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25338
“Order and Ordinances of the Local Church - #2”
by Ian Kurylyk - Fundamental Baptist Church - Summerside PEI   
November 26th, 2014

The Basic Structure of the Local Church

"Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Philippians 1:1).

The local church is the sphere of human responsibility.  We will be judged for how we constitute, administer, and carry out the week-by-week life of our churches.  It is reasonable, then, to begin a study of God's will for churches by considering the basic makeup and structure.  Fundamental things are foundational things.  What is a local church, and what does does the Bible teach about who should be its members?

It is absolutely essential in this area of teaching to be grounded in the principle that the Bible alone is the authority for what we believe and practice.  And in particular, it is the New Testament that is our resource for local church order.  There are timeless principles of spiritual truth for our learning in the Old Testament, but the distinctive teachings of God's church age plan are matters of  New Testament revelation.  Wherever we observe precepts or examples of church order established by the Apostles, we have before us the will of God for the local church today.

DEFINITION OF A CHURCH

Definitions are helpful.  They take us from assumptions about what one might be thinking to statements of doctrine in black and white.  Different men with the same basic beliefs about local church life will still, no doubt, have some variations in what they would emphasize in their definitions of a church.  I have tried to take thought for the most basic concerns in the following definition (while recognizing many more details could be added):

A local church is a local body of individuals who have -

1. Responded to God's call to salvation from sin by believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ,

2. Professed personal faith in Christ by being immersed in the waters of Christian baptism, and

3. Covenanted together in a mutual commitment to carry out the New Testament program for the church under the headship of Christ and in obedience to the written Word of God.

This basic definition is valid for all cultures and all places and all people throughout the entire course of the church age.  I have even heard of churches being organized in prisons after evangelizing of the inmates had resulted in souls coming to Christ.

Sometimes it is helpful in coming to an understanding of what something is, to first make it clear what it is not.  This is especially true in an area that there may well be wrong ideas, previously held, that must be unlearned.  To this end we can take note of seven statements of what the church is not.

THE LOCAL CHURCH IS NOT:

1.  The world-wide structure conceived by Roman Catholicism.  It is clear that such a structure never existed in the New Testament and was never taught or established by the Apostles.  A philosophy of determining church order outside of Biblical example is a no-end road of dependence upon human inventions and humanistic concepts.  It is getting ahead of ourselves at this stage of our study, but God's New Testament program for His work is always local churches - autonomous, independent local churches, each under the headship of Jesus Christ.

2.  The state church concept of Protestantism.  Even if the church retains an orthodox creed and professes the Gospel, God has never planned for churches to be mixed together with the state.  Both state and church are planned by God and are to be honoured, but are to be structurally separate.  "And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's" (Luke 20:25).  Our society in North America (with its historic liberties that have been the envy of the world) has been built upon the concept of separation of church and state.

As a side note, the original concept of this has been distorted by Satan in current thinking to what amounts to the separation of righteousness and state;  As if our government should have nothing to do with right and wrong.  Changes in our laws have been made under the pretence of religious liberty which in reality are rebellion against the laws of God that our society has historically respected.  The recognition of right and wrong that used to obtain was generally held across the broad spectrum of religious beliefs in all the population - and involved no entanglement of church and state.  The truth is that human government was planned by God to uphold His laws and the magistrate is said to be a minister of God in the Book of Romans.  It is no confusion of church and state for a society to recognize the 10 commandments and other basic statements of right and wrong for the purpose of upholding God's framework of righteous government.  "Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people" (Psalm 14:34).  The dismantling of the traditional framework of laws that related to God's plan for family life , for example, so that all manner of fornication and perversion is publicly honoured, is the deception of Satan, not an advance in liberty.  What can be the outcome?  "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God" (Psalm 9:17).

3.  The nominal Christian institutions of Liberalism.  The organizations that deny the basic teachings of  the person of Jesus Christ and the soul saving doctrines of the Gospel have nothing to do with God's plan for a local church (though they often call themselves churches and retain historical denominational names).  Their agenda is social and political activity apart from the Bible message of the cross.  In fact, they often takes sides on social issues in direct opposition to Bible teachings.  New Testament prophecy has a lot to say about this counterfeit Christianity and the final union it will form with an evil one-world political power.

4.  The various structures of Denominationalism.  Evangelical bodies, and even some in Fundamentalism, have laboured to construct elaborate denominational frameworks with their presidents, boards, strangling bureaucracy, and extra-Biblical authorities that overturn Christ's headship program for the local church.  Empire building is a temptation even for the servants of God, but such a structure has the same problem as the elaborate structure of Roman Catholicism - it is not found in the New Testament.  This is not to say there is no place for institutions that serve the churches; only that they should not result in a de facto denominational organization that takes the place of God's local church program.  And local churches can, and certainly should, cooperate in works for God, without surrendering their individual sovereignty.

5.  The unstructured concepts of Interdenominationalism.  The details of the Apostolic blueprint for the church is a study itself for a later date, but it can easily be shown that God has supplied us with a Biblical plan.  The Apostle Paul repeatedly insisted that there was a right way to do things in God's church.  "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Timothy 3:15).  Neither the "hang loose" mindset of the hippies and their heirs, nor the "agree to disagree on just about everything for the sake of unity" of today's movers and shakers fits into the Biblical standard of discipleship and order.  The only way a church can hold up the framework of the truth in a community is to separate from those associations and churches that have capitulated to error.  Avoiding the errors of denominationalism need not drive us to the opposite extreme of interdenominationalism.

6.  The extreme isolation of sectarianism.  While most of the problems with today's churches relate to a failure to be willing to separate from error, there are some who fall into the sectarian ditch on the other side of the road - and become religious hillbillies.  Fanatical opinionism and distrust of anyone that "ain't from our religious holler" is also a departure from Bible holiness.  Sometimes the worst excesses and failures occur in the camp of those who are sure everybody else in the world is wrong and they alone are right.

7.  A family of families.  There is a movement today that has become very exercised about the dangers posed to their families by the ways of this world - and rightfully so.  Unfortunately, they have also become prey to a distorted understanding about the church.  I am reminded of the Amish concepts of the past that have confused the roles of the church and the home.  Some today (who may legitimately want to revive Biblical homes) have slid into a similar rut of imbalance and confusion.  It is wonderful to see folk interested in restoring the Biblical pattern of a Christian home, but that cannot be accomplished by fuzzing the distinction between our homes and God's house, the local church.  Those who have defined the local church as "A family of families" reveal their confused thinking.  It might sound homey, but it is a grave threat to the foundational place the new birth has in God's program for the church.

THE JERUSALEM CHURCH

The very first local church in the world was formed in Jerusalem under the direct leadership and immediate oversight of the Apostles of Jesus Christ.  A study of its history in the Book of Acts affords us an opportunity to observe primitive local church order.  This began on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts chapter two, when the early disciples experienced the descent of the Holy Spirit, the inaugural signs of a mighty rushing wind, and the flames of fire coming upon them.  They were then supernaturally enabled to speak the wonderful works of God in the many tongues of the worshippers gone up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost.

In response to the amazement (and misunderstanding) of those that witnessed the Pentecostal signs, Peter rose up and preached that wonderful message explaining what was transpiring and challenging people to seek salvation.  The record of what followed provides a primer for anyone who wants to learn the most fundamental elements of local church order.

"Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.  And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:41-42).  This short, but very significant Scripture enables us to observe four basic truths of these people of the first church:

THEY WERE BELIEVERS

This is fact number one about local churches.  They are to be made up of saved people.  Peter had just finished explaining God's salvation plan to his listeners and they were convicted of their need.  "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do" (Acts 2:36-37).  So when Peter challenged them personally to escape a perishing world, a good number "gladly received his word" as we are told in verse 41.

Salvation is a faith response to the invitation to salvation through the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  There can be no real missionary or church planting work that is not first of all an evangelistic work of proclaiming that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He rose from the dead to give the gift of eternal life.

The church is not a saviour; it is an assembly of the saved.  While church ministry tells the story of salvation through God's Son, it has no mediatorial powers to bring anyone into the Kingdom of God.  Any idea that the church is in any way the means of salvation is "another gospel" and under the curse of God.  The Biblical pattern shows us that it is God's clear plan that all who are first saved by grace alone through faith alone should then take their place in a Bible believing local church.

This also means that a person who is truly saved has no place in a "church" where the principle of regenerate (born again) church membership is not practised.  Taking part in an unbiblical program means the believer is absent from the genuine local church teaching and worship that God intended for all Christians.  The congregation made up of unbelievers is not something you stay in because it is your mission field;  It is a harlot.  It is part of the world and you cannot testify against it while you are immersed in it.  What confusion reigns today in such a basic matter as the identity of the church and the identity of the world.  Even among Fundamentalists, most of the evangelism (outside of foreign missions) is concentrated inside the church's meetings, while the unsaved unchurched multitudes that we are commanded to bring the gospel to are left to without a testimony.

THEY WERE BAPTIZED

"Then they that gladly received his word were baptized" (Acts 2:41a).  It is very important to observe the order as well as the particulars of this passage.  Baptism follows salvation.  Baptism is distinct from, and subsequent to, saving faith in Christ.  Just as the church, or its ministers, cannot save a soul, neither can a church ordinance.  Yet this does not mean we can call it secondary or unimportant.  The will of God is the very next concern for the new Christian, both in matters of personal life and of local church life.

There is a basic truth of local church order before us here in this Scripture.  Baptism by immersion of professing Christians is  a prerequisite to local church life.  Baptism is a testimony of the life changing transformation that has come through believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Professing with the mouth is important for Christians, but there is a place for this powerful, dramatic ordinance prescribed by God that cannot be filled by any substitute.  We do not emphasize it as a matter of denominational dogma, but because of Biblical example and prominence.

At the same time, it is important not to attach a significance to it that takes us beyond clear Biblical example.  There is no need to develop a doctrine that baptism is the door of the local church in such a sense that it must be reapplied every time a person transfers to a new church home.  There is simply no Biblical evidence for this innovation.  In the New Testament Baptism is a one-time ordinance for the Christian and the Communion Table is the repeated ordinance.

Similarly, there is no Biblical, historical, or logical basis for the teaching that baptisms are only valid when part of a supposed succession of baptizers and baptizees tracing back to John the Baptist.  Such a doctrine may serve to erect a sectarian denominational structure, but it does not bring honour to Jesus Christ or further New Testament local church Christianity.  There are times when we need great wisdom and discernment in determining what is genuine baptism and what is essentially disorderly.

It is worth noting here also that those that believed were baptized.  There were not 3000 professions and 30 baptisms - and 3 in the church.  Something is desperately wrong with the kind of ministry that brings those kind of results.

THEY WERE ADDED UNTO THEM

"And the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41b).  Some people dislike the term church member.  However, the events of the day reveal 3000 people who were previously outside of the body of believers at Jerusalem were then saved, baptized, and "added unto them".  Though the word membership does not occur here, the concept is obvious.

It is clear that the early churches of the times of the Apostles had a distinct understanding of who was on the inside of each church body and who was not.  And disorder by those on the inside would result in being put out.  "For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?  But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (I Corinthians 5:12-13).  How can we practice this same attention to maintaining holiness in God's house without the same discipline that is part of a program of known church membership?

There is a basic minimum standard of  Christian belief and Christian behaviour to be a member of a Bible believing church.  The teaching of the Bible on this may be called the Doctrine of Reception, and it includes the refusal of those holding heretical beliefs.  "A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject" (Titus 3: 10).  Immaturity of understanding is a different thing.  "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye" (Romans 14:1a).

This power of reception or rejection for church membership rests not in a hierarchy or on one influential leader but in the church body.  "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Corinthians 5:4-5).

Local church membership is a rudiment of functioning New Testament Christianity.  And the word member is used in the Scriptures notwithstanding the prejudice of some folk against it.  "But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body" (I Corinthians 12:18-20).

Want to test yourself if you are obeying God's program for local church Christianity?  One question to ask yourself will help give you an answer:  Am I a member of a Bible believing local church?

THEY CARRIED OUT NEW TESTAMENT ORDER

This is not the place for expounding on them, but four basic activities of life within the church body are described here in the passage.  "And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42).

Church membership is not just about getting your name on a role.  It is about making a commitment and then entering into local church life, worship, and service.  It is about being in church when the doors are open, sitting under the ministry of God's Word and being faithful to responsibilities that go with local church privilege.

THE MATURE CHURCH

There are things that are basic to the constitution of a church, and there are things that relate to the goal of realizing maturity in structure and ministry.  It is God's will for Christians and for churches to press forward to maturity.  Beyond the assembly of the saints as a whole, the Bible reveals a simple organizational and authority structure involving two offices, overseers (also called pastors) and deacons.  "Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Philippians 1:1).  Bishop is the old English word for overseer.  These two offices are studies in themselves when there is time for a focused consideration of the church's ministers.

A mature church will have a mature structure, a mature Bible ministry, a mature ordinance life, and a mature understanding of its three directions of responsibility.  It is called to evangelize the world, to edify the saints, and to render honour to God in dedicated worship.  God willing, we will consider these more in subsequent studies.

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