Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Rogers-Yarnell Dialogue on the Great Commission, Letter #5

The Great Commission is Given to the Gathered Church, by Malcolm Yarnell

Dearest David,

We have so much in common here, and for that I am thankful to our Lord. Your description of discipleship as “the whole compendium of principles related to following Jesus with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind” wonderfully portrays its breadth. And to affirm the depth of Christian discipleship, we may also describe discipleship in terms of a self-denying carrying of the cross (Mark 8:34). To be a disciple of Christ is an all-consuming and all-demanding commitment, as you have displayed in your own life.

I also agree with you that, alongside the Matthean version (Matt. 28:16-20), there are important texts from the Johannine and Synoptic Gospels upon which we should depend for our understanding of Christ’s commission for us (Mark 16:15-18 [preferably, 14-18]; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21-23). However, Luke 9:1-5 (preferably, 1-6) and 10:1-16 seem indirectly illustrative rather than directly concerned with setting forth His commission. As for the Pauline version, Ephesians 4:7-16 certainly is important, but we should add 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 and Colossians 1:28. Finally, from the standpoint of methodology, we might also consider John 13:34-35 and Romans 10:13-17. I hope that, following or alongside our examination of the Matthean pericope, we will give attention to these important texts, in the context of “the sum of God’s revelation to us in Holy Scripture,” as you so ably state.

Now, before turning to Matthew 28:17, it may be an opportune time to address in summary the biblical doctrine of the locally gathered church and the biblical doctrine of the universally gathered church. First, with regard to the locally gathered church, please note that all the additional Gospel texts that you cite present the Great Commission as being given to the disciples as a gathering. In Mark 16, the commission was given to “the eleven” (v. 14); in Luke 24, the commission was given to “the eleven and those who were with them” (v. 33); in John 20, the commission was given to “the disciples”. And Paul always stated the commission in corporate terms, typically while addressing a locally gathered church (“we are ambassadors of Christ,” 2 Cor 5:20; “to the building up of the body of Christ,” Eph. 4:12; “we proclaim Him,” Col. 1:28). As John Dagg put it, “When we turn to the New Testament, and examine the use of this word [ekklesia] in its application to the followers of Christ, we find it for the most part so employed that an assembly is manifestly denoted” (A Treatise on Church Order, 76). You and I seem to agree that the etymological and contextual meaning of ekklesia usually indicates a gathering, and that gathering regularly is, to use your words, “normative for us as Christ’s disciples.”

Second, with regard to the universally gathered church, your citation of John Dagg has encouraged me to consider again the work of that able (yet fallible) commentator. (Unfortunately, Dagg believed Africans were “rude tribes” not adapted to political freedom [A Practical View of Christian Ethics, 339].) I somewhat agree with Professor Dagg’s exegesis regarding the universal church. It is noteworthy that he distinguishes between the universal church and the “invisible” church: “The epithet ‘invisible,’ applied to the true church of Christ, is not only incorrect, but it has led into mistake” (A Treatise on Church Order, 124). Dagg also warns that the idea of a “Visible Church Catholic” inevitably leads to Roman tyranny (Ibid., 132).

However, B.H. Carroll, who was familiar with the exegetical work of Dagg and other Baptists on the church, seems to have a clearer picture of the universal church. “But in every such case [of the universal church in the New Testament], the ecclesia is prospective, not actual. That is to say, there is not now but there will be a general assembly of Christ’s people. That general assembly will be composed of all the redeemed of all time” (Baptists and Their Doctrines, 42). Carroll trawled through every scriptural reference to the universal church and learned how they did not present a current but a future assembly. He was willing to use the terminology of a general assembly now, but only “in God’s purposes and plans,” or “in our conceptions or anticipations, but certainly not as a fact” (Ibid., 43). The Baptist Faith and Message (1963 and 2000) apparently affirms Carroll’s position by using eschatological language in reference to the universal church (Article VI).

Like Dagg, Carroll disliked the concept of the invisible church, for it “will likely tend to discredit the particular assembly, which does now really exist and which is the pillar and ground of the truth” (Baptists and Their Doctrines, 48). (Those interested in pursuing the doctrine of the church may want to read Mark Dever’s essay in A Theology for the Church, edited by Danny Akin, alongside my essay in The Baptist Faith and Message 2000: Critical Issues in America's Largest Protestant Denomination, edited by Douglas Blount and Joseph Wooddell.)

In other words, David, we may be overstating the case to assert that “church” is used in the New Testament “at times not to refer to an actual meeting” (my emphasis). Although you are closer to Dagg and I to Carroll, Dagg apparently never denied the idea of the church as an actual assembly or gathering. Rather, he believed that the universal church gathered for the first time in Jerusalem and will gather again at the Lamb’s Supper. He also considered there might be saints on the earth “who belong to the family of saints, and have not yet been received into any local church” (A Treatise on Church Order, 121). However, Dagg also argued for believers-only baptism, for baptism as a prerequisite to local church membership, and that “it is the will of God that believers in Christ should form themselves into churches” (Ibid., 94).

As for “secondary points of doctrine and practice,” and the problem of sincere but mistaken followers, space limitations require me to reserve these issues for the future. Therefore, in response to your query, “To whom is the Great Commission given?” my reply is that it is given to the church: true Christian disciples must belong to a locally gathered church and will one day belong to the universally gathered church. A Christian cannot be separated from the body of Christ.

In Christ,

Malcolm



Introduction

Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #2, A Steward must be Found Faithful, by David Rogers

Letter #3, Centripetal and Centrifugal, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #4, To Whom is the Great Commission Given?, by David Rogers

Letter #5, The Great Commission is Given to the Gathered Church, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #6, The End-Vision of the Great Commission, by David Rogers

Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers

Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers

Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers

Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers

Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers

Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers

Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers

5 comments:

Tim Cook said...

Dr. Yarnell,

I appreciate your scholarship on this issue, and I would like to ask you one question: Do you think over-emphasizing the local church as the "only" church, at least until Christ comes back, takes away from Christian unity? In other words, when Christ prays "that they may be one", could it be argued, from your point of view, that he was only addressing a localized gathering, and therefore, that unity is not the ideal between different local churches? It seems that, if the local church is the only church referenced in scripture, then that might create a sense of pride in some local congregations; they may begin to think that, since they are "the church" that they are the sum total of the body of Christ, and not part of a larger family or movement.
Of course, we must let the scripture teach us, not the other way around, and if the scripture only speaks of the local church then that is what we must teach. I guess my question, put simply, is this: If there is no universal church until Christ returns, then what is the biblical basis for cooperation between churches? If it is not being of the same body, or part of the same family, then what? is unity commanded of us beyond the local fellowship?

In Christ,
Tim Cook

Malcolm Yarnell said...

Tim,

Thanks for the thoughtful questions. Let me know if I have answered the question behind the many questions.

I believe that the biblical basis for cooperation between the churches is our union in Christ. This means that we must seek ways to cooperate with one another.

However, the only body that Christ established to carry out his will is the church, and the church is a gathered institution. When local churches surrender their direct relationship with Jesus Christ to any person or body, whether pope or king or synod or ecumenical conference, they are actually usurping the Lord's authority.

Cooperating between churches is viable and necessary for many purposes. However, the bodies which result from cooperation between the churches "have no authority over one another or over the churches". Southern Baptists, I believe correctly, have long believed in "spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation." However, cooperation should never violate conscience or compromise "loyalty to Christ and His Word" (see article XIV of the Baptist Faith and Message).

Finally, in this ecumenical day, perhaps you will agree with me that we must be careful that the concept of the universal church never be used as a means of undermining the real and Christ-ordained work of the local churches.

In Christ,
Malcolm

Tim Cook said...

Thanks for the response - I suppose I am just wondering, if there is no universal church here and now, then what else do you call our "union in Christ", as you put it? I have always equated the two in my mind: We have union in Christ because we are all members of His body. I think we may be in basic agreement here, but differing on terminology.

I agree with the emphasis on the local church, and that larger organizations, in most cases, are not authorized to be "the church". I would like to know, however, what you think of the decree in Acts 15? It certainly doesn't seem like there is a lot of autonomy assumed there. I believe in local church autonomy, but that scripture is a hard one for me.

In Christ,
Tim Cook

Malcolm Yarnell said...

Tim,

Many call it the universal church, but perhaps if we do so, it should be with the stated understanding that it has not yet gathered.

As for Acts 15, you will note that the Antioch church received what the Jerusalem church had to say. The point is that they received it, not that it was forced upon them. Antioch and Jerusalem were autonomous churches united by their Lord. Moreover, remember that the Jerusalem church was operating directly under apostolic leadership. No church may claim such, today, except insofar as they submit to Scripture, which bears the apostolic witness.

In Christ,
Malcolm

David Rogers said...

Malcolm,

Your answer to Tim here is encouraging to me. It makes me think that perhaps we are not so far apart after all, as I, at times, have suspected. I completely agree with your statement:

"When local churches surrender their direct relationship with Jesus Christ to any person or body, whether pope or king or synod or ecumenical conference, they are actually usurping the Lord's authority."

And also:

"However, the bodies which result from cooperation between the churches "have no authority over one another or over the churches"."

I wonder, at times, if our differences are not so much in substance, as in terminology, and emphasis. I imagine, as the dialogue progresses, these things will become more clear, though.