We're in Systematic Theology III on the doctrine of the Church.
Moving out of what is the church, and now into the ministries of the Church. This is a very large area that is full of strife, debate and confusion so we will take our time on it to the best of our ability.
Today we will start with the way the local church is to be governed. We say “local” church because the bible does not give us much information on how the universal church is governed.
The reason is simple, the universal church embodies all actual (as opposed to professing) believers since Acts 2. And so you have people alive and those dead and in the presence of Jesus. But some would also say that this would include those who are elect but not yet saved.
Regardless of how you put it, the only point made in the bible is that the Jesus Christ is the Lord and Head over the universal church, and that is it.
When you look at the local church it becomes a bit more complicated and debated.
So we will jump right in by sharing a bit of our background as we were raised going to church.
Forms of Government:
One debate that occurred in the Reformation and still continues today is if there is a warrant for a formal government within the church. If so, then the debate moves to what does the form look like? Once that is determined then the debate moves to how does it function and what is its scope?
If one sees the Church as being present in Israel then it is quite evident that there was a very clear government with various roles and functions.
However, if one sees the Church as a New Testament entity that is separate from Israel then one must look to the book of Acts and the epistles for indications and instruction.
Evidence of organization early on:
“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
At first glance there does not seem to be much here about government in the Church, but there is. One had to be vetted to be baptized. There was a basic system of adding members after they were baptized (see also Acts 4:4).
“But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.”
They began to practice the Lord’s Supper which would require a certain level of administration. This is something that is often overlooked until you start a church on your own. Then all of this becomes a big deal.
"But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife's full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God." And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. And the young men arose and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.
Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter responded to her, "Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?" And she said, "Yes, that was the price." Then Peter said to her, "Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out as well." And she fell immediately at his feet, and breathed her last; and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things."
They administered discipline and not reluctantly. The Apostles clearly were leading the early church. Apparently young men are responsible for removing dead bodies---who knew!
"Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. 2 And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. 3 "But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4 "But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word."
5 And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. 6 And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them."
There was a process to appeal wrongdoings and the people understood that they should not merely rebel, but appeal. We also see that there were basic job descriptions as well. The Apostles knew what was their central duty, and it was not Social Justice.
The Apostles directed the people to pick and to vote for people to help serve the needy.
There were clear requirements laid out by the Apostles that defined and confined the people’s decision. A new decision-making body came into being as a result of this process.
We won’t read this whole passage as it is rather long. Instead we will simply give some select quotes.
“And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.” (Acts 15:1-2)
4 “And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.
5 But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses." 6 And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.
7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.” (Acts 15:4-7)
Here we have a formal council to determine practice and worship beyond the local church. What is important to notice is the phrase “apostles and elders” in vss 2, 4, 6, 22, and 23.
“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas-- Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them, "The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.” (Acts 15:22-23)
Things have evolved from only the Apostles to now include a plurality of elders and it appears their authority was quite similar. Though the church as a whole was involved the final decision and edicts came from the Apostles and elders.
We also see strong evidence that when leadership and authoritative roles on behalf of the Church were involved that it was men who were to do it. This is a fascinating passage because doctrine was being developed into a basic theological grid and then applied.
Evidence in the Epistles:
These are merely a few examples of organization, as most of them will be examined in later subjects related to the church.
The presence of church leaders/officers
Titus 1:5 – appoint elders in every city.
1 Timothy 3:1-13 – required qualifications for elders and deacons.
1 Timothy 5:9-11 – There was a formal list of “widows indeed” (16). These were to be cared for by the church but it also appears that they in turn served the church in a formal capacity since there are qualifications for them to meet.
1 Timothy 5:17 – some level of orderly compensation for teaching elders.
1 Corinthians 16:2 – setting aside offerings in an orderly manner.
The biblical data shows that the early church was not a vague band of believers who wandered about doing whatever seemed good at the time. They quickly developed form and function to be able to worship and gather in an effective and efficient manner. This was done under the care and oversight of the Apostles and it followed a clear and consistent path.
This was a simple overview that will get more fully developed in upcoming episodes.
Our goal today was to simply show that there is clear evidence for some form of government. What we have not done is develop what seems to be the normative form for churches or how it will actually function in reality.
Next time we will give a quick flyover of the forms that exist today via the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches.
We would be interested in hearing from you on what form of church government your church has. It will help us as we write these scripts to make sure we include points that might be of real, practical help and interest to you as listeners. An example would be the Eastern Orthodox Church. We are not planning on dealing a lot with them but that will change if we find several of you are from that tradition.
Regardless, we hope you are resting fully in the finished work of Jesus Christ. As we come to the end of this year may you all reflect on what God has taught you over the year and how your faith has grown and changed for the better. Then give thanks to God that this is the good work He is doing in you through the Spirit as He brings you into greater conformity to His Beloved Son.