The Church of God, “that wonderful and sacred mystery” (Aquinas), is a subject that stands at the very heart of the Bible. For the Church is the object of the redemption which the Bible proclaims. It was to save the Church that the Son of God became man, and died (Eph. 5:25): God purchased his Church at the cost of Christ’s blood (Acts 20:28). It is through the Church that God makes known his redeeming wisdom to the hosts of heaven (Eph. 3:10). It is within the Church that the individual Christian finds the ministries of grace, the means of growth, and his primary sphere for service (Eph. 4:11–16). We cannot properly understand the purpose of God, nor the method of grace, nor the kingdom of Christ, nor the work of the Holy Spirit, nor the meaning of world history, without studying the doctrine of the Church.
But what is the Church? The fact that we all first meet the Church as an organized society must not mislead us into thinking that it is essentially, or even primarily, that. There is a sense in which the outward form of the Church disguises its true nature rather than reveals it. Essentially, the Church is not a human organization, as such, but a divinely created fellowship of sinners who trust a common Saviour, and are one with each other because they are all one with him in a union realized by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Church’s real life, like that of its individual members, is for the present hid in Christ with God” (Col. 3:4), and will not be manifested to the world until He appears. Meanwhile, what we need if we are to understand the Church’s nature is insight into the person and work of Christ and of the Spirit, and into the meaning of the life of faith.
The Covenant People of God. The Church is not simply a New Testament phenomenon. An ecclesiology which started with the New Testament would be out of the way at the first step. The New Testament Church is the historical continuation of Old Testament Israel. The New Testament word for “church,” ekklesia (in secular Greek, a public gathering) is regularly used in the Greek Old Testament for the “congregation” of Israel. Paul pictured the Church in history, from its beginning to his own day, as a single olive tree, from which some natural (Israelite) branches had been broken off through unbelief, to be replaced by some wild (Gentile) branches (Rom. 11:16–24). Elsewhere, he tells Gentile believers that in Christ they have become “Abraham’s seed,” “the Israel of God” (Gal. 3:29; cf. Rom. 4:11–18; Gal. 6:16).
The basis of the Church’s life in both Testaments is the covenant which God made with Abraham. The fundamental idea of biblical ecclesiology is of the Church as the covenant people of God.
What is a covenant? It is a defined relationship of promise and commitment which binds the parties concerned to perform whatever duties towards each other their relationship may involve. The two main biblical analogies for God’s covenant with sinners are the royal covenant between overlord and vassal and the marriage covenant between husband and wife: the former speaking of God’s sovereignty and lordship, the latter of his love and saviourhood. By his covenant, God demands acceptance of his rule and promises enjoyment of his blessing. Both thoughts are contained in the covenant “slogan,” “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (cf. Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 31:33; 2 Cor. 6:16; Rev. 21:3; etc.); both are implied whenever a believer says “my (our) God.”
God expounded his covenant to Abraham in Genesis 17, a chapter of crucial importance for the doctrine of the Church. Four points should be noticed here. First, the covenant relationship was announced as a corporate one, extending to Abraham’s seed “throughout their generations” (v. 7). Thus the covenant created a permanent community. Second, the relationship was one of pledged beneficence on God’s part: he undertook to give Abraham’s seed the land of Canaan (v. 8: a type of heaven; cf. Heb. 11:8–16). This, as he had already told Abraham, would involve redeeming them from captivity in Egypt (Gen. 15:13–21; cf. Exod. 2:24). Third, the end of the relationship was fellowship between God and his people: that they should “walk before” him, knowing him as they were known by him (v. 1). Fourth, the covenant was confirmed by the institution of a “token” (v. 11), the initiatory rite of circumcision.
Later, through Moses, God gave his people a law for their lives and authorized forms of worship (feasts, exhibiting his fellowship with them, and sacrifices, pointing to the bloodshedding for sin which alone could provide a basis for this fellowship). Also, he spoke to them repeatedly through his prophets of their glorious hope which was to be realized when the Messiah came.
Thus emerged the basic biblical notion of the Church as the covenant people of God, the redeemed family, marked out as his by the covenant sign which they had received, worshipping and serving him according to his revealed will, living in fellowship with him and with each other, walking by faith in his promises, and looking for the coming glory of the Messianic kingdom.
New Testament fulfillment. When Christ came, this Old Testament conception was not destroyed, but fulfilled. Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, was himself the link between the Mosaic and Christian dispensations of it (i.e., the “old” and the “new” covenants of Hebrews 8–10, chapters which build upon Jeremiah 31:31 ff.). The New Testament depicts him as the true Israel, the servant of God in whom the nation’s God-guided history is recapitulated and brought to completion (cf. Matt. 2:15; etc.), and also as the seed of Abraham in whom all nations of the earth find blessing (Gal. 3:8 f., 14–29). Through His atoning death, which did away with the typical sacrificial services forever, believing Jews and Gentiles become in him the people of God on earth. Baptism, the New Testament initiatory sign corresponding to circumcision, represents primarily union with Christ in his death and resurrection, which is the sole way of entry into the Church (Rom. 6:3 ff.; Gal. 3:27 ff.; Col. 2:11 ff.).
Thus the New Testament Church has Abraham as its father (Rom. 4:11, 16), Jerusalem as its mother (Gal. 4:26) and place of worship (Heb. 12:22), and the Old Testament as its Bible (Rom. 15:4). Echoing Exodus 19:5 f. and Hosea 2:23, Peter describes the Christian Church in thoroughgoing Old Testament fashion as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; … Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:9 f.).
A New Creation in Christ. The New Testament idea of the Church is reached by superimposing upon the notion of the covenant people of God the further thought that the Church is the company of those who share in the redemptive renewal of a sin-spoiled creation which began when Christ rose from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18). As the individual believer is a new creation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), raised with him out of death into life (Eph. 2:1 ff.), possessed of and led by the life-giving Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9–14), so also is the Church as a whole. Its life springs from its union with Christ, crucified and risen. Paul in Ephesians pictures the Church successively as Christ’s building, now growing unto “an holy temple in the Lord” (2:21); his body, now growing towards a state of full edification (4:11–16); and his bride, now being sanctified and cleansed in readiness for “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (5:25 ff.; cf. Rev. 19:7 ff.).
Some modern writers in the “catholic” tradition treat Paul’s body-metaphor (found, as well as in Ephesians, in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Colossians) as having a special “ontological” significance, and indicating that the Church is “really” (in a sense in which it is not “really” anything else) an extension of the manhood and incarnate life of Christ. But according to Paul the Church’s union with Christ is symbolically exhibited in baptism; and what baptism symbolizes is not incorporation into Christ’s manhood simply, but sharing with him in his death to sin, with all its saving fruits, and in the power and life of his resurrection. When Paul says that the Spirit baptizes men into one body, he means that the Spirit makes us members of the body by bringing us into that union with Christ which baptism signifies (1 Cor. 12:13). Scripture would lead us to call the Church an extension of the Resurrection rather than of the Incarnation! In any case, Paul uses the body-metaphor only to illustrate the authority of the Head, and his ministry to his members, and the various ministries that they must fulfill to each other; and we have no warrant for extrapolating it in other theological directions.
Ministry in the Church. The New Testament conceives of all ministry in the Church as Christ’s ministry to and through the Church. As the Church is a priestly people, all its members having direct access to God through Christ’s mediation, so it is a ministering people, all its members holding in trust from Christ gifts of ministry (i.e., service) for the edifying of the one body (1 Cor. 12:4–28; Rom. 12:6–8; cf. 1 Cor. 16:15; 2 Cor. 9:1). Within the context of this universal ministry, Christ calls some specifically to minister the Gospel (Eph. 4:11; cf. Rom. 1:1, 5, 9; 15:16), giving them strength and skill for their task (1 Cor. 3:10; 15:10) and blessing their labors (1 Cor. 3:6 f.). As spokesmen and representatives of Christ, teaching and applying his Word, Church officers exercise his authority; yet they need to remember that, as individuals, they belong to the Church as its servants, not the Church to them as their empire. The Church is Christ’s kingdom, not theirs (cf. 2 Cor. 4:5). This is a basic point which Luther accused the Papacy of forgetting.
Universal and Local. Paul speaks, not merely of the whole body, but also of local groups in an area, and even of a Christian household, as “the church.” No local group is ever called “a church.” For Paul does not regard the Church universal as an aggregate of local churches (let alone denominations!): his thought is rather that whenever a group of believers, even Christ’s statutory two or three (Matt. 18:20), meet in his name, they are the Church in the place where they meet. Each particular gathering, however small, is the local manifestation of the Church universal, embodying and displaying the spiritual realities of the Church’s supernatural life. So Paul can apply the body-metaphor, with only slight alteration, both to the local church (one body in Christ [Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12]) and to the universal Church (one body under Christ [Eph. 4]).
Visible and Invisible. The Reformers drew a necessary distinction between the Church visible and invisible: that is, between the one Church of Christ on earth as God sees it and as man sees it—in other words, as it is and as it seems to be. Man sees the Church as an organized society, with a fixed structure and roll of members. But (the Reformers argued) this society can never be simply identified with the one holy catholic Church of which the Bible speaks. The identity between the two is at best partial, indirect, and constantly varying in degree. The point is important. The Church as God sees it, the company of believers in communion with Christ and in him with each other, is necessarily invisible to men, since Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and faith, the realities which make the Church, are themselves invisible. The Church becomes visible as its members meet together in Christ’s name to worship and hear God’s Word. But the Church visible is a mixed body. Some who belong, though orthodox, are not true believers—not, that is, true members of the Church as God knows it—and need to be converted (cf. Matt. 13:24 ff., 47 ff.; 2 Cor. 13:5; 1 Cor. 15:34). The Reformers’ distinction thus safeguards the vital truth that visible church membership saves no man apart from faith in Christ.
Another matter on which this distinction throws light is the question of Church unity. If a visible organization, as such, were or could be the one Church of God, then any organizational separation would be a breach of unity, and the only way to reunite a divided Christendom would be to work for a single international super-church. Also, on this hypothesis it would be open to argue that some institutional feature is of the essence of the Church, and is therefore a sine qua non of reunion. (Rome, for instance, actually defines the Church as the society of the faithful under the Pope’s headship; some Anglicans make episcopacy in the apostolic succession similarly essential.) But in fact the Church invisible, the true Church, is one already. Its unity is given to it in Christ (cf. Eph. 4:3). The proper ecumenical task is not to create Church unity by denominational coalescence, but to recognize the unity that already exists and to give it worthy expression on the local level.
In the purposes of God, the Church, we have seen, is glorious; yet on earth it remains a little flock in a largely hostile environment. Often its state and prospects seem to us precarious. But we need not fear. Christ himself, the King who reigns on Zion’s hill, is its Saviour, its Head, its Builder, its Keeper. He has given his promise: “… the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). And he is not accustomed to break his word.
Bibliography: J. Bannerman, The Church of Christ; C. Hodge, The Church and Its Polity; A. M. Stibbs, God’s Church; R. B. Kuiper, The Glorious Body of Christ; E. Best, One Body in Christ.
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