1 Timothy 3:15 but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.
Ephesians 1:22-23 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.
Ephesians 2:10, 20-21 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. … 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord;
If you were to go to nearly any Protestant, evangelical church today they would claim to be a New Testament church whether that church had a congregational form of government, a Presbyterian form of government, or whether it was ruled by one man with an iron fist. They would say so because they view themselves as teaching and practicing what the New Testament teaches. Most would believe that they are a New Testament church because they are organized and operating in a way that the New Testament allows. Few, however, actually attempt to reproduce the practice and principles of a New Testament church.
When we say we are a New Testament church then, it is necessary to go into considerable detail as to how we are a New Testament church in any other way, or to any greater degree, than the church down the street. Incidentally, I think I must also add that there is no grounds for pride, for if we are correct in our understanding of the church, it is because the Spirit of God has revealed this to us. It is also true, that “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). Our greater understanding of the truths of the Scriptures, then, makes us more accountable before God to apply what we know to be true.
Furthermore, we should realize that we can have the proper form without the power of God. We may have the form of godliness, but deny its power (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5). Israel was seldom if ever rebuked for some technical error in the forms of her worship, but she was often rebuked for going through the rituals without a heart for God (cf. Isa. 1:11; Micah 6:6-8; Psa. 40:6-8; 51:16-17). To recognize and understand New Testament principles for the church, then, is not enough. We must carry them out with a heart which is right before God.
We have endeavored not to talk about our distinctives and flaunt them continually, perhaps sometimes to a fault. To continually speak of our distinctive views would lead to a disproportionate emphasis on certain truths and encourage a sense of spiritual pride, a criticism not unheard of, I might add.
Nevertheless, it has been a number of years since there has been any systematic teaching from the platform on Sundays on this subject. Because there are many new faces since this subject was last taught, it is important for you to know what we stand for in the area of ecclesiology, or what is more commonly called the doctrine of the church. I must also add, that my understanding of the New Testament doctrine of the church might not be a perfect reflection of the collective understanding of the elders, but at least I am not aware of any great differences so far as the principles are concerned.
The names of churches sometimes give very few clues to their ecclesiology. Many of you are asked, “Where do you attend church?” When you tell them, they say, “what kind of a church is that?” My wife was asked this very question by one of our children’s teachers this week. What would your answer be?
There is yet another reason why it is important for us to study this doctrine of the New Testament church, for as most of you know by now, there have been a number of men, including myself, who have met for prayer and study under the supervision and guidance of the elders concerning the starting of a new church in the Dallas area. Because of this, it is important for those who might wish to be involved in this work to understand what it is that we wish to be and to do as a new church. These next few weeks will be of vital importance to those who may wish to join us, and perhaps will help you in making a decision about the new work.
Just as importantly, we want no one to misunderstand our intentions and our goals in starting a new work. Because of this we feel it is vital for all of you to understand the principles of the New Testament pertaining to the church, and to recognize that the principles upon which the new work will be established are almost exactly the same as those of this ministry. Of course, there will be a certain amount of variation in the application of these principles and it is important for you to know that our elders understand this, and in fact, have encouraged me to make these differences clear to you, for it may be the differences which will make the difference to you as to whether you will stay or go. I must take just a moment to say that I am absolutely delighted at the gracious and generous spirit of the elders toward the new work. None of us could have asked for any greater openness or generosity on their part.
We are out to establish a New Testament church, and the pattern for this church must not come from this church or from any other church, for every church is only an attempt to implement what the New Testament teaches. Our pattern must always be the Word of God itself, and not the work of men, no matter how great it is. The new work will endeavor to practice the principles of the New Testament in a way that is appropriate to our needs and our particular personalities.
For the next six weeks, then, we will make the Scriptures of the New Testament our text, and the particular subject of our study will be “The New Testament Church, What Is It?”
There is one question which must be answered at the very outset of this series, and it is this: Why all this fuss about the church? Is the doctrine of the New Testament church so crucial that it is worthy of several weeks of study? By and large the world has written off the church as irrelevant and a waste of time, as a bunch of fanatics who are ‘doing their own religious thing.’ Even within professing Christianity there are those who are saying, “I’m a part of Christianity, but I want no part of churchianity!”
I want to deal with this challenge to the church in more detail, but let me begin by giving two responses to the playing down of the local church by many who call themselves Christians today. First of all, I want to emphatically state that it is inconceivable for a Christian to be a part of Christ’s body, the universal church, without any relationship to the local church, the local, geographical manifestation of the Body of Christ.1 Fellowship with Him implies and necessitates fellowship with the saints.2
Second, there have been many failures in the local churches which justify a great deal of criticism. Much of the evangelism which has occurred in recent years is not directly attributable to the local church. Even worse, a significant portion of the follow-up and fellowship which these new Christians have received has been a result of organizations other than the local church.
But these failures do not justify an abandonment of the local church; they necessitate a fresh look at the Scriptures in order to instruct us as to how the church must change in order to conform to the Scriptures, and to once again carry out its task in the world. Just as marriage is not to be abandoned because of many abuses and failures, so too, the church cannot be forsaken for some lesser alternative.
This statement is, I think, sad but true, “The church no longer turns the world upside down, but the world has turned the church upside down.” May God enable us, as we search the Scriptures, to get back to the Bible in these matters.
For the remainder of this lesson, then, I would like to underscore the importance of a study of the New Testament church by focusing upon three facets of the church:
The Greek word from which we get the term ‘church’ is ekklesia.3 It is a compound word made up of the preposition ek, ‘out,’ and the verb kaleo, ‘to call.’ Some have concluded from this that the term implies the idea of separation, but this is somewhat questionable.4 In ancient secular Greek this term was used for an assembly that had gathered for some purpose, such as a legislative assembly. This same sense is infrequently found in the New Testament, where in Acts 19:32 it was used of a riotous mob that gathered who were aroused by Demetrius, a silversmith whose business, along with others, had been threatened by Paul’s ministry.
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) this Greek word was used “for almost any type of gathering of people.”5 The emphasis of this word fell upon the fact of a gathering, rather than upon who met, or where they met, or for what purpose.
It is in the New Testament that we see this term come to have its technical sense of a people who have gathered for the purpose of instruction and worship. It is used in its broadest sense of the universal church, that body of all believers in Christ from Pentecost to the rapture. For example, our Lord said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18b).
Again, it is used of those who are believers in a certain city, such as in Revelation, chapters 1-3, where the seven churches are addressed. We might speak today of the Church in Dallas. Finally, it is used of those believers who met together in one location, such as the church that met at the house of Priscilla (Prisca) and Aquila (Rom. 16:3-5a).
This word ‘church’ is never found in the New Testament in reference to:
The focus of our study will be upon the church in its local manifestation, the local church, its principles and practices.
We are also informed concerning the importance of the doctrine of the church when we look at the various descriptions of the church in the New Testament. These descriptions are almost always in the form of analogy. If Minear is correct, there may be as many images or analogies as 100.6 Obviously, we’re not going to attempt to exhaust this resource, but there are several images which especially suggest the importance of the church.
With this analogy Paul emphasizes both the unity of the body and the individuality of each particular member. That Jesus Christ is the Head of the body suggests that it is our Lord who directs and guides the body, and that its unity comes from the Head of the body, Who coordinates and directs each individual part.
(2) The Temple of God. Again, the church is referred to in Scripture as the temple of God. Each individual Christian is a stone, all of which make up the temple, still under construction, and our Lord Jesus Christ is the Chief or Cornerstone (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:5f). The temple is the place where God dwells, so that the church is the dwelling place of God. God not only dwells in each Christian individually, but in all Christians corporately. As the Cornerstone, our Lord is the One who binds the temple together, that temple whose two walls are those of Jews and Gentiles, forever united in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:14f). Not only was the temple the place in which God dwelt, it was also the place of worship, from which praise was to ascend to God.
(3) The Bride of Christ. Another description of the church is that of the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22f; Rev. 19:7; 22:17). Here we have emphasis upon the love of Christ for His church, and His full and adequate provision for His bride. In addition, we see the responsibility of the bride to keep herself pure and unspotted for her Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ.
(4) The Flock of God. The church is also described as the flock of God (John 10:22f; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Shepherd of the flock. Here we are reminded of His loving and tender care for His church, in feeding, leading, and protecting it from harm. We are likewise reminded of our dependency upon Him, and our helplessness apart from His care.
(5) The Vine and the Branches. The last analogy which we will consider in this message is that of the Vine and the branches (John 15:1f). Here our Lord Jesus is described as the source of life and power and fruit for the Christian. The Christian must abide in Christ as the Vine for fruitfulness.
All of these images or analogies indicate the most intimate relationship between our Lord Jesus Christ and His body, the church. Not only are we instructed by these analogies of our absolute need of Him, but of His great interest and concern and care for us. In short, the church is vitally important to us because it is of vital importance to God. This will be even more clear when we look at the declaration of God’s purpose for the church.
Finally, let’s look at God’s purpose for the church. Technically it would be more accurate to say purposes, for these are several as we shall see.
(1) Continuation. The first purpose for the church might be called continuation, for it is God’s purpose for the church that it should continue to carry on the work which our Lord Jesus Christ began while upon the earth. This is certainly implied by Luke in the introduction to his second work: “The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1).
It is that little word, “began” which I want you most carefully to ponder. The former work which Luke refers to is the gospel of Luke. In it are described some of the things which Jesus did and taught. But here, in his introduction to the book of Acts, Luke says that Jesus began to do and to teach. If He began something, then it must not be finished. Who is going to finish what our Lord began? Luke’s answer is the remainder of the book of Acts. Is this not an amazing thing? God has surely placed His treasure in ‘earthen vessels,’ for He has ordained that what Jesus began, we will finish. What our Lord started to do and teach in His physical body, He now continues in His spiritual body, the church. What a task we have! How essential it is for us to attend to His instructions as to how His body, the church, is to function.
(2) Proclamation. Certainly related to ‘continuation’ is our function of proclamation. Of this, the Apostle Paul writes in his first epistle to Timothy: “But in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The mental picture which Paul seems to draw for us in this passage is that of a beautiful Greek structure. It rests upon solid pillars which themselves are firmly grounded and linked to a solid foundation. The picture suggests to us that it is upon this structure that the truth of God is lain, there to be held in open view to all who pass by. The church is God’s chosen instrument to uphold and publicly display the truth of God to the world. How sad it is when the beauty of the truth of God is marred by a cracked foundation and shaky pillars. This is what the world seems to think of the church. When the church fails to be what she is called to be, the message of the gospel is to that extent disgraced.
(3) Demonstration. Also there is the great cosmic purpose of demonstration. Of this Paul spoke in his letter to the Ephesians: “In order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).
In the context of this statement we’re told that God is using the church to demonstrate to the angelic hosts, both good and fallen, His great wisdom. As God used Job in the Old Testament to instruct Satan, so He uses the church today. In 1 Corinthians 11:10 women are instructed to have their heads covered ‘because of the angels.’ This is to be an object lesson on submission to the angels, who according to Peter (1 Pet. 1:12) are stooping down with interest, to behold what God is doing in the world.
(4) Glorification. In Ephesians Paul wrote: “… to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:21).
We know that it was the purpose of our Lord Jesus Christ to glorify the Father (John 12:28), but Paul says that this is the purpose of Christ’s body, the church, “to Him be the glory in the church …” What an amazing fact! God’s purpose for the church is for “the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:12b). The church is to glorify God. We can only do this as we practice the principles of the New Testament church.
Surely all of this should suffice to indicate that what we are studying is of vital importance to us because it is a matter of the intimate concern of God.
It is possible, however, that someone would raise this one objection, “What you say is very true, with reference to the church universal, but what does it have to do with the local church?” The error here is in failing to see the relationship between the local church and the universal church. The assumption of the New Testament is that the local church is a replica or a miniature of the universal church. This fact has been noted by numerous scholars in passages such as that in 1 Corinthians 1:1-2a: “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus …”
We might very well render the phrase, “the church of God which is at Corinth” in this way: “The church as it is in Corinth.”7 What God purposes for the whole, He purposes for the part. What the church universal is to be and to do, so also is the local church.
Do you see how important this area of truth is? May God enable us to understand and to practice the principles of the New Testament church.
My unsaved friend, let me ask you this question, “Are you a member of the church?” I did not ask if you were a member of this church. I asked if you were a member of the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot join His church by signing a card, even a pledge card, or by coming to the front to join a local church. You cannot become a member of the universal church by water baptism, only by the work of God the Holy Spirit, by trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, only by realizing that you are a sinner and don’t deserve any good thing from God, only by trusting in His death for you and His life for you, then you will be joined by the Spirit of God to the church, a membership that cannot ever be revoked. May you do that this very hour.
1 Hebrews 10:25; cf. Also Earl Radmacher, The Nature of the Church (Portland: Western Baptist Press, 1972), pp. 11-12.
2 Cf. 1 John 1:6-7.