EcclesiaThe Doctrine of the Church by Louis Berkhof
The Doctrine of the Church and of the Means of Grace
The doctrine of the application of the merits of Christ naturally leads on to the doctrine of the Church, for the Church consists of those who are partakers of Christ and of the blessings of salvation that are in Him. The Reformed conception is that Christ, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, unites men with Himself, endows them with true faith, and thus constitutes the Church as His body, the communio fidelium or sanctorum. In Roman Catholic theology, however, the discussion of the Church takes precedence over everything else, preceding even the discussion of the doctrine of God and of divine revelation. The Church, it is said, has been instrumental in producing the Bible and therefore takes precedence over it; it is moreover the dispenser of all supernatural graces. It is not Christ that leads us to the Church, but the Church that leads us to Christ. All the emphasis falls, not on the invisible Church as the communio fidelium, but on the visible Church as the mater fidelium. The Reformation broke with this Roman Catholic view of the Church and centered attention once more on the Church as a spiritual organism. It emphasized the fact that there is no Church apart from the redemptive work of Christ and from the renewing operations of the Holy Spirit; and that, therefore, the discussion of these logically precedes the consideration of the doctrine of the Church.
It seems rather peculiar that practically all the outstanding Presbyterian dogmaticians of our country, such as the two Hodges, H. B. Smith, Shedd, and Dabney, have no separate locus on the Church in their dogmatical works and, in fact, devote very little attention to it. Only the works of Thornwell and Breckenridge form an exception to the rule. This might create the impression that, in their opinion, the doctrine of the Church should not have a place in dogmatics. But this is extremely unlikely, since none of them raise a single objection to its inclusion. Moreover, Turretin and their Scottish forbears, on whose foundation they are building, devote a great deal of attention to the Church. Walker says: “There is perhaps no country in the world in which all kinds of Church questions have been so largely discussed as in our own.” And, finally, Dr. A. A. Hodge informs us that his father lectured to his various classes on the subjects of Ecclesiology, practically covered the entire ground, and intended to complete his Systematic Theology by the publication of a fourth volume on the Church; but was prevented by the infirmities incident to his advanced age. Dabney says that he omitted the doctrine of the Church, because this was ably treated in another department of the Seminary in which he labored.2 Shedd in giving his scheme asserts that the Church comes into consideration in connection with the means of grace. However, he devotes very little attention to the means of grace and does not discuss the doctrine of the Church. And the editor of Smith’s System of Christian Theology incorporated into this work the author’s views on the Church, as expressed in other works.
I. Scriptural Names of the Church and the Doctrine of the Church in History
A. Scriptural Names for the Church
1. In the Old Testament. The Old Testament employs two words to designate the Church, namely qahal (or kahal), derived from an obsolete root qal (or kal), meaning “to call”; and ’edhah, from ya’adh, “to appoint” or “to meet or come together at an appointed place.” These two words are sometimes used indiscriminately, but were not, at first, strictly synonymous. ’Edhah is properly a gathering by appointment, and when applied to Israel, denotes the society itself formed by the children of Israel or their representative heads, whether assembled or not assembled. Qahal, on the other hand, properly denotes the actual meeting together of the people. Consequently we find occasionally the expression qehal ’edhah, that is, “the assembly of the congregation” Ex. 12:6; Num. 14:5; Jer. 26:17. It seems that the actual meeting was sometimes a meeting of the representatives of the people, Deut. 4:10; 18:16, comp. 5:22, 23; 1 Kings 8:1, 2, 3, 5; 2 Chron. 5:2–6. ’Edhah is by far the more common word in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Joshua, but is wholly absent from Deuteronomy, and is found but rarely in the later books. Qahal, abounds in Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Sunagoge is the usual, almost universal, rendering of the former in the Septuagint, and is also the usual rendering of the latter in the Pentateuch. In the later books of the Bible, however, qahal is generally rendered by ekklesia. Schuerer claims that later Judaism already pointed to the distinction between sunagoge as a designation of the congregation of Israel as an empirical reality, and ekklesia as the name of that same congregation ideally considered. He is followed in this by Dr. Bavinck. Cremer-Koegel, however, takes exception to this. Hort says that after the exile the word qahal seems to have combined the shades of meaning belonging to both it and ’edhah; and that consequently “ekklesia, as the primary Greek representative of qahal, would naturally, for Greek-speaking Jews, mean the congregation of Israel quite as much as an assembly of the congregation.”
2. In the New Testament. The New Testament also has two words, derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, “to call out,” and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning “to come or to bring together.” The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jews or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:43; Rev. 2:9; 3:9. The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies. Acts 19:32, 39, 41. The preposition ek in ekklesia (ekkaleo) is often interpreted to mean “out from among the common mass of the people,” and to indicate in connection with the Scriptural use of ekklesia, that the Church consists of the elect, called out of the world of humanity. This interpretation is rather doubtful, however, for the preposition originally simply denoted that the Greek citizens were called out of their houses. Now it would not have been unnatural if that entirely Scriptural idea had been put into the word in God’s revelation. But, as a matter of fact, we have no proof that this was actually done. The compound verb ekkaleo is never so used, and the word ekklesia never occurs in a context which suggests the presence of that particular thought in the mind of the writer. Deissmann would simply render ekklesia as “the (convened) assembly,” regarding God as the convener. Because the idea of the Church is a many-sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation. Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Matt. 16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God. It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel. Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquired various significations. Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ. The following are the most important uses of the word:
a. Most frequently the word ekklesia designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship. Some passages contain the added idea that they are assembled, Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19, 28, 35, while others do not, Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14, etc.
b. In some cases the word denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual. It seems that in apostolic times wealthy or otherwise important persons often set aside a large room in their homes for divine worship. Instances of this use of the word are found in Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2.
c. If the reading of Tisschendorf is correct (as is now generally taken for granted), then the word is found at least once in the singular to denote a group of churches, namely, the churches of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. The passage in which it is so used is Acts 9:31. Naturally, this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination. It is not impossible that the church of Jerusalem and the church of Antioch in Syria also comprised several groups that were accustomed to meet in different places.
d. In a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body, throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers. This meaning of the word is somewhat in the foreground in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 10:32; 11:22; 12:28, but was, it would seem, present also in the mind of Paul, when he wrote the letter to the Ephesians, though in that letter the emphasis is on the Church as a spiritual organism, cf. especially Eph. 4:11–16.
e. Finally, the word in its most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Saviour. This use of the word is found primarily in the Epistles of Paul to the Ephesians and the Colossians, most frequently in the former, Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23–25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18, 24.
We should bear in mind that the names “Church,” “Kerk” and “Kirche” are not derived from the word ekklesia, but from the word kuriake, which means “belonging to the Lord.” They stress the fact that the Church is the property of God. The name to kuriakon or he kuriake first of all designated the place where the Church assembled. This place was conceived of as belonging to the Lord, and was therefore called to kuriakon. But the place itself was empty and did not really become manifest as to kuriakon until the Church gathered for worship. Consequently, the word was transferred to the Church itself, the spiritual building of God.
3. Other Biblical designations of the Church. The New Testament contains several figurative designations of the Church, each one of which stresses some particular aspect of the Church. It is called:
a. The body of Christ. Some in our day seem to regard this appellation as a complete definition of the New Testament Church, but it is not so intended. The name is applied not only to the Church universal, as in Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:18, but also to a single congregation, 1 Cor. 12:27. It stresses the unity of the Church, whether local or universal, and particularly the fact that this unity is organic, and that the organism of the Church stands in vital relationship to Jesus Christ as her glorious head.
b. The temple of the Holy Spirit or of God. The church of Corinth is called “a temple of God,” in which the Holy Spirit dwelleth, 1 Cor. 3:16. In Ephesians 2:21, 22 Paul speaks of believers as growing into “a holy temple in the Lord,” and as being built together for “a habitation of God in the Spirit.” There the name is applied to the ideal Church of the future, which is the church universal. And Peter says that believers as living stones are built up “a spiritual house,” 1 Pet. 2:5. The connection clearly shows that he is thinking of a temple. This figure emphasizes the fact that the Church is holy and inviolable. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit imparts to her an exalted character.
c. The Jerusalem that is above, or the new Jerusalem, or the heavenly Jerusalem. All three of these forms are found in the Bible, Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22; Rev. 21:2, cf. the verses 9 and 10. In the Old Testament Jerusalem is represented as the place where God dwelt between the cherubim and where He symbolically established contact with His people. The New Testament evidently regards the Church as the spiritual counterpart of the Old Testament Jerusalem, and therefore applies to it the same name. According to this representation the Church is the dwelling place of God, in which the people of God are brought into communion with Him; and this dwelling place, while still in part on earth, belongs to the heavenly sphere.
d. Pillar and ground of the truth. There is just one place in which that name is applied to the Church, namely, 1 Tim. 3:15. It clearly refers to the Church in general, and therefore also applies to every part of it. The figure is expressive of the fact that the Church is the guardian of the truth, the citadel of the truth, and the defender of the truth over against all the enemies of the Kingdom of God.
B. The Doctrine of the Church in History
1. The doctrine of the Church before the Reformation
a. In the patristic period. By the Apostolic Fathers and by the Apologetes the Church is generally represented as the communio sanctorum, the people of God which He has chosen for a possession. The necessity for making distinctions was not at once apparent. But as early as the latter part of the second century there was a perceptible change. The rise of heresies made it imperative to name some characteristics by which the true catholic Church could be known. This tended to fix the attention on the outward manifestation of the Church. The Church began to be conceived as an external institution, ruled by a bishop as a direct successor of the apostles, and in possession of the true tradition. The catholicity of the Church was rather strongly emphasized. Local churches were not regarded as so many separate units, but simply as parts of the one universal Church. The increasing worldliness and corruption of the Church gradually led to reaction and gave rise to the tendency of various sects, such as Montanism in the middle of the second, Novatianism in the middle of the third, and Donatism at the beginning of the fourth century, to make the holiness of its members the mark of the true Church. The early Church Fathers, in combating these sectaries, emphasized ever increasingly the episcopal institution of the Church. Cyprian has the distinction of being the first to develop fully the doctrine of the episcopal Church. He regarded the bishops as the real successors of the apostles and ascribed to them a priestly character in virtue of their sacrificial work. They together formed a college, called the episcopate, which as such constituted the unity of the Church. The unity of the Church was thus based on the unity of the bishops. They who do not subject themselves to the bishop forfeit the fellowship of the Church and also their salvation, since there is no salvation outside of the Church. Augustine was not altogether consistent in his conception of the Church. It was his struggle with the Donatists that compelled him to reflect more deeply on the nature of the Church. On the one hand he shows himself to be the predestinarian, who conceives of the Church as the company of the elect, the communio sanctorum, who have the Spirit of God and are therefore characterized by true love. The important thing is to be a living member of the Church so conceived, and not to belong to it in a merely external sense. But on the other hand he is the Church-man, who adheres to the Cyprianic idea of the Church at least in its general aspects. The true Church is the catholic Church, in which the apostolic authority is continued by episcopal succession. It is the depositary of divine grace, which it distributes through the sacraments. For the present this Church is a mixed body, in which good and evil members have a place. In his debate with the Donatists he admitted, however, that the two were not in the Church in the same sense. He also prepared the way for the Roman Catholic identification of the Church and the Kingdom of God.
b. In the Middle Ages. The Scholastics have very little to say about the Church. The system of doctrine developed by Cyprian and Augustine was fairly complete and needed but a few finishing touches to bring it to its final development. Says Otten (Roman Catholic historian): “This system was taken over by the Scholastics of the Middle Ages, and then was handed down by them, practically in the same condition in which they had received it, to their successors who came after the Council of Trent.” Incidentally a few points were somewhat further developed. But if there was very little development in the doctrine of the Church, the Church itself actually developed more and more into a close-knit, compactly organized, and absolute hierarchy. The seeds of this development were already present in the Cyprianic idea of the Church and in one aspect of the Church as represented by Augustine. The other and more fundamental idea of that great Church Father, that of the Church as the communio sanctorum, was generally disregarded and thus remained dormant. This is not saying that the Scholastics denied the spiritual element altogether, but merely that they did not give it due prominence. The emphasis was very definitely on the Church as an external organization or institution. Hugo of St. Victor speaks of the Church and the State as the two powers instituted by God for the government of the people. Both are monarchical in constitution, but the Church is the higher power, because she ministers to the salvation of men, while the State only provides for their temporal welfare. The king or emperor is the head of the state, but the Pope is the head of the Church. There are two classes of people in the Church with well defined rights and duties: the clerics, dedicated to the service of God, who constitute a unit; and the laics consisting of people from every domain of life, who constitute a separate class altogether. Step by step the doctrine of the papacy came to development, until at last the Pope became virtually an absolute monarch. The growth of this doctrine was in no small measure aided by the development of the idea that the Catholic Church was the Kingdom of God on earth, and that therefore the Roman bishopric was an earthly kingdom. This identification of the visible and organized Church with the Kingdom of God had far-reaching consequences: (1) It required that everything be brought under the control of the Church: the home and the school, science and art, commerce and industry, and so on. (2) It involved the idea that all the blessings of salvation come to man only through the ordinances of the Church, particularly through the sacraments. (3) It led to the gradual secularization of the Church, since the Church began to pay more attention to politics than to the salvation of sinners, and the Popes finally claimed dominion also over secular rulers.
2. The doctrine of the Church during and after the Reformation
a. During the period of the Reformation. The Reformers broke with the Roman Catholic conception of the Church, but differed among themselves in some particulars. The idea of an infallible and hierarchical Church, and of a special priesthood, which dispenses salvation through the sacraments, found no favor with Luther. He regarded the Church as the spiritual communion of those who believe in Christ, and restored the Scriptural idea of the priesthood of all believers. He maintained the unity of the Church, but distinguished two aspects of it, the one visible and the other invisible. He was careful to point out that these are not two churches, but simply two aspects of the same Church. The invisible Church becomes visible, not by the rule of bishops and cardinals, nor in the headship of the Pope, but by the pure administration of the Word and of the sacraments. He admitted that the visible Church will always contain a mixture of pious and wicked members. However, in his reaction against the Roman Catholic idea of the domination of the Church over the State, he went to another extreme, and virtually made the Church subject to the State in everything except the preaching of the Word. The Anabaptists were not satisfied with his position, and insisted on a Church of believers only. They, in many instances, even scorned the visible Church and the means of grace. Moreover, they demanded the complete separation of Church and State. Calvin and Reformed theologians were at one with Luther in the confession that the Church is essentially a communio sanctorum, a communion of saints. However, they did not, like the Lutherans, seek the unity and the holiness of the Church primarily in the objective ordinances of the Church, such as the offices, the Word, and the sacraments, but most of all in the subjective communion of believers. They, too, distinguished between a visible and an invisible aspect of the Church, though in a slightly different way. Moreover, they found the true marks of the Church, not only in the true administration of the Word and of the sacraments, but also in the faithful administration of Church discipline. But even Calvin and the Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century in a measure fostered the idea of the subjection of the Church to the state. However, they established a form of government in the Church which made for a greater degree of ecclesiastical independence and power than was known in the Lutheran Church. But while both Lutheran and Reformed theologians sought to maintain the proper connection between the visible and the invisible Church, others lost sight of this. The Socinians and the Arminians of the seventeenth century, though indeed speaking of an invisible Church, forgot all about it in actual life. The former conceived of the Christian religion simply as an acceptable doctrine, and the latter made the Church primarily a visible society and followed the Lutheran Church by yielding the right of discipline to the State and retaining for the Church only the right to preach the gospel and to admonish the members of the Church. The Labadists and Pietists, on the other hand, manifested a tendency to disregard the visible Church, seeking a Church of believers only, showing themselves indifferent to the institutional Church with its mixture of good and evil, and seeking edification in conventicles.
b. During and after the eighteenth century. During the eighteenth century Rationalism made its influence felt also in the doctrine of the Church. It was indifferent in matters of faith and lacked enthusiasm for the Church, which it placed on a par with other human societies. It even denied that Christ intended to found a church in the received sense of the word. There was a pietistic reaction to Rationalism in Methodism, but Methodism did not contribute anything to the development of the doctrine of the Church. In some cases it sought strength in casting reflection on the existing Churches, and in others it adapted itself to the life of these Churches. For Schleiermacher the Church was essentially the Christian community, the body of believers who are animated by the same spirit. He had little use for the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church, and found the essence of the Church in the spirit of Christian fellowship. The more the Spirit of God penetrates the mass of Christian believers, the fewer divisions there will be, and the more they will lose their importance. Ritschl substituted for the distinction between the invisible and the visible Church that between the Kingdom and the Church. He regarded the Kingdom as the community of God’s people acting from the motive of love, and the Church as that same community met for worship. The name “Church” is therefore restricted to an external organization in the one function of worship; and this function merely enables believers to become better acquainted with one another. This is certainly far from the teaching of the New Testament. It leads right on to the modern liberal conception of the Church as a mere social center, a human institution rather than a planting of God.
Questions for further study: Does the history of the Church begin at or before the day of Pentecost? If it existed before, how did the Church preceding that day differ from the Church following it? To what Church does Jesus refer in Matt. 18:17? Did Augustine identify the Church as a spiritual organism, or the Church as an external institution, with the Kingdom of God? How do you account for the Roman Catholic emphasis on the Church as an external organization? Why did not the Reformers insist on entire freedom of the Church from the State? How did Luther and Calvin differ in this respect? What controversies respecting the Church arose in Scotland? What accounts for the different conceptions of the Church in England and in Scotland? How did Rationalism affect the doctrine of the Church? What great dangers are threatening the Church at the present time?
Literature: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 302–319; Innes, Church and State; Cunningham, Historical Theology, two volume?, cf. the Index; Hauck, Real-Encyclopaedie, Art. Kirche by Koestlin; Histories of Dogma, especially those of Harnack, Seeberg, Sheldon, and Otten, cf. the Indices.
II. Nature of the Church
A. The Essence of the Church
1. The Roman Catholic conception. The early Christians spoke of the Church as the communio sanctorum, and thus already, though without having thought the matter through, gave expression to the essence of the Church. But even as early as the end of the second century, as the result of the rise of heresies, the question as to the true Church forced itself upon them and caused them to fix their attention upon certain characteristics of the Church as an external institution. From the days of Cyprian down to the Reformation the essence of the Church was sought ever increasingly in its external visible organization. The Church Fathers conceived of the catholic Church as comprehending all true branches of the Church of Christ, and as bound together in an external and visible unity, which had its unifying bond in the college of bishops. The conception of the Church as an external organization became more prominent as time went on. There was an ever growing emphasis on the hierarchical organization of it, and the capstone was added with the institution of the Papacy. Roman Catholics now define the Church as: “The congregation of all the Faithful, who, being baptized, profess the same faith, partake of the same sacraments, and are governed by their lawful pastors, under one visible head on earth.” They make a distinction between the ecclesia docens and the eecclesia audiens, that is, between “the Church consisting of those who rule, teach, and edify” and “the Church which is taught, governed, and receives the sacraments.” In the strictest sense of the word it is not the eecclesia audiens but the ecclesia docens that constitutes the Church. The latter shares directly in the glorious attributes of the Church, but the former is adorned with them only indirectly. Catholics are willing to admit that there is an invisible side to the Church, but prefer to reserve the name “Church” for the visible communion of believers. They frequently speak of the “soul of the Church,” but do not seem to be altogether agreed as to the exact connotation of the term. Devine defines the soul of the Church as “the society of those who are called to faith in Christ, and who are united to Christ by supernatural gifts and graces.” Wilmers, however, finds it in “all those spiritual, supernatural graces which constitute the Church of Christ, and enable its members to attain their last end.” Says he: “What we call soul in general is that pervading principle which gives life to a body and enables its members to perform their peculiar functions. To the soul of the Church belong faith, the common aspiration of all to the same end, the invisible authority of superiors, the inward grace of sanctification, the supernatural virtues, and other gifts of grace.” The former writer finds the soul of the Church in certain qualified persons, while the latter regards it as an all-pervading principle, something like the soul in man. But whatever Roman Catholics may be ready to grant, they will not admit that what may be called “the invisible Church” logically precedes the visible. Moehler says: “The Catholics teach: the visible Church is first,—then comes the invisible: the former gives birth to the latter.” This means that the Church is a mater fidelium (mother of believers) before she is a communio fidelium (community of believers). Moehler grants, however, that there is one sense in which “the internal Church” is prior to “the exterior one,” namely in the sense that we are not living members of the latter until we belong to the former. He discusses the whole subject of the relation of those two to each other in his Symbolism or Doctrinal Differences. He stresses the identity of the visible Church with Christ: “Thus, the visible Church, from the point of view here taken, is the Son of God, everlastingly manifesting himself among men in a human form, perpetually renovated, and eternally young—the permanent incarnation of the same, as in Holy Writ, even the faithful are called ‘the body of Christ.’ ”3
2. The Greek Orthodox conception. The Greek Orthodox conception of the Church is closely related to that of the Roman Catholics, and yet differs from it in some important points. That Church does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church as the true Church, but claims that honor for itself. There is but one true Church, and that Church is the Greek Orthodox. While it acknowledges with greater frankness than the Roman Catholics the two different aspects of the Church, the visible and the invisible, it nevertheless places the emphasis on the Church as an external organization. It does not find the essence of the Church in her as the community of the saints, but in the Episcopal hierarchy, which it has retained, while rejecting the Papacy. The infallibility of the Church is maintained, but this infallibility resides in the bishops, and therefore in the ecclesiastical councils and synods. “As invisible,” says Gavin, “she (the Church) is the bearer of divine gifts and powers, and is engaged in transforming mankind into the Kingdom of God. As visible, she is constituted of men professing a common faith, observing common customs, and using visible means of grace.” At the same time the idea is rejected of “an invisible and ideal Church, of which the various bodies of Christians formed into distinct organizations and calling themselves ‘Churches,’ are partial and incomplete embodiments.” The Church is “an actual, tangible, visible entity, not an unrealized and unrealizable ideal.”
3. The Protestant conception. The Reformation was a reaction against the externalism of Rome in general, and in particular, also against its external conception of the Church. It brought the truth to the foreground once more that the essence of the Church is not found in the external organization of the Church, but in the Church as the communio sanctorum. For both Luther and Calvin the Church was simply the community of the saints, that is, the community of those who believe and are sanctified in Christ, and who are joined to Him as their Head. This is also the position taken in the Reformed confessional standards. Thus the Belgic Confession says: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.” The Second Helvetic Confession expresses the same truth by saying that the Church is “a company of the faithful, called and gathered out of the world; a communion of all saints, that is, of them who truly know and rightly worship and serve the true God, in Jesus Christ the Saviour, by the word of the Holy Spirit, and who by faith are partakers of all those good graces which are freely offered through Christ.”2 And the Westminster Confession, defining the Church from the point of view of election, says: “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” The Church universal, that is, the Church as it exists in the plan of God, and as it is realized only in the course of the ages, was conceived as consisting of the whole body of the elect, who are in course of time called unto life eternal. But the Church as it actually exists on earth was regarded as the community of the saints. And it was not only the invisible Church that was so regarded, but the visible Church as well. These are not two Churches but one, and therefore have but a single essence. The one as well as the other is essentially the communio sanctorum, but the invisible Church is the Church as God sees it, a Church which contains only believers, while the visible Church is the Church as man sees it, consisting of those who profess Jesus Christ with their children and therefore adjudged to be the community of the saints. This may and always does contain some who are not yet regenerated—there may be chaff among the wheat—, but may not tolerate public unbelievers and wicked persons. Paul addresses his Epistles to empirical churches, and does not hesitate to address them as “saints,” but also insists on the necessity of putting away the wicked and those who give offense from among them, 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14: Tit. 3:10. The Church forms a spiritual unity of which Christ is the divine Head. It is animated by one Spirit, the Spirit of Christ; it professes one faith, shares one hope, and serves one King. It is the citadel of the truth and God’s agency in communicating to believers all spiritual blessings. As the body of Christ it is destined to reflect the glory of God as manifested in the work of redemption. The Church in its ideal sense, the Church as God intends it to be and as it will once become, is an object of faith rather than of knowledge. Hence the confession: “I believe one holy catholic Church.”
B. The Many-sided Character of the Church
In speaking of the Church several distinctions come into consideration.
1. That of a militant and a triumphant Church. The Church in the present dispensation is a militant Church, that is, she is called unto, and is actually engaged in, a holy warfare. This, of course, does not mean that she must spend her strength in self-destroying internecine struggles, but that she is duty bound to carry on an incessant warfare against the hostile world in every form in which it reveals itself, whether in the Church or outside of it, and against all the spiritual forces of darkness. The Church may not spend all her time in prayer and meditation, however necessary and important these may be, nor may she rest on her oars in the peaceful enjoyment of her spiritual heritage. She must be engaged with all her might in the battles of her Lord, fighting in a war that is both offensive and defensive. If the Church on earth is the militant Church, the Church in heaven is the triumphant Church. There the sword is exchanged for the palm of victory, the battle-cries are turned into songs of triumph, and the cross is replaced by the crown. The strife is over, the battle is won, and the saints reign with Christ forever and ever. In these two stages of her existence the Church reflects the humiliation and exaltation of her heavenly Lord. Roman Catholics speak, not only of a militant and triumphant, but also of a suffering Church. This Church, according to them, includes all those believers who are no more on earth, but have not yet entered the joys of heaven, and are now being purified in purgatory of their remaining sins.
2. That between a visible and an invisible Church. This means that the Church of God is on the one hand visible, and on the other invisible. It is said that Luther was the first to make this distinction, but the other Reformers recognized and also applied it to the Church. This distinction has not always been properly understood. The opponents of the Reformers often accused them of teaching that there are two separate Churches. Luther perhaps gave some occasion for this charge by speaking of an invisible ecclesiola within the visible ecclesia. But both he and Calvin stress the fact that, when they speak of a visible and an invisible Church, they do not refer to two different Churches, but to two aspects of the one Church of Jesus Christ. The term “invisible” has been variously interpreted as applying (a) to the triumphant Church; (b) to the ideal and completed Church as it will be at the end of the ages; (c) to the Church of all lands and all places, which man cannot possibly see; and (d) to the Church as it goes in hiding in the days of persecution, and is deprived of the Word and the sacraments. Now it is undoubtedly true that the triumphant Church is invisible to those who are on earth, and that Calvin in his Institutes also conceives of this as included in the invisible Church, but the distinction was undoubtedly primarily intended to apply to the militant Church. As a rule it is so applied in Reformed theology. It stresses the fact that the Church as it exists on earth is both visible and invisible. This Church is said to be invisible, because she is essentially spiritual and in her spiritual essence cannot be discerned by the physical eye; and because it is impossible to determine infallibly who do and who do not belong to her. The union of believers with Christ is a mystical union; the Spirit that unites them constitutes an invisible tie; and the blessings of salvation, such as regeneration, genuine conversion, true faith, and spiritual communion with Christ, are all invisible to the natural eye;—and yet these things constitute the real forma (ideal character) of the Church. That the term “invisible” should be understood in this sense, is evident from the historical origin of the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church in the days of the Reformation. The Bible ascribes certain glorious attributes to the Church and represents her as a medium of saving and eternal blessings. Rome applied this to the Church as an external institution, more particularly to the ecclesia representativa or the hierarchy as the distributor of the blessings of salvation, and thus ignored and virtually denied the immediate and direct communion of God with His children, by placing a human mediatorial priesthood between them. This is the error which the Reformers sought to eradicate by stressing the fact that the Church of which the Bible says such glorious things is not the Church as an external institution, but the Church as the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, which is essentially invisible at present, though it has a relative and imperfect embodiment in the visible Church and is destined to have a perfect visible embodiment at the end of the ages.
The invisible Church naturally assumes a visible form. Just as the human soul is adapted to a body and expresses itself through the body, so the invisible Church, consisting, not of mere souls but of human beings having souls and bodies, necessarily assumes a visible form in an external organization through which it expresses itself. The Church becomes visible in Christian profession and conduct, in the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments, and in external organization and government. By making this distinction between the invisible and the visible Church, McPherson says, “Protestantism sought to find the proper mean between the magical and supernatural externalism of the Romish idea and the extravagant depreciation of all outward rites, characteristic of fanatical and sectarian spiritualism.” It is very important to bear in mind that, though both the invisible and the visible Church can be considered as universal, the two are not in every respect commensurate. It is possible that some who belong to the invisible Church never become members of the visible organization, as missionary subjects who are converted on their deathbeds, and that others are temporarily excluded from it, as erring believers who are for a time shut out from the communion of the visible Church. On the other hand there may be unregenerated children and adults who, while professing Christ, have no true faith in Him, in the Church as an external institution; and these, as long as they are in that condition, do not belong to the invisible Church. Good definitions of the visible and invisible Church may be found in the Westminster Confession.
3. That between the Church as an organism and the Church as an institution. This distinction should not be identified with the preceding one, as is sometimes done. It is a distinction that applies to the visible Church and that directs attention to two different aspects of the Church considered as a visible body. It is a mistake to think that the Church becomes visible only in the offices, in the administration of the Word and the sacraments, and in a certain form of Church government. Even if all these things were absent, the Church would still be visible in the communal life and profession of the believers, and in their joint opposition to the world. But while emphasizing the fact that the distinction under consideration is a distinction within the visible Church, we should not forget that both the Church as an organism and the Church as an institution (also called apparitio and institutio) have their spiritual background in the invisible Church. However, though it is true that these are two different aspects of the one visible Church, they do represent important differences. The Church as an organism is the coetus fidelium, the communion of believers, who are united in the bond of the Spirit, while the Church as an institution is the mater fidelium, the mother of believers, a Heilsanstalt, a means of salvation, an agency for the conversion of sinners and the perfecting of the saints. The Church as an organism exists charismatic: in it all kinds of gifts and talents become manifest and are utilized in the work of the Lord. The Church as an institution, on the other hand, exists in an institutional form and functions through the offices and means which God has instituted. The two are co-ordinate in a sense, and yet there is also a certain subordination of the one to the other. The Church as an institution or organization (mater fidelium) is a means to an end, and this is found in the Church as an organism, the community of believers (coetus fidelium).
C. Various Definitions of the Church
The Church being a many-sided entity has naturally also been defined from more than one point of view.
1. From the point of view of election. According to some theologians the Church is the community of the elect, the coetus electorum. This definition is apt to be somewhat misleading, however. It applies only to the Church ideally considered, the Church as it exists in the idea of God and as it will be completed at the end of the ages, and not to the Church as a present empirical reality. Election includes all those who belong to the body of Christ, irrespective of their present actual relation to it. But the elect who are yet unborn, or who are still strangers to Christ and outside of the pale of the Church, cannot be said to belong to the Church realiter.
2. From the point of view of effectual calling. To escape the objection raised to the preceding definition, it gradually became customary to define the Church from the point of view of some subjective spiritual characteristic of those who belong to it, especially effectual calling or faith, either by naming such a characteristic in addition to election, or by substituting it for election. Thus the Church was defined as the company of the elect who are called by the Spirit of God (coetus electorum vocatorum), as the body of those who are effectually called (coetus vocatorum), or, even more commonly, as the community of the faithful or believers (coetus fidelium). The first two of these definitions serve the purpose of designating the Church as to its invisible essence, but give no indication whatsoever of the fact that it also has a visible side. This is done, however, in the last named definition, for faith reveals itself in confession and conduct.
3. From the point of view of baptism and profession. From the point of view of baptism and profession the Church has been defined as the community of those who are baptized and profess the true faith; or as the community of those who profess the true religion together with their children. It will readily be seen that this is a definition of the Church according to its external manifestation. Calvin defines the visible Church as “the multitude of men diffused through the world, who profess to worship one God in Christ; are initiated into this faith by baptism; testify their unity in doctrine and charity by participating in the Supper; have consent in the Word of God, and for the preaching of that Word maintain the ministry ordained of Christ.”
D. The Church and the Kingdom of God
1. The idea of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is primarily an eschatological concept. The fundamental idea of the Kingdom in Scripture is not that of a restored theocratic kingdom of God in Christ—which is essentially a kingdom of Israel—, as the Premillenarians claim; neither is it a new social condition, pervaded by the Spirit of Christ, and realized by man through such external means as good laws, civilization, education, social reforms, and so on, as the Modernists would have us believe. The primary idea of the Kingdom of God in Scripture is that of the rule of God established and acknowledged in the hearts of sinners by the powerful regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit, insuring them of the inestimable blessings of salvation,—a rule that is realized in principle on earth, but will not reach its culmination until the visible and glorious return of Jesus Christ. The present realization of it is spiritual and invisible. Jesus took hold of this eschatological concept and made it prominent in His teachings. He clearly taught the present spiritual realization and the universal character of the Kingdom. Moreover, He Himself effected that realization in a measure formerly unknown and greatly increased the present blessings of the Kingdom. At the same time He held out the blessed hope of the future appearance of that Kingdom in external glory and with the perfect blessings of salvation.
2. Historical conceptions of the Kingdom. In the early Church Fathers the Kingdom of God, the greatest good, is primarily regarded as a future entity, the goal of the present development of the Church. Some of them regarded it as the coming millennial rule of the Messiah, though history does not bear out the exaggerated claims of some Premillenarian writers as to their number. Augustine viewed the kingdom as a present reality and identified it with the Church. For him it was primarily identical with the pious and holy, that is, with the Church as a community of believers; but he used some expressions which seem to indicate that he also saw it embodied in the episcopally organized Church. The Roman Catholic Church frankly identified the Kingdom of God with their hierarchical institution, but the Reformers returned to the view that it is in this dispensation identical with the invisible Church. Under the influence of Kant and especially of Ritschl it was robbed of its religious character and came to be regarded as an ethical kingdom of ends. It is often defined at present as a new principle introduced into society and destined to transform it in all its relations, or as the moral organization of mankind through action from the motive of love, the final end of creation.
3. The Kingdom of God and the invisible Church. While the Kingdom of God and the invisible Church are in a measure identical, they should nevertheless be carefully distinguished. Citizenship in the one and membership in the other are equally determined by regeneration. It is impossible to be in the Kingdom of God without being in the Church as the mystical body of Jesus Christ. At the same time it is possible to make a distinction between the point of view from which believers are called the Kingdom and that from which they are called the Church. They constitute a Kingdom in their relation to God in Christ as their Ruler, and a Church in their separateness from the world in devotion to God, and in their organic union with one another. As a Church they are called to be God’s instrument in preparing the way for, and in introducing, the ideal order of things; and as a Kingdom they represent the initial realization of the ideal order among themselves.
4. The Kingdom of God and the visible Church. Since the Roman Catholics insist indiscriminately on the identification of the Kingdom of God and the Church, their Church claims power and jurisdiction over every domain of life, such as science and art, commerce and industry, as well as social and political organizations. This is an altogether mistaken conception. It is also a mistake to maintain, as some Reformed Christians do, in virtue of an erroneous conception of the Church as an organism, that Christian school societies, voluntary organizations of younger or older people for the study of Christian principles and their application in life, Christian labor unions, and Christian political organizations, are manifestations of the Church as an organism, for this again brings them under the domain of the visible Church and under the direct control of its officers. Naturally, this does not mean that the Church has no responsibility with respect to such organizations. It does mean, however, that they are manifestations of the Kingdom of God, in which groups of Christians seek to apply the principles of the Kingdom to every domain of life. The visible Church and the Kingdom, too, may be identified to a certain extent. The visible Church may certainly be said to belong to the Kingdom, to be a part of the Kingdom, and even to be the most important visible embodiment of the forces of the Kingdom. It partakes of the character of the invisible Church (the two being one) as a means for the realization of the Kingdom of God. Like the visible Church, the Kingdom also shares in the imperfections to which a sinful world exposes it. This is quite evident from the parable of the wheat and the tares, and that of the fishnet. In so far as the visible Church is instrumental in the establishment and extension of the Kingdom, it is, of course, subordinate to this as a means to an end. The Kingdom may be said to be a broader concept than the Church, because it aims at nothing less than the complete control of all the manifestations of life. It represents the dominion of God in every sphere of human endeavor.
E. The Church in the Different Dispensations
1. In the patriarchal period. In the patriarchial period the families of believers constituted the religious congregations; the Church was best represented in the pious households, where the fathers served as priests. There was no regular cultus, though Gen. 4:26 seems to imply a public calling upon the name of the Lord. There was a distinction between the children of God and the children of men, the latter gradually gaining the upper hand. At the time of the flood the Church was saved in the family of Noah, and continued particularly in the line of Shem. And when true religion was again on the point of dying out, God made a covenant with Abraham, gave unto him the sign of circumcision, and separated him and his descendants from the world, to be His own peculiar people. Up to the time of Moses the families of the patriarchs were the real repositories of the true faith, in which the fear of Jehovah and the service of the Lord was kept alive.
2. In the Mosaic period. After the exodus the people of Israel were not only organized into a nation, but were also constituted the Church of God. They were enriched with institutions in which not only family devotion or tribal faith but the religion of the nation could find expression. The Church did not yet obtain an independent organization, but had its institutional existence in the national life of Israel. The particular form which it assumed was that of a Church-State. We cannot say that the two coalesced altogether. There were separate civil and religious functionaries and institutions within the bounds of the nation. But at the same time the whole nation constituted the Church; and the Church was limited to the one nation of Israel, though foreigners could enter it by being incorporated into the nation. In this period there was a marked development of doctrine, an increase in the quantity of the religious truth known, and greater clearness in the apprehension of the truth. The worship of God was regulated down to the minutest details, was largely ritual and ceremonial, and was centered in one central sanctuary.
3. In the New Testament. The New Testament Church is essentially one with the Church of the old dispensation. As far as their essential nature is concerned, they both consist of true believers, and of true believers only. And in their external organization both represent a mixture of good and evil. Yet several important changes resulted from the accomplished work of Jesus Christ. The Church was divorced from the national life of Israel and obtained an independent organization. In connection with this the national boundaries of the Church were swept away. What had up to this time been a national Church now assumed a universal character. And in order to realize the ideal of world-wide extension, it had to become a missionary Church, carrying the gospel of salvation to all the nations of the world. Moreover, the ritual worship of the past made place for a more spiritual worship in harmony with the greater privileges of the New Testament.
The representation given in the preceding proceeds on the assumption that the Church existed in the old dispensation as well as in the new, and was essentially the same in both, in spite of acknowledged institutional and administrative differences. This is in harmony with the teachings of our confessional standards. The Belgic Confession says in Art. XXVII: “This Church has been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from the fact that Christ is an eternal King, which without subjects He cannot be.” In full agreement with this the Heidelberg Catechism says in Lord’s Day XXI: “That the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life.” The Church is essentially, as was pointed out in the preceding, the community of believers, and this community existed from the beginning of the old dispensation right down to the present time and will continue to exist on earth until the end of the world. On this point we cannot agree with those Premillenarians who, under the influence of a divisive dispensationalism, claim that the Church is exclusively a New Testament institution, which did not come into existence until the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost and will be removed from the earth before the beginning of the millennium. They like to define the Church as “the body of Christ,” which is a characteristically New Testament name, and seem to forget that it is also called “the temple of God” and “Jerusalem,” which are very decidedly names with an Old Testament flavor, cf. 1 Cor. 3:16, 17; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21; Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22. We should not close our eyes to the patent fact that the name “Church” (Heb. qahal, rendered ekklesia in the Septuagint) is applied to Israel in the Old Testament repeatedly, Josh. 8:35; Ezra 2:65; Joel 2:16. The fact that in our translations of the Bible the Old Testament rendering of the original is “gathering,” “assembly,” or “congregation,” while the New Testament rendering of it is “Church,” may have given rise to misunderstanding on this point; but the fact remains that in the Old Testament as well as in the New the original word denotes a congregation or an assembly of the people of God, and as such serves to designate the essence of the Church. Jesus on the one hand said that He would found the Church in the future, Matt. 16:18, but also recognized it as an already existing institution, Matt. 18:17. Stephen speaks of “the Church in the wilderness,” Acts 7:38. And Paul clearly testifies to the spiritual unity of Israel and the Church in Rom. 11:17–21, and in Eph. 2:11–16. In essence Israel constituted the Church of God in the Old Testament, though its external institution differed vastly from that of the Church in the New Testament.
F. The Attributes of the Church
According to Protestants the attributes of the Church are ascribed primarily to the Church as an invisible organism, and only secondarily to the Church as an external institution. Roman Catholics, however, ascribe them to their hierarchical organization. The former speak of three attributes, but to these three the latter add a fourth.
1. The unity of the Church
a. The Roman Catholic conception. Roman Catholics ordinarily recognize only the hierarchically organized ecclesia as the Church. The unity of this Church manifests itself in its imposing world-wide organization, which aims at including the Church of all nations. Its real center is not found in the believers, but in the hierarchy with its concentric circles. There is first of all the broad circle of the lower clergy, the priests and other inferior functionaries; then the smaller circle of the bishops; next the still narrower one of the archbishops; and, finally, the most restricted circle of the cardinals;—the entire pyramid being capped by the Pope, the visible head of the whole organization, who has absolute control of all those that are under him. Thus the Roman Catholic Church presents to the eye a very imposing structure.
b. The Protestant conception. Protestants assert that the unity of the Church is not primarily of an external, but of an internal and spiritual character. It is the unity of the mystical body of Jesus Christ, of which all believers are members. This body is controlled by one Head, Jesus Christ, who is also the King of the Church, and is animated by one Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. This unity implies that all those who belong to the Church share in the same faith, are cemented together by the common bond of love, and have the same glorious outlook upon the future. This inner unity seeks and also acquires, relatively speaking, outward expression in the profession and Christian conduct of believers, in their public worship of the same God in Christ, and in their participation in the same sacraments. There can be no doubt about the fact that the Bible asserts the unity, not only of the invisible, but also of the visible Church. The figure of the body, as it is found in 1 Cor. 12:12–31, implies this unity. Moreover, in Eph. 4:4–16, where Paul stresses the unity of the Church, he evidently also has the visible Church in mind, for he speaks of the appointment of office bearers in the Church and of their labors in behalf of the ideal unity of the Church. Because of the unity of the Church one local church was admonished to supply the needs of another, and the council of Jerusalem undertook to settle a question that arose in Antioch. The Church of Rome strongly emphasized the unity of the visible Church and expressed it in its hierarchical organization. And when the Reformers broke with Rome, they did not deny the unity of the visible Church but maintained it. However, they did not find the bond of union in the ecclesiastical organization of the Church, but in the true preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. This is also the case in the Belgic Confession. We quote only the following statements from it: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.”2 The marks by which the true Church is known are these: “If the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if Church discipline is exercised in punishing sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God; all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” The unity of the visible Church was also taught by Reformed theologians of the post-Reformation period, and was always very strongly emphasized in Scottish theology. Walker even says: “True Churches of Christ, side by side with one another, forming separate organizations, with separate governments, seemed to them (Scottish theologians) utterly inadmissible, unless it might be in a very limited way, and for some reason of temporary expediency.”4 In the Netherlands this doctrine was eclipsed in recent years in the measure in which the multi- or pluriformity of the Churches was emphasized in deference to the facts of history and the existing condition. At present it is again stressed in some of the current discussions. In view of the present divisions of the Church, it is quite natural that the question should arise, whether these do not militate against the doctrine of the unity of the visible Church. In answer to this it may be said that some divisions, such as those caused by differences of locality or of language, are perfectly compatible with the unity of the Church; but that others, such as those which originate in doctrinal perversions or sacramental abuses, do really impair that unity. The former result from the providential guidance of God, but the latter are due to the influence of sin: to the darkening of the understanding, the power of error, or the stubbornness of man; and therefore the Church will have to strive for the ideal of overcoming these. The question may still arise, whether the one invisible Church ought not to find expression in a single organization. It can hardly be said that the Word of God explicitly requires this, and history has shown this to be infeasible and also of questionable worth. The only attempt that was made so far to unite the whole Church in one great external organization, did not prove productive of good results, but led to externalism, ritualism, and legalism. Moreover, the multiformity of Churches, so characteristic of Protestantism, in so far as it resulted from the providential guidance of God and in a legitimate way, arose in the most natural manner, and is quite in harmony with the law of differentiation, according to which an organism in its development evolves from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. It is quite possible that the inherent riches of the organism of the Church find better and fuller expression in the present variety of Churches than they would in a single external organization. This does not mean, of course, that the Church should not strive for a greater measure of external unity. The ideal should always be to give the most adequate expression to the unity of the Church. At the present time there is a rather strong Church union movement, but this movement, as it has developed up to this time, though undoubtedly springing from laudable motives on the part of some, is still of rather doubtful value. Whatever external union is effected must be the natural expression of an existing inner unity, but the present movement partly seeks to fabricate an external union where no inner unity is found, forgetting that “no artificial aggregation that seeks to unify natural disparities can afford a guarantee against the strife of parties within the aggregation.” It is un-Scriptural in so far as it has been seeking unity at the expense of the truth and has been riding the wave of subjectivism in religion. Unless it changes colour and strives for greater unity in the truth, it will not be productive of real unity but only of uniformity, and while it may make the Church more efficient from a business point of view, it will not add to the true spiritual efficiency of the Church. Barth sounds the right note when he says: “The quest for the unity of the Church must in fact be identical with the quest for Jesus Christ as the concrete Head and Lord of the Church. The blessing of unity cannot be separated from Him who blesses, in Him it has its source and reality, through His Word and Spirit it is revealed to us, and only in faith can it become a reality among us.”
2. The holiness of the Church
a. The Roman Catholic conception. The Roman Catholic conception of the holiness of the Church is also primarily of an external character. It is not the inner holiness of the members of the Church through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, but the outer ceremonial holiness that is placed in the fore ground. According to Father Devine the Church is holy first of all “in her dogmas, in her moral precepts, in her worship, in her discipline,” in which “all is pure and irreproachable, all is of such a nature as is calculated to remove evil and wickedness, and to promote the most exalted virtue.” Only secondarily is the holiness of the Church conceived of as moral. Father Deharbe says that the Church is also holy, “because there were in her at all times saints whose holiness God has also confirmed by miracles and extraordinary graces.”3
b. Protestant conception. Protestants, however, have quite a different conception of the holiness of the Church. They maintain that the Church is absolutely holy in an objective sense, that is, as she is considered in Jesus Christ. In virtue of the mediatorial righteousness of Christ, the Church is accounted holy before God. In a relative sense they also regard the Church as being subjectively holy, that is, as actually holy in the inner principle of her life and destined for perfect holiness. Hence she can truly be called a community of saints. This holiness is first of all a holiness of the inner man, but a holiness which also finds expression in the outer life. Consequently, holiness is also attributed, secondarily, to the visible Church. That Church is holy in the sense that it is separated from the world in consecration to God, and also in the ethical sense of aiming at, and achieving in principle, a holy conversation in Christ. Since visible local churches consist of believers and their seed, they are supposed to exclude all open unbelievers and wicked persons. Paul does not hesitate to address them as churches of the saints.
3. The catholicity of the Church
a. Roman Catholic conception. The attribute of catholicity is appropriated by the Roman Catholic Church, as if it only has the right to be called catholic. Like the other attributes of the Church, it is applied by her to the visible organization. She claims the right to be considered as the one really catholic Church, because she is spread over the whole earth and adapts herself to all countries and to all forms of government; because she has existed from the beginning and has always had subjects and faithful children, while sects come and go; because she is in possession of the fulness of truth and grace, destined to be distributed among men; and because she surpasses in number of members all dissenting sects taken together.
b. Protestant conception. Protestants, again, apply this attribute primarily to the invisible Church, which can be called catholic in a far truer sense than any one of the existing organizations, not even the Church of Rome excepted. They justly resent the arrogance of the Roman Catholics in appropriating this attribute for their hierarchical organization, to the exclusion of all other Churches. Protestants insist that the invisible Church is primarily the real catholic Church, because she includes all believers on earth at any particular time, no one excepted; because, consequently, she also has her members among all the nations of the world that were evangelized; and because she exercises a controlling influence on the entire life of man in all its phases. Secondarily, they also ascribe the attribute of catholicity to the visible Church. In our discussion of the unity of the visible Church, it already became apparent that the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions expressed their belief in a catholic visible Church, and this opinion has been reiterated by Dutch, Scottish, and American Reformed theologians right up to the present time, though in recent years some in the Netherlands expressed doubt about this doctrine. It must be admitted that this doctrine presents many difficult problems, which still call for solution. It is not easy to point out with precision just where this one catholic visible Church is. Furthermore, such questions as these arise: (1) Does this doctrine carry with it a wholesale condemnation of denominationalism, as Dr. Henry Van Dyke seems to think? (2) Does it mean that some one denomination is the true Church, while all others are false, or is it better to distinguish between Churches of more or less pure formation? (3) At what point does a local church or a denomination cease to be an integral part of the one visible Church? (4) Is a single external institution or organization essential to the unity of the visible Church, or not? These are some of the problems that still call for further study.
G. The Marks of the Church
1. The marks of the Church in general
a. The need of such marks. Little need was felt for such marks as long as the Church was clearly one. But when heresies arose, it became necessary to point to certain marks by which the true Church could be recognized. The consciousness of this need was already present in the early Church, was naturally less apparent in the Middle Ages, but became very strong at the time of the Reformation. At that time the one existing Church was not only divided into two great sections, but Protestantism itself was divided into several Churches and sects. As a result it was felt ever increasingly that it was necessary to point out some marks by which the true Church could be distinguished from the false. The very fact of the Reformation proves that the Reformers, without denying that God maintains His Church, were yet deeply conscious of the fact that an empirical embodiment of the Church may become subject to error, may depart from the truth, and may totally degenerate. They assumed the existence of a standard of truth to which the Church must correspond, and recognized as such the Word of God.
b. The marks of the Church in Reformed theology. Reformed theologians differed as to the number of the marks of the Church. Some spoke of but one, the preaching of the pure doctrine of the Gospel (Beza, Alsted, Amesius, Heidanus, Maresius); others, of two, the pure preaching of the word and the right administration of the sacraments (Calvin, Bullinger, Zanchius, Junius, Gomarus, Mastricht, à Marck) and still others added to these a third, the faithful exercise of discipline (Hyperius, Martyr, Ursinus, Trelcatius, Heidegger, Wendelinus). These three are also named in our Confession; but after making mention of them, the Confession combines them all into one by saying: “in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God.” In course of time a distinction was made, especially in Scotland, between those features which are absolutely necessary to the being of a Church, and those which are only necessary to its well-being. Some began to feel that, however necessary discipline might be to the health of the Church, it would be wrong to say that a church without discipline was no Church at all. Some even felt the same way about the right administration of the sacraments, since they did not feel free to unchurch either the Baptists or the Quakers. The effect of this is seen in the Westminster Confession, which mentions as the only thing that is indispensable to the being of the Church “the profession of the true religion,” and speaks of other things, such as purity of doctrine or worship, and of discipline as excellent qualities of particular churches, by which the degree of their purity may be measured. Dr. Kuyper recognizes only the praedicatio verbi and the administratio sacramenti as real marks of the Church, since they only: (1) are specific, that is, are characteristics of the Church and of no other body; (2) are instruments through which Christ works with His grace and Spirit in the Church; and (3) are formative elements that go into the constitution of the Church. Discipline is also found elsewhere and cannot be co-ordinated with these two. Bearing this in mind, he has no objection, however, to regard the faithful exercise of discipline as one of the marks of the Church. Now it is undoubtedly true that the three marks usually named are not really co-ordinate. Strictly speaking, it may be said that the true preaching of the Word and its recognition as the standard of doctrine and life, is the one mark of the Church. Without it there is no Church, and it determines the right administration of the sacraments and the faithful exercise of Church discipline. Nevertheless, the right administration of the sacraments is also a real mark of the Church. And though the exercise of discipline may not be peculiar to the Church, that is, is not found in it exclusively, yet it is absolutely essential to the purity of the Church.
2. The marks of the Church in particular
a. The true preaching of the Word. This is the most important mark of the Church. While it is independent of the sacraments, these are not independent of it. The true preaching of the Word is the great means for maintaining the Church and for enabling her to be the mother of the faithful. That this is one of the characteristics of the true Church, is evident from such passages as John 8:31, 32, 47; 14:23; 1 John 4:1–3; 2 John 9. Ascribing this mark to the Church does not mean that the preaching of the Word in a Church must be perfect before it can be regarded as a true Church. Such an ideal is unattainable on earth; only relative purity of doctrine can be ascribed to any Church. A church may be comparatively impure in its presentation of the truth without ceasing to be a true church. But there is a limit beyond which a Church cannot go in the misrepresentation or denial of the truth, without losing her true character and becoming a false Church. This is what happens when fundamental articles of faith are publicly denied, and doctrine and life are no more under the control of the Word of God.
b. The right administration of the sacraments. The sacraments should never be divorced from the Word, for they have no content of their own, but derive their content from the Word of God; they are in fact a visible preaching of the Word. As such they must also be administered by lawful ministers of the Word, in accordance with the divine institution, and only to properly qualified subjects, the believers and their seed. A denial of the central truths of the gospel will naturally affect the proper administration of the sacraments; and the Church of Rome certainly departs from the right mode, when it divorces the sacraments from the Word, ascribing to them a sort of magical efficacy; and when it allows midwives to administer baptism in time of need. That the right administration of the sacraments is a characteristic of the true Church, follows from its inseparable connection with the preaching of the Word and from such passages as Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15, 16; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:23–30.
c. The faithful exercise of discipline. This is quite essential for maintaining the purity of doctrine and for guarding the holiness of the sacraments. Churches that are lax in discipline are bound to discover sooner or later within their circle an eclipse of the light of the truth and an abuse of that which is holy. Hence a Church that would remain true to her ideal in the measure in which this is possible on earth, must be diligent and conscientious in the exercise of Christian discipline. The Word of God insists on proper discipline in the Church of Christ, Matt. 18:18; 1 Cor. 5:1–5, 13; 14:33, 40; Rev. 2:14, 15, 20.
Questions for further study: What is the meaning of the word ekklesia in Matt. 16:18; 18:17? When and how did the term kuriake come into use for the Church? How do the Dutch words ‘kerk’ and ‘gemeente’ differ, and how are they related to the Greek term? Are there passages in Scripture in which the word ekklesia is undoubtedly used to denote as a unity the whole body of those throughout the world who outwardly profess Christ? Is the word ever used as the designation of a group of churches under a common government, such as we call a denomination? Does the visibility of the Church consist merely in the visibility of its members? If not, in what does it become visible? Does the visible Church stand in any other than a mere outward relation to Christ, and does it enjoy any other than mere outward promises and privileges? Does the essence of the, visible Church differ from that of the invisible Church? What objections have been raised to the distinction between the Church as an institution and the Church as an organism? What is the fundamental difference between the Roman Catholic and the Reformed conception of the Church?
L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 551–578.
III. The Government of the Church
A. Different Theories Respecting the Government of the Church
1. The view of Quakers and Darbyites. It is a matter of principle with the Quakers and Darbyites to reject all Church Government. According to them every external Church formation necessarily degenerates and leads to results that are contrary to the spirit of Christianity. It exalts the human element at the expense of the divine. It neglects the divinely given charisms and substitutes for them offices instituted by man, and consequently offers the Church the husk of human knowledge rather than the vital communications of the Holy Spirit. Therefore they regard it as not only unnecessary but decidedly sinful to organize the visible Church. Thus the offices fall by the way, and in public worship each simply follows the promptings of the Spirit. The tendency that becomes apparent in these sects, which gives clear evidence of the leaven of Mysticism, must be regarded as a reaction against the hierarchical organization and the formalism of the Established Church of England. In our country some of the Quakers have regularly ordained ministers and conduct their worship very much as other Churches do.
2. The Erastian system, named after Erastus, 1524–1583. Erastians regard the Church as a society which owes its existence and form to regulations enacted by the State. The officers of the Church are merely instructors or preachers of the Word, without any right or power to rule, except that which they derive from the civil magistrates. It is the function of the State to govern the Church, to exercise discipline and to excommunicate. Church censures are civil punishments, though their application may be entrusted to the legal officers of the Church. This system has been variously applied in England, Scotland, and Germany (Lutheran Churches). It conflicts with the fundamental principle of the Headship of Jesus Christ, and does not recognize the fact that Church and State are distinct and independent in their origin, in their primary objects, in the power they exercise, and in the administration of that power.
3. The Episcopalian system. The Episcopalians hold that Christ, as the Head of the Church, has entrusted the government of the Church directly and exclusively to an order of prelates or bishops, as the successors of the apostles; and that He has constituted these bishops a separate, independent, and self-perpetuating order. In this system the coetus fidelium or community of believers has absolutely no share in the government of the Church. In the early centuries this was the system of the Roman Catholic Church. In England it is combined with the Erastian system. But the Bible docs not warrant the existence of such a separate class of superior officers, who have the inherent right of ordination and jurisdiction, and therefore do not represent the people nor, in any sense of the word, derive their office from them. Scripture clearly shows that the apostolic office was not of a permanent nature. The apostles did form a clearly distinct and independent class, but it was not their special task to rule and administer the affairs of the churches. It was their duty to carry the gospel to unevangelized districts, to found churches, and then to appoint others from among the people for the task of ruling these churches. Before the end of the first century the Apostolate had disappeared entirely.
4. The Roman Catholic system. This is the Episcopal system carried to its logical conclusion. The Roman Catholic system pretends to comprise, not only successors of the apostles, but also a successor to Peter, who is said to have had the primacy among the apostles, and whose successor is now recognized as the special representative of Christ. The Church of Rome is of the nature of an absolute monarchy, under the control of an infallible Pope, who has the right to determine and regulate the doctrine, worship, and government, of the Church. Under him there are inferior classes and orders, to whom special grace is given, and whose duty it is to govern the Church in strict accountability to their superiors and to the supreme Pontiff. The people have absolutely no voice in the government of the Church. This system also conflicts with Scripture, which recognizes no such primacy of Peter as that on which the system is built, and distinctly recognizes the voice of the people in ecclesiastical affairs. Moreover, the claim of the Roman Catholic Church, that there has been an unbroken line of succession from the time of Peter down to the present day, is contradicted by history. The papal system is, both exegetically and historically, untenable.
5. The Congregational system. This is also called the system of independency. According to it each church or congregation is a complete church, independent of every other. In such a church the governing power rests exclusively with the members of the church, who are entitled to regulate their own affairs. Officers are simply functionaries of the local church, appointed to teach and to administer the affairs of the church, and have no governing power beyond that which they possess as members of the church. If it is considered expedient that the various churches should exercise communion with one another, as is sometimes the case, this fellowship finds expression in ecclesiastical councils and in local or provincial conferences, for the consideration of their common interests. But the actions of such associated bodies are held to be strictly advisory or declarative, and are not binding on any particular church. This theory of popular government, making the office of the ministry altogether dependent on the action of the people, is certainly not in harmony with what we learn from the Word of God. Moreover, the theory that each church is independent of every other church, fails to express the unity of the Church of Christ, has a disintegrating effect, and opens the door for all kinds of arbitrariness in church government. There is no appeal from any of the decisions of the local church.
6. The National-Church system. This system, also called the Collegial system (which supplanted the Territorial system) was developed in Germany especially by C. M. Pfaff (1686–1780), and was later on introduced into the Netherlands. It proceeds on the assumption that the Church is a voluntary association, equal to the State. The separate churches or congregations are merely sub-divisions of the one national Church. The original power resides in a national organization, and this organization has jurisdiction over the local churches. This is just the reverse of the Presbyterian system, according to which the original power has its seat in the consistory. The Territorial system recognized the inherent right of the State to reform public worship, to decide disputes respecting doctrine and conduct, and to convene synods, while the Collegial system ascribes to the State only the right of supervision as an inherent right, and regards all other rights, which the State might exercise in Church matters, as rights which the Church by a tacit understanding or by a formal pact conferred upon the State. This system disregards altogether the autonomy of the local churches, ignores the principles of self-government and of direct responsibility to Christ, engenders formalism, and binds a professedly spiritual Church by formal and geographical lines. Such a system as this, which is akin to the Erastian system, naturally fits in best with the present-day idea of the totalitarian State.
B. The Fundamental Principles of the Reformed or Presbyterian System
Reformed Churches do not claim that their system of Church government is determined in every detail by the Word of God, but do assert that its fundamental principles are directly derived from Scripture. They do not claim a jus divinum for the details, but only for the general fundamental principles of the system, and are quite ready to admit that many of its particulars are determined by expediency and human wisdom. From this it follows that, while the general structure must be rigidly maintained, some of the details may be changed in the proper ecclesiastical manner for prudential reasons, such as the general profit of the churches. The following are its most fundamental principles.
1. Christ is the Head of the Church and the source of all its authority. The Church of Rome considers it of the greatest importance to maintain the headship of the Pope over the Church. The Reformers maintained and defended the position, in opposition to the claims of the Papacy, that Christ is the only Head of the Church. They did not entirely avoid the danger, however, of recognizing, the one more and the other less, the supremacy of the State over the Church. Consequently the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches had to fight another battle later on, the battle for the Headship of Jesus Christ in opposition to the unwarranted encroachments of the State. This battle was fought first of all in Scotland, and later on also in The Netherlands. The very fact that it was fought against such external powers as the Papacy and the State or the King, both of whom claimed to be the head of the visible Church, clearly implies that they who were engaged in this battle were particularly interested in establishing and maintaining the position that Christ is the only lawful Head of the visible Church, and is therefore the only supreme Law giver and King of the Church. Naturally, they also recognized Christ as the organic Head of the invisible Church. They realized that the two could not be separated, but, since the Pope and the King could hardly claim to be the organic head of the invisible Church, this was not really the point in question. Respecting the Scottish teachers Walker says: “They meant that Christ is the real King and Head of the Church, as a visible organisation, ruling it by His statutes, and ordinances, and officers, and forces, as truly and literally as David or Solomon ruled the covenant people of old.”
The Bible teaches us that Christ is Head over all things: He is the Lord of the universe, not merely as the second person of the Trinity, but in His mediatorial capacity, Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20–22; Phil. 2:10, 11; Rev. 17:14; 19:16. In a very special sense, however, He is the Head of the Church, which is His body. He stands in a vital and organic relation to it, fills it with His life, and controls it spiritually, John 15:1–8; Eph. 1:10, 22, 23; 2:20–22; 4:15; 5:30; Col. 1:18; 2:19; 3:11. Premillenarians claim that this is the only sense in which Christ is the Head of the Church, for they deny the very point for which our Reformed Fathers contended, namely, that Christ is the King of the Church, and therefore the only supreme authority to be recognized in it. Scripture plainly teaches, however, that Christ is the Head of the Church, not only in virtue of His vital relationship to it, but also as its Legislator and King. In the organic and vital sense He is the Head primarily, though not exclusively, of the invisible Church, which constitutes His spiritual body. But He is also the Head of the visible Church, not only in the organic sense, but also in the sense that He has authority and rule over it, Matt. 16:18, 19; 23:8, 10; John 13:13; 1 Cor. 12:5; Eph. 1:20–23; 4:4, 5, 11, 12; 5:23, 24. This Headship of Christ over the visible Church is the principal part of the dominion bestowed upon Him as the result of His sufferings. His authority is manifested in the following points: (a) He instituted the Church of the New Testament, Matt. 16:18, so that it is not, as many regard it in our day, a mere voluntary society, which has its only warrant in the consent of its members. (b) He instituted the means of grace which the Church must administer, namely, the Word and the sacraments, Matt. 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15, 16; Luke 22:17–20; 1 Cor. 11:23–29. In these matters no one else has the right to legislate. (c) He gave to the Church its constitution and officers, and clothed them with divine authority, so that they can speak and act in His name, Matt. 10:1; 16:19; John 20:21–23; Eph. 4:11, 12. (d) He is ever present in the Church when it meets for worship, and speaks and acts through its officers. It is Christ as King that warrants them in speaking and acting with authority, Matt. 10:40; 2 Cor. 13:3.
2. Christ exercises His authority by means of His royal Word. The reign of Christ is not in all respects similar to that of earthly kings. He does not rule the Church by force, but subjectively by His Spirit, which is operative in the Church, and objectively by the Word of God as the standard of authority. All believers are unconditionally bound to obey the word of the King. As Christ is the only sovereign Ruler of the Church, His word is the only word that is law in the absolute sense. Consequently, all despotic power is contraband in the Church. There is no ruling power independent of Christ. The Pope of Rome stands condemned in that he, while professing to be Christ’s vicar on earth, virtually supplants Christ and supersedes His word by human innovations. He not only places tradition on an equal footing with Scripture, but also claims to be the infallible interpreter of both when speaking ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals. Scripture and tradition may be the mediate or remote rules of faith, the immediate rule is the teaching of the Church, which has its guarantee in papal infallibility. The word of the Pope is the word of God. But while it is true that Christ exercises His authority in the Church through the officers, this is not to be understood in the sense that He transfers His authority to His servants. He Himself rules the Church through all the ages, but in doing this, He uses the officers of the Church as His organs. They have no absolute or independent, but only a derived and ministerial power.
3. Christ as King has endowed the Church with power. A rather delicate question arises at this point, namely, Who are the first and proper subjects of Church power? To whom has Christ committed this power in the first instance? Roman Catholics and Episcopalians answer: to the officers as a separate class, in contradistinction from the ordinary members of the Church. This view has also been held by some eminent Presbyterian divines, such as Rutherford and Baillie. Diametrically opposed to this is the theory of the Independents, that this power is vested in the Church at large, and that the officers are merely the organs of the body as a whole. The great Puritan divine, Owen, adopts this view with some modifications. In recent years some Reformed theologians apparently favored this view, though without subscribing to the separatism of the Independents. There is another view, however, representing a mean between these two extremes, which would seem to deserve preference. According to it ecclesiastical power is committed by Christ to the Church as a whole, that is to the ordinary members and the officers alike; but in addition to that the officers receive such an additional measure of power as is required for the performance of their respective duties in the Church of Christ. They share in the original power bestowed upon the Church, and receive their authority and power as officers directly from Christ. They are representatives, but not mere deputies or delegates of the people. Older theologians often say: “All Church power, in actu primo, or fundamentally, is in the Church itself; in actu secundo, or its exercise, in them that are specially called thereto.” This is substantially the view held by Voetius, Gillespie (in his work on Ceremonies), Bannerman, Porteous, Bavinck, and Vos.
4. Christ provided for the specific exercise of this power by representative organs. While Christ committed power to the Church as a whole, He also provided for it that this power should be exercised ordinarily and specifically by representative organs, set aside for the maintenance of doctrine, worship, and discipline. The officers of the Church are the representatives of the people chosen by popular vote. This does not mean, however, that they receive their authority from the people, for the call of the people is but the confirmation of the inner call by the Lord Himself; and it is from Him that they receive their authority and to Him that they are responsible. When they are called representatives, this is merely an indication of the fact that they were chosen to their office by the people, and does not imply that they derive their authority from them. Hence they are no deputies or tools that merely serve to carry out the wishes of the people, but rulers whose duty it is to apprehend and apply intelligently the laws of Christ. At the same time they are in duty bound to recognize the power vested in the Church as a whole by seeking its assent or consent in important matters.
5. The power of the Church resides primarily in the governing body of the local Church. It is one of the fundamental principles of Reformed or Presbyterian government, that the power or authority of the Church does not reside first of all in the most general assembly of any Church, and is only secondarily and by derivation from this assembly, vested in the governing body of the local Church; but that it has its original seat in the consistory or session of the local Church, and is by this transferred to the major assemblies, such as classes (presbyteries) and synods or general assemblies. Thus the Reformed system honors the autonomy of the local church, though it always regards this as subject to the limitations that may be put upon it as the result of its association with other churches in one denomination, and assures it the fullest right to govern its own internal affairs by means of its officers. At the same time it also maintains the right and duty of the local church to unite with other similar churches on a common confessional basis, and form a wider organization for doctrinal, judicial, and administrative purposes, with proper stipulations of mutual obligations and rights. Such a wider organization undoubtedly imposes certain limitations on the autonomy of the local churches, but also promotes the growth and welfare of the churches, guarantees the rights of the members of the Church, and serves to give fuller expression to the unity of the Church.
C. The Officers of the Church
Different kinds of officers may be distinguished in the Church. A very general distinction is that between extraordinary and ordinary officers.
1. Extraordinary officers
a. Apostles. Strictly speaking, this name is applicable only to the Twelve chosen by Jesus and to Paul; but it is also applied to certain apostolic men, who assisted Paul in his work, and who were endowed with apostolic gifts and graces, Acts 14:4, 14; 1 Cor. 9:5, 6; 2 Cor. 8:23; Gal. 1:19 (?). The apostles had the special task of laying the foundation for the Church of all ages. It is only through their word that believers of all following ages have communion with Jesus Christ. Hence they are the apostles of the Church in the present day as well as they were the apostles of the primitive Church. They had certain special qualifications. They (a) received their commission directly from God or from Jesus Christ, Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13; Gal. 1:1; (b) were witnesses of the life of Christ and especially of His resurrection, John 15:27; Acts 1:21, 22; 1 Cor. 9:1; (c) were conscious of being inspired by the Spirit of God in all their teaching, both oral and written, Acts 15:28; 1 Cor. 2:13; 1 Thess. 4:8; 1 John 5:9–12; (d) had the power to perform miracles and used this on several occasions to ratify their message, 2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:4; and (e) were richly blessed in their work as a sign of the divine approval of their labors, 1 Cor. 9:1, 2; 2 Cor. 3:2, 3; Gal. 2:8.
b. Prophets. The New Testament also speaks of prophets, Acts 11:28; 13:1, 2; 15:32; 1 Cor. 12:10; 13:2; 14:3; Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; 1 Tim. 1:18; 4:14; Rev. 11:6. Evidently the gift of speaking for the edification of the Church was highly developed in these prophets, and they were occasionally instrumental in revealing mysteries and predicting future events. The first part of this gift is permanent in the Christian Church, and was distinctly recognized by the Reformed Churches (prophesyings), but the last part of it was of a charismatic and temporary character. They differed from ordinary ministers in that they spoke under special inspiration.
c. Evangelists. In addition to apostles and prophets, evangelists are mentioned in the Bible, Acts 21:8; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:5. Philip, Mark, Timothy, and Titus belonged to this class. Little is known about these evangelists. They accompanied and assisted the apostles, and were sometimes sent out by these on special missions. Their work was to preach and baptize, but also to ordain elders, Tit. 1:5; 1 Tim. 5:22, and to exercise discipline, Tit. 3:10. Their authority seems to have been more general and somewhat superior to that of the regular ministers.
2. Ordinary officers
a. Elders. Among the common officers of the Church the presbuteroi or episkopoi are first in order of importance. The former name simply means “elders,” that is, older ones, and the latter, “overseers.” The term presbuteroi is used in Scripture to denote old men, and to designate a class of officers somewhat similar to those who functioned in the synagogue. As a designation of office the name was gradually eclipsed and even superseded by the name episkopoi. The two terms are often used interchangeably, Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Tim. 3:1; 4:14; 5:17, 19; Tit. 1:5, 7; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2. Presbuteroi are first mentioned in Acts 11:30, but the office was evidently well known already when Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem, and may have been in existence even before the institution of the diaconate. At least the term hoi neoteroi in Acts 5 seems to point to a distinction between these and the presbuteroi. Frequent mention is made of them in the book of Acts, 14:23; 15:6, 22; 16:4; 20:17, 28; 21:18. Probably the presbyterial or episcopal office was first instituted in the churches of the Jews, Jas. 5:14; Heb. 13:7, 17, and then, shortly after, also in those of the Gentiles. Several other names are applied to these officers, namely, proistamenoi, Rom. 12:8; 1 Thes. 5:12; kuberneseis, 1 Cor. 12:28; hegoumenoi, Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; and poimenes, Eph. 4:11. These officers clearly had the oversight of the flock that was entrusted to their care. They had to provide for it, govern it, and protect it, as the very household of God.
b. Teachers. It is clear that the elders were not originally teachers. There was no need of separate teachers at first, since there were apostles, prophets, and evangelists. Gradually, however, the didaskalia was connected more closely with the episcopal office; but even then the teachers did not at once constitute a separate class of officers. Paul’s statement in Eph. 4:11, that the ascended Christ also gave “pastors and teachers,” mentioned as a single class, to the Church, clearly shows that these two did not constitute two different classes of officers, but one class having two related functions. 1 Tim. 5:17 speaks of elders who labor in the Word and in teaching, and according to Heb. 13:7 the hegoumenoi were also teachers. Moreover, in 2 Tim. 2:2 Paul urges upon Timothy the necessity of appointing to office faithful men who shall also be able to teach others. In course of time two circumstances led to a distinction between the elders or overseers that were entrusted only with the government of the Church, and those that were also called upon to teach: (1) when the apostles died and heresies arose and increased, the task of those who were called upon to teach became more exacting and demanded special preparation, 2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 1:9; and (2) in view of the fact that the laborer is worthy of his hire, those who were engaged in the ministry of the Word, a comprehensive task requiring all their time, were set free from other work, in order that they might devote themselves more exclusively to the work of teaching. In all probability the aggeloi who were addressed in the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, were the teachers or ministers of those churches, Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14. In Reformed circles the ministers now rule the churches together with the elders, but in addition to that administer the Word and the sacraments. Together they make the necessary regulations for the government of the Church.
c. Deacons. Besides the presbuteroi the diakonoi are mentioned in the New Testament, Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 10, 12. According to the prevailing opinion Acts 6:1–6 contains the record of the institution of the diaconate. Some modern scholars doubt this, however, and regard the office mentioned in Acts 6, either as a general office in which the functions of elders and deacons were combined, or as a merely temporal office serving a special purpose. They call attention to the fact that some of the seven chosen, as Philip and Stephen, evidently engaged in teaching; and that the money collected at Antioch for the poor in Judea was delivered into the hands of the elders. No mention is made of deacons whatsoever in Acts 11:30, though these, if they had existed as a separate class, would have been the natural recipients of that money. And yet in all probability Acts 6 does refer to the institution of the diaconate, for: (1) The name diakonoi, which was, previous to the event narrated in Acts 6, always used in the general sense of servant, subsequently began to be employed, and in course of time served exclusively, to designate those who were engaged in works of mercy and charity. The only reason that can be assigned for this is found in Acts 6. (2) The seven men mentioned there were charged with the task of distributing properly the gifts that were brought for the agapae, a ministry that is elsewhere more particularly described by the word diakonia, Acts 11:29, Rom. 12:7; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1, 12, 13; Rev. 2:19. (3) The requirements for the office, as mentioned in Acts 6, are rather exacting, and in that respect agree with the demands mentioned in 1 Tim. 3:8–10, 12. (4) Very little can be said in favor of the pet idea of some critics that the diaconate was not developed until later, about the time when the episcopal office made its appearance.
3. The calling of the officers and their induction into office. A distinction should be made between the calling of the extraordinary officers, Such as apostles, and that of the ordinary officers. The former were called in an extraordinary way with an immediate calling from God, and the latter, in the ordinary manner and through the agency of the Church. We are concerned more particularly with the calling of the ordinary officers.
a. The calling of the ordinary officers. This is twofold:
(1) Internal calling. It is sometimes thought that the internal calling to an office in the Church consists in some extraordinary indication of God to the effect that one is called,—a sort of special revelation. But this is not correct. It consists rather in certain ordinary providential indications given by God, and includes especially three things: (a) the consciousness of being impelled to some special task in the Kingdom of God, by love to God and His cause; (b) the conviction that one is at least in a measure intellectually and spiritually qualified for the office sought; and (c) the experience that God is clearly paving the way to the goal.
(2) External calling. This is the call that comes to one through the instrumentality of the Church. It is not issued by the Pope (Roman Catholic), nor by a bishop or a college of bishops (Episcopalian), but by the local church. Both the officers and the ordinary members of the church have a part in it. That the officers have a guiding hand in it, but not to the exclusion of the people, is evident from such passages as Acts 1:15–26; 6:2–6; 14:23. The people were recognized even in the choice of an apostle, according to Acts 1:15–26. It would seem that in the apostolic age the officers guided the choice of the people by calling attention to the necessary qualifications that were required for the office, but allowed the people to take part in the choosing, Acts 1:15–26; 6:1–6; 1 Tim. 3:2–13. Of course, in the case of Matthias God Himself made the final choice.
b. The officers’ induction into office. There are especially two rites connected with this:
(1) Ordination. This presupposes the calling and examination of the candidate for office. It is an act of the classis or the presbytery (1 Tim. 4:14). Says Dr. Hodge: “Ordination is the solemn expression of the judgment of the Church, by those appointed to deliver such judgment, that the candidate is truly called of God to take part in this ministry, thereby authenticating to the people the divine call.” This authentication is, under all ordinary circumstances, the necessary condition for the exercise of the ministerial office. It may briefly be called a public acknowledgement and confirmation of the candidate’s calling to this office.
(2) Laying on of hands. Ordination is accompanied with the laying on of hands. Clearly, the two went hand in hand in apostolic times, Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22. In those early days the laying on of hands evidently implied two things: it signified that a person was set aside for a certain office, and that some special spiritual gift was conferred upon him. The Church of Rome is of the opinion that these two elements are still included in the laying on of hands, that it actually confers some spiritual grace upon the recipient, and therefore ascribes to it sacramental significance. Protestants maintain, however, that it is merely a symbolical indication of the fact that one is set aside for the ministerial office in the Church. While they regard it as a Scriptural rite and as one that is entirely appropriate, they do not regard it as absolutely essential. The Presbyterian Church makes it optional.
D. The Ecclesiastical Assemblies
1. The governing bodies (Church courts) in the Reformed system. Reformed Church government is characterized by a system of ecclesiastical assemblies in an ascending or a descending scale, according to the point of view from which they are considered. These are the consistory (session), the classis (presbytery), the synod(s), and (in some cases) the general assembly. The consistory consists of the minister (or, ministers) and the elders of the local church. The classis is composed of one minister and one elder of each local church within a certain district. This is somewhat different in the Presbyterian Church, however, where the presbytery includes all the ministers within its boundaries, and one elder from each of its congregations. The synod, again, consists of an equal number of ministers and elders from each classis or presbytery. And, finally, the general assembly is (in the case of the Presbyterians) composed of an equal delegation of ministers and elders from each of the presbyteries, and not, as might be expected, from each of the particular synods.
2. The representative government of the local church and its relative autonomy
a. The representative government of the local church. Reformed churches differ, on the one hand, from all those churches in which the government is in the hands of a single prelate or presiding elder, and on the other hand, from those in which it rests with the people in general. They do not believe in any one man rule, be he an elder, a pastor, or a bishop; neither do they believe in popular government. They choose ruling elders as their representatives, and these, together with the minister(s), form a council or consistory for the government of the local church. Very likely the apostles were guided by the venerated custom of having elders in the synagogue rather than by any direct commandment, when they ordained elders in the various churches founded by them. The Jerusalem church had elders, Acts 11:30. Paul and Barnabas ordained them in the churches which they organized on the first missionary journey, Acts 14:23. Elders were evidently functioning at Ephesus, Acts 20:17, and at Philippi, Phil. 1:1. The Pastoral Epistles repeatedly make mention of them, 1 Tim. 3:1, 2; Tit. 1:5, 7. It deserves attention that they are always spoken of in the plural, 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7, 17, 24; 1 Pet. 5:1. The elders are chosen by the people as men who are specially qualified to rule the Church. Scripture evidently intends that the people shall have a voice in the matter of their selection, though this was not the case in the Jewish synagogue, Acts 1:21–26; 6:1–6; 14:23. In the last passage, however, the word cheirotoneo may have lost its original meaning of appointing by stretching out the hand, and may simply mean to appoint. At the same time it is perfectly evident that the Lord Himself places these rulers over the people and clothes them with the necessary authority, Matt. 16:19; John 20:22, 23; Acts 1:24, 26; 20:28; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11, 12; Heb. 13:17. The election by the people is merely an external confirmation of the inner calling by the Lord Himself. Moreover, the elders, though representatives of the people, do not derive their authority from the people, but from the Lord of the Church. They exercise rule over the house of God in the name of the King, and are responsible only to Him.
b. The relative autonomy of the local church. Reformed Church government recognizes the autonomy of the local church. This means:
(1) That every local church is a complete church of Christ, fully equipped with everything that is required for its government. It has absolutely no need of it that any government should be imposed upon it from without. And not only that, but such an imposition would be absolutely contrary to its nature.
(2) That, though there can be a proper affiliation or consolidation of contiguous churches, there may be no union which destroys the autonomy of the local church. Hence it is better not to speak of classes and synods as higher, but to describe them as major or more general assemblies. They do not represent a higher, but the very same, power that inheres in the consistory, though exercising this on a broader scale. McGill speaks of them as higher and remoter tribunals.
(3) That the authority and prerogatives of the major assemblies are not unlimited, but have their limitation in the rights of the sessions or consistories. They are not permitted to lord it over a local church or its members, irrespective of the constitutional rights of the consistory; nor to meddle with the internal affairs of a local church under any and all circumstances. When churches affiliate, their mutual rights and duties are circumscribed in a Church Order or Form of Government. This stipulates the rights and duties of the major assemblies, but also guarantees the rights of the local church. The idea that a classis (presbytery) or synod can simply impose whatever it pleases on a particular church is essentially Roman Catholic.
(4) That the autonomy of the local church has its limitations in the relation in which it stands to the churches with which it is affiliated, and in the general interests of the affiliated churches. The Church Order is a sort of Constitution, solemnly subscribed to by every local church, as represented by its consistory. This on the one hand guards the rights and interests of the local church, but on the other hand also, the collective rights and interests of the affiliated churches. And no single church has the right to disregard matters of mutual agreement and of common interest. The local group may be even called upon occasionally to deny itself for the far greater good of the Church in general.
3. The major assemblies
a. Scripture warrant for major assemblies. Scripture does not contain an explicit command to the effect that the local churches of a district must form an organic union. Neither does it furnish us with an example of such a union. In fact, it represents the local churches as individual entities without any external bond of union. At the same time the essential nature of the Church, as described in Scripture, would seem to call for such a union. The Church is described as a spiritual organism, in which all the constituent parts are vitally related to one another. It is the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, of which He is the exalted Head. And it is but natural that this inner unity should express itself in some visible manner, and should even, as much as possible in this imperfect and sinful world, seek expression in some corresponding external organization. The Bible speaks of the Church not only as a spiritual body, but also as a tangible body, as a temple of the Holy Spirit, as a priesthood, and as a holy nation. Every one of these terms points to a visible unity. Congregationalists or Independents and Undenominationalists lose sight of this important fact. The existing divisions in the visible Church at the present time should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that there are certain passages of Scripture which seem to indicate rather clearly that, not only the invisible Church, but also the visible Church is a unity. The word ekklesia is used in the singular as an indication of the visible church in a wider sense than that of the purely local church, Acts 9:31 (according to the now accepted reading), 1 Cor. 12:28, and probably also 1 Cor. 10:32. In the descriptions of the Church in 1 Cor. 12:1–31 and Eph. 4:4–16 the apostle also has its visible unity in mind. Moreover, there are reasons for thinking that the Church at Jerusalem and at Antioch consisted of several separate groups, which together formed a sort of unity. And, finally, Acts 15 acquaints us with the example of the council of Jerusalem. This council was composed of apostles and elders, and therefore did not constitute a proper example and pattern of a classis or synod in the modern sense of the word. At the same time it was an example of a major assembly, and of one that spoke with authority and not merely in an advisory capacity.
b. The representative character of the major assemblies. In the abstract it may be said that the major assemblies might have been composed of all the representatives of all the local churches under their jurisdiction; but, on account of the number of the churches represented, such a body would in most cases prove unwieldy and inefficient. In order to keep the number of representatives down to reasonable proportions, the principle of representation is carried through also in connection with the major assemblies. Not the local churches, but the classes or presbyteries, send their representatives to Synods. This affords the gradual contraction that is necessary for a well-compacted system. The immediate representatives of the people who form the consistories or sessions, are themselves represented in classes or presbyteries; and these in turn are represented in synods or general assemblies. The more general the assembly, the more remote it is from the people; yet none of them is too remote for the expression of the unity of the Church, for the maintenance of good order, and for the general effectiveness of its work.
c. The matters that fall under their jurisdiction. The ecclesiastical character of these assemblies should always be borne in mind. It is because they are Church assemblies, that purely scientific, social, industrial, or political matters do not, as such, fall under their jurisdiction. Only ecclesiastical matters belong to their province, such as matters of doctrine or morals, of church government and discipline, and whatever pertains to the preservation of unity and good order in the Church of Jesus Christ. More particularly, they deal with (1) matters which, as to their nature, belong to the province of a minor assembly, but for some reason or other cannot be settled there; and (b) matters which, as to their nature, belong to the province of a major assembly, since they pertain to the churches in general, such as matters touching the Confession, the Church Order, or the liturgy of the Church.
d. The power and authority of these assemblies. The major assemblies do not represent a higher kind of power than is vested in the consistory or session. The Reformed churches know of no higher kind of ecclesiastical power than that which resides in the consistory. At the same time their authority is greater in degree and wider in extent than that of the consistory. Church power is represented in greater measure in the major assemblies than in the consistory, just as apostolic power was represented in greater measure in twelve than in a single apostle. Ten churches certainly have more authority than a single church; there is an accumulation of power. Moreover, the authority of the major assemblies does not apply to a single church only, but extends to all the affiliated churches. Consequently, the decisions of a major assembly carry great weight and can never be set aside at will. The assertion sometimes made that they are only of an advisory character and therefore need not be carried out, is a manifestation of the leaven of Independency. These decisions are authoritative, except in cases where they are explicitly declared to be merely advisory. They are binding on the churches as the sound interpretation and application of the law,—the law of Christ, the King of the Church. They cease to be binding only when they are shown to be contrary to the Word of God.
Questions for further study: What is the difference between the New Testament meaning of the word episkopos and its later connotation? Why are regular offices necessary in the Church? Does Scripture favor the idea that the people should have some part in the government of the Church? What is the chief characteristic of Prelatism? What is the Roman Catholic distinction between a hierarchy of order and a hierarchy of jurisdiction? How did the Territorial and the Collegial systems originate, and how do they differ? What system did the Arminians adopt, and how did this affect their position? What is the present form of Church government in the Lutheran Church? How does the idea that Christ is the Head of the Church only in an organic sense affect the offices and the authority of the Church? What important practical bearing does the Headship of Christ (including His kingship) have on the life, the position, and the government of the Church? Can any Church be considered autonomous in the absolute sense of the word? How do Reformed major assemblies differ from Congregational conferences and general councils?
L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 579–592.
IV. The Power of the Church
A. The Source of Church Power
Jesus Christ not only founded the Church, but also endowed it with the necessary power or authority. He is the Head of the Church, not only in an organic, but also in an administrative sense, that is, He is not only the Head of the body, but also the King of the spiritual commonwealth. It is in His capacity as King of the Church that He has clothed her with power or authority. He Himself spoke of the Church as founded so firmly upon a rock that the gates of hell cannot prevail against her, Matt. 16:18; and on the same occasion—the very first on which He made mention of the Church—He also promised to endow her with power, when He said unto Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” Matt. 16:19. It is quite evident that the terms ‘Church’ and ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ are used interchangeably here. Keys are an emblem of power (cf. Isa. 22:15–22), and in the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven Peter receives power to bind and to loose, which in this connection would seem to mean, to determine what is forbidden and what is permitted in the sphere of the Church. And the judgment he passes—in this case not on persons, but on actions—will be sanctioned in heaven. Peter receives this power as the representative of the apostles, and these are the nucleus and foundation of the Church in their capacity as teachers of the Church. The Church of all ages is bound by their word, John 17:20; 1 John 1:3. That Christ endowed not only Peter but all the apostles with power and with the right to judge, and that not merely actions but also persons, is quite evident from John 20:23: “Whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Christ gave this power first of all and in the fullest degree to the apostles, but He also extends it, though in a lesser degree, to the Church in general. The Church has the right to excommunicate an unrepentant sinner. But it can do this only because Jesus Christ Himself dwells in the Church and through the agency of the apostles has supplied the Church with a proper standard of judgment. That Christ has given power to the Church as a whole, is quite evident from several passages of the New Testament, Acts 15:23–29; 16:4; 1 Cor. 5:7, 13; 6:2–4; 12:28; Eph. 4:11–16. The officers in the Church receive their authority from Christ and not from men, even though the congregation is instrumental in putting them into office. This means on the one hand that they do not obtain it at the hands of any civil authority, which has no power in ecclesiastical matters, and therefore cannot bestow any; but on the other hand also, that they do not derive it from the people in general, though they are representatives of the people. Porteous correctly remarks: “That the presbyter is termed the people’s representative shows that he is their chosen ruler. The way in which the office is acquired, but not the source of its power, is designated by the title of representative.”
B. The Nature of this Power
1. A spiritual power. When the power of the Church is called a spiritual power, this does not mean that it is altogether internal and invisible, since Christ rules both body and soul, His Word and sacraments address the whole man, and the ministry of the diaconate even has special references to physical needs. It is a spiritual power, because it is given by the Spirit of God, Acts 20:28, can only be exercised in the name of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, John 20:22, 23; 1 Cor. 5:4, pertains exclusively to believers, 1 Cor. 5:12, and can only be exercised in a moral and spiritual way, 2 Cor. 10:4. The State represents the government of God over the outward and temporal estate of man, while the Church represents His government of man’s inward and spiritual estate. The former aims at assuring its subjects of the possession and enjoyment of their external and civil rights, and is often constrained to exercise coercive power over against human violence. The latter is founded in opposition to an evil spirit and for the purpose of delivering men from spiritual bondage by imparting to them the knowledge of the truth, by cultivating in them spiritual graces, and by leading them to a life of obedience to the divine precepts. Since the power of the Church is exclusively spiritual, it does not resort to force. Christ intimated on more than one occasion that the administration of His Kingdom on earth involved a spiritual and not a civil power, Luke 12:13 ff.; Matt. 20:25–28; John 18:36, 37. The Church of Rome loses sight of this great fact, when it insists on the possession of temporal power and is bent on bringing the entire life of the people under its sway.
2. A ministerial power. It is abundantly evident from Scripture that the power of the Church is no independent and sovereign power, Matt. 20:25, 26; 23:8, 10; 2 Cor. 10:4, 5; 1 Pet. 5:3, but a diakonia leitourgia, a ministerial power, Acts 4:29, 30; 20:24; Rom. 1:1, derived from Christ and subordinate to His sovereign authority over the Church, Matt. 28:18. It must be exercised in harmony with the Word of God and under the direction of the Holy Spirit, through both of which Christ governs His Church, and in the name of Christ Himself as the King of the Church, Rom. 10:14, 15; Eph. 5:23; 1 Cor. 5:4. Yet it is a very real and comprehensive power, consisting in the administration of the Word and the sacraments, Matt. 28:19, the determination of what is and what is not permitted in the Kingdom of God, Matt. 16:19, the forgiving and retaining of sin, John 20:23, and the exercise of discipline in the Church, Matt. 16:18; 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:4; Tit. 3:10; Heb. 12:15–17.
C. Different Kinds of Church Power
In connection with the three offices of Christ there is also a threefold power in the Church, namely, the potestas dogmatica or docendi, the potestas gubernans or ordinans of which the potestas iudicans or disciplinae is a subdivision, and the potestas or ministerium misericordiae.
1. The potestas dogmatica or docendi. The Church has a divine task in connection with the truth. It is her duty to be a witness to the truth to those who are without, and both a witness and a teacher to those that are within. The Church must exercise this power:
a. In the preservation of the Word of God. By giving His Word to the Church, God constituted the Church the keeper of the precious deposit of the truth. While hostile forces are pitted against it and the power of error is everywhere apparent, the Church must see to it that the truth does not perish from the earth, that the inspired volume in which it is embodied be kept pure and unmutilated, in order that its purpose may not be defeated, and that it be handed on faithfully from generation to generation. It has the great and responsible task of maintaining and defending the truth against all the forces of unbelief and error, 1 Tim. 1:3, 4; 2 Tim. 1:13; Tit. 1:9–11. The Church has not always been mindful of this sacred duty. During the last century too many of the leaders of the Church have even welcomed the assaults of a hostile criticism upon the Bible, and have rejoiced in the fact that it was brought down to the level of a purely human production, a mixture of truth and error. They have shown little of the determination which caused Luther to cry out: “Das Wort sollen Sie stehen lassen.”
b. In the administration of the Word and of the sacraments. It is not only the duty of the Church to preserve the Word of God, but also to preach it in the world and in the assembly of the people of God, for the conversion of sinners and for the edification of the saints. The Church has an evangelistic or missionary task in the world. The King, clothed with all authority in heaven and on earth, gave her the great commission: “Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe whatsoever I commanded you.” Through the ministry of the Church the Son is ceaselessly gathering out of the whole human race a Church chosen to everlasting life. The empirical Church of any particular time must be actively engaged in the enlargement and expansion of the Church through missionary endeavors, must be instrumental in bringing in the elect out of all the nations of the world, adding living stones to the spiritual temple that is in process of construction, and must in that manner promote the completion of the number who will ultimately constitute the ideal Church of the future, the perfect bride of Christ, the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21. If the Church of Jesus Christ should be derelict in the performance of this great task, she would prove unfaithful to her Lord. That work must be continued and must be completed before the glorious return of the Saviour, Matt. 24:14. And the great means at the disposal of the Church for the accomplishment of this work is, not education, civilization, human culture, or social reforms, though all these may have subsidiary significance, but the gospel of the Kingdom, which is none other, in spite of what Premillenarians may say, than the gospel of free grace, of redemption through the blood of the Lamb. But the Church may not rest satisfied with bringing sinners to Christ through the instrumentality of the gospel; she must also engage in preaching the word in the assemblies of those who have already come to Christ. And in the performance of this task it is not her main task to call sinners unto Christ, though the invitation to come to Christ may not be wanting even in organized churches, but to edify the saints, to strengthen their faith, to lead them on in the way of sanctification, and thus to solidify the spiritual temple of the Lord. Paul has this in mind when he says that Christ gave the teaching officers to the Church “for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Eph. 4:12–13. The Church may not rest satisfied with teaching the first principles of faith, but must press on to higher ground, in order that those who are babes in Christ may become full-grown men and women in Christ, Heb. 5:11–6:3. Only a Church that is really strong, that has a firm grasp of the truth, can in turn become a powerful missionary agency and make mighty conquests for the Lord. Thus the task of the Church is a comprehensive task. She must point out the way of salvation, must warn the wicked of their coming doom, must cheer the saints with the promises of salvation, must strengthen the weak, encourage the faint-hearted and comfort the sorrowing. And in order that all this work may be done in every land and among all nations, she must see to it that the Word of God is translated into all languages. The ministry of the sacraments must, of course, go hand in hand with the ministry of the Word. It is merely the symbolical presentation of the gospel, addressed to the eye rather than to the ear. The duty of the Church to preach the Word is plainly taught in many passages of Scripture, such as Isa. 3:10, 11; 2 Cor. 5:20; 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 2:15; 4:2; Tit. 2:1–10. In view of the clear instructions of her King she may never allow any totalitarian government to dictate to her what she must preach; neither may she accommodate herself, as far as the contents of her message is concerned, to the demands of a naturalistic science, or to the requirements of a culture that reflects the spirit of the world. Modernists have done just that during the past decades by the suicidal efforts to adapt themselves in their preaching to the demands of a rationalistic higher criticism, of biology and psychology, of sociology and economics, until at last they completely lost the message of the King. Many of them are now coming to the discovery that the message recommended in Rethinking Missions and in Vernon White’s A New Theology for Missions is quite different from the original message and contains little that is peculiar to the pulpit; and that, as things now stand in their circles, the Church has no message of its own. Frantic attempts are made by Modernists to discover for themselves some message which they might bring to the churches, while they should seek to recover the original message and humbly take their place at the feet of Jesus.
c. In the framing of symbols and confessions. Every Church must strive for self-consciousness in the confession of the truth. In order to accomplish this, it will not only have to reflect deeply on the truth, but also to formulate its expression of what it believes. By doing this it will engender in its members a clear conception of their faith, and convey to outsiders a definite understanding of its doctrines. The necessity of doing this was greatly enhanced by the historical perversions of the truth. The rise of heresies invariably called for the construction of symbols and confessions, for clearly formulated statements of the faith of the Church. Even the apostles sometimes found it necessary to restate with greater precision certain truths because of errors that had crept in. John restates the central truth of Christ’s manifestation in the world in view of an incipient Gnosticism (cf. his Gospel and his First Epistle); Paul restates the doctrine of the resurrection, which was denied by some (1 Cor. 15; 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17, 18), and also that of the second coming of Christ, which was misunderstood (2 Thess. 2); and the council of Jerusalem found it necessary to re-assert the doctrine of Christian liberty (Acts 15). Naturally, the Bible contains no example of a creed. Creeds are not given by revelation, but are the fruit of the Church’s reflection on revealed truth. In our day many are averse to symbols and confessions, and sing the glories of a creedless Church. But the objections raised against them are not at all insuperable. Creeds are not, as some insinuate, regarded as equal in authority to the Bible, and much less as superior to it. They do not, either by express statements or by implication add to the truth of Scripture. They do not militate against the freedom of the conscience, nor do they retard the progress of scientific theological study. Neither can they be regarded as the cause of the divisions in the Church, though they may be expressive of these. The divisions were there first and gave rise to the various creeds. As a matter of fact, they serve to a great extent to promote a measure of unity in the visible Church. Moreover, if a Church does not want to be silent, it is bound to develop a creed, be it written or unwritten. All this does not mean, however, that creeds cannot be abused.
d. In the cultivation of the study of theology. The Church may not rest on its oars and be satisfied with the knowledge of the divine truth to which it has attained and which it has formulated in its confessions. It must seek to dig ever deeper into the mine of Scripture, in order to bring to light its hidden treasures. Through scientific study it must seek an ever deeper knowledge, an ever better understanding, of the words of life. It owes this to the truth itself as a revelation of God, but also to the training of its future ministers. The Church is in duty bound to provide for, or at least to supervise, the training of the successive generations of its teachers and pastors. This would seem to be implied in the words of Paul to Timothy: “And the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” 2 Tim. 2:2.
2. The potestas gubernans. This is divided into the potestas ordinans and the potestas iudicans.
a. The potestas ordinans. “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace,” 1 Cor. 14:33. Hence He desires that in His Church “all things be done decently and in order,” vs. 40. This is evident from the fact that He has made provision for the proper regulation of the affairs of the Church. The regulative authority which He has given to the Church includes the power:
(1) To enforce the laws of Christ. This means that the Church has the right to carry into effect the laws which Christ has promulgated for the Church. There is an important difference on this point between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches. The former virtually claims authority to enact laws that are binding on the conscience, and the trangression of which carries with it the same penalty that is annexed to any breach of the divine law. The latter, however, disclaim any such authority, but maintain the right to enforce the law of Christ, the King of the Church. And even so they claim no other than a ministerial or declarative power, regard the law as binding only because it is backed by the authority of Christ, and apply no other censures than those which He has sanctioned. Moreover, they feel that compulsion would conflict with the nature of their power and could never result in real spiritual benefit. All the members of the Church possess this power in a measure, Rom. 15:14; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:11, but it is vested in a special measure in the officers, John 21:15–17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2. The ministerial character of this power is brought out in 2 Cor. 1:24; 1 Pet. 5:2, 3.
(2) To draw up canons or church orders. Numberless occasions arise on which the Church is prompted to make enactments or regulations, often called canons or church orders. Such enactments are not to be regarded as new laws, but merely as regulations for the proper application of the law. They are necessary to give the outward polity of the Church a definite form, to stipulate on what terms persons are permitted to bear office in the Church, to regulate public worship, to determine the proper form of discipline, and so on. General principles for the worship of God are laid down in Scripture, John 4:23; 1 Cor. 11:17–33; 14:40; 16:2; Col. 3:16(?); 1 Tim. 3:1–13; but in the regulation of the details of divine worship the churches are allowed great latitude. They may adapt themselves to circumstances, always bearing in mind, however, that they should worship God publicly in the manner best adapted to the purpose of edification. In no case may the regulations of the Church go contrary to the laws of Christ.
b. The potestas iudicans. The potestas iudicans is the power that is exercised to guard the holiness of the Church, by admitting those who are approved after examination, and by excluding those who depart from the truth or lead dishonorable lives. It is exercised especially in matters of discipline.
(1) Scriptural teachings respecting discipline. Among Israel unintentional sins could be atoned for by a sacrifice, but sins committed “with a high hand” (intentional) were punished with extermination. The cherem (the ban or that which is devoted) was not only an ecclesiastical, but also a civil punishment. The uncircumcized, the lepers, and the impure, were not permitted to enter the sanctuary, Lev. 5 f.; Ezek. 44:9. It was only after Israel lost its national independence, and its character as a religious assembly became more prominent, that the ban, consisting in exclusion from the assembly, became a measure of ecclesiastical discipline, Ezra 10:8; Luke 6:22; John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2. Jesus instituted discipline in His Church, when He gave the apostles and, in connection with their word, also the Church in general, the power to bind and to loose, to declare what is forbidden and what is permitted, and to forgive and to retain sins declaratively, Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23. And it is only because Christ has given this power to the Church, that she can exercise it. Several passages of the New Testament refer to the exercise of this power, 1 Cor. 5:2, 7, 13; 2 Cor. 2:5–7; 2 Thess. 3:14, 15; 1 Tim. 1:20; Tit. 3:10. Such passages as 1 Cor. 5:5 and 1 Tim. 1:20 do not refer to regular discipline, but to a special measure permitted only to the apostles and consisting in giving the sinner over to Satan for temporary physical punishment, in order to save the soul.
(2) The twofold purpose of discipline. The purpose of discipline in the Church is twofold. In the first place it seeks to carry into effect the law of Christ concerning the admission and exclusion of members; and in the second place it aims at promoting the spiritual edification of the members of the Church by securing their obedience to the laws of Christ. Both of these aims are subservient to a higher end, namely, the maintenance of the holiness of the Church of Jesus Christ. With reference to diseased members of the Church, discipline is first of all medical in that it seeks to effect a cure, but it may become chirurgical, when the well-being of the Church requires the excision of the diseased member. It is impossible to tell when a process of discipline begins, whether a cure will be effected, or whether the diseased member will finally have to be removed. Probably the Church will succeed in bringing the sinner to repentance—and this is, of course, the more desirable end—; but it is also possible that it will have to resort to the extreme measure of excommunicating him. In all cases of discipline the Church will have to figure with both possibilities. Even in the most extreme measure it should still have the saving of the sinner in mind, 1 Cor. 5:5. At the same time it should always remember that the primary consideration is the maintenance of the holiness of the Church.
(3) The exercise of discipline by the officers. Though the ordinary members of the Church are frequently called upon to take part in the application of discipline, it is generally applied by the officers of the Church and can be applied only by them when discipline becomes censure. There are two different ways in which it may become the duty of a consistory to deal with a matter of discipline. (a) Private sins can become a cause of discipline in the more technical sense of the word in the manner indicated in Matt. 18:15–17. If one sins against a brother, the latter must admonish the sinner; if this does not have the desired effect, he must admonish him again in the presence of one or two witnesses; and if even this fails, then he must notify the Church, and it becomes the duty of the officers to deal with the matter. It should be remembered, however, that this method is prescribed for private sins only. The offence given by public sins cannot be removed privately, but only by a public transaction. (b) Public sins make the sinner subject to disciplinary action by the consistory at once, without the formality of any preceding private admonitions, even if there is no formal accusation. By public sins are meant, not merely sins that are committed in public, but sins that give public and rather general offence. The consistory should not even wait until someone calls attention to such sins, but should take the initiative. It was no honor for the Corinthians that Paul had to call their attention to the scandal in their midst before they took action. 1 Cor. 5:1 ff.; nor was it an honor for the churches of Pergamus and Thyatira that they did not rebuke and exclude the heretical teachers from their midst, Rev. 2:14, 15, 20. In the case of public sins the consistory has no right to wait until someone brings formal charges; neither has it the right to demand of anyone who finally feels constrained to call attention to such sins that he admonish the sinner privately first. The matter of public sins can not be settled in private.
The disciplinary action of the consistory passes through three stages: (a) The excommunicatio minor, restraining the sinner from partaking of the Lord’s Supper. This is not public, and is followed by repeated admonitions by the consistory, in order to bring the sinner to repentance. (b) If the preceding measure does not avail, it is followed by three public announcements and admonitions. In the first of these the sin is mentioned, but the sinner is not named. In the second the name is made known in accordance with the advice of classis, which must first be obtained. And in the third the imminent final excommunication is announced, in order that this may have the consent of the congregation. During all this time the consistory, of course, continues its admonitions. (c) Finally, this is followed by the excommunicatio major, by which one is cut off from the fellowship of the Church, Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:13; Tit. 3:10, 11. It is always possible to reinstate the sinner, if he shows due repentance and confesses his sins, 2 Cor. 2:5–10.
(4) The necessity of proper discipline. The necessity of proper discipline is stressed in Scripture, Matt. 18:15–18; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:2, 9–13; 2 Cor. 2:5–10; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14, 15; Tit. 3:10, 11. The church of Ephesus is praised because it did not bear with evil men, Rev. 2:2, and those of Pergamus and Thyatira are reproved for harboring heretical teachers and heathen abominations, Rev. 2:14, 20, 24. On the whole the Reformed churches have excelled in the exercise of Church discipline. They strongly stressed the fact that the Church of Christ must have an independent government and discipline. The Lutheran Churches did not emphasize this. They were Erastian in Church government, and were content to leave the exercise of Church discipline in the strict sense of the word in the hands of the government. The Church retained the right to exercise discipline only by means of the ministry of the Word, that is, by admonitions and exhortations addressed to the church as a whole. This was entrusted to the pastor and did not include the right to exclude anyone from the communion of the Church. At present there is in the Churches round about us a noticeable tendency to be lax in discipline, to place a one-sided emphasis on the reformation of the sinner through the ministry of the Word and—in some instances—through personal contacts with the sinner, and to steer clear of any such measures as excluding one from the communion of the Church. There is a very evident tendency to stress the fact that the Church is a great missionary agency, and to forget that it is first of all the assembly of the saints, in which those who publicly live in sin cannot be tolerated. It is said that sinners must be gathered into the church, and not excluded from it. But it should be remembered that they must be gathered in as saints and have no legitimate place in the Church as long as they do not confess their sin and strive for holiness of life.
3. The potestas or ministerium misericordiae
a. The charismatic gift of healing. When Christ sent His apostles and the seventy disciples out, He not only instructed them to preach, but also gave them power to cast out devils and to cure all manner of diseases, Matt. 10:1, 8; Mark 3:15; Luke 9:1, 2; 10:9; 10:9, 17. Among the early Christians there were some who had the gift of healing and who could perform miracles, 1 Cor. 12:9, 10, 28, 30; Mark 16:17, 18. This extraordinary condition, however, soon made way for the usual one, in which the Church carries on its work by the ordinary means. There is no Scriptural ground for the idea that the charism of healing was intended to be continued in the Church of all ages. Evidently, the miracles and miraculous signs recorded in Scripture were intended as a mark or credential of divine revelation, themselves formed a part of this revelation, and served to attest and confirm the message of the early preachers of the gospel. As such they naturally ceased when the period of special revelation came to an end. It is true that the Church of Rome and several sects claim the power of miraculous healing, but the claim is not borne out by the evidence. There are many marvelous stories in circulation of miraculous cures, but before they are given credence it must be proved: (1) that they do not pertain to cases of imaginary sickness, but to cases of real diseases or physical defects; (2) that they do not refer to imaginary or pretended, but to real, cures; and (3) that the cures are actually wrought in a supernatural way, and are not the result of the use of natural means, either material or mental.
b. The ordinary ministry of benevolence in the Church. The Lord clearly intended that the Church should make provision for her poor. He hinted at this duty when He said to His disciples: “For ye have the poor always with you,” Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7. By means of a communion of goods the early Church saw to it that no one wanted the necessaries of life, Acts 4:34. It is not impossible that the neoteroi of Acts 5:6, 10 were the precursors of the later deacons. And when the widows of the Greeks were being neglected in the daily ministration, the apostles saw to it that seven well qualified men were put in charge of this necessary business, Acts 6:1–6. They were to “serve the tables,” which seems to mean in this connection, to superintend the service at the tables of the poor, or to provide for an equitable division of the provisions that were placed on the tables. Deacons and deaconesses are mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, Rom. 16:1; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8–12. Moreover, the New Testament contains many passages urging the necessity of giving or collecting for the poor, Acts 20:35; 1 Cor. 16:1, 2; 2 Cor. 9:1, 6, 7, 12–14; Gal. 2:10; 6:10; Eph. 4:28; 1 Tim. 5:10, 16; Jas. 1:27; 2:15, 16; 1 John 3:17. There can be no doubt about the duty of the Church in this respect. And the deacons are the officers who are charged with the responsible and delicate task of performing the work of Christian benevolence with reference to all the needy of the Church. They must devise ways and means for collecting the necessary funds, have charge of the money collected, and provide for its prudential distribution. However, their task is not limited to this offering of material help. They must also instruct and comfort the needy. In all their work they should consider it their duty to apply spiritual principles in the performance of their duty. It is to be feared that this function of the Church is sadly neglected in many of the churches to-day. There is a tendency to proceed on the assumption that it can safely be left to the State to provide even for the poor of the Church. But in acting on that assumption, the Church is neglecting a sacred duty, is impoverishing her own spiritual life, is robbing herself of the joy experienced in ministering to the needs of those who suffer want, and is depriving those who are suffering hardships, who are borne down by the cares of life, and who are often utterly discouraged, of the comfort, the joy, and the sunshine of the spiritual ministrations of Christian love, which are as a rule entirely foreign to the work of charity administered by the State.
Questions for further study: How do the Reformed and the Lutheran conceptions of Christ as the Head of the Church differ? Does the Old Testament contain any indication that Christ is King of the Church? What systems of Church government deny, or detract from, the Head—or Kingship of Christ? How does the Headship of Christ affect the relation of the Church to the State, religious liberty, and liberty of conscience? Is the doctrine that the power of the Church is exclusively spiritual consistent with Romanism and Erastianism? How is the power of the Church overrated by High Church men, and underrated by Low Church men, of various descriptions? How do the Independents view the power of the officers? How is Church power limited? What is the end contemplated in the exercise of Church power? What is meant by the Church in Matt. 18:17? Does the key of discipline shut out only from outward privileges in the Church, or also from a spiritual interest in Christ? By whom and how is discipline exercised in the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, the Methodist, and the Congregational, Church? Can a Church safely discard discipline?
L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 593–603.