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Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation — Part IV: The Nature of the Church

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

[Editor’s Note: This article is the final in a series on the general subject “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation.”]

Any intelligent observer of modern Christianity soon becomes aware of the widespread confusion that exists concerning the nature of the church. If it is true that the church is the present divine undertaking, a lack of understanding on this important subject will blur not only the theological perspective, but will make impossible a practical approach to the present task of the church.

The student of church history early discovers the major trends of development from the early apostolic church, where local congregations seemed to have been linked chiefly by the presence of apostolic authority. The unfolding scene portrays the church, first as persecuted and hated by the world, then under Constantine combined with the world and its pagan religions, and emerging into its two major divisions of the Roman and the Greek churches. Out of the decadent church of the Middle Ages the Protestant Reformation was born and with it a new division of the organized church as well as a new theological approach. Out of Protestantism in succeeding centuries arose many diverse movements which crystallized into modern denominations. The diversity of the modern church both in its government and its theological convictions is apparent. In such a context has been born, particularly in our generation, the desire to unify these diverse elements and ecumenicalism has become a substantial movement in the twentieth century.

Out of the study of the history of the church and the problems causing its diversity have come many questions concerning the nature of the church. Is there any underlying unity which binds together its diverse elements? Is division within its organization contrary to the unity which should characterize it as an undertaking of God? Is schism within the organized church a heresy, or is it an act of obedience on the part of the individual to the Word of God? Many answers have been given to these questions and few of them have been categorical. The problem is very difficult, but it all stems from the major question, What is the nature of the church?

In attempting to answer such a question, much more is needed than an analysis of contemporary Christianity and a series of propositions as to what the church ought to do. The early church does not seem to have occupied itself with the study of the nature of the church. As Dillistone points out, “No systematic treatment of the doctrine of the Church can be found in the Christian writings of the second century A.D.”1 He then cites Professor Bethune-Baker in support of the idea that the unity of the church “is implied from the first.”2 Something more is needed, however, than implication. The root of the problem lies in the Biblical doctrine of the church, and then the attempt must be made to apply this doetrine to the contemporary situation. It should be clear that the Bible does not cover all the contingencies of the modern problem, but the principles laid down in the early church as contained in the Scriptures are sufficient in their guidance to enable an intelligent believer to arrive at some solid conclusions.

I. The Church as the Body of Christ

Much of the modern confusion on the doctrine of the church comes from a failure to understand the Scriptural revelation of the church as the body of Christ. Though there is a large area of agreement among evangelical scholarship that the church fundamentally is the work of God rather than an institution of men, one is soon lost in difference of opinion as to the exact nature of that unity. One of the large causes for this is the failure to distinguish the church from the nation Israel. The idea that Israel and the church are essentially the same divine undertaking is a common error which arose principally in postmillennialism and amillennialism. Howard Hanke, for instance, writes: “There is ample evidence in Scripture to show that the Church of the Living God has been in existence from the days of Eden, when righteous Abel became its first member. This institution, the Church, made up of ‘God Believers’ is referred to by many different names and designations, but in substance the Church has always been the same.”3

Some are not as careful as Hanke to limit the church in the Old Testament as being coextensive with Israel. Oswald Allis, for instance, labels as extreme literalism the concept that Israel must mean Israel and not mean or represent the church.4

Gabriel Hebert in his sharp criticism of fundamentalism argues against any division in the organized church. His argument is based on the faulty identification of Israel, the organized church, and the church as the body of Christ. He states: “The Unity which God has made does not depend on our faith or our faithfulness; it has been set up in spite of our sins. Christ is the Ground of Unity, the Foundation-stone which God has laid.”5 He then argues that the visible church is part of the gospel. He writes, “Nothing could be plainer than this in Holy Scripture. From the beginning, the Purpose of God for man’s salvation has been worked out through the believing and worshipping community, Israel the People of God.”6 That there is an underlying unity between all truly redeemed people is accepted by all. That this involves or necessitates one organized church embracing Israel and Christendom in the New Testament is based on confusion of the unity of the body of Christ with the supposed unity in the organized church and Israel.

In the New Testament the church as the body of Christ, however, is represented as a new undertaking of God quite distinct from God’s plan and purpose for the nation Israel. The confusion of Israel and the church has not only confused the two programs relating to the divine undertakings of God, but has also introduced a blurring of distinction between those that are truly saved and those who are not. One who belonged to the nation Israel was not necessarily a saint, and, though a bona fide member of the nation both in its religious and national characteristics, he could in no sense claim the blessings of salvation from sin or the promises of the future grace of God.

The body of Christ as it is presented in the New Testament is that which is joined to Christ in a living union. This union is effected by the baptism of the Spirit as stated in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” The body of Christ is therefore not a superficial unity effected by geographic association or an organizational fellowship, but is rather a union of life in which the various members of the body are joined one to another. It is an organism rather than an organization. This is implied in the discussion of the one body in Ephesians chapter 4:15-16 , where Christians are exhorted to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”

The church as the body of Christ, therefore, is composed of every individual believer in this present age and is not constituted by membership in a local fellowship nor by subscribing to some creed or organizational arrangement. It is constituted by a work of God in grace in which the individual is taken out of his estate in Adam and placed in Christ, given eternal life, and made one not only with Christ but with all other believers. This unity therefore is not something to be attained, but is that which is already effected. Paul states this dogmatically in Ephesians 4:4: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling.” The body of Christ is therefore entirely a divine undertaking and not a matter of human attainment. It should also be apparent that the diversity and difficulty seen in the church of Jesus Christ today, though it may obscure the manifestation of this unity, does not in any wise contradict it. To some extent there is agreement on this point and most commentators on the doctrine of the church, whether conservative in their theology or subscribing to neo-orthodox or liberal concepts, recognize this basic unity, even though they may not always define it in precisely the same terms.

II. The Local Church

In the New Testament presentation of the doctrine of the church, in addition to the revelation concerning the church as the body of Christ, there is frequent reference to local churches embodying in their existence and government the concept of the organized church. Passages which deal with this subject should not be confused with those which belong to the church as the body of Christ. One of the principal causes for confusion in the nature of the church is the application of passages which belong to the body of Christ to the local church.

In the New Testament many local churches arose as a result of the missionary activities of the apostles. In some cases it consisted in no more than a group of believers meeting at one place. As the church grew, however, the New Testament records that a certain amount of organization evolved. Elders or bishops were recognized in the local church, and deacons were appointed, each office with its respective duties. These local congregations were called churches, not because of their organizational character, nor because they constituted a segment of the body of Christ, but because they were a geniune ecclesia, an assembly of believers in one geographic location. Almost fifty references in the New Testament refer to the local church. Such phrases as “the church which was at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1), “the church which is at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1), and “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess 1:1), and many similar references give witness to this concept. The reference to churches in the plural as, for instance, in the statement that Paul and Silas “went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches” (Acts 15:41), makes plain that each of the local assemblies was regarded as a separate church.

A sharp distinction is maintained between the nature of these local churches and the body of Christ. This is evident in the messages of Christ to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3 . The church of Laodiceans, the seventh of the churches addressed, is recognized as a local church, but from the words of Christ to them it is clear that they are not regarded as members of the body of Christ. Christ declares of them, “I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16), a statement which would not be addressed to true believers. From this it becomes evident that the local church in contrast to the concept of the body of Christ is a group of professed believers including some who may not actually be true followers of the Lord Jesus. Further, the concept of a local church has a geographic character which is not true of the body of Christ whose members are both in heaven and on earth. The concept of a professing church is sometimes offered in Scripture without reference to locality, e.g., Romans 16:16, where Paul says “the churches of Christ salute you.” He has in mind local churches regardless of their locality.

Though it is customary in some circles to assume the unity of the apostolic church as Dillistone does,7 a liberal scholar, John Knox of Union Seminary, New York, takes the opposite viewpoint. He begins his study of early church order with the affirmation: “We have seen that there was no single comprehensive organization of the churches; nor can a universal pattern of organization be traced among all the churches severally…. Not only was there no such thing as ‘organic union’; there was a great amount of regional, even local, independence, and conflicts and divisions among the churches were not infrequent.”8 The idea that the early church had organizational unity from which the church subsequently strayed is without factual foundation. The unity which did exist was spiritual, not organizational.

In the Scriptures themselves two major concepts emerge: (1) the church as the body of Christ formed as a work of God uniting all true believers in Christ in an organic union of life and fellowship; (2) the local or professing church not organizationally related to other local churches. It was composed of all those who were outwardly believers in Christ and who assembled in one place to worship. It inevitably included some who were only superficial followers of the Lord Jesus. This basic bifurcation of the concept of the church is essential to any contemporary understanding of the nature of the church as it relates to modern Christianity.

III. The Unity of the Church and the Theological Problem

In the apostolic church some of the problems which face the modern church existed only in elementary form. In each locality there seems to have been only one church, in some cases very large as at Antioch with a number of teachers and pastors, and in other cases very small, meeting in a house and probably numbering only a dozen or two. The multiplied divisions of our modern day had not yet come into existence.

With the growth of the church however there was not only an increase in numbers but questions arose as to the extent of authority of the local church. The inroads of paganism and departure from the faith which plagued the church in the Middle Ages created problems which were not common in the early church. If it be assumed that the unity of all true believers is just as valid today as it was in apostolic times, the question still arises as to whether all believers should be in the same church organization.

A survey of Scriptural revelation as it pertains to this problem should make evident that there should be no needless division within the organized church. There is constant exhortation to preserve a unity of fellowship in the instructions of Christ to the seven churches of Asia. Even though some of them had departed from the faith, it is significant that those who formed a part of these local congregations are not given any mandate to withdraw from that fellowship but rather are commanded to preserve their own testimony and do what they can to alleviate the situation. They were to accept persecution that would result from their faithfulness to the Lord and they were under no circumstances to compromise their testimony.

Alongside this evident intention that the unity of the church should be preserved as much as possible, there is however clear-cut testimony in Scripture to the principle of separation from those who are unsaved or from those who are grossly immoral. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (2 Cor 6:14-15). The Corinthian believers were forbidden to have any organic relationship with the pagan religions which were about them and they were to withdraw themselves from such unbelievers as far as organic or organizational relationship was concerned. This did not mean that they were to have no contact with unbelievers in such matters as preaching the gospel to them, but it meant that they should not participate in their idolatrous feasts. The exhortation, therefore, is given: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (2 Cor 6:17).

Some have attempted to prove on the basis of this passage that this justifies separation of believers from other believers whenever there is a theological conflict. In fairness to the context, it should be observed that this passage does not teach separation from fellow Christians, but rather from unbelievers and from pagan religions. It would seem evident, however, that the principle of separation from unbelievers and not having union with them would apply at such time as a church organization departed from the fundamentals of the faith.

Pertinent to this problem is the exhortation in Revelation 18:4 where instruction is given to the believers in the time of the tribulation to have no part in the apostate church of that day. John writes: “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not her plagues.” From this Scripture as compared to others, it would seem evident that a Christian should have no part in a church organization which is in fact apostate, even though it claims the name of Christ. On the other hand, separation should not be on trivial grounds, whether theological or moral. There were indeed separations in the early church of a lesser character, as, for example, the separation of Paul and Barnabas and their resulting separate missionary journeys. But this is not given the approbation of the Word of God. Moreover, the Scriptures do not teach a blind and unreasoning loyalty to an organized church that has ceased to fulfill the Scriptural definition. In a word, the modern problem as it exists today is not treated specifically in the Word of God and this has occasioned much of the discussion.

IV. The Problem of Schism

Throughout the history of the church, many schisms in the unity of church organization can be observed even in the early days of the Roman Church. There is evidence that at least a segment of the church always maintained its independence of Rome. A major division occurred in the separation of the Greek from the Roman churches. The principle was recognized that basic theological difference made impossible organizational unity. A further major division took place in the separation of the Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Subsequently, divisions have multiplied, sometimes on trivial grounds, sometimes on basic difference in theological point of view. Most observers would agree that schism would be wrong if everyone interpreted the teaching of Scripture in the same way. The problem remains whether there should be organizational relationship between Christians who are, in some cases at least, in radical disagreement.

The Dutch theologian Gerrit C. Berkouwer, in his illuminating chapter on “The Guilt of the Church,” points out that the justification for the Protestant movement as originating in Calvin and Luther was not based on evils within the Roman Church alone, but on the principle that the Roman Church had departed so far from the truth as no longer to have the power to recover and reform itself. Even the Council of Trent did not alter this fundamental conviction. From real apostasy there is no recovery.

As Berkouwer expresses it: “…It will have to be admitted that Rome did not allow the light of the gospel of grace to shine on the decay of the church. This was the cause of the definitive conflict…. Distress and decay in themselves never justify ‘rebellion’ in the church. But there will inevitably be an irrevocable breach in the church when it is no longer possible in such distress and decay to fall back upon the full, unobscured gospel. It is here that the harmony in Luther’s action is to be found which is unintelligible to Rome; the harmony between his sorrow and his deed, his rejection of perfectionism and his reformation. Here also are found the deepest causes of the Reformation and its unshakable right.”9

Berkouwer makes the additional incisive judgment that the contemporary controversy between modernism and Reformed Protestantism is the same in kind as the Roman and Reformed controversy and requires similar schisms: “It is, and will remain, the enormous task of the Reformed Confession constantly to reflect on the conflict with Rome and on the modernist confusion of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The two fronts are closely connected insofar as the Reformed confession will be able to resist the temptation and the attack of Rome only if by a living faith it succeeds in keeping at a distance from the modernist, Neo-Protestant religion.”10

The strenuous efforts of some to provide a unity for the church in the ecumenical movement of our day is evidence of the desire to bring together the diverse elements in Christendom. There is still as much basic theological difference among individuals and churches now as formerly, however, and there is bona fide reason for believing that the ecumenical movement is not based upon sound Scriptural or theological consideration. Within the ecumenical movement itself there is the widest kind of theological difference of opinion, not simply on incidentals, but on such basics as the precise definition of the deity of Christ, the character of redemption, and the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. It is questionable whether some of the leaders of the ecumenical movement actually qualify as genuine Christians in the Scriptural definition of one who is born again and who has become a child of God. The unity being sought is therefore far from the Scriptural unity which would seem desirable for true children of God. The basic problems which have caused schism in the church are not going to be solved by denial of them and an attempt to form a unity without theological conviction or agreement.

V. A Practical Approach to the Problem of Unity

In view of the fact that there seems little likelihood that there will ever be theological agreement among the diverse elements that now exist within the professing church and in view of the express command of Scripture that a believer should not have fellowship with unbelievers, it would seem that a practical program is called for quite different from that suggested by the ecumenical movement. Such a practical program would involve, first, the principle that believers should not be in organic relationship with an ecclesiastical organization which is predominately non-Biblical and non-Christian in its actual belief. Second, needless divisions and conflicts within the church should be avoided and minor differences and doctrines should be submerged in the interest of the common task. Third, it is better for organizations having differing theological convictions to carry on their ministry separately than to attempt to work together with no sound theological agreement.

There does not seem to be any prohibition in Scripture of local churches joining in a denominational relationship in which a specific system of doctrine is recognized as the teachings of the Scripture. On the other hand, there is nothing to prohibit the independent church from continuing its ministry without affiliation in any organizational way with other churches. Any program of action should recognize the fact that a true believer in Christ is a member of the body of Christ and therefore a Christian brother. He is entitled to be treated in this way. On the other hand, because one is a Christian brother, it does not mean that other Christians should necessarily support a program which he advocates or join hands with him in some task which God may have committed to him. The nature of the church, including not only diversity of gift but difference in point of view and difference in geographic and political situation, makes it possible for Christ, who is the true Head of the church, to direct individual believers as well as groups of believers in the path of His appointed will. The idea of a superchurch, organizing all churches into one authoritative body, is not authorized in Scripture, nor is it essential to the consummation of the purpose of the church in the world.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 F. W. Dillistone, The Structure of the Divine Society, p. 87.

2 Ibid.

3 Howard Hanke, Christ And The Church In The Old Testament, p. 23.

4 Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 19.

5 Gabriel Hebert, Fundamentalism and The Church, p. 120.

6 Ibid., p. 121.

7 Dillistone, ibid.

8 John Knox, The Early Church and the Coming Great Church, p. 83.

9 Gerrit C. Berkouwer, The Conflict with Rome, p. 70.

10 Ibid., p. 71.