THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH is comprised of all who are now living or ever have lived and who have been reconciled to God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Its purpose is to be the visible representation of Jesus Christ on earth and to participate with Him in building the kingdom of God by “making disciples of all nations, baptizing…and teaching them…” (Matt. 28:19-20).
THE CHURCH IS THE BODY OF CHRIST (Col. 1:24), with Christ as the head (Eph. 5:23) from whom the church derives its power, authority, purpose…its very life. The power of Christ is imparted to the church through the power and indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual believers (Acts 1:8), who gifts each one specially and uniquely according to His good purposes. The authority of Christ is imparted to the church generally (Matt. 18:19-20), but also specifically through the giving of Christ-ordained leaders (Eph. 4:11-12; 2 Tim. 1:6).
THE CHURCH IS ANTICIPATED in Jesus’ response to Peter’s great confession that Jesus is “…the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16), the bedrock truth upon which the church would be built; and in Jesus’ instruction regarding discipline and reconciliation (Matt. 18:17). It was first empowered for its representative purpose when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
The universal church is manifested locally primarily through gatherings of believers who have organized formally into congregations, the “local church.” It is also manifested through formal associations of churches (denomination, convention, presbytery, etc.); geographic location (e.g., “the American church” or “the Ethiopian church”); and through small gatherings of believers, whether meeting formally or informally (e.g., a home community, a mission team meeting with national believers, etc.). The church, then, is both organism (the universal church) and organization (the local church).
THE PURPOSE OF A LOCAL CHURCH is no different than that of the universal church: to build the kingdom of God by “making disciples of all nations, baptizing…and teaching them….” Local churches relate to each other through a variety of both formal and informal associations. Formally, this may take the shape of a denomination, presbytery, synod, etc. Less formally, it may entail cooperation in events such as an evangelistic campaign (e.g., Billy Graham, Luis Palau), a local service project (e.g., Love Portland), a mission initiative (often through a parachurch organization such as Campus Crusade for Christ or Northwest Medical Teams), or an endless array of other possibilities.
A LOCAL CHURCH is characterized by organizational and physical elements foreign to (and unnecessary for) the universal church. Among these are particular leaders (pastor, elder/overseer, deacon), a meeting place (which may be static; i.e., an owned or leased building), and the need for some formal order (whether organizational or ecclesiastical). These elements can be at least loosely associated with the historical marks of the church: the proclamation of the gospel to the end that disciples are made and taught; the carrying out of the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism; and the exercise of discipline.
By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the church has been given leaders in the persons of pastors, teachers, elders/overseers, deacons, evangelists, and apostles. These exist for the purpose of serving and equipping the church to carry its role (Eph. 4:11-12).
While the universal church is, by definition, comprised only of believers, the local church as an organization often includes unbelievers. Whether or not this is by the design of the particular local church is, for the present purpose, moot; the fact, however, must be realized, as it has great impact on the organization and operation of a local church. We must note, as well, that this is an extra-biblical reality; instructions given in Scripture to local congregations seem to assume that those congregations were comprised solely of believers. Thus, we must prayerfully determine appropriate, God-honoring, and kingdom-building ways of operating in this reality. One such method is to adopt criteria and procedures for membership in a local church—an extra-biblical concept that is an appropriate (though not wholly necessary) means to ensure that the activities of a congregation are not unduly guided by those whose eternal destiny is at best uncertain.
Scripture has provided us with two ordinances to be carried out: communion (the Lord’s Supper) and baptism. Both are representative and both carry great symbolism, but neither conveys grace to the participant.
COMMUNION represents not merely the last meal Christ shared with his followers, but evokes the image of God’s rescuing and redeeming work all the way back to the exodus from Egypt…a work that was completed in Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross and perfected in His resurrection from the grave. Because we partake symbolically of Jesus’ body and blood as evidence of our reconciliation to God through His death and resurrection, it is of the utmost importance that we do so only after having assured ourselves through careful self-examination that we stand in right relationship before God and others (1 Cor. 11). Only believers should partake, as only believers are reconciled to God.
I am not as concerned about the administrator of or physical elements used in communion as I am about standing right before God. Certainly anyone administering the elements must also stand in right relationship to God and others, but beyond that I make no further demands. As to the elements, the closer they are to that used by Jesus, the better our minds will be able to remember his words and actions; thus, a piece of bread and either wine or grape juice are preferable. However, if circumstances dictate the use of other elements, then the conscience of those participating should be allowed to guide.
BAPTISM, likewise, is a vivid symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection that should be portrayed only by one who has, through faith, entered into that death and resurrection (Gal. 6:1ff). In the act of baptism, one testifies to that faith, thereby publicly identifying himself with Jesus Christ. Full immersion will best convey the image of death and resurrection that baptism symbolizes and should be the preferred mode. Because baptism is a public identification with Christ, it should be done in as public a setting as practical. (See, however, Acts 8:26-39.)
ISRAEL. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New: both are referred to as the people of God (Exod. 19:5; Acts 15:14), but Israel is the subject of an everlasting covenant with God (1 Chron. 16:17, Ps. 105:10), into which Gentiles have been grafted (Eph. 2:11-13). Gentiles are the beneficiaries of a New Covenant…that was given to Israel! (Jer. 31:31; Luke 22:20)
Paul offers a powerful treatise on God’s dealings with Israel and the impact of that on Gentiles (Romans 9-11; see especially 11:15). He concludes that treatise with this doxology:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Download my full Doctrinal Statement here.