An unnamed “serious man” once reminded John Wesley that “the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” He was right. God’s antidote for loneliness is Christ-created fellowship, life in the Church.

The doctrine of the Church, however, stirs an uneasy conscience among many evangelicals who hesitate to support the ecumenical movement but who appreciate the serious study of the nature of the Church within that movement. They are aware that this fresh interest in the Church set churchmen searching their Bibles with new vigor. And those acquainted with denominational history recognize that a specific doctrine of the Church fathered various Protestant communions. Remaining convinced of the merits of their own distinctive witness, they feel constrained to safeguard its uniqueness while attempting to relate it to the contemporary scene.

At the same time many evangelicals zestfully support the work of certain Christian movements which are not related to church supervision. Because of their witness to the need of repentance, the merits of Christ’s sacrifice, and the offer of forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ, independent movements have gained support from hundreds of denominational churches. But some evangelicals confess to mounting frustration over the attempt to reconcile independency with their doctrine of the Church. The major features of the doctrine of the Church, they feel, are taught in Scripture as clearly as the plan of salvation. They also observe widespread misunderstanding of the Church which produces an individualism foreign to the Bible, and movements lacking responsible ties to the churches.

Religious Individualism

The importance of the doctrine of the Church is disclosed when we remember that our conceptions, including those of the Church, govern our actions. They control such practical matters as our gifts, our associations, and our witness to the world. Is it not tragic, for example, to send out scores of zealous young people to the earth’s mission fields with little understanding of God’s purposes for the Church? Then dare we neglect the doctrine of the Church or fail to let the New Testament have its say?

Why, we could ask, is so much evangelism and Christian work today content with what the “serious man” called “solitary religion?” In some cases, “solitary religion” may be traced to deficiencies in local churches. Where the Gospel and personal salvation were no longer announced with clarity or where apostasy was not only imagined but real, Christian movements stepped forth and restored the means of new life. The history of churches reveals the threat of the slow death of institutionalism. Exhibit “A” of this trend is the church of Rome. Not a Protestant polemicist but a widely-read Roman writer, Karl Adam, acknowledges that “in the functioning of the Church, the human self, the human personality, the individual as such, falls wholly into the background” (The Spirit of Catholicism, p. 21, Image edition). How does Rome arrive at a position which seems so foreign to the New Testament? Does not the New Testament declare that the individual, as well as the Church, is the temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19)? Does Rome really do justice to the New Testament declaration of the priesthood of every believer (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6) when she declares that the fundamental and absolutely indispensable structure of the Church is in the pope and bishop (Adam, op. cit., p. 104)? Rome arrives at her position by carrying to an extreme what others do also to a degree, that is, permitting extraneous voices, whether denominational, historical, or personal, to muffle the biblical witness.

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Too often both in Catholicism and Protestantism, we have seen the fire die down because of such institutionalism and failure to hear God’s life-giving Word. But, as J. S. Whale writes, “We complain that the fire is low and looks like going out, forgetting that we have probably done little or nothing for some time to rake out the dead ashes and put on more coal” (The Right to Believe, p. 53). We overlook the fact that we are the Church, implicitly by our personal trust in the Head of the Church or explicitly by public identification with the local community of God’s people. Therefore, we must share responsibility for whatever shortcomings exist in the churches. After all, consciousness of sin in the churches gives us no green light for an irresponsible individualism.

No Disembodied Unity

Salvation is personal but it is not individualistic, since, from the biblical perspective, union with Christ and union with the brethren are inseparable. Becoming a Christian is like taking a husband; in both cases we gain “in-laws.” It is simply impossible to have God as Father and remain unrelated to His other children.

Seeing this essential spiritual oneness some people conclude that all Jesus intended was to bring individual men into a meaningful relation to God. The Church as an institution, they assert, was far from his thoughts. Actually New Testament evidence warrants no such conclusion.

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“The roots of the conception of the ecclesia,” Newton Flew reminds us, “lie deep in the religion of Israel” (Jesus and His Church, p. 35). From Israel’s rich past Jesus drew a number of parallels to his own mission of calling a new people of God. Did he not speak of a “new covenant” (Matt. 26:28)? And a “new commandment” (John 13:34)? Did he not call twelve apostles and compare them to the tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28) and frequently refer to the “little flock” (Luke 12:32; Matt. 26:31; John 21:16), in a way reminiscent of the ancient prophets (Isa. 40:11; Jer. 13:17)? Add to all this the message of forgiveness and the ordinances which he committed to his followers, and little doubt remains that he laid the foundation of the Church. If the building was not complete, certainly plans were drawn and the cornerstone laid.

After his ascension, his indwelling Spirit sustained the profound unity between Christ and his ecclesia (1 Cor. 3:16; Rev. 1:13). The apostles compared it to the harmony between the body and the head (Col. 1:18) or to union in God-ordered wedlock (Eph. 5:23). But our familiarity with these figures may blind us to other New Testament evidence. Think of Paul’s conversion experience. Seeking to suppress this cult of “the Way” (Acts 9:2) his zeal drove him to a city six days distant. When he approached the city a light dazzled him and a voice broke the silence, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” Do not miss that! “Me,” said the voice. Had not he been harassing the Church? Later, as a servant of the Church, Paul’s memory kept this humiliating experience fresh by watering it with tears (Phil. 3:6; 1 Cor. 15:9). But once revealed the unity of Christ and the Church remained a compelling motive for Paul’s suffering (Col. 1:24). From his letters we can discern scarcely any differences between Christ and his Body. He suddenly shifts from an expected reference to the Church to a reference to Christ: “As the body is one and hath many members … so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). Or he will use identical attributes of Christ and the Church (Col. 2:9; Eph. 1:23.

In the New Testament, however, this spiritual unity is not abstracted. The Church, first persecuted then served by Paul, was as earthly as tears and fatigue. The ideal was not lost in a distant heavenly expectation; it was found in closely-knit groups of believers surrounded by a pagan world. The New Testament assumes that every Christian will give outward evidence of his relationship to Christ and His Church by joining with others who know the same Lord.

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Of course, once the Church is brought down to earth the imperfections begin to appear. Admittedly these earthly organizational characteristics—a written authority, visible ordinances and a human ministry—have occasioned strife and schism but we need to remember that churches, just as individual believers, are simultaneously saint and sinner. Church history is replete with evidence of fallibility, pride, and sin in the Church, but the Bible reveals that Christ is working in the church of Demas, Ananias, and Diotrephas no less than that of Paul, John, and Stephen. Here as in salvation faith is not sight. “The Church,” Winthrop Hudson writes, “does not live according to the flesh but it does live in the flesh. Organization is not the essence of the church, but organization there must be” (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 4).

The Chartered Way

In the light, then, of this church-centered fellowship in the New Testament, what can we say about those evangelical movements which are less than church related? History cautions against haste in anathematizing movements which do not fit our accustomed pattern of Christian work. Jesus and his followers were considered innovators and several of today’s accepted denominations were once considered “deficient” or “heretical” in their doctrine of the Church. If Christ is truly at work in these movements, we should acknowledge the Church in essence and remain open to the possibility of a divinely-sent rebuke for our evangelistic failure. At the same time we may remain convinced that converts of such groups need church-centered nurture. And for their part these movements could recognize that firm theological and biblical reasons support practices in the churches and that the New Testament fails to encourage a “spiritual” Christianity which reduces to irresponsible individualism.

Avoiding both a blind fruitless conformity to traditional church life and an unwholesome individualism is no easy matter. How long shall we fan dead ashes and when shall we light new fires for God? The need for spiritual pioneers persists. But let the pioneer know that as to fellowship the way has been charted.

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