'Jesus loved and loves forever; Zion on His heart does dwell'
An introduction to the Church
- Mark Dever is Senior Pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington DC. View all resources by Mark Dever
The church is important in God’s plans, and so it must be in our own understanding. Though many systematic theologies have largely omitted ecclesiology1, the doctrine of the church is a crucial component of Christian truth. It is the most visible part of Christian theology, and it is vitally connected with every other part. A distorted church often coincides with a distorted gospel.
Today, many local churches are adrift in the shifting currents of pragmatism. They assume that the immediate felt-response of non-Christians is the key indicator of success. At the same time, Christianity is being characterized as intolerant and portions of biblical doctrine are classified as hate speech. In such antagonistic times, churches must once again begin measuring success not in terms of numbers, but in terms of fidelity to the Scriptures.
The Nature of the Church
The church is the body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify him together by serving him in his world.2 God’s eternal plan has always been to display his glory not just through individuals but through a corporate body. In creation, God creates not one person but two, and two who have the ability to reproduce more. In the Flood, God saves not one person, but a few families. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram and promises that Abram’s descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand at the seashore. In the Exodus, God deals not only with Moses, but with the nation of Israel - twelve tribes comprised of hundreds of thousands of people, yet bearing one corporate identity (see Exod. 15:13-16). He gives laws and ceremonies that should be worked out not only in the lives of individuals, but also in the life of the whole people. And throughout the Old Testament, we see that God continues to work with the nation of Israel. How does this relate to the church? Through Jesus Christ. Christ is the fulfillment of all that Israel points toward (see also 2 Cor. 1:20), and the church is Christ’s body.
In the New Testament, the people of God are called by the name “church.” The English word “church” can be used to describe both a local congregation or all Christians everywhere. In contemporary use, the word is also used to describe buildings and denominations. In these latter ways, the English word “church” does not exactly parallel the Greek word in the New Testament.3 The word from which “church” is translated, ekklasia, occurs 114 times in the New Testament.4 No other word translates into the English word “church.” But the Greek word, ekklasia was used in the New Testament period to describe more than the gatherings of Christians. The word was often used in Greek cities to refer to assemblies called to perform specific tasks. In Acts 7:38 and Hebrews 2:12, ekklasia is used to describe Old Testament assemblies. Luke uses ekklasia three times in Acts 19 to describe the riot which gathers in an amphitheater in Ephesus to deal with Paul.5 The remaining 109 uses of the word in the New Testament refer to a Christian assembly.
Taken together, the images used in the New Testament present a rich theology of the church. The church is the people of God, the new creation, the fellowship and, of course, the body of Christ. In this fellowship are those people who have accepted and entered into the reign of God. This reign is not entered into by nations, or even families, but by individuals (see Mark 3:31-35; cf. Matt. 10:37). According to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21, the Kingdom of God was taken from the Jews and given to a people, as Jesus said “who will produce its fruit.”6 The relationship between the kingdom and church can therefore be defined, The kingdom of God creates the church. True Christians “constitute a Kingdom in their relation to God in Christ as their Ruler, and a Church in their separateness from the world in devotion to God, and in their organic union with one another.”7
Attributes of the Church
The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, fashioned by the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, affirms that Christians believe in “one, holy, universal and apostolic church.” These four adjectives (notae ecclesiae) have been used historically to summarize biblical teaching on the church.8 The church is one and is to be one because God is one. Christians have always been characterized by their unity (Acts 4:32). The unity of Christians in the church is to be a property of the church, and a sign for the world reflecting the unity of God himself. The church on earth experiences this unity only as they are united in God’s truth as it is revealed in Scripture.
The church is holy and is to be holy because God is holy.9 The holiness of the church describes both God’s declaration concerning his people as well as the Spirit’s progressive work. Both Old and New Testament emphasize the importance of holiness among the people of God so that they might accomplish that service to which they are called.10 Certainly a church which resigns itself to evil fails dismally. This holiness of status is a being-set-apart, not a being-cut-off, which results in holiness of action in the world.
The church is universal and is to be universal because God is the “Lord of all the earth”11 and “King of the ages.”12 The church is universal then in that it stretches across space and time. Universality alone among these four attributes is not actually found in the New Testament. Rather this description developed from later reflection upon the true church. “Catholic” is the older English word used to describe this attribute. But because of that word’s association with the Church of Rome, “universality” provides a better translation of the Greek word originally used in the creeds, katholicain.13 Universality is not the domain of any one group of true Christians. In Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Smyrneans in the early second century a.d., he wrote that “where Jesus Christ is there is the universal church.” The continuity of the church across space and time prevents the church from being held captive to any one segment of it. The church, in both its local and universal manifestations, belongs to Christ and Christ alone.
The church is apostolic and is to be apostolic because it is founded on and is faithful to the Word of God given through the apostles. Early in Jesus’ public ministry, Jesus “called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles” (Luke 6:13). Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus then prayed “for those who will believe through their [the apostles’] message” (John 17:20). But what does it mean now to say that the church is apostolic, since the apostles are long-gone? Edmund Clowney put it succinctly: “To compromise the authority of Scripture is to destroy the apostolic foundation of the church.”14 The physical continuity of a line of pastor-elders back to Christ’s apostles is insignificant compared to the continuity between the teaching in churches today and the teaching of the apostles.15 Only with the apostle’s teaching is the church, as Paul describes it to Timothy, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
Marks of the Church
Over the centuries, the four attributes of the church have been joined and often replaced by two marks which define a local church.16 These two marks are the right preaching of the Word of God, and the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In fact, a biblical ecclesiology can largely be organized and presented under these two marks, since in them both the creation and the preservation of the church are accomplished. Here is the fountain of God’s truth which gives life to his people, and here is the lovely vessel to contain and display this glorious work. The church is generated by the right preaching of the Word. The church is distinguished and contained by the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It should also be noted this latter mark presumes and implies the practice of church discipline.
Right Preaching as a Mark of a True Church
The correct preaching of the Word of God accurately presents the teaching of the Bible with the Gospel at the center. So God’s people in Scripture are created by God’s revelation of himself. His Spirit accompanies his Word and brings life. The theme of life-through-the-Word is clear in both the Old and New Testaments. The first man and woman fall away from God, rebelling against him, God sustains them and their descendants by his Word. Ezekiel 37 presents a dramatic picture of re-creation by God’s Word.
Moving to the New Testament, God’s Word again plays the central role as bringer-of-life. So the eternal Word of God, the Son of God, becomes incarnate for the salvation of God’s people (John 1; cf. Rom. 10:17). The consistent message of Scripture is that God creates his people and brings them to life through his Word. The right preaching of the Word of God that creates the church is not only the Word from God; it is the Word about God. When God’s people hear about God and what he requires, they will respond.
In that sense, a right understanding of God provides the right framework for right preaching. Everything a preacher says must be placed within and shaped by the grid of biblical theology that teaches both preacher and congregation about God and what he requires of humanity. After all, a right understanding of God can be the only true foundation for the church, even as the gospel provides the center, or point, of right teaching. The right preaching of the word of God is central to the church, and is the basis and core of it.
Right Administration of the Ordinances
The second mark of a true church that the Reformers talked about was the right administration of the sacraments, or ordinances. Jesus Christ has given two visible signs of his special presence to his people. These signs are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Christ himself ordained these practices both by example and by command. When a church practices baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they obey Christ’s teaching and example. Conversely, a church fails to obey Christ’s command when it neglects either of these two signs.17
Baptism is intended for all Christians (Eph. 4:5). While it is generally understood to have been practiced by immersion in the New Testament church, believers have disagreed over the significance of the mode or manner of baptizing—some (like the Eastern Orthodox churches and some Baptists) insisting on immersion, others saying that the mode is a matter indifferent. Also controversial has been the question of the proper subjects of baptism. All have agreed that believers are appropriate subjects for baptism, but there has been dispute between Christians over whether the children of Christians may be baptized. Either way, among evangelical Christians,
baptism functions as both a confession of sin and a profession of faith for the believer. Faith is professed (by the believer, or through a proxy) in Christ and the objective realities of Christ’s death, the gift of the Spirit, and the final resurrection, all of which are depicted in baptism. Evangelical Christians have agreed that water baptism does not create the reality of saving grace or faith in the one being baptized. As John Calvin said, “it is the mark by which we publicly profess that we wish to be reckoned God’s people . . . .”18
Christians also celebrate the Lord’s Supper in obedience to Christ’s command. “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). The Bible does not provide an exact form (protocol and words spoken while distributing the elements) for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This reticence, combined with the widespread nature of the practice, suggests the Lord’s supper should probably remain simple in form. The elements presented by the New Testament for the Lord’s Supper are bread and wine (‘the fruit of the vine,’ Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:17). As with baptism, the question of who should participate in the Lord’s Supper (the subjects) is more important than the question of how to participate in the Supper (the mode or form). Instructing the Corinthians, Paul teaches that participating in the Supper testifies to participating in Christ’s body and blood. It is the believer’s subjective identification with Christ’s saving work, represented objectively by the elements on the table. The one who takes the bread and the cup testifies to sharing in the fruits of Christ’s death, including a communion with both God and fellow Christians through the Spirit. Clearly, then, “the church must require of all those who desire to celebrate the Lord’s Supper a credible profession of faith.”19
In today’s world, the concept of membership makes one think of clubs and other voluntary associations. Such organizations exist in the world of the Bible, too.20 But the idea of membership is even more basic to humankind. Households and families have members. Races and tribes and clans have members. So, also, do communities and parties and elite groups like orders, guilds, and councils. An even more basic meaning of member refers to the human person. Our bodies have members.21 The Bible uses the concept of “member” and “membership” in all these varieties.
The Bible also represents churches as composed of members. From the earliest of times, local Christian churches were congregations of specific, identifiable people. The idea of a clearly defined community of people is central to God’s action in both the Old and the New Testaments. The lives of Christians together display visibly the gospel they proclaim audibly.
If the church, in fact, presents a glorious climax in God’s plan, several questions arise: How does an individual know he or she belongs to the church? How can one become a part of it? What is entailed by membership? The responsibilities and duties of members of a Christian church are simply the responsibilities and duties of Christians.22 But Christians also have particular duties in relation to the congregation. “Christianity is a corporate matter, and the Christian life can be fully realized only in relationship to others.”23 The most fundamental duty Christians have in relation to the congregation is the duty to regularly attend gatherings of the congregation.24 In general, membership duties can be divided into duties toward other members and duties toward pastors.
The duties and responsibilities church members have toward one another summarize the life of the new society that is the church. As followers of Jesus Christ, Christians are obliged to love one another.25 Christians are members of one family, even of one another.26 Church-members are also obliged to seek peace and unity within their congregation.27 Love is expressed and unity is cultivated when church-members actively sympathize with one another. Church-members also have particular responsibilities toward the leaders of the church.28 Church-members should remember their leaders and imitate their life and faith.29
Polity, or leadership, is an essential part of a Christian church. Here, Christians have disagreed about whether a congregation, some assembly within a congregation (elders), an assembly outside of a congregation, or a bishop has the final say in matters of the church’s life together. While such questions have caused divisions between Christians, they cannot be avoided. As with any gathered body of people, the church must be led. Universally and locally, the head and chief-shepherd of the church is Christ.30 Christ did not establish any sort of leadership structure, explicit or implicit, for the universal church during his earthly mission.
However their authority is structured in the local congregation, church leaders should be explicitly qualified. Not all Christians are qualified to serve as leaders or overseers in the church. In Acts 20, 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5, characteristics are laid down for under-shepherds or elders of the flock. Distinctive among these qualifications is the requirement that those who serve as overseers be “able to teach.”31 They should also be particularly reputable with outsiders, and possess a keen sense of accountability, knowing that they are under authority themselves. The reality of the coming judgment should have present implications in a minister’s life and work. Church leaders should exercise authority, and they should do this in order to edify the church.
The way most evangelical churches are structured today is around a single main public teaching elder, called variously pastor, minister, vicar, rector, or reverend. In the New Testament churches there may have been a common practice of setting aside at least one individual from among the elders potentially from outside the congregation’s community, supporting that individual, and giving him the primary teaching responsibility in the church. Even with that arrangement, a plurality of elders seems to have been evidently present in Ephesus and elsewhere, and can clearly aid both him and the church by rounding out the pastor’s gifts, making up for his shortcomings, supplementing his judgment, and creating support in the congregation for decisions, leaving leaders less exposed to unjust criticism. As the elders lead and the deacons serve, the congregation is prepared to live as the witness God intends his church to be.
In the Old Testament, God calls Abraham and his descendants to be his special people. However, God’s holy presence with this people requires a special holiness on their part.32 During the millennia between Moses and Ezra, Israel exists as a testimony of God’s faithfulness to his promises to Abraham. It is an honor to belong to God’s people, and membership has both obligations and privileges. Ultimately, the nation’s sins become too great for God to tolerate, and so he judges the whole nation.
In the New Testament, the church is also to exercise discipline, because an expectation of holiness remains upon God’s people. “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”33 The church is founded by Christ, and its success is promised and ensured by him.34 The concept of church discipline, which can culminate in exclusion from the church, originates in the teaching of Christ himself. In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches on the nature of following him, instructing about love which seeks the lost, and mercifulness toward others. In the same context, he also raises the matter of what should be done when one of his followers sins against another. “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”35
Discipline is inextricably bound up with the church Jesus envisions. Perhaps the most cited text on the practice of excommunication or church discipline is 1 Corinthians 5. The nature of the exclusion Paul enjoins is excommunication, which typically means excluding the parties in question from communion (the Lord’s Supper), until there is sufficient evidence of their repentance. Church discipline should be practiced in order to bring sinners to repentance, as a warning to other church members, to encourage health of the whole congregation, to promote a distinct corporate witness to the world, and, ultimately, for the glory to God, as his people display his character of holy love.36
Mission and Purpose of the Church
The church’s mission and purpose lie at the heart of its nature, attributes, and marks; and right practices of membership, polity, and discipline serve those purposes. To summarize, the proper ends for a local congregation’s life and actions are the worship of God, the edification of the church, and the evangelization of the world.
The church ultimately exists for the glory of God. Whether pursuing missions or evangelism, edifying one another through prayer and Bible study, encouraging growth in holiness, or assembling for public praise, prayer, and instruction, this one purpose prevails. The church is the unique instrument for bringing God such glory. According to the Bible, God’s “intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”37 No lesser matters are at stake in the church than the promulgation of God’s glory throughout his creation. As Charles Bridges expressed it, “The Church is the mirror, that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character. It is the grand scene, in which the perfections of Jehovah are displayed to the universe.”38
1From Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, to the nineteenth century theologies of J. L. Dagg, J. P. Boyce, C. Hodge, R. Dabney, W. G. T. Shedd, and to the early twentieth century theology of E. Y. Mullins—separate sections on ecclesiology have often been omitted from systematic theologies.
2 A great definition of the church is given by Robert Barrow in 1589: “This church as it is universally understood, containeth in it all the elect of God that have been, are, or shall be. But being considered more particularly, as it is seen in this present world, it consisteth of a company and fellowship of faithful and holy people gathered together in the name of Christ Jesus, their only king, priest, and prophet, worshipping him aright, being peacably and quietely governed by his officers and laws, keeping the unity of faith in the bond of peace and love unfeigned.” A True Description out of the Word of God of the Visible Church (London: 1589).
3 William Tyndale regularly translated ekklasia as “congregation.”
4Three times in Matthew, 46 times in Paul’s writings, 23 in Acts, twice in Hebrews, once in 3 John, once in James, and 20 times in Revelation.
5 Acts 19:32,39,41.
6 Matt. 21:43; cf. Acts 28:26-28, 1 Thess. 2:16.
7 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 569.
8 For more on this, see Richard D. Phillips, Philip G. Ryken, Mark E. Dever, The Church: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic (Phillipsburg: P&R), 2004.
9 Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Pet. 1:14-16.
10 Deut. 14:2; 1 Cor. 5-6; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1.
11 Josh. 3:11,13; Ps. 97:5; Mic. 4:13; Zech. 4:14; cf. Jer. 23:24.
12 Rev. 15:3.
14 Clowney, The Church, 76.
15 Robert Reymond comments on this succinctly: “Just as the true seed of Abraham are those who walk in the faith of Abraham, irrespective of lineal descent, so also the apostolic church is one which walks in the faith of the apostles, irrespective of the issue of ‘unbroken succession,’” New Systematic Theology, 844.
16 For an interesting comparison of the function of the classic four attributes (unity, holiness, universality, apostolicity) and the two marks of a true church, see Kung, The Church, 267-69.
17 The organized bodies of confessing followers of Christ which deliberately reject these practices are the Quakers and the Salvation Army. Many contemporary evangelical congregations could also be said to neglect baptism or the Lord’s Supper in practice, if they are evaluated by either frequency or understanding.
18 Calvin, Institutes, IV.xv.13.
19 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 657.
20 The synagogue of the Freedmen in Acts 6:9; the Pharisees and Sadducees; various courts, councils and guilds. In the Old Testament, there were members of brotherhoods of warriors (e.g., David’s Thirty Men) or prophets.
21 Rom. 6:12-19; 7:23; 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 6:15; 12:12-27; Eph. 4:16; Jas. 3:6; 4:1.
22 For the teaching on the duties of church members by Benjamin Keach, Benjamin Griffith, the Charleston Association, Samuel Jones, W. B. Johnson, Joseph S. Baker, and Eleazer Savage, see Mark Dever, ed., Polity, 65-69, 103-05, 125-26, 148-51, 221-22, 276-79, 510-11.
23 Erickson, Theology, 1058.
24 Heb. 10:25; cf. Ps. 84:4,10; Acts 2:42.
25 John 13:34-35; 15:12-17; Rom. 12:9-10; 13:8-10; Gal. 5:15; 6:10; Eph. 1:15; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2:17; 3:8; 4:8; 1 John 3:16; 4:7-12; cf. Ps. 133.
26 1 Cor. 12:13-27.
27 Rom. 12:16; 14:19; 1 Cor. 13:7; 2 Cor. 12:20; Eph. 4:3-6; Phil. 2:3; 1 Thess. 5:13; 2 Thess. 3:11; Jas. 3:18; 4:11.
28 1 Cor. 4:1.
29 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; Heb. 13:7.
30 Eph. 4:1-16; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 5:4.
31 1 Tim. 3:2.
32 Exod. 33:14-16.
33 1 Pet. 1:14-16 (quoting Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7).
34 Matt. 16:17-19.
35 Matt. 18:15-17.
36 See Matt. 5:16 and 1 Pet. 2:12.
37 Eph. 3:10-11.
38 Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, (1830; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), 1. Cf. J. L. Reynolds majestic statement: “When Christ uttered, in the judgment hall of Pilate, the remarkable words—‘I am a king,’ he pronounced a sentiment fraught with unspeakable dignity and power. His enemies might deride his pretensions and express their mockery of his claim, by presenting him with a crown of thorns, a reed and a purple robe, and nailing him to the cross; but in the eyes of unfallen intelligences, he was a king. A higher power presided over that derisive ceremony, and converted it into a real coronation. That crown of thorns was indeed the diadem of empire; that purple robe was the badge of royalty; that fragile reed was the symbol of unbounded power; and that cross the throne of dominion which shall never end.” J. L. Reynolds, Church Polity, of the Kingdom of Christ, in Dever, Polity, 298.