by Mark Dever
For too many Christians today, the doctrine of the church is like a decoration on the front of a building. Maybe it’s pretty, maybe it’s not, but finally it’s unimportant because it bears no weight.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. The doctrine of the church is of the utmost importance. It is the most visible part of Christian theology, and it is vitally connected with every other part. “Christ’s work is the church’s foundation. . . . Christ’s work continues in the church; the fullness of the mystery of God in redemption is disclosed among his people.”1
The church arises only from the gospel. And a distorted church usually coincides with a distorted gospel. Whether it leads to such distortions or results from them, serious departures from the Bible’s teaching about the church normally signify other, more central misunderstandings about the Christian faith.
This is not to say that all differences in ecclesiology are tantamount to differences over the gospel itself. Honest Christians have long differed over a number of important issues in the church. But just because a matter is not essential for salvation does not mean that it’s not important, or that it’s not necessary for obedience. The color of church signs is not essential for Christian salvation, nor is believer’s baptism. But everyone would agree that these two matters vary greatly in importance.
Perhaps the popular disinterest in ecclesiology results from the understanding that the church itself is not necessary for salvation. Cyprian of Carthage may well have said, “No one can have God for his father, who has not the church for his mother,” but few would agree with this sentiment today. The Church of Rome, in the Second Vatican Council, recognized that a normally competent adult is not required to self-consciously participate in the church for salvation. And evangelical Protestants, who stress salvation by faith alone, seem to have even less use for the church, much less for studying the doctrine of the church.
It should not be this way. As John Stott said, “The church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. It is not an accident of history.”2 The church should be regarded as important to Christians because of its importance to Christ. Christ founded the church (Matt 16:18), purchased it with his blood (Acts 20:28), and intimately identifies himself with it (Acts 9:4). The church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12,27; Eph 1:22–23; 4:12; 5:20–30; Col 1:18,24; 3:15), the dwelling place of his Spirit (1 Cor 3:16–17; Eph 2:18,22; 4:4), and the chief instrument for glorifying God in the world (Ezek 36:22–38; Eph 3:10). Finally, the church is God’s instrument for bringing both the gospel to the nations and a great host of redeemed humanity to himself (Luke 24:46–48; Rev 5:9).
More than once Jesus said that his people would demonstrate their love for him by obeying his commandments (John 14:15,23). And the obedience which interests him is not only individual but corporate. Together individuals in churches will go, disciple, baptize, teach to obey, love, remember, and commemorate his substitutionary death with the bread and the cup. Jan Hus, the fifteenth-century Bohemian reformer, put it this way: “Every earthly pilgrim ought faithfully . . . to love Jesus Christ, the Lord, the bridegroom of that church, and also the church herself, his bride.”3
The enduring authority of Christ’s commands should compel Christians to study the Bible’s teaching on the church. Wrong ecclesial teaching and practices obscure the gospel while right ecclesial teaching and practices clarify it. To put it another way, Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34–35). The church is the gospel made visible.
Today many local churches are adrift in the shifting currents of pragmatism. They assume that the immediate response of non-Christians is the key indicator of success. At the same time, Christianity is being rapidly disowned in the culture at large. Evangelism is characterized as intolerant, and portions of biblical doctrine are classified as hate speech. In such antagonistic times the felt needs of non-Christians can hardly be considered reliable gauges, and conforming to the culture will mean a loss of the gospel itself. As long as quick numerical growth remains the primary indicator of church health, the truth will be compromised. Instead, churches must once again begin measuring success not in terms of numbers but in terms of fidelity to the Scriptures. William Carey served faithfully in India, and Adoniram Judson persevered in Burma not because they met immediate success or advertised themselves as “relevant.”
This book is intended as a popular primer on the doctrine of the church, especially for Baptists but also, in so far as the arguments are convincing, for all of those who see Scripture alone to be the sufficient authority for the doctrine and life of the local church. The book grew out of a chapter I wrote almost a decade ago on the doctrine of the church. The volume containing that chapter imposed a certain structure that is retained here. Part 1 considers the doctrine of the church biblically, part 2 historically, and part 3 systematically and practically. This structure does require some repetition with attendant advantages and disadvantages. For the less committed reader, the introduction is presented as an easier, more accessible summary of some of the arguments and conclusions of the book.
- James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP; rev. ed., 1986), 565.
- John Stott, The Living Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 19.
- Jan Hus, De Ecclesia: The Church, trans. David Schley Schaff (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), 1.
Editor’s note: This is excerpted from The Church: The Gospel Made Visible by Mark Dever.
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