Church: Summary Principles
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
(“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
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.
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
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
Women should not be
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
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
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
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
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
the above criteria are the true Biblical criteria of the church,
then by definition all those who fail in these ways are not
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
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.
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
(In times past, voting
on civil issues was not only limited to men, but to property
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
11. Acts 15 warrants
the gathering of elders of the churches to settle controversial
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
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
(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
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.
Nine Marks of a
Health Church by Mark Dever
Online book on the
unity of the church vs. denominations by John Frame.
Revival Document on Church Unity
consideration of para-church organizations.
Clowney, Edmund P.
Contours of Christian Theology: The Church. InterVarsity
Press, 1998, 336 pages.