Bible Authority The Church: Biblical or Cultural?

By Steve Curtis

In Ephesians 3:9-11, Paul establishes the fact that the church is the “eternal purpose” of God. Like an architect, God planned and organized the church from eternity, long before man was created. The idea Paul is trying to establish is that the church was purposed throughout the ages. Therefore, the church we read about in the New Testament was not specifically created and organized for the culture of the first century, but by God’s wisdom it was designed for all cultures or ages.

However, the fact that different cultures have affected the church, as our culture today does, cannot be denied. The question that has to be answered is to what extent can culture affect the church before it violates God’s eternal purpose, his design of the church.

The Church Manifests the Manifold Wisdom of God

Concerning the church Paul states, to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church” (Eph. 3:10). When God purposed the church, it was planned in such a way that its organization and work might make known the many-sided wisdom of God.

No one can know the mind of God unless he reveals it (1 Cor. 2:11,12). This is true no matter what subject is being discussed, including the church. Therefore, let us look to the Scriptures in order to learn God’s will.

God’s will concerning the church was first made known to man by his Son. Jesus’ public ministry was a preparation for the establishment of the church (Matt. 4:17; 6:33; 16:17-19). After the death and resurrection of Christ, this responsibility of revelation was given to the apostles (Matt. 28:18-20; Jn. 14:25-26; 16:13; Lk. 24:49). In Acts 2, the apostles received the power of revealing God’s will and began preaching the gospel of the kingdom which Jesus has revealed and died to establish.

On the day of Pentecost, those who gladly received the words of the apostles obeyed them and were added to the church (Acts 2:41,47). Were those being saved added to the church eternally purposed by God, or were they added to some type of infant church which could grow into the one eternally purposed by God?

Despite the arguments from some of the advocates of the “new heremeneutic,” New Testament Christians were added to the church eternally purposed by God. Did they know on that day God’s will concerning the work of benevolence? More than likely they did not. Did they know on that day that each congregation was to maintain its autonomy? Again, it is likely they did not. However, this does not make the church we read about in the New Testament an under developed church.

The apostles still had the ability and responsibility to make God’s will known. In fact, Paul in the text of Ephesians 3 lets us know that it was his responsibility to make known the church. Which church? There is only one (Eph. 4:4). Paul made known the one eternally purposed by God which manifested his manifold wisdom. An under developed church could not be spoken of as “eternally purposed,” nor could it make known God’s man-sided wisdom. There-fore, the New Testament church completely manifests God’s revealed will concerning its organization and work.

Along with the spoken works of the apostles, the early church had their written word to furnish them completely unto every good work (2 Thess. 2:15; Col. 2:16; 1 Pet. 12-15; 1 Tim. 3:14-15). The apostles’ work was aided by gifts of revelation given to individual Christians (Mk. 16:17-18,20; Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:28). By this process, we know that each congregation we read about had the ability to know God’s eternal design of the organization and work of the church.

The New Testament Reveals

A Pattern for Us to Follow

There is no doubt that the infinitely wise architect of the church has made known his will concerning it. God has revealed his will to us in the New Testament Scriptures. This revelation is complete. For every aspect of the organization and work of the church, we can know God’s divine will (2 Tim. 3;16,17; Jude 3).

The written words of Paul were a pattern for Timothy to follow (1 Tim. 3:15). The spoken words of Paul constituted a pattern for Timothy as well (2 Tim. 1:13). Timothy was instructed to teach these to other Christians. Peter’s written word served as a reminder of the truth revealed by him for Christians to have after his death (2 Pet. 1:12-15). Someone might say, “Yes, but it was a pattern for the New Testament Christians. Not a pattern for us.” On the contrary, remember the apostles were not making part of God’s will known concerning the church and establishing an infant church. They were revealing the church that God had purposed throughout the ages.

At this point, let us establish some facts concerning the pattern of the church in the New Testament. First, the pattern was not man-made by early Christians. Secondly, the pattern revealed was not a pattern demanded by culture but a pattern given by God. Thirdly, the pattern revealed to us makes known the will of God concerning the organization and work of the church for all ages. Therefore, if we want to please God, who designed the church, Christians today must follow the New Testament pattern.

Any alteration of God’s pattern is an attempt by man to make “better” that which is complete. Who is man that he should question the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 2:13)? “But the Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him” (Heb. 2:20).

The New Testament pattern for the church is God’s pattern, not man’s. It is applicable to every culture of any time. Each culture should conform itself to his word instead of conforming God’s word to the culture. This is clearly demonstrated with the matter of circumcision. In order for Abraham’s descendants to keep the covenant God made with him, it was necessary for all males to be circumcised (Gen. 17:10-14; Lev. 12:3). However, at Christ’s death, circumcision was nailed to the cross and was no longer necessary (Col. 2:14). At that point, circumcision became part of the Jewish culture.

Many of the Jews still continued to practice circumcision after Christ’s death. Did the apostles try to stop them from being circumcised? If they did, we have no written record. It was no more wrong for the Jews to be circumcised than it is for males to be circumcised today. However, when the Jews tried to bind their culture on the church, the apostles determined that it was a violation of God’s will and they tried to put a stop to it (Acts 15:6-29).

Circumcision is just one aspect of the Jewish culture which some used in an attempt to pervert God’s purposed church. The observance of new moons, Sabbaths, festivals, and the eating of certain foods were all part of the Jewish culture which affected the New Testament church (Col. 2:16; Gal. 4:9,10). If culture is to be used to determine doctrine, organization, and work of the church, then why was the Jewish culture dogmatically opposed by inspired men of God?

To What Extent Does Culture Affect the Church

The fact that culture has an effect on the church cannot be ignored. History shows that culture has affected the church. For example, Christians in the early centuries did not have four part harmony for singing. Four part harmony was something introduced by culture. Early Christians did not have radio and television to aid them in evangelism. These are things introduced by culture. However, these cultural effects did not add to or take away from the revealed pattern for the church.

History also shows culture effects which have destroyed the pattern for the church. This can easily be seen in Roman Catholicism which grew out of a perversion of the over-sight of the elders. Other things such as instrumental music, infant baptism, financial support of orphanages and colleges by congregations, and the social and recreational activities provided by many congregations all demonstrate cultural effects which have perverted God’s pattern for the church.

However, if one opposes cultural changes which manipulate the church designed by God, some will accuse him/her of “patternism” or adhering to a “pattern theology.” Advocates of the “new hermeneutic” movement would like to destroy God’s revealed pattern for the church. “The Bible is not a blueprint or pattern,” they say. “If my method isn’t the same as your method, or if my method isn’t the same method in vogue among the Jews of Palestine some 2000 years ago, then God will torture me in a lake of fire for all eternity” and similar comments like these are made in hopes of destroying the New Testament pattern for the church.

If their arguments are applied to Jewish culture and its effect on the early church, the apostles would have been legalists because they were binding where God had not bound. That is interesting, considering that the Son of God had given them the keys to the kingdom (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). Also, Gentile converts of the New Testament would have been forced to adhere to Judaism which Paul spoke of as a perverted gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:7). What is even more interesting is that if the church is defined by culture as some are saying it is, notice that the Jewish culture, which was based upon traditions of men, would destroy the church of God (Gal. 1:13-14). Also, if it had been allowed to affect the church, there would have been no justification and the death of Christ would have been in vain (Gal. 2:16,21).

Using the reasoning of the advocates of “new hermeneutics,” if Judaism was to become an issue today, it would have to be accepted. Of course, that is assuming the fact that the church is a spiritual institution designed by God in order for man to use in meeting his own defined “needs.” To disagree with this is to admit that the New Testament Christians had a divine pattern which the Jewish culture threatened to pervert. Also, it would have to be admitted that since the Scriptures provide a divine pattern and not a cultural one, the New Testament church makes known God’s will concerning the work, organization, and work of the church today.

God never intended the church which he eternally purposed to be defined and molded by culture. Cultural effects upon the church that would alter the New Testament pattern are nothing more than perversions of the gospel of Christ, based upon the traditions of men, which will destroy the church of God.


When cultural changes manipulate God’s pattern for the church, they must be avoided. Such cultural effects are nothing more than “teaching for doctrine the commandments of men” and should be rejected (Matt. 15:9). Such things as the “new hermeneutic,” the redefining of the roles of women in the church, the Positive Mental Attitude philosophy of preaching, and the redefining of the purpose of baptism are such cultural effects that are changing God’s pattern for the church and must be avoided. Christians can not conform God’s word to culture. We must conform ourselves to God’s word.

The church is a spiritual institution “eternally purposed” by God. He has authorized his Son to have all authority over the church. As such, every aspect of the church  the role of men/women, the work of benevolence, evangelism and edification, worship, etc.  must be done by the authority of Christ according to the pattern which God designed. Even the hypocritical Jewish leaders recognized the proper source of authority, heaven (Matt. 21:23-27).

Christians must be open to the fact that different cultures will have an effect on the organization and work of the church. When such effects are authorized expediencies and lead to edification, they can be used as aids in fulfilling God’s commands (1 Cor. 10:23; 14:40). However, when such changes call for a perversion of the New Testament pattern of the church, they must be resisted they are nothing more than a rejection of the commandments of God (Mk. 7:9).

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 20, p. 18-20
October 20, 1994