Chapter 26

Chapter 26
THE CHURCH

1 The universal church1 (brought into being by the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called the invisible church.

This chapter differs more widely from what is found in the Westminster Confession than almost any other chapter in our confession. The former contains only six paragraphs on the church, while the 1689 Confession contains fifteen. The differences are not new with Baptists, for many may be found in the Savoy Declaration of 1658 that was written by Congregationalist Puritans. Paragraphs 1-4 are derived for the most part from the Savoy revision of the Westminster Confession, and paragraphs 5-16 from a small work on local church polity attached to the Declaration. The first four paragraphs focus on the universal church and the remainder on the local church. (Waldron)

There was a movement that began in the middle of the nineteenth century called Landmarkism that taught the church is always a visible and local institution. This obviously stands in contrast to the very notion of a catholic or universal church. It is true that the vast majority of the uses of “church” in the New Testament refer to local churches, there are times when it clearly has broader reference (Mt 16:18; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 1:22, 4:11-15, 5:23-32; Col 1:18, 24; Heb 12:23). The church in which God appointed apostles, the church for which Christ gave up his life, the church of the firstborn is surely wider in scope than any local visible congregation.

The catholic church is invisible, but only in respect of the internal work of the Spirit. It is not invisible in the sense that it is impossible to see, but in the sense that it is hidden to some extent from view like a mountain peak wrapped in fog. It is invisible because we cannot directly view the work of the Spirit in a man’s heart or in a church’s life. While the fog of doctrinal error and sinful behavior may keep us from perfectly determining the outlines of the universal church, it is still visible in the local church. There is, in fact, no evidence for an invisible church apart from the visible church which manifests itself in local congregations. “One may not credibly profess to be a member of the invisible church while despising membership and fellowship in the visible church” (Waldron, 313).

It consists of the complete number of the elect who have been, who are, or who shall be gathered into one under Christ its Head.

The universal church is made up of all the saved of all ages, all who are saved through him and are thus members of the body of which he is the head. This is that Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the church of the firstborn spoken of by the author of Hebrews (12:22-23). It is the new Jerusalem described in Revelation which is called the bride, the wife of the Lamb, that Holy City which has written on its gates the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (21:9-12). We therefore reject one of the basic tenets of dispensationalism, namely, that there is an everlasting distinction between Israel in the OT and the church in the NT. This is not to say that there is nothing new about the people of God since the coming of Christ. There is a sense in which the church is to be viewed as the fulfillment of God’s intentions for Israel and thus new and distinct. Living under the new covenant in the age of fulfillment much has changed and keeping this in mind will help us to avoid the tendency of some covenant theologians to flatten out all differences between the age of promise and today. The more important truth here though is that whether a person was saved through faith that was stirred by looking at the types that pointed forward to Christ or is saved by looking back at the work of Christ that fulfilled those types, he belongs to the one people of God.

The church is the bride, the body, the fullness of Christ who fills all in all.2

The relationship between the church and Christ is described in terms of the most intimate of all human relationships. We cannot deny that the invisible church is visible only through the institutional church, and yet the church is more than an organization, it is an organism. It is the body of Christ. As the bride and body of Christ there is a sense in which he is incomplete without us. This is the result of his having voluntarily chosen to bind himself to us by covenant. And yet it is ever true that as the One who ‘fills all in all’ (Eph 1:23), as the sovereign and omnipresent Lord of the universe, Christ is perfectly complete without us.

2 All people throughout the world who profess the faith of the Gospel and render obedience to God by Christ according to the Gospel, and who do not destroy their own profession by any fundamental errors, or by unholy behavior, are and may be called visible saints.3

The saints who comprise the wife of Christ are those who profess to believe in Christ as Savior and Lord and give evidence that faith is genuine by obeying his commands (e.g. to repent, love one another, pray, study the Scriptures). A saint is not one who has proved his righteousness by doing extraordinary things, but one who has been faithful to do the ordinary things commanded by Christ, most importantly, to repent and believe. Gospel obedience is not mere external observance of and conformity to certain scriptural demands, but is an obedience that springs from a heart of faith that longs to please the Savior.

We are to accept a person’s credible profession of faith so long as they do not contradict it by holding to doctrinal errors in the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith or by living lives characterized by unholy behavior. This means that we acknowledge there are no saints completely free of sin in their lives and that we cannot brand one who professes faith a heretic because he differs with us on important but non-foundational doctrines. We cannot condemn as an unbeliever a man who believes in salvation by faith alone in Christ alone and lives an exemplary life but who happens to believe that we are living in the end times just because the tenth nation has joined the European common market.

All local congregations ought to be constituted of such people.4

The Westminster Confession says all such people and their children comprise the local church, but our confession limits membership to those profess faith personally. If faith and obedience are the essential requirements of church membership, then every church ought to do its best to determine that a credible profession evidenced by these is given by those who wish to join its fellowship.

3 The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error,5 and some have degenerated so much that they have ceased to be churches of Christ and have become ‘synagogues of Satan’.6

There is no such thing as a perfect church this side of eternity. Even the best of churches is subject to error in its doctrine and the unregenerate among its membership. In distinction from other denominations in the Reformed tradition Baptists have insisted on a regenerate membership, but we recognize our ability to achieve that perfectly is limited by the fact that we cannot see man’s heart. All churches are plagued by imperfections, but some have degenerated so far as to no longer deserve the name “church of Christ” for they are nothing more than a “synagogue of Satan.”

One of the questions we must raise at this point is, How do we know when a local body is no longer truly a church? How does the believer know when it is time to leave the church and declare it apostate? The Belgic Confession (1561 – a standard of the Dutch Reformed Church) gives us some help at this point. It declares: “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God.” Though much may be wrong with the church, if these things can be found in it, then it is still the church of Christ. We need note only the church at Corinth with all its problems that is still addressed as a church comprised of saints to recognize that not all doctrinal error or sin makes a church apostate. If the time comes when a believer must separate from a fellowship then he ought to make known his reasons for doing so in terms of the failures in one or all of these areas.

Nevertheless, Christ has always had, and always will have to the end of time a kingdom in this world, made up of those who believe in him and profess his name.7

Though believers apostatize and churches degenerate into ‘synagogues of Satan’ there will always be a true, visible church on earth until the Lord comes again. Neither persecution from without nor decay within will ever completely destroy the church and leave our Lord without a visible testimony to his saving power in the world. In the dark days before the Reformation when internal decay ate away at the church and during the long night of communist tyranny in Russia when external force was used to undermine and destroy the church, believers learned the truth of Jesus’ promise concerning the invincibility of the church. Though seemingly dead, the gates of Hades proved no match for the power of the church, the bride of the risen and ever-living Lord. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others have claimed to restore to life the true church that lay dormant for many centuries. In making such claims they deny the power of Christ and his promise to be with his people always, even until the very end of the age. We may sometimes feel like Elijah and that we stand alone, but there are always the seven thousand God has who remain faithful. No particular promises may be claimed by any particular local church, but it is through the local church that this promise is maintained.

4 The Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the church. In him is vested, by the appointment of the Father in a supreme and sovereign manner, all authority for the calling, institution, order and government of the church.8

There is only one head, one supreme authority in the church, and that is Jesus Christ. He is not head merely in the sense that he established it, but in the sense that he continues today to order and govern it. He has not vacated his position of authority and left someone else in charge of directing his church. He still rules in the church through the Word and the Spirit as he has from the earliest days.

The Pope of Rome cannot in any sense be the head of the church, but he is the antichrist, that ‘man of lawlessness’, and ‘son of destruction’, who exalts himself in the church against Christ and all that is called God, whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.9

Because Christ is the head of the church it is impossible for anyone else to claim that title. Since this is true it is clear that the Pope cannot be the head as the Catholic church claims. As do others, we would disagree that the pope is to be identified with the Antichrist. This is not to deny the apostate condition of the Roman Catholic church, but is merely to acknowledge that the exegetical basis of this position is without adequate basis. The Pope does represent those who have the spirit of antichrist (1 Jn 2:22, 4:3) and deny the Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One who came as our Prophet, Priest and King. In so many ways the authority assumed by the Catholic Church for the Pope undermines the unique position of Jesus as the sole mediator between God and man as expressed in these three offices. Titles like “Holy Father” and “Ruler of the World” and “Head of the Church” show how far the Catholic Church has gone in ascribing to the Pope what belongs to God alone, and thus in exalting him over everything that is called God (2 Thes 2:4). There are, nevertheless, others who have assumed for themselves the prerogatives and powers of God and it has proven as dangerous to identify the Antichrist as it has to identify the date of Christ’s second coming. For this reason it might be appropriate to delete this part of this paragraph from our confession.

5 In executing the authority entrusted to him, the Lord Jesus, through the ministry of his Word and by his Spirit, calls to himself out of the world those who are given to him by the Father.10

Christ alone has the authority to establish the church. The origin of the church he establishes is found in his powerful and effectual call to salvation. This call to men comes through the ministry of the Word as it is preached from the pulpit, shared in personal encounters and defended in the public arena. The faithful proclamation of the Word is made effective in changing hearts and bringing men into the fellowship of the saints by the work of the Spirit who opens men’s spiritual ears so they can hear and believe the gospel. Those who come to the Lord and enter his church are not seekers drawn by nicer version of the world they live in, but are members of that world that stands in opposition to God who are drawn by the power of the preached Word and the Spirit.

They are called to walk before him in the ways of obedience which he prescribes for them in his Word.11

Our calling brings with it both the blessings of salvation and the responsibilities of obedience. The obedience he expects is conformity to the precepts of Scripture, and this brings us to the necessity and ministry of the local church. The work of the pastors and teachers he gave to the church (Eph 4:11) is to shepherd the flock under their care by feeding them the Word and showing them by example what it means to walk as Scripture demands. The fact that this is carried out on a local basis is indicated by the fact that Paul on his missionary journeys went about establishing congregations and appointing leaders wherever he preached the gospel and people responded. If we are called to obedience and the church is the normal means of growing in obedience, then the teaching ministry of the church must be central.

He commands those who are so called to form local societies or churches for their mutual edification

Obedience to the commands of Christ requires not only proper teaching, but also regular encouragement (Heb 10:25) and sometimes even discipline (Mt 18:15-17, 1 Cor 5:3-5). It is hard to imagine how promoting the common welfare as described in these Scriptures could be carried out in any context other than a local assembly of believers. The kind of accountability implied in discipline cannot be exercised in a universal church. Believers need a local assembly who knows them well and will exercise consistent and loving discipline to help them grow in their loving obedience to the Lord.

and to engage in the public worship which he requires of them while in the world.12

If the central manward purpose of the church is the building up of believers in their obedience to the commands of Christ, its central Godward purpose is worship. We have the promise of our Lord’s special presence when we gather in his name. So long as we are left on earth it is our duty and privilege to gather with the people of God to praise and honor him in worship.

Deacons are likewise chosen by the common consent of the church. They are not simply appointed by the elders or any super church board. In the laying on of hands no special power is imparted. There is in this act the simple recognition by those involved that this man meets biblical God’s standards for service in this office and they approve of him for this role.

6 The members of these churches are ‘saints’ by calling and they visibly demonstrate and give evidence of their obedience to the call of Christ by their profession and walk.13

Those who are called by God to become members of the church are by that same call made saints. We are saints first and foremost because of what God has done for us and in us, and not because of what we have done. Being made holy, sanctified, is God’s work, but that does not mean we are relieved of all responsibilities with regard to being holy. Those who are saints will demonstrate in a visible fashion that they are indeed holy. They will openly confess their faith in Christ and will confirm by their obedience that they are indeed what they claim to be, members of the body of Christ. The notion of secret disciples whose life and conduct give no evidence of their allegiance to Christ or silent saints who never speak a word about him to even their most intimate friends is false. Church members are expected to give tangible, visible evidence of their changed lives and to live in a manner worthy of the name they bear. One practical implication of this is that those who seek to join a new church ought to be ready to verbally relate something of their life with Christ and give evidence of their holy life in the form of letters of recommendation from their previous church.

They willingly consent to walk together according to Christ’s instructions, giving themselves to the Lord and to one another by the will of God, affirming their subjection to the directives of the Gospel.14

Though we all need to be reminded of our duties to God and his people due to the weakness of the flesh, it is nevertheless the earnest desire of every church member to spend time in fellowship with other Christians as Scripture tells us we should. This is what it means to have the law of God written on our heart, we want to do what he expects of us. The man who goes to church only because he feels forced to go understands nothing of the willingness spoken of here.

7 To each church so gathered according to the mind [of Christ] as declared in his Word, the Lord has given all the power and authority required to conduct the form of worship and discipline which he has appointed for them to observe.

All authority and power necessary for the proper functioning of the church with regards to worship and discipline are invested in the local church. The local church is completely sufficient apart from any outside authority for carrying out all those functions our Lord has assigned to the church. There is no need for others beyond the membership of the local assembly to appoint leadership, administer the ordinances, intervene in discipline or establish doctrinal standards. Even when Paul (an apostle with authority no one today exercises) counsels the church at Corinth to excommunicate one of their members for sexual immorality, it was still the church itself and not Paul that was to exercise the discipline. There is nothing in the New Testament that defines the role of a body with authority over the members of a local church.

Those denominations with hierarchical structures often point to the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 to show the necessity of councils or synods to oversee certain aspects of local church life (e.g. the appointment of ministers, settling interchurch disputes). While the Jerusalem Council did make decisions binding on churches other than the one at Jerusalem, we cannot forget that she had a unique authority because of the presence of the apostles. This uniqueness makes it difficult if not impossible to draw inferences from that council to today’s church situation.

He has also given commands and rules for the right and proper use of that power.15

Each church has the authority to draw up for itself whatever rules it feels are useful for maintaining proper order in the church. These rules should, of course, have sufficient Scriptural bases. Each church is therefore free to adopt whatever confession of faith it feels accurately reflects their understanding of Biblical doctrines and to draw up any covenant it feels appropriate to maintain a proper spiritual atmosphere among members.

It should be noted that this independence is not the same as the isolationism and ‘go-it-alone’ spirit seen so often in churches today. There may well be times when one stronger church extends a helping hand to a weaker one, or where two or more churches cooperate to achieve goals beyond the ability of any single one to do on their own. This understanding of the sufficiency of the local church though does see the local body as being far more important in the work of the Lord than many give credit for. The work once thought to be the sole domain of the local church is now assumed by many parachurch organizations and extra-church ministries. The proliferation of these ministries (that emphasize family or evangelism or men’s/women’s needs) all tend to undermine the work of the church by sending the message that the local church, the only body established by the Lord himself to carry on his work in the world, is not able to do its work as well as they can. While some of these other organizations may serve useful purposes, they should never undermine the authority and priority of the local church.

8 A local Church, gathered and organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members.

The priesthood of the believer has often been mistaken to mean that there should be no distinctions among members in the church. One cannot read the New Testament though and fail to note the numerous references to elders, pastors, overseers and deacons. The importance of these officers is seen in the fact that everywhere Paul went he appointed elders (Acts 14:23). These officers are important in the maintenance of the order God expects in the church. It is only a distorted understanding of equality that leads some to reject the idea of organized religion in which authority is exercised by those called to be leaders.

The officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church are bishops or elders, and deacons.

There are only two continuing offices in the local church: elders and deacons. The word bishop is a translation of the Greek word for overseer and describes the function of the office while elder seems to emphasize its dignity or authority. Though there is some ambiguity in our confession, it is fairly clear that the office of pastor is not one that is distinct from that of elder. In Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian church leaders (Acts 20) it seems obvious that the terms elder, overseer and shepherd (pastor) all refer to the same people. The only other office in the church is that of deacon. This twofold division is seen in the classic passage on church officers found in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 as well as in Philippians 1:1.

The use of the plural for both elders and deacons indicates that for the authors of the confession, just as it is in Scripture, the norm is a plurality of elders. There is no example in the New Testament of a church with only one elder, but many with a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil 1:1, 1 Thes 5:12, Titus 1:5; Heb 13:17, James 5:14). Several reasons for this standard can be offered. First, the elevation of one man in the church to a position of the leader tends to obscure the position of Christ as the Head, Pastor, Overseer and Lord of the church. Second, shared leadership tends to counter the dangers of pride or tyranny that can too easily arise when one person is considered the final human authority. Third, a plurality of elders makes it possible for the leaders to set an example of brotherly love, humility and servanthood for the rest of the body. Fourth, there is the practical benefit of easing the load of pastoral responsibility. While there are exceptional men, those who can teach, administer, counsel and evangelize (among other things), such men are rare. A plurality of elders enables those of lesser talents to exercise their gifts in a position of leadership with others who will complement their weaknesses. While circumstances may sometimes make a plurality of elders impractical, it should be the goal of every church to move towards such an arrangement when possible.

They are appointed particularly to oversee what the Lord has ordained, and to execute the powers and duties which the Lord has entrusted to them or to which he calls them. This pattern is to be continued to the end of the world.16

It is the responsibility of the elders and deacons to make sure the work the Lord has assigned to the church as detailed in Scripture is carried out. They are to accomplish this by exercising the authority that is given them as leaders in the church. Until the end of the age this is God’s appointed means for carrying out his work in the world. There will never come a time when the need for an established church with properly appointed leaders becomes unnecessary. The nature of their work is spelled out in the following paragraphs.

9 The way appointed by Christ for calling any person qualified and gifted by the Holy Spirit17 for the office of bishop or elder, is that he is to be chosen by the communal vote of the church itself.18

The prerequisites for holding the office of elder in the church are proper qualifications and gifts supplied by the Holy Spirit. Since the One who inspired the Scriptures is the One who supplies these gifts we can be certain that the qualifications spelled out in clear detail in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 are the ones he would consider proper. A church is not permitted on the basis of her own wisdom or preferences to choose a man as an elder who does not have these qualifications, even if they feel his personality or skills uniquely qualifies him for such a position in their church. Though his gifts may need to be developed, the one who will serve as an elder must give evidence of having the gifts necessary for that office. It is a tragedy because of its danger to the spiritual life of the congregation when a man is chosen as an elder because he has certain skills thought important by the world but does not measure up to God’s standards. We have no more right to decide what we think makes a good pastor and ignore God’s requirements than we do to set our own standards for what it takes to be saved. If a man meets the biblical guidelines but does not have that charisma or personality we want in a leader we would be foolish to reject him and choose a more gifted and dynamic leader who fails to meet biblical norms.

Though this is not the place for a full exposition of all the relevant passages (see especially Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Tim 3:1-7), a few of the more important qualifications for eldership ought to be noted. The first quality in both lists that deal with this issue requires that an elder must be above reproach. His character and conduct must be such that opponents can bring no damaging charges against him. He must have a good moral and spiritual reputation so that his life cannot be used to discredit his beliefs and teachings. How often have we seen the cause of Christ tainted because a church leader proved himself unworthy in character. The one who leads the church must give an example that can be followed, for it often happens that the people become like those who lead them.

Next in both list of qualifications is the issue of a man’s home life. In relation to his wife, he must be a one woman man. This means more than simply having one wife at a time. It means he must be a man whose loyalty and faithfulness to his wife is unquestioned. Negatively, this means he is not noted as flirtatious and is not involved in any questionable relationships with other women. Each church must decide for itself whether pre-conversion divorce disqualifies a man, since it may open him up to reproach, but it would seem that judging a man’s spiritual qualifications on the basis of what he did before he had been granted spiritual life is undesirable. It would seem though that a man who is divorced while holding office should be disqualified because of the reproach he bears. This has nothing to do with whether God can forgive or use him, but only with his ability to lead the people of God.

The elder must also have children who are “faithful.” Most of the newer translations render this Greek noun “believing”, though “faithful” seems to fit the context better. The contrast is not between believing and unbelieving children, but between those who are faithful and those who are ‘wild and disobedient’ (Tit 1:6). A father cannot guarantee the spiritual destiny of his children, but he can ‘manage his own family’ in such a way that ‘his children obey him with proper respect’ (1 Tim 3:4-5). The rationale here is that if he cannot manage his own family well, how could he be expected to manage the family of God?

Other qualifications that relate to character are listed (in fact most of the qualifications have to do with character and not ability), but two performance related traits are noted. First, the elder is called to be an overseer. He has been given the responsibility of shepherding the flock of Christ. Though he does not crave and use authority like those in the world, he has responsibilities in the church that require certain courses of action. His actions should not be accepted blindly, but neither are they to be overruled by a simple majority vote. With all its benefits in a secular society, the church is not a pure democracy. Elders are called upon to lead by example with a servant mentality, but are also required to act sometimes in ways that are not appreciated by everyone (e.g. church discipline). An overseer must be ready to act biblically whether that is popular or not.

Related to his role as an overseer, the elder must be ‘apt to teach.’ He must be able to “encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit 1:9). In addition to irreproachable character a solid grasp of Scripture and an ability to apply them to the life of a congregation is the most important qualification for an elder. It is for this reason that churches throughout the years have valued a man who has a good educational background. This is no elitist attitude that looks down on the uneducated, but is simply an acknowledgment that an ability to think deeply about biblical matters is essential to a man’s capacity to lead in the church of God. Where this ability to teach is lacking a man is left to his own inventiveness and resourcefulness which is a real danger in trying to lead God’s people.

In addition to these Scripturally mandated qualifications, before a man may serve as an elder in a church he must be chosen and called by the church itself. There is neither an authority higher than the church (eg, a presbytery) or an authority within the church (eg, the elders) who may appoint an elder without the common consent of the church. Though a body of believers has no right by majority rule to select a man who is unqualified by Scriptural standards to lead them, neither does anyone have a right to force on them a man who may be qualified but unsuited for that congregation.

He shall be solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with the laying on of hands by the elders of the church (if there are any previously appointed bishops or elders).19

The examples we have of Paul being set apart for ministry and later of his appointing elders in the church suggest prayer and fasting as appropriate activities for the church to engage in when setting apart elders for their office. (It should be noted that the use of the word ‘appoint’ in Acts 14:23 tells us nothing of the method used to choose these men, whether by common consent or direct designation. This is left to other passages of Scripture.) Fasting suggests a spiritual intensity and urgency to the process of selecting leaders in the church that is often missing when business skills and political contacts are the first concern.

Similarly, a deacon is also to be chosen by vote of the church and set apart by prayer, with the laying on of hands.20

Deacons are likewise chosen by the common consent of the church. They are not simply appointed by the elders or any super church board. In the laying on of hands no special power is imparted. There is in this act the simple recognition by those involved that this man meets biblical God’s standards for service in this office and they approve of him for this role.