Ecclesiology or the doctrine of the church has fallen on hard times these days. For many, church membership means little or nothing. We live in a day when commitment to a local body of believers is looked upon as being somewhat antiquated or unnecessary. As with many other foundational teachings, many in our day seem to be willing to sacrifice doctrinal soundness on the altar of earthly success, and the consequences have been disastrous.
That is why if there was ever a day when Christians need to know what they believe about the church and why they believe it, it is now. Unless we know what we believe, we will not know who we are and how we should live or why we must live that way. In a day and age when the very existence of truth itself is being denied, it is imperative that we, as the redeemed of the Lord Jesus Christ; as those who have been entrusted with God’s revelation and His kingdom’s expansion, be certain about our doctrine, in particular the doctrine of the church.
When we speak of the church, we often do so in two different senses: The first and most common sense of the word is the local church, which is a local body of believers. The second sense of the word is the Church Universal, which refers to all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people and nation. Today, we will talk about the local church.
The Master of the church is Jesus Christ. In every sense of the word, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Church. He ordained the church and founded it on the confession of Peter in Matthew 16:13-19 where Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. To which Jesus responded, “On this rock I will build my church and the forces of Hades will not overpower it.” Jesus founded the church on the confession that He is the Christ.
Jesus is the founder, the head, the Master and the Lord of the Church, which is the bride of Christ. She is comprised of those whom He has redeemed or purchased with His blood. The Church exists for Him, by Him, and in Him. Without Jesus there is no church. He is the head of the church.
This is an important truth to remember because everything the church is and does should originate from Jesus. Many groups calling themselves churches today have over the years drifted away from their origins and are no longer recognizable as being founded upon the person and work of Jesus Christ. Let us never forget that we exist to exalt Jesus. Everything we are is about Him.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of confusion as to what makes a church. So from a biblical perspective, what are the distinct characteristics that differentiate a group of religious people from a church? There are three things that make up a local church:
A local church is an autonomous congregation of believers, associated by faith and fellowship of the gospel. The only people who can be members of the local church are those who have been born again through faith in Jesus Christ.
There are far reaching ramifications to what it means to be a believer. It does not simply mean that you have given mental assent to the moral and ethical truths of Scripture or that you are in philosophical agreement with the biblical teachings concerning Christ. To be a believer means you have recognized you are a sinner and there is no way you can save yourself from the penalty of your sins. You realize only by putting your trust in Jesus and by accepting His gracious gift of forgiveness and eternal life can you be saved. To be a believer means you have trusted in Christ to the degree that you have surrendered your life to Him. It means He is living His life in and through you, and you are a reflection of His character to the world around you. It means you have been radically changed and are in the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
Church members must hear God’s Word and obey it. They are to regularly fellowship together for mutual edification. They are to love God, one another, and those outside their fellowship. They are to evidence the fruit of the Spirit. They are to worship God in all they say and do. Membership has its privileges, but it also has its responsibilities. If you are a church member God has called you to be a part of this local body, so that He can both bless you and use you to be a blessing to others.
There are three essential components of the local church’s ministry:
1. Preaching the Word of God:
“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).
A true church preaches the Word of God. Preaching the Word means preaching the whole council of God’s Word. It means preaching which brings conviction for sin; preaching which is centered on the person and work of God; preaching which exalts Jesus as the only Lord and Savior; preaching which stirs the hearts of the hearers and causes them to desire more of God; preaching which elevates the soul and causes Christians to strive toward holiness; preaching which calls the lost to get saved and calls the saved to reach the lost; preaching which comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; preaching which never compromises the truth just because it’s inconvenient; preaching which knows nothing of political correctness and is anchored in the Rock of Ages; preaching which seeks to expose the truth of God’s Word to God’s people. This is biblical preaching and it is one of the essential marks of a church. Where this type of preaching is absent, there is no church. Many of the so called churches today have little more than a group discussion about what they think this or that scripture means. Folks, for it to be a church, biblical preaching is a must.
2. Observing the ordinances.
Matthew 28 and 1 Corinthians 11 outline the two ordinances of the church which are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. A true church is one where these two ordinances are observed and done so regularly. These are not prerequisites of salvation; we do them to show our obedience to God after we are saved.
3. Exercising its gifts.
A church is a body of believers where the members use their gifts. Every member of the church should be involved in some type of ministry. Ministry is not just for the professionals, as some would seem to believe. The Scripture teaches the pastor is here to equip the saints for the work of the ministry and the saints (that would be all of you) are here to actually perform that ministry.
One of the richest and yet untapped resources of the church is sitting in its pews. Can you imagine the impact we could make on our world if every member of the church was doing the work of the ministry? How many members do we have here at our church? Can you imagine what this town would look like if each year each member would only win one person to Christ? A church is a body of believers where members are united in order to love and minister to one another through the use of their individual spiritual gifts.
However, somewhere in church history people began erroneously referring to the pastor as the exclusive minister or servant or employee of the church. The thought is if you want ministry done, ask the pastor because that is what he is paid to do. But this should not be! There are churches full of believers who are not being equipped and released to do the ministry because the pastor is too busy doing it himself that he has no time to train the church to do it. It is like having a huge army which is untrained and sitting on the sidelines while a single leader or small group of leaders fight the war. It makes no sense and is ineffective.
Pastors are called by God to teach, train, oversee, and shepherd the church. The church is to be equipped for ministry and then released to do it. Christ uses the church to strengthen and care for itself as the believers minister/serve one another. He does not use the pastor alone to strengthen and care for the entire church. These un-biblical distinctions of pastor and laity have crippled the church. Everyone’s participation counts. Everyone has a role to play.
Pastors are not the only ministers in the church. Indeed, all believers are ministers and the pastor has a special role to carry out in the church: that is, shepherding the flock through providing a consistent biblical example and pure biblical teaching. Pastors are to equip the church to minister, so the whole church serves one another through their spiritual gifts and the church is cared for and strengthened. It is absolutely essential for the health of the church and the glory of God, to regain the biblical teaching about the priesthood of the believer. It is the role of the pastor to equip the saints for works of service.
Ministry simply means serving. All believers are called to serve, but only some are called to be equippers of the rest for ministry. The work of a pastor is a description of equipping Ministry (which a few enter) and is different from the general ministry (which all believers are supposed to enter). Think of a “coach” or “trainer” in order to keep the focus of the ministry primarily being in the hands of the laity—and the pastor/coach is equipping everybody else for their general ministry at work, home, and church. Equipping ministry is “full-time Christian work” where the pastor is preparing the laity for general ministry:
“Christ Himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip His people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).
ITS GOVERNMENT AND THE OFFICES WITHING THAT GOVERNMENT
First, we’ll address the church’s system of government or polity. There are different kinds of church government. As Baptists, we hold to what is known as congregational rule. That is, we believe the Bible teaches that God has invested the body of believers as a whole with the authority to make decisions concerning its ongoing ministry.
The other thing to consider in the church’s government is its offices. The scripture gives us two offices which each church is to fill. One is the office of pastor and the other is the office of deacon.
There are three words in the Greek New Testament which speak to the office of pastor. One is the word “episcopos,” which is translated overseer or bishop, the second is the word “presbyteros” which is translated as elder, and the third word is “poimainein,” which is translated shepherd or pastor. Each of these three titles speak to one of the areas of the pastor’s responsibility.
As an “episcopos,” or overseer, the pastor is charged with leadership. That means he is to oversee the overall ministry of the church, giving direction as he seeks guidance from God and His Word.
As a “presbyteros,” or elder, the pastor is charged with teaching. The essence of the elder’s office is to ensure the word of God is well understood.
As a “poimainein,” or shepherd, the pastor is responsible for caring for the church as an under-shepherd. The pastor is a steward who is responsible to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
In return, the church has the responsibility to support, honor, and follow the leader God gives them:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Heb. 13:17).
The word deacon comes from the Greek word “diakonos” which was used to describe a household servant. The office of deacon is an office of service, not of oversight and is one which, like the office of pastor, demands high standards for those who would qualify.
The Bible sets forth several things deacons are to do:
1. Deacons are to take care of physical ministry. We find this in Acts 6 where the apostles commissioned the first deacons to wait tables.
2. Deacons are to strive for the unity of the body. There was division in the early church because of the distribution of food. Therefore, the ministry of the deacons was to restore the unity of the body.
As the early church increased in size, so did its needs. One great need was to organize the distribution of food to the poor. So the apostles put 7 deacons in charge of the food distribution. This solved the problem the early church was facing and allowed the apostles to keep their focus on teaching and preaching the Good News about Jesus.
The apostles’ priorities were correct. The ministry of the Word should never be neglected because of administrative burdens or other tasks that can be easily handled by other people in the church. Pastors should not try, or be expected to try, to do everything. Instead, the work of the church should be spread out among its members. Each person has a vital part to play in the life of the church.
Spiritual leadership is serious business and must not be taken lightly. A pastor who has a fellowship of believers who are committed to these biblical directives is truly a blessed man. If a gathering of believers is going to be a church, these are the characteristics or marks which must be evident.
THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
One scholar put it this way, “Our Lord’s Great Commission includes four necessarily progressive, continuing, and interrelated actions; (1) Going to the lost throughout the world; (2) making disciples by evangelism; (3) Baptizing new disciples into a local church; (4) and teaching all that Jesus Christ commanded” (Malcolm Yarnell in Blount and Wooddell).
However, many so called churches have become anything but a New Testament church and no longer fulfill their biblically assigned role. Some have turned into political action committees, or are nothing more than religious institutions whose sole purpose is to keep people from feeling guilty about their sin. Others have become places of entertainment. Folks, I am all for music in the church, it is a gift of God. But making disciples of Jesus is what should be central in our churches.
We are not here to be political, although some of what God tells us will force us to engage the world in political realms. We are not here to merely be comforted, although some of our ministry will be comforting. We are not here simply to meet our own needs, although we and our families will be blessed here. We exist for those who have not yet come. As a church, our mission is to spread the gospel and expand the kingdom of God in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world. The church remains on earth to bear witness to Christ in all places, at all times.
ASSOCIATED BY COVENANT
That means we are in agreement with one another to be the people God has called us to be. That’s what a covenant is; it’s a binding agreement or promise between two or more people. God established a covenant relationship, first with His people — Israel, and then a new covenant with His people — the church. God made a covenant with Abraham to bless him and turn his descendants into a great nation. God made a covenant with us to save us through the blood of Jesus.
As members of this local church, we must also make a covenant with one another. It is not enough for us to simply meet once a week for worship, we must agree to do certain things and not do other things. Therefore, as members of God’s covenant family known as First Baptist Church, I’d like us to make the following covenant in our hearts today:
We will commit ourselves to God and to one another to be Christ-like in our lives and relationships through the presence, guidance, and power of God’s Holy Spirit.
We will strive to love one another as Christ loved us, honor one another above ourselves, be kind and compassionate to one another, encourage and build up one another, comfort one another, and offer hospitality to one another.
We will have a spirit of unity based on our common bond in Christ, be united in mind and convictions, meet together regularly, have equal concern for each other, suffer when one suffers and rejoice when another is honored, and consider others more important than ourselves.
We will use our God-given knowledge to instruct one another, use our spiritual gifts to bless one another, use the Word of God to teach and admonish one another, and nurture one another toward spiritual maturity.
We will confess our sins to one another, pray for one another, warn those who are idle, encourage the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with one another, forgive one another as the Lord forgave us, and gently restore those who sin.
We will not talk negatively about one another, not pass judgment on one another, not put any stumbling block in one another’s way, not be morally impure, not use obscenities, not be greedy, but we will be filled with the Spirit.
We will let the light of godly lives shine in and through as we bring glory to God.
Isn’t that great? It sums up so clearly and succinctly what it means to be a part of a body of believers at a local church.