Ecclesiology is a study of the structure and nature of the Christian Church which is the universal body composed of all true believers in Christ. The word “Church” as used in scripture means “to call out”, so the Church is a group of people called out by God and dedicated to His purposes. According to 1 Timothy 3:14-15, the Church is the temple of God, belongs to Him, and is the pillar and ground of truth.
Common topics in Ecclesiology include how the Church began, the organization of the Church, its purpose, the ordinances of the Church, metaphors that describe it, and the destiny of the Church.
HOW THE CHURCH BEGAN
The Church began on the day of Pentecost as described in Acts 2. See also John 16:13; 14:16-17; 16:26-27; and Matthew 16:18 for related passages. The Church emerged after the coming of the Holy Spirit through which all true believers are baptized spiritually into one Body.
THE ORGANIZATION OF THE CHURCH
Although there are many local “churches,” there is really only one Church (Ephesians 4:4; Hebrews 12:23). The true Church is both visible and invisible. It is invisible in that it is a spiritual body known as the Kingdom of God and the Body of Christ. It is visible in local congregations of churches to which Christians commit themselves. The Kingdom of God may be thought of as the reign of God, and the Church as the realm in which that reign is visibly manifested.
Various groups of churches have also organized in terms of denominations, i.e., Baptist, Methodist, etc., although denominations are not mandated in God’s Word. Denominations are part of the true Church only when their beliefs and conduct conform to the Word of God. The attempt to unify all churches, regardless of their stand on biblical truths, is heresy. False doctrines must be refuted (Titus 1:9) and exposed (Ephesians 5:11). The local Church is given the authority to remove from fellowship those who embrace heresy (1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:18; Titus 3:10). The true Church is to separate itself from those who embrace doctrinal error
(2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Romans 16:17; Acts 19:8-9). The true Church is composed of those who embrace the fundamental doctrines of the Word of God.
The primary authorities in the Church are God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the scriptures. The head of the Church is Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:23). Within the Church, the leadership gifts of apostle, prophet, pastor, evangelist, and teacher should be operative (Ephesians 4:11). The Bible also provides guidelines for bishops, elders, deacons and deaconesses to assist in other church-related matters (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). For further study on the organization of the Church, obtain the Harvestime International Institute courses entitled “Biblical Management Principles” and “Mobilization” available at: http://www.harvestime.org
THE PURPOSE OF THE CHURCH
The purpose of the Church is to fulfill the mandate of Jesus in proclaiming the gospel to the world:
But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)
For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. (Acts 13:47)
Thus, the gospel message is at the heart of the purpose of the Church and is to be reflected in the lives and ministries of its members. The Church is to worship, praise, glorify, and pray to the one true God and edify one another (Ephesians 1:6,12,14; 3:10).
The Church is also commissioned to establish and equip new believers in the faith:
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:18-20)
The gifts of the Holy Spirit provide the Church with the abilities needed to fulfill this divine mission to the world. (See Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 1:7; 12-14; Ephesians 4:11-12; Hebrews 2:3-4; and 1 Peter 4:10-11, plus the discussion on Pneumatology in this study.).
ORDINANCES OF THE CHURCH
There are two main ordinances given to the Church by the Lord. They are water baptism and the
Lord’s Supper, or as the latter is sometimes referred to, the Eucharist.
The Ordinance Of Water Baptism.
The passage which best introduces water baptism describes the baptism of Jesus:
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to be baptized of him. But John forbade Him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered Him. And Jesus, when He was baptized went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon Him: And lo a voice from Heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17)
Jesus was not baptized by John as evidence that He had repented of sin, because He had no sins for which to repent. Jesus was baptized to “complete all righteousness.” He was setting a righteous example of behavior which He wanted all believers to follow.
The following are some issues important to the ordinance of baptism:
-Baptism of babies. Jesus was not baptized as a baby. When He was an infant His parents brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord, but He was not baptized until He was old enough to know what He was doing and the reason why He was doing it (Luke 2:22). Babies should not be baptized. Children can be presented to the Lord for dedication and blessing by the laying on of hands, but they should not be baptized until they understand the meaning of the act and have met the Biblical requirements. There is no set age at which this understanding comes. It depends on the mental and spiritual development of each child.
-Sprinkling or immersion. Some churches baptize by sprinkling with water while others totally immerse in water. When Jesus was baptized He went down into and then came up out of the water. Considering this and the Biblical meaning of the word “baptize”, we conclude He was fully immersed in the waters of Jordan. In allowing Himself to be baptized, Jesus showed outward obedience to the will and the plan of God. When believers are baptized, this outward act symbolizes the inward decision and the cleansing from sin which they have received by faith.
-The time of baptism. To be eligible for water baptism a person must receive proper instruction, repent, believe, and have a good conscience toward God. The length of time it takes to meet these requirements will differ depending on the individual. Some churches require those who desire baptism to complete long periods of instruction lasting weeks or months, but the Bible says that on the day of Pentecost three thousand people were baptized. A few hours before they were unbelievers who rejected Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God. From the end of Peter’s sermon to their baptism, the time required to give necessary instruction could not have exceeded a few hours: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized; and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Philip also baptized the Ethiopian the same day he preached the Gospel to him.
-Significance of Christian baptism. The following text reveals the spiritual significance of Christian baptism:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death; That like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
When you repent and accept Jesus Christ as Savior, death to sin and the old life occurs. There is the creation of a new life of righteousness to be lived for God:
Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey the lusts thereof… For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:11,12,14)
Christian baptism in water is a symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It symbolizes death to sin as you are immersed in that “grave” of water and resurrected into a new life lived for God in righteousness as you come up out of the water. The believer who is raised up out of the water to live this new life does not do this in his own power. His new life is lived by the power of God, the same power that raised Jesus from the grave.
-Requirements For Baptism. There are requirements to be met by those seeking Christian baptism.
- Instruction: The first requirement for baptism was given by Jesus:
Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you… (Matthew 28:19-20)
Christ’s command to teach new believers is given twice. They are to be taught before and after baptism. Sinners must first hear and receive the Gospel in order to become true believers:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized. (Acts 2:41)
When they heard this, they were baptized… (Acts 19:5)
A certain woman named Lydia…attended unto the things that were spoken of Paul…and she was baptized. (Acts 16:14-15)
Before baptism, believers should receive enough teaching to understand its meaning. After baptism, they should continue to receive instruction in order to become mature Christians. Paul calls this “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6).
- Repentance: The second condition for baptism is repentance from sin. Peter emphasized this during his sermon on the day of Pentecost:
Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? (Acts 2:37)
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Note that conviction of sin is not enough. Action must be taken. The two commands Peter gave were to repent and be baptized. True repentance must precede baptism.
- Belief: The third condition for baptism is believing:
And He said unto them, Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:15-16)
This requirement of believing is illustrated by the story of the Ethiopian man and Philip which occurred on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8). Philip heard the Ethiopian read from the book of Isaiah and he joined him in his chariot to explain the Gospel. As they continued on their journey, the road led past water. Upon the Ethiopian’s request and his confession of faith, Philip baptized him:
And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, if thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And He commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. (Acts 8:36-38)
Philip said to the eunuch: “If you believe with all your heart, you may be baptized.” The eunuch replied: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son God.” A person who desires Christian baptism must confess their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
- A good conscience toward God: A fourth condition for Christian baptism is a good conscience toward God. Peter compares Christian baptism in water to the experience of Noah and his family who were saved from judgment as they entered into the ark:
The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us [not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God] by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:21)
Peter dismisses any idea that the purpose of baptism is any kind of cleansing of the physical body. He says the condition of Christian baptism is the inner relationship of the believer’s heart toward God. He calls it “a good conscience toward God.”
The Ordinance Of The Lord’s Supper.
It was during the celebration of the Passover on the evening prior to His death that Jesus instituted this ordinance, known as the Lord’s Supper. It is an integral part of Christian worship as it reflects back on the Lord’s death and resurrection and looks forward to His return in the future.
The Passover was the most sacred feast of the Jewish religious year. It commemorated the final plague on Egypt when the firstborn Egyptian sons died and the Israelites were spared because of the blood of a lamb that was sprinkled on their doorposts–symbolizing the blood of the Lamb Jesus Christ. The lamb was then roasted and eaten with unleavened bread. God’s command was that throughout the generations to come the feast would be celebrated. The story of the first Passover is recorded in Exodus 12. The accounts of the Lord’s Supper are found in Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:17-25; Luke 22:7-22; and John 13:21-30.
During the last supper shared with His disciples–a Passover celebration–Jesus took a loaf of bread and gave thanks to God. As He broke it and gave it to His disciples, He said, “’This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:19-21). Jesus indicated that believers were to do this in remembrance of Him–partaking of the bread and wine symbolizing His body and blood.
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul wrote concerning the Lord’s Supper and included a statement not found in the Gospels:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
What does it mean to partake of the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner? It means disregarding the true meaning of the bread and cup and ignoring the tremendous price our Savior paid for our salvation. It may also mean to allow the ceremony to become a dead and formal ritual or to partake of the Lord’s Supper with unconfessed sin. In keeping with Paul’s instructions, we should examine ourselves before eating the bread and drinking the cup to be sure our sins are forgiven and our motives pure.
Another statement Paul made that is not included in Gospels is “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). This places a time limit on the observance. The wine and bread used by Jesus at the last supper with His disciples were metaphors symbolizing His body and blood and we are to continue this ordinance until the Lord’s return in memory of His great sacrifice.
One of the most commonly used passages when observing the Lord’s supper is as follows:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. (1 Corinthians 11:23-29 )
METAPHORS DESCRIBING THE CHURCH
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two things that have common characteristics. They are natural examples that are used to explain spiritual truths. Study the following metaphors which are used in scripture to describe the Church.
-The Body of Christ: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:12,16.
-The Body of Christ of which the Lord is the head: Ephesians 1:22-23.
-The family of God, as we are all sons and daughters of the Lord: 2 Corinthians 6:18.
-A pillar of truth in the world: 1 Timothy 3:15.
-A vine and its branches: John 15:1-11.
-The building of God: 1 Corinthians 3:9 and Ephesians 2:19-22.
-A living temple: Ephesians 2:20-21.
-Each member is a living stone built on the cornerstone, Christ Jesus: 1 Peter 2:9.
-A holy temple in which God dwells:1 Corinthians 3:16.
-A holy nation: 1 Peter 2:9.
-A royal priesthood: 1 Peter 2:5-9.
-Salt: Matthew 5:13-15.
-Light: Matthew 5:13-15.
-A sweet odor: 2 Corinthians 2:15.
-The Bride of Christ: Ephesians 5:23-32; Revelation 19:7, 8; 21:9.
-The flock of the true Shepherd, Jesus Christ: John 10 and 1 Peter 5:1-3.
-Saints: 1 Corinthians 1:2.
THE DESTINY OF THE CHURCH
The Church will eventually be raptured to be with the Lord. Believers who have died will be resurrected, then those who are alive will be caught up together with them in the air to meet the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Believers will be judged on their ministries for the Lord, and rewarded accordingly
(1 Corinthians 3:10-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:10). The Church will ultimately return with Christ to earth and rule with Him (Revelation chapters 19-20).