The Doctrine of the Church


In developing a philosophy of the church, it will be helpful to first see the church as a whole before examining the particulars.





Our English word “church” is translated from the Greek word ekklesia.  It is a compound word made up of the joining of two Greek words.


·        Ek: “Out of.”

·        Kaleo: “To call.”


The resulting word describes a called-out assembly.  It can refer to a secular assembly, a legal assembly, or a religious assembly.


The resulting word describes a “called out assembly.”  It can refer to a secular assembly, a legal assembly, or to a religious assembly.  It is the last usage that we normally see in the New Testament when we hear the word “church.”  As such, it can refer to four different types of church.


1.         The Local Congregation.


This is the most common use of the word in the New Testament.  It refers to the gathering of people into a local congregation.  In 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul addresses his epistle to the church of God which is at Corinth.


2.         The Universal Church.


This speaks of the complete body of Christ, made up of all believers throughout the world and throughout all time.  Ephesians 1:22 speaks of the universal church when it describes Jesus being the head of the church (see also Ephesians 5:23-24).  In the same way, Ephesians 3:10 speaks of the manifold wisdom of God being given to the church.


3.         A Group of Local Congregations.


The word “church” can be used of a group of local congregations in a particular area that goes beyond a single group of people.

           Acts 9:31 tells us how the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace. [1]  It might be argued that these local congregations were merely the local manifestation of the universal church.


           The Jerusalem Church was of a size that made it obvious that it met as a number of congregations, yet it is described in the Bible as a single church.


           House churches met as a part of the local church (1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:3-5; Colossians 4:15-26; Philemon 1:2).





There are five major and foundational truths set forth in the Scriptures concerning the universal church that play a vital part in our understanding of how the church functions and operates.


1.         There is only One Church:  There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling (Ephesians 4:4).


The fact that there is one church is to be the basis of unity among believers.  This becomes immediately obvious if we examine the context of Ephesians 4:4.  This unity is so strong that it is to break past any prejudices between Jew or Gentiles, male or female, slave or free.  This means there is not to be one church for Jews and another for Gentiles.  There is not to be one church for slaves and another for free men.  We are all one in Christ.


This principle has some implications with regard to Dispensationalism—the view that God has two separate and distinct assemblies of people in Israel and the church.  By contrast, Paul says that there is only one assembly of God’s people.  There is only one church.  It had an Old Testament manifestation, but it is one church.


2.         Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church:  For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body (Ephesians 5:23); He is also head of the body, the church... (Colossians 1:18).


The head is the most important part of any body.  It is indispensable.  Even the heart can be transplanted and replaced, but a body without its head is unthinkable.  Just as a human body is controlled and directed by its head, so also the church is to be controlled and directed by its Head, Jesus Christ.  He is the leader of the church, its Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4), and its High Priest (Hebrews 9:11).


3.         The Church is Holy:  Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).


Notice that Paul does not say merely that the church will someday become holy.  It is holy right now.  This quality of holiness indicates that which is set apart from the world and set apart from the sinfulness and impurity of the world and set apart for a special purpose.  Though the church is still in the world, it is no longer of the world.


4.         Every Believer is a Priest of God.


In the Old Testament economy, God set apart a group of men who were designated as priests.  They were the sons of Aaron from the tribe of Levi.  They wore special robes and were given the responsibility of ministering in the temple.  They were the only ones who could enter into the temple.  They were the only ones authorized to administer the sacrifices.  In this way, they served as mediators between God and men.


Jesus Christ did away with this system by becoming our perfect High Priest, offering up Himself as the perfect sacrifice.  He also brought about an assembly in which every member is a priest.


   also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5).


            But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).


Every member of the body of Christ has been set apart and consecrated as a priest of God.  This is a special priesthood.  It is called a “royal priesthood.”  The priesthood in the Old Testament economy was never known by this title.  This priesthood is unique in that it does not come down through Aaron, but through the King of kings, Jesus Christ.


5.         The Mandate of the church is to Make Disciples.


This mandate was given in the last words of Jesus to His disciples before he departed to heaven.  It was a command to make disciples of all men.


            Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20).


The main verb of this passage and therefore the primary command is to “make disciples.”  The other verbs are all given in the Greek text as participles and thus describe the steps that are to be used in making disciples.




The church is to be mission-minded.  It is not to have a fortress mentality in which it isolates itself from the world.  Instead, it is to be invading the world, going out to accomplish its work of making disciples.




The reference to baptism is a summarization of the evangelistic and conversion ministry of the church.  Baptism is the outward sign of such inner conversion.




It is not enough to make converts.  The business of the church is to take those converts and to train them so that they will become disciple makers.





The five principles we have just examined are very basic and are generally met with agreement by all within the realm of Christian orthodoxy.  However, there is considerably less agreement as to how we are to take these principles and put them into practice within the local church.


The point should be made that the Bible never makes a clear distinction between the universal church versus the local church.  It is because of this lack of a distinction that I want to suggest the local church is to be seen as a microcosm of the universal church.  The qualities that are true of the universal church are to be mirrored in the practices of the local church.


1.                  There is Only One Church.


This principle is to be demonstrated in the face of the differences that exist within the church.  It requires us to hold to our unity in the face of our disagreements.  The obvious question arises as to the place of denominations within Christianity.  I believe the answer is just as obvious — they have come about as a result of sin in the church.


Does this mean we should take a stance of non-denominationalism?  Not necessarily, since the very stance of non-denominationalism has become in itself a denomination of its own.


What it does mean is that the Christian church should always be ready to unite and to work with other Christians at whichever level it is able.  There will be times when, due to differing doctrinal persuasions, this will not be possible.  But the effort should be made to break down the barriers whenever possible.


2.         Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church.


Most local churches are ruled by a head known as the pastor, the preacher, the reverend, or some other exalted title.  This is a very old tradition, going all the way back to the apostolic fathers and witnessed as early as the epistles of Ignatius.  However, such a tradition is remarkably absent from the pages of the New Testament.  Instead of a one-man-rule, we see the pattern of a plurality of elders within the book of Acts and in the epistles.


Not once in the New Testament is any one man besides Jesus Christ held up as the leader of any local church.  Even when Paul speaks of those particular elders who rule well and who are considered worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17), he refers to them in the plural.


In a day when too many churches have departed from this Biblical pattern, it is not surprising that people tend to focus their attention on the man in the pulpit rather than on the true Head of the church.


The adoption of this principle will have a tremendous effect upon the direction of the church.  Most churches derive their vision and their identity from one man — the senior pastor.  If he is primarily an evangelist, then the church will have evangelism as its primary emphasis to the exclusion of other aspects of ministry.


However, a plurality of leaders allows for emphasis and vision in different areas of ministry within the church because different leaders will focus their efforts along the separate lines in which they have been gifted.  This does not preclude having a single man who serves as the senior pastor, but it allows other leaders to utilize their own gifts within the church.


3.         The Church is Holy.


The holiness of the local church is to be manifested in both doctrinal and practical purity.  This brings up the question as to the level of doctrinal purity.  At what point is doctrine to cause division within the church?  Many artificial lines have been drawn by well-meaning people, but I think they have been generally drawn without regard for an appreciation of the relationship of the universal church to the local church.


The doctrinal purity is to be such that the requirements for entrance into the local church ought to be no more and no less than the requirements for entrance into God’s universal church.  The requirement is one of true and sincere repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.


The Scriptures give us very specific guidelines as to the maintaining of practical purity within the church, both through the positive means of exhorting and encouraging us, as well as through the negative means of discipline and excommunication.


4.         Every Believer is a Priest of God.


The priesthood of the believer ought to be manifested within the local church in a way that is similar to the way in which the Aaronic priesthood was manifested under the Old Testament economy.  How was the Aaronic priesthood manifested?  The priest was one who performed the service of worship on behalf of the people.


Today’s church services are often constituted as a spectator sport in which the participation o the audience/congregation is limited to singing and putting money into the offering plate.  The pattern displayed in the New Testament is quite different.


            What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (1 Corinthians 14:26).


This picture of the meeting of the early church is one of group participation in which every believer served as a priest to every other member of the group.  This was not to be done in as disorganized manner, but neither was it so restricted in its regulation that it was only the ministry of a single individual.


            29 And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:29-33).


The preaching and teaching and exhortation and prayers of the church were never designed to by only the activity of a single man.  Paul’s language makes it clear that there is to be a plurality among those who preach and prophecy in the meeting of the church.  There are several reasons for this.


First of all, it is so that there can be a system of checks and balances within the meeting of the church.  This is to guard against a single pastor going off the deep end.  The other leaders of the church are to keep him answerable to the word of God.


Secondly, this pluralization of ministry is so that the Spirit can minister to the body through a multiplicity of spiritual gifts.  I have yet to meet a single person who possesses in himself all of the spiritual gifts.  The tendency within a typical one-man-ministry is to focus only upon those gifts that the one man in the pulpit possesses.  By divesting the leadership of the church into a number of different men, the focus of that ministry ceases to be limited.


5.         The Mandate of the Church is to Make Disciples.


The primary duty of the church is not to stop abortion or to elect Republicans into political office or to close down all ungodly establishments by passing Christian legislation.  That is not to say that Christians should not be involved in these issues, but it does mean that this should never become the primary focus of the church.  The church is to make disciples.  The way in which this is to be accomplished has already been laid out for us.




The work of evangelism is not to take place exclusively or even primarily within the walls of the church or its regular meeting.  This is not to say that the gospel cannot be presented within the worship service, but it does mean that our emphasis should be in taking the gospel to those who are outside of the church.




The church is to have an emphasis on evangelism and in converting people to the cause of Christ.




Once converts have been made, then it is the business of the church to train them up in the faith so they can be involved in this same ministry.  Paul gave these instructions about passing on the faith: And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).





One’s view of the church and of prioritizing the various aspects of the church will have a major effect upon how ministry is structured.  This is observed in the major Christian denominations.


Roman Catholicism

Sees the Mass as being central to the church.  For this reason, there is limited emphasis upon preaching, to the extent that for much of the history of the church the Mass was conducted in a foreign language.

Reformed Tradition

Placed a high priority upon the reading and study of the Scriptures.  The sermon was seen as central.


Tends to view evangelism as preeminent and this is the basis for the “altar call” and the “pulpit evangelism” that characterizes the service.


Their priority is a “worship experience” that emphasizes group interaction and participation within the service.


A view of the church also has an influence on how the church relates to society.  This has  had a major impact in the church in history.


Roman Catholicism

Sees the church as properly being over society.  All things, including government, are to be subservient to the church

Reformed Tradition

Sees the church as exerting transformation influence upon society as it is salt and light to the earth.  This mandates the church’s involvement in politics and social issues.

Baptist & Independent Churches

They have often adopted a stance of separation of church and state that sees the church as separated from and having nothing to do with society.

Religious Liberalism

This is the exact opposite of the Reformed Tradition.  It attempts to make the church a part of society by transforming the church so that it fits the patterns and morals of society.  Thus if society affirms homosexuality, the church will also accept and affirm a homosexual lifestyle.





The Bible uses a number of word pictures to portray the church.  We call these pictures “metaphors.”  In each of these metaphors, a physical object is used to illustrate some specific aspect of the church.


1.         The Church as a Body.


            For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).


The point made by Paul in this passage is that the church is much more than an organization.  It is an organic living body.  Though it is composed of many different parts, it is still a single body.  This has several ramifications.


           The principle of unity.


There is to be unity within the church.  A body that is divided is soon a corpse.  If the church is to be healthy and alive, it also needs to be united.


           The principle of diversity.


This means there should be diversity within the unity of the body.  Just as the body is made up only of arms or only of legs or only of eyes, so the church is not to be made up only of pastors or only of evangelists or only of exhorters.


           The principle of headship.


Jesus is the head of the body.  Each of these metaphors has a focus upon Jesus as the leader of the church.


2.         The Church is a Vine.

We no longer live in an agricultural economy, so we are not as attuned to such metaphors.  This particular symbol is drawn from the Old Testament nation of Israel.


8 Thou didst remove a vine from Egypt;

Thou didst drive out the nations, and didst plant it.

9 Thou didst clear the ground before it,

And it took deep root and filled the land. (Psalm 80:8-9).


The nation of Israel was God’s vine.  He chose Israel out from all of the other nations of the world to be His own nation and His own people.  Like a farmer who chooses one vine out of his vineyard upon which he bestows special care, so the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt and planted her in a cultivated field of His own choosing, giving her His law and His ordinances.  However, there came a time of harvest.  It was a time for God’s nation to produce fruit.


            Let me sing now for my well-beloved A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard. My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill. 2 And He dug it all around, removed its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine. And He built a tower in the middle of it, And hewed out a wine vat in it; Then He expected it to produce good grapes, But it produced only worthless ones. (Isaiah 5:1-2).


After all the care and devotion that the Lord gave for His vine, when the time arrived that there should be fruit, the fruit that was produced was not of a kind to be desired.  It was fruit, but it was not the right kind of fruit.  Isaiah goes on to say in verse 7 that the Lord looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.


Jesus takes this same analogy of the vine of the Lord and adds something new and different.  He says that HE is the vine and that we are only considered to be a part of that vine if we are connected to Him.


            I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:1-2).


As the vine, Jesus is the source of nourishment to all of the branches that make up its different parts.  When Jesus calls Himself the true vine, He seems to be distinguishing Himself from those other false vines that might claim to be vines in their own right.


The principle that is the key ingredient in the fruitfulness of the church is centered in its relationship with the Lord.  It is only as the branch is connected to the vine that it is able to bear fruit.  Cut a branch from the vine and you also cut it off from the very source of life.  Inversely, it is by the fruitfulness of the branch that you can tell whether it is connected to the vine.


3.         The Church is a House.


            So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22).


The concept of the house of God goes back to the Old Testament.  When Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness, God gave specific instructions for the building of a tabernacle.  When it was completed, the presence of God, as manifested by the cloud, came and rested upon the tent of meeting.


Later, when the tabernacle was replaced by Solomon’s temple, the same cloud was seen to fill the temple, signifying that God had moved into His house.  Likewise, the prophets of the exile spoke of the presence of the Lord departing from His temple.  Even when the temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian Captivity, the post Exilic prophets would do no more than promise that one day the Lord would return to His temple.


When Jesus spoke of the temple of God being destroyed and raised again in three days, He was referring to the temple of His body (John 2:19-21).  In Him all of the fulness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19).


The New Testament teaches us that the church is the house and the temple of God, both individually as well as collectively.


           Collectively the church is the temple of God:  Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16).


           Individually each member of the church is a temple of God:  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19).


We should understand it is not the physical structure in which the meeting of the church is held that is to receive such a high priority as the people who meet within that structure.  They are the church.  A church that recognizes this principle will not place so much emphasis upon the physical church structure and will center its attention on people.


4.         The Church is a Bride.


The nation of Israel was often described in the Old Testament as the wife of the Lord.  The Song of Solomon was not only an ancient love story, it was also seen to be a picture between Yahweh and Israel.  Likewise, Hosea’s adulterous wife was a type of Israel going after false gods.


The same imagery is seen of the New Testament Church.  In Ephesians 5:25-33, as Paul presents an exhortation to husbands and wives, he said that these same truths apply to Christ and to the church.  As such, the church is to be chaste, giving her single minded attention to her husband, We are not called to be “once-a-week saints.”


5.         The Church is a Kingdom.


God promised to Abraham that He would make him a great nation (Genesis 12:2).  When Moses led the Israelites from Egypt, God said they would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  This same language is used by Peter to refer to the church.


            But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).


In the nation of Israel, the priesthood came through the line of Aaron while the kingly line descended from the tribe of Judah.  During the days of the Old Testament, one could be a priest or one could be a king, but one could not be both.  However, in the new kingdom there is a royal priesthood after the order of the very first priest-king, Melchizedek.  The fact of the kingship of Christ means that, although we are still in this world, it no longer holds our citizenship.  We have now become citizens of another kingdom.


6.         The Church is a Flock.


The Lord in the Old Testament often described Himself as the Shepherd of Israel.  Psalm 23 starts off by saying, “The Lord is my shepherd.”  Throughout Ezekiel 34, the Lord refers to the nation of Israel as His flock.


Jesus takes up this same title for Himself in John 10:1-18, saying in verse 14, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”  We are the sheep who belong to the Good Shepherd and, as His flock, we are called to follow our Shepherd with faith and obedience, listening to His voice so that we will recognize Him.


7.         The Church is a Family.


Jesus speaks of entrance into spiritual life as being born again.  When you are born, you find yourself entering into a family.  We have been born again into the family of God and we have been given the privilege of calling ourselves the children of God (John 1:12).  We have received an adoption—a placement into God’s family as legal children and heirs.  With this privilege comes great responsibility.  We are to act the part of God’s children.





When we begin to speak about the organization and the structure of the church, some people will object that we are trying to bring alien forms and trying to impose them upon the body of Christ.  “The church is a natural organism,” they say.  “You should just let it be itself.”


The problem with this line of thinking is that even natural organisms have their own organization and structure.  We have a God of organization and structure who tells us to let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:40).  The Lord established the form of government for His church by means of the officers that he gave for the duty of oversight.  This is stated in Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders:


            Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. (Acts 20:28).


Notice who it was that made these men overseers in the church.  It was not Paul or any of the other apostles.  It was the Holy Spirit.  This is the principle of Just Divinum — “Divine Right.”


1.         The Principle of Divine Right.


This principle has been used in the past to say that kings received a divine right from heaven to rule over their nations.  I am not so sure that the principle necessarily applies to all forms of human government, but I DO think it applies to church government.


2.         The Regulative Principle.


This principle states that God regulates His church and the activity that goes on in His church.  Practically speaking, it means that God regulates how He is to be worshiped.  We are not free to worship God in any way we like.  He demands that He be worshiped in the ways in which He has ordered.  This is vividly illustrated in Leviticus 10:1 when Nadab and Abihu attempted to worship the Lord using “strange fire,” that is, fire that was not according to that which had been prescribed by God.  They were struck dead for their transgression.


The church has had some very different ideas concerning the regulative principle.   Luther and Calvin each came into the Reformation with a kettle full of traditions in worship.  Luther said, “Let's take anything that is condemned by the Scriptures out of the kettle.”  Calvin said, “Let's dump the kettle and anything that the Bible teaches about worship can go back into it.”


Roman Catholic & Lutheran

Reformed Tradition

We are free to worship the Lord in any way that is not forbidden.

We are to worship the Lord only in those ways He has commanded.

That which is not expressly forbidden in the Scriptures is permitted.

That which is not expressly commanded in the Scriptures is forbidden.


This has some very practical implications.  It means you cannot say, “I know that Jesus taught His disciples to pray to the Father, but I would like to pray to the Virgin Mary.”  You are not allowed to worship any way you like.  You are to worship God in the way He likes.  You are to follow the pattern of worship set forth in the Bible.


3.         A Responsible Leadership.


            Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17).


It is a very heavy responsibility to be an elder or a deacon in the church.  Leaders will have to give an accounting of their people to the Lord.  Notice that there is a dynamic overlapping tension between leaders and the people they lead.  Leaders are responsible to lead in a way that shows their submission to the Lord and those whom they lead are to follow in a way that shows that same submission.



God’s Instructions









To Leaders


To the People







Don’t lord it over the people


Obey your leaders and submit to them


On the one hand, God says to the leaders, “Don’t get carried away with your authority.”  But when those whom they lead are tempted to say, “That’s right, they can’t tell me what to do,” the Lord says to them, “You obey those leaders and submit to them.”


4.         The Revelation of God’s Plan for Church Organization.


How has Jesus manifested how He wants His church ordered?  Did He preach a sermon entitled, “Rules for Church Structure?”  No.  He has used to specific means:


           Explicit teaching.

           Apostolic example.


All Christians agree on the first point — that certain passages of the Bible give explicit teachings that ought to be followed.  It is this second area, that of apostolic example, that leads to greater uncertainty.  Are we to follow the example of the apostles?  Are their examples to be normative to us today?  I submit that under certain conditions their example is to be considered both normative as well as didactic.


a.         All Scripture is profitable.


When Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable, he does not say that the applies only to the teachings portions of Scripture.


b.         Historical passages are didactic.


The New Testament states in a number of instances that the Bible is written for our instruction.  This is often stated in a context that cites historical episodes (1 Corinthians 10:6; 10:11; Romans 4:23-24; 15:4).  If an Old Testament historical passage can give us principles of how we ought to live, how much more will a New Testament historical passage give us normative principles?


c.         The representative character of the apostles:  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone (Ephesians 2:19-20).


The apostles were given by Christ to begin His church.  That was their function.  Because of this design function, their actions should be considered both significant and normative.


           Paul speaks of his teaching in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17).


           There was a practice in all of the churches that was to be seen as a pattern to be followed (1 Corinthians 11:16).


           Paul’s written instructions were, in effect, the Lord’s commandments (1 Corinthians 14:37).


           Paul and Silas gave to the churches decrees that had been established by the Jerusalem council that were to be observed (Acts 16:4).


           Paul writes so that people would know how they are to act within the church of God (1 Timothy 3:14-15).


           Paul calls his readers to join him in following his example, and to observe those who walk according to the pattern they have in him (Philippians 3:17; 4:9).


In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul calls the believers in that city to be imitators of himself.  He then cites the traditions he delivered to them (11:2).  When the gospels make mention of the traditions of men, it is in a negative sense, but the traditions described in the epistles are all to be obeyed.


d.         The historical and didactic passages can be seen in parallel to one another.  They are not contradictory, but complementary.






Acts 14:23

Titus 1:5

Authority in the Church

Acts 16:4

1 Thessalonians 5:12-13

Laying on of hands

Acts 6:6; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6

1 Timothy 5:22


This is not to say that every practice ever mentioned in the New Testament must necessarily be followed.  We must ask whether the practice was local or universally followed and whether there was a principle to be found behind the practice.





1.         The Purpose of the Meeting.


In the book of Hebrews, the writer gives several admonitions to Christians.  One of these involves a warning against the forsaking of the practice of assembly.


            Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25).


All Christians are to hold fast to the faith.  The reason we can do this is seen in verse 23.  It is because we have been given promises from One who is in the promise-keeping business.  He is faithful.


We are to hold to the faith and we are to consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.  This is only accomplished in a group.  It is only accomplished when we assemble together.


I could go off on my own and live the Christian life as a hermit.  But I wouldn’t.  Neither would you.  We need each other in order to grow.  The further along we get, the more we need each other.  We will never be too old or too spiritual to outgrow this need.


2.         The Pattern of the Meeting.


Most of us today are used to a meeting in which a song leader or a worship team gets up and leads everyone in the music of the church.  Then the preacher gets up and does all of the talking in the church.  In such a service, the role of the people is very limited.  Their role is to sit and to listen and to try not to fall asleep.  That is not the New Testament pattern for the church.  The service in the New Testament church was characterized by corporate involvement.


            What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (1 Corinthians 14:26).


            And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; 20 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; 21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-21).


            Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16).


Notice who was involved in the meeting of the New Testament church.  It was not just the elders or the deacons.  It was not just the seminary or Bible college graduates.  It was not just the ordained ministers.  The meeting of the church was made of the various members of the church who were involved in teaching, in the giving of a revelation, in the speaking and interpreting of a language, in the sharing of a song or a psalm.


The members of the church enjoyed the exercise of their spiritual gifts in the meeting of the church.  This was the place where they came to use their spiritual gifts.  The result was that the entire body was edified.  Paul does not say that he wants the believers to stop doing this.  Instead he wants them to regulate it.


           They are to speak one at a time.

           They are to take turns speaking.

           Only three representing each gift is to speak.


I personally believe we need a return to this kind of corporate life.  I am not saying that it needs to become a disorganized mob.  That was the problem Paul dealt with in Corinth.  But we have a tendency to go to the other extreme.  We tend to be so regulated that we have regulated the use of spiritual gifts right out of the church.





Confrontation is necessary to a healthy relationship.  This is seen in marriage.  If you are married, then you know that confrontation is sometimes necessary.  I did not say that it is pleasant.  But it is healthy.  It clears the air.


When Paula and I were first married, we really did not know how to engage in constructive confrontation within the realm of our marriage.  I would see something that she did that bothered me and I would hold it in and think about it and it would fester and grow, but I would not say anything.  Likewise, Paula would get her feelings hurt and would go off and pout and not say anything.  By the time the problem came out into the open, what had started out as a minor matter had grown and grown until it was affecting our relationship.  Fortunately, we are both a lot older and a lot wiser now.  We have learned the value of immediate constructive confrontation in our marriage.


The same is true of the church.  We pick up the idea that it is not spiritual to confront other believers when they have offended us.  As a result, we hold it in and let it fester and grow until it begins to affect our Christian walk.


1.         A Pattern for Church Discipline.


Jesus Himself gave what is considered to be the classic pattern for conducting discipline within the church.


            15 “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.” (Matthew 18:15-20).


There is a progression given here that moves from the small to the large.  It begins with a one-on-one situation.  It ends before the courts of both heaven and earth.


           Step One:  If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private (18:15).


Our problem is that we usually run to a third party from the outset.  This is gossip and should not take place.  The Bible presents us with a pattern for confrontational Christianity.


Why is church discipline so important?  Because it gives glory to Christ because it is obedient to His command.  It is also important because it serves to restore the wayward brother and thus preserves the unity of the church.


           Step Two:   If he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you (18:16).


In giving this step, Jesus is quoting directly from Deuteronomy 17.  It is a passage that stresses the importance of witnesses.  Why are the witnesses necessary?  So that you can gang up on the guilty party?  No.  It is so that they can make certain that what is said is understood.  They are there to further the process of communication.


There is usually a direct correlation between the intensity of your anger at an insult and your lack of understanding of what was really said.  There is also usually a correlation between the intensity of your anger and your ability to accurately express yourself.  That is why you need a neutral third party.


           Step Three:  And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church (18:17).


This does not necessarily mean all of the dirty laundry and all the gory details must be broadcast to every member of the congregation.  I want to suggest that we tell it to the church by taking it to the representatives of the church made up of the elders and overseers.  Beyond this, we make the announcement as public as the sin.


           Step Four:  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer (18:17).


This is the principle of excommunication.  The sinner is excluded from the fellowship of the Lord’s table.  It is important that excommunication does not come merely as the result of sin.  If that were the case, then nobody would be left in the church.  Excommunication has to do with repentance.  It comes when the sinner refuses to hear the words of the church and a call to repentance.  It comes as a result of rebellion and a desire to continue in sin.


Rebellion and sin against God are contagious.  Remember the story of Joshua and Achan at the battle of Ai?  Achan and his family were put to death because of his sin.  Why?  Because sin does not affect just one person.  It spreads like a cancer and can affect an entire church.


At this point, we ought to clarify that we are not speaking of throwing people out of the church for spitting on the sidewalk or for chewing gum on Sunday or for falling asleep during the sermon.  This is speaking of serious unrepentant sin.  Once a person repents of sin, then the next step is restoration to the church.


Furthermore, in the case of public sin, the church is not required to go all the way back to step one.  Paul was not doing wrong in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 when he told the church at Corinth to move directly to step four and to remove the one who was unrepentant in his public sin.


2.         The Power of Church Discipline.


            18 “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.” (Matthew 18:18-20).


This passage has been used out of context to teach a variety of things.  However, when we consider the context, we are reminded that it is not speaking primarily of prayer.  It is speaking of church discipline.  What is it saying?  It says that when the church agrees on discipline, there is a heavenly authority that is also in agreement.


What happens in church is not confined to a building.  It has ripples that are felt in heaven.  When two people exchange wedding vows on earth, there is something taking place in heaven.  When elders and deacons are ordained on earth, there are angels in heaven saying, “Amen!”  When the church agrees to discipline a sinning brother, there is a corresponding agreement that is to be found in heaven.


           This agreement is based upon the presence of Christ:  For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst (18:20).


When the church comes together, there is an additional presence that the ushers do not count.  Jesus is there.  That is what gives power to the church.  The absence of His presence can give death to a church.


There is a story of an old black man who became a Christian and who tried to attend an all-white church in a segregated community, but the deacons blocked his way at the door and would not let him enter.  The man was praying that night and he told the Lord how he had tried to attend the church, but had been prevented.  As he was praying, the Lord came to him and said, “Don’t worry, My son.  I’ve been trying to get into that church for years and they won’t let Me into it, either.”


There is a point to the story.  The reason we exercise discipline within the church and remove sin from the church is so that Christ’s presence will remain in the church.  Either you will have sin present within the church or you will have Christ present in the church but you will not have both.


The same is true of your own life.  Either you are enjoying the presence of Jesus Christ in your life or else you are holding to sin in your life, but you do not have both.  If you are holding onto your sin, take another look and you will see that Christ has gone and you just hadn’t noticed.


           This agreement involves forgiving and retaining sins:  “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18-19).


This does not describe a power that exists independently of God to forgive or to secure sins.  Only God can forgive sins.  This is a picture of God working through the instrumentality of the church.


Return to Stevenson Bible Study Page

About the Author





[1]  This reading is generally preferred to that of the Textus Receptus which reads “churches,” making it plural.