of the full canon of Scripture but are less necessary nowadays. Whatever be our conclusion on this matter, all Christians should welcome whatever gifts the Spirit chooses to give to the church today.
Since the Spirit gives different gifts to different people, it is inevitable that God calls those who possess the appropriate gifts to perform special ministries within the church (1 Corinthians 12:4–11). Such persons act because God has called them to be his servants and not because they themselves choose to do so. Their service is to be inspired by the desire to serve and glorify God and not for reasons of personal gain. Yet while they should seek no honour for themselves, they are to receive the respect due to their position as servants of God (1 Thessalonians 5:12f.).
A variety of ministers and ministerial tasks is mentioned in the New Testament, and no one precise pattern is laid down for the church to follow in each and every place. Clearly the Spirit guided the church according to its local needs. Since there is no pattern laid down in detail, our task today is to follow the basic principles which are apparent in the various types of church order found in the New Testament. In practice this means that there may be as much difference in detail from church to church as there was in the New Testament churches. The unity of the church does not depend on all local churches adopting the same pattern of ministry, still less on all being bound into one organization.
The most important task of ministry in the church is the preaching of the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:1–5). This includes the preaching of the gospel to unbelievers by evangelists and the instruction of Christians by teachers. One should perhaps include here also the administration of the sacraments of the Word (often performed by the same person, Acts 20:11), since for the sake of decency and order (1 Corinthians 14:40) it is desirable that this be performed by those who are capable of doing so and have been authorized by the church.
A second task of ministry is pastoral care and discipline. The spiritual nurture of the members requires individual care and attention. Since the church is composed of persons who are still liable to sin, there will always be the danger of errors of faith and life among its members, and so there must be some form of discipline to maintain holiness and love. In the New Testament there is clear provision for the reproof of those who sin, even to the extent of excluding them from fellowship so long as they remain impenitent (Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5:1–5). Such discipline is always remedial in purpose, and no effort is to be spared to restore the sinner to fellowship (2 Corinthians 2:5–11). The sternness of the New Testament writers on this topic (2 John 8–11) may come as a surprise to modern readers.
From its earliest days the church in Jerusalem felt a responsibility to look after its poorer members (Acts 2:44f.), and it was not long before people were appointed to care specially for this task of ministry (Acts 6:1-8). Paul also encouraged the churches which he founded to provide for the needs of the poor in Palestine (Romans 15:27; 2 Corinthians 8:9). Along with this work of charity the church also provided for the needs of those who had given up their ordinary sources of income in order to perform tasks of ministry (Philippians 4:10–20; 1 Corinthians 9:14; 3 John 5–8). The task of caring for church property did not arise in New Testament times, since at this point there does not appear to have been any. The problems of caring for property, however, are no different in principle from those of caring for funds. Obviously the church must delegate the responsibility for such care to appropriate representatives. On the basis of Acts 6:1–6 and Philippians 1:1, we can draw a rough distinction between persons appointed to the ministry of the Word and to the care of the church's material concerns.
In the New Testament at least certain types of ministers were ordained or appointed to their tasks by a rite involving prayer and the laying on of hands by representatives of the church. This procedure was followed in the appointment of those who looked after the poor in Jerusalem (Acts 6:6), missionaries (Acts 13:1–3), elders in local churches (Acts 14:23) and evangelists like Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). By this act the church recognized the divine call of such people (Acts 13:2), acknowledged their authority to act on its behalf, and claimed the help of God for those whom he called to act in this way.
One particular problem in the modern church is concerned with the ordination of women. More precisely it is concerned with the ordination of women as "ministers" in the modern restricted sense of the term to indicate those who have authority to preach and administer the sacraments. In the New Testament women carried out various tasks of ministry (Acts 18:26; 21:9; Romans 16:1; Philippians 4:3). At the same time, Paul forbade women to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:33–35), and said that they should keep silent, and not teach or have authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11f.). There is a tension here between practice and precept which needs to be resolved. Some modern Christians simply ignore the teaching of Scripture at this point and claim that there is no reason why women should not be ordained. Others, who accept the authority of Scripture, either feel that the tasks open to women in the church do not include teaching publicly, or argue that the Pauline prohibitions were meant for particular situations in the ancient world and may be differently interpreted and applied in the church today. It may well be that in the social situation of the Pauline churches it was necessary not to offend Jews and others who could not understand the new equality of men and women in Christ (Galatians 3:28) and therefore to restrain some women who were using their new–found freedom to join in worship in an irresponsible manner and so bringing the church into disrepute.
The New Testament says little about the government of the church. At the local level there were persons entrusted with leadership (1 Thessalonians 5:12f.), but how they were appointed we do not know. In the early stages of the church it is likely that leadership devolved upon the first converts or those of mature age and Christian experience (cf. the use of the term "elder"). By the time of Paul's later Epistles certain churches had a number of bishops and elders and deacons, but their precise functions are not known. As regards the relationships between churches, we are again very much in the dark. The apostles and evangelists who founded churches plainly had some authority over them. Churches might also meet together to discuss matters of common concern (Acts 15). Elements of independency ("congregationalism"), episcopacy and presbyterianism can all be found in the New Testament, but none of these modern systems can claim that it alone represents the biblical norm.
Questions for Study and Discussion
- "To those to whom [God] is a Father, the Church must be a mother" (J. Calvin): is it possible to be a Christian without having the church for a mother?
- Use a concordance to discover the New Testament references to "fellowship", and list (a) the persons with whom a Christian shares in salvation, and (b) the things which Christians share together.
- Study the lists of forms of ministry in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, 28-30, and discuss what equivalents (if any) they have in the church today.
- What significance does baptism have for (a) the person baptized, and (b) the witnessing congregation?
- What form should Christian discipline take in the church today?