It came as a bit of a shock, although not a great surprise, to hear a leading Reformed minister say recently that he did not have a proper doctrine of the church for most of his ministry. We have witnessed a recovery of the doctrines of grace over the last sixty years in the United Kingdom and beyond. There have been reprints of several titles on the doctrine of the church and of church order and discipline. In spite of this the Biblical concept of the church does not appear to feature much in the Christian concern of many. We have national churches, with all shades of theological views expressed in them. We have branches of the church that have departed from their doctrinal basis. There are large independent churches, and even what are called ‘mega’ churches. A phenomenon of the last quarter of a century or so has been the multiplication of fellowships, house churches, groups, etc., many of them small, self-contained units.
It would be true to say that few churches today see well-defined church membership as biblically mandated. In fact many see the practice as a harmful barrier to newcomers feeling welcome at church. There is an evident lack of commitment to local church membership. And many churches shy away from any sort of formal church discipline. The minister or elder may give advice privately to erring individuals but discipline for non-attendance at church meetings would be almost unthinkable. There is slackness in admission to membership and to the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Some churches may have a plurality of elders to rule, but it is often argued as a pragmatic rather than a biblically faithful arrangement.
With such a confused situation how can the church in the UK and elsewhere today be seen as the holy and beautiful bride of Christ? We need a recovery of the true doctrine of the church.
1) The Church is Christ’s Body
Paul could testify of himself, “Christ loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20), and of the church, “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). Christ’s eternal love and effective sacrifice defines her identity and determines her future holiness and glory. He has taken the church as His own flesh and blood, and He cherishes her more than we cherish our own bodies. She is seen in her separation from the world. Peter, preaching on the day of Pentecost, exhorted his hearers: “Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40). Three thousand souls repented and believed the gospel. Anyone who stayed outside the number would remain an enemy of God. Those who believed were formed into the church (Acts 2:41-47). Their love for Christ flowed into love for His church. Being devoted to Christ meant being devoted to His body.
2) We are Members in Christ’s Body, the Church
If Christ is the Head and the church is His body then the true believer is in the body (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 2:19). By adoption we become children of our Heavenly Father, and as Augustine observed long ago: “He cannot have God for his Father who refuses to have the church for his mother.” Dr Samuel Miller said: “As the church is Christ’s institution, and not men’s; and as the same divine authority which requires us to repent of sin, and believe in Christ, also requires us to ‘confess Him before men’, and to join ourselves to His professing people; it is evident that no one is at liberty, in the sight of God, to neglect uniting himself with the church.” (The Ruling Elder, 1835, reprinted 2015, ch.1, p.16) The ‘called out’ Christian cannot stand in isolation. The gathering into a body implies the idea of something visible. The church is not some abstract entity. Visible association and organisation are necessary to the church. We have the universal manifestation of the body, the whole church, but also the local expression of it in specific locations – Corinth, Ephesus, etc.
3) Christ the Head governs His Body, the Church
The church is a living organism of which Christ is the Head. He and all her members are bound together by the Holy Spirit in the bond of true faith and love. Because He is holy, so the church must be holy. Holiness is what makes a healthy church. Thomas Boston says that Christians “have taken Him as their head for government, as well as their head for nourishment and support. They have delivered themselves up to Him to be ruled by Him, as well as to be saved by Him; to be governed by His laws, and not by their own lusts, as well as to be saved by His grace, and not by their own works.” (A View of the Covenant of Grace, in Works, Vol.8, p.377)
To nurture and maintain that holiness, Christ appoints under-shepherds to feed and govern his church. The overseers (elders) are to “feed the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). “Ministers of the gospel,” says Jonathan Edwards, “are those that are improved by Christ as means and instruments of the spiritual good of his people, conveying the golden oil to the candlestick, or of communicating grace to His church.” Ministers are conduits of the means of grace. “When the Gospel is preached,” says John Calvin, “it is as if God Himself came into the midst of us.” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Vol.3, p.129) The living Word of the living God is essential for the establishing and the building up of the church. The Word of God alone must regulate, direct and warrant all elements of life, worship and conduct in the church.
The overseers, or elders, are appointed to rule in the church: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy and not with grief.” (Heb. 13:17) They exercise discipline in the church and, in line with the Scripture, the Reformers included it as one of the essential marks of the true church. Here again are some wise words from Samuel Miller:
“But I need not say to those who take their views of the Christian church and its real prosperity, from the Bible, and from the best experience, that enlightened, and faithful discipline is, not only important, but absolutely essential to the purity and edification of the body of Christ. It ought to be regarded as one of the most precious means of grace, by which offenders are humbled, softened, and brought to repentance; the church purged of unworthy members; offences removed; the honour of Christ promoted; real Christians stimulated and improved in their spiritual course, faithful testimony borne against error and crime and the professing family of Christ made to appear holy and beautiful in the view of the world. Without wholesome discipline, for removing offences, and excluding the corrupt and profane, there may be an assembly, but there cannot be a Church.” (The Ruling Elder, ch.8)
4) Christ’s Body, the Church, reflects the glory of the triune God
God’s eternal purpose was to display His glory in Christ through the church (Eph. 3:9-11). Jeremiah Burroughs said that the glory of God’s name is a million times more precious to God than the lives of a million people (Gospel Worship, 1646, p.22). Jonathan Edwards, “the theologian of God’s glory in Christ”, declared that God’s last end for the creation of the world is that His eternal excellencies might be expressed and made common to the creature. Summing up Edwards’ views on this, B J Crawford writes: “This glory sought is inseparably linked to the mission of Christ, the fullest and most complete example of God’s self-expression, the Head of the moral world, and especially the Head and Redeemer of the church, the company of humanity which has been assembled for the sole purpose of perceiving God’s perfections, delighting in them and reflecting them back to Him to His eternal glory and their eternal joy.” (Puritan Reformed Journal, Vol.7, no.1, p.141) Edwards concludes: “And now shall Christ the great Redeemer be most perfectly glorified, and God the Father shall be glorified in Him and the Holy Ghost shall be most fully glorified in the perfection of His work in the hearts of all the church.”
Our forefathers prayed that the church would be as “she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun and terrible as an army with banners?” (Song 6:10). May each of us be filled with a longing desire for this to be fulfilled!