Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Bob Burridge ©2011
Ecclesiology: Lesson 1 – the Church
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2002, 2011
The church is both Invisible and Visible
The confession and the Apostles’ Creed speak of a Catholic Church.
Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church
Recognizing the True Church
Westminster Confession of Faith 25
I. The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.
II. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God,out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
III. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.
IV. This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
V. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.
The church is both Invisible and Visible
God eternally knows all he will redeem and gather into his spiritual family. We don’t. There is no published list of the elect and no perfectly reliable indicator that identifies which humans will be among the redeemed after the final judgment. Church membership, baptism, even credible professions of faith in Christ are not infallible indicators that a person is in that number. In this sense we speak of a church that is invisible to us. It is not invisible to God who knows his people eternally.
The Bible speaks clearly of an Invisible Church which consists of all the elect from all ages which are known with certainty only to God.
Ephesians 1:4-5 as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him in love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.
Ephesians 1:11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.
Ephesians 4:4-6 there is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
John 10:27-28 “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. I give eternal life to them; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of My hand.”
John 17:9 “I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine.”
Deuteronomy 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.
John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd; and I know my own, and my own know me.”
2 Timothy 2:19 … the Lord knows those who are His
The Bible also speaks of a church that is very visible to the human race. It is made up of those who profess faith in God’s promises of redemption. Along with their confession, they evidence its credibility by submission to the outward sign of the covenant (circumcision prior to Christ and baptism after his coming), striving to be gratefully obedient to what pleases God, and willingness to respect the organization of the church established on earth by God’s word. These, together with their children, are members of specific local congregations. In this sense we speak of a church that is visible to us. (NOTE: The matter of children of believers being members of the visible church will be taken up in detail in our lesson about Baptism. The verses related to that and to the biblical support for their baptism will be examined in detail at that time.)
Sometimes people are members of the visible church on earth but are not in the number of God’s elect. Since they are not truly redeemed they are not members of the invisible church, though they may not evidence this in ways that would justify removal from the visible body.
Therefore the visible church may include some who are not in the number of God’s elect and therefore are not members of the Church Invisible. The diagram shows how these two groups relate to one another.
The visible covenant community spans both Testaments
In the time prior to Abraham, there was no outward sign or organization of the earthly visible church aside from the evidences of a credible faith, sincere repentance of sin, and a desire to be obedient to God’s moral principles. The oversight of the visible church appears to have rested with the male heads of each family.
After the covenant was specially revealed to Abraham, circumcision was introduced as the outward sign of the covenant. Since male headship of the family represented the future revealing of the federal headship of Christ over his church, only males received that sign. During that era they continued to oversee the spiritual life of families and tribes of families. Those who came to profess the true religion from outside of the descendants of Jacob were obligated to submit to the covenant by receiving the sign of circumcision. This “believer’s circumcision” (Genesis 34:15) not only brought in these professing converts to the visible church, it also brought in their children, the males of which were also to be circumcised, even before they were able to evidence faith on their own.
Under the organization of the nation in the time of Moses, a tribe of priests was appointed by God to oversee the gathering of believing families in the visible church.
During the entire time between Abraham and Jesus the visible church was composed of mainly Jews and of some professing Gentiles. Within that visible church, the covenant community of Israel, was the invisible church, the body of those who were truly the elect of God.
After the coming of Jesus Christ, the visible church was no longer represented by the oversight of priests within the families that descended from Jacob. The church continued to be shepherded by qualified and duly ordained Elders, but they were no longer limited to the tribe of the Levitical Priests. The sign of covenant membership was no longer to be circumcision but was changed to baptism (Acts 2:38-39).
With the fulfillment of the federal headship of Christ males were no longer the only ones who received the sign of covenant membership. In the early days of the church Jews still made up the majority of the visible church on earth. Within that church were the elect which are known with certainty only to God. They make up the invisible church.
As the gospel spread beyond the Jewish people, God evidenced that the era of the prefiguring of the church by the descendants of Jacob had ended. Its purpose had been completed. More Gentiles entered the church by profession of faith. The shift in the ethnic make-up of the visible church eventually made the Gentiles the majority of the body of professing believers on earth. This is the composition seen in the church as it continues today. The division of Jew and Gentile is no longer significant spiritually. We no longer recognize any biblical distinction by descent or ethnicity. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Galatians 5:6, 6:15).
There is clearly a distinction between the visible body of God’s people and the invisible body which is only known to God. Joining a church is not the same as regeneration. Therefore the entry requirements into each of these ways of viewing the church are different.
The visible church on earth has always been and will be until the day of final judgment a mixed church. Ancient Israel and the New Testament Church (Matthew 7:13-23, 1 John 2:19) have both included some who are not true believers.
The confession and the Apostles’ Creed speak of a catholic church.
The term “catholic” means “universal”. The invisible church is catholic in that it is one body of all the elect of God in all ages. There is also an outward catholic church which is made up of all who profess the Christian faith, submit to the authority of the church, and receive biblical baptism as a sign and seal of belonging to that covenant community. The baptized children of church members are also considered to be members of this covenant body.
The catholicity of the visible church transcends denominational boundaries. It includes all local congregations which conform to the biblical definitions of a true church.
The term “catholic” should not be confused with the Roman Catholic Church. The church under the authority of the Pope is not the universal church of Jesus Christ since it does not represent all those who profess a credible faith in the redemption we have in Jesus Christ. It therefore is not properly called “catholic”. It is more accurately distinguished as the Roman church.
Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church
Westminster Confession of Faith 25, VI.
There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof. [but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.]
NOTE: Sections in [brackets] were eliminated when the American Presbyterian churches modified the confession shortly after its adoption for use outside the influence of the English church.
Though the visible church is organized under the human authority of ordained Elders, there is only one head of the church. Jesus Christ alone is our great Shepherd and Lord. He rules by his word as it is administered through his officers, and as it is applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit. The headship of Jesus Christ over his church is directly stated in Scripture.
Colossians 1:18, “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.”
Recognizing the True Church
With so many differences among churches all of which claim to be Christian, how can we recognize a true church of Christ? What can we do to ensure that our own church remains true?
The universal church is made visible through the individual local churches. This is how the New Testament writers addressed God’s people. (see the examples in 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; Galatians 1:2, 22 and Revelation 1:4, 11)
Therefore the only way a person can become a member of the visible church of Jesus Christ is through being a member of a particular local congregation. It’s a serious duty and should not be taken lightly. Many choose churches for the outward benefits they offer, or for social services they provide. Some like the style of worship, the music, or the way the pastor preaches. Some assume that if a church is large in numbers or has a large budget it must be a good church and blessed by God. Still others choose a church because it is conveniently close to home or has an appealing looking facility. These are very poor standards for determining if the church is good as God sees it.
What are the biblical marks of a true church?
The Belgic Confession was written by Guy de Bres in 1561. He was martyred in 1567. It was later revised slightly by Francis Junias. The confession was written in French then translated into Dutch and Latin. The Synod of Dort (1618-1619) adopted a revision which involved the wording but not the teachings of the work by de Bres. Article 29 offers sound guidelines for defining a true church based on purely biblical principles.
Belgic Confession Article #29
“We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects that call themselves the Church.
The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in chastening of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.
With respect to those who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians; namely, by faith, and when, having received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in Him.
As for the false Church, it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”
These true and false Churches are easily identified.
The question we deal with in this section is different from our consideration of the visible and invisible church. That has to do with the individual members, some of which may not be true children of God, but may belong to the visible body illegitimately by pretense, ignorance, or hypocrisy.
Here we look at the organized body which calls itself a local church or the union of local congregations into denominations, presbyteries, synods, or conventions. The standards we use for classifying them as true or false, good or bad, must be derived from God’s word alone.
A true church professes the doctrines revealed in Scripture
As the Berean believers diligently compared the teachings of the Apostle Paul with the message of Scripture (Acts 17:10-12), we should also compare everything we hear in a church against the same standard.
When we hear something presented that does not seem to fit with what God has revealed in his word it is our duty to go to the teacher or pastor and ask him about it in case we have misunderstood him, or perhaps our own understanding of the Bible is incorrect and we need his instruction. A humble and respectful attitude should be maintained when we approach a teacher or officer of the church with a question of that type.
A true church will not knowingly hold to any teaching that is contrary to the Scriptures. If it does, then it cannot be a true church because it rests in some authority for truth other than what God has made known to us. But no church should be expected to be perfect in its understanding in this imperfect age. When believers disagree about what the Bible teaches they study the matter not to prove themselves right, but to improve their understanding of what God has revealed. If a church, its members, its teachers or officers conclude that they have been in error, a church that truly loves Christ will confess its past error and joyfully embrace the better understanding, teach it, and put it into practice. This is a mark of a true church.
A true church will attempt to teach the whole scope of what is taught by God in his word. It will not suppress any doctrine for fear of its not being well received by those who come to worship. It will also practice to the best of its ability and understanding all that the Bible teaches is right and true. It will not let pragmatic reasoning direct it into questionable practices. There will be no open compromise of God’s ways to please the expectations of men or to increase its numbers.
Paul’s letters to Timothy and to Titus are a good study regarding the danger of false teachers who creep into a church. They also help in understanding how believers should deal with the imperfections that inevitably creep into the best of churches on earth.
A true church maintains the pure administration of the sacraments
Those churches which are true in God’s eyes will seek to follow the instructions of Jesus Christ who instituted the sacraments, and they will honor and obey the inspired teachings of all of Scripture concerning them. It is the duty of the Elders of the church to oversee and guard these important parts of worship. If they are loosely practiced, not practiced at all, or take on clearly unbiblical forms, an important mark of a true church is lacking. Most offensive are those churches which deny one or both of the sacraments, or which add more sacraments than those instituted by Christ himself. Some even attribute to the Sacraments powers and expectations which are directly contrary to the teachings of Scripture.
There are differences among true believers about some issued relating to the sacraments. These often reflect our imperfect understanding of the Bible rather than a rejection of its sufficiency or authority in these matters. Those who are faithful to Christ will seek to conform all they believe and practice to the Scriptures alone. They will not build their view on human philosophy, cultural changes, invented symbolisms, or unbiblical traditions. When they discuss their differences it is with a brotherly attitude of submission to the Bible, and a deep love for learning to better understand what our Lord, the Head of the Church, has spoken.
We have already studied the sacraments some in the chapter about worship in the notes on Westminster Confession chapter 21. We will go into more detail when we come to chapters 27-29.
A true church maintains faithful biblical discipline of its members
Those who are members of a church are by definition under the spiritual authority of its Elders. As good shepherds they will take up the duty of oversight for the good of the members, and to uphold God’s teachings.
This means that they are willing to obey the process of discipline set forth in Matthew 18 and in other portions of the Bible. They encourage the members to follow the advice of Matthew 18:15-16 in their handling of suspected sin among themselves. They also take seriously the final stages of discipline summarized in Matthew 18:17-20. The details of church censure is taken up in Westminster Confession chapter 30.
If a true church does not deal with sin among its members and officers seriously and in a biblical manner, it lacks this mark of a true church.
In a true church the final authority in all of its teachings and practices is the pure Word of God. All things contrary to it are rejected, and Jesus Christ is acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.
The Elders have a great responsibility in maintaining these marks of the true church. They have the authority to carry out this task because it is given to them by the word of God, and by the judgment of those who rightly ordained them. The true church will make sure that its officers are well trained in the word of God, and meet the qualifications set for them in Scripture.
The members of the church also have many responsibilities. One of them is to show support and respect for those God has placed over them. Hebrews 13:17 commands every Christian to place themselves under the oversight of elders and to submit to their spiritual leadership.
Hebrews 13:17, “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.”
The members of a church are not like the members of a civic club. They do not simply join or quit when they feel like it. They are a spiritual family united by Christ in a covenant bond. They have a sincere love for one another and for their spiritual duties. But not all members will attain to the same level of understanding regarding God’s word, nor will they all be equally mature in their spiritual growth. The marks of a true Christian are not the same as that of a true church.
Adult members are admitted to the church based upon the judgment of the Elders regarding their profession of faith. They must confess that they trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone as their Savior from sin. Their lives should show that their professed faith is credible by striving to live a holy and God-honoring life, by repenting sincerely when they sin, by gladly making restitution for any correctable harm they cause, by submitting to the laws of Christ regarding the sacraments, and submission to the church’s Elders whom they love as their spiritual leaders. They are willing to take part in the congregation as a member of a spiritual family doing the work of Christ’s kingdom on earth.
To confess to be a Christian but not to be a member of a local church is inconsistent. The Bible speaks of Christ’s church in terms of its local work, not in terms of an undefined mass of individuals who refuse to come under the authority God has vested in the Elders who are called the shepherds of God’s people.
Those who imagine that they will find a perfect church are assured of disappointment. True churches are made up of and led by imperfect sinners saved by grace. If we believe we are without sin or error, we call God a liar. In his word our Lord tells us that, until our final union with Christ, we all need to grow in sanctification.
Every believer ought to seek a church that is true and humbly become a part of its growth in grace.
Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.