Defining the Church - Part 4

Selected Scriptures

Tom Pennington  •  August 13, 2006
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Now it's our joy to come again to our study of the doctrine of the church. For those of you who are visiting with us tonight, we find ourselves in the middle of a three-year study on the great doctrines of the Bible. We started with what the Bible teaches about itself, and then what the Bible teaches about God, and we went through each of His attributes together; then what the Scriptures teach about salvation and all of the intricacies of what He did for us in Christ, starting in eternity past with election, and tracing ourselves all the way through to glorification. And now we find ourselves in the doctrine of the church. What does the Bible teach about the church? And we're beginning with an attempt to define the church, because today it means so many different things to so many different people.

To do that, we're really looking at five distinct methods. We started by looking at the key words for the church in the Scripture. We looked at, in the last couple of weeks, the main metaphors, the images, the pictures, that the Scripture gives us of the church. Tonight, I want us to look at the primary attributes of the church. And then, Lord willing, not next Sunday night because of our time together with the concert, but after that, I want us to look at what makes a church, the key components of a church. And then, finally what makes for a healthy, or a pure church. And, I think when we're done with that study, we'll know what the church is, and is supposed to be. It is at its heart an "assembly of people who have been brought into proper relationship with God through His Son the Lord Jesus Christ."

Tonight, though, I want us to examine the primary attributes of the church. Throughout much of church history there's been general agreement about these attributes, but not necessarily what they mean or how they apply. So, let me give you just a brief history lesson. I'll do this quickly in the interest of time, but follow along with me. Shortly after the death of the apostles, most church historians agree that there began an obvious, rapid decline from the teaching of the apostles. So, the leaders of the early church who remained committed to the true faith were eager to determine what attributes identified the true church. Certainly a worthy goal, but the result tended to focus on the external characteristics of the church rather than her spiritual character.

So, it wasn't long until the true church was identified, not by its doctrine and practice, but by its structure. The church was viewed as an external institution overseen by a bishop. But by the third century, bishops had even become the key to identifying the true apostolic tradition. Cyprian, who was bishop of Carthage, died in about 258. He believed that bishops were the real successors of the apostles, and that together they formed a college called an episcopate; and that the unity of those bishops was in reality the unity of the church. As long as those bishops were united that was the unity of the church, and to be connected to, or under one of those bishops, was to be a part of the true church and to be united with the rest of the church.

Later came Augustine. Augustine was a bit schizophrenic about the church. On the one hand he rightly defined the church as the holy assembly of all the faithful who are saved and as the faithful who are elect and justified. But on the other hand he taught, that, "He who has not the church [meaning the institutional church] for his mother has not God as his Father." So, these were challenging and difficult times. Nevertheless, in these early days of the church in the first thousand years, some defining attributes of the true church of Jesus Christ began to emerge.

It began with the old Roman symbol, which was a predecessor to the apostle's creed in about 390, which called the church "the holy church". The Apostles' Creed, about 700 A.D., referred to the church as the holy catholic church. The First Council of Nicaea, backtracking just a little bit, in 325, referred to the catholic and apostolic church. And the Council of Nicaea in Constantinople, the creed that came out in 381, referred to it this way, "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Here, for the first time, the true church was identified by four attributes. These attributes were used both in the ancient and in the medieval church, even with the reformers, and they continue today.

Berkouwer writes, "It is striking that the four words themselves were never disputed since the reformers did not opt for other attributes. Even after the reformation, in spite of all the differences in interpretation, which appeared with respect to these four words, this usage remained the same."

Clowney, another writer, says in response to Rome's charges, the reformers did not reject the Nicene attributes of the church. Why? Why did even the reformers maintain this belief in "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church"? The reason is because these four adjectives have clear biblical support as the primary attributes of the church of Jesus Christ.

Let's look at each of them together. Let's start with "one". "We believe in one…." that is, referring to the church's unity or oneness. First of all, what it's not. Very important that you understand this because a lot of people have been confused by this statement of the church being "one". It's not a demand for one visible organization as the Roman Catholic Church would teach. It is not an insistence to ignore doctrinal differences in order to just appear unified. "Well, let's just forget that we don't believe a lot of things in common, and let's pretend to be unified." Nor is it license to ignore sin or doctrinal error either in an individual or a church or a group of churches. This is not what this is all about. So, what is it? When we speak of the unity of the church, we're saying this: that since all Christians are united to Jesus Christ, all true members of the invisible church are united to one another. In other words, we share an inherent, essential unity with all other true Christians.

Let's turn together to John 10. Our Lord introduces us to this concept in chapter 10 as He presents Himself as the Good Shepherd. Notice in verse 14, He says in verse 11, "I am the good shepherd." But in 14, He says it again, "I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep." Here He's describing the church in the form of a sheepfold. Now notice what He says, "He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep…." I'm sorry, I skipped back to verse 11. Let me go down to verse 16, "I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd." Look at that again, "I have other sheep which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd."

God's working in the past had been through one people, one nation, the descendants of one man. But Jesus makes it clear that the church is going to be bound together in a great unity, both Jew and Gentile together in the worship of the true God. We will experience a unity that is inherent; we are all members of one sheepfold. Notice John 17. Turn over just a few pages to the Lord's high priestly prayer on the night before His crucifixion. You remember these famous words in His prayer. Look at verse 20, He prays, Father, "I do not ask on behalf of these alone, [that is, His apostles, the 12, or at this point, the 11] but for those also who believe in Me through their word; ["everybody", Jesus says, "who believes in Me through the word of My apostles," [folks, that's you and me, that's all of us.] He says, "I'm praying for them"] that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me."

Verse 23, or let's go to verse 22, "The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; [Just as the Trinity enjoys a perfect unity, one God, in three Persons, He says, "I want that same characteristic, if you will, that same quality of unity to be true of those who will believe in Me." Verse 23] I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me."

There is this inherent, essential unity. God answered the prayer of Jesus Christ, it's here, it's true. All of those who are genuine believers in Jesus Christ have an essential unity that exists. We can recognize it, or we can not recognize it, but it's still true. There are a number of other passages that I won't take time to take you to tonight. But the Scripture very clearly teaches this sense that the church is one. It is united; it enjoys an inherent unity.

Now, why does this matter? Why does it matter? Well, first of all, because we are bound not only to the believers who are part of this church, but to all believers. It's so easy, isn't it, to become myopic, to think in terms of "us", "us four, no more, close the door." That's not the idea at all of the church. The fact that there is an inherent unity between all genuine Christians calls us to have a spirit of love and fellowship with all professing Christians, with two exceptions: if they are living in unrepentant, a pattern of unrepentant sin according to 1 Corinthians 5, and if they're defending false doctrine. Those are the only two things that should upset our fellowship with other believers.

The original fundamentalists of the early 20th century championed this motto, "On essentials, unity, on non-essentials, charity." Even though their followers haven't done so well at living that out, the motto itself is sound. And, by the way, while there is an inherent unity that we enjoy, there ought to be a visible unity as well. Notice again in John 17, Jesus says in verse 23, "I want them to be perfect in unity," literally, "I want them to be perfect in one," is what the text says. Why? Verse 23, "… so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me." Verse 21, [I want them to be one, Father] "… even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me." So, there has to be visible unity enough for the world to see that unity, and to understand that this is something that human beings cannot produce in and of themselves.

There's a second reason it matters that we are one, that we are united, the church is. And that is, we have a responsibility toward other Christians outside of our church. Throughout the New Testament, local congregations began wherever the gospel was preached and believed. And each of those churches enjoyed an independence, but still the unity of the church was clearly recognized from the earliest times. You see it in the relationship in Acts 11 between Jerusalem and Antioch and the churches there. You see in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. You see it in the right hand of fellowship extended to Paul and Barnabas by the 12 apostles, or the 11, at that point, in Galatians 2. You see it in Paul's constant efforts to forge deep relations of love and mutual service between the Gentile and Jewish Christians. When one congregation over here was in trouble, he raised money in another place to meet those needs. We have a responsibility toward Christians outside of our church.

We have the same responsibility today. By the way, you may not be aware of this, and we don't talk of it often, but we here feel that same responsibility. Our staff often counsels other pastors and leaders from other churches. And we seek counsel from others. We, of course, cared for the churches in need down in Mississippi and Louisiana that were affected by Katrina. We counsel staff members even from other churches in the area. We have fellowship with other pastors, our youth in college join with other churches for camps, etc. We stay connected with Grace Church, why? Because we know and feel and sense this inherent unity that we have.

There's a third reason it matters that we're one. And that is the fact that the church is one, protects us as a church, and some of you've heard me say this before, from the "Elijah syndrome." Do you know what the Elijah syndrome is? First Kings 19:14, Elijah said, you remember when he was ready for God to take his life? He said,

"I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."

Boy, it is so easy, isn't it, to develop a mindset in our church, or in any church, that "I, even I only, we only, we only are left, and they seek our life to take it away. No one else is faithful to God." What was God's response? Paul quotes the same passage in Romans 11 and in the language of the New Testament, he says, "I HAVE KEPT for Myself SEVEN THOUSAND MEN WHO HAVE NOT BOWED THE KNEE TO BAAL." "Elijah, you're wrong, I have others. I have others." It's so important that we understand that. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer churches that are pursuing Scripture as their model of how to do church, but there are some, and we must never imagine that we're the last ones standing.

Finally, in terms of the practical ramifications of this unity principle, the unity works out in ever-tightening concentric circles. It works itself out by closer and closer fellowship based on the amount of agreement. Let me show you what I mean. First of all, I can fellowship, and you can fellowship with other Christians as long as there is a profession of the biblical Christ and gospel, there's a belief in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, and nobody's living in a pattern of unrepentant sin. We can have fellowship together if those things are true. But the next step would be partnership, and for there to be partnership you have to add to those first things essential agreement in all the major issues of the Christian faith. There has to be, for us to work together, the list grows a little longer of things we have to share in common because it affects how we work and what we do and how we labor for the Lord together.

For example, issues that limit partnership would be the charismatic doctrine. There are many, there are many good Christian people who are in the charismatic movement. But as a church we can't partnership with them. Why? Because there are too many differences; those differences mean we work in totally different ways, we worship in totally different ways, we have disagreement at too fundamental a level. And so partnership isn't possible; fellowship is, as long as those first things are true. Then there's membership. You focus down a little more and to those other things you have to add a willingness to submit to the doctrine and distinctives of that particular church, and that list may be longer yet, and have more distinctions as our church doctrinal statement does.

And then finally, leadership. For us to work together in leadership in a church requires wholehearted assent to the doctrine and distinctives determined as necessary by the elders of that church. So, you see how we have a unity, and as long as there is a profession in the biblical Christ and gospel, as long as there's a belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith, and no one's living in a pattern of unrepentant sin, we can fellowship together. But our working together is limited, the greater the differences.

Well, let's move on to the second attribute. Not only is the church one, but the church is holy. This attribute's fairly straightforward, so I'm going to spend less time here. I encourage you to listen to our study of positional and definitive sanctification in a series we did on salvation, because a lot of that applies here. Let me tell you what it's not. What does it not mean that the church is holy? It doesn't mean that we're claiming spiritual perfection, either for individuals or the church as a whole.

So, what does it mean? It means that "positionally" all of those who belong to Christ have been set apart for Him in the church.

First Corinthians 1:2, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been [set apart] sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints [holy ones] by calling…." We enjoy the same thing; the church as a whole, the entire church of Jesus Christ is holy positionally. It has been set apart from sin unto God. You see the same thing in 1 Corinthians 3, Don't you know "that you are a temple of God…." And he goes on to say, "… the temple of God is holy…."

But not only are we positionally holy, we are also "progressively" becoming more and more holy, the church is as a whole, as we are individually.

John 17, ['I do not ask … to take them out of the world, Father,' He says, 'I want you instead to'] "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth." Then He goes to say, and I'm not just praying for the apostles, I'm praying for all those who will believe in their word. That's us. The church is to be progressively becoming more and more holy. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, says, "The church is holy in the sense that it is daily advancing and is not yet perfect. It makes progress from day to day but has not yet reached its goal of holiness."

In Ephesians 5 you see the same principle; we'll come back to that text in just a few minutes as time permits. So just as every individual believer is definitively holy, set apart for God at the moment of salvation and is becoming progressively holy, so it is with the whole church as well. The church is one, holy church.

Why does it matter that the church is holy?

Well, first of all, it demands that each of us live daily in a way in keeping with our status. Ephesians 5:27 says Jesus saved the church in order that He might present her to Himself in holiness. This is part of God's plan for the church. Therefore, we need to remember our status.

Secondly, the fact of the church is holy demands that each of us individually, and we as a church expend maximum effort to grow in personal holiness. Last week we looked at 1 Corinthians 6:14 through 7:1, where Paul calls us to separate ourselves from sin, "… to perfect holiness in the fear of God."

And finally, the fact that the church is holy demands that we practice church discipline. First Corinthians 5, I read it this morning to you. Paul says, "… those who are outside, God judges. [But you] REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES." Because the church is holy; the church is God's temple as we've learned over the last couple of weeks.

Well, let's move on to the third attribute. It's a word that scares most people: catholic, catholicity. Let me tell you first of all what it's not. When we say the church is "catholic", we mean not a recognition of the validity of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, what we really mean, our English word "catholic" comes originally from the Greek word "katholou", which means "referring to the whole". Those Greek words were transliterated into Latin as the word you see there, meaning "universal, or general," "catholikas". In English, the word became, was shortened to catholic. It simply means 'universal.' The first use, I should say of this word to refer to the church occurs in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch who died in about 110 A.D. He said this, "Where Christ is, there is the catholic church,' the universal church. In other words, the church would be with Christ.

Other 2nd century documents use this word to refer to the reality of a universal or whole church, as opposed to local congregations only. Unfortunately, and here's where the problem comes, with the conversion of Constantine the term began to dramatically change in its meaning. By the end of the 4th century, when you said, "catholic church" you meant "imperial church", the only church or religion that was legal at that point in the Roman Empire. So, by that time, the term "catholic" referred to the universal church the church believing orthodox doctrine and the institutional church that extended across the Mediterranean world at the time. That's not what we mean when we say, "catholic".

When we say that the true church is "catholic" we mean this: first of all, geographically, the church is not limited by place. When we say it's catholic, we say it's not limited by its place; it includes all men everywhere throughout the inhabited earth. You remember Jesus said in Matthew, the end of His ministry before He went back to heaven, He said, "I want you to go into all the world, into all the world and make disciples of all the nations." This is our commission. The church is catholic in that it extends over the entire earth. It even includes those saints now in heaven. In Hebrews 12:23 we learn of the "… church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven…." Continues to be the church even in heaven.

But we also mean by catholic, not only is it not limited geographically, but it's not limited socially. It's not limited to any certain kind of people. Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female … you are all one in Christ Jesus." Colossians 3:11, again, no distinction. And the same thing comes up in Revelation 5 where those gathered around the throne are said to be men "… from every tribe and tongue and people and nation."

And finally, when we say "catholic, or universal", we mean that the church is not limited chronologically, it's not limited by time. Jesus said to His disciples, "I want you to go and make disciples. And I'm with you - when? Until the end of the age." The church isn't set in one particular timeframe. It began as we'll see, at Pentecost and it continues to today and will until Christ returns and into eternity. In Ephesians 5:25, "… Christ … loved the church and gave Himself up for her…." The church as we know it was not founded until Pentecost, and yet Jesus' death was for the church, the church is not limited by time. Today we are the church, but those New Testament believers are no less the church today than they were in the 1st century.

Now, why does this matter that the church is universal, or catholic? Well it matters because it compels us to pursue and accept all different kinds of people into the fellowship of this church. We can't limit. You know there's certain churches right now, there are books that have been written, talking to you about strategizing how to get the church, how to get people to come to the church who are just like you, as the pastor. I'm so glad you're not just like me. I can't imagine preaching week after week to a group of people that are just like me.

In fact, I have a bad couple of weeks. You know, my wife, two weeks ago, brought home from the bookstore a book entitled, Marriage to a Difficult Man. Now, I don't know how to take that: if she just wanted to read something about Jonathan Edwards, or if there's some hidden message there for me. But I'm glad that we're not all alike, and the idea that the church is universal, that it encompasses all kinds of people means that we too ought to welcome people who are different in ethnicity and nationality and background and all of those things, into our congregation.

Secondly, the fact that the church is universal or catholic means that we should stay connected with the church's past and tradition. There are a number of passages that I think speak to this, but in the interest of time, 2 Timothy 2:2 says that faithful men are to continue to pass on the truth. And the implication there is that we stand in a long line of men who have passed the truth on down to us. We don't need to lose connection with the past. Chronologically, the church is not bound by time. It also reminds us of our responsibility to future generations. The same verse tells us that we are to do that. We're to train up faithful men; pass the truth on to them so that they can pass it on to the other generations after us. We have a responsibility before us.

Finally, the last attribute of the church that we believe in, one, holy, catholic, "apostolic" church. This does not mean that we claim a direct succession of apostolic authority. This is what the Roman Catholic Church eventually came to try to teach from this statement. That didn't come until the medieval period, however. That's not what this meant originally, and it's not what it means to us when we use this term. So, what exactly does it mean that the church is apostolic? We mean what the primary sense of the word means, it originated with the apostles. It emphasizes the fact that our historical roots are in the continuity between Christ and His apostles, or in the revelation that Jesus gave to His apostles.

Robert Reymond, in his systematic theology says,

Faithful adherence to the doctrine of the apostles which was communicated to them by supernatural revelation and inscripturated through them by supernatural inspiration, Christ made His chosen apostles His fully authorized spokesmen, and we listen to them because He chose them to give us the truth.

You remember in John 17 He prayed and said, "Father I pray for those who will believe", what? "through their word". The church is apostolic in that it goes back to the writing of the apostles because they spoke for Jesus Christ. And He made this clear during His ministry.

To listen to His apostles and their teaching is to listen to Christ, but to reject them is to reject Jesus Himself. Listen to how He put it. Matthew 10:40, "He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me." Of course, here speaking to the 70, His emissaries. Luke 10:16, "The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me." John 13:20, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send [The word "apostle" means "sent one"] receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me."

Robert Reymond includes this,

The apostolic church is one; which walks in the faith of the apostles. Only conformity to the apostles' doctrine guarantees the church's apostolicity. The church may rightly claim to be apostolic only in the sense, and to the degree, that it continues to adhere to its original foundation, namely the apostolic gospel and teachings.

It's exactly right. We're apostolic in that we cling to one body of truth and that's the revealed Word of God.

Why does it matter that we're apostolic?

Well, first of all it means the church must order its life by the Scripture. You know why we do what we do in this church? You know why we have elders and why we have deacons? And why (as part of our worship) we have music, and we have prayers, and we have Scripture reading, and we have Scripture teaching, and we have giving, and the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper? Do you know why we do all those things? Because the writings of the apostles demand that the church be ordered that way. In 1 Timothy 3, in fact, turn there for a moment. 1 Timothy 3:14,

I am writing these things to you, [Paul says to Timothy] hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write [He says, here's why I'm writing, in order that] … you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God….

Paul's telling Timothy, "Listen, there are specific ways that you ought to conduct the life in the church and I'm telling you how to conduct life in the church in these books I'm writing you, in these letters I'm writing you." And folks, we're bound by the same Scripture. We must order our life by the Scripture, the life of the church.

Number two, the church must proclaim the Scripture. First Timothy 4:13, Paul tells Timothy, "Until I come [Timothy, I want you to], give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching." He's telling Timothy to do exactly what we have done today as part of our services. And then, of course, you come to 2 Timothy 4. Turn there with me. And he tells Timothy this is how he's to conduct himself in the church:

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, [Timothy] be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Listen folks, we have a mandate as the church because we're apostolic, because we stand on the writings of the apostles given to us through the inspiration of the Spirit of God, to preach this Word, to proclaim this Word. There are so many churches that are dumping preaching for drama. Listen, my dancing across this stage in a tutu is not going to be a spiritual blessing to you. My acting and pretending to be someone I'm not in a drama is not going to reach your soul. We're commanded because we stand on the apostles' shoulders, to teach the writings they gave us through Jesus Christ Himself.

Thirdly, because we're apostolic the church must defend the Scripture. Not only must we order our life by it, must we proclaim it, but we must defend it. Look again at 1 Timothy, 1 Timothy 3. There we're called the church; he names, at the end of verse 15, he calls us "… the church of the living God, [and then he says this] the pillar and support of the truth." We have a responsibility to the truth. He puts it differently to Timothy at the end of 1 Timothy in 6:20, "O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you…." And then in 2 Timothy 1:14 he comes back to that same theme, "Guard, [Timothy] through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you." What's the treasure? Well, look back at verse 13. It's the treasure of sound words, sound doctrine which you've heard from me. Guard it, defend it. We have a responsibility to speak against error, to defend the treasure that has been passed on to us.

And finally, we have a responsibility not only to order our life by the Scripture, and to proclaim the Scripture, and to defend the Scripture, but to pass it on to the next generation. I already read to you 2 Timothy 2:2. [I want you to take, Paul tells Timothy,] "the things … [I've taught you and I want you to] … entrust … [them] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also." Folks, this is our mission: we believe in one, holy, catholic (that is universal), apostolic church. This is the nature of the church of Jesus Christ.

Let's pray together.

Father, thank you for this brief tour through what Your Word teaches about these amazing things.

Father, help us to see our responsibility. Help the leadership of this church to remain true to what we have seen tonight. Lord, help each individual who makes up this church, and we together are joined with millions upon millions of people now on the earth and in heaven who make up the church as a whole, the church universal, Lord, help us, as all of your people, to be faithful to these things. But may it start with each of us individually.

Father, we see now even more clearly why Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. Lord, I pray that you would help us to love Your church, to love the people in this place that are the church, the local manifestation of Your body here. Father, I pray that You would help us to love each other, to minister to each other, to use our gifts in the church, to pour our lives into the church, whom Jesus loves as a man loves his bride.

And we pray it in Jesus' name. Amen.