This subject and the final one, eschatology, are probably the most difficult to address without controversy. The reason is not so much in what the biblical text says, but how one interprets the various texts.
There are various ways, or systems, that various Christians embrace that invariably lead them to see passages one way or another. This is a major issue that many Christians simply don’t seem to grasp and as a result they live with a ton of theological contradictions because they read and listen to a broad spectrum of people.
So they listen to a John Piper and a John MacArthur and a Matt Chandler and RC Sproul or Paul Washer with a bit of Carl Trueman mixed in. Then they read Kevin DeYoung alongside Voddie Baucham. Later, they decide to read the Institutes by John Calvin but also selected works from Martin Luther. Jonathan Edwards is their American theologian of choice but they are also big fans of A. W. Tozer.
Yet, all of these men hold to various theological systems that help drive their interpretation of passages as well as key doctrines in the area of ecclesiology and eschatology. So we want you to hear that up front so that you can begin to ask yourself where it is that you are coming from as you listen to us.
For most of our listeners you come from two major systems in one way or another:
Covenant theology or Dispensational theology; but some of you hold to a Lutheran theology which is different. There are those who are from an old-line Pentecostalism that has its own unique theological position, or you are coming from a Wesleyan-Arminian school of theology.
In all of these there are sub-groups making this all the more a challenge, which is why we are not trying to expend a lot of energy proving our points or disproving other positions.
First, that is impossible to do in this format. In fact it is almost impossible to do in most formats. We have found that the best way to change a person’s position is by spending time with them in a face-to-face way where we can systematically teach them while allowing them to interrupt and ask a lot of questions. In other words, to be intensely personal.
Second, to disprove most positions require a level of examination of the biblical text that would cause most listeners to sign off. To deal with most controversies would require you to have a notebook open and your bible and a large amount of time to set aside to think and study.
We know we push the limits of what a podcast is supposed to be already. We don’t try to waste your time with a ton of banter. And we tend to go deeper into bible passages and theological issues deeper than many. We know it limits our audience, but we don’t care. We are really doing these podcasts for our church, to give them a resource to go to when questions arise.
So what you will get from us on these next two major theological sections is primarily our view with occasional forays into other systems.
Issues to consider when thinking about the doctrine of the church:
“The church is at once a very familiar and a very misunderstood topic. It is one of the few aspects of Christian theology that can be observed . . . . But for all of this familiarity, there are [sic] frequently considerable confusion and misunderstanding concerning the church. Part of this misunderstanding results from the multiple usages of the term church. . . . In addition to the confusion generated by the multiple usages of the term church, there is evidence of confusion at a more profound level—a lack of understanding of the basic nature of the church. Among the reasons for this lack of understanding is the fact that at no point in the history of Christian thought has the doctrine of the church received the direct and complete attention which other doctrines have received” (Christian Theology, Millard Erickson, p. 1026).
Erickson goes on to describe one of the major problems related to the study of the Church:
“In addition to the confusion generated by the multiple usages of the term church, there is evidence of confusion at a more profound level–a lack of understanding of the basic nature of the church” (Ibid, p. 1027; emphasis his).
The reason for the problem:
“The emphasis on matters such as social change and mission rather than on the church itself is due in part to a general shift to a secular way of thinking. To put it another way: there has been a major modification in the way in which God is viewed; there is far more stress on his immanence than on his transcendence. He is no longer viewed as relating to the world only through the agency of his supernatural institution, the church. In general, the church is no longer looked upon as the sole embodiment of the divine presence and activity, as God’s special agent. Rather, there is widespread conception that God dynamically relates to the world through many avenues or institutions. The emphasis is upon what God is doing, not upon what he is like” (Ibid.)
To resolve the problem we must recover a solid exegetical theology of the Church. This is what is often the problem, little time is spent going back to the text and examining what it actually says and doing the hard, dirty work of sound exegesis.
Too many think that learning theology requires you to read theology. But actually it requires you to exegete the bible. And given time it will develop your theology. But if you only study theology then over time it tends to color your attempts at exegesis.
How many times have we heard while conducting a bible study this comment, “But pastor, it can’t mean that!” This is coming because a bible verse that was just exegeted in their presence is challenging their theological position. And it is revealing that they are committed to their position more than what the text actually says.
So we are going to do what we always do, give you a lot of scripture and use that to guide our points. And in doing so we hope you find it both enlightening and encouraging.
We will begin with some basic points that are foundational.
The Church is the possession of God
"Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
Genitive of possession: In other words, it refers to that which belongs to God.
As an aside, this is a great verse to show that Jesus is God as the clause, “which He purchased with His own blood” refers to God.
But it also is sobering because Paul is warning the elders of Ephesus that the church for which they are caring is not theirs, it is Gods. Many pastors and elders would do well to remember this as they make decisions in ministry.
1 Corinthians 1:2
“. . . to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:”
This phrase “the Church of God” is not just filler in the introductory comments of Paul. He is intentional here and it is his first salvo to this incredibly messed up church that their problems and sin are affecting God’s possession.
Paul fleshes this critical concept out in chapter 3 when he repeatedly refers to the Church as belonging to God via various metaphors.
“For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.” (1 Cor. 3:9 NAS)
1 Corinthians 3:16—God’s temple.
Therefore, those who work in God’s field, and build within God’s building are described as “God’s fellow workers” in verse 9.
1 Timothy 3:15
“but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.”
I actually did a series early on in my ministry based off of this verse. It was an effort to get the people to think carefully about how they viewed their attendance and actions while gathering together.
Everything was being premised off of the idea that this is not “our” church but God’s. Which makes it holy and we ought to approach the gathering of the saints in a sober-minded manner.
When we think about the church and deal with members of the church, it is not merely with people, but God’s people.
1 Peter 5:1-2
“Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness...”
Christ is Lord of the Church
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.”
Through the metaphors used throughout the New Testament we see that Christ is given first position.
- The Church is a building, Christ is the cornerstone.
- The Church is a flock, Christ is the Chief Shepherd.
- The Church is a body, Christ is the Head.
The Church’s identity exists and is defined because of Christ.
“For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Rom. 12:4-5 NAS)
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28 NAS)
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:6 NAS)
“He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth.” (Eph. 1:9-10 NAS)
(back and forth) Definition:
As we read these several quotes you want to pay attention to see how many differ with one another. It is a glimpse into the challenge of teaching on what is the Church.
“The church is the community of all true believers for all time. This definition understands the church to be made of all those who are truly saved. Paul says, ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Eph. 5:25). Here the term ‘the church’ is used to apply to all those whom Christ died to redeem, all those who are saved by the death of Christ. But that must include all true believers for all time, both believers in the New Testament age and believers in the Old Testament age as well.” (Grudem, W. A. 1994. Systematic Theology, electronic edition).
"The Father calls repentant believers into a new community headed by the Son and created by the Spirit. Converts are renewed for fellowship with the Triune God and with one another" (Demarest and Lewis, Integrative Theology, III:273).
". . . the church in Scripture is composed of all the redeemed in every age who are saved by grace through personal faith in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ, ‘the seed of the woman’" (Gen. 3:15) and suffering Messiah (Isa. 53:5-10).
“The Church of God in Old Testament times, rooted initially and prophetically in the protevangelium (Gen. 3:15) and covenantally in the Genesis patriarchs (Rom. 11:28), blossomed mainly within the nation of Israel. However this church was not equivalent to the nation of Israel per se, for there were always some—and sometimes many, if not most—within that nation who were never more than the physical seed of Abraham. . . . The true church of the Old Testament was the spiritual seed of Abraham, that “Israel” within the nation of Israel about whom the apostle Paul speaks in Romans 9:6-8" (Reymond, Robert L., A New Systematic Theology of The Christian Faith, Thomas Nelson Publishers, pp. 805-6).
He goes on to state regarding the Church in the New Testament that “The church of the New Testament age, essentially one with the church of the old dispensation, came to consist of particular churches throughout the Roman Empire in which true believers in the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ assembled for worship of the Triune God. From the beginning the church was viewed essentially as the elect of God and a communion of Saints living under apostolic authority, and as the body of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit” (Reymond, Ibid. p. 837).
“The church . . . exists in, through, and because of Jesus Christ. Thus it is a distinctive New Testament reality. Yet it is at the same time a continuation, through a new phase of redemptive history, of Israel, the seed of Abraham, God’s covenant people of Old Testament times” (Packer, J. I., Concise Theology, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., p. 199).
(This issue is important because how you define the church is usually based off of other points of theology. Many define it purely in soteriological terms, very common in the Reformed camp. However, the question arises in the mind of many, including myself, if this is a valid view of what makes you a part of the Church? There appears to be more to being in the Church of Christ than simply being saved.)
Our working definition is that the Church is made up of all who are elect in Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, and have been spiritually baptized with the Spirit into a spiritual union with Christ.
So there you go, the first dip in the pool called ecclesiology. We hope it sets the stage for some good episodes where all of us can begin to appreciate the grandeur of the Church and to be moved to have a greater love for her.
We hope this episode finds you walking in faith and obedience. Think about what was said and do not be afraid to send us your questions or thoughts. Next time we will look at the key terms related to the Church.