By Robert F. Turner
Our “Getting to the Bottom Line” series has taken us through a consideration of How We Know Things of God, Grace, and Faith; all very basic subjects. Members of the church of the Lord need these fundamental studies, and yet, strange as it may seem, there is probably more need for a basic understanding of the Nature of the Church than for any other one subject. The reason is obvious to all who give reflective thought to the study of church history. Within the first one hundred years of the church there is evidence that the concept of its nature was being corrupted. Nearly one thousand, nine hundred years have passed, during which that corrupted concept has maintained a predominate position among historic “Christians.” Despite manful efforts for “restoration,” we live among and draw converts from people who have accepted the corrupted concept. What could we rightfully expect but that our small minority of people will be affected by this overwhelming burden?
Recently I was told of two preachers who tried to discuss product of truth, some points of difference. After three or four matters were measured by the Scriptures and not the mother it became apparent they were poles apart in understanding, one remarked, “You know, I don’t believe you are a member of the Church of Christ. I have never met a Church of Christer who believed as you do.” It was a clear case of “you don’t believe as we do, so you are not ‘Church of Christ.”‘ Reminded me of a statement from Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) about the church at Rome: “. . which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority. . .”(Against Heresies, Bk.III, Ch.3, par.2; subject to various translations of the Latin). This tells us how early the nature of the church was corrupted, and the direction that corruption took.
The concept puts “Church authority” in the hands of a body politic, whose true core consists of its administrators. Perhaps this strikes a familiar note to those who read some recent literature, but do not let that turn you off. If the current examination of local church “entity” and elders succeeds in raising another divisive “issue” it will be because we have too few truly taught in the nature of the N.T. church — not because the Examiner was logical or understood that nature correctly. It is a shameful state that should enlist careful study on the part of us all.
Catholicism sees the church as “the society founded by our Lord Jesus Christ” (Catholic Encyclopedia, V. III, p. 744). It is defined as “a body of en united together by the profession of the same Christian Faith, and by participation in the same sacraments, under the governance of lawful pastors . . .” (Ibid, p. 745). Look carefully for the nature of the church in any reliable Catholic source. It is a society (a body politic), having lawful pastors (administrators), who dispense grace (blessings of the sacraments), bought by the blood of Christ. (See Understanding the Catholic Faith, John O’Brien, 1955.)
Allow me to put this pragmatically. (1) Such a church must perpetuate itself, sanctioning and authorizing additional churches. Mormons, accepting this concept in principle, conclude that since the church had been “lost” the original “authority” had to be restored – hence, Peter, James and John appeared to Smith and others, laying hands on them (?). Baptists, accepting this concept in principle, conclude they must “rattle the chain” of succession back to the original “church” – to prove validity. (2) “The church” (via bishops) baptizes, validates public worship, etc. The Great Commission was given to “the church,” hence none but the institution is authorized to go, teach, baptize. Growth of this idea can be traced through Ante-Nicene writings (cf. Constitution of the Holy Apostles, Bk. III, Ch. 10, ca. 120 A.D.). However, as late as 193 A.D., one writer says in special cases “other disciples are called i.e., to the work” (On Baptism, ch. 17). The concept that the institution was the authority, the validator, and the testing stone for heaven, was developed at a very early date. Little wonder, when the institution apostatized it took “Christianity” with it.
I believe the Scriptures teach a much different nature of the church. The word itself is a collective noun, and refers to saints metaphorically assembled. We have put far too much emphasis upon the establishment of the Church, when we should be emphasizing the establishment of the rule of Christ (Study Isa. 2; Acts 2 objectively). It has caused us to think of an institution, when we should have been thinking of a certain kind or quality of people – the saints. Christ rules His people via His word, and even the Apostles were not “the authority,” but were the king’s Ambassadors, who delivered the authoritative word. They have no successors – need none, being still active via their inspired message. I am not arguing the case here, for I believe my readers who will take time to think, will agree with what I am saying. The church (visible) is the product of truth, not the mother of it. Take the word to people, cause them to believe and obey it, and they become Christ’s church.
Putting that pragmatically, we would say a New Testament could be tossed from a boat to an island where people never heard of Christ’s church, and if translated, studied, believed and obeyed, the “church” would exist on that island. (Consider: put sheep on that island, and a “flock” exists there.) This concept says anyone can teach the word, and if it is taught accurately, and obeyed, it produces the same thing every time. Succession is in the seed, not in the sower. Baptism is not “administered” by some “office,” nor is public worship validated by such administrators. Saints assemble and worship because they want to follow the Lord’s instructions, and have a perfect right to do so, without some “mother church” giving them this right. The “nature” of the church in this sense, is the character of its units, the saints. We speak of the “body” of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23), the whole family of God in heaven and earth (3:15, KJ), the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven (Heb. 12:22-23).
We are aware some seem to think this is the only possible use of “church,” and that every passage which speaks of “the church” doing something simply means that “saints” did something. Well, saints did it all right, but not always individually or distributively. Such limitations are inexcusable. They sometimes did something as a team, or collectively; and that team has “entity” and is called a “church.” “Churches” paid wages to Paul (2 Cor. 11:8). This can be broken down to no smaller unit than “church.” “Let not the church be burdened” (1 Tim. 5:16) can not refer to saints individually, because of the contrast in the context. Saints (distributively) have an obligation, and are to perform it and not let saints (collectively) be charged with that obligation. The saints at Philippi, with their overseers and servants (1:1), were called “church” in chapter 4:15, and here “church” is the subject of a singular verb – indicating the saints are not being considered distributively.
There is nothing unusual about a term having more than one application. The word “elder” means older, and sometimes refers only to age. But it is not so limited. Presbuteriou (1 Tim. 4:14) “is a late word (ecclesiastical use also), first for the Jewish Sanhedrin (Lk. 22:66; Acts 22:5), then (here only in N.T.) of Christian elders. . . ” (Word Pictures, Robertson). In “The high priest . . . and all the estate of the elders” (22:5) the high priest was also “elder” but has a separate designation. Adolf Deissmann (Light from Ancient East) confirms the ecclesiastical and official use of “elder” in the N.T., and even mentions a scholar who has written a “history of the title ‘presbyteros. “‘ The dual use of “church” is so commonly confirmed it is foolish to ignore it. All of which brings us to consider “church” when it refers to a group of saints who have covenanted together to act as one – to “organize” if you please. Our study on the nature of the church is incomplete without much more consideration of the nature of the local church, so we promise that in our next article.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 19, pp. 583-584
October 2, 1986