Upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it (Matthew 16:18).
As the above statement of Jesus makes obvious, bringing the Church into being was a very important part of His ministry. The community that is brought into being by God is created through a covenant. They are bound together in a way that is appropriate to the nature of the covenant. The old covenant was made with the physical (or adopted) descendants of Abraham, bound together into a nation by circumcision and by acceptance of the law of Moses. In the fullness of time, in fulfillment of His long-standing promise through the prophet Jeremiah, Jesus brought a new covenant from the Father. Because of the great difference between the two covenants, He had to reconstitute His people, binding them together to Him by different bonds, the bonds of faith’s surrender to Jesus and of baptism. The brotherhood called the “Church” is indeed precious in the eyes of her Lord; He died for her:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).
In the thinking of perhaps most modern democracies, and of most Americans, the individual is the primary unit, and society is merely an association of individuals (as loose an association as possible, for some). But to God’s way of thinking that kind of individualism is both selfish and deceived. We are created with natures that require an intimate and disciplined relationship to a godly society before we can be fully human. The right kind of society is so important for us, and exerts so much influence upon us, that God has created that right kind of society Himself. For the period of the old covenant that society was Israel; for the new covenant that society is the Church. As followers of Christ, our identity and allegiance are to be far more rooted in the Church than in the culture in which we live. He sees us disciples not as independent agents, but as individual members of His society; and that is the way that we must learn to see ourselves. But first we must find such a society.
The meaning of “Church”
What is the reality or picture that the word “Church” ought to create in our minds? “Church” is the word that is used to translate the Greek word “ekklesía” (“ekklesia”). That term was used among the Greeks to “denote the assembly of citizens, called out from their homes to vote on legislation and transact other public business.” Thus, it designated an assembly of all who had the rights of citizenship. Translated into a Biblical context, it would be the number of those who have a right to gather in the assembly of the covenanted people of God, whether or not they are actually assembled. In other words, I am a member of the “ekklesía” if I have the right to participate in the assembly when one is called. As we shall see, there are a number of terms that are used to describe the people of the new covenant, but the fact that the term “assembly” (i.e., “Church”) is used more than all of the rest of them combined tells us something very significant about the nature of that people. It tells us that in God’s eyes it is very important for His people to be together; Christians are never more fully themselves than when they are assembled before the Lord. But what is the nature of this assembly of the people of God?
The local church
The word “church” occurs some 110 times in the New Testament, and in 100 of them it refers either to a local congregation (e.g., Galatians 1:2: Revelation 1:4) or, less often, to the actual assembling of a local congregation (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:19, 35). And in the ten other occasions when the term “church” is used in a wider sense, it does not refer to some organization beyond the local body, but to the total number of the elect of God seen as one large assembly in the mind of God (e.g., Ephesians 3:10, 5:22-32; Colossians 1:18, 24). To think of “the church” in this wider sense as if it meant an organization of all the congregations who are now on the earth, under one person or governing body, would actually be far less than what is pictured in the Scriptures. In the New Testament there is “a church,” “the churches” (of a particular area; e.g., Galatians 1:2), and “the church” (in the abstract, collective sense of the term mentioned above).
Therefore, whenever you read the world “church” in the Scriptures, picture first a local congregation. And even when “the church” in the broader sense is being described in the New Testament, it is a description that applies equally well to the local body. The church is fully manifested whenever a church assembles (if it is a faithful body). Whatever is true of “the church” is also true of the local community (e.g., Ephesians 1:22-23, 3:10; 1 Timothy 3:15). Whatever promise or authority is given to “the church” is also to be claimed by each local congregation (e.g., Matthew 16:18-19, with Matthew 18:15-20 and John 20:23). For this reason, Paul could say to the congregation at Corinth, “Now you (Corinthians) are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
One does not need to go beyond the local body in order to see “the body of Christ” fully manifested; one only needs to find an authentic local body! God has ordained, and will therefore enable, that each congregation, once properly established, will be able to come to maturity with the aid of the Spirit and the New Testament. It will also need to be in fellowship and in mutual ministry with other congregations; it will need to enter into a common mind with the other congregations in its region over various issues that arise; but it will not need to be under the regular rule of any other person or organization in order to be considered apostolic. It may need exhortation, rebuke or visitation from other congregations; it is conceivable that other congregations might even have to sever communion with it until such time as it may return to obedience, but that congregation is not ruled by any other external authority than its own elders, and cannot be reformed by the exercise of external authority. With the Scriptures, we can see this principle being used in Revelation 3:14f, for example. The church in Laodicea was in such bad spiritual condition that Jesus told them He was going to spit them out of His mouth. They were soundly rebuked and warned to repent. But Jesus did not tell John or any other apostles to go to Laodicea, remove the elders who had failed so miserably, excommunicate the trouble makers, and appoint a new group of elders, did He? And if anyone had the right to do such a thing, it would have been the apostles. And further, when John complained about Diotrephes, who loved to be first among the brethren and refused to accept him (3 John 9), what did the apostle do? “For this reason, if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does” (vs. 10). What that sounds like is a warning that the apostle will come and rebuke the power-hungry Diotrephes in the midst of the assembly, so that the elders and brethren can choose what to do about him. The closest we come to direct action over a congregation in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, when Paul brings judgment and directs the congregation to deliver over to Satan a member that was guilty of fornication: the evidence that this provides is that the apostles who raised up congregations may need to continue supervising them.
Coming slightly beyond the apostolic period, we can cite the example of Clement of Rome. When the church in Corinth was having difficulties, leading to rebellion by some against their elders, Clement wrote a letter in the name of the Roman Church. In that letter there was much encouragement and much rebuke; there was also direct advice about their need to submit to their elders. The Roman congregation even sent several godly believers along with the letter, to be the representatives of the church to the Corinthians. But there was not even a hint of direct exercise of authority over the Corinthian believers by either Clement or the church at Rome. This is in marked contrast to the actions of pope-bishops of Rome, like Victor, who within one hundred years of Clement, in their own name and authority, excommunicated whole regions of churches for rather trivial differences, such as the date of the Easter celebration. What a sad departure from the Spirit of Jesus that was!
How is the church described by God?
1. The body of Christ
This is the most common metaphor by which the church is described (e.g., Romans 12:4f; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 1:22-23, 5:22-32; Colossians 1:24). It tells us several things of great importance about the whole Church and about the local church.
First, it tells us that the church is the way by which Christ from heaven communicates Himself to the world. Our bodies enable us to accomplish our intentions. Through His fleshly body Jesus communicated and did the will of His Father when upon the earth; and now, He intends that it be through each local church community that He reveals Himself to the world and continues to do the will of the Father. Just as it was required of faith back then to see through and beyond the flesh and blood of Jesus and behold God incarnate, so it is required of faith now to look beyond the people of the local body and see Jesus indwelling that body through His Spirit, making it His own body.
Secondly, the use of “body” imagery tells us something of the degree of commitment, intimacy, unity and common life that God wants for believers in the local assembly. The imagery of a human body provides the context for God’s picture of the “fellowship” in which He intends for us to walk (e.g., Acts 2:42-46; 1 Corinthians 1:9-10; 1 John 1:3-7). We are to have the kind of relationship with each other that the organs of a body have with each other. All that each organ produces is for the well-being of every other cell in the body. This imagery implies a very deep unity of thought, decision making, accountability, discipline and coordination of action -- the kind of unity Paul actually commands in 1 Corinthians 1:10:
I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (or, “united in thinking and in decision-making”).
The local community of disciples is to be a tightly-knit body, not a loose and occasional association for the purpose of worship. As in a human body, every need of every organ is the necessary concern of the whole body. If any human body were as loosely knit together as is the average congregation of believers, it would die very quickly. We shall talk more about the church’s “common life” at a later point, but it may be said here that any congregation which does not have a number of its people quite spontaneously entering into such expressions of common life as we see in the book of Acts can hardly be taking the “body of Christ” imagery as seriously as it was intended.
2. The temple of God
(1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21-22)
These New Testament passages show that in apostolic Christianity the congregation is like the individual disciple: a temple in which God quite literally dwells through His Spirit. In the world of Biblical times, where did a person go when he wanted to get as close as possible to his god and to offer prayer? To the temple of that god, of course. God’s temple used to be at Jerusalem, but now He has a temple in the assembly of every faithful and Spirit-empowered body of disciples. This is why when the believers assemble they should be open to seeing great and marvelous things occurring, for they are not alone in that assembly.
3. The household of God
(Ephesians 2:19; 1 Timothy 3:15; Galatians 6:10)
Given the amount of personal privacy and space available in our day and culture, the term “household” creates for most of us a picture of one mother and father, and a few children. But this was not the picture created in Biblical times (as well as in many cultures of the modern “third world”). The term “household” back then created a significantly larger picture. A “household” may well have included families from several generations, as well as unmarried or widowed adult brothers and sisters, and any servants and slaves, all of whom provided various services so that the complex work of the home and estate could be carried on and assure the common survival and prosperity. The proper image underlying the term “household” is that of a group of closely-related people living and working together for the common good. The application of this image to describe the church shows us that the Christian congregation is to be far more than a doctrinal and worshipping organization in the mind of God.
4. A holy, separated people
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession... aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:9, 11; see also Revelation 1:6, 5:10; Titus 2:14; 2 Corinthians 6:16-17).
These passages that describe the separation of the church tell us several things. First, they teach us that in an apostolic community the members of the church have consciously and decisively separated themselves from the world through their personal calling to follow Christ (2 Timothy 1:9). The church can be composed only of those who have abandoned the world and worldly ways in order to have Christ, and to have the life of Christ within them.
Secondly, these descriptions tell us that the church is always in opposition to the world, no matter how tolerant any particular culture may be toward the church. The Spirit of God will always lead those who follow Him into a non-violent opposition to this world’s way of doing things, for the world is inherently and compulsively opposed to recognizing, trusting and obeying its Creator. In most important spheres, the kingdom of God in America (and in every other nation) is in competition with American society over the souls of those who live in America. Those who represent the kingdom of God here (or anywhere else) are like the citizens of an empire who discovered that their kingdom’s unrighteous king (Satan) had gone into rebellion against the righteous emperor and had withdrawn his kingdom into a state of rebellion; they therefore transfer their allegiance back to the emperor, and try to convince the members of the kingdom to quit being in allegiance to the usurping king, and to come back to their emperor (knowing that only a minority will). And for this reason, every culture has to act against true churches within its borders, ranging from civilized argument to bloody repression.
5. A distinct society
The church is called to manifest the social life of the kingdom of God. The church, in the form of faithful local congregations, is that divine society for the planet Earth. Each local congregation is to provide the people of its area with an alternative to the local worldly society around it, an alternate society whose superior existence will be a most compelling advertisement that life is freer, happier, smoother and more creative when men quit living life the world’s way and live it God’s way instead. The world can certainly suppress the church’s social existence by making it unlawful for the church to assemble or function according to her constitution (e.g., to educate our own children).
The world can also trick the church out of its social existence, as it has done rather successfully since the time of Constantine, by creating the illusion that, as a “Christian” society, it is on the church’s side and can take care of providing the social side of the church’s life.
However, the Scriptures are full of references to the distinctiveness of church society from worldly society. Having its own way of life and some degree of autonomy as a society is inherent in the church’s being constituted as a “people” (Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9). Furthermore, the church’s members must not “be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness” (2 Corinthians 6:14; read through verse 18). In what areas does “bound together” apply? It logically applies to any areas of human endeavor where there is a “yoking” together of two or more people, so that one is responsible for the other’s actions: marriages and business partnerships, are an example of such yoking.
The congregational society also has its own courts if they are needed (1 Corinthians 6:1f). And the church society has its own administration of discipline, to handle any kind of problem that may arise (see, for example, Matthew 18:15-18; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 5:5-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 1 Timothy 1:20). As we see in those texts, some disciplines are punitive, in order that the offender may feel the true gravity of his deed and that the rest may fear (1 Timothy 5:20). But most discipline is simply a godly exhortation to live up to our responsibilities, an exhortation which all of us need in certain areas of our lives. And some discipline is also in the form of training the poorly disciplined by those who are competent: training parents in child-raising, training homemakers in efficient homemaking, training those who have poor spending habits, training people in good disciplines of prayer, etc.
The church is also to provide its own “social security,” and each congregation is conscience-bound to see that other faithful congregations have “equality” with them -- our congregation’s “abundance being a supply for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want, that there may be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14; see also Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-37; Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). If Christians are going to live up to such commonly used and abused Scriptural terms as “family” and “brotherhood,” they will have to start rising above the best that even the unbelieving world can experience. Even an unbelieving husband, for example, who really loves his wife and children does not want to live at a higher standard of living than they do. How much more then will apostolic Christians want to live at a modest standard of living and then rejoice at being able to elevate the standard of living of the poorer members of the brotherhood. When a person surrenders himself to Christ in the church he is to receive the lifelong support of that assembly in which he is an organ, no matter how unemployable, ill or old he may become (being also subject to godly discipline from that body, as we have already indicated ). Have you ever thought of your congregation as being your social security?
One amazing possibility within the society of believers is the possibility for a fully common life, the kind of life Jesus had with His disciples, and the life which His Spirit inserted into the center of the Jerusalem Church after Pentecost (Acts 2:44-46, 4:32-37). Those who are yielded to the Spirit of Jesus will want and need to be as intimately related to other such disciples as they can be: friendships, meals, finances, housing, jobs, etc. The fully developed form of that life was never mandatory for all disciples, but it was voluntarily and joyfully entered by many, as believers’ hearts were conquered and melted by seeing the generosity of the love of their common Savior: how He set aside incredible honor and glory to come live with us, and how generous He is to bestow His riches upon us. This wonderful kind of life should never be imposed by man as the required norm for all members of the congregation -- as the Hutterite Anabaptists did, sadly -- because it is completely dependent upon the free desire of the believer, upon his various responsibilities, and upon the depth of his walk with Christ. The apparently universal nature of the Jerusalem congregation’s common life was never a required norm -- there is no such apostolic command to the churches. That congregation is rather to be considered a “type” that had been carefully prepared for by God, and was quite unique: all of its members (with few exceptions) were “devout Jews” (Acts 2:5), matured and disciplined under the law, people who had seen Jesus personally (2:22) and had heard the anointed gospel of His apostles.
This common way of life is also capable of varying degrees of participation, as outlined above. All that is really necessary within a congregation is that there be a core where such life is fully developed; it is up to the Spirit to draw disciples into it, and up to them to get as “close to the fire” as they can without feeling burned. Having said that, however, it must be noted that the common life is not incidental to the fellowship of the church; it is rather a necessary manifestation of the social life of the kingdom of God. It is an essential part of God’s solution to the poverty, joblessness, injustice and inequality that fill this planet, and people who hunger and thirst for justice in the way God does should be excited at the prospect of being a part of His solution. The corruption that is in the world can be reduced to one word: “lust” (2 Peter 1:4). And lust, in whatever form it may take, boils down to a desire for what is unlawful and corrupting. It springs from a compulsive distrust of God’s promise to provide all that we need at the right time, and it is deeply ingrained within the flesh of us all. What better way to war against this deadly compulsion than to open up all that we possess to the fellow citizens with whom we shall share eternal glory (in common) in the new Jerusalem? Life in the society of the church was structured by the Spirit of Jesus to permit the anticipation of heavenly glory even now, and the anticipation of the heavenly life-style even now (at least, in their beginning forms). Does it not thrill your heart to realize that the church is actually God’s answer to all of the pressing problems of human existence?
6. An authority-filled body
As Christ’s body, the Christian community is the place where His authority is exercised. The local church, if in a condition of faithfulness, can speak and act with the authority of Christ Himself (Matthew 18:14-20). This is possible because it is possible for the assembly of a faithful band of disciples to enter into the mind of Christ in any important issue (e.g., Acts 15); Christ can communicate His will and His solutions to His people, who listen to that will and are ready to obey that will.
The church must necessarily have the authority to enforce all of the commands of the Lord and of the apostles. A cardinal principle and axiom of church authority, therefore, is this: Wherever there is a responsibility or a command, the local church has authority to see that it is faithfully executed.
If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Corinthians 14:37-38).
“He is not recognized.” By whom? By Paul, of course; but also by the congregation that is faithful to Paul. Such a statement implies authority to enforce it. The local church therefore has divinely-given authority to see that Paul’s instructions (and therefore all the instructions in the New Testament) are being faithfully carried out.
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
What would such a command be worth if it were not addressed to a body that had the authority to see that it was carried out by its members? And, indeed, Paul makes such an assumption of authority even clearer a few paragraphs later:
And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter take special note of that man and do not associate with him, that he may be put to shame (3:14).
Such commands are not vague admonitions, nor are they addressed merely to individual believers. They require and assume authority to carry them out in particular cases. The concept and practice of authority in the church has been alien to Protestant ways of thinking for generations now, but there can be no recovery of apostolic Christianity without a recovery of the authority promised and implied in the apostolic writings.
It is obvious that the church can only command of us what is required by Christ and His apostles, as recorded in the Scriptures -- no more and no less. But what specific areas do the Scriptures bring under the authority of the local church?
It is rather obvious that this understanding of the church’s authority implies that Protestants have much to learn from the Catholic traditions of Christendom about the nature and the extent of the authority that is given to the local church by Christ (to the church, mind you, not to popes, councils or denominational headquarters) In their reactionary attitudes and hasty scholarship, the Protestant reformers minimized the authority that the church has a right to exercise in the name of Christ. And, in doing so, they created the conditions for the future theological chaos and the cult of the individual that by our day have already swept over Protestantism. The relative ease with which heresy and outright unbelief have swept through various Protestant denominations has been due in large measure to the absence of organs of local church authority. The lack of the structures and traditions of authority led to the local churches’ inability to examine and come to a common mind about various new movements and to render an effective judgment concerning those movements.
The significance of all this
Do you want to know the significance of the restoration of the integrity, the discipline the ministries and the common life of the local church? When the local Christian community is walking in the possession of its rightful, Christ-bestowed inheritance the following will be no longer needed (among Christians): the psychologist’s counsel, missionary societies, life and health insurance, unemployment compensation and bank loans. Is that too bold and “idealistic,” or is it simply what Christians can have if they are willing to pay the price for it?
2 In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the same Greek term is translated “assembly” (N.A.S.B. translation). It’s meaning overlaps with the term “sunagoge” (“sunagwgh” from which the term “synagogue” is derived). Both terms can refer to the whole assembly of Israel in the abstract (e.g. Psalm 111:1, 149:1), to large actual purposeful gatherings of the people (e.g., Ex. 12:3, Deut. 9:10), or to smaller groups (e.g., of prophets in 1 Samuel 19:20, stones in Job 7:17). <back>
6 In those few cases where the term is used in a broader sense than that of the local community, “the church” can be thought to denote not merely all the believers or congregations who are now on earth, but all who will in fact be assembled around God in the coming heavenly city, seen as if they were already in assembly: all of the elect who have lived, who do now live, and who will live. That great assembly is not only an abstraction and ideal, but is the actual number of saints who will be in the future assembly, every one of whom is already known by God. <back>
9 “The First Epistle of Clement.” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Roberts & Donaldson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1885; reprint 1973), p. 1-21. In later tradition, when monarchical “bishops” had evolved into preeminence over their fellow elders, Clement was regarded as a bishop of Rome. In fact, however, he was probably one among the presbyters (elders) of the church in Rome. <back>
11 This picture of a household helps us to understand the baptism of the two “households” in Acts 16: that of Lydia (vss. 14-15) and that of the Ephesian jailer (vs. 30-33). While we would not think of using the term “household” unless there were children involved, people in Biblical times would have no such restriction. That is why the author of Acts could also say that the household of the jailer also “believed” (vs. 34). <back>
12 One of course sees here the need for leadership that provides careful supervision and corrective disciplines as well. The same apostle who taught us to have instincts for equality in the brotherhood also taught us “if anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). <back>
13 It ought to go without saying, that there is nothing at all sinful in the eyes of God for someone to choose to have homeowner’s or auto insurance (usually a legal requirement), or to have a life insurance policy. One man has faith to eat all things, while another does not; one has faith to forgo life insurance, and another does not see it as an article of faith (See Romans 14). Who am I to judge the servant of another in this kind of matter? <back>
16 Councils of congregational leaders can of course meet together to resolve all manner of problems that concern a given region; and of course they would have access to the mind of Christ. But the conclusions of that assembly would not be authoritative and binding in and of themselves; the local bodies retain their authority, and must accept any such council’s conclusions as being of Christ before they have authority in that body. This is similar to the concept of conciliar authority in Eastern Orthodox Churches (although they give authority to “national churches” instead of local churches): it is acceptance by the church that makes a council authoritative, not its own claim of being ecumenical. <back>
18 These things are not at all being condemned as sinful. What is being affirmed is that they will simply wither and cease among believers because their counterparts available in the body life of the church are quite superior. <back>