Formation of the Church
The word translated church in the New Testament (ekklesia), means a “called out group” or “assembly.” It is most frequently used of those who are believers in Jesus Christ. In this sense, it is used in three ways:
(1) Of all who have, do, and will believe in Christ during the Church age, the time between Pentecost and the Rapture. This is the Body of Christ.
(2) Its also used of believers who lived during a particular time during the Church age, and
(3) of believers in a particular locality during the Church age.
A question often asked by individuals is, when did the church begin? While there are some who have suggested that the church existed in the Old Testament, the New Testament evidence clearly points to the contrary. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus stated, I will build my church, clearly pointing to a yet future event. His statement clearly indicated that the Church was not in existence when He made that statement.
We also find Jesus stating in Acts 1:5 that believer’s would be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days, also indicating that the formation of the Church was something that had not yet happened since at the time of Jesus’ statement, the text implies that the Spirit had not yet begun that work. Acts indicates that the formation of the Church and the baptizing work of the Spirit began at Pentecost with the descent of the Spirit (Acts 2:1-4). The words at the beginning found in Acts 11:15 in reference to the baptizing work of the Spirit in Cornelius’s house, identifies the beginning point of His work and the beginning of the Church’s formation at Pentecost (Acts 2).
The Church’s Leaders
There are a number of passages in the New Testament that teach about the who and the why of local church leadership. The New Testament speaks of only two leadership offices for local New Testament churches, one of which has a couple of designations.
In the New Testament we find that the office of the elder is identified by two basic terms: (1) elder (presbyter, GR presbuteros), as a church leader (Acts 14:23; 15:2, 2, 4) and, (2) overseer (bishop, GR episkopos), one who “watches over.” When it comes to the office of “Elder,” the term presbuteros stresses its dignity and the term episkopos its work. An important point to make is that the terms “elder” and “overseer” are used interchangeably in the New Testament, clearly indicating that both terms refer to the same office (cf. Acts 20:17, 28 and Titus 1:5, 7).
There are many passages of which only a few will be listed here, that teach us what the duties and responsibilities of an elder are (Acts 11:30; 15:2-6; 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17 Titus 1:7, 9; Heb. 13:17; James 5:14).
Only those who have met the qualifications given in the New Testament are to serve as elders. The qualifications of elders are found in 1 Tim. 3:17- and Titus 1:5-9. The New Testament also teaches that in any given local church, there should be a plurality of elders serving (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5).
The word diakonos is the Greek word for deacon which means “servant.” Acts 6:1-6 appears to be the time in the very short history of the church where we find the origin of the office. While the elders are charged with the responsibility of praying and of teaching the assembly, the deacons are charged with the responsibility of handling the practical and material needs of the assembly.
As with the elders, only those who are qualified are to serve as deacons. The qualifications of deacons are spelled out for us in 1 Tim. 3:8-13.
The Church’s Government
Many people mistakenly think of the Church as an organization. This understanding of the Church is mistaken because it is inconsistent with what Scripture says about the Church. Rather than an organization, the New Testament clearly teaches that the Church is a living organism of which Christ is the Head giving direction to believer’s who are His Body. Yet as a living organism, all local congregations or assemblies must be governed.
Three types of church government emerged:
(1) Episcopal. Under this type of government, bishops govern local congregations; typically one bishop will govern a group of congregations. The simplest form of this type of church government can be found in the Methodist church while the more complex form can be found in the Roman Catholic Church. This type of church government is not seen in the first century, it originated in the second century. Proponents point to James, Timothy, and Titus for biblical support.
(2) Presbyterian. In this form of government, a plurality of elders (the session) governs the local congregation. The elders are elected by the people, therefore the elders represent the people, and it is a representative form of government. Above the session is the presbytery which is made up of all the teaching elders (ordained ministers) and one ruling elder (lay elected elder) from each congregation in a district. Above the presbytery is the synod and above the synod the general assembly which is the highest court in this form of government. Both the synod and the general assembly are comprised of ministers and ruling elders. There is very strong biblical evidence that supports this form of church government in terms of a plurality of elders; however, the New Testament says nothing about such organization beyond the local congregation.
(3) Congregational. In this form of government, the authority rests on the entire local congregation rather than on someone who is appointed or elected to represent them as in the presbyterian form of government. These local churches are autonomous; meaning no authority outside that local body of believer’s has any power over that church. These churches are also democratic, meaning all believers who belong to that particular church make the decisions that guide and govern it. There is strong biblical support for this form of government in the New Testament since we find many passages that clearly indicate that all members of local congregations should be involved in the decision-making process (Acts 6:3-5; 11:22; 14:23; 15:25; 1 Cor. 5:12; 2 Cor. 2:6-7; 8:19; 2 Thess. 3:14; 1 John 4:1).
Since elements of both the presbyterian and congregational forms of government find strong support in the New Testament, it is this authors opinion that perhaps the best form of church government would be the combining or bringing together of those elements that have strong biblical support. For example, there is no doubt that the local churches in the New Testament were governed by a plurality of elders (presbyterian form of government), on the other hand, the New Testament also shows that these local churches had no outside authority with power over them, in other words, they were clearly autonomous and democratic (congregational form of government).
The Church’s Ordinances
Evangelical Protestants prefer to use the word ordinance rather than sacrament because the word sacrament carries the connotation of it conveying grace. Ryrie defines ordinance as “an outward rite prescribed by Christ to be performed by His church.”1
The New Testament only speaks of two ordinances prescribed by Christ to be performed by His church.
The Lord’s Supper
In three of the Gospels we find that Christ instituted this ordinance on the eve of His crucifixion. When instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus commanded His followers to continue observing the ordinance until His return (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23). Paul, in his epistle to The Corinthian church also wrote in some detail about this ordinance (1 Cor. 11:23-32).
Throughout church history, there has been much debate over the meaning of this ordinance. Following, I will make mention of the four views held as to its meaning. I will expand slightly on the view this author holds.
(1) Transubstantiation. This is the Roman Catholic view which teaches that the bread and wine literally change to the body and blood of Christ. As the believer partakes of the elements, he literally partakes of Christ, who during the mass is being sacrificed for the atonement of sins. Grace is conveyed to the partaker.
(2) Consubstantiation. This was the view held by the reformer Martin Luther. Today, most Lutherans hold to this view. This view teaches that the bread and wine don’t change into the body and blood of Christ but rather that Christ is present “in, with, and under” the elements. Believer’s partake in order to have their sins forgiven and for their faith to be confirmed as they receive them by faith.
(3) Reformed. Held primarily by Presbyterians and Reformed churches, this view teaches that although Christ is not literally present in the elements, He is present spiritually. Partaking of the elements conveys grace to the believer.
(4) Memorial. This view is held by Baptists, Mennonites, Plymouth Brethren, and other denominational and non-denominational churches. This view teaches that Christ is not present physically or spiritually in the elements. When the believer partakes of the elements, he is simply commemorating the death of Christ. No grace is conveyed or imparted to the believer. The elements are figurative only and although there is no real physical or spiritual presence of Christ in the elements, it is a time when the believer is in communion and spiritual fellowship with His Lord, memorializing His death. It is a rite in which believers acknowledge and demonstrate their faith in the death of Christ.
This is the view this writer holds because in my opinion the other views present a number of problems that cannot be reconciled with the New Testament’s teaching on the ordinance. Enns states, “The memorial view has much to commend it in the Scriptures. An examination of the passages reveals the significance of the Lord’s Supper. It is a memorial to His death (1 Cor. 11:24, 25): the recurring statement, ‘in remembrance of Me,’ makes this clear, the bread symbolizing His perfect body offered in sin-bearing sacrifice (1 Pet. 2:24) and the wine His blood shed for forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7). It is a proclamation of the death of Christ while waiting for His coming (1 Cor. 11:26): it involves a looking back to the historical event of the cross and an anticipating of His return in the future (Matt. 26:29). It is a communion of believers with each other (1 Cor. 10:17): they eat and drink the same symbolic elements, focusing on their common faith in Christ.”2
Personally, I prefer to use the term “believer’s baptism” since in my opinion it better expresses the ordinance. We find the origin of this ordinance in Jesus’ command better known as The Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commanded Christians to make disciples and baptize them. This verse, as well as many others deliberately establishes an order in the execution of this ordinance. All these verses that I will enumerate clearly indicate that before an individual is to be baptized, that individual must have become a believer, thus my preferred term of “believer’s baptism.” In other words, baptism follows a person’s act of repentance and his exercise of faith (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:14-15; 16:14-15; 18:8).
When a believer is baptized, he is identifying himself with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism is an outward public declaration of what has already occurred inwardly. Romans 6:4-5, although speaking of Spirit baptism helps illustrate the meaning of this ordinance. Some have asked why one must make his declaration public in this fashion. Because Christ died a very public death in order that we might be reconciled to God. He died publicly, we declare publicly.
It is important to note that the Bible does not support the view or doctrine known as “baptismal regeneration.” This view of baptism teaches that the result of baptism is the remission of sin and as the name of the doctrine states; a person after baptism is regenerate or born again. Scripture clearly teaches that a person is not baptized in order to be saved but rather that he is baptized because he has been saved, therefore the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is inconsistent with the clear teaching of the New Testament.
The Church’s Purpose
The purpose of the Church is threefold, upward: inward, and outward:
(1) Upward. The Church exists to bring honor, praise, and glory to God, to worship Him both individually and corporately here on earth. Saucy writes, “The church’s final goal in all of its responsibilities…is the ascription of glory to the One who has created it through redemption in Christ. The predestination of believers in the church to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ and the obtaining of an inheritance in Him all redounds ‘to the praise of the glory of His grace’ (Eph. 1:5-6, 11-14). So amazing is the display of God’s attributes in creating the church and bestowing upon it all blessings in Christ Jesus that the apostle exults in a doxology of praise: ‘to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen’ (Eph. 3:21).”3
(2) Inward. The Church exists so that the Body of Christ might be edified and equipped for service. Through this edification the Spirit is able to bring us to maturity and can continually conform us more and more to the image of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13). Saucy states, “The edification of the church, while related to outward growth by the addition of new members, is concerned primarily with the building and developing of the community itself in the life of faith (Eph. 4:13-16; Jude 20; 1 Cor. 14:26).”4 If Christians are going to grow to maturity, there are three things which we need to be actively taking part of and doing, we must be submitting on a regularly basis to the teaching of the Word of God and in time become teachers of the Word ourselves, fellowship, and worship.
(3) Outward. In Matthew 28:18-20 we find Christ Himself telling us why the Church exists, what our purpose is in relation to the world, it is known as The Great Commission, an exhortation repeated just before Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:8; cf. Luke 24:46-48). Chafer states, “The present divine purpose of this age is not the conversion of the world, but rather the calling out from the world those who will believe in Christ to form the body of Christ which is the church…in the present age, never is the individual believer (much less the church) appointed of God to a world-improvement program; but the believer is called to be a witness in all the world to Christ and His saving grace, and through this ministry of gospel preaching the Spirit of God will accomplish the supreme divine purpose in the age”5 (cf. Mark 16:15; 2 Cor. 5:19).
In addition to the three purposes mentioned above, the Church also has a function toward the Kingdom program: (1) to provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom. 11:11-15), (2) to show God’s grace and wisdom (Eph. 2:7; 3:6, 10), (3) to prepare the Kingdom’s rulers.6
1 Charles C. Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody, 1972), 149.
2 Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1989), 362.
3 Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago: Moody, 1972), 97.
4 Ibid., 95.
5 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Major Bible Themes, revised by John F. Walvoord, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 242-244.
6 Saucy, 89-90.
Copyright © 2006–2021 by Miguel J. Gonzalez Th.D.
Dr. Miguel J. Gonzalez is the Founder and President of Reasons for Faith International Ministries. He served as a pastor for ten years in Charlotte, NC and has taught in churches and conferences throughout the United States. He currently hosts the Time in the Word and Truth To Live By podcasts and writes at KnowingChristianity.blogspot.com.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Christian Standard Bible. Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible®, and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers, all rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.