“The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are said of you, O city of God.” The Word of God tells us that the Church of Christ is glorious. The Church is in her very nature glorious, having a glorious Head in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The nature of the Church is defined in 1Peter 2:9 as “… a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God … .”
THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
The Church as she exists on earth is not a building or a denomination, but is the assembly of the covenant people of God. She consists of men and women called by God the Father into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ. Wherever such people meet in Jesus’ name, there is the Church of God.
We trace the origin of the Church to the garden of Eden. Immediately following the disobedience of Adam and Eve, God, in pronouncing a curse upon the serpent, promised deliverance for His people (Gen.3:15). When the time had fully come, God sent His Son to redeem His people (Gal.4:4) and call them into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ (1 Cor.1:9).
Many rich word-pictures are used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe the Church. Each illustrates and emphasises some different aspect of the Church. Some of the chief metaphors are: the Church as the household or family of God, where, by God’s initiative, He begets and adopts us in love (Hosea 11:1; 1John 3:1); the Church as the Bride of Christ with whom Christ has established a marriage covenant (Ezk.16, Eph.5:25-27); the Church as the Temple of God, where God dwells (1Cor.3:11,16; Eph.2:20,22); the Church as the Body of Christ (1Cor.12:12ff.). The Church receives life and direction from her head i.e., Christ, and the members work together interdependently and harmoniously (Rom.12).
THE HEAD OF THE CHURCH
Scripture teaches that Christ, who is Head of all things, is sole King and Head of the Church ( Col.1:18; Eph.1:22,23; 5:23,24). The Church should not be thought of apart from Christ. To think of the Church apart from Christ, is to be guilty of a dismemberment; this is a severing of what God has joined together. It is also inconsistent with the central doctrine of the Christian faith which is that “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for it.”
Christ, as Head of the Church, is the source of all its authority ( Col 1:18 ). He rules it by His Word and Spirit. This has two important implications:-
1. There must be no interference from outside the Church. No man must come between Christ and His Church. It was in seeking to maintain this principle in the seventeenth century that many Covenanters suffered and lost their lives.
2. There must be no innovation from within the Church. Since Christ is the Head, the Church must take her directions solely from Him. Consequently, the Church is not free to organize herself in response to popular demand (Eph.5:24). This means that the Church is under obligation to receive from Christ the doctrines of her faith, the institutions of her worship, and the principles of her fellowship, order, government and discipline. Whatever Christ commands must be obeyed (John 2:5). The Church must not presume to do that which He has not commanded.
THE MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH
A practical distinction has been drawn between the ‘invisible church’ and the ‘visible church’. This distinction applies to the Church on earth. In her spiritual nature the Church is invisible except to God, yet in her profession, organization and service the Church is visible. In the Old and New Testaments we see a ‘visible church’. The members of the visible Church consist of all those who, upon profession of faith in Christ, are received into the fellowship of the Church, together with their children (Gen.17:7; Acts 2:38,39). (See chapter on ‘The Sacraments’.) The members of the invisible Church consist of all those in every age who are savingly united to Christ. The two are not necessarily always identical. All, who are in the visible, may not be in the invisible Church, in that, in the former, there may be those whose profession of faith in Christ is groundless (Matt.13:20,21). It is also true that some who belong to the invisible Church may not have been received into the visible Church in that they have not identified with the organised Church of Christ on earth as New Testament believers did. Every true believer is a member of the Body of Christ; and it is his duty to make acknowledgment of that by uniting with His Church on earth and to witness to His kingly rule in the world.
THE MARKS OF THE CHURCH
A true Church will be distinguished from a false system of religion by the presence of the following marks:-
(a) The true preaching of the Word (1Jn.4:1-3; 2 Jn.9; 2 Tim 2:2,15.).
(b) The proper administration of the Sacraments according to the institution of Christ (1Cor.11:23-30; Matt.28:19; Acts 2:42). “For wherever we find the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the Sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God” (Calvin).
(c) The faithful exercise of discipline (Matt.18:15-18; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor.5:1-5; Tit.3:10; 1Tim.1:20; 5:20).
The true preaching of the Word is the most important mark because the other two are dependent upon that Word.
THE MANDATE OF THE CHURCH
Christ has given the Church an unchanging mandate which she cannot ignore; neither can she take upon herself duties which have not been assigned in the Scriptures. There is no Biblical warrant for extra-ecclesiastical organizations established to do any part of the work which God has entrusted to His Church. The Church as commissioned by Christ has the following functions:
Man’s chief end is to glorify God. This principle governs all of life and it is exemplified in the Church by the fact that worship is her principal function. As a holy priesthood, the Church is to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving (1 Peter 2:5,9; Heb 13:15).
This is the essence of the Church’s life. “… my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” The Church has an urgent and immediate responsibility to take the gospel to those who are beyond her bounds (Matt.28:18,20; Acts 2; 13:1-4; 14:26,27).
In 1Timothy 3:15 the Church of the living God is called “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” “The Church is called the pillar of truth, for the office of administering doctrine, which God has put in its hands, is the only means for preserving the truth, that it may not pass from the memory of men.” (Calvin)
Members of the Church have an important responsibility towards one another: to encourage, exhort, admonish and to promote one another’s spiritual edification (Heb.10:23-25; Eph.4:7-16; Col.3:9-17; Rom.12:4-16; Gal.6:1,2).
The Church has a responsibility to the whole man and, therefore, has a duty to exercise a ministry of compassion to those in need (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim.5:3-16; Rom.16:1,2; Gal.2:9,10; 6:10). To a large extent this ministry has ceased to be an arm of the Church, largely because the State in many instances provides help for the needy. Nevertheless, this still remains a responsibility of the Church and there is ample scope for this compassionate ministry to be exercised. The neglect of this ministry has meant that the Church’s witness to Christ has been greatly impaired (James 2:14-16).