Foy E. Wallace, Jr.
Upon the threshold of this one momentous question there are numerous others which present universal problems to men who think on the subject of the church. Does the true church exist today? How may one find it? Of the many that do exist, is not one as good as another? Are there not legions of good people in them all? How can an honest man know which church he would join? In fact, why should he join one? The average man becomes lost in a maze of mystery and decides that no church is as good as any.
One Church or no Church
It is an admitted fact that Jesus Christ founded an institution which he called the church. It is also true that there are in the world today many human institutions which are called churches, founded by men, existing by no higher authority than the word of men, governed by no higher authority than the creeds of men. Who is ready to say that these institutions are as good as the church that Jesus Christ built, and of which He is the Head? The fact that good people are in these human churches, better would they be called fraternities, is beside the point. There are good men in the Masonic Lodge, and good women in its feminine gender, the Eastern Star, but that does not make them divine institutions. If good people in all the churches makes one church as good as another, then good people out of all the churches makes no church as good as any. All such is shallow reasoning. In the light of the New Testament—it is the church or no church.
What church should a man join? Why say what church? Rather, why not join all of them, that is, all to which we might have access. If, as claimed, there is good in all of them; some good in one not in the other; truth in all, but not all the truth in any; why limit a man to only a part of the truth and a fractional amount of the good when he could have access to all of the good and all of the truth by joining all of the churches. Men belong to more than one lodge, society or club; hold insurance policies in more than one bank, why not membership in more than one church, if it is purely a matter of “joining some church,” one of which is as good as the other. It reveals the fact that nobody really believes that one church is as good as another and the statement turns out to be an effort to be broadminded and polite.
Men do not join the divine church. The Bible says that God adds to the church those who receive and obey His word when they do. “Then they that received the word were baptized and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 24:41). “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). Yet this dashing, smashing slogan of a “union meeting” was once seen: Join The Church Of Your Choice And Be Baptized As You Please! And that in the name of religion assuming that God has neither church nor choice, and that the Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles never uttered a syllable on the how and the what of baptism.
Method of Identification
The matter of finding the true church is as simple as any matter of identification, when the means by which to identify is at hand. Do you have an identification card in your billfold, purse or key folder? For what purpose? It describes your person, so that in case of accident or emergency you could be identified. When an automobile is lost or stolen the method of identification proceeds on the basis of registration, that is, the make, the model and the number. The New Testament contains the description of the New Testament church—the church of Christ—it is a registered institution. Its make, its model and its number, so to speak, are on divine record. Identify it by characteristics. You have the means at hand, the divine record and when you find a body of people today who embrace the principles set forth in the New Testament in teaching and practice-that will be the identification.
The New Testament plainly teaches that there is but one true church. Jesus Christ said, “My church.” Paul said, “The church, which is his body.” Again, “The body, the church” (Col. 1:18). Further, “There is one body” (Eph. 4:4). And finally, “But one body” (1 Cor. 12:20). If that is not talking of one church, and the same one, it is a peculiar way to talk of many.
There are several uses of the word church in the New Testament, but in each use its unity is seen. First, the general church—all the saved in the aggregate. “And gave him to be the head over all things to the church which is his body” (Eph. 1:22). Second, the local church, all the saved within a certain locality, restricted by a geographical term of limitation. “The church of God at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). “The church of Macedonia” (2 Cor. 8:2). And also “the seven churches of Asia”—all the same church (John preached for all of them), of one faith and order. Third, the congregation, or assembly. ‘When the church be come together” (1 Cor. 14:26). In any New Testament sense the use of the word church when it refers to the institution of Christ includes all the saved, and no more, and no less. But a denomination cannot be the church in any Bible sense. In the general sense, the denomination is smaller than the church-for no denomination claims to have within its folds all of the saved on earth. In the local sense, the denomination is larger than the church-for a denomination is composed of all local bodies of one faith and order. The denomination is too large to be the church in the general sense, it is therefore not the church in any sense!
Procreation and Perpetuity
The church as set forth in the New Testament is simply this: God ordained that men should obey the gospel, thus become Christians and by this process be saved. In so doing they are added to the church, the saved in the aggregate. God then ordains that Christians should band themselves together for the purpose of work and worship-and wherever such a body of Christians is found, banded together in and under the scriptural requirements of the local church, without ecclesiastical head or creed, but who are in doctrine, worship and work what the New Testament requires, there you find a New Testament church.
Much has been heard in the past of the perpetuity of the church—its origin and succession. The effort to establish succession has been virtually abandoned by the Baptists. Their historians were in their way. Ancient history revealed a gap that could not be bridged. The Bible, not history, is the thing needed to establish the claims of the New Testament church. As long as the seed exists that produces the thing-why worry about succession? Then what of origin? God created the church as He created Adam, the first man. Next was procreation. Creation was the miracle; procreation, the law. The church, the new man, was created (Eph. 2:14-16). On Pentecost it was formed; the Spirit was imparted to it. Today we have the seed, for “the seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11), which is the divine means of procreation. Thus when men hear, believe and obey the Word, the New Testament Church is reproduced, procreated. There is no need of unbroken succession, ecclesiastical church-making, creed-writing, synods, councils, conventions, manuals, disciplines, articles, confessions and catechisms, nor of the parties descending therefrom. Only the pure Word of God is needed, and wherever it is obeyed the result will be Christians and the church is composed of Christians.
Organization and Government
The organization of the church is simple, not complex. The church is not a mere vague, spiritual thing, without visible existence or government. Of the whole church Jesus Christ is the Head, and the New Testament is the Law. As a kingdom, Christ is the King, Christians are Citizens—a divine monarchy unlimited and absolute. From the King’s decrees (the laws of the New Testament) there can be no appeal. His laws are subject to no change or revision, no modification, not even by his assumed Holiness, the Pope and his cardinals. But the Head of the church provided organization for his Church. There is first the body—the members; then there are the rulers over them, the elders, who are officers of God of first rank, who though described by several titles such as bishops, pastors, elders, presbyters, are nevertheless one official group. The New Testament order is a plurality of elders in every church, not a plurality of churches under one elder. The elders are what the word implies—men of age, experience, knowledge and wisdom, whose character and faith qualify them to rule the congregation. Such men were ordained by the apostles, and those to whom the apostles delegated such right, to be elders in the church. Their qualifications and duties were laid down in the divine record near the close of the era of inspiration, showing that it belonged to the permanent and not to the provisional order. They are under the divine command to enforce the teaching the New Testament in the church of which they are the overseers. In so doing faithful elders are sometimes charged with “lording it over God’s heritage”—a thing the New Testament, indeed, forbids elders to do. But an elder is not lording when he is enforcing the word of God, no matter how arbitrary his action may sometimes appear. A “lord” is one who sets up his own will and exercises an authority not derived from Christ. Elders who by the will of Christ hold the practices of the church to the New Testament are not lords. A church that establishes congregational rule (which is majority rule) against ‘the rule of elders, is in a state of anarchy and rebellion against God. It is on this very vital point that much teaching is needed within the church. As old Israel borrowed their notion for a king from their heathen neighbors, the mistake that brought on all of their apostasies and miseries, so churches of Christ have borrowed notions about pastors and their parties, voting and petitioning, with all the evils of revolt from sectarian neighbors. The members of the church need to know what the church is—and some preachers need to learn their place in God’s order.
We hear much of “congregational government,” the authority for which you will find on the blank page in your Bible. Back of all the unscriptural innovations in the church have been the departures of the majority. It was so with Israel when they demanded a king, which though God granted, he never approved, for he said, “I gave them a king in my anger and took him away in my wrath.” It was so when the so called, self-constituted, digressive Christian Church went out from us because they were no longer of us. The real trouble was not merely the organ, that was only the horse they rode out on. The real trouble was their attitude on this question of authority, the right of the majority to rule, and history will repeat itself when this doctrine becomes general in the church again, as some evil omens indicate the trend in that direction. It may be good doctrine for a political party or a digressive church, but it is mighty poor practice and procedure in a church of Christ; so poor, indeed, that no church can long remain a church of Christ that adopts it.
So obvious is the truth of these things that very few in the church will admit that they believe in majority rule. They will not own the practice even when it has been resorted to. Some churches that have petitioned and voted elders out, nominated and elected others in, yet deny all the time that they believe in majority rule in matters of faith! To deny that what a church makes a practice of doing is a matter of faith is even worse than owning up to the unscriptural doctrine. The fact that provocations exist, or a false loyalty to a preacher, cannot justify the circulating of Petitions, house to house canvasses to ascertain how many can be mustered on this side or that side in matters Pertaining to the church, which the elders should themselves settle. Even if wrong exists that needs correction -two wrongs do not make one right. We are forbidden in the Bible to do evil that good may come, which is the same as saying that good cannot come out of evil. A member of the church who signs his name to a petition circulated among the members, becomes by that act an anarchist. The preacher who permits a petition to be circulated on his behalf among the members of the church is a factionist.
Elders And Deacons
But someone may inquire, What of the deacons? The answer is that the church needs faithful deacons; but let it be known that deacons are not elders. We develop strange ideas, and a language foreign to the Bible. We hear it said that the church is under the elders and deacons, another thing you may find in the third chapter of second Jude. Deacons have their work, but it is not one of authority or rule over the congregation. The common practice of having meetings in which the business of the church is settled by motions made and seconded and voted upon by elders and deacons with deacons outvoting elders is as foreign to the New Testament as a college of cardinals electing a pope. The deacons are assistants to the elders, and it is their duty under the direction of the elders to attend to the secular interests of the church. This is the limit of their official duties. The office confers no authority. This does not minimize the work of deacons-by no means-for it should be regarded an honor to be considered by the church as possessing the personal character that causes one to be sought for such active service in the church.
Preachers And Members
And what about preachers? Neither do they hold office. They are ministers of the word—evangelists. They are not pastors, but preachers. They should not be errand boys, nor doorbell pushers, calling on the sisters while their husbands are at work. When a preacher, whether located or not, becomes anything else than a preacher, a Christian preacher, he becomes something he ought not to be.
And what of the members? In humble submission to the divine arrangement of a New Testament congregation, members of the church should in meekness work out their salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in us to will and to do of his good Pleasure.
The New Testament orders its elders to rule; deacons to serve; preachers to preach; members to work. So give us elders that will elder; deacons that will “deac”; congregations that will congregate; and preachers that will preach! What could be more useless than nominal elders, deacons, and preachers, who do not function in their respective offices?
With a parting emphasis, this divine arrangement—the local church—is the only organization known to the New Testament. All organizations larger or smaller than the local church, whether Sunday School, Missionary Society, Ladies Aid, Young People’s Meetings, Inter-Church Committees and Boards, or What-Have-You, are not only unnecessary but unscriptural.