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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Sunday, October 02, 2011

An Unfinished Ecclesiological Primer

This is something I started writing for a specific situation a few years ago, but never completed or used. I thought I would put it here in its unfinished form, just for kicks. Comments are welcome.

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1.) There are three basics institutions in the world that were established by God. They are the church, the family, and the civil government. Because of the reality of living in a sinful world, these three institutions will often find themselves at odds with one another, and discerning how to reconcile them will often be difficult. All other institutions are secondary and derived, whether rightly or wrongly, from these three. Since God didn't establish these other institutions, their necessity and propriety is from the outset questionable. This isn't to say secondary institutions aren't necessary. But it is to say the burden of proving a particular institution's necessity is on the one who insists it is necessary, not on the one who questions it. Also, these secondary institutions are to be understood as temporary within the context of history, and for the purpose of addressing a specific problem. The only permanent institutions (that is, permanent until Christ's second coming) are the ones God Himself established. Secondary institutions exist because those in authority in the primary institutions are failing in the task God has assigned to them. Just because "things have always been done" thus and such a way, whether for the past ten years or the past one thousand, that doesn't mean they should be. If that were the case, then we should all be Roman Catholics and under the Divine Rule of the Queen of England.

2.) When God created the church, He intended it to follow a certain pattern. A church isn't just whatever we want to make it, and just because an organization bears the name "church" doesn't mean it is one, or that it is rightly ordered. Just like other issues in the Christian life, Scripture isn't always as clear on this as we would like it to be. God often speaks in veiled ways to us about these things, and it is our duty to find them out through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to the best of our ability. And then, when we approach Scripture, we tend to take our own cultural baggage with us, which clouds our vision. Nonetheless, I believe certain things can be determined about church life, through study and reflection, which cannot ultimately be refuted. These would include the following.

A.) Church independency is unbiblical. There are no examples in Scripture of little pockets of believers starting up meetings that they call "church", who then remain structurally disconnected from all other local meetings. From the get-go in Acts, believers are saved, not in the fives and tens, but in the thousands. That means that there was never just one small parish church in each town in the early church, but lots of little churches that then composed one large church. This was true of Jerusalem, and that is why we are told that they broke bread house to house (Acts 2:46). To break bread means to celebrate the Lord's Supper together, which means worship. Where city churches are established in the New Testament, it is natural for us to think that meant one local congregation. But I would suggest that the word "church" in those contexts mean "a collection of individual parishes, all under one centralized authority", and all the historical and archaeological evidence points to that conclusion. In addition to this, the churches were started by and overseen by the Apostles and their authorized delegates, and so church unity existed under their authority.

All of this is not to say that those who start up a local church that is disconnected from all other churches are not saved, or that they are intentionally being disobedient. But it is to say that they are not following the pattern of Scripture, and a failure to follow Scripture always has negative results. Groups of people who are in unusual situations and who start churches (say, those living under a Communist regime who are consequently disconnected from the rest of the world) are to align themselves with other church bodies as God provides them the opportunity. And so, where church independency exists, it can only exist as a necessary evil.

This also means that denominationalism exists as a necessary evil as well. There should be structural unity between all true Christians throughout the world, but sin has created division. Whereas some Christians will break fellowship with you because you looked at them funny, others will unite with you no matter what you believe. Unity is the goal, but not at the expense of truth, though we might add that certain truths are more central than others.

B.) There are certain men to whom God has assigned the task of instructing other believers within the context of the church. They are referred to by different titles by different Christian denominations, but for simplicity's sake we will refer to them as the pastors of the church. Their office was established by the Apostles, and they were entrusted with the Gospel in a way that sets them apart from the laity of the church. This isn't to say that all believers aren't entrusted with the Gospel. But there is a sense in which the leaders of the church were entrusted with the Gospel in an authoritative way, distinct from the average Christian.

There are two lay offices in the church, that of the elders and deacons. They are to be able to teach, but their teaching is in addition to the teaching of the pastors, and is not essential to the church in the same way as that of the pastors.

There are opportunities for laypeople to teach, particularly within the family. Fathers are to teach their families; both fathers and mothers are to teach their children. We are to speak the truth, all of us, to one another, and you could call that, in a sense, teaching, though no authority is involved in such a situation, except insofar as the words spoke correspond to Scripture. But the task of teaching, within the authorized meetings of the church, is specifically assigned to the pastors. Any other teaching that takes place is extraordinary, and is generally, but not always, a result of a failure on the part of the pastorate.

If there are no pastors in the meeting of a group that it considers itself a church, then the group in question isn't a church. It may be filled with people who are truly saved, but their organization isn't a church, as Scripture speaks of it.

C.) The main meeting of the church is the Sunday worship service of the church. It is held on Sunday because Sunday is the New Testament Sabbath. It is also appropriate that it is held in the morning, in order to correspond roughly with the time of Jesus' resurrection, though this particular matter isn't absolutely necessary. The worship service is comprised of a few necessary elements: Singing Scripture-based songs, reading Scripture, preaching, prayer, Baptism (only when there is one present who needs to be baptized), and the Lord's Supper. These elements take different forms. For instance, the corporate confession of sin in worship is one form of prayer, and the declaration of pardon is one form of preaching. Without these elements, there is no Biblical worship service. That isn't to say that there isn't a sort of worship service happening when one or more of these elements is missing, or that the people involved aren't worshipping God. But the service they are participating in isn't structured after the Biblical pattern, and therefore isn't a Biblically constituted worship service.

This means that testimonies by laypeople, skits or any other form of drama, puppet shows, dance performances, or any other such activity that is common in Evangelical worship today, is unbiblical. This isn't to say that there isn't a place for such things elsewhere, but they have no place in corporate worship. These things have emerged in the church for a couple of reasons. Laypeople haven't carefully examined what Scripture says about worship. The ministers of the church have failed to teach on the subject. There has been a general antipathy toward the historic practice of the church in general, particularly with regard to worship. And popular culture (which may be better called commercial culture) has infiltrated the church and has so come to order our lives that we allow it to dictate everything we do.

There may be other worship services throughout the week, or additional services for prayer at other times. But the only service of the church that is binding upon the Christian is the once a week Sunday worship service.

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