For the consideration of the brethren here at SI...
The visible church
But one of Jesus’ remarks also points to the visibility of the church. In Matthew 18:17 Jesus says, “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” So here we have already indicated the fact that the church is not only to be invisible, but visible as well. It would be meaningless to command to bring before the invisible church a brother in Christ with whom we have had a difference. There is an indication here that there is some structure to which we may bring our brother when we have had a falling out – a structure which makes a distinction between those in that structure and those out of it.
As we turn to the book of Acts we find this concept is immediately picked up and carried out very rapidly. Acts 13:1-2 concerns the group of Christians at Antioch. Antioch is a place of importance because it is the place where most church historians and exegetes feel that for the first time full Gentiles (not just “God fearers,” Gentiles like Cornelius who believed but had not taken on the full Jewish rites) were reached by the Christian Jews.
The text begins: “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch. . .” Thus, here was a functioning local congregation called “the church”. From here on the New Testament clearly indicates that churches were formed wherever some became Christians.
Salvation, as I have emphasized already, is individual, but not individualistic. People cannot become Christians except one at a time, and yet our salvation is not solitary. God’s people are called together in community. Hence at Antioch individual Christians are not now acting individualistically; they are acting as a unit.
Not only the officers among the believing Jews but apparently the members at Antioch as well could not refrain from telling the good news to their Gentile neighbors. Manaen especially is singled out and called, according to the best translation, “Herod’s foster brother”. Here, then, is a member of the aristocracy who was a member of the church at Antioch.
This church covered the whole spectrum of society. It was as wide as the culture which it faced. Undoubtedly it had simple people in it, but it could also have Herod’s foster brother. It had Jews, and it had Gentiles. It was, in fact, from the very beginning the ideal local church. It encompassed the whole spectrum of the surrounding society, including, furthermore, those who, like Herod’s foster brother and a slave, could not come together in any other setting.
Similarly, you will notice that though they were not all ”professional ministers” or ”missionaries,” yet they were all tellers. Christians felt a burden for being tellers into their own culture, and this is how the Gentiles became Christians here at Antioch. But also they felt a burden for sending Paul and Barnabas abroad.
In a sense we have a complete picture of what the local church ought to be: Individuals were becoming Christians, but not individualistic ones; the congregation covered the full spectrum of the society; the members were all tellers, not only at home but abroad. And when the Holy Spirit said that Barnabas and Saul should be sent on the first missionary journey, the members did not function only as individual Christians, but as a unit, as a church.
I am often asked, ”Is the institutional church finished as we face the end of the 20th century?”. My answer is very much No, for the church is clearly given as a New Testament ordinance until Christ returns. However, that is a very different thing from forgetting that the New Testament gives freedoms as well as forms as to what the institutional church may be like.
Let us consider what limits the New Testament places upon the institutional church; that is, what form the New Testament imposes. We have already dealt with the command for orthodoxy of doctrine and life and orthodoxy of community. Now we are thinking of the New Testament statements concerning the polity of the church as a church. The first of these is that local congregations are to exist and that they are made up of Christians.
The formation of local churches
If we look on in to Acts 16:4-5, we hear about the missionary journey upon which Paul and Barnabas had been sent from the church at Antioch. ”And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.” As the missionary journey progressed, once more individuals were brought to salvation, but they soon joined together in a specific, observable structure, an organization with form. Throughout Paul’s missionary journey we see a stress on the formation of churches.
In Romans 16:16 Paul writes, ”Salute one another with an holy kiss. The churches of Christ salute you.” The reference is to churches, not just the church. In 2 Corinthians 11:28, Paul refers to ”the care of all the churches.” Romans 16:34 contains some very instructive statements about the early churches that were formed. ”Greet Priscilla and Aquila.” (In Greek the word is Prisca, a term of fondness for Priscilla.) ”Greet Prisca and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus: who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.” It is not church, but churches; individual churches were formed.
Paul continues, ”Likewise greet the church that is in their house.” Aquila and Priscilla were then in Rome. But when they were in Asia, as we learn in 1 Corinthians 16:19, they also had a church in their home. Apparently wherever Priscilla and Aquila went, people were saved and a church was then started. It is interesting, however, that the church was in their home.
Lightfoot says that there were no church buildings as such before the third century. Since Lightfoot made that statement, however, archaeologists have found a most interesting place in Rome. Roman houses – unless they were the great mansions – were relatively small. What archaeologists found was a place with the facade of two houses still untouched, but with the internal walls torn out to make a larger room. And from everything that was found there, the archaeologists believe that this was a church building. This structure is dated at the end of the second century. But whether one accepts Lightfoot’s beginning in the third century, or whether one dates it at the end of the second century, it really makes no difference.
There is no biblical norm as to where and where not the church should meet. The central fact is that the early concept of the church had no connection with a church building. The church was something else: a group of Christians drawn together by the Holy Spirit in a place where they worked together in a certain form, a form which we will examine as we go now through various verses in the New Testament.
1 Corinthians 4:17 and 7:17 also give the most clear statements that one could have that churches were considered as churches and not just as an abstract or invisible concept. Individual churches were formed as people became Christians and these were definite, specific entities.
In 1 Corinthians 11:18, we have a note which is unhappy, and yet which is surely encouraging for us. ”First of all when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.” It is unfortunate and yet it is encouraging to us that already at this early time we find troubles and problems in the church. The church is not a church building, mind you, but a congregation of believers. And this congregation of believers was not perfect because there is nothing perfect in a fallen world. And Christians are not perfect until Jesus comes. So while there is discipline in the church, this does not mean that something is held aloft as an ideal totally beyond our imagination and our experience. This is not a picture of a perfect congregation, but it is a congregation made up of Christians.
Right up to the year 100 (if you take the book of Revelation as having been written then) John, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, directs the book of Revelation to individual churches. Hence, up to the end of the New Testament, individual churches existed and were important enough for letters to be addressed to them. The picture is clear. As Paul moves over the Roman Empire, as Aquila and Priscilla move over the Roman Empire, as other Christians move over the Roman Empire, individuals are saved and local congregations are organized. And this, I believe, is a pattern that holds for the church till Jesus comes.
The first biblical norm, then, is that there should be churches made up of Christians. Not to have such churches would be contrary to this norm.
Second, it seems clear that these congregations met together in a special way on the first day of the week. Though there are not many references, they do seem definite: Consider 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Acts 20:7. Each first day of the week they met as a statement that ”He is risen, He is risen indeed!”
But let us notice that no specific time of the day is given as a norm. The day is set; the time of the day is left totally open.
Local church polity
The letters of Paul and the book of Acts indicate something of the specific form these congregations took. We know, for example, that the churches had offices. Acts 14:23 reads, ”And when they had ordained [or appointed) them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” Scholars have discussed how these elders were chosen; I personally think that there is no clear indication. But there simply is no doubt of the fact that there were elders. The church did not sit there as a group of believers with no form. The third norm, therefore, is that there are to be church officers (elders) who have responsibility for the local churches. Missionaries on missionary journeys produced not only individual Christians, but also churches with officers.
Elders and deacons
As one reads the New Testament, a rather detailed picture begins to emerge – the church begins to take on dimension and life. There is, for example, the remarkable passage (Acts 20:17-37) which describes Paul saying good-by to the church at Ephesus, a church he dearly loved and where he had spent so much time. He did not want to go to the city itself, where he knew he would be forced to stay longer, so he went to the seaport of Miletus, about 30 or 40 miles from Ephesus, and asked the elders to meet him there.
Paul then addressed this statement to them in the 28th verse: ”Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” Notice how the elders are given a double charge. They are to watch out for those who will bring in false doctrine. They are called upon to exert discipline, but they are not only to be like a court, as if this is their only or their chief function. They are also to feed the flock. They have a responsibility to see that the church is not anemic. The elders are not to forget either side: Both are necessary.
They must see that the Word of God is brought to the church so that, on the one hand, false doctrine and false life are kept out (or if they arise, that discipline is applied) but, on the other hand, that the church does not dry up like an old pea in a pod.
They are to feed the church by the Word of God. This surely has the concept of teaching, but the use of the word feed carries more with it; it implies that the church is to live. The officers have a responsibility for maintaining real life in the church.
Paul implies in 1 Timothy 5:17 that there were two kinds of elders: ”Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.” Here, then, is an indication that in the early church some elders gave special attention to preaching and teaching. That is, there are elders who are especially committed to preaching and teaching the people, as it is expressed here, ”labour in the word and in doctrine.”
In addition to elders, there are also deacons. Acts 6: -6 makes clear that they were the men who were to care for the distribution of gifts to meet the material need. The fourth norm, then, is that there should be deacons responsible for the community of the church in the area of material things. If the practice of community in the church were being taken as it should be, this would be no small task! They would indeed need to be men of the Spirit, as were the first deacons. Consider, for example, what this would mean when poorer blacks from ghetto joined a more wealthy ”middle-class” or ”upper-class” congregation.
The fifth norm is that the church is to take discipline seriously. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 is one example among many which calls for careful discipline , based on the principle of the purity of the visible church in doctrine and in life. The New Testament stresses such purity, for the church is not to be just like an amoeba so that no one can tell the difference between the church and the world. There is to be a sharp edge. There is to be a distinction between one side and the other – between the world and the church, and between those who are in the church and those who are not.
Paul writes, ”It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one unto Satan. . .” The simple fact is that discipline in the church is important. For a church not to have discipline in life and doctrine means that it is not a New Testament church on the basis of the New Testament norms.
Qualifications for office
The sixth norm is that there are specific qualifications for elders and deacons. Not only does the Bible set forth the offices of the church but it also describes the kind of men who should hold these offices. The qualifications for elders and deacons are given in two places – 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. These give what the elders and deacons should be like. The church has no right to diminish these standards for the officers of the church, nor does it have any right to elevate any others as though they are then equal to these which are commanded by God himself. These and only these stand as absolute.
In Titus 1:5 Paul writes, ”For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting [left undone], and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” So, although churches had been formed, the situation was still incomplete. The form was not yet full because elders had not yet been appointed or ordained. So Titus is to take care of what has been left undone; he is to bring this church up to the level of the form that the New Testament church should have.
The first church council
Form did not end with the local church. Acts 15 shows that these churches were not entirely separated one from the other. Representatives from individual churches at a time of real crisis met together in Jerusalem in what has often been called the Jerusalem Council. The issue was crucial: how a man is to be saved (Acts 15:1). It was a major doctrinal question bearing on the problem of the Judaizers who were saying that a man must be saved not only by faith in Christ but also by the addition of the Jewish ceremonial law: ”Certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” So they met together as office bearers (verse 6) in a formal way.
First of all, there was discussion (verses 7-12). The Authorized Version calls it ”disputing,” but this implies the wrong tone. There was much questioning, much discussion, but not what we would call disputing. Verse 7 reads, ”And when there had been much questioning, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choke among us. . .” What follows is Peter’s testimony in the situation. Afterwards, ”all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them” (verse 12).
Hence, on the question of salvation there is discussion and testimony first by Peter and then by Barnabas and Paul. It would seem from the 13th verse that a kind of moderator is also present here: ”And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me.” There is very little detail as to the exact form here, but the general picture is clear. Somebody – James, the half brother of Christ – draws the discussion together and relates it to Scripture (verses 15-17) – the basis of the church’s authority.
Their solution was not merely something they generated out of themselves. It was rooted in Old Testament Scripture, in this case, Amos. James quotes, ”After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things [or who maketh these things of old]”.
So here we find a meeting, a moderator, an appeal to Scripture and a conclusion. It does seem to me therefore that the seventh norm is that there is a place for form on a wider basis than the local church.
I would add as the eighth biblical norm that the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are to be practiced.
Form and freedom
Now it is important to realize two things here. First, these are the New Testament form commanded by God. These norms are not arbitrary – they are God’s form for the institutional, organized church and they are to be present in the 20th century as well as any century. Second, there are vast areas which are left free. There is form and there is freedom.
Someone may feel that something else is clearly commanded beyond the eight norms I have given. Others may question whether one of these is really a norm. But do not let us get bogged down at this point. My primary point as we prepare for the end of the 20th century is, on the one hand, that there is a place for the institutional church and that it should maintain the form commanded by God, but, on the other hand, that this also leaves vast areas of freedom for change.
It is my thesis that as we cannot bind men morally except with that which the Scripture clearly commands (beyond that we can only give advice), similarly, anything the New Testament does not command in regard to church form is a freedom to be exercised under the leadership of the Holy Spirit for that particular time and place. In other words, the New Testament sets boundary conditions, but within these boundary conditions there is much freedom to meet the changes that arise both in different places and different times.
I am not saying that it is wrong to add others things as the Holy Spirit so leads, but I am saying that we should not fix these things forever – changing times may change the leading of the Holy Spirit in regard to these. And certainly the historic accidents of the past (which led to certain things being done) have no binding effect at all. It is parallel to the evangelical church being bound by middle-class mores and making them equal with God’s absolutes. To do this is sin.
Not being able, as times change, to change under the Holy Spirit is ugly. It is the same in regard to church polity and practice: In a rapidly changing age like ours, an age of total upheaval like ours, to make non-absolutes absolute guarantees both isolation and the death of the institutional, organized church.
It seems clear to me that the opposite cannot be held, namely that only that which is commanded is allowed. If this were the case, then, for example, to have a church building would be wrong and so would having church bells or a pulpit, using books for singing, following any specific order of service, standing to sing, and many other like things. If consistently held in practice, I doubt if any church could function or worship.
-excerpted from Death in the City by Francis Schaeffer