In this essay we are going to discuss the doctrine of the Church. The Church began on the first Christian Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out in the upper room, as recorded in Acts 2:1-4. And so the Church traditionally has marked its birthday as Pentecost Sunday on the Church calendar.
The word “Christian” apparently was coined at Syrian Antioch early in the existence of the church there, probably sometime during the forties of the first century. Acts 11:26 says: “In Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians.” The Christian use of the word “Church” also developed in those early years of the first century. The Greek word ecclesia, which means “assembly” or “gathering,” could be translated literally as “the called out ones.” But the usual English translation in the New Testament is “Church.” The words “ecclesiology” and “ecclesiastical” come from ecclesia, and they mean “reasoning about the Church” and “having to do with the Church” respectively. The term ecclesia also is the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, for the congregation of Israel. The Church then adopted the word as a technical term for itself.
Now in present-day usage the word “church” is used to mean several things. It can mean a building, an organization, or even a group of organizations. But we must not forget the original, literal meaning of the word as “the called out ones.” The church, in a strict sense, is really the people who have been “called out” of the world by Christ into a new, peculiar community of people. Technically, the church never is a building. The Church meets in the building.
When we analyze the ideas that the New Testament Church people had about themselves, we see is that they applied Old Testament concepts to themselves. For example, they thought of themselves as the people of God. God had made a special covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses, that made the Hebrew people a people in special relation to God. They were the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; they were the Israel of God.
Under the New Covenant, God granted this special relationship to the Church. Old Covenant Israel not only did not keep the Mosaic Law, they failed to be a light to the nations (Gentiles) as God had commanded. Thus they failed in their responsibilities as the people of God. Because of that failure, God raised up a new people, a new Israel. Therefore the Church thought of themselves as a new Israel.
When we look at the Old Testament, we can see where this thinking came from. In Genesis, chapter 12, Moses (the author), begins to tell the story of Abraham, whom God “called out” (Gen. 12:1-4). As Moses analyzes the history from a theological point of view, Abraham became the center of God’s attention. Therefore Moses no longer was concerned, theologically with the rest of humanity. Since Abraham said “Yes” to God’s call, Abraham was the only person who mattered theologically.
Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. God called out Isaac; and as far as Moses was concerned, Ishmael and his descendants were no longer theologically important. But don’t forget Gen. 21:13, where we read that God told Abraham: “And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also because he is your offspring.”
Isaac also had two sons, and the same thing happened again. God called out Jacob; and Esau was cut off (in a theological sense) as far as Moses was concerned, though again Esau’s descendants became a mighty nation called Edom.
Then Jacob had twelve sons who became the patriarchs of Israel, and thus the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, which in turn became the nation of Israel. Eventually the nation separated into two kingdoms, the northern and southern. Later the Northern kingdom, which had taken the traditional name Israel was cut off, destroyed, because of its apostasy.
The Southern kingdom of Judah also suffered punishment. In 586 BC thousands of Jews were taken into captivity, or exile, in Babylon. But the Jews kept their identity as a people in exile by not intermarrying with the Babylonians. And thus they survived as a people in captivity.
The Persians conquered the Babylonians, and in 536 the Persians allowed those Jews who wanted to return to Israel to re-establish the nation and rebuild the temple to do so. Some returned, and many did not. Those who returned did so as a “remnant.”
And finally, by the time of Jesus there still was a division. The huge majority was made up of those Jews who rejected Jesus. And then there was a much smaller group, “the remnant,” those few Jews who accepted and followed Jesus.
It is a fascinating thing to see this process of God’s calling out his people. It is important to realize that God took the initiative. He began the process by establishing a covenant with Abraham, who was the first to respond in the way God desired, by faith. But Abraham’s descendants didn’t always keep the faith. Some, like Esau, despised their birthright. Others sinned and refused to repent, bringing God’s judgment upon themselves.
Now as we turn to New Testament times and the new Israel, the new people of God, we see a different kind of problem developing as the rapid expansion of the community takes place. As you know, all of the first Christians were Jews. They believed that the coming of Jesus was the fulfillment of Judaism. They were convinced that accepting Christ was the proper understanding of Judaism, and they remained good Jews.
Then unexpectedly, non-Jews (Gentiles) were attracted to Jesus, who were not necessarily attracted to Judaism. This presented a problem because some of the Christian Jews believed that Gentiles must first become Jews in order to be accepted as an integral part of the Church.
Other Jewish Christians, however, did not agree with that. Paul for example took the position that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is saved by faith in Christ, and that is all that is necessary to be part of the Church. The problem became so serious that Paul and others who took the liberal position, met with Peter, and the other elders of the Jerusalem church at a very important conference at Jerusalem about AD 49.
The conference took the liberal view and decided that a Gentile did not have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian; and it was decided that the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law were not binding on Gentile Christians. The conference also rejected the idea that circumcision is necessary for church acceptance. The result of that historic conference was, of course, that it is not necessary to become a Jew in order to become a Christian, not biologically, nationally, or ceremonially. Only faith in Christ is necessary.
However there are three elements of faith in Christ that have led to three kinds of Christian churches and three types of church government. Two Scriptures clearly show the three different elements. In Acts 16, where Paul answered the question of the Philippian jailer, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), Paul’s simple answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” (16:31). There is one element, “believe in the Lord Jesus.”
The second Scripture is Acts 2:38. Peter, when he addressed the crowd on the day of Pentecost said, “Repent and be baptized . . . and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Thus we see the other two elements: “be baptized,” and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
These three elements of salvation believe, be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit have led to three different kinds of churches. The first kind of church emphasizes what to believe. These churches are called Creedal Churches, because they place emphasis on creeds that give a summary of what we believe. The so-called “mainline” denominations are creedal churches.
A second kind of church emphasizes the importance of baptism and Holy Communion. They are called Sacramental Churches, because of that emphasis. The Roman Catholics are a prime example of this kind of church.
The third kind of church places emphasis on the idea of receiving the Holy Spirit. Thus they are called Pentecostal Churches. The Assembly of God is an outstanding example.
Obviously, all three of these emphases are found in the New Testament. However, there is no indication in the New Testament that any one emphasis is to take precedence over the others.
Just as there are three basic types of churches according to theological emphasis, there also are three basic types of church governments. They are the Episcopal, the Presbyterian, and the Congregational. Representatives of the Episcopal form of government are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Anglican Church, and the Methodists in the United States. These groups all have bishops. The word “bishop” comes from the Greek episcopos, which literally means “overseer.” The bishops have a certain amount of authority over the local churches
In the Presbyterian form of government, local churches send representatives to a regional group called a presbytery or synod. These representatives from the local churches as a group have a certain amount of authority over the churches. They act as a sort or corporate bishop. Examples of denominations in this tradition are the Presbyterians, churches that have the word “Reformed” in their name, and Lutherans. They do not have bishops; but they are not completely autonomous either.
The third form of church government is the Congregational. In the congregational form, no one has authority over the local churches. Each congregation does what it decides is best for it. The denominations that have this form of government are those with Congregational in their name, most Baptist churches, and many independent congregations.