17. Three pictures of the New Testament church
I wrote earlier that I once heard a teacher ask rhetorically, “Which New Testament church (e.g., Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, etc.) are we to imitate?” He considered the question problematic, and this of course has been no small part of the justification for Christians ordering their churches as seems right to men.
However Paul commended Thessalonica, “For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judæa are in Christ Jesus.” I Thes. 2:14. Follower is also translated “imitator.” So the first churches imitated the original churches, especially the one in Jerusalem. Later Paul exhorted the church at Thessalonica to continue in this, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” II Thes. 2:15. In this Paul was not offering his opinion.
At the beginning of the book I noted that while the practice of imitating the original church traditions was long ago broken, the way to recover these traditions is simply to believe the New Testament teachings concerning the church. Not only so, we have the further aid of pictures of the church to emulate. These pictures are worth a thousand words, or more, and they have the added advantage of being impossible to either forget or ignore.
While some would call the pictures “doctrines,” it is better to understand them simply as truths, or as visualizations of the reality of the church. These are descriptions against which we can and ought to judge our churches. To call these “doctrines” might wrongly suggest that they are more complicated than they are. Is there “a doctrine” of the church, the body of Christ? Or is the church the body of Christ? Is there “a doctrine” of the priesthood of believers? Or is there simply a priesthood of believers? Is there “a doctrine” of Christian fellowship? Or is it a reality?
These are not merely “ideals” for the church. If we call them ideals, then we can say no church is perfect and ignore them. But the church is not merely to aspire to be these things, it is these things.
Each of the three pictures is introduced by “The church is....” They describe not only the church of Jesus Christ, but they have an application in local assemblies. These truths are mysteries in part, and yet they have a tangible expression as well. And while the pictures are general, New Testament teachings concerning the church are absolutely consistent with them. Especially I would have the reader recall the teaching in Romans 12:3-8 in light of these pictures.
1. The church is the body of Christ
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
---I Corinthians 12:12
No truth pertaining to church function, order, and polity is more practical than this, that the church is the body of Christ. If it is His body, than He issues the orders to the members. Not only does the arm not issue orders to the foot, neither does the foot to the arm. The Head of the church issues our orders, and the members of the body care for one another, I Cor. 12:25.
What is necessary in order for this truth to be put into practice? Why, that it be put into practice! As things stand it is mostly theory. It may be (for the sake of argument) that the members of the body minister to one another well enough out of the church. But do they minister in the church, when all are assembled? Why suspend the analogy of the body on the day of the week when the church comes together?
Some will say this description of the church fosters disorder and contradicts New Testament teaching that we must obey our church leaders. But this is about ministry, not disorder. The Head issues orders to minister. There is no law against ministering. Or is Christ the author of sin? There is a law against ministering disorderly, and in this event the elders are charged with reinstating order. But ministering, and ministering disorderly, are two different things. Thus Romans 12:3-8 says if one’s gift is teaching, then teach; if exhorting, then exhort; etc. The command to minister is right there. Against these things there is no law. The Head (or the Spirit as His Proxy) issues the impulse to minister just as the brain issues impulses to the members of the body. We do not minister impulsively, but we do indeed respond, in the Spirit, to the command to minister which comes to us as an impulse from the Head. The overseers have authority to correct, rebuke, train, and teach and thereby uphold or reinstate order. If one of the brethren is found in open sin, then the elders have a duty to admonish him and, if need be, to institute church discipline. This kind of leadership or ruling is completely consistent with the truth that the church is the body of Christ, and the truth that Christ is Head of the body.
The members of the body of Christ take their orders to minister from the Head of the body, and subject to the requirement that the gift is ministered in love (I Cor. 13) and in an orderly fashion (I Cor. 14). As with the members of the human body, so the members of the body of Christ minister to one another. This is unity in diversity.
2. The church is the priesthood of believers
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
---I Peter 2:9
In this picture there are simply priests ministering. That is what priests do.
Under the Old Covenant the priests were few and they ministered to God on behalf of the people. Under the New Covenant all believers are priests of God, ministering to or serving God and also the brethren. In Hebrews 10:19 we are taught that all believers may “enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.” I Peter 4:10 says, “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the grace of God.” The picture is one of complete equality in that all may enter into the holiest, and all minister. There are various ministries, but all minister. In the priesthood there is an equality of the brethren. Thus, “Ye are all brethren.”
3. The church is the fellowship of the saints
In the book of I John, the book whose theme is fellowship, we are taught that first “our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” I Jn. 1:3.
Also our fellowship is with the apostles, those who had been with Jesus, as it is written in the first part of I John 1:3, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us.”
In addition to this our fellowship is with the brethren and is manifested in love for them. I John 2:10 says, “He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.”
Here I am interested in the fellowship of the brethren as it is declared in Acts 2:42, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking bread, and in prayers.” This fellowship is a participation in the ordinances of the church. Concerning this I cite again Mr. Milner’s words, first cited in Chapter Five,
“...another aspect of (fellowship) is that in which the items of the Christian service are represented as its elements. All the ordinances of the church of Christ are fellowships or communions. They are all alike common, as they are sacred to the ecclesia. There is a joint participation in all of them by the whole of the elect. No one else has right to any: all Christians have common right to them all. Preaching, teaching, prayer, praise, contribution, and the supper, are the joint and common privileges of the saved.
“It is a mistake to confine the word communion to the Lord’s Supper. The first day feast is indeed called the communion of the blood and body of Christ; but the same word, koinōnia, is, as already seen, applied much more generally. The English reader of the New Testament does not perceive this, as the translators have rendered it by the various words, fellowship, contribution, distribution, communication, and communion; and its relative koinōnos by partaker, partner, and companion. But this communion or partnership is not confined to participancy in the breaking of the loaf, but extends to all the ordinances; though the former appears to be the case from that ordinance being the only one in which the common English version translates by the word communion. Yet it and the word fellowship are one in the original.
“A communion is always a joint-participation. It does not consist in one party always giving, and the other always and only receiving; but in each giving, and in each receiving…The right hands of fellowship are the symbol of this.”
If Mr. Milner’s words sound authoritative to the reader it is because they square with the truth of the New Testament. It is not speculation, it is not mere opinion, when one says what the original Greek words say. And it is not speculation or opinion when these fellowships square with the word “they” in Acts 2:42, and not only there. The vast majority of Bible translations use the word “they.” The rare exceptions translate it as “the believers” or “the disciples,” conveying exactly the same idea as “they.” What part of “they” have the churches not understood? This fellowship is something substantial, a participation in the church ordinances. Rather than limit our participation in the ordinances in the way we commonly experience in the churches, i.e., to the singing of songs together, occasionally being “asked to pray,” to silent assent to everything that happens in the meeting, silent assent to the teaching with possibly an occasional “amen,” participation in the ordinances is exactly what it sounds like. Fellowship is surely a more active and less passive thing than we are accustomed to. “Active” does not require speaking, but it surely cannot preclude it. (Women are to be quiet in the assembly of the whole church, I Tim. 2:12. The KJV says “silent,” but “quiet” may be better.)
This picture of the fellowship of the saints is of something substantial rather than subjective. It is not simply goodwill, though fellowship is nothing without it. It is something positive, active, practical, substantial, and edifying, in Christ.
These three NT truths are indivisible. They stand or fall together. While these are general truths, they find application in the express teachings of the New Testament. There is no NT teaching that runs counter to these truths, and the whole of NT teaching harmonizes with the pictures.
Belief of these truths is evidenced in actual church practices, and not in a mere assent to the doctrines. I believe Mr. Müller’s church, portrayed in the introduction to this book, was a model showing that it can be and has been done. No doubt others in church history have done it, too, but these are mostly unrecorded and known only to God.