Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love and the Limits of Fellowship, Part II, by Malcolm Yarnell
II. The New Testament Churches
The church was founded by Jesus Christ and exists for His purpose, a purpose spelled out in an orderly manner in His Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Let it be clearly affirmed by every true believer that Jesus Christ is the head of the church, which is His body, and all things exist by Him and for Him (Colossians 1:18). Thus, as our forefathers recognized, the only lawgiver for the church is Jesus Christ. He recorded His will for her in the Bible, encapsulated in the Great Commission and worked out in the New Testament. Every Christian church today must look to the New Testament church as the normative model and realize she suffers significant deficiencies when she departs from the New Testament pattern established by Christ and revealed by the Holy Spirit.
Taking up their crosses, the apostles fulfilled the Great Commission of Jesus Christ through planting local churches. Those who wish to claim that the making of disciples is divorced from regenerate church membership typically refer to the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Then, without any textual support whatsoever, they assume the Ethiopian was baptized into the universal church apart from a local church. They neglect the scriptural facts, that Philip was commissioned to act by a local church (Acts 6:5-6), and that there was only one local church mentioned as being in existence at that time, the Jerusalem church. The only church that the Ethiopian could have been baptized into was the Jerusalem church, which was being scattered at the time due to a horrible persecution by the state religion. The gathering (church) at Jerusalem was scattered and created a number of new churches as a result.
Rather than reading one’s preferred theology into a singular text, it is better to read the Bible contextually and canonically. In Acts 2:40ff, the leading proof for the correlation of baptism with church membership, we read that the baptism of the converted masses coincided with their membership in the first local church. However, this is not the only canonical support for baptism and regenerate church membership. In Acts 9:18-19, we read that the baptism of Saul resulted in his fellowship with the disciples in Damascus. In Acts 10:44-11:4, Peter defended his baptism of and subsequent fellowship with the Caesarean Gentiles who converted to Christ. In Acts 16:15 and 16:33-34, Lydia and the Philippian jailer understood that baptism compelled continuing fellowship with other believers. In Acts 18:8-11, Paul and his companions planted the first church of Corinth with numerous baptisms, and continued meeting regularly for worship and teaching.
With the Christological basis and baptismal entrance of the New Testament churches summarized, it may be helpful to discuss more regarding what a New Testament church looks like. In what follows, please note that we are not considering some of the crisis issues facing local churches, today. I have not participated in the so-called worship wars, primarily because most of the issues under debate, in spite of their emotive qualities, do not concern the fundamental nature of the churches. How then do we recognize a New Testament church?
Following a biblical paradigm, Roman Catholic, Reformation, and Baptist theologians have often discussed the work of Christ under the rubric of triplex munus Christi, the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. As our Supreme Prophet, Jesus Christ established the message that His churches must proclaim, and it is the Word of God. As our High Priest, Jesus Christ established the worship that His churches must practice, and it must center upon His ordinances. As our King of Kings, Jesus Christ established the discipline that His churches must maintain, and it is covenantal, congregational, and accountable.
The Church’s Message Is the Word He Inspired. Scripture has a threefold definition of "the Word of God." The Word of God is incarnated, inscripurated, and intoned. The Word of God incarnated is Jesus Christ, and His life and work are the essence of the church’s message. The Word of God inscripturated is the Bible, and its words are the only reliable epistemological basis for the church’s message. The Word of God intoned is the Gospel that we preach, and this Gospel must be proclaimed directly from the Bible with Christ as the interpretive key; otherwise, the church’s message will be distorted.
When Christians fail to preach Christ, they have forsaken the message that Christ entrusted to the church. When Christians fail to preach Christ from the Bible alone, they have forsaken the source of the message that Christ entrusted to the church. When Christians fail to preach Christ as the unique and perfect Savior who has come to save all who will repent and believe, they have forsaken the Gospel that alone saves. These convictions explain why the believers’ churches have typically been hermeneutically Christocentric, relentlessly Biblicist, and tirelessly evangelistic.
Fidelity to the Word of God Christ appointed for the church as its only message explains why Baptists generally reject theology that detracts from Christ, rebuke preachers who depart from the biblical text, and defend religious freedom as helpful for evangelism. Two verses from Paul’s first letter to the gathering at Corinth summarize the free church outlook with regard to their message: we will proclaim nothing beyond Christ and His cross (1 Corinthians 2:2) and approve nothing beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6).
The Church’s Worship Practices Are the Ordinances He Established. Christ’s will for His church is explicitly laid out in Scripture. Christian exegetes over the centuries have, through much controversy with the unapproved (1 Corinthians 11:19), settled upon two worship practices as specifically ordained by Christ for His churches. They have also settled upon the Great Commission as the primary mission of the churches while they are in this world.
In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), Jesus Christ mandated that the church should make disciples. Going, baptizing, and teaching are all activities that help the church make disciples. None of these activities are dispensable, for the making of disciples is the ordained function of the churches. The making of disciples is more than a vocal presentation of the Gospel, although it begins there. Moreover, baptizing churches have recognized that there is a revealed time order that may not be violated: first, we must go to the world to proclaim the Gospel; second, we must make disciples of those to whom we have preached the Gospel; third, the church must baptize the new disciple; finally, the disciple must be taught all things that Christ commanded.
Baptism, reserved only for professed believers, is fundamental for the church committed to obeying the Great Commission. The Triune baptism of believers into a local church is neither secondary nor tertiary but primary for New Testament churches. In addition to the direct mandate of the Great Commission with regard to the baptism of believers alone, there is also the witness of the apostles’ practice. The New Testament knows nothing of the baptism of infants. The so-called household baptism passages, to which paedobaptists often appeal inappropriately, are explicit that the household as an entirety was baptized because the household as an entirety had believed (Acts 16:34).
New Testament churches composed of Great Commission Christians will not baptize unregenerate people. If the International Mission Board’s definition of a Great Commission Christian, to which you referred, is misinterpreted as allowing for collaboration with infant-baptizers, then that institution would be wise to make it clear that they mean nothing such. Otherwise, there remains equivocation regarding the New Testament witness and the historic Baptist witness as to what defines properly ordered churches. We must not allow the will of Christ to be subverted by the innovative traditions of so-called Great Commission Christians who reject or change the Lord’s commands.
That last statement may strike you as intemperate, but it is not intended as such. Rather, take it as an unremitting call to church integrity. Historically, the believers’ churches have been adamant that Christ must be obeyed. Obedience to His ordinances may not be downplayed simply because they have been subjected to diverse interpretations by other Christians (cf. 2 Peter 1:20-21). The commands of our Lord—He Who created us, Who died to atone for our sins, and Who established His church—may not be treated as if they were merely debating points or less-than-primary.
Neither is this call to true discipleship a threat to an orthodox doctrine of justification, for those who are truly justified will desire to follow Christ. Let us not appeal distractively to a pristine but incomplete doctrine of salvation. Only those who wish to continue in disobedience to the Lord Who redeemed them by His blood will treat His will as somehow optional, interpret it away into irrelevance, or view His will as a threat to His grace.
Contained in the Great Commission is the command to teach all that Christ commanded. In the Matthean version, this hearkens back to the practices established by Christ for His church in chapters 18 and 26. In Matthew 18, the Lord established discipline as necessary for the integrity of the church. Church discipline is not optional, nor is it subject to diverse interpretations, nor is it trivial. Church discipline must be established. We will speak of this more below.
In Matthew 26:26-30, Jesus Christ led His disciples in the last supper prior to His crucifixion. When coupled with the parallels in Mark 14:22-26, Luke 22:14-23, and 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and 11:17-34, we learn that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial of the superior covenant inaugurated with the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus. We also learn that this practice is to continue until we celebrate it with him at the great gathering of the universal church (Revelation 19:6-9). And we learn that the community is symbolized in the loaf of bread from which communion is dispensed, and that it is the place at which church discipline is reached.
Too often in the believers’ churches of this day and age, we have not paid enough attention to the ordinances of Christ. We rightly decry the existence of theologies that turn the ordinances into sacraments, make the ordinances somehow ex opere operato dispensers of graces, or transform these spiritual symbols into fleshly exercises that force consciences through infant baptism or teach communicants they chew the flesh of God. However, the errors that have attached to baptism and the Lord’s Supper must never serve as an excuse to remove them from the center of Christian worship. Neglecting the ordinances is just as reprehensible as misrepresenting or incorrectly implementing them.
Whatever one’s position in the worship wars, if the New Testament practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not central in a church’s worship, it is visibly dishonoring the Lordship of the Savior. Jesus thought the two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which teach the Trinity and symbolize Christ’s death and resurrection on behalf of His church, were important enough to command their perpetual observance. Just as the New Testament churches must be careful to proclaim His Word, His ordinances must be practiced according to His commands and not according to our druthers nor fallen man’s endlessly variable ideas of what is deemed culturally relevant.
The Church’s Discipline Is Covenantal, Congregational, and Accountable. As we noted, first, because Jesus Christ is prophet, He establishes the message that His church is to preach. Second, we also noted that because Jesus Christ is priest, He establishes the worship that His church is to practice. Finally, we must now consider the truth that because Jesus Christ is king, He alone establishes the polity by which His church functions. The polity of the church is established quite clearly in Matthew 18:15-20, and it is covenantal, congregational, and accountable.
First, in Matthew 18:19-20, we read that the gathering in agreement of two or more constitutes an authority before the throne of God in heaven. When these verses are read today, they are usually taken casually, as if Jesus were referring to an impromptu prayer meeting. And yet, the disciplinary context of the previous verses and the specific wording point to something more substantial and formative. The agreement (Greek, symphoneo) to which Jesus refers is indicative of a formal contract or covenant. As the early English Baptists recognized, this passage is the theological basis for the gathering of a church. Indeed, it freed the early free churches from dependence upon the state for their authority and returned them to Jesus Christ as their foundation. It is a serious matter to realize that a human agreement has divine approbation. A church begins on the basis of a covenant between earnest Christians desiring to follow their Lord in His commands.
Second, in Matthew 18:17-18, we learn that the gathered congregation, for that is what an ekklesia is, has the final authority under heaven to determine the status of its membership. Again, the decision of the church constitutes a spiritual authority that no other institution may claim. The decisions of the congregation regarding communion and excommunication of members have some measure of eternal consequence. It matters to God what His church decides and He gives His stamp of approval to her spiritual actions. No other group of men, unbelieving or believing or some admixture, receives such authority. The state has no such spiritual authority; extra-congregational gatherings of Christians have no such spiritual authority; and cliques within a congregation have no such spiritual authority. By divine mandate, the congregation is congregationally governed. Elders, priests, and bishops who undermine congregationalism are countermanding a divine ordinance, and they lack any such authority to do so.
Third, in Matthew 18:15-16, we learn that that which ends in the final authority under heaven being granted to the covenantal gathered congregation is a disciplinary process. The local church, established by Christ and to which every Christian will seek to belong, is the locus where the Christian seeks to live faithfully the Christian faith. The congregation of disciples practices church discipline because it knows that regenerate membership is commanded by Christ. According to Scripture, regenerate church membership begins with believers-only baptism by immersion (Mark 16:15-16); regularly demonstrates itself in the entire regenerate membership’s participation in the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:9-13); and is strengthened by congregational judgment regarding the integrity of its membership (Matthew 18:15-18, 1 Corinthians 11:31-32).
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell 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