THE NEW TESTAMENT contains many references to the Church, and they have such an important place in the numerous instructions relevant to Christian living, that it is of the very first importance that we should understand what is meant by the term. In thinking of this subject we must try to rid our minds of ideas prompted by current and popular beliefs, and go to the Scriptures to discover what they have to say on this matter. It is quite evident that the Church of the New Testament is not a material building for there are references to churches in houses, greetings are sent to and from churches, and the materials from which such churches are formed are called ‘living stones’. Thus the apostle Paul speaks of believers as being ‘builded together for an habitation of God’. The plain inference is that the Church of the New Testament is made up of persons, persons who are linked together in a special way, and that these have special privileges and responsibilities devolving upon them as a result.
Certain ‘figures of speech’ are used to describe this fellowship of persons, and a consideration of these will help us to understand what the Spirit of God intends to teach us about this matter. The first reference to the Church is in Matthew 16. 16-19, where our Lord speaks about building His Church on the rock foundation of the revelation of Himself by the Father. He tells Peter that the truth about His person is not discovered by human wisdom, but is a revelation from God. Those to whom this revelation is made, who believe it and accept Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, are the material which Christ will use to form His Church. In the early chapters of the Acts we learn that those who were being saved were added to the Church, and a careful study of these chapters will show us how this process was carried on, and the source of the power which energized the individuals concerned.
Another term to describe this community of believers is ‘the body of Christ’. If by the word ‘church’ we understand a spiritual house where holiness dwells and God is worshipped, by the word ‘body’ we are to understand that which is in vital union with a ‘head’ and in which the ‘members’ are in vital union with each other. The passages of scripture which develop this idea show that Christ is the Head and that believers are the members and that His life flows through them. They are expected to develop individually and to promote the growth of the body as a whole. The addition of a member is not merely represented by a plus sign but rather by a multiplication sign, because every member is affected in some way. As in the human body so in the body, the Church, each member is enriched by the presence of the others. Such is the figure of the body. Here the idea is that of unity and dependence; the body is one, and the same life flows through all its members; each member is dependent upon all, and all are dependent upon the Head.
Another figure of the Church is that of the bride. In Ephesians 5. 22-23, the Church, the Bride of Christ is set before us. The fundamental idea behind this picture is that of love, the love that exists between the Lord and His Church; for as the body is a unity of fife, the bride suggests a unity of love. The same idea occurs in chapters 21 and 22 of the book of the Revelation; here the additional thought is expressed that the bride displays the glory and wealth of the bridegroom. This suggests that there must be suitability on the part of the bride to the position she has to bear, hence the teaching about cleansing and purifying in Ephesians 5.
In a further figure Paul tells Timothy that the Church is ‘the house of God’, 1 Tim. 3. 15. Here the idea is that of maintaining things for God, with behaviour becoming to it. We ought to know how to behave ourselves in the house of God, for it is ‘the pillar and ground of truth’. In further studies we hope to notice what provision is made for the instruction and government of the Church, and what are its functions and ordinances as shown to us in the Holy Scriptures. It should be noted here that the Scriptures refer to the Church in two ways: first as the great company of all believers from Pentecost until today and the return of the Lord, and secondly, to local bodies of believers gathering in the name of the Lord Jesus for worship and service.
One final word. It is clear from the Scriptures that every saved person is a member of the Church. This cuts across all party and sectarian names applied by men to various sections of the Church. All true Christians are members of the body of Christ and as far as Scripture teaches, the only reasons for refusing to recognize such members and withholding our fellowship from them are, that they hold wrong teaching about the person of our Lord, or that they arc living in open sin. Help on these matters may be found in 1st Corinthians and the epistles of John.
(To be continued)
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