The Plea to Restore the New Testament Church (3): What Is the Apostolic Church?

By Mike Willis

In understanding the plea to restore the New Testament church one must first know what the New Testament church is. Some have belittled the idea of restoring the New Testament church by saying, “Which church of the New Testament do you wish to restore? The church at Jerusalem? Antioch? Corinth?” Here is how Rubel Shelly expressed it:

. . . What should the modern church be like? If you ask this question of members of churches of Christ someone will always reply, “The church today should be like the first century church we read about in the New Testament.” Sounds so simple. . . all we have to do . . . any body with one eye and half sense can go back and read what they were and did, set it down where you are . . . go back to our person to whom the question has been placed. . . you mean we should have open fornication and abuses of the Lord’s Supper like in Corinth? . . . (quoted in Behold The Pattern by Goebel Music 299).

Such a comment either has a total misconception of what restoring the Lord’s church means or it is intentionally dishonest for the sake of building prejudice against the restoration plea. The Lord will judge which is true.

We are quite willing to admit that the individual congregations of the New Testament were just as filled with imperfect people as are modern churches. We recognize the divisions at Corinth, the men at Thessalonica who quit work to await the Lord’s coming, the false teachers in the church at Ephesus, the Judaizers who worked among the Galatian churches, and other imperfections in the local congregations. The plea to restore the New Testament church does not ignore the sins committed by the Christians in these local congregations.

What Is The Church?

The word “church” (ekklesia) is used in three senses in the Scriptures: (a) The universal church which refers to all of the saved the world over (Matt. 16:18); (b) The local church which refers to the saved in a given locality who have bonded together to do the Lord’s work (1 Cor. 1:2); (c) The worship assembly (1 Cor. 14:4,5,12,19).

The church is composed only of Christians. Those who have believed the gospel and obeyed it (repenting, confessing Christ, and being baptized) are the only Christians the New Testament mentions (Mk. 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 11:26). To speak of “Christians in all denominations” presupposes that men can become Christians in many different ways. To speak of the “unity of the church” to mean uniting “Christians in all denominations” is to speak the language of Ashdod, not the language of Scripture.

The Perfect Church

When the church was built by Christ (Matt. 16:18), it was built according to a divine blueprint. In the beginning, the New Testament church was taught just what the Lord revealed that it should be in its faith, doctrine, organization, government, unity, terms of fellowship, terms of admission, and worship.

Alexander Campbell wrote, “Had the founder of the Christian faith been defective in wisdom or benevolence, then his authority, his testimony, and his commandments, might be canvassed with as little ceremony as the discoveries and maxims of our compeers and contemporaries; then his religion might be improved, or reformed, or better adapted to existing circumstances. But as all Christians admit that he foresaw and anticipated all the events and revolutions in human history, and that the present state of things was as present to his mind as the circumstances that encompassed him in Judea, or in the judgment hall of Caiaphas; then he had wisdom and understanding perfectly adequate to institute, arrange, and adapt a system of things, suitable to all exigencies and emergencies of men and things, and that his philanthropy was not only unparalleled in the annals of the world, but absolutely perfect, and necessarily leading to, and resulting in, that institution of religion which was most beneficial to man in the present and future world. I say all these things being generally, if not universally agreed upon by all christians, then it follows, by the plainest and most certain consequence, that the institution of which he is the author and founder, can never be improved or reformed. The lives or conduct of his disciples may be reformed, but his religion cannot. The religion of Rome, or of England, or of Scotland may be reformed, but the religion of Jesus Christ never can. When we have found ourselves out of the way we may seek for the ancient paths, but we are rot at liberty to invent paths for our own feet. We should return to the Lord” (The Christian Baptist, revised by D. S. Burnet 133).

The New Testament church was indeed imperfect with reference to its members, but with reference to the following particulars it was perfect as it came from the hand of Jesus Christ:

1. Its faith. The faith of the New Testament church was faith in Jesus Christ. The church was built on the foundation confession that “thou art the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16-18). This is the foundation of the church and no other can be laid (1 Cor. 3:11). Will those who claim that there is no “pattern” for the New Testament also accept the position that there is no “pattern” for the foundation of the church?

2. Its doctrine. There is a divinely revealed body of doctrine for the church. It was called the “apostles’ doctrine” because the Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to the apostles to guide them into all truth (Acts 2:42; Jn. 16:8). When this body of truth was revealed, the Lord added, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 9-11). Paul warned, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9). The doctrine of Christ was “once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) and departures from it are apostasies.

3. Its organization. The Lord revealed the organization of the church. He ordained that elders be appointed in every church (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5). The qualifications of these men are given in detail (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:6-9). Deacons also served the congregation (Phil. 1:1). Their qualifications likewise are revealed (1 Tim. 3:8-13). The New Testament reveals no aggregation of congregations into ecclesiastical structures with legislative authority or authority to do a “brotherhood” work.

4. Its government. The New Testament churches were locally autonomous. Elders were commanded to oversee the flock of God of which they were members (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). There was no grouping of churches together in one district to be overseen by a presiding bishop or priest, or even elders of a sponsoring church which functions on behalf of other churches and elderships.

5. Its unity. The early churches were united in Christ. The apostles would not tolerate a division of the church into Jewish churches and Gentiles churches; both were reconciled to God in one body (see Eph. 2:16). Threats to the unity of the church, whether external or internal, were opposed as the works of the devil (see the book of Galatians for the threat of the Judaizers for an example of external threat and the carnal brethren at Corinth for an example of an internal threat to the unity of the church.).

6. Its terms of fellowship. Fellowship was extended to any man judged to be in fellowship with Christ. Men were accepted into the fellowship of the local church when they obeyed the gospel and maintained that fellowship by persisting in obedience to the gospel. Faith in Christ and obedience to him were the only and sole tests of fellowship in the New Testament church.

7. Its terms of admission. Men were admitted into the New Testament church when they were saved from their sins (Acts 2:47). The Lord added the saved to his church. They were received into the local church when they had complied with the conditions of salvation.

8. Its worship. The New Testament church ” continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Singing was also a part of their corporate worship (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Heb. 2:12). Worship was conducted on the Lord’s day, the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2).

The Lord’s church is perfect in these particulars. God revealed a pattern to be followed in these areas and wherever departure from these patterns has occurred, a restoration of the primitive order is necessary.

By the plea to restore the apostolic church, we mean a clarion call for men to forsake their humanly devised worship, organization, terms of membership, etc. of their denominations and restore the New Testament pattern of faith and practice in all things.

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 12, pp. 354, 374-375
June 18, 1992