Editor's Note: Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message focuses on "The Church." Because of the ever-present potential for divergence and deterioration regarding the nature and essentials of the church, we will devote the doctrinal focus of the next few issues to the doctrine of the church. The following articles are designed to complement the emphasis of Article VI in the BF&M, and set the stage for the series.
Glorifying God ~ By Being a Biblically Sound Church
by Mark Dever
The doctrine of the church is of the utmost importance. A theology for the church would be incomplete without a theology of the church. It is the most visible part of Christian theology, and it is vitally connected with every other part. Serious departures from the Bible's teaching about the church normally signify other, more central misunderstandings about the Christian faith.
Historically, Baptists have been some of the most concerned among all evangelical Christians to establish and defend a truly biblical ecclesiology. Yet today many Baptists, along with other evangelicals, seem to care less and less about what the Bible teaches about the church. Many churches treat the individual consumer as supreme and gear all that they do around the personal preferences of the individuals to whom they want to appeal. For others, a desire for rapid multiplication leads to a "lowest common denominator" ecclesiology which fails to reflect the fullness of God's purposes for His corporate people.
Perhaps the popular disinterest in ecclesiology results from the understanding that the church itself is not necessary for salvation. Even the Church of Rome recognized in the Second Vatican Council that for a normally competent and self-conscious adult, participation in the church is not necessary for salvation. And emphasizing salvation by faith alone, evangelical Protestants certainly have even less use for the church, much less for studying the doctrine of the church.
Yet neglecting the Bible's teaching about the church will have consequences. God established the church as a display of His glory. When the church is marked off from the world through the faithful practice of church membership and discipline, and led by godly, qualified men who teach the Word and equip all the saints for works of service, the church's corporate character proclaims the glory of God through the power of the Gospel. But when a church fails to draw a bright line between itself and the world, its members live just like the world, its leaders fail to meet biblical qualifications, and that church will broadcast lies about God and His Gospel to the world.
Ultimately, the church should be regarded as important to Christians because of its importance to Christ. Christ founded the church (Matthew 16:18), purchased it with His blood (Acts 20:28), and intimately identifies Himself with it (Acts 9:4). The church is the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23; 4:12; 5:23-32; Colossians 1:18, 24; 3:15; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27), the dwelling place of His Spirit (Romans 8:9, 11, 16; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:11, 15-17; Ephesians 2:18, 22; 4:4), and the chief instrument for glorifying God in the world. Finally, the church is God's instrument for bringing both the Gospel to the nations and a great host of redeemed humanity to Himself (Revelation 5:9).
More than once, Jesus said that love for Him would be demonstrated by obedience to His commandments (John 14:15, 23). Such obedience not only requires individual commitment and action from Christians, it requires a committed corporate obedience. Together, individuals in churches will go, disciple, baptize, teach to obey, love, remember, and commemorate His substitutionary death with bread and the fruit of the vine.
The enduring authority of Christ's commands isn't the only compelling reason for Christians to study the Bible's teaching on the church. Present day errors in the understanding and the practice of the church will, if they prevail still more, further obscure the Gospel. Christian proclamation might make the Gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the Gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the Gospel-made-visible.
Today, many local churches are adrift in the shifting currents of pragmatism. They assume that the immediate felt-response of non-Christians is the key indicator of success. At the same time, Christianity is being rapidly disowned in the culture at large, as evangelism is characterized as intolerant and portions of biblical doctrine are classified as hate speech. In such antagonistic times, the felt needs of non-Christians can hardly be considered reliable gauges, and conforming to the culture will mean a loss of the Gospel itself.
As long as quick numerical growth remains the primary indicator of church health, the truth will be compromised. Instead, churches must once again begin measuring success not in terms of numbers, but in terms of fidelity to the Scriptures. William Carey was faithful in India and Adoniram Judson persevered in Burma not because they met immediate success or advertised themselves as "relevant." Part of what it means to recover such tenacious faithfulness in our day is that churches must swim against the tide of pragmatism and seek to be faithful to all that God calls His church to be in Scripture. We must make faithfulness to God's Word our measure of success, including faithfulness to what God's Word says about how our churches should be structured and governed.
But ecclesiology is not just about churches being structured properly, it's about Christians investing themselves in God's ordained means for growing them and evangelizing the world: the local church. All Christian should care about ecclesiology because all Christians should be deeply invested in their local churches, and so they should do what they can to ensure that their churches are being faithful to Scripture. It is as we invest ourselves in our churches and work to bring biblical health to our churches that we ourselves grow, the whole church is built up and unified, and a beautiful picture of God's grace is put on display to the lost world around us.
God's plan for evangelizing the world is the local church. God's plan for growing you to maturity in Christ is the local church. And God has told us much in His Word about who should lead our churches and how our churches should be governed. May God help us to strive together to build churches which bring Him glory and commend the Gospel through obeying all that He has told us in His Word.
Truly, the church is a display of God's glory.
The above article by Mark Dever is adapted from the introduction to his chapter "The Church" in A Theology for the Church, edited by Daniel L. Akin and published by B&H Publishing Group. An immense 992-page work, with contributions from leading Baptist educators and pastors, this valuable resource asks and answers four major questions regarding eight Christian doctrines.
• What does the Bible say?
• What has the Church believed?
• How do the doctrines fit together?
• How does each doctrine impact the church today?
Glorifying God ~ By Producing Mature Believers
by John Revell
Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians that God's specific purpose and intent for the church was that it would bring Him glory. We see this particularly in Chapter 1:3-14 where Paul carefully and methodically demonstrated how all three Persons of the Godhead have been actively involved in the work of our salvation. At the end of the portion on God the Father, he indicated that our adoption was to be to the praise of His glorious grace (1:6). Following his discussion on the work of Jesus in our salvation, we find that His purpose was that we would bring praise to His glory (1:12). And at the conclusion of his discussion on our being sealed by the Holy Spirit until the day of our redemption, Paul finished again with the explanation that it would be to the praise of His glory (1:14).
Later, in one of the most magnificent benedictions in all of Scripture, Paul wrote, Now to Him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think — according to the power that works in you — to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (3:20-21, emphasis added). Here we find that the church, as a reflection of God's loving care for His people, is an instrument for God's glory now and forevermore.
The operative question at this point is, "How?" How do we as His church bring Him glory? The answer, in part, is found in Paul's use of the words "fill" and "fullness" in this and two more key passages in Ephesians.1 And, interestingly, Paul again tied each Person of the Godhead to the filling and fullness addressed in each passage.
Filled With All the Fullness of God
In the verses leading up to the benediction cited above, Paul emphasized the Christian's goal, to be filled with all the fullness of God (3:19). This is to be the aspiration of every Christ-follower — to reach full and complete spiritual maturity. Paul indicated the prerequisite to this fullness in the verses immediately preceding that goal: I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and width, height and depth, and to know the Messiah's love that surpasses knowledge (17b-19a).
God has designed the church in such a way that as we actively love each other within the context of the church — in the sacrificial way the Lord has loved us, loving even those who are difficult to love — we begin to comprehend His incomparable love. This, in turn, leads to our being filled to the fullness of God, which results in God being glorified.
A Stature Measured by Christ's Fullness
In Chapter 4, Paul again referred to the fullness Christians should attain, but this time he related it to Christ, indicating that we are to all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God's Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ's fullness (4:13).
In the verses leading up to it, Paul indicated that God gave leadership offices to the church (4:11), for the "equipping" of the saints (through the teaching and application of His Word2), so the saints would be fully prepared to do the work of ministry and build up the Body of Christ (4:12). These components — effective pastoral ministry, the preparation of Christians for ministry, building up the body, and unity in the faith — are all essential elements for a person to "fill" the measure of the fullness of Christ. And again, as members of the church attain fullness through spiritual maturation, as described in 3:20, God is glorified in the church.
Be Filled With the Spirit
Paul's third use of the word "fullness" in conjunction with the Trinity is his command for Christians to be filled with the Spirit (5:18). Again, there is a direct link to how the church relates within itself. He indicates that members should be speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music to the Lord in your heart, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (5:19-21). Activities that coincide with this filling/maturity are relating to each other in Bible-based and biblically consistent worship, giving of thanks, and mutual submission within the body.
These passages conclusively demonstrate that a person is called by the Lord to properly worship God and grow in Him through active participation in a healthy church. According to these verses, God's design for spiritual growth requires such participation. The converse — that a person can properly worship the Lord and mature in Him apart from the local church — is never taught in Scripture.
But these passages also speak to the essential need for churches to be functioning healthily and properly in each of these areas; otherwise we will not see mature believers. In all three of these passages there is an essential and irrefutable link between the maturity that God expects of His children and the church's effectiveness in fulfilling the expectations of each passage.
Where the application of sacrificial love is exemplified; where there is effective pastoral ministry — that equips the people through the faithful presentation and application of God's Word for the work of ministry — and the members are actively engaged in ministering to others; and where members encourage and exhort each other through proper worship, participate in thanksgiving, and exercise mutual submission, there will be believers who are reaching the fullness in and of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
When and where these are happening, He receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, which He fully deserves.
1. These come from the Greek words "pleroo" and "pleroma," which are rich in history and meaning. To research further, read Schippers' article on "Fullness" in the Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 1, 733-741.
2. As indicated by the use of the related word for "equip" in 2 Timothy 3:17 — see Melick's article supporting this in the May 2008 issue of SBC LIFE.