"Search the Scripture." John 5:39.
In matters of doctrine it is of vital importance that the authority upon which we act shall be one on which we can unhesitatingly rely. There are those who advocate that such authority is vested in the Church. This at once introduces certain questions for our consideration, namely, what the Church is, and what are its calling, constitution and destiny. No claim to authority on the part of any man, or company of men, can be admitted, till it is proved to be well founded. We do not acquiesce in anyone's demands simply because he puts them forward.
It is axiomatic that the Church is the possession of Christ. if Christ were non-existent, there would be no Church. That there is a Church at all rests upon the basic facts of His Incarnation, His Atoning Death and His Resurrection, and upon the fulfillment of His prophetic announcement, "I will build My Church."
Our knowledge of this statement by our Lord is derived from the writings of the New Testament. These are indeed the chief sources from which comes our knowledge of Christ Himself, of the claims He made and the work He accomplished. This would involve, were it necessary here, the accumulation of proofs that the contents of the New Testament consist of authentic historical details and teachings and Divinely inspired writings. The subject of the authenticity, authority and inspiration of Scripture has been adequately dealt with elsewhere and will not be taken up in these pages. Suffice it to say that the evidence of Holy Scripture is of primary importance; all other evidence can be only subsidiary to it. As to their validity, the New Testament books were written by men who lived both in the time and in the country in which Christ lived, by men who wrote immediately for the generation that was born before Christ died, and many of the writers had been witnesses of the events they narrated. Where the writers had not personal experience of some of the events they recorded they had ample means of verifying the statements they made. All the evidence, external and internal, establishes their veracity. The very contrast of the character of these writings with that of non-canonical writings, both contemporaneous and of subsequent periods, pays its telling tribute to their validity and Divine authority and inspiration.
Of the four Gospels the Gospel of Matthew is the only one that contains a direct statement made by Christ concerning His Church. The same is true regarding a local church. But in each respect all that is taught in the rest of the New Testament is consistent with our Lord's statements, the whole forming a harmonious body of doctrine relating to the subject. The establishment of the claims of Holy Scripture and the Divine authority of its teachings necessitate our adherence to it and our acceptance of that alone which is in accordance with it. To follow any teaching contradictory to the doctrines taught by Christ and His Apostles is to challenge at once the accuracy of Holy Scripture and His prerogatives as therein set forth.
We turn, then, to these writings to consider the nature and constitution of the Church and the churches, and the character and scope of the authority given by Christ for the promulgation of doctrine.
The Term Ekklesia
In the New Testament the word ekk1esia (lit. "called out"), apart from its application to an assembly of Greek citizens (Acts 19:39), and to a riotous mob (verses 32, 41), and to Israel (Acts 7:38), is used in two senses only, firstly, of the whole company of the redeemed throughout the present era, the company of which Christ said, "I will build My Church" (Matt. 16:18), and which is further described as "the Church which is His Body" (Eph. 1:22, 23); secondly, in the singular number, of a company consisting exclusively of professed believers, with reference to the place in which they are accustomed to meet together, and in the plural with reference to a district.1
A Spiritual Organism
The truth relating to the Church, as formed by the incorporation of believing Jews and Gentiles in one body, of which Christ is the Head, is spoken of by Paul as a mystery (i.e., a truth to be revealed to the saints in the Divinely appointed time) which from all ages had been "hid in God" (Eph. 3:1-9), "kept in silence through times eternal" (Rom. 16:25, R.V.).
While this great fact of its constituent parts as a living spiritual organism was especially committed to that Apostle (Eph. 3:9), the first specific pronouncement concerning the Church was made by Christ on the occasion of Peter's confession of Him as "The Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matt. 16:16). The Lord declared that the Father, and He alone, had revealed this to him, and that on the foundation of that revelation Christ Himself would build His Church2, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. The revelation conveys the great foundation truths of the Person of Christ as such, His eternal relation with the Father, and the fact of His resurrection; He was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead" (Rom. 1:4). Being eternally the Son of God He was declared to be so in His resurrection. That He would be Himself the Builder of His Church was essentially connected with His death and resurrection. By these, too, He vanquished all that Hades stands for, the gates representing the place where authority is exercised. He brought to nought "him that had the power of death" (Heb. 2:14). Upon Christ risen, victorious, life-giving, immutable, the Church is established. "Other foundation can no man lay."
1There is an apparent exception in the R.V. of Acts 9:31, where, while the Authorized Version has "churches," the singular seems to point to a district; but the reference is clearly to the church as it was in Jerusalem, *0m which it had just been scattered, as recorded in 8:1. Again, in Rom. 16:23, that Gaius was the host of "the whole church," most naturally and simply suggests that the assembly in Corinth had been accustomed to meet in his house, where also Paul was entertained.
2If we grant that the words, "Thou art Peter," represent the actual original, the Lord was confirming a name which He had already given him (John 1:42), and was indicating the association of his character with that of the truth of his confession. There is, however, considerable ms. authority for the reading "thou hast said." In the contracted form of the last word the lettering of the original is the same, and the difference is simply one of spacing; thus su ei ps is "thou art Peter," and su eips, which stands for su eipas, is "thou hast said." St. Augustine in his Latin version has "tu dixisti" (thou hast said), and must have had ms. authority for this. St. Jerome quotes the passage in one place as "su eipas." Moreover on the occasion, as recorded in this very Gospel, when Caiaphas questioned the Lord as to His being "the Christ, the Son of God" (practically the same U40 as in Peter's confession), He immediately answered, "Thou hast said" (Matt. 26:64).
A Spiritual Edifice
Conspicuous among the facts relating to the Church as set forth by Christ and His Apostles are its spiritual establishment and its heavenly character and destiny. The Apostle Peter, continuing the metaphor used by the Lord, and speaking of Christ Himself as "a living Stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious," says of believers, "ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices" (I Peter 2:5). "All the building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy Temple in the Lord" (a sanctuary, a spiritual holy of holies), believers being "builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit" (Eph. 2:21).
The Apostles did not establish an earthly system, an organization of churches centralized in ecclesiastical headquarters. Such a policy is significantly absent both from their methods and their doctrine. What took place at Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15 provides no example of such a centre. The company which assembled there has been called an apostolic council. Whatever was its nature, no Apostle presided over it; Peter and other Apostles took part, James summed up matters in a closing speech, and an epistle was addressed in the name of the Apostles and elders, and delegates were chosen by the whole local church together with them (verse 22). But this gathering was incidental and not intended as a precedent. No other such assemblage is recorded in apostolic times. Nor did the decision effect a settlement of the trouble. Peter himself was afterwards found acting inconsistently with the decree (Gal. 2:11-14).
A great missionary enterprise was initiated from Antioch, but instead of taking place under the aegis of Jerusalem it was undertaken in entire independence of the Apostles there, and own of their delegates (Acts 13:1-3).
Events at Jerusalem, therefore, provide no support for the establishment of a controlling centre for the organization of churches. One will search in vain in the Acts and the Epistles for even an intimation of the establishment of such an institution.
Apart from such matters as the supply, by churches in a district, of the needs of poor saints in another region, the only bond binding churches together was spiritual, that of a common life in Christ and the indwelling of the same Holy Spirit. There was no such thing as external unity by way of federation, affiliation or amalgamation, either of churches in any given locality or of all the churches together. Apostolic testimony is, indeed, against the organization of churches into an ecclesiastical system. There is no such phrase in Scripture as "The Church on earth," nor is there anything in the Scriptures to justify such an idea (see p. 57). The only Head of the Church is Christ, and at His hands provision is made for the spiritual needs of each local church. The Church, consisting of all who are joined to Him, the Head, is "visible" as an entity to God alone. In contrast to it there stand out to the eyes of the world ecclesiastical systems, but these include the real and the false. As systems, they are the product of departure from the design of the Divine Founder and Builder and of human interference with the operation of the Spirit of God.
The view has been promulgated that certain decrees of church councils, and potentates, in centuries subsequent to apostolic times, were either developments from apostolic teachings or such additions as were necessary to meet the circumstances of later times. That the accretions were developments is contrary to facts, and that additions were designed or needful is contradictory to the testimony of Christ and His Apostles.
The following pages show something of the departure from the instructions and commandments laid down for the churches by the Lord and His Apostles, and the radical difference between what was established in apostate Christendom and the doctrines of the faith "once for all delivered to the saints." The rise of ecclesiastical systems produced a state of things in the churches which, so far from being developments of the faith, were utterly opposed to it. Such a departure was, after all, the fulfillment of what Christ and His Apostles had foretold, that false teachers would arise, speaking perverse things.
In these later times the Spirit of God has been operating in the hearts of thousands of His people, causing them to return to apostolic teaching.
- Chapter 2: The Church and the Kingdom of Heaven
- Chapter 3: The Body of Christ
- Chapter 4: A Fourfold Description of the Church
- Chapter 5: The Father's Family
- Chapter 6: "The Unity of the Spirit"
- Chapter 7: The Building Up of the Body of Christ
- Chapter 8: The Church the Object of Christ's Love
- Chapter 9: Local Churches
- Chapter 10: "Jesus is Lord"
- Chapter 11: Spiritual Gifts
- Chapter 12: Ministry and Deacons
- Chapter 13: Baptism
- Chapter 14: "The Table of the Lord" and "The Lord's Supper"
- Chapter 15: "Reception"
- Chapter 16: Church Discipline
- Chapter 17: Giving
- Chapter 18: The Church, the Churches, and the Scriptures
- Chapter 19: Local Church Characteristics
- Chapter 20: The Position and Service of Sisters