Does Biblical Ecclesiology Matter?

The word ecclesiology means theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church. There are many institutions calling themselves churches that look very different from each other. Some have a hierarchy of bishops and are headed by a Pope or a King. Others groups believe there is no institution higher than the local church. The question for us is: which, if any of these, are correct? Or does it not matter how Christians are organized together? I’d like to start a series investigating how the Church should be structured while on earth and what powers it has, but to begin we need to address where we can go to find out these things about the Church.

It is my contention that everything needed to be known about how the church should be organized is contained in the Bible, whether by command or example. Many in church history have disagreed with such a supposition. For example, the 19th century theologian John Tulloch writes:

The Christian Scriptures are a revelation of divine truth, and not a revelation of church polity. They not only do not lay down the outline of such a polity, but they do not even give the adequate and conclusive hints of one.

Leaders of the Reformation: Luther, Calvin, Latimer, Knox

Are we to believe that Jesus, who gave His life for the Church, has not left us with any idea of how we are to be ordered while on earth? Or even worse, does He not care particularly how we are ordered, and it is up to learned men to figure out for themselves the best way to do it? The classic passage on the sufficiency of scripture demonstrates that Jesus has left us with guidance:

16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The New King James Version. (1982). (2 Ti 3:16–17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

The phrase, “man of God,” refers not merely to an ordinary believer, but someone in an official ministry position among God’s people.1 So, if those in the ministry are to be equipped by the Scriptures, surely it should teach them how the Church is to be organized. After all, is not the organization of the Church a good work, one that the man of God would need to be equipped for? God has left the knowledge of what the visible church should look like and how it should behave by giving us a series of commands and examples in His word, the Bible.2

A further (although more subtle) example of this is the fact that in two separate instances, 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, the qualifications for a local church office called “elder” or “presbyter” are laid out. Are we to say that God felt the need to preserve the qualifications for an office in not one, but two places in His word, but that this doesn’t apply, as we are able to decide how to organize ourselves any which way we want? I think that is an absurd idea, God’s word is always relevant (Romans 15:4, Isaiah 40:8).

Now, I do imagine some would like to posit an alternate place to find out how the Church should be structured: Church Tradition. After all, if the Church has faithfully transmitted the original instructions of the Apostles on how the Church should be organized, we don’t need to worry about what the Scriptures say. I think this is a bad idea for two reasons. First, as we know, the Pharisees developed ungodly traditions while claiming they were true doctrines, and Jesus used the word of God to demonstrate their falsity (Mark 7:1-13). Thus, we also should use the Scriptures to determine what is and isn’t true tradition. Secondly, what is more traditional than what the Apostles practiced? Would we say the way the Church was organized in the 1st century is not traditional? Surely, it would be more traditional then any other type of organization that comes after it.

So why study the ecclesiology of the Bible? If God has told us how He desires His Church to be set up and we ignore it, are we not saying that we are wiser than God? God has the ultimate right to establish how His Church should look. He has given it the authority that it has and we dare not step outside the prescribed limits of that authority. As we go through this series, I hope that you will see just how wise God is in how He has laid out His Church. We all have seen some of the scandals regarding gross sin committed by church leaders in America. A biblically set up church is a guard against error and sin, and effective for the propagation of the Gospel. I’ll close with this thought from Psalm 119:

Direct my steps by Your word,
And let no iniquity have dominion over me.

The New King James Version. (1982). (Ps 119:133). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[1] See A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith 5th edition page 57-58 for a discussion of the phrase man of God in 2 Tim 3:17

[2] For a proof of how the Bible is the word of God here is a previous blog article of mine: https://theparticularbaptist.net/2020/03/16/is-the-bible-the-word-of-god/

Published by Sean Cheetham

There is nothing better in this life than to know God. There is nothing better to do in this life than to serve Him.

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