Summary: The doctrine of the church reflects our view of Christ and His Word.
“Many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.”
A church of Jesus Christ is a body of baptised believers, associated together in one place to preach the Gospel, to keep the ordinances and to represent the interests of Christ’s kingdom in the world. This old definition of the word “church” was at one time well known to Baptists throughout North America. Unfortunately, this definition has fallen into disuse in this day. As it has been dropped from common usage, so the biblical concept of a church has also been forgotten.
The word “church,” as used in the New Testament, usually refers to a local assembly or congregation of the followers of Christ. The exceptions would be when the term is used of an ideal or in perhaps one instance when speaking of the saints who shall be assembled in the presence of the Master following the rapture. In the days of the New Testament, believers associated and covenanted together for religious worship and work. These are the only kind of New Testament churches on earth. Consequently, and as a significant aside, the term “universal church” is extra-biblical, as is the concept. Though we share the Faith in common with all who are saints, we make no appeal of belonging to an amorphous, indistinct something named “universal church.”
A New Testament church is a local, independent body subject to no central human power. Governed by the New Testament code, it is subject only to Christ, the Living Head and to His Word. The New Testament knows nothing of a church covering a given territory, such as the Church of England or the Church of Ireland. The Word of God knows nothing of a denomination called by the name of a religious entity, such as the United Church or the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, there is no creature such as “the Baptist Church,” although there are Baptist churches. The issue is sufficiently important to our understanding of Baptist theology that it bears repeating. There is no “Baptist Church” as a denominational, national or universal entity. One does not belong to “the Baptist Church,” though an individual may belong to “a Baptist church.”
Yet another truth must be stated for precision and accuracy. Churches were created not in order to save people; they were organised for saved people. A church is a congregation of baptised believers, covenanted together and observing the ordinances of Christ. This assembly covenants to carry out the principles of the New Testament as they worship, evangelise and fellowship under the headship of Christ Jesus.
We believe that a church is responsible to the One who brought it into existence. The corollary to this truth is that a congregation has no responsibility to any hierarchy or outside authority. A congregation has no authority of its own, but is subject to the authority of Christ as expressed through the Word of God. Thus, a church does not—indeed, cannot—save. A church is the body of Christ, for He is the head of the church.
This simple ecclesiastical truth is neglected to the detriment of congregational strength and vitality. Too many Baptists are ignorant of the most basic truth concerning their church. The reason for this ignorance must be laid at the feet of pastors who are themselves illiterate concerning the teachings of the Word of God, or else they hold no convictions worthy of the blessed name by which they are called. Join me in exploration of the model provided in the New Testament of the Church that Jesus loved.
TWO CONCEPTS OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP — “They would all meet in Solomon’s Colonnade. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people praised them highly.” How people can read the same book and come to such radically different conclusions as they do is a mystery to me. As an example, history has witnessed development of a concept that permits a union of state and church. Nevertheless, Baptists are adamant in insisting that such a union is a monstrosity and an abomination before God.
A significant segment of Christendom is convinced that people are born into the church, much as they are born citizens of a nation. Baptists, however, stand firm in insisting that only one born from above is qualified to be recognised as a member of a New Testament congregation. The question of church membership—whether a person must be converted to be a church member is certainly the most important and controversial of all that concerns the teaching of the church. This question divides the Christian world into two unyieldingly opposed groups. On one hand, the churches “of the masses” or “the multitudinous churches” (all of the state churches) affirm: