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When is a Church not a Church?

 

If it doesn’t gather, it isn’t a church.

 

girl-roseWhen it comes to our love for Jesus Christ, is it okay to be all flowery, like Juliet?

You do remember, no? She’s swooning, she’s lavish, so she holds nothing back…

“O Romeo, O Romeo…
wherefore art thou Romeo?
By any other name you would smell as sweet.”

Or was the teen diva talking about roses!?

Whatt everr!!  The name she uses in love is, like, soooo unimportant. What’s all-important are her feelings, her feelings of love for him.

But Christians aren’t little Juliets, but little Christs. We display love for Christ when we use the names for Him and His churches by the names that are sweet to Him. We aren’t teenagers in love, but worshipers in awe. The words we use to express our love to Christ are taught us by the Spirit from Holy Scripture.

 

The Great Name Ecclesia

The Scripture’s names of Jesus are the sweetest because the Giver of them is glorious. Using Scripture’s chosen names for Christ and and His church only increases our love for Him and His people. Surely this is why the apostles and prophets of the NT are both lavish and intelligent in their word pictures for Christ’s church. It is His temple, body, bride, and household. It can even be His flock, field, vine, and wild olive branch.

ecclesia-2But the one word that is used more than any other, and the word upon which all others depend, is the great word ecclesia. Church! 109 times in the NT this one great word resounds a depth of strength and completeness that is precise and definitive of the Christian church. Oh, how the true believer loves that word. He who would maximize his love for Christ’s church could do no better than to gain a masterful understanding of each of those 110 occurrences, in their contexts. When pursued this way ecclesia reveals a complete and inspired understanding of the Church, and churches, for the present age. Ecclesia in the NT presents a systematic and complete ecclesiology that can never be improved upon.

The glorious word pictures for ecclesia such as body and bride do not change what ecclesia means, but like light reflected off a diamond, they dazzle and tantalize us, increasing our love for Christ’s churches even more dearly. The Bible is written precisely for that bride: the churches (Rev. 22:16-17). Theology gets no higher than what it says, and all that men do by altering the meanings of Scripture’s owns words is stunt love for Christ’s ecclesia. As this article will attempt to show, when church structures and practices are not built on the church’s one foundation of Scripture, love and worship is diminished by ignorance and hypocrisy. The result is schism and heresy as the weeds of men grow churches in confusion and disunity. Such men grow love for only their churches, not the local body of Christ.

This article endeavors to explain the two, and only two, uses of the word “church” from the writings of the NT apostles and prophets and also expose some well-accepted but false meanings of “church” that are embraced by large parts of Christendom. These false meanings do more than simply make for imprecise definitions. As I’ll show, they frustrate love while creating and sustaining schism, a terrible disobedience to Jesus Christ. But it all starts with understanding ecclesia meant one thing, and always one thing:

“…ecclesia has always had the meaning of ‘assembly,’
such as a group of citizens who gather to vote on issues.”[1]Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 287

So, “what’s in a name?” asks Juliet. Not much, if we’re only talking about roses, divas, and teen love. But when the name comes to us from God it is to be reverently used. His chosen words are gifts to us so we might think His thoughts after Himself. His true worshippers obey Him and thus refuse to take the Lord’s name and church in vain. We who love the Lord wish to treat the Lord’s names and words as holy:

One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.

 

The Church Universal

will build churchThere are a number of verses in the NT that refer to the church as the entire group of persons redeemed by the sacrifice of the Christ. This church is comprised of those who in Christ who are already in heaven and those walking by faith on earth. In the first mention ever of a Christian ecclesia Jesus taught the gates of hades could not overcome this church (i.e., “death,” Mat. 18:16). It was a promise that this collective group of persons would assuredly overpower the grave and be resurrected.

In addition to Mat. 18:16 there are several other verses that refer to both groups as one church: Eph. 1:22, Eph. 3:21, Eph. 5:23, Eph. 5:24, Eph. 5:25, Eph. 5:27, Eph. 5:29, Eph. 5:32, Col. 1:18, Col. 1:24, and Heb. 2:12, Heb. 12:23). This Church is typically written with a capital “C” and is called the Universal Church.

But we need to be careful for men often refer to the Universal Church as all those genuine Christians living on earth, neglecting the greater number of saints already with the Lord in heaven (Protestantism, evangelicalism). There simply is no such group in the apostolic writings, and so, Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology is certainly correct in stating that there is no such thing as the universal church on earth. Even when this group is called the Church Militant, it isn’t an ecclesia since the elect on earth are never visibly gathered at any time. Moreover, they are never one Church under Rome’s bishop since, as the Orthodox again rightly point out, this so-called Church never gathers as one body to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

So contrary to Roman Catholic thought, the church universal on earth is not a reality existing on earth as claimed, but rather a promise that won’t be visibly known until Jesus returns and gathers the Universal Church together:

“He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying,
‘I will proclaim Thy name to My brethren,
In the midst of the ecclesia
I will sing Thy praise'”
(Heb. 2:11-12).

The concept of the Universal Church is a real entity but can be known at present only to the Lord. It is not comprised of the Church Triumphant and Church Militant.[2]Such concepts as church triumphant and church militant include neither all those that live on earth but are yet unsaved, nor the unborn who shall later be born and come to faith. The “church militant” is not a church at all, for as will be discussed next, it never assembles (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18).[3]The ecclesiology of The Local Church (Witness Lee) is errant at this point, “Strictly speaking, the local churches are the universal Church. The universal Church is simply the sum total of the local churches…” However, the universal church is not merely located on earth but in heaven as well, and includes those whom Christ will call to Himself in the future.

 

The Church Local

church-in-houseAll the other references in the NT that include the word ecclesia refer to a visible gathered group that is called to obediently worship Jesus Christ on the Lord’s Day of every week. 96 of the 110 occurrences of this word, or about 87% of the NT uses are local, visible, churches.[4]Excluding Acts 7:38, Acts 19:32, Acts 19:39, and Acts 19:40.

There was one feature about all NT churches that made them different than all other types of gatherings in the 1st Century world. They came together for the stated purpose of worshiping Jesus Christ. Some did this obediently, and others did it disobediently.

 

The Church’s Nature: Gathered Sunday Worship

In the years before Christ, a Greek (or Roman) ecclesia was simply a gathering of people, called together for a meeting. People were called together for some ad hoc political purpose such as a town herald calling all people to gather for his news. Three examples of this in the NT are Acts 19:32 and Acts 19:39 where the Greek word translated “assembly” is ecclesia, while Acts 7:38 is the one-time gathering of Israel at Mt. Sinai.  One-time meetings could be, and were, called an ecclesia. Or sometimes the ancients might come together “as a city,” as in ancient Athens, and call that an ecclesia.

Groups that met regularly such as athletic teams, trade guilds, or religious groups (pagan and Jewish) were not called churches since the concept of being “called out” didn’t make sense. All those groups, especially religious groups such as synagogues, came together, not because they were called, but because of common commitments. In distinction the church is called out from all sort of dissimilar people by God: “the church of God being at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). Ecclesia, meaning “called out to gather together” was almost exclusively a political word used for the gathering of a city’s citizens, or in the case of decisions on changes in law, a smaller gathering. Here’s the point – it was never used for religious organizations.[5]NIDNTT, 1:292

Then came the institution Jesus Christ founded. It was, and is, brilliant in execution and name. Not only was it something entirely new, something the likes of which the world had never seen, but its name instantly clicked with both Jewish and Gentile audiences. Before Christian churches came into existence there was no such thing as a regularly gathered group of religious people calling themselves, “church.” Amazingly, the name “church” taught its own theological truth – an ecclesia would be a ‘called-out’ people who met to worship the One who called them. It matched the nature and experience of Christianity exactly. With a single word Jew, Gentile, and Christian could understand the Christian church. Brilliant.

called-outBut they weren’t called so they could take votes, nor did they come together on an as-needed basis, such as occurred previously. They deliberately met every Sunday to worship the risen Messiah and pledged to do so until He returned from heaven.

The first Jewish Christians understood this instinctively. Since the church began in Jerusalem and first functioned within Judaism it was only natural it would meet every week, even as Jewish synagogues had for centuries. But now with the glorious resurrection the Christians intentionally gathered on the first day of each week. This church, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus being its cornerstone, introduced to the world the concept of a called out group of people who regularly gathered.[6]The LXX translates the two Hebrew terms in the Masoretic text that most commonly refer to God’s people with ecclesia. The word qāhāl was rendered ecclesia nearly one hundred times, but ‘ēdȃh was never translated to ecclesia. Why the distinction? qāhāl embraces those who hear a call and follow it while ‘ēdȃh is the permanent community into which one is born. Thus the early Christians could identify themselves with God’s prior call on Israel but yet not confuse their own weekly gatherings with the Jews who possessed land and gathered every week in synagogues. Ever since, Sunday has been the most important day of every week and shall be until the Lord returns.

The nature of the church is a called out gathering that meets weekly.

 

The Church’s Purpose: An Institution to Produce Worship

african-churchBut an ecclesia is not a group of people who get together for food and fellowship, but who gather for the purpose of worshiping God in Christ. Food and fellowship are fine but worship is the church’s singular institutional activity. Just as a school’s institutional activity is education and a business’ institutional purpose is to exchange goods and services for profit, the church was instituted to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternally begotten Son of the Father. This doesn’t mean every church succeeds at this institutional goal. Just as schools and businesses fail to fulfill their goals but are still a school or a business, so too a church can fail to worship Jesus Christ in Spirit and in truth but still be a church.

Paul assumed the experience of Corinth’s Christians as a worshiping institution in a verse of rich complexity: 1 Cor. 11:18. It is because they “come together as a church,” but do so sinfully, that he chastens them for failing to live up to the church’s institutional purpose of worship:

“For first of all, when you come together as a church,
I hear that there are divisions among you…

“Therefore when you come together in one place,
it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.

“For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others;
and one is hungry and another is drunk.

“What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?
Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing?
What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this?
I do not praise you.”

(1 Cor. 11:18-22, NKJ)

Paul does not chasten the church for failing to be a church (!) but for failing to live up to the institutional reason for why they gathered. Actually, they didn’t despise gathering for worship in their own factions but despised the righteous purpose for gathering – the proper worship of Jesus Christ altogether.[7]One commentator misses the point, “The sad irony was that the Corinthians were not actually ‘coming together’ when they came together, but gave clear indication of being a divided and disorderly group…” This reverses Paul’s words. They were  coming together, and that, “as a church,” and not as anything else. Their failure was not being a church, that is, failing to gather for the institution’s purpose of worship. Their failure was factious worship when they gathered. (Roy E. Ciampa, The First Letter to the Corinthians, p. 543)

Here’s another example of disobedience in worship. There was a time and place when a woman could prophesy in obedience to Jesus Christ (Acts 21:9), but when a woman prophesied during a church worship service, she sinned and brought the church into sin. Paul rendered the apostolic verdict on her prophetic activity: “it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:35).

Such a woman was worshiping Christ, but worshiping disobediently, and the sin wasn’t her’s alone. When a woman prophesied in church, that is, during its institutional activity of worship, she made the church institutionally disobedient. Without repentance the church would only grow in rebellion.

 

Guide Rails

disobedience

But still, that disobedience didn’t make the church something other than a church. It was “just” a disobedient church, a church that worships Jesus Christ disobediently. Disobedience doesn’t make a church false, or make it a non-church. And as with individual disobedience, institutional disobedience can range from the mild to the desperately depraved.

All 96 references to the local church in the NT may be understood by these two linked truths – a local church is both “A Called-Out Gathering” and “An Institution of Worship.” There is no such thing as a church in this world that doesn’t have both of these realities always functioning at the same time in varying degrees of obedience and disobedience. And there is no such thing as a church in this world where people gather that is ever more than these two realities.

With these two truths as a set of guide rails we can now examine some of the ways churches refer to themselves that are not only wrong, but necessarily lead to schism.

 

The Denomination as Church?

church-india

In the past 20% of church history a phenomena has surfaced. Religious institutions called denominations have come into existence, and called themselves “Church.” For example, there is the Presbyterian Church of America, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Anglican Church, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and thousands of other denominations that likewise identify themselves as a “Church,” usually with a capital ‘C.’ At this definitional level one group speaks for all:

“The particular congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),
wherever they are, taken collectively, constitute
one church, called the Church.”[8]Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, 4th ed., Joan Gray, Joyce Tucker.

Just change the name “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” with another denomination’s name and the meaning is unaffected. A denomination proclaims itself itself, to all, as a Church. With a capital “C,” to boot.

epi-churchBut the capital ‘C’ is misleading, and frankly, dishonest. They aren’t in any sense the Universal Church, a matter about which they themselves are explicitly clear. Instead they deliberately identify themselves by their distinctives – either their form of polity or some other practice that marks them off from other streams in the Christian tradition. So they aren’t any sort of universal-on-earth capital ‘C’ Church.

But even stranger, by adopting the word “Church” to define themselves, they become their own ecclesiastical enemies. Denominations arose out of protest to the aberrant ecclesiology (and soteriology) of the Roman Catholic Church, but when defining themselves, denominations bank on what they protest, borrowing the ecclesiology Roman Catholicism. For the denomination and the RCC alike, the word “Church” means a collection of churches bound together by a shared hierarchy. Why would anyone protest what they imitate?

Is there such a capital ‘C’ Church in the writings of the apostles and prophets? Well, since hierarchies and their adherents don’t gather for worship every week, the answer is ‘no.’ If it doesn’t gather, it isn’t a church. Dispersed hierarchies and followers aren’t a church such as an apostle or Christ Himself would define (1 Cor. 11:18, 14:23, Rev. 2:1, 22:16). And without their good opinion, what good is calling yourself a Christian, or being part of religious group they wouldn’t recognize as a church?

 

The Denomination as Affiliation

Denominations don’t form themselves as a result of God’s calling them together (as does the NT local church) but instead are affiliations of churches who connect to each other not because of human choice. It’s why their polity is sometimes called connectional. At the most elemental theology of what makes a church, that is, a called out gathering, denominations forego both the nature and the experience of a church.

So what are they? They all use the name “Church,” to claim what they never do, which is actually meet.

There is no biblical term for denominations. Since they do not exist either by Scriptural precept or example they are not built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

“Although we often speak of a group of congregations collectively as ‘the church’ (i.e. of a denomination) neither Paul nor the rest of the New Testament uses of ekklesia in this collective way. Also, the notion of a unified or national church is foreign to the New Testament teaching. An ekklesia was a meeting or an assembly.”[9]P.T. O’Brien, The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity, in “The Church in the Bible and in the World,” ed. DA Carson, 92

Denominations can’t define themselves Scripturally. Perhaps if such groups were a collection of all the churches in a geographic area, such as “the churches of Galatia” we might be helped to locate them in the biblical text, but they surely aren’t ever all the churches in a region (cf., 1 Cor. 16:1, 1 Thess. 2:14) .

“‘Church’ in the NT, however, renders Gk. ekklesia, which mostly designates a local congregation of Christians and never a building. Although we often speak of these congregations collectively as the NT church or the early church, no NT writer uses ekklesia in this collective way.” [10]’Church’ in New Bible Dictionary, IVP, 199

What verdict can be rendered when using the names of love given us in Scripture, but that “Church,” in the case of all denominations, is a total misnomer. Calling themselves a church cannot increase their love for Jesus Christ since that word is not given by Him to describe a denomination.

nonsenseBy denominating themselves ‘church’ they are oxymoronic. A denomination a church? It’s like being divided together. It’s like being united apart.

The more accurate name is affiliation, for their structure and practices reflect of the partisan affiliations of the world like trade unions, trade guilds, trade shows, along with industrial, educational, or business affiliations. All these hold meetings and make decisions for their subscribing entities.[11]For example, wireless telecomm Just like them, affiliates send representatives from their own members entities gather in regional and national meetings, sometimes called conventions. Or, they use their own religious words like synods and general assemblies, but the idea is all the same. Cities with convention centers compete for their denominational meetings, just as they do with the other affiliates of this world.

Once convened, persons in the denomination have a scale of rights, such as speaking, voting, or merely attending (just as in the world). And just as the world’s affiliates appoint subcommittees to evaluate and recommend policy on matters pertaining to the specific industry and institutions involved, so too do religious conventions.

trecWhile gathered at these affiliate meetings, participants will take votes, authorize expenditures, create committees, and maybe issue a press release or a position statement. Like the world, they might debate affiliate (i.e. denominational) standards, and be certain to use the world’s parliamentary procedures in the hopes of deciding on majority and minority positions.

But when this happens, are they a church? No.

Why? Because it is back home, at church, where the Bible’s teaches them how to live as Christians among each other in church – the one in which they are all obligated to worship the Lord Jesus Christ each Sunday. That same Bible defines them on Sunday in church, but speaks not a word to them in their affiliation meetings, for Scripture is conspicuously bereft of parliamentary procedure, or how run a denomination.

As professing Christians they are in their own churches every Sunday for the institutional purpose of worship where they are to be a “called out” people (1 Peter 2:9). In convention they are the self-affiliated. Thus, just like everybody else, it is not in their affiliations but in their local churches alone where they know the nature and purpose of the church. Their denomination can give them no such thing, but like a lie that is believed if told often enough, has the temerity to call itself Church.

“It is clear that the one body is an actual fellowship of Christian
believers as members with one another in the body of Christ,
it follows that a national “church” or denominational
“church” cannot really be a church.

It is a great ecclesiastical institution, but it cannot be
“the church” in the sense Paul has described.

To identify this structural institution with the church
is one of the great heresies of Christendom
as Emil Brunner pointed out in The
Misunderstanding of the Church.

The church certainly must have a bodily form, but that form
is not a great ecclesiastical structure — it is the
dynamic fellowship of Christian believers
as members one of another, bearing
one another’s burdens, partaking
of the one loaf, submitting
to the common discipline,

reconciled to one another and to God in the most
intimate personal relationship.

This koinonia is the essence of the church; and whenever
the structure of the institution is identified with
the church, a terrible distortion has occurred.”[12]Wade Ward, One Body – The Church,” Review & Expositor vol. 60 (fall 1963) 413

This is why the millions of denominational Christians should be likened to the most fierce, fiery, burr-in-the-saddle, “we’re the only true churches,” Landmark Baptists. Christ only speaks to the local church here on this earth, which is where all professing Christians experience Christ’s church blessings and judgments. The local church alone is where church is… on this earth. Denominational Christians do not and cannot experience Him who speaks in Scripture at their denominational meetings. The Lord of the Church has the first and last word on the church and to the churches (Mat. 16:18, Rev. 22:16). In that Word He has never spoken to a denomination, but He has to their churches (Rev. 2:1, etc.). Sounds harsh, but Christ bears no relationship to any denomination since they are not defined by Him in His word. It really just gets down to who is Lord, and who leads who. He allows denominations to grow or contract as He does any other religious institution in the world.[13]For more, please read Jesus Defines His Church But Jesus Christ only walks among the seven lampstands, “which are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20-2:1).

So, it’s actually good news. Every member in every denomination experiences Christ just as every fighting independent fundy does, which is also the way every person in the seven churches of Revelation experienced Christ. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, carries out the judgments of His word in the local church and not the denomination. Be content with what God reveals in His word, not with what He doesn’t. Good news indeed.

 

The Roman Catholic World-Wide Church

rcc

If denominations are not a Church, what about Roman Catholicism? Does it bear the nature and purpose of the church? Again, the answer is most certainly “no” since their world-wide institution can never gather together for worship of Jesus Christ, the very practice Paul determined makes a gathering a Christian church in the first place (1 Cor. 11:18).

 

The Orthodox Church

ortho-crossOrthodoxy comes closer to the NT teaching on the nature and experience of the church than Roman Catholicism but ultimately identifies itself by a person, a bishop. They faithfully recognize that a church is nothing if not a gathering, and that the gathering meets to fulfill the institutional purpose of worship, which they locate in the Eucharist.

However, because of their commitment to a properly ordained bishop they are unable to remain faithful to 1 Corinthians 11. Given the choice between calling themselves a church if they gather for the Eucharist without a bishop, or calling themselves a church if they have a bishop but no one gathered for the Eucharist, they chose the man and not the gathering. They believe the church is in the bishop and not in the institutional experience of gathering. Paul teaches the exact opposite in 1 Cor. 11.

 

The Free Church (Autonomy)

two-or-three-2

If all this sounds like an anti-denominational rant in favor of church autonomy, it isn’t. Consider what’s wrong with the independent churches.

They’ve always had a hard time with the word “church” in the NT. Independent churches (historically called “Free Churches”) root their origins in the religious, political and social upheavals that occurred soon after the Protestant Reformation. Their scholars trace their independency to John Smyth, a Baptist minister from England in the late 1500s and his understanding of Mat. 18:20:

“where two or three have gathered in My name,
there I am in their midst”
(Mat. 18:20).[14]For a present day Congregational example see here.

In 1774 the Baptist Association of Charleston, South Carolina produced a Summary of Church Discipline for the “poor and unlearned.”[15]Mark Dever, ed., Polity, 117. The quote below is from p. 118 In its opening section it says:

The Scriptures do not absolutely determine the number of persons
necessary to gather a church: but as our Lord said,
‘Where two or three are gathered together in
My name, there I am in the midst of them.

A present day Free Church scholar likewise isolates Mat. 18:20 as the irreducible identity of a church:

“Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ
present among them, but a Christian church is there as well,
perhaps a bad church, a church that may well transgress
against love and truth, but a church nonetheless.”[16]Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness, p. 136.

This text has always been, and still is, the sin qua non text of all churches in the Free Church traditions such as Congregational and Baptist affiliations, or the hundreds of thousands of independent churches (including mine). Because of it we are unable to come to any real distinctive on what makes a church:

“The community of God’s people considered at
any level can be rightly called a church.”[17]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 858, italics added.

And finally, a contemporary Free Church theologian, himself an advocate of the multi-site church model, leaves off any organizing principles in his definition, but simply calls church:

“… the people of God who have been saved
through repentance and faith… “[18]Allison, Strangers and Sojourners, 29-30.

All the Free Church definitions lack the critical elements that make an assembly of people a church. A church is not just any assembly of saved individuals, but is the assembly itself, as the meaning of ecclesia (“assembly, gathering”) necessitates. Only from that vantage point (church = assembly) can Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church, have His defining role since according to Him churches may or may not be comprised of the saved.

Consider the churches in Sardis and Laodicea. One is “dead” and the other is about to be vomited out of the Lord’s mouth (Rev. 3:1 and Rev. 3:16). Those churches are not “the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith” nor do they fit any other definition Free Churchers offer.

 

Free Church

Free Churches have a misguided faith in two areas, one doctrinal, and the other pragmatic. Doctrinally, Free Churchers accept the dogma of “true church” theory. Borrowing from other streams of Christian tradition that believe Free Church ecclesiology to be ridiculous (Catholicism, Protestantism), Free Churches too accept the distinction that some churches are true while others are false.[19]See for instance “The Glory of a True Church and its Discipline Displayed,” Benjamin Keach, in Polity, 63ff

true churches 2Of course, Scripture never delineates any churches as true or false, and how could it? How can an assembly of people be true or false? It just is, no matter how disobedient to Christ the gathering might be. True church theory falls flat when held up to the standard of Christ’s words. The Lord of the Church refers to the seven churches of Revelation without any such distinction an astonishing thirty-five times in the book, fully 1/3 of all instances of ecclesia in the NT. So “if anyone has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” For example, it will do no good to say Sardis and Laodicea weren’t true churches in spite of the lack of regenerate in them (Rev. 3:1, 16), for the Lord of the Church called them churches, just as much as the godly churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna were churches.[20]For more, see Replacing the True Church with an Obedient Church.

Thus, doctrinally, Free Churchers borrow ecclesiastical capital that isn’t theirs and stumble. Then they stumble yet again. By delineating themselves covenantally, they take from the Protestants and yet resist their connectional (denominational) polity, which is dependent on man-made covenants. How is a church to know itself, the Protestants argue? By the forming of church and denominational covenants, not by its assembling. Some Free Church theologians acknowledge that there is neither precept or example for church covenants in Scripture but claim they are yet necessary (i.e., Greg Allison, Strangers and Sojourners, p. 124-25).

This pragmatism has doctrinal roots that reject Scripture as complete for all matters of a church’s faith and duty. Most Free Church theologians think very little of the required institutional elements like a plurality of qualified leadership that they make it peripheral to a church’s identity. Any form of leadership is fine, so long as it works. Hence the Scriptural teaching that a church is an assembly of worshipers under the New Covenant is replaced by another covenant drawn up in each church. Like thier Protestant brethren, the covenant legitimizes schism.[21]Schism may be defined as the the local body of Christ divided into two or more churches. For the biblical origin of this definition, please read God’s Coming Judgment on Gospel Ministers.

Thus the New Testament institutional church, which is always comprised of all the visible elect in each locale, has been exchanged for a man-shaped document stating who belongs to what. Sally belongs to the Lutheran Church, Bobby to the Baptist, and Mary to the Presbyterian. It’s OK, Free Churches retort, for God’s invisible church goes on. Except that there is no such thing as an invisible church. How can there be? A church is an assembly, and assemblies are always visible. An invisible church is an oxymoron.

 

Autonomy is Not a Virtue

autonomy

The Independent Free Church definition of church relies on a self-definition of autonomy and thus draws first blood, for autonomy sunk all of Adam and Eve’s descendants in the crucible of suffering and judgment that is only made worse by the second death. Autonomy is the #1 argument in favor of abortion on demand, and of rebellious children who grieve their parents the world over.

How often is full autonomy a virtue in Scripture? Never. It is always the manifestation of sin. Always.

And it doesn’t get better when baptized in biblical words and used to defend one’s doctrine of the church. Had a group of two or three started their own church in Ephesus back in Paul’s day, they would have been considered either schismatics or heretics: see Acts 20:29-30, where Paul considered such self-starters as wolves who tore apart the flock. The autonomous were heretics like Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20). When self-willed men came to Corinth with letters from alleged apostles to start their own church they were condemned (2 Cor. 11:11-13).

Since our first parents, autonomy has always promoted “go-it-your-own-way” independence and self-promotion. Since it justifies rebellion against God and His Anointed, autonomy in both its individual and ecclesiastical forms is sin.

God has spoken on church autonomy, and it is as condemning as it is unambiguous.

 

What Does Jesus Teach?

And then there is the problem of using Mat. 18:20 to define the church:

“For where two or three have gathered together
in My name, I am there in their midst.”
(Mat 18:20)

According to Free Church advocates the phrase “where two or three are gathered in my name” is unattached to the prior context. Meaning this: it doesn’t designate any particular time or place. This allows them (Free Church adherents) to view this verse as freedom to be a church whenever and wherever. But such a posture doesn’t make sense. The fact remains that two Christians, gathered for a lunchtime prayer at a manufacturing plant, can’t do the institutional functions Jesus ascribed to a church of His followers only three verses earlier.

Specifically, they can’t “tell it to the church” (Mat. 18:17) since the whole church doesn’t work at the plant. Which helps us to see that Mat. 18:20 isn’t about being gathered in Christ’s name for a general activity like prayer or Bible study at any old time, but for the purpose taught in the prior verses. There, the two or three gather to confront sin in another person. And they don’t even do that unless one of them has first privately accused that other person, and the other person refuses to repent (Mat. 18:15). In such a case Jesus said, “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Mat 18:16). That “two or three” is the same “two or three” described just four verses later.

To better see this contextual problem with the Free Church definition let’s suppose that the two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name are, in fact, a church. Now imagine that there are two such men who believe they are a church because they get together to pray to the Lord.

But after some time one of the men confronts the other with a charge of sin (Mat. 18:15). If the accused maintains innocence in the matter, who in this two person church becomes the witness Jesus demands in Mat. 18:16? Fact is, there is no witness who can establish the matter (Mat. 18:16) and there is no church to whom the matter must be told (Mat. 18:17). The matter fails.

The contextual problem is duplicated if the Free Church has a third member. True, he or she could serve as a witness to the accuser and the accused, but who then is the church in Mat. 18:17 to whom the matter must be told? If Jesus thought the two or three could be the church then His words, “go tell it to the church” were highly confusing. Why do they need to tell each other to go and confront, since that is in fact what they’ve been doing all along?

subset 2 or 3 two or threeSo if these two or three aren’t a church, who are they? In the original context they are persons in an existing church who are acting in difficult obedience to confront a fellow member who, like them, is accountable to the church. If that member remains impenitent even after the accusation is confirmed (Mat. 18:16), then the matter is brought for resolution not to the two or three but to the church. By Christ’s words the two or three are seen to be a subset of the church. In Mat. 18:17 the church takes over the responsibility from the two or three to call the impenitent member back from sin.

But before the church gets involved much spiritual labor has been carried out by the two or three, a labor requiring constant support and comfort from God Himself. This support and comfort is promised to the two or three in Mat. 18:19-20.

So, could a two or a three gathering in Jesus’ name be a church? No. Two or three cannot fulfill Jesus’ commands in Mat. 18:15-17. What’s worse than that? It’s when two or three Christians call themselves an ecclesia while another church of Christ’s blood-bought body is nearby. Then the noble word by which we love our Lord, church, is used to practice autonomous disobedience from the body of Christ.

We saw above that churches are, by nature, a people “called-out” by God to worship Jesus Christ together every Sunday (1 Cor. 11:18, 16:1-2). Anyone can have a Bible study on Thursday night, and should, but that’s isn’t the nature of a church. Churches also have a specific leadership form defined in Scripture which two or three can’t obtain (Phil. 1:1).

So considered ecclesiologically, Free Churchers ripped a shameful page right out of the RCC playbook whose ecclesiology is in direct opposition to the meaning of the very biblical text they use to justify their actions. Rome misinterprets Mat. 16:18 as authorizing but one world-wide “church,” and Free Churchers misinterpret Mat. 18:20 as authorizing as many two or three person “churches” as can be made. Eerily similar.

 

When Catholics Do the Bible Better than the Free Churchers

Is it possible that Roman Catholics are closer to the actual meaning of Mat. 18:20 than Free Churches? Yes. The normally conciliar Ratzinger (later elected Pope Benedict 16th) rejected outright the idea that “two or three together” constitutes a church:

“A group cannot simply come together, read the New Testament, and say: “Now we are Church; after all, the Lord is present wherever two or three are gathered in his name.”[22]Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, & Politics, 19.

Ratzinger was not only reflecting Roman Catholic ecclesiology here, he was also right. For after all, Jesus wasn’t teaching on a church minimum in the text. True, He does promise His presence among the two or three – but not because they’re a church. It’s because they’re confronting sin inside a church, as discussed above.

However, when Ratzinger then argues that autonomous Free Churches are not technically churches because they are disconnected from the charism of apostolic succession he is not only wrong but cuts off his own ecclesiastical institution at its ankles. The church at Rome wasn’t begun by apostles and their appointed successors but by converts from Pentecost (Acts 2:11), nor is there any apostolic record of such a succession happening later in Rome (or anywhere else for that matter). Ratzinger, however, doesn’t use the Bible this way: his authority is his ecclesial tradition. It’s Free Churchers who claim sole authority in the Bible, but when Free Churchers are undone by it, they Free Fall into autonomy. Like the RCC, they exist in the state of ecclesiastical disobedience to Christ.[23]The same is true of Roman Catholicism farther back than the 4th C. There was no hierarchical episcopate before that. The church in Rome, like lots of churches in the NT, began without apostles, their representatives, or their successors due to Pentecost’s converts. These famously include Antioch (Acts 11:19ff), Crete (Acts 2:10, Titus 1:5), and ironically, as just mentioned, Rome itself (Acts 2:11, Romans 16:5). Ratzinger claimed to be a successor of Peter’s church of Rome, but that church wasn’t started by Peter. After Pentecost he remained in Judea while newly converted Jews went back to Rome. An even worse RCC infraction is using Mat. 16:18 to support the Roman Catholic Church. This verse refers to all the redeemed of the church age overcoming hell and includes the redeemed on earth and the redeemed in heaven. No Pope should assert the Roman Catholic Church on earth is in hierarchy over those in heaven. Therefore, their use of Mat. 16:18 to refer to the root of the RCC is as illegitimate as Independents who root their independent movement in Mat. 18:20.

 

So, When Is a Church, a Church?

If the Free Church tradition is disobedient, and denominations are disobedient, and a world-wide church is disobedient, is anybody obedient?

Yes. The church that seeks to merge the local body of Christ under biblical eldership, obediently following Paul’s mandate to do so in Titus 1:5, is doing right. Such a church seeks to undo schism by submission to the clearly revealed precepts and examples of Scripture. The local body of Christ is the lost doctrine upon which an obedient ecclesiology is built.

But if you are asking, “what is the right church,” or “which is the true church,” then you are asking a question the NT apostles and prophets did not  concern themselves with. Nor did Jesus.

mergeInstead they labored to make obedient churches filled with people like us – prone to misunderstand, misinterpret, and misapply Scripture. Paul told the Corinthians, “we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete” (2 Cor. 10:6). The right question is not, “who is true” but “who is obedient?”

Jesus doesn’t call churches true or false, nor do any of His servants who wrote Scripture. How could they? A gathering is a gathering, and can’t be falsified. It just is. Ever been to a false gathering? A church is a gathering whose function is the worship of Jesus Christ every week. How obediently they do that is what honors, or dishonors, Christ.

What the Lord wants is obedience from both individuals and churches. Disobedient churches are painstakingly detailed in Scripture and are called to be famous for their repentance. We all tend to read Scripture with a motive to justify our church practices with nary a thought of being repentant.

But repentance is likely what our churches famously need.

References   [ + ]

1. Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 287
2. Such concepts as church triumphant and church militant include neither all those that live on earth but are yet unsaved, nor the unborn who shall later be born and come to faith.
3. The ecclesiology of The Local Church (Witness Lee) is errant at this point, “Strictly speaking, the local churches are the universal Church. The universal Church is simply the sum total of the local churches…” However, the universal church is not merely located on earth but in heaven as well, and includes those whom Christ will call to Himself in the future.
4. Excluding Acts 7:38, Acts 19:32, Acts 19:39, and Acts 19:40.
5. NIDNTT, 1:292
6. The LXX translates the two Hebrew terms in the Masoretic text that most commonly refer to God’s people with ecclesia. The word qāhāl was rendered ecclesia nearly one hundred times, but ‘ēdȃh was never translated to ecclesia. Why the distinction? qāhāl embraces those who hear a call and follow it while ‘ēdȃh is the permanent community into which one is born. Thus the early Christians could identify themselves with God’s prior call on Israel but yet not confuse their own weekly gatherings with the Jews who possessed land and gathered every week in synagogues.
7. One commentator misses the point, “The sad irony was that the Corinthians were not actually ‘coming together’ when they came together, but gave clear indication of being a divided and disorderly group…” This reverses Paul’s words. They were  coming together, and that, “as a church,” and not as anything else. Their failure was not being a church, that is, failing to gather for the institution’s purpose of worship. Their failure was factious worship when they gathered. (Roy E. Ciampa, The First Letter to the Corinthians, p. 543)
8. Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, 4th ed., Joan Gray, Joyce Tucker.
9. P.T. O’Brien, The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity, in “The Church in the Bible and in the World,” ed. DA Carson, 92
10. ’Church’ in New Bible Dictionary, IVP, 199
11. For example, wireless telecomm
12. Wade Ward, One Body – The Church,” Review & Expositor vol. 60 (fall 1963) 413
13. For more, please read Jesus Defines His Church
14. For a present day Congregational example see here.
15. Mark Dever, ed., Polity, 117. The quote below is from p. 118
16. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness, p. 136.
17. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 858, italics added.
18. Allison, Strangers and Sojourners, 29-30.
19. See for instance “The Glory of a True Church and its Discipline Displayed,” Benjamin Keach, in Polity, 63ff
20. For more, see Replacing the True Church with an Obedient Church.
21. Schism may be defined as the the local body of Christ divided into two or more churches. For the biblical origin of this definition, please read God’s Coming Judgment on Gospel Ministers.
22. Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, & Politics, 19.
23. The same is true of Roman Catholicism farther back than the 4th C. There was no hierarchical episcopate before that. The church in Rome, like lots of churches in the NT, began without apostles, their representatives, or their successors due to Pentecost’s converts. These famously include Antioch (Acts 11:19ff), Crete (Acts 2:10, Titus 1:5), and ironically, as just mentioned, Rome itself (Acts 2:11, Romans 16:5). Ratzinger claimed to be a successor of Peter’s church of Rome, but that church wasn’t started by Peter. After Pentecost he remained in Judea while newly converted Jews went back to Rome. An even worse RCC infraction is using Mat. 16:18 to support the Roman Catholic Church. This verse refers to all the redeemed of the church age overcoming hell and includes the redeemed on earth and the redeemed in heaven. No Pope should assert the Roman Catholic Church on earth is in hierarchy over those in heaven. Therefore, their use of Mat. 16:18 to refer to the root of the RCC is as illegitimate as Independents who root their independent movement in Mat. 18:20.

1 Comment

  1. 1
    William says:

    That was a good article Ted!
    Thanks

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