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8. Survey of Bible Doctrine: The Church

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I. The Nature of the Church – What is it? The church exists in two forms:

    A. The universal church: All believers from the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) to the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

      1. Christ promised to form the Church (Matthew 16:18).

      2. The Holy Spirit “baptizes” – places people into the “body of Christ,” which is the universal church (1 Corinthians 12:12-14,27). This function of the Holy Spirit began at the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:1-4; 11:15-18).

    B. A local church: A group of believers in this age meeting regularly and organized biblically to do God’s will. (Examples: Romans 16:1,3-5,14-16).

II. The Purpose of the Church – What are we supposed to do?

    Introduction: The purpose(s) of the local church are derived by looking at New Testament commands given to the disciples (who were the “foundation stones” of the church – Ephesians 2:20) and other instructions given to individual churches or church leaders.

    A. Central Passage – “The Great Commission” (Matthew 28:19,20)

      – Matthew 28:19 & 20 (and the similar “commissions” in Mark 16:15; Luke 24:45-47 and Acts 1:8) are central to the church’s purpose. They were spoken by Christ, the Head of the church (Matthew 28:18). They were spoken to the first leaders of the church (Matthew 28:16). And these words were spoken at the crucial time just after Christ arose and before He ascended.

      – Matthew 28:19 & 20 is examined here because it is the most comprehensive of the “commission” passages.

      1. The Command – “Go and make disciples”

        a. These two words combine to make a single command that describe what we, the church, are to be doing. (“Go” is a participle and some prefer to translate it “going.” But its position in the sentence before the command makes it grammatically linked to “make disciples.” Thus it is probably meant as a double command – “Go and make disciples.”).

        b. “Go” means that we must take the initiative. Evangelism is required to accomplish the task of disciple-making.

        c. “Make disciples” means “make followers, learners.” This seems to include the entire process of helping a person understand the gospel of salvation through Christ and then to help them grow as a Christian. The church (every person in it) is responsible for carrying out this command. Every ministry in a church must be part of the process of disciple-making.

      2. The Means – “Baptizing, Teaching”

        - How are disciples made? It’s more than just sharing the gospel. When a person trusts in Christ as Savior, he/she has just begun to be a disciple. These two words explain the means by which Christians grow as disciples.

        a. “Baptizing” – Public identification with Christ

          - This refers to water baptism, since it is the disciples who are doing it. Water baptism in the New Testament follows salvation and publicly shows our identification with Christ. This is a necessary step in disciple making. In fact one does not find an unbaptized believer in Scripture after the church begins (Acts 2:41, etc.). Baptism will be discussed more under “Ordinances.”

        b. “Teaching” – Learning the scripture for the purpose of applying it

          - The teaching of God’s Word is with the goal that people obey it (“teaching them to observe” = do).

          2 Timothy 3:15-17 – “know the Holy Scriptures” -----> “reproof, correction, training”

          2 Timothy 4:2 – “Preach the Word” -----> “reprove, rebuke, exhort”

          James 1:22 – “doers of the Word and not hearers only”

    B. A local church purpose statement

      - A local church is responsible to carry out, among its people and in areas of influence, the purposes that God has for the universal church. Baptizing is one part of that responsibility (to be discussed). The rest of the church’s purpose involves teaching the Word of God to accomplish various goals. The following is a suggested purpose statement of a local church.

      STATEMENT: To Glorify God by Reaching people with the gospel, Building them in their relationship with God and Involving them in God’s plan (RBI).

      To “Glorify God” is the overall purpose. The Bible says " Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31 NIV). In other words, any effort of a church must serve not to promote itself but God’s greatness.

      However, a local church should seek to glorify God in the following ways:

      1. Reaching (Acts 11:19-21; Ephesians 4:11)

        God has provided the way so that a person can go to heaven and know it. Christ died to pay for our sin. We can go to heaven if we place our trust in Christ’s death for us (John 3:16). That truth is central to why a church exists. A church must effectively present the Gospel in various ministries and train others to do so personally. Part of the task includes taking that message around the world through missionaries.

        But once a person is reached with the Gospel, God obviously has more in mind for their life…

      2. Building (Acts 11:22-26; Ephesians 4:11-16)

        Building” refers to the spiritual process of God bringing the growth and change that we need in our lives. How can a church help to encourage that work of God?

        Worship – We exist not for our benefit, but God’s glory. So worship must please God by giving God the credit He deserves for His greatness. God cannot “grow” us without an intimate relationship with us. Personal and group worship encourages us to develop that relationship with God.

        Instruction – The food we need to grow spiritually is God’s Word the Bible (I Peter 2:2). That’s why Bible teaching must be central in a local church. A church must provide biblical truth that each person needs and even more importantly to encourage people to study God’s Word themselves.

        Fellowship – Real spiritual growth requires more than just information. It requires relationships. God has designed that believers need one another to grow. It is through the frustration and diversity of relationships with people that God can best bring us to maturity. So it is essential to have ministries that go beyond a worship service. Personal interaction lets us in on the struggles, joys of other Christians and gives us an opportunity to support each other.

      3. Involvement (Acts 11:27-30; Ephesians 4:11,12)

        Sometimes people in churches assume that ministry is the job of paid professionals – the pastors and staff. It’s not. God has called every believer to be involved in ministry. He has given every person certain “spiritual gifts” – supernatural abilities to serve/help others in some way. Instead of leaders doing most of the ministry, their real role is to equip people for ministry (Ephesians 4:11,12). Ministry is not an issue of mere duty. It’s a matter of gratefully using the gifts/abilities God gives us.

III. The Ordinances Of The Church

    A. Common questions about ordinances/sacraments

      1. What is an ordinance?

        An ordinance is a physical ritual prescribed by Christ to illustrate a spiritual reality (sacrament = sacred sign).

      2. How many ordinances should be practiced?

        Some believe there are up to seven.

        Most Protestants believe there are only two (Lord’s Supper and baptism). Why?

        - Only these two are specifically prescribed by Christ and clearly practiced by the early church.

        - Only these two symbolize the saving work of Christ.

      3. What do they have to do with a person’s salvation?

        - Practicing these “symbols” in no way saves or even helps a person have eternal salvation (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8,9).

        - These ordinances are meaningful only to a person who has already personally trusted Christ for salvation.

    B. Water Baptism

      1. Definition: The use of water to symbolize outwardly the inner spiritual change that took place when we trusted Christ as Savior.

      2. The Model: Baptism was commanded by Christ and practiced by the early church.

        a. Christ commanded the disciples to “Go and make disciples” by means of “baptizing” and “teaching” until “the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19,20).

        b. Starting at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38,41) water baptism after conversion became standard practice (Acts 8:12,36-38; 9:18; 10:47,48; 16:14,15,33; 18:8; 19:4,15).

      3. The Meaning: Baptism symbolizes what happened when we were saved.

        a. It symbolizes the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration (making us spiritually new – Titus 3:5). = “I am a Christian.”

          - Spirit (real) baptism is done by the Holy Spirit inwardly when we trust Christ as savior (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:26,27).

          - Water (ritual) baptism is administered by others outwardly after we’re saved (Acts 8:3).

        b. It symbolizes our new life of union with and identification with Christ (Romans 6:3-11). = “I intend to live like a Christian.”

      4. The Method: Immersion in water anytime after conversion seems most appropriate.

        a. Immersion fits the significance (Romans 6:4) and early examples of baptism (Acts 8:38,39).

        b. New Testament examples of baptism are done immediately after a person is saved (Acts 2:41; 8:12,36-38; 9:18; 10:47,48; 16:14,15,33; 18:8). So when a person is saved and realizes the significance of baptism, it would seem to be the right time.

        c. Young children who are saved might wisely wait until they understand the significance of baptism. There is no biblical support for baptizing infants with water.

    C. The Lord’s Supper

      1. Definition: The regular use of the bread and cup to symbolically commemorate with other believers the saving work of Christ on the cross.

      2. The Model: Christ initiated it at the Last Supper.

        a. Christ gave the final two elements of that passover meal a new significance to be practiced after His death (Luke 22:7-20).

        b. This ordinance is a command (“Do this” – 1 Corinthians 11:24,25) to be practiced regularly (“as often as” – 1 Corinthians 11:25,26) throughout this church age (“proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” – 1 Corinthians 11:26).

      3. The Meaning: The Lord’s Supper is a memorial to Christ’s saving work on the cross.

        a. The bread represents Christ’s substitutionary death in our place (“for you” – Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24).

        b. The cup represents Christ’s fulfilling of the old covenant sacrifice system (“the new covenant in my blood” – Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25).

      4. The Method:

        a. The early Church’s form

          - The love feast (a shared meal – 1 Corinthians 11:20-22)

          - The elements (a shared loaf and cup – 1 Corinthians 11:23-25).

          - Done weekly as the church gathered (“breaking of bread” – Acts 20:7,11).

        b. The basic function required

          The Lord’s Supper should be practiced regularly by churches using similar symbols with the identical significance Christ gave them.

IV. The Structure of the Church


The church is not merely an organization. The universal church, as we have seen, is an “organism.” That is, the church is first of all a living spiritual unit – the body of Christ. But on a local level, churches must be organized to do God’s will. This discussion will survey the various views of church structure and make some biblical observations.

    A. Major views of church structure

      1. The hierarchical view – This view holds that the authority in local churches rests in “bishops” who oversee several local churches. The bishops then have authority over local ministers who they ordain and appoint, who in turn have authority over the congregation.

        a. Roman Catholics, state churches (church of England, etc.), the Episcopal Church hold this view. Many other denominations also rely to some extent on authority from above and outside of the church.

        b. Proponents use passages such as Acts 15:13ff; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Corinthians 8:23 to support the view. Those passages describe how the apostles gave authority to others (Timothy, Titus, etc.). But never was that authority said to be passed on further.

      2. The federal view – This view is also called “elder rule” because that’s where the authority lies. Elders receive authority by being elected from the congregation or being appointed by fellow elders.

        a. Presbyterians and Reformed groups hold this view (although they are organized on a denominational level as well). Many independent churches also follow this form to a large degree.

        b. The scriptural support for the concept is found in the overall sense of authority invested in elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-5, etc.).

      3. The congregational view – This view holds that the congregation holds final authority on all matters. The pastor and other leaders are elected by the congregation to teach and lead but the congregation has authority over them.

        a. To a greater or lesser degree most Protestant churches have some elements of the congregational view. Some churches (Independents, Baptists and others) adhere to it very strictly.

        b. Proponents point to the fact that only Christ is above the congregation as “Head” of the church (Ephesians 5:23). They also point to the priesthood of believers (Hebrews 10:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5-9) and references to matters handled by the congregation (deacons selected – Acts 6:5; discipline – 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, etc.).

    B. Determining a biblical view of church structure

      1. Who has authority in local church matters?

        - None of the above views is the only true biblical view. There is a clear biblical evidence for elements of elder rule and congregational rule. This discussion seeks to understand how both the congregation and the elders were meant to function in terms of authority.

        a. The apostles had authority in the 1st century.

          1) They appointed elders (Acts 19:23).

          2) They settled doctrinal disputes (Acts 15).

          3) They established churches (Paul).

          4) They revealed God’s will concerning financial support of elders (1 Timothy 5:17) church order in meetings (1 Corinthians 14:40) collections (1 Corinthians 16:1,2) etc.

        b. Elders had the highest authority after the apostolic age.

          1) Paul put elders in charge in churches (Acts 14:23).

          2) Paul told Titus to appoint elders (Titus 1:5).

          3) The church is told to obey its spiritual leaders (Hebrews 13:17).

          4) “Elder” and “overseer” are interchangeable terms (Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5,7; 1 Peter 5:1,2), indicating their role in authority.

          5) “Ruling” was one role of elders (2 Timothy 5:17).

        c. The local church as a unit had authority.

          1) They selected deacons (Acts 6:3-5).

          2) They sent Paul and Barnabas to help settle a doctrinal dispute (Acts 15:2,3) and then confirmed, with the other elders, how the issue should be settled (15:22).

          3) They administered church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 2:6,7).

          4) They sent out missionaries (Acts 11:22; 2 Corinthians 8:19).

        d. Conclusions

          1) A biblical view would seem to include elements of elder rule and congregational rule. The apostles had authority over local churches but they never established a system of hierarchical rule.

          2) The model for church government must come from scripture not from examples of civil government. (ie. The church is not to be a democracy just because America is.) The goal of church decision-making is not to determine the will of the majority but to determine the will of God.

          3) God has designed His spiritual “organism” – the church – to be led by spiritually qualified leaders (see qualifications). They do indeed direct the church’s ministry toward God-given goals. Spiritual leaders are initiators.

          4) The congregation as a whole was gathered to decide on some very significant issues (see above) so it seems that a local congregation today would also be involved in weighty matters.

          5) Each church has to decide how much decision-making is done at the leadership level and what is done at the congregational level. Some issues are of such a nature that it would be unwise to involve the whole congregation. Some issues are of such a nature that it would be unwise not to involve the whole congregation. But godly qualified leadership is key. When spiritual leaders have courage to lead and sensitivity to the needs of the congregation, God is free to produce harmony and effective spiritual ministry.

      2. Should churches organize above the local church level?

        - This discussion concerns the issue of whether churches should function together as denominations or as autonomous (self-governing) independent churches.

        a. Biblical information and example

          1) The apostles coordinated group efforts to meet the financial needs of the poverty-stricken Jerusalem church – (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15). Also, Paul was supported by several churches, although each church made their own decision about giving (Philippians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 9:12; 2 Corinthians 11:9; 12:13).

          2) When the church at Antioch experienced a doctrinal conflict about what was required of Gentiles to be saved, the church asked for help from the spiritual leaders at Jerusalem. Their decision solved the problem (Acts 15).

        b. Conclusions

          1) The early church examples of financial cooperation and mediation of a conflict are good models of how like-minded churches can help each other.

          2) These examples do not, however, establish a structure of authority. Churches were designed by God to have the gifts and leadership they needed to function on their own (1 Corinthians 1:7). Denominations can certainly function in a biblical way in accomplishing God’s purposes, while many believe that independent, autonomous churches are closest to the biblical model, and best able to do the unique ministry God gives them in a local area.

      3. Should churches have formal membership?

        a. Biblical information and example

          There is no clear biblical example of church membership so it would be wrong to argue strongly that it is necessary. Christians were, however, identified with a particular church (“There were added 3,00 souls” – Acts 2:41; “The church in their house” – Romans 16:5; etc.; “The brethren with them” – Romans 16:14).

        b. Conclusions

          Formal membership seems to be somewhat cultural. In the early church setting there was only one church in an area. Believers attending there were a recognized part of it. In our modern proliferation of churches, having official membership rolls helps a church function orderly. Members are those who agree on the doctrine, the purpose and the philosophy of the church. And thus they can more likely make wise and unified decisions. For the individual, church membership gives a spiritual identity and definite spiritual accountability.

V. The Leaders of the Church

    A. Elders

      1. Who were they?

        Sometimes they are called “elders” (Greek – presbuteros), a term that emphasizes the qualification of spiritual maturity needed. Sometimes they are called “overseers” (Greek – episcopos), a term that emphasizes their function of leading. The terms are used interchangeably of the same men (Acts 20:17,28).

      2. What are an elder’s qualifications?

        1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 describe an elder’s qualifications. Spiritual character is emphasized over specific functions.

        “Above reproach “ – no cause for just criticism

        “Husband of one wife” – monogamous fidelity, not divorced

        “Temperate” – self-control

        “Prudent” – wise decision-maker

        “Respectable” – orderly, organized

        “Hospitable” – willing to share his home

        “Able to teach” – can communicate spiritual truth

        “Not given to wine” – not addicted

        “Not pugnacious but gentle” – patient, not violent

        “Uncontentious” – not insistent on rights, peaceable

        “Free from the love of money” – not greedy or “in it for the money”

        “Manages his household well…children under control” – discipline, peace and order at home

        “Not a new convert” – to avoid pride

        “Good reputation with outsiders” – has the respect of unbelievers

        “Not self-willed” – genuine concern for others interests, not just his own

        “Not quick tempered” (self-explanatory)

        “Loves what is good” – can discern what is spiritually beneficial

        “Just” – law-keeping himself and fair with others

        “Devout” – avoids sin and is committed to God

        “Hold fast the faithful Word” – knows doctrinal truth

      3. What are an elders duties?

        a. “Shepherd and care for the flock” (1 Peter 5:2; 1 Timothy 3:5; James 5:14,15). This means he takes responsibility for their spiritual care.

        b. “Be an example to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Consciously models and disciples others in the Christian life.

        c. “Teaching God’s Word” (Acts 20:20; 1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; etc.)

        d. “Guard against false doctrine” (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:9)

        e. “Rule” (1 Timothy 5:17). This means to direct the church’s affairs.

      4. How many elders should there be in a church?

        No number is given. There are, however, clear examples that leadership in the local church is shared by a plurality of elders. It is always elders (plural) in Antioch (Acts 14:23), in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2; 20:18), in Ephesus (Acts 20:17,28), in Philippi (Philippians 1:1), in Crete (Titus 1:5), and in all the churches who received the epistles of James (James 5:14). And Peter (1 Peter 5:1). The human tendency is one-man leadership. The biblical model is leadership shared by elders. Each elder will have different gifts and roles and some will be more visible, but the responsibility must be shared (providing there is more than one man qualified to be an elder). There is tremendous advantage to shared wisdom and responsibility.

    B. Deacons

      1. Who are they?

        The word “deacon” actually means “servant” and can be used of any servant (Ephesians 6:21; 1 Corinthians 3:5, etc.). But in Acts 6:1-6 a group of men were officially designated as servers/deacons for a specific physical need in the Jerusalem church. Later, Paul used the word “deacon” in the official sense of a church office and described their qualifications (1 Timothy 3:8-13). So it seems that deacons are formally established as church officers. They are to assure particularly that the physical needs of the church body are met.

      2. What are a deacon’s qualifications?

        1 Timothy 3:8-13 and Acts 6:1-3 describe a deacon’s qualifications.

        “Good reputation” – same as elder

        “Spiritual” – men who consistently walk in the Spirit’s control

        “Wise” – same as elder

        “Dignified” – same as elder

        “Not double-tongued” – honest, not telling conflicting stories

        “Not addicted to much wine” – same as elder

        “Not fond of sordid gain” – parallel to elder

        “Holding to the mystery of the faith” – parallel to elder

        “Beyond reproach” – same as elder

        “Husband of one wife” – same as elder

        “Good managers of their children and household – parallel to elder

        - Also, deacon’s wives must be “dignified, not malicious gossips, temperate and faithful in all things” (1 Timothy 3:11). These are probably “deacon’s wives” and not “deaconesses” since their qualifications are found in the middle of the deacon’s qualifications. Also, Phoebe (Romans 16:1), is called a “deaconess” or “servant” and not an officially designated officer.

      3. What are a deacon’s duties?

        There is only the general indication that deacons serve to meet physical needs to free up other spiritual leaders to focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). But that does not limit deacons. They have spiritual qualifications and may have other spiritual gifts for significant personal ministry. One deacon, Philip, was an outstanding evangelist and preacher (Acts 8:4-8; 21:8). Stephen, another deacon, is noted for his faith and his preaching (Acts 6:5; 6:8-7:60).

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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