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The Church: Summary Principles

Introduction: With the possible exception of Eschatology, perhaps no other area of worldview is more divisive of the body of Christ than concepts of the Church. Obviously, what follows here reflects my own conviction from a Presbyterian point of view. As with all other principles, I am trying to be as Biblical as possible. I trust that readers of other persuasions will read with that goal in mind. There may even be some surprises in store for you: things that you would not expect a Presbyterian to say or some things of which you had not thought as a non-Presbyterian!

(Again, the summary principles that follow are not in order of priority.)

1. A definition of the Church for worldview purposes. Biblically, the Church is all true believers, both those alive on earth and those already in heaven. However, worldview has to do with this world, so for this purpose the Church will be limited to all those who are regenerate (“born-again”) and alive on earth. These individuals are variously called in the Bible "Christians. sheep, wheat, believers, the regenerate, and 'born-again.'" As a group, they are call the Church, the body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the family of God., a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a fellowship (Greek, koinonia), and other names. By contrast, those who are not members of the Church are non-Christians, tares, unbelievers, the unregenerate, and the reprobate. Their identity is being “non-Church” or sons of Adam and daughters of Eve; otherwise they have no common identity.

The true Church on earth is not identical with the “visible” Church or all professing Christians. Many Biblical passages reveal that the unregenerate exist among professing Christians, especially the parable of the wheat and the tares. Jesus’ warned us about attempts to separate the wheat from the tares.

Nevertheless, this precaution is not intended to allow any idea to be expressed within the Church. The primary identifying mark of a Christian should be his or her attitude towards the Bible. In general, the regenerate will embrace the Bible in such terms, as truth, infallible, inerrant, special revelation, Word of God, and fully authoritative. He will love to read and study it. The same Holy Spirit who regenerates (John 3) also wrote the Bible (Acts 28:25; I Corinthians 2:13; Ephesians 6:17; II Timothy 3:16-17). It is illogical (and inconceivable) that the Holy Spirit who regenerates would deny His very own Word! (See Bible preaching/teaching as one criterion of the visible Church below.)

3. Jesus Christ is head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23). No serious Bible student should disagree with that statement. Yet, is that just some lofty spiritual idea that has not practical application?

The elders represent the headship of Christ in the visible Church. In a few paragraphs, I cannot argue the centuries of wars of church structure. But, I can present the Biblical picture of who heads the Church. The primary passages of criteria for church leadership are Acts 15, I Timothy 3, and Titus 1. While “deacon” is used in I Timothy 3, “elder” (Greek, presbyteros) is by far the most common word for church leader. And, “elder” is consistent with the name of the leaders of Israel in the Old Testament. (Although “elders” sitting in the gate, the place of government, are sometimes identified only with civil authority, that focus is just too narrow. By necessity, legal rulings are based in ethics, and therefore had a spiritual focus, as well.)

Elders are gifted by God and recognized by the congregation. Notice that the passages cited above have criteria that the man is already demonstrating in his home and social life! A man is not given this office with the hope that he will fulfill it or because he “shows promise” of being a good elder. He must be demonstrating the spiritual presence of Jesus Christ in his life by his righteousness, leadership in the home and community, and knowledge of the Word of God. In the New Testament times, these men were primarily appointed by Apostles. However, there are no apostles today. Tradition, however, has established that the governing officers of local churches are elected by the congregations in Protestant churches. But, the most important dimension for church government is the proven spirituality of the men elected. These officers are the mind of Christ in the local church, as they deliberate about Biblical conclusions. Christ, as head of the Church, is not some ethereal statement with no basis in practical experience, but the voices of the elders of the local church (and regions, as in Acts 15) in unity.

Even so, the decisions of the elders are not infallible. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says that “All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred.” The Bible always remains the “canon” by which all decisions are measured. One wonders how confessions and creeds could be written for the Church at large today with all her diversity.

Women should not be elders. The passages above and others that describe the role of women are clear that the spiritual leaders of the church should be men.

4. Jesus Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is His bride (Ephesians 5:22-33).

5. The relationship of the Church to the Kingdom of God. (A) “The Kingdom of God creates the church. The redemptive role of God brings into being a new people who receive the blessings of the divine reign.” (George Eldon Ladd, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, 1960, page 313).

(B) “In so far as the visible Church is instrumental in the establishment and extension of the Kingdom, it is of course subordinate to this as a means to an end. The Kingdom may be said to be a broader concept than the Church, because it aims at nothing less than the complete control of all the manifestations of life. It represents the dominion of God in every sphere of human endeavor” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 11th printing, 1969, page 570).

(C) Any person who is regenerated is also a “member” of the Kingdom of God (John 3:5). “The Church is the living, burning center of the Kingdom, a witness to its presence and power, and a harbinger of its final coming” (The Kingdom of God: Henry Stob).

This relationship may be summed up in this way.

“In relation to the Kingdom, the Church may be defined as the totality of those who at any time have been delivered by the power of God’s reign in Christ from the toils of sin and death and have been reconciled to God. As such the Church is the living, burning center of the Kingdom, a witness to its presence and power, a harbinger of its final coming. It is not the Kingdom, it is narrower than the Kingdom, but it is its central component.” (Henry Stob, Ethical Reflections, 1978, page 69)

This statement is made with the understanding discussed above that the Church contains both wheat and tares, that is, those regenerate and those unregenerate. See the Summary Principles of the Kingdom of God.

The Church provides the power to Christians to advance the Kingdom. The Christian is instructed by the Lord Jesus Christ to be “in the world, but not of it.” Wow! Anyone who does not grasp the difficulty of that command has not wrestled with the light and darkness of each realm either intellectually or practically! God has given Satan a certain freedom of control and power “in the world.” So, we “wrestle not with (just) flesh and blood, but principalities and powers of the air.” Then, we have the ever present “flesh” and “old man” of Romans 7. These are powerful adversaries,

But, the Church is (1) a teaching institution and (2) a “hospital.” As a teaching institution, it is to provide the teaching necessary to become agents of the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is only within local and universal Church that the Christian is able to mature (Ephesians 4:11-16). And, as Francis Schaeffer forcefully stated another of Christ’s commands, Christians are to have “demonstrable” love towards one another, in the fullness of what New Testament love is all about, self-sacrifice and putting others first. Members of the church have a priority to their own to meet their true needs, in fellowship, and in community (Galatians 6:10).

There is a misconception on the part of some who identify themselves as Christians that they can worship God or live spiritually without the organized church. However, this position is difficult, if not impossible, to defend from Scripture. “Forsake not the assembling of ourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). The sacraments of Baptism and Communion takes place in the meeting of the visible church. The organized Church is to admit and discipline members. Etc. In fact, the opposite position that anyone who does not participate in the corporate life of a local church is not regenerate is far stronger, if not definitive.

What a powerfully balanced program of the Holy Spirit this is! Christians travel back and forth between the Church and the world. They need both instruction and demonstrable love and strength for their continuing advancement of the Kingdom and warfare in the world. God has provided all the Christian needs within the Church.

6. The necessity of Church discipline. Every local church and denomination must answer this question, “What constitutes a local church (denomination)?” In the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, there are three criteria: preaching of the Bible, administration of the Sacraments of baptism (mode not specified), and church discipline. The last has a positive and “negative” component. Positively, discipline includes all forms of teaching: preaching, formal instruction (Sunday School, Bible school, seminary, etc.), and one-on-one (discipling).

But, there is a “negative” side, the confrontation of church members who have publicly known sin in their lives. Essentially, it is the application of Matthew 5:23-24, Matthew 18:15-29, I Corinthians 5:1-13, especially verse 5). The public peace and purity of the church demands this “negative” side of church discipline. If, then, such discipline is one of the criteria that defines a church, how many churches in the world (and especially in the United States are true churches? Perhaps, this neglect is one of the reasons that the Church is so impotent in the world today. The failure of those churches who exercise this discipline not to challenge the non-disciplining churches is their own failure to discipline. Indeed, the argument can be made that the disciplining churches should name those other churches and declare them non-churches.

The failure of discipline by any church is, in itself corporate sin, and multiplies the problems for congregants and other churches. How many innocent spouses must either leave their own churches or participate with their offending spouses in their home church? If a church does not discipline, then they allow departing members with serious and public sins to be received into the fellowship of other churches who are unaware of this sin that has not been disciplined.

The “negative” aspect of church discipline. I have use “negative” in contrast to the “positive” side of discipline above. However, the goal in discipline is always with hope for a positive outcome, repentance of the erring brother or sister. The manner in which this discipline is carried out is one of compassion and recognition of one’s own tendency to sin (Galatians 6:1). But, even excommunication has positive effects. It purifies the church and shows the erring sinner the gravity of his unrepentance, that his very soul is in jeopardy of eternal damnation (Matthew 18:18). And, while he is in this life, he is subject to the “destruction of his flesh” by Satan Himself (I Corinthians 5:5).

Are all “churches” true churches? If the above criteria are the true Biblical criteria of the church, then by definition all those who fail in these ways are not churches!

7. Spiritual gifts are for the building up of the Church in numbers and edification to maturity. It is exciting that Jesus Christ’s spiritual gifts to His Church are identified with His ascension, “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8). To re-iterate from above, it is only within local and universal Church that the Christian is able to mature.

Spiritual gifts can generally be divided into four categories: teaching/preaching, helps (mercy), administration, and evangelism (Romans 12; I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4). Evangelism increases the church’s numbers. Teaching/preaching educates. Works of mercy provides for needs. And, administration makes everything work smoothly.

Spiritual gifts only apply to the Church, not to activities outside the Church. While Christians may have great talent for work outside the Church (music, education administration, public service, etc.) that is part of God’s Kingdom, spiritual gifts are for the building up of the church. While these special abilities may be manifested outside the church, their effect is different. Spiritual gifts bring about a unity and maturity of a body (a special group of people), whereas talents outside the church are a temporal blessing to those who receive them and have no special unifying effect. While the same gift, for example, a musical gift, may be a blessing by common grace outside the church, the effect and use by God is entirely different.

8. The Church is one of the spheres of government instituted by God. Government begins with the conscience of self-government (Romans 14:23). Based upon a serious study of God’s Word, the conscience may challenge organized bodies within the church, as Martin Luther did. The power of physical restraint and punishment, “the power of the sword,” resides with the state. The family has its sphere of government in the running of the family and the education of its children.

The Church holds the “keys” of the spiritual realm, that is, the right teaching and preaching of the Word of God, the giving of the Sacraments, and church discipline. The power of excommunication is infinitely greater to be feared than capital punishment. Capital punishment ends a life, but one still has the chance of eternal life. The one excommunicated faces the possibility of eternity in Hell where the judgment of elders is true.

Para-church organizations have a doubtful place in God’s Kingdom except possibly on a temporary basis. In God’s economy, para-church organizations have no standing. While God has certainly used them in the furtherance of the Gospel and even the Church, that mechanism is not His plan. His work on earth is formally and officially through the Church. Only to the Church has He given the keys to the Kingdom and is the Bride of Christ. A para-church organization has no means of church discipline when it errs. Over a period of time, all para-church organizations could be brought under a local church. churches or denomination. The dependence of para-church organizations on the Church is demonstrated in that most of them could not exist without the donations of local churches! Support of para-churches also takes away money from ministries that the local church should be about. See reference below.

9. Only male heads of households should vote on issues within the Church. While limiting eldership to men solves most of this error, certain governing issues still reside with the congregation, such as, electing of officers. Again, passages that define headship within the home and limitation of responsibilities in the church show clearly that leadership resides with men. If the family cannot agree on a church vote, how can it rule the church? If it does agree, only one vote per household is needed.

Problem of voting by children and minors in the church. In many churches, there is a conflict between “communion” membership and “voting” membership with children. That is, children may make a clear profession of faith and thereby ought to be admitted to The Lord’s Supper. Yet, they clearly lack the wisdom to discern most voting issues of congregations. Opening the church to membership based clearly upon profession of faith, yet limiting voting to men, solves this dilemma. This solution is one of many that are resolved by a Biblical understanding in which there is never a conflict of authorities were roles are clearly understood.

(In times past, voting on civil issues was not only limited to men, but to property owners.)

10. There is a real spiritual unity of all Bible-believing churches. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4-5). While denominations separate on doctrinal and other issues, all true churches have major identities in common, best expressed by these verses.

There is a real unity of Old Testament peoples with the New Testament churches. First, was Adam and Eve. Next, was Adam and his family of eight. Next was Abraham and his descendents as the nation of Israel. The Geneva Bible of 1599, for example, virtually equates Old Testament Israel with the church.

For more on church unity, extant and proposed, see the Frame-Poythress reference below.

11. Acts 15 warrants the gathering of elders of the churches to settle controversial doctrine. The importance of these councils is demonstrated most clearly in the early church with the agreement on the Canon of Scripture, the trinity of the Nicene Creed, the two natures of Christ at Chalcedon, the denunciations of Pelagianism and Arminianism, and the formulation of Reformed doctrine in the Westminster Assembly. While not well known, The Biblical Council on Inerrancy, The Biblical Council on Hermeneutics, and the Coalition on Revival are modern examples of ecclesiastical councils. Churches who differ with the pronouncements of all these councils of history are on thin ice, theologically and truthfully.

12. The church in Sabbath assembly is the primary means of the worship of God, the preaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, and the sealing of church discipline. While individual Christians are to worship God on their own, there is an importance of corporate gathering on Sundays that supersedes that personal time. The one who believes that he can worship God on his own, apart from the Sabbath assembly is woefully in error. He who believes that he can get everything of Biblical instruction without preaching is also mistaken. Finally, the gathering of the saints, as God has prescribed, establishes a unity and agreement of the body of Christ that is strong to prevent schisms.

13. Government of the local church. A pastor should not be the center of the local church. (A) I see nothing in the New Testament of pastors determining what a church is and what it does in the manner of modern churches in the following ways. The pastor heads the church board; he leads worship services, especially giving the pastoral prayer and sermon; he is recognized in the congregation, as someone special who gives a certain spiritual presence that no one else can give; he is essentially the only one who can determine directions and activities for the church, and in most situations, he is the only one called on to teach or to pray. By contrast and in consistency with Scripture, the pastor should be recognized for his preaching and pastoral work, but seen only as one elder of the many who govern and shepherd.

(B) I have been a part of three congregations, and have observed another, who were temporarily without pastors. I have been amazed at the way that certain laymen have risen to the task of providing what pastors normally do. As soon as the new pastor comes, they fall back into their (mostly) passive roles.

I do not necessarily want to place blame. It may lie with laymen themselves, not rising to a level of education and experience that equals that of the pastor. It may lie with the pride, that is within all of us, of pastors to be the center of everything. Is may simply lie with church tradition.

But, I believe that pastors must call and disciple their elders to be more central in the life of the church, and laymen must respond or initiate this more active role themselves. Over my lifetime, there have been various emphases on “power in the pew.” But, these movements have not grasped the training and experience necessary for that “power.” There should be years of serious training and study of the Bible and theology, as well as experience with discipling and service.

Some elders should be made full-time and salaried. Those elders who show special gifts and power of office should consider full-time work in their church and be salaried by their boards. Anyone who has been involved with employing others, knows that the advantages of promoting an employee who has a proven track record locally, vs. one who is virtually unknown. Since “elder” has a specific characteristic of age, “full-time” work in the church should be a consideration of specially gifted elders.

(C) Pastors come and go, but the tenure of elders is much longer. Having less concentration of power in a pastor would make for an easier transition from one pastor to another. And, better trained and educated elders would have more discernment for the recruiting of the next pastor.

Pastors should consider longer tenures at churches. Pastorates in smaller churches have become mere stepping stones to larger and more prestigious churches. This movement is seriously destructive to the continuity and development of those smaller churches.

Women’s organizations within the church should be moved under the authority of the deacons and elders. The New Testament is clear that the government of the Church is by the rule of men, not women. Modern women’s organizations have grown to the extent that they have their own meetings, teachers, retreats, and government. These activities take them away from their husbands and from the government of elders and deacons. While women have gifts to offer ministries of the church, they should not be independent. Historically, “circles” were time for women to be involved in ministries of mercy. Now, they too often become groups centered on themselves.

Additional Reading

Nine Marks of a Health Church by Mark Dever

Online book on the unity of the church vs. denominations by John Frame.

Coalition on Revival Document on Church Unity

A Biblical consideration of para-church organizations.

Clowney, Edmund P. Contours of Christian Theology: The Church. InterVarsity Press, 1998, 336 pages.


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