The Doctrine of the Church, Pt 1
The Doctrine of The Church
Matthew 16:13-20; Ephesians 5:25-27
If you are new to River City, or visiting with us today, we are right at the end of our Summer sermon series called “Do You Believe?”, where we’ve been looking at the core doctrines, or teachings, of the Christian faith.
So, with our last Doctrine of the series, we’re going to study the Doctrine of the Church, some today and some next week on Vision Sunday. Because we can go through this entire series learning the doctrines of God, doctrines of creation, doctrines of salvation, and at the end of the summer walk away thinking it’s all about me and my personal relationship with Jesus. And yes, there is a personal aspect to our walk with the Lord, no question, Jesus died for individuals, but there is also a corporate aspect to salvation where we are adopted into a larger community of other believers.
So we’re going to address the question: What is a church? Then next week, we’ll kind of hold River City up to the light on some of these things and see if we’re hitting these marks, or where we could stand to make some changes.
[Credit where credit is due, I owe a lot of what we’re looking at today to the work of Gregg Allison, who is one of the theological advisors to Harbor Network, the church-planting network we are part of, as well as Wayne Grudem and his book on Systematic Theology.]
The question we’re addressing today is “What is the church?” So, how do you think about what the church is? For example, let’s say a group of 6 people who love Jesus go to the bowling alley together, and they are having a good time bowling. They don’t stop to pray together or really even talk about what God is doing in their lives, they are simply enjoying being together. Is that a church gathering simply because two or more believers are gathered in the same room? Or what would have to happen in that group or to that group before you would have to say, “oh, those 6 people are trying to be a church?”
Martin Luther said it’s a true church if: a: they have the Word of God; b: they practice baptism correctly and the Lord’s Supper correctly; c: they practice church discipline, meaning they remove people from membership who refuse to repent of sin; d: there are official leaders who have been called and consecrated to lead; e: there is public prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God, and f: this group is undergoing trials and persecutions.
But his top three, which John Calvin agreed with, would be: anywhere the gospel is rightly taught, and Communion and Baptism are regularly practiced rightly…that’s a group intending to be seen as a church (Historical Theology, 579). Then in the 1600s a new group came along called the Baptists, and one of their leaders, John Smyth, added that a true church would also include some sort of church covenant of membership (Historical Theology, 581-582).
And ever since about the year 1000 AD, the Roman Catholic Church has declared itself the only true church, because of its belief that the early bishops were descendants of the apostles (Grudem, 856).
If you have a copy of Scripture with you today, I’d like for you to open to Matthew chapter 16, the verses that Chris read for us. In those verse, you have Jesus saying to Simon, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” If you have a pen with you, and you like to mark up your Bible, go ahead and underline or highlight “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” You can even circle those pronouns “I” and “my.”
This is the launchpad for understanding the church. Before we even talk about what constitutes a church, or try to define it, something is clear right out of the gate, right? That is, that whatever the church is it belongs to Jesus. It is his, and no matter who he calls to do the work, or how it comes to be, or how he instructs it to be led or governed, he is the one responsible for it. He is the final authority over the church, and his authority is so great that hell itself cannot overpower anything he sets out to accomplish.
What exactly is Jesus building? I mean he was the son of a carpenter, so is it a brick and mortar facility that he was building? We have no record of Jesus ever putting up any kind of meeting place, so when we say “we’re going to church this morning” we can’t be talking about the building we meet in. So it must be something else.
Scripture never explicitly says in a single verse: “This is what a true church looks like,” but we can look for clues based on either the apostles' instruction and caution throughout the NT, or in metaphors used by Jesus and others.
For example: Ephesians 5:25 says that Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. That gives us a clue that the church is made up of whoever Jesus died to save, which is to say the true church consists of anyone who has placed their faith and trust in Christ alone for their salvation.
For that reason, the early church recognized right out of the gate that the church in its truest form is invisible. Only God knows who has actually put their faith and trust in Christ for salvation, and who is just talking the talk, walking the walk. Of course, the church is also visible, in that we gather together and sing and pray and study God’s word and remind each other of what God has done through Jesus as we participate in communion and baptism, etc, but Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:19 that the Lord knows those who are his.
The Bible then gives several metaphors for what this community of true believers looks like:
- Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 5 to treat the church like a large family, encouraging him to treat older men like you would treat your father, older women like you would treat your mother; and treat younger men and women like you would treat brothers and sisters, in all purity.
- In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul describes the church as the bride of Christ, that the global church is united as one person engaged to her husband being beautified and prepared for her wedding day. Revelation 21 also uses that imagery.
- Jesus describes the church as branches connected to a vine in John 15.
- Other scriptures refer to the church as a field of crops or a harvest. 1 Peter calls the church a new temple made of living stones, built on the cornerstone of Jesus. He goes on to say that the church is not only a temple, but a holy priesthood, offering acceptable sacrifices to God. Hebrews calls the church God’s house, which is built by Jesus himself.
- But probably the most familiar metaphor is that of the body of Christ, with Christ as the head. In 1 Corinthians 12, the church is the arms, legs, eyes, ears, etc, emphasizing different gifts and roles within the body while being separate from and under the authority of our head, our leader, our Lord Jesus. In Eph 4, another metaphor is used where Jesus is the literal head of the body where every believer is joined and knit together with him and each other, continually growing and taking care of itself.
So, from those descriptions alone (family, bride, branches, crops, priests, living stones, body) it should be clear that the word “church” does not refer to a place, a lifeless brick and mortar building - but in each of those metaphors it’s something living, moving, active. I love how Wayne Grudem summarizes those metaphors:
“The fact that the church is like a family should increase our love and fellowship with one another. The thought that the church is like the bride of Christ should stimulate us to strive for greater purity and holiness, and also greater love for Christ and submission to him. The image of the church as branches on a vine should cause us to rest in him more fully. The idea of an agricultural crop should encourage us to continue growing in the Christian life and obtaining for ourselves and others the proper spiritual nutrients to grow. The picture of the church as God 's new temple should increase our awareness of God's very presence dwelling in our midst as we meet. The concept of the church as a priesthood should help us see more clearly the delight God has in the sacrifices of praise and good deeds that we offer to him (see Heb. 13:15-16). The metaphor of the church as the body of Christ should increase our interdependence on one another and our appreciation of the diversity of gifts within the body” (Grudem, 859).
I think to summarize what the church is, it’s safe to say that in nearly all of those metaphors from scripture, the church is a living, breathing reality, born out of the eternal will and purpose of the Father, purchased by Jesus’ blood for himself, purified and washed from her sin, and then empowered by the Holy Spirit and released into communities and the world as ambassadors of the glories of the God who called them by his grace! It can’t really be put in a box. It can’t really be defined with just one metaphor, even by scripture! It’s just not always that neat and tidy…sometimes it’s actually messy and chaotic.
But it belongs to Jesus. It’s his. He has full and final authority over everything, and he loves the church so much that he gave himself up for her.
There are very few scriptural guidelines on how the gathering of true believers should look. With the fact that the church is a living, breathing reality comes the opportunity for local expressions of the church to be creative and use their imagination in how they gather and interact and encourage and witness. But with that kind of freedom also comes the opportunity to go sideways in a hot minute. With that freedom comes the opportunity to make the gathering about something it was never intended to be.
So, the question then becomes, “How do you know if the local church you’re attending is a good one?” According to Revelation 3:9, there are false churches as well as true ones. How do you know if you’re part of a true church or a false one?
Again, there’s no single verse we could point to, but as you compile the New Testament teachings, instructions, and warnings to believers and leaders in the early church, even with all of the freedom of creativity and imagination available to us in Christ, you could say that these are the marks of a true and healthy New Testament church:
- Biblical Doctrine (right preaching) - There would be a number of texts to use here, but Titus 1:9 says a church leader should “hold to the faithful message as taught, so that he will be able both to encourage with sound teaching and to refute those who contradict it. So a true church must have sound teaching, and not be afraid to call out false teaching and the people or systems who promote it. Of course every church thinks they have sound teaching, right? So how do you know if your church has sound teaching? Author DA Carson says it would include: God’s purposes in the history of redemption (truths to be believed and a God to be worshiped), an unpacking of creation, fall, redemption, and destiny, the conduct expected of God’s people (commandments to be obeyed and wisdom to be pursued, both in our individual existence and in the community of the people of God), and the pledges of transforming power both in this life and in the life to come (promises to be trusted and hope to be anticipated (Carson).
- Proper use of ordinances/sacraments – the ordinances or sacraments are the two things Jesus established for the church to participate in: Baptism and The Lord’s Supper/communion. Improper use of the sacraments is to say that either one contributes to your salvation. Proper use is to say these are two of the ways God reminds us of his grace.
- Right use of church discipline - Matt 18 and 1 Cor 5:6-13 – If there is a person in the church who claims the name of Jesus, calls themselves a Christian, yet is in unrepentant sin, especially the sin of sexual immorality, and that person is confronted and there is no repentance or course correction, 1 Cor 5 says they should be removed from the church until they repent. The purpose is not to angrily toss them out on their heads, it is to give a wake up call to a believer going astray; to keep sin from spreading; and to protect purity of church and honor of Christ. The second part of this, is that immediately upon repentance, forgiveness and welcome are extended.
- Genuine worship - Col 3:16-17 - Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. We could spend an entire sermon series on worship, but genuine worship, whether it’s singing or preaching or even our fellowship afterward and in community groups is only genuine when it is drenched with word of Christ and thankfulness. The opposite of genuine worship would be if the songs we sing, the advice we give is drenched in the same self-help, me-and-Jesus, you-can-pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps nonsense of the secular world, and covered with complaining and grumbling.
- Effective prayer - there are a million verses we could use to talk about prayer – its importance, its power, its influence, its purpose. But a gathering of the saints, where faithful, faith-filled, expectant prayer is not a top priority, or it is a place where no one’s prayers are ever answered – that should raise some red-flags.
- Effective witness - A true church is marked by its willingness to, under the authority of Christ, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and HS, teaching them to observe everything Jesus commanded us. It’s what we call the Great Commission in Matt 28:19-20. A healthy church is one that cares for the spiritual condition of those we live, work, and interact with, AND our witness is effective! People are actually coming to faith in Christ because of our witness.
- Effective fellowship - Acts 2:42-47 describes a church that is fully invested in each other’s lives through generosity, hospitality, sharing meals together, taking care of each other. No one in the early church ever talked about their faith being for an audience of one; just me and Jesus. Everyone saw themselves as now connected by the Spirit to the larger group of believers, and their lives reflected that connection, to the point where the rest of the world watched them in awe. But effective fellowship, where church members are encouraged, and strengthened, and growing in their faith.
- Biblical church government - In various scriptures, you see three different offices of leadership within the church:
- Apostles – That word means “sent one.” Now, you could argue that since the Great Commission applies to all of us, that we are all sent in one way or another. But as far as an office of the Church, there are no apostles anymore. I don’t have time to go through all the verses that inform that statement, but in scripture, apostles have these qualifications: Seen the resurrected Christ, personally been commissioned by Christ, and given authority to write scripture. No one meets these three qualifications anymore.
- Elders/Overseers/Pastors: This is the most popular office described in the New Testament, and the letters where we get the most information about elders is Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy. In those three letters combined, there are a lot of tasks an elder must be responsible for, such as governing local churches, using their authority in proper church discipline and equipping and encouraging other leaders; they are to manage their own household and raise respectful children; James 5 says if anyone is sick, they should call the elders to pray for them, so praying for the sick is one of their roles;
- But, the three priorities of an elder or pastor are:
- To teach/Give instruction/Guard the doctrine; To model the Christian life, or set an example for others to follow. And lastly, the 3rd highest pjob of a pastor/elder in those three letters – Avoid babbling and controversies and myths.
- In Paul’s letters to the churches, especially in 1 Timothy 3, he assumes the elders of the churches will be men. Even though God may gift women to be brilliant Bible teachers, brilliant scholars in the work of exposition and call them to various ministries within the church, even giving them the spiritual gift of prophecy and leadership more so than the men who lead them, there are no examples in the entire Bible of women doing the kind of congregational, corporate teaching that is expected of elders.
- These elders are also never instructed to lead alone. Paul always instructed young pastors to appoint elders (plural) in every city. Even our Savior, King Jesus did not operate alone. He often sought his Father in prayer, and his entire ministry was led by the presence of the Holy Spirit. So churches should have multiple elders – we’ll talk more about what that looks like at River City next week.
- But, the three priorities of an elder or pastor are:
- Thirdly then, there are Deacons. Deacons are men or women who serve the elders of a church and the congregation through a variety of duties. There is very little said about Deacons in the New Testament, so it’s hard to know exactly what their role was biblically. However, they are seen serving the elders by overseeing certain aspects of ministry, and serving the church at large by using their gifts to meet the physical needs of those in the body.
Let me finish this out quickly – additional marks of a true church would be:
- Spiritual power in ministry - 1 Cor 4:20
- Personal holiness among members - Heb 12:14
- Care for the poor - Rom 15:26
- Love for Christ - 1 Peter 1:8
A false church, on the other hand, might meet a lot of those standards, and might look great from the outside, caring for the poor, even performing miracles and prophecy and casting out demons. But a false church would be any gathering of so-called “Christians” that doesn’t hold to the teaching of sound doctrine. The Church of Latter Day Saints or Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, are all false churches, as well as any Catholic or Protestant church that promotes salvation by works…turning baptism or communion into works that save you instead of preaching salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Any church that promotes or teaches salvation by works, no matter how much they may toss around the name of Jesus, is a false church… one that Revelation 3:9 calls the “synagogue of Satan,” full of people who claim to follow Yahweh but really don’t. IT IS BY GRACE YOU HAVE BEEN SAVED, NOT BY WORKS. Eph 2. 8-9
Back in the garden of Eden, Genesis chapter 2, where we’re told in detail about how humans were created, we read that God first created the man, and when the time came, he put the man in a deep sleep, opened up the man’s side, took out a rib, and created a woman from it. He presented her to Adam, and it was a beautiful marriage where Adam and Eve were joined together in one flesh and God blessed them.
But Jesus is the new and better Adam who rules over a new and better creation. And God did something similar with Jesus that he did with Adam. As Jesus hung on the cross, his side was opened up too by a Roman spear, and blood and water flowed out. Unlike Adam, he wasn’t just sound asleep when this happened… he was dead. They parked his body in a borrowed tomb, and there in the grave a new woman was created from a man’s body that was broken for us, his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. This new woman is the church (Vanderstelt, 61): The blood-bought, redeemed, forgiven, saved-by-grace, bride of Christ – sinners made saints, transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light and filled with the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.
And so today as we participate in the bread and the cup of Communion, we are joining ourselves again with Jesus, saying his life was lived for us; he death he died for us; he rose again to redeem and recreate us, but we are also joining ourselves to all the other true believers around the world, both those who are alive, and those who are the great cloud of witnesses already in glory, cheering us on.
Ephesians 5 tells that Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless.
This bread and cup that we participate in today is not just the way we recite facts. Jesus died for you. This bread and cup is a love letter from Jesus to his bride, that says he loves the church like crazy! He is our True husband! He is the Beloved one, and in this bread and cup he once again is expressing his love for his bride.
If you have placed your faith and trust in Christ alone for salvation, you are welcome to participate today even if you don’t consider River City your home.
Maybe you’re here with us today and you do not consider yourself a follower of Jesus. You just haven’t given it enough thought, or you have too many questions. That’s okay for now. We’re glad that you are here, and we’d love for you to keep coming back, but this particular part of the gathering is not for you. It’s for those who have put their trust in Christ alone for salvation. But that said, the Father’s arms are open wide to you right this second! In this very moment, you can stop relying on your own efforts and simply pray, Lord Jesus – I’m done doing this on my own. I see now and understand that Jesus died for my sin, and that he has already done the work to save me!
If you can pray that prayer honestly, you’re welcome to participate even right now… just tell me or someone wearing a lanyard about it before you leave. Share that with us so we can pray for you and celebrate with you!
Lastly, parents, if you have young children with you, this isn’t snacktime for them, but if they have made a credible profession of faith and you’ve seen evidence of a genuine love for Jesus and others…they are welcome to participate.
So as the bread and the cup come around, hang on to it and I’ll come back and lead you in a minute.
Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)
Gregg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012)
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994)
Paul Tripp, LEAD: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020)
Jeff Vanderstelt, Gospel Fluency: Speaking the Truths of Jesus into the Everyday Stuff of Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017)
DA Carson quoted by Justin Taylor https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/what-does-it-mean-to-preach-the-whole-counsel-of-god/