Let’s begin this morning with some quotes from someone none of you probably have ever heard of. “Unless the professed followers of Christ organize upon the apostolic model they are not a church of Christ, although there may be . . . Christians among them . . . “Ministers and members, professing the religion of Christ, may congregate together for the purpose of worship, and may organize, yet they will not be a church of Christ unless they organize upon the apostolic model . . . “We do not suppose that any unprejudiced mind would call any body of men and women the true church . . . unless it comes up fairly & fully in every minute particular to a description proceeding from that wisdom that could not err in the description in any remote or conceivable degree.”
What do you think about those statement? Some people seem to think it is impossible to learn anything from someone who is not sound in the faith. There are people who seem to think that we shouldn’t read men with whom we are not in 87% agreement. If these things were true, then we would really be limiting our opportunities to learn things. Sometimes the outsider helps us to see familiar truths with a new perspective. And sometimes it really augments what we know to be true, when we realize that it is so obvious that even outsiders are forced to admit to that truth.
These quotes were first published as an editorial in the Methodist Quarterly about 150 years ago (literally). Their author was D.S. Doggett, a bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. He was a man who, in his generation, was highly respected among the Methodists.
There should be no misunderstanding these statements: It was the conviction of Bishop Doggett . . . that Christ left a church on earth as a model of church-building for all subsequent ages. And that the marks, or features, of this divine pattern are so clearly described in the Bible that no intelligent student should be mistaken about it. And that a body of ministers and members, all Christians, congregated for worship, and organized, should not be called a church of Christ unless they are organized according to model that we have in the Bible. So if the officers and members of some civic organization were all Christians, that club could not be called a church of Christ, because, if for no other reason, it was not scripturally organized as a church.
Of course, you and I have no authority to unchurch a church, but we have the right, if not the obligation, to examine professed churches, and to treat them – or not treat them – as Christian churches, depending on what we find in them. And even if we do not consider a church scriptural that doesn’t mean that we are necessarily declaring that the members of that non-scriptural church are not Christians. We may determine some group to be destitute of the qualifications of a church of Christ, without calling in question the Christian character of its members.
Assuming that we agree with what Bishop Doggett wrote and that there are essential marks and a pattern after which Christ commanded his apostles and ministers to build churches of Christ, what are some of those essential marks? Moses would not have built the tabernacle differently in the smallest detail from the divine pattern. Have preachers or Christians the right to build churches which are different from the pattern of Christ?
If the character of this divine institution is perfect, then it follows that the sanctity and authority of its divine Founder are implanted in its government. In other words, as men treat His church, its doctrine, its laws, or its members, they treat its Author. To despise and reject the teachings of the Lord’s church is to despise the Author of those teachings; and those who hate or persecute its members for their obedience to its laws and to its principles, will some day stand to be tried as opponents of Christ Himself.
Christ taught His apostles and ministers for all time to come, to construct all organizations that should bear His name according to the pattern and model which He “built.” Those who add to or diminish it, do so at their peril. Organizations bearing the name of Christ, yet which have been devised and set up by men are clearly counterfeits, and they are impositions upon the ignorance and credulity of the people. Human societies are but the expression of human opinion; Only human authority is embodied in their laws and regulations; And to observe and obey them is only obeying the men who established them. It is rejecting Christ as king, and choosing men for our masters when we unite with human societies instead of a church of Christ set up as the home of His children.
It cannot be truthfully denied that the Catholic and the various Protestant sects were set up by men many ages after the ascension of Christ; since all their own histories admit the fact. They are therefore not divine – but human institutions, which rival the Lord’s true church or churches. In fact, many of those societies, have opening attacked the Lord’s churches for centuries.
And the only church that is revealed to us in the Bible is a VISIBLE church. The only church with which we have anything to do, or in connection with which we have any duties to perform, is a visible body. It has a specified organization, officers, faith, laws and ordinances, and a living membership, and therefore it must be visible.
And the locality of Christ’s church is this earth; All the members of his churches are here; all the work of His church is here. All authority, power and judgment over all flesh were vested in Christ, and He was appointed to reign on this earth until He should put all His enemies under His feet. When church members die, they cease to be members of the Lord’s church. Their spirits join a different assembly which is not on this earth.
The first of those theories is the Catholic or Universal church theory. According to this, there can be but one church throughout the world. No single congregation is a church under this theory; local congregations are but an infinitesimal part of the universal whole. The Greek Catholic Church holds to this idea, having the Grand Patriarch at Constantinople for its Supreme head. The Latin, or Roman Catholic Church, holds to this idea. No local congregation in one place is a church, but only a minute part of the great whole, the seat of which is at Rome, and the absolute governing power is the Pope. According to this theory, the word “church” can not be used in its plural form. There is but one Roman Catholic Church, and but one Greek Church in the world. The local congregations are not churches; But these universal churches never were, and never can be, assembled in one place for any purpose.
The second theory about the church we might call the National or Provincial theory. This is like the universal church, only limited a bit. All the local congregations in the nation, province or country, in some way associated, constitute the one church of that nation or province. The Church of England is an illustration of this theory. The thousands of local episcopal or anglican societies scattered throughout the world are not churches, but only parts of the one great state church, of which Queen Elizabeth is the head. And theoretically, she determines the faith and enacts the laws for the government of the body. The Old School Presbyterians believe in this kind of church. All the local bodies in the United States, with all the Presbyteries and Synods, constitute but one church, of which the General Assembly was the central head and ruling power. The Methodists and most of Protestantism hold to various forms of this idea. Remember that, according to this theory of church building, “ecclesia” can not be used in the plural. And the church can not be gathered into one place to discipline its members or to observe the ordinances.
The third understanding of the church is the Baptist, or scriptural position: the church is a local organization. We believe that first church was a single congregation, complete in itself, independent of all other bodies, civil or religious. We believe that it was the highest and only source of ecclesiastical authority on earth. We believe that it was chargeable only to Christ. It never had the authority or right to enact or modify even the smallest law or ordinance. We believe that it never had the right to discipline a member, except violation of the teachings of Christ Himself. This kind of church acknowledges no body of men on earth, council, conference or assembly as its head. Christ alone is “head over all things” to it.
And here are the proofs upon which we stand: The term “ecclesia” itself. The Holy Spirit selected the Greek word, ecclesia, which had but one possible meaning to the Greek: It speaks of a local organization, a called-out assembly.
Secondly, New Testament use of the word. It is used in the New Testament 110 times, referring to the Christian institution, and in 100 of these cases it undoubtedly refers to a local organization. In the remaining 10 instances it is used figuratively, where a part is put for the whole, or the singular is used for the plural, one for all. In each of these instances what is true of all the churches is true of any one of those churches. We believe that there is no verse or occasion whatever to think of an invisible church in heaven, or of a huge universal, national or provincial church on earth. In the Bible the word “ecclesia” is used in the plural thirty-six times. This by itself proves that the universal or provincial idea was not known to the Biblical writers. Also, the ecclesia of the New Testament could, and was required to, assemble in one place. This is something that a universal or invisible church can not do. The Lord’s churches were often required to assemble to discipline, baptize and observe the Lord”s Supper could only be done by an assembled church. And Biblical “ecclesia” are often described as being in a single city and even in a single house.
In addition to these Biblical facts, there is historical testimony to the local nature of the Lord’s church. Clement, in A.D. 217. wrote “from the church of God which sojourns at Rome;” and “to the church of God sojourning at Corinth.” Eusebius referring Clement said: “There is one acknowledged epistle of this Clement, great and admirable, which he wrote in the name of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth; sedition then having arisen in the latter church. We are aware that this epistle has been publicly read in very many churches, both in old times, also in our day.” Irenaeus, about the year 200 – “For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down any thing different; nor do those churches in Spain; nor those in Gaul; nor those in the East; nor those in Egypt; nor those in Lybia; nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.” Tertullian, A.D. 150, expressed the idea of a Christian church in his day in these words: “Three are sufficient to form a church, although they be laymen.”
Mosheim wrote: “During a great part of this [second] century all the churches continued to be, as at first, independent of each other . . . each church was a kind of little independent republic” John Owen wrote: “In no approved writer for two hundred years after Christ is mention made of any organized, visibly professing church except a local congregation”
No fact is better established than this, and therefore the various Catholic and Protestant organizations can lay no just claim to be patterned after the apostolic model; and, according to Bishop Doggett’s axioms, should not be considered or called “Christian churches.”