The Church

(Riverside New York)

The Church is made up of all believers past, present, and future. It is not restricted to any one denomination or building. It is made up of believers from all over the world. To know if any group of people claiming to be Christian is actually part of the Church, one must look at the doctrines which that group of worshipers holds as true. For example, if the church affirms the Trinity, claims that all men are sinners, that Christ is the savior, and that He sends the Holy Spirit to indwell believers, then it is true Church. If the church adds to these doctrines or denies any of the basic tenets of the faith, then the church is a false church. 

The Tasks and Practices of the Church

The Church is to do three specific tasks in this world:

  1. The Church is to focus ministry on God through the act of worship (Ephesians 1:12, 5:16-19; Colossians 3:16). 
  2. The Church is to focus on ministry to believers (Colossians 1:28; Ephesians 4:12-13). This involves nurturing other believers through caring for widows, helping the orphans, giving money or goods to those in need, fellowshipping with one another, praying for one another, and teaching one another in the faith. 
  3. The Church is to focus on its ministry to the world (Matthew 28:19; Acts 11:29; 1 John 3:17). This involves, again, helping the orphans, widows, and those in need, as well as evangelizing.

Wayne Grudem notes twelve characteristics of a pure church:

  1. Biblical Doctrine (correct preaching of the Word)
  2. Proper Use of the Sacraments or Ordinances (Lord’s Supper, Baptism, etc.).
  3. Right Use of Church Discipline
  4. Genuine Worship
  5. Effective Prayer
  6. Effective Witness
  7. Effective Fellowship
  8. Biblical Church Government
  9. Spiritual Power in Ministry
  10. Personal Holiness of Life Among the Church Members
  11. Care for the Poor
  12. Love for Christ (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], 874.)

No local church will accurately and clearly display all of these features, at least not all of the time. That is because the Universal Church is made up of sinners saved by grace, but sinners nonetheless. The Holy Spirit leads us into truth, but we have not reached the eternal state yet, and, as a result, we have not yet been made perfect. We, however, should strive to have all of these characteristics in our own churches. Our churches should also strive for unity with one another. We are not to be in competition; rather, we are to work together for the good of God’s Kingdom.

Millard J. Erickson has come up with several guidelines for knowing when churches should and should not work together; they are as follows:

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ is one Church.
  2. Spiritual unity should be expressed in fellowship and love for each other.
  3. Christians of all types should work together whenever possible.
  4. Churches should carefully distinguish doctrinal bases and objectives for fellowship with any organizations or other churches.
  5. Churches should guard against any union that would hinder the spiritual vitality of the church.
  6. Churches should not be too quick to split off from their parent denomination.
  7. Separations between churches should be the result of genuine convictions and principles, not personal conflicts or selfish ambitions.
  8. When churches disagree, they must do so in love, never as a result of hatred. (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998], 1137-1140.)

The Power of the Church

The Church has the power and the calling to perform three tasks in this world. First, the Church has the power and calling to engage in spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-18). Second, the Church has the power and calling to proclaim and spread the Gospel [this is to be done through peaceful means as God’s kingdom is a kingdom peace] (Matthew 28:19-20). Third, the Church has the power and calling to exercise Church discipline. The purpose of exercising Church discipline is so that it will lead to reconciliation and restoration of the person being disciplined. The purpose of discipline is not so that believers can show that they are holier than the one being cast out, and discipline is never meant to be a permanent casting out (1 Corinthians 5).

Church discipline should be exercised biblically, and those exercising it must remember that they are to do more good than harm. This makes a healthy degree of tolerance an acceptable thing (Romans 14:1-23). Church discipline should be carried out in order to protect other believers within the body and the purity of the Church (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). It should also be carried out in order to keep the sin from spreading throughout the body (Hebrews 12:15). There are several other reasons why Church discipline should be carried out: when someone is being divisive in the body (Titus 3:10), incest (1 Corinthians 5), when someone is lazy and refusing to help with any of the Church’s work (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10), and when someone disobeys the teachings of the Apostles (2 Thessalonians 3:15-16).

When Church discipline is carried out, it first needs to be done in a way that keeps the knowledge of the sin to the smallest group possible (Matthew 18:15-17). One should go to the person sinning. If the person refuses to listen, then a couple of others in the Church should go back to the person. If this does not work, then the sin should finally be brought before the congregation. If a Church leader sins, it should be brought before the Church so that it does not appear like a cover-up or conspiracy at a later date (1 Timothy 5:19-20).

It is also worth noting that discipline is for those within the church, not those who are not part of it.

Church Government

Different churches exercise leadership in different ways. In Scripture we see that there is a need for Church elders and for deacons. Today, there are offices in our churches that do not appear in Scripture, but they seem to still be valid offices. These offices include youth ministers, music ministers, administrators, etc. Regardless of the way that any one church sets up its leadership, it is clear that the people chosen for leadership positions within the Church should be mature Christians, they should exemplify moral behavior, they should be Christ-like in character, and they should affirm the basic tenets of the Christian faith. In 1 Timothy 3:2, it states that an elder/bishop/pastor (the terms elder and bishop are used somewhat synonymously in the New Testament) should be the husband of one wife. This is a statement to refute the idea of polygamy; it is not a statement claiming that a leader could have never had a divorce. This is not to say that it is acceptable for pastors to get divorces, but there should be room for forgiveness here, especially if the elder or other Church leader was the innocent party in the situation.