Chapter 12 - The New Testament Church

Matthew 16:18 introduces into the gospel history the subject of the church. There Jesus says, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This text implies that the church as an institution was not yet founded and that Christ himself was to be the founder and builder of his church.
Before proceeding to set forth the New Testament church, however, let us first notice

The Church in Type


The church of God is often referred to as the house of God, his spiritual dwelling place on earth. In Old Testament times the house of God was an earthly structure: first the tabernacle, constructed in the wilderness (Exod. 25:8); afterwards, the temple at Jerusalem (II Chron. 5:1). At the dedication of the first house, or tabernacle, God manifested himself in it in such a glorious manner that “Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because … the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:35). So also at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (I Kings 8:11).
Now, though such earthly structures constituted the house of God in that dispensation, the prophets clearly predicted that when the Messiah came he would build another house of God. (See Zech. 6:12-13.) In fulfillment of these prophecies Christ says, “I will build my church.”
The writer of the Book of Hebrews affirms that the Old Testament house of God was “a figure for the time then present,” pointing forward to, and meeting its antitype in, “a greater and more perfect tabernacle,” which was introduced by Christ and dedicated with his own blood (Heb. 9:1-14). That the church is now the house of God is further shown in 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 2:5; and Ephesians 2:21-22.
Now let us notice some Bible characteristics of this church.

The Body of Christ


We should divest our minds of current ideas of formal church organization and earnestly seek to understand the real significance of that church of which Christ personally was the founder. A few texts make this point clear: “And hath put all things under his [Christ’s] feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). The church, then, is the body of Christ. Of this body Jesus himself is the head (Col. 1:18, 24). In these texts “body” and “church” are used interchangeably, referring to one and the same thing. The body of which Christ is the head is the church that he built, “the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
It is therefore to Calvary that we must look for the specific act by which Christ personally became the founder of his church. There it was “purchased with his own blood.” There we find the application of those sublime words of the Savior: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). By virtue of that act God “put all things under his Christ’s feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church.” By virtue of that act “God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). The church, then, proceeds from Calvary. Pentecost was but its initial manifestation to men and its dedication for service.

The Mode of Membership


Since by his death Christ purposed to draw all men unto him, it is evident that all members of Christ are therefore members of his body, the church. To this agree the words of the Apostle Paul: “Now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him” (I Cor. 12:18). (Also Rom. 12:4-5.)
Becoming a member in the spiritual body of Christ is necessarily a spiritual operation.  Men may admit members to a formal relationship in a humanly organized group called a church, but the Spirit of God alone can make us members of Christ. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized [or inducted] into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (I Cor. 12:13). This text does not refer to literal water baptism, but to the work of the Spirit by which we are inducted into Christ. “God hath set the members every one of them in the body” (vs. 18). And since this is the work of the Spirit, it is evident that none but the saved can possibly find admittance into the spiritual body of Christ. Under a different figure Jesus conveys the same truth: “I am the door: by me if any man enter in he shall be saved” (John 10:9). “And the Lord added to them the church day by day those that were saved” (Acts 2:47, ASV). Salvation, then, is the condition of membership.
The members of Christ are members of God’s family. How do we become members of the divine family? “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). (See also John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:2.) Since this family, or church, is composed of the saved, or those who are born again, and excludes all the unsaved, we can understand Paul’s reference to “a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but … holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).

The Visibility of the Church


In the apostolic church God’s power in redemption brought into the lives of believers forces that could not but unite them in a social unit. It drew them together in living sympathy and united their hearts firmly in the strong bonds of brotherly love. Their outward organic union as a church was the natural and inevitable result of this inward life and love.
The local church was not merely an aggregate of individuals accidentally gathered together, but was the local, concrete embodiment of the spiritual body of Christ, the unified company of regenerated persons who as a body were dedicated to Christ, acknowledged of Christ, and used by Christ through the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of his work. Jerusalem furnishes the first example, dating from Pentecost (Acts 2).
Membership in the general body of Christ was conditioned solely on the new birth, or salvation. Since the individual congregation was the local embodiment of the general church, none but the saved could properly become members thereof. But the bringing together of many individuals in one assembly involved also a social element and required the principle of recognition. There is no evidence, however, that such recognition was given by a formal, official act of the church in its corporate capacity. Since salvation is of the heart, it was possible for human recognition to miss its true purpose temporarily, as when the unworthy Ananias and Sapphira were recognized in the local church at Jerusalem and, at another time, the converted Saul was temporarily barred from fellowship (Acts 9:26).
The local church at Jerusalem did not cease to be the church of God because two unworthy persons obtained temporary recognition in it. This incident gave occasion for the church to manifest its inherent life by its ability to discern and then cast off the offenders, just as an earthly physical body casts off effete matter. As a result of the judgment pronounced on Ananias and Sapphira, “great fear came upon all the church.… And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them” (Acts 5:11, 13). The fiery judgments of God put an end to that imposition, with the result that “believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women” (vs. 14). “And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved” (2:47, ASV).
The physical body may experience the mutilation of some of its members and still survive, but there is a limit beyond which death will ensue. Likewise the spiritual body, the local congregation, may survive the encumbrance of a few false members who have by some means succeeded in gaining temporary recognition as Christians; but from the general facts and principles already adduced we may safely assert that a local church is a church of God only so long as it is able to function properly as a body. As long as the Spirit of God is in the ascendancy so that the people of God as a body manifest the power of God, maintain the truth of God, are filled with the Spirit of God, and are actually used by the Spirit in performing the works of God, so long are they the church of God. Whenever another spirit gains the ascendancy and the divine, spiritual characteristics are lost to view, then is fulfilled that which is written: “I will spue thee out of my mouth.” Henceforth their condition is like that of Sardis, “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Rev. 3:1). Such dead congregations are no longer a part of the true church and are unworthy of the recognition of spiritual congregations.

The Name of the Church


According to the NewTestament the followers of Jesus, as individuals, are called friends,disciples, brethren, saints. As a church the disciples took the name of theirFather, as Jesus prayed that they would, in order to manifest their unity inhim (see John 17:11); therefore we read: “Unto the of God” (I Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1); “I persecuted thechurch of God” (Gal. 1:13); “Despise ye the church of God?” (I Cor. 11:22); “Give no offense … to thechurch of God” (10:32); “Take care of the church of God” (I Tim. 3:5); “Feedthe church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

The Discipline of the Church


The discipline of the church was simply “the law of Christ,” first as delivered orally by Christ personally, then by specially inspired apostles, and afterwards expressed by them in written form in the Christian Scriptures. “I have given them thy word” (John 17:14). “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16-17).
Doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction cover all the essential ground of discipline; therefore, the Bible is the only necessary rule of faith and practice. In fact, the disciplines of many of the Protestant churches state that the Bible is to be accepted as the supreme Word of God and that whatever is not contained therein or cannot be proved thereby is not to be required of any man. Then why not discard all the disciplines of man, which contain a multitude of unscriptural doctrines, rules, and regulations, and just accept the Bible as the all-sufficient rule of faith?

Organization and Government


Jesus was not only the initial founder of the church but is its permanent head and governor. Isaiah, predicting the coming of Christ, declared that “the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isa. 9:6). And again, we read that “he is the head of the body, the church … that in all things he might have the pre-eminence” (Col. 1:18).
The general nature of church government was, therefore, a theocracy. Christ was king and lawgiver, governor and administrator. His rule was a moral and spiritual dominion. It was only when the living, vital union of Christ with his church was lost to view that men began endeavoring to strengthen the bonds of external union by unscriptural human organization and human authority. In the primitive church both organization and governmental authority proceeded from Christ through the operation of the Holy Spirit. “God set the members every one of them in the body, as it pleased him” (I Cor. 12:18). He endowed them with various gifts, and these gifts, combined with all other qualifications, gave each member his particular place in the body and also determined the nature and extent of his work and authority in the body. Thus, the organization was divine. (See Eph. 4:8, 11-12; 1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12:4-7.)
Governmental positions in the primitive church, with their authority and responsibility, were the product of those gifts and qualifications bestowed upon certain individuals in particular. Hence, ministerial appointment was divine. God by his Spirit called his ministers directly and individually—“The Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The only other essential to its practical operation was recognition, and such recognition belonged, in the last analysis, to the whole church, but was formally given by the laying on of the hands of other ministers.
As we have seen, the general church in its visible phase was made up of various local congregations “set in order” by apostolic authority. So far as their own local affairs were concerned, these congregations were autonomous, but even though they were distributed over a wide territory they were not in all respects independent, isolated units. As members of Christ, sharing in a common life and engaged in a common cause, the believers were bound together in one brotherhood, by ties of fellowship and love.
Let us notice some particular points concerning the relation of members in the primitive church.

Equality in the Church


Men have always been prone to divide the race into clans, classes, and castes. But the Word of God recognizes the essential unity of the human race; it teaches that all are in one sense on the same plane because of universal sin and that all stand in need of redemption; therefore, it lifts up a standard of spiritual equality for all those who are redeemed. “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: but the rich, in that he is made low” (Jas. 1:9-10). This places all on the same plane in Christ. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free” (I Cor. 12:13). (See also Gal. 3:28; Jas. 2:1-4.)
To the first ministers Christ said, “Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:8). When some of their number sought for a position of pre-eminence over the rest, Christ referred to conditions among the Gentiles, whose great men domineered over the others, and said, “It shall not be so among you; but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (20:26-28).
While the greater gifts and qualifications of some of the Apostles made them more useful than others and placed greater responsibilities upon them, still this humble standard of equality was maintained until the Apostasy began to develop.
Christianity is the only religion in the world that recognizes men and women as equals. In paganism women are regarded as greatly inferior to men and usually have little or no place in religion, unless, indeed, it is some dishonorable connection, as in their licentious orgies. Among the Jews, even the laws of Moses made special provision for women, and they were honored and respected; some of them even rose to positions of prominence, as Deborah, who held an official position in Israel (Judges 4:4). Christ delivered one of his greatest sermons to a woman by a well in Samaria (John 4), and a woman was the first messenger sent to proclaim the great fact of the resurrection. The Apostle Paul distinctly recognizes the equality of women with men: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
This equality of women with men in the apostolic church extended, in some instances, even to official positions.
1. As deaconesses. The original Greek of Romans 16:1 clearly shows that Phoebe, a woman, was a deaconess of the church at Cenchrea. Now, “the office of a deacon” was a distinct, public, official position in the church, and its candidates were publicly ordained by the laying on of the hands of the Apostles (I Tim. 3:8-13 with Acts 6:1-6).
2. As ministers. Nor was the ministry of women limited to temporal affairs. We read in different texts of Priscilla and her husband, Aquila (the name of the woman sometimes standing first), and find that on one occasion they jointly took Apollos, a powerful minister of the gospel, and “expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:26). The first sermon concerning the Christ was preached in the temple to the people of Jerusalem by Anna the prophetess—a woman (Luke 2:36-38). The Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well went into her city and proclaimed Christ to the people, with the result that “many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman” (John 4:39).
3. On the Day of Pentecost the Spirit of God was poured out publicly upon the women, and they prophesied in the presence of the wondering multitudes. Philip the evangelist “had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.” (Acts 21:8-9).
Now, what does it mean to prophesy? The primary signification of the term is to speak forth, to tell out the message or the mysteries of God. Its secondary meaning (in some respects the outgrowth of the first) is to foretell future events. Paul clearly shows that through the “gift of prophecy” we may “understand all mysteries, and all knowledge” (II Cor. 13:2). To prophesy, then, is to proclaim the mysteries and knowledge of God. (See also I Cor. 2:7-14.)
To preach the gospel of Christ, then, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost is to proclaim the “mysteries,” the “hidden wisdom” of God—to prophesy. This is the application which the Apostle himself makes of the term (I Cor. 14:3).
Peter declares that the Pentecostal experience, when the women spoke “as the Spirit gave them utterance,” was a fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s prediction that “on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:4, 14-18, with 1:14-15). The Jerusalem church was composed of “multitudes both of men and women” (5:14), and when persecution arose “they were all scattered abroad … except the apostles.… Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (8:1, 4). If they were all scattered and they all went preaching, much of that preaching was by women.
4. From many considerations it is evident that Paul recognized women’s place in the gospel. He wrote to the Philippians, “Help those women which labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life” (4:3). Clement was a minister, and these women are ranked with him and others as Paul’s fellow laborers in the gospel of Christ. “Fellow laborers” means laborers together on the same plane and in the same work. This was only carrying out in a practical way the teaching of the Apostle that in Christ Jesus there is “neither male nor female.”
In planting the gospel among different nations, varying in customs and social conditions, Paul on many occasions found it necessary as a matter of expediency to accommodate himself to particular social standards. (See I Cor. 9:20-23.)
In this same epistle Paul admits that he wrote some things that were, in his opinion, “good for the present distress” (1 Cor. 7:26); hence, were not a standard for all people and for all ages. One of the things to which he found it necessary to accommodate himself was the social standard concerning women in all provinces of the empire. The Corinthian church was in a heathen environment, to the social standards of which some deference had to be paid if the church hoped to win souls to Christ. Women were regarded as vastly inferior to men and had no honorable place in the heathen religion; but, as Strabo informs us, one of their temples in Corinth had a thousand consecrated prostitutes. With such a social standard and such public sentiment concerning women’s place in religion, what course could the Apostle take other than he did take—command the Christian women there to “keep silence in the churches” (14:34)?

The Work of the Church


The work of the church of God is twofold: (1) to care for and perpetuate itself; (2) to evangelize the world. It can prosper only as it keeps this twofold mission in view.  A congregation that becomes self-centered, that cares for nothing but local prosperity, is almost sure to decline spiritually and miss its mission of assisting in carrying the gospel to a lost world. Missionary work was prominent in the apostolic church and was steadfastly pursued in obedience to Christ’s command: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). But the accomplishment of this great work required the sacrifice of men and of means. A noble army of consecrated men and women who “loved not their lives unto the death” went forth to struggle against the powers infernal and win the triumphs of the cross. The churches of God poured out their money in order to meet the demands of the hour, in some cases, as at Jerusalem, even selling their property and devoting the money to the interests of the cause of God.
The same spirit of self-denial and effort are needed today. The work of God needs men and women who are consecrated to evangelize the world, even at the cost of personal comforts and advantages; and the church of God must awaken to the fact that giving of means for the support of God’s work is both a privilege and a duty, and that it must be done.  “Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (I Cor. 9:14). Those who minister to the people in “spiritual things” must receive the benefit of the people’s “carnal things” (vs. 11). The work demands this; God demands it; and all the pure and holy in heart will say amen to the will of God.

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