What is the nature of the church? This question should be a prime consideration for the structure of local churches as its answer provides the very basis for the ministry of the local church. If an individual joins together with other individuals to form the local church (and hence the collective of the church universal) it is imperative to explore the qualifications and characteristics such an individual should expect to encounter and to exhibit. The question brings into focus, in varying degrees, what is the church, when is the church extant, and even where the church is considered to be. Of course, an understanding of who comprises the church will also need to be addressed.
What is the church? It is best understood not as an institution, which some in the secular world and often in Christendom have concluded, but rather as a community. The community called the church has been characterized in many ways, particularly as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27, 28) and the temple (Eph 2:21). As the body, the apostle Paul shows the various parts that work in the body. As the temple he draws the analogy to the building blocks of an edifice used in its construction. Karl Barth calls this community “the commonwealth gathered, founded, and ordered by the Word of God, the ‘communion of the saints’.” It is the communion of saints because it is the communion of the faithful.
This idea of community is pervasive throughout the New Testament. Luke records in Acts 2:1 that “they were all with one accord in one place.” In Acts 4:32-35, the believers of the early church joined together to provide each others’ needs thus emphasizing that these believers considered themselves to be a community.
If the church can be, and ought to be, thought of in terms of existing as a community, who, then, are the individuals that comprise that community? The popular perspective is to answer that question from a vocational standpoint – doctors, janitors, preachers, teachers, firemen, policemen. Sometimes the answer sways to the particular needs and crises of the constituting individuals – abused, lonely, despairing, and depressed. Others swing to a description of worship – prayer, music, preaching, and ministry. These are useful human descriptions of the individuals comprising the church but are not the qualifications of the church perse.
An understanding of who comprises the community called the church must begin with God. God in the person of Jesus Christ instructed Peter and the apostles on this particular point when Jesus asked Peter, “who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then gives us the foundation for understanding who comprises the church by admonishing the apostles with His statement, “upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:15-18).
John, in his first letter (4:3, 4) gives validation by saying, “Every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God…You are of God”. John parallels Jesus here and identifies the intended audience for his letter as members of the community of saints by virtue of their faith in the person Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
This confession is precisely the foundation on which Jesus said He will build His church. God is very exacting in the materials He uses. None of His materials are self-mobile. He alone searches them out for use in His church (Rom 3:11). A brick cannot be placed in a wall except by the hand of the builder nor can any cells choose to be a brain cell instead of an amoeba. God has elected, borrowing a term from the theology of the Calvinist, those whom He will use to build His church. How does God do this?
God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, reveals Himself and makes it possible for a person to come to God (1 Cor 2:10-14). Without the Holy Spirit a person has no hope in salvation. “The change each human needs regardless of how we may outwardly appear, is so radical, so near the root of, that only God can do it.” Though a person may sincerely try to play the part, without the grace from God (Eph 2:8) that renders this radical change in a person, he is only swearing allegiance to a social entity imitating the real church. Only the person acted upon by the Holy Spirit can become part of the church.
Church history shows time and time again through conflict after conflict that it was considered normative to force conversions or inherit church membership. Most can point to Europe as a prime example to show that often armed and deadly conflict marked the frequent squabbling over the church and its sanctified membership. While having left Europe in search of religious freedom, the Puritans of early American history failed to realize that God requires individuals to be personally accountable to Him. The Puritans relied on the legacy of being born into a Christian family to sustain their churches. As a result, new conversions were nearly unheard of until the Great Awakening a hundred years later.
Josef Nordenhaug in an article from the Review and Expositor said, “The New Testament never presents the church as merely a group of people interested in religion who want to do something within reason for the betterment of the world. These ordinary people are called to the extra-ordinary vocation of being saints, people who are available exclusively to their Lord.” These saints “have held and do now hold that through personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ a man is born again by the Holy Spirit and that baptism is the dramatic picture (homoioma) of the believer’s participation in the death and the resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:4-5). Through personal faith and baptism he becomes a member of the church. “The members in it [the church] must be in a living relationship to Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 3:18)” In his commentary on the book of Revelation, Revelation Unveiled, Tim LaHaye provides affirmation to Nordenhaug when LaHaye states, “One cannot be a Christian [member of a church], with the Holy Spirit as the witness in one’s heart, and worship anyone but the Lord Jesus Christ. This fact, of course automatically becomes the test as to the genuineness of salvation.” Further, “when a person accepts Jesus Christ, he or she becomes a member of the Church.”
In accepting Jesus Christ one must necessarily know Jesus Christ. There is an implication of knowing who He is, what He did, what He taught, and what He expects. In this regard a linear view of the person of Jesus Christ provides the clearest view of who comprises the church. Jesus came at a specific point in history that divides even how mankind perceives time and calculates the annual calendars. That point in time was His birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-4). Without any of these events salvation for sinners is not possible. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) the believers in Jesus Christ were “filled with power from high” (Luke 24:49) and as a result the church was empowered to move into the world.
Notwithstanding are those of the Old Testament era that some suppose share in the membership of the church. These wonderful proclaimers of God’s plan through history indeed share a marvelous place in the Kingdom of God. Their place is understood best as having expected the fulfillment of God’s promise rather than the complete partaking. John the Baptist serves as a prime example of what some would term as an Old Testament saint.
In John 3 we see the disciples of John the Baptist coming to him questioning about the baptism practices of Jesus and His disciples. John told them that he himself is not the Christ. He explains in verse 29 that the bridegroom has the bride and he is only a friend of the bridegroom. Nonetheless, John regards this friendship with great joy because the bridegroom rejoices in His bride. Read jointly with Ephesians 5:22-25 and Revelation 19:7-9 it is clear that Jesus has a bride, His church. Revelation 19:9 says “blessed are they which are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb”, a toast to the guests. In the context of the marriage parable in Matthew 22:1-14, it is understood that the guests are not the bride. In fact, the king in the parable is representative of God; the son is Jesus Christ, and the bride, through implication, is understood to be the church.
This necessitates an understanding that views the church as part of the Kingdom of God. Russell Moore rightly observes that “the emerging consensus maintains the New Testament emphasis on the church as community without sacrificing its Christocentric and eschatological orientation.” The church gives witness to the encompassing Kingdom and holds within that Kingdom the place beside Jesus Christ as His bride relationally.
From a political authority standpoint the relationship of the church to the Kingdom can be understood as the Kingdom being “a monarchy over which Christ is the King; the churches are democracies over which Christ is the Head.” Understood in this light it is much more conducive to continuity between the Old and New Testaments to understand the relationship which the saints preceding the Cross have to Jesus and their standing in the eyes of Heaven.
This brings to the discussion the question, “where is the church?” The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has contended that the church is the institution embodied by rule of the bishop of Rome, the pope, as the earthly representative of Jesus Christ. Historically, the RCC has considered itself to be the one and only true church, visible on earth, and the only means by which God renders salvation. When the Reformation occurred, a radical change in theology was necessary. The community of believers Martin Luther led away from the RCC was considered to be the church by Luther and his followers; hence a new paradigm was needed. At the heart of the ensuing debate was the question “is the church an earthly institution or a spiritual one” and its companion “can the church be an earthly and spiritual institution.”
Baptists say in their confessional statement the church is the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation,” implying that the church is spiritual in nature while maintaining an earthly presence at the same time. The Abstract of Principles strikes a more earthly chord while maintaining more understated spiritual note by saying the church “is composed of all His true disciples, and in Him is invested supremely all power for its government.” The Baptist Faith and Message from 1925 presents a much more earthly realm for the church as well when it says, “A church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel.”
The idea of a spiritual placement for the church without physical limitation of space and time would necessitate a brotherhood of sorts among believers across time and history. It implies that the perfect state has been achieved for all those professing to be born-again Christians in practice and beliefs. Spiritual placement for the church carries the insight of being in Christ for perfection once a heavenly existence has been achieved.
Earthly and physical placement for the church, as understood in the context of the local church, is a more plausible reality in theology and practicality. The local church is a congregation of like-minded believers gathered together to worship God because of their salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. The local church practices the ordinances prescribed by the Word of God, which are baptism (Mat 28:18-20) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:26) and continues to hear the gospel preached (Acts 2-4; 1 Cor 1:23). Differences in administration have come and gone and will undoubtedly continue. However, it is observable in varying degrees to be carrying out the function of the church as recorded by Luke and prescribed by Paul. A spiritual placement here has difficulties in that the ordinances strictly observed from a spiritual standpoint provide no visible witness and no discernable gospel preached. In short, a spiritual placement for the church leaves too much to speculation about what the Word of God has clearly shown in the earthly church having been made evident in physical realities (1 Pet 2:12). “The church is to be the display of God’s love in the midst of this messed up, sinful, selfish world.” In conclusion, the church exists and thrives in its physical placement in time because it actually transcends time through its God-breathed spiritual nature.
Karl Barth said, “Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as ‘sciences.’…The word ‘theology’ seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of ‘God.’” Barth changed his own theological positions thereby leaving a precedent for the position presented in this work also to be changed with further reflection. If indeed that would be the case, then may it occur only with the guidance of the Holy Spirit illuminating His Word (Ps 119:105).
Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963.
Dever, Mark. A Display of God’s Glory. Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001.
Dever, Mark. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Washington, DC: IX Marks Ministries, 2005.
LaHaye, Tim. Revelation Unveiled. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999.
Marty, Martin E. Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.
Moore, Russell D. The Kingdom of Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004.
Cockrell, Milburn. The Case Against the Universal Invisible Church. Accessed 6 May 2005. Available from http://sovereigngrace.net/invisible.htm; Internet.
Nordenhaug, Josef. Baptists and a Regenerate Church Membership. Accessed 6 May 2005. Available from http://www.9marks.org; Internet.
_____. Baptist Faith and Message 1925.
_____. Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
_____. Abstract of Principles. Louisville, KY: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1858.
Barth, Karl, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, 1963), 37.
Ibid. p. 38
Dever, Mark E., Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Washington, DC: IX Marks Ministries, 2005),28.
Marty, Martin E., Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 108.
Nordenhaug, Josef, Baptists and a Regenerate Church Membership [on-line]; accessed 6 May 2005; available from http://www.9marks.org; Internet.
LaHaye, Tim, Revelation Unveiled (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 1999) 294.
Moore, Russell D., The Kingdom of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 156.
Cockrell, M., The Case Against the Universal Invisible Church [on-line]; accessed 6 May 2005; available from http://sovereigngrace.net/invisible.htm; Internet