This is my eighth installment of my series on what I believe about basic Christian doctrine called appropriately enough “Here I Stand.” This post I would like to cover a subject which there has been heated debate – The Church. There has been much discussion as to who is a part of the Church, who should be members of local churches, and what should church government look like.
Many Christians have a love/hate relationship with the Church, as do some pastors, as a popular saying goes, “ministry would be great if it were not for the people.” Those outside of the Church often times may be interested in Jesus, but turned off by what they perceive to be an antiquated useless institution.
For sure the Church has many flaws because it is made up of flawed people. When the Church doesn’t do what it is supposed to do I believe society suffers as a result. When the Church is spot on with what it is called to do – make disciples, (Matthew 28:19-20), reach out to the least, the last and the lost, (Matthew 25), and be salt and light – a prophetic voice to the nations, (Matthew 5:13-16) no organization on earth can compare.
My intent is not to critique the Church, but rather outline my ecclesiology. Some points are positions that I’m quite dogmatic about (the Universal Church and local church membership) and others, such as church structures and governance, I’m not.
It would be helpful at this point to make a distinction when I talk about the Church. I have two bodies in mind. One is the universal Church (big C) which encompasses all believers and the second (little c) is the local church. I would like to discuss the universal Church first.
The Universal Church
We believe that the true church is composed of persons who, through saving faith in Jesus Christ, have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and are united together in the Body of Christ of which He is the Head, (Article VIII, 1950 EFCA Statement of Faith).
The universal Church is the Body of Christ, the true church which is all those who have been justified by God’s grace alone by faith in Christ alone, (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). The Church is to carry out the work of Christ on earth until His return, (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). The Church was initiated on the day of Pentecost when the believers in Jerusalem were baptized with the Holy Spirit as promised by Christ, (Acts 2), and will be raptured when Christ returns, (1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The Church is the Bride of Christ:
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ 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, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church, (Ephesians 5:23-32, ESV).
Marriage illustrates the relationship that Jesus has with His bride the Church. He is the the Head of the Church. He is the Church’s Savior. Christ loves and gave Himself up for the Church. Jesus sanctifies and cleanses His bride. He also nourishes it and cherishes it.
The Church as the Bride is to submit to Christ out of love and thankfulness. The Church is to make herself ready for the return of Christ, (Revelation 19:7-9).
The Local Church
We believe that only those who are, thus members of the Church shall be eligible for membership in the local church. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Head of the Church, and that every local church has the right, under Christ, to decide and govern its own affairs, (Articles IX and X, 1950 EFCA Statement of Faith).
The true church is manifest in local churches, and membership in a local church should be composed of believers only. A believer in Christ should be identified with a group of believers that meet regularly for instruction from God’s word, worship, fellowship, service and prayer, (Acts 2:42-47). The local church is the context in which the ordinances are celebrated. As far as it is possible believers should be active in a local church for mutual encouragement and edification as the writer of Hebrews exhorts:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near, (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV).
Jesus Christ is the head of the Body, the Church, (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22-23). The Church belongs to Him and exists to glorify Him. As the local church is an expression of the universal church she should conduct herself with this in mind and submit to His headship.
The local church leadership consists of the offices of elder (overseer) and deacon. The Bible has strict qualifications for each:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless, (1 Timothy 3:1-10, ESV).
Elders exercise spiritual oversight of the congregation, (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-11). Deacons serve the congregation to meet many different physical and practical needs through a variety of gifts and ministries, (Acts 6:1-4). The pastor-teacher is an elder of “double honor”, (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 5:17) and along with spiritual oversight are “to equip the saints to do the work of ministry” as other members of the local church are to exercise their spiritual gifts in order to bring edification to the Body, (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 13:28-30).
The members of a local church is to honor its leadership, (1 Timothy 5:17) as they serve the local congregation, (Mark 9:35; John 13:13-16). The church should submit to its leadership, as far as, we are to submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ephesians 5:21, ESV).
With the early church we saw autonomy demonstrated as each local church governed its own affairs and under the Headship of Christ made decisions on a variety of local issues, (Acts 1:23-26; 6:3-5; 13:2-3; 15:2-30). So today each local church is responsible for its own affairs (budget, property, mission/vision/values, etc.) and should appoint its leadership of pastors, elders and deacons using the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1-10 and Titus 1:7-9. These leaders handle the day to day matters of the local church, but are mutually accountable to one another and to the membership of the local church which appointed them.