In addition to being a time of significant personal growth in my ministry preparation, the past five months here at Capital Hill Baptist Church have been a theologically formative time for thinking through ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church. From observing and participating in the life of this church, and from my studying and dialoguing, I have come to understand the importance of the church in new ways. Here are five points that particularly stand out.
1) The importance of membership in the local church
One intern discussion early on that particularly stands out to me is when we addressed the question: can we practice the “one another” commandments of the New Testament during a Wednesday evening campus ministry just as effectively as a Sunday morning church service? Most Christians would agree that our culture is too individualistic and that we need to live together in community: but do we need a local church in order to experience this community? Can’t we just do it on our own?
I know that God uses campus ministries and many other para-church organizations in significant ways, but being here has helped me get a vision for the uniqueness of the local church in God’s redemptive plan. Only the church has the sacraments. Only the church has discipline. Only the church is called the bride of Christ, whom he nourishes and sustains as her head, and for whom he died (Ephesians 5:22-33). Only the church has the promise of Christ that it will endure to the end despite opposition (Matthew 16:18). Only the church is united to Christ in such a way that he who persecutes the church persecutes Christ (Acts 9:4). Only the church is called the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15). If God has made these massive redemptive promises to the church, why would we not want to be a part of this great thing God is doing?
Many people today believe the important thing thing is to be connected to the universal church, not the local church. I’m sure that its possible to be a member of the universal church and not be connected to a local body, but the question is, why would we not want to be committed to a local church? After all, local churches are the best expressions of the universal church that we have in this world. Wouldn’t we be eager to give our union with other believers around the gospel a concrete, official, public expression through local church membership? If we love what Christ loves, wouldn’t we want to be publicly identified with it, held accountable to it, feel ownership of it?
Moreover, while we have no mention of formal membership rolls in the New Testament, the idea of belonging to a particular community seems to be presupposed by Paul’s concern for the immoral brother at Corinth to be put out of fellowship (I Corinthians 5:4-5, 13), and in his reference to the punishment inflicted by “the majority” in II Corinthians 2:6. It seems unlikely to me that “the majority” is simply “those who happened to be in attendance during the particular gathering when the discipline was carried out.” After all, he elsewhere acknowledges the presence of unbelievers and inquirers during the corporate gathering (I Corinthians 14:24). It seems to me that the concern for a clear line of demarcation between the church and the world, presupposed throughout the New Testament (Matthew 18:17, I Corinthians 5:9-13, II Corinthians 6:14-18), would have required public knowledge of who is a part of the church and who is not (beyond mere attendance).
2) The corporate witness of the church
From my time here I have a better understanding of how a church can – by its very nature more than by programs and events – be a picture of the character and glory of God to the world. One of the most significant texts on this point for me this semester has been Ephesians 3:10-11: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In other words, the church is God’s plan, from all eternity past, for glorifying his redemptive wisdom, displayed in Christ, before the angels. The church is God’s redemptive wisdom, power, and glory on public display before the creation. As Charles Bridges puts it in his Christian Ministry: “the church is the mirror, that reflects the whole effulgence of the Divine character. It is the grand scene, in which the perfections of Jehovah are displayed to the universe.”
There is something powerful that happens when believers gather together for worship and edification. When it is a healthy and mature congregation, it like a public acting out of the gospel itself. As Mark Dever put it in one of the books we read, “the church is the gospel made visible.” The church is the only institution on the planet that operates according to the rules of the gospel, the rules of sacrificial love. John 13:34: “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” When believers gather together to live out the gospel, God’s character is displayed before the world. What a high calling for those of us who seek to serve in the church!
3) Congregationalist church polity
I would have called myself a congregationalist before I got here, but I thought about it primarily in terms of how one local church relates to others. Being here has helped me understand how congregationalism – the view in which the final authority over a church is the membership of that church – also refers to how a particular local body is structured internally. Its the alternative not only to inter-connectional and hierarchical forms of church government, but also to elder rule, because in a congregationalist church the elders have less authority. To use traditional terms, they have the power of counsel, not the power of command. What this means is that while the congregation may delegate many responsibilities to the elder body as a matter of expediency, the congregation itself bears the final responsibility for the life and doctrine of the church, not the elders. For example, in congregationalism, the members are the ones ultimately responsible for determining true doctrine (Galatians 1:6, I Thessalonians 5:21, I John 4:1), settling disputes between believers (Matthews 18:17), conducting church discipline (I Corinthians 5:1-13), and determining the church’s membership (II Corinthians 2:5-11).
Church government is not the most important or clear thing in the New Testament, but I do think that it matters and is worth taking the time to think through. Grappling with arguments and counter-arguments for congregationalism from Scripture, sifting through the historical conversations about polity and seeing how seriously previous generations took this issue, and catching a vision of the emphasis in the New Testament on every member Christianity (how I would summarize the spirit of congregationalism) – all this has been very clarifying and filled in some blanks.
4) Church Discipline
John Dagg said that “when church discipline leaves a church, so does Christ’s presence.” This seems to me like a bit of an over-statement, but it nevertheless makes an important point and shows how seriously previous generations took this issue which we often neglect today. Certainly church discipline can be abused, but it is unavoidably biblical:
Matthew 18:17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
I Corinthians 5:12-13: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.'”
II Thessalonians 3:14-15: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
I Timothy 5:20: “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.”
Reading through historic Baptist documents on church discipline and thinking through specific, detailed scenarios in light of texts such as these has given me a data bank to draw from as I continue to think about this issue and seek to implement discipline into the life of whatever church I serve. There are all kinds of categories of thought that the discussions here opened up: different kinds of offense (public and private, serious and mild), different kinds of discipline (warning, avoidance, excommunication), the different purposes of church discipline (the restoration of the sinner, the purity of the church, the reputation of Christ in the community), and all kinds of practical questions about when and how to sensitively introduce discipline into the life of a church. While I have always believed in church discipline, being here has given me a more thorough understanding of what it looks like and why it is important.
5) Deeper sense of calling to pastoral ministry.
My time here – my reading, my conversations, my interactions, my prayer life – has increased and confirmed my longing to preach and minister to God’s people. As I have reflected on the nature of Christian ministry, I found myself again and again saying, “this is what I long to do: this is how I want to spend my life.” At times, I have doubted this call, as I have seen with deeper clarity my sin, rough edges, blind spots, and areas where I need to grow. But a strange thing has happened. Even when I see my weaknesses and inadequacies, my sense of calling to the pastorate does not go away. It stays constant. I was born to be a pastor. I can do no other. Ultimately, my deepest desires are not to write get a doctorate or write books: I just want to be a pastor.