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People of God - Lesson 11

A Study by Robert F. Turner

Misconceptions of “Church”

“Church,” from ekklesia (“called out” ones), is a collective noun, like “flock” (Acts 20:28) or “herd.” When we say “church” we should think “people” — those who have obeyed the call of the gospel, and have Christ as their “one Master” (Matthew 23:8-10). But this is not the popular conception.

The “Institutional” Concept of the Church

Roman Catholics declare that the church is “a visible, hierarchical society, that is, one made up of subjects and superiors who rightfully rule subjects.” It seems likely that early apostates in the Lord’s church adopted the Judaistic concept of priesthood, considering the bishops (shepherds, overseers, elders) as standing between the “laity” and God. Our quote continues: “The Roman Pontiff and the bishops under him are the ruling hierarchy of the Church.” This hierarchical society is seen as having “the power and authority not only to teach [Christ’s] doctrines but also to administer His sacraments” (channels of divine grace). Those sacraments according to Catholics are Baptism, Confession (forgives actual sins), Holy Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper), Confirmation, Holy Orders (confer powers of priesthood), Matrimony, and Extreme Unction (Baltimore Catechism No. 3, with notes by John A. O’Brien; Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN).

Note the expression above: “the power and authority” to teach, confer blessings, etc. This is the institutional concept of “church,” whereby the institution validates and administers. The assumed authority of the church is clearly seen in the following quote. “That the minister validly confer the sacraments it is necessary: first, that he have the power of administering them; second, that he have jurisdiction for those sacraments which require it; third, that he perform all the essential ceremonies; fourth, that he have the intention of at least ‘doing what the church does’, that is, of performing the sacred ceremony that is usual among Catholics” (ibid., p.190). Catholicism is a prime example of institutionalism, but its principles are found elsewhere.

Among early “Protestants” there was an emphasis upon the priesthood of believers, and some efforts to break with the institutional concept of “church”; but as each denomination grew, and political “rule” was deemed necessary, the clergy-laity distinction and “church authority” were again asserted. Creed-bound partisanship contributes much to this concept, even among those who once stressed the independence and autonomy of the local church. Many cannot seem to believe — to really believe that: (a) each local church appoints it own overseers, who “rule” only in those matters of judgment left to man, and (b) each Christian is a “priest” and must answer to God individually for his worship and service. Matters of faith are determined by Jesus Christ, who rules and will finally judge all by His word.

The “Little Red Wagon”

Catholicism views the church as “established by God for the salvation of souls” (ibid., p.121); while the Scriptures teach that it is the product of salvation in Christ. It does not save, it is the saved. But Catholics are not alone in this view either. Some seem to see church history in the following way (allowing for a little humor). The Lord established a saving institution — we will call it a “little red wagon” — so people could climb in and be transported to heaven. But church history tells us drastic changes occurred through the years. The metropolitan system grouped local churches, led to sacerdotalism (authority in the priesthood/church), changes in doctrine occurred — the little red wagon began to break down, and finally was so corrupted it could not take souls home to glory.

Reformers tried to fix the little red wagon, but added unauthorized parts. Working on the bed, they bent the tongue. They put the wheels on backward, and ended up with a wagon going so many different ways it could not take souls to heaven. Then Alexander Campbell (or your favorite Restoration preacher) awoke one beautiful morning, stretched himself, and said, “Believe I’ll fix the little red wagon today.” He took off all unauthorized pieces of equipment, replaced them with strict “GI” parts, straightened out the tongue, put on fast-rolling, well-aimed wheels, repainted the bed, and labeled it down the side: Church of Christ. Now the little red wagon (church) was restored, and could again take souls home to glory. I sincerely hope the reader does not believe that. Appreciation of “Back to the Bible” preaching is a far cry from saying that the perpetuity of some earlier institution is the key to Christ, hence to heaven. The word is the seed of the kingdom (Luke 8:11). By the power and authority of Christ that word went forth from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2,3; Acts 2:1-47) and continues today. It can still be received and obeyed, and the recipient can worship and serve God acceptably.

“Church Authority”

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not “church ordinances,” i.e., they do not depend upon the church for their validity or authority. Suppose a copy of the Bible should wash ashore on some far-away island, and the inhabitants could translate its message of salvation in Christ. Although no “church” had ever been there, one could accept and obey the Lord (thereby becoming a member of the “body of Christ,” the church universal), and could worship God acceptably. Answer, “if not, why not?” and you may discover how institutionally oriented you are. As others obeyed, the New Testament teaches they should work and worship together (forming a local church), but the word would validate their baptism and worship, not some supposed “church authority.”

Churches that believe the apostolic “office” continues today face a number of problems. In the appointment of Matthias to “fill the place” of Judas, qualifications were demanded no man can have today. To be one of the twelve, one must “have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21,22). He must be inspired to know “all truth” (John 14:26; 16:13), “confirming the word through the accompanying signs” (Mark 16:20; Hebrews 2:1-4). The word “apostle” (one sent), like “angel” (messenger), can have an ordinary usage, but when applied to those who introduced the gospel on Pentecost it has strict requirements. Even Paul, especially “sent” to the Gentiles, had to see the resurrected Lord (Acts 26:16; 1 Corinthians 15:7,8). There are no such apostles today (their work lives on in the Scriptures), and to contend there are men today who can add to or change doctrines, and are a ruling hierarchy in the church, is a dangerous absurdity.

(1) If today’s message is truly of God it will not contradict the earlier revelations of the Bible (Galatians 1:8). (2) Such latter day revelation would indicate the first revelation was incomplete — but it claims completeness (John 20:30,31; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; cf. Revelation 22:18,19). (3) The New Testament revelation prepares us “for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21; cf. Hebrews 13:20,21).

Every now and then some endeavor to sustain their position by claiming “the great middle section of the church cannot be wrong.” Of course, this ignores the Bible standard, and a long history of “majorities” in error. Paul wrote the Corinthians, saying, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Corinthians 10:12). Paul then says he has a “sphere which God appointed us — a sphere which especially includes you” (v.13).

When popular publications begin to think of themselves as policemen for “the brotherhood,” their beliefs may become tantamount to a creed — though they would never call it that. Apparently it is difficult for man to humble himself before God and let His word be the sphere “which especially includes” — me.

The Authority of Christ

Local churches should be formed by truly converted people of God, drawn together by their common interest in serving the Lord. If they are only converted to “the church,” the church will “let them down.” Seeing its faults (local churches are subject to error) they will be confused, and instead of working for a Bible solution, they will let the church down, becoming a part of the problem. But where members are converted to Christ they work and worship in harmony, each one striving to do what the word of Christ teaches. Differences in understanding God’s word (and such will occur) will be worked out by greater and deeper study of that word, for each member’s allegiance is to Christ, not to self. If this seems idealistic, remember people of God are seeking to measure up to a divine standard. It is in such God-ordained striving that they qualify as people of God, with faith in His ways as well as in His promises.

In becoming a Christian one sacrifices self to Jesus Christ and is henceforth a servant of the King. Teamwork with other saints also means giving up some independence respecting matters of human judgment; for example, the time and place for meeting together to worship. But never should one of God’s people act contrary to a good conscience, established by knowledge of God’s word. It is a misconception that faithfulness to the local church (team) can take the place of wholehearted submission to Christ.

Study Questions

1. What is meant by an “institutional” concept of the church?

2. How does an “institutional” concept affect baptism, the Lord’s Supper, etc.?

3. Does the universal church save, or is it the saved? What about the local church?

4. What were qualifying marks of the twelve apostles?

5. How do the Scriptures negate the concept of latter day revelations?

6. Is truth determined by what “the great middle section” of the church says?

7. Discuss “converted to the church” and/or “converted to Christ.”

  • Called, Beloved, Kept (November 28)
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    In a world of obstacles and temptations, we could not survive if it weren’t for the help God gives us in Christ. Peter wrote of those “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).

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