THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCHESCONSTITUTION
"THE church of the living God, the pillar and I ground of the truth," writes the Apostle Paul to Timothy, his beloved son in the faith. Though in the Gospels we find little about the church, as has already been noted, in the other New Testament writings we find much. The word ecclesia (assembly, church) is used in these documents one hundred and fourteen times, and in three different senses as applied to Christians: once to denote the assembly of the saints in heaven (Heb. 12: 23); often to describe the one assembly of the saints, the church universal, composed of all followers of Christ; but in the great majority of cases (eighty-five) to denote a local assembly or congregation of the followers of Christ. The church universal is not regarded in the Epistles as a visible and organized body, but is wholly spiritual, incorporeal, corresponding essentially to the idea of the kingdom of God taught in the Gospels. The only visible and organized body of Christians recognized by the New Testament writers was the local assembly or congregation. In other words, the apostles knew nothing of a Church; they knew only churches.
These churches, though visible and organized, were also spiritual. They were the outward embodiment of the kingdom of God among men, and the means by which that kingdom was to be extended. But the kingdom of God is before all things spiritual. "Except a man be born anew (an?hen, from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God," said our Lord to Nicodemus. And again he states the truth yet more emphatically, this time with a reference to baptism, the symbol of the new birth: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3: 1-21). This new birth, the work of the Holy Spirit, is conjoined to "faith," "belief" in Christ on the part of man, and as its result man is justified in the sight of God (I Peter I:5, 9; Rom. 5: I; Gal. 2:20; Heb. 10: 38; 11:6). The necessity of a new birth through faith in Christ is everywhere assumed in the Epistles as a truth too familiar to be formally stated. It is the postulate, without which the apostolic writings cannot possibly be understood.
Hence the New Testament churches consisted only of those who were believed to be regenerated by the Spirit of God, and had been baptized on a personal confession of faith in Christ. What was done on the day of Pentecost seems to have been the rule throughout the apostolic period: the baptism of the convert immediately followed his conversion. It is a distinct departure from New Testament precedent to require converts to postpone their baptism. It is true, that these converts were Jews, that they only needed to be convinced that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and to submit to him as Lord, to make them fit subjects for baptism; as it is also true that, with the prospect of persecution and even death before them, there was no temptation to make a false profession. This made possible and prudent a haste that in our day might be dangerous; but the principle should be recognized and admitted, as taught by all New Testament precedent, that no more time should separate baptism from conversion than is necessary to ensure credible evidence of a genuine change of heart.
That all those added to the church at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were capable of making, and did make, intelligent personal confession of faith, is as certain as words can make anything. Nor is there the slightest indication in the New Testament writings that, during the apostolic age, any were received into the church save those who had come to years of personal responsibility and understanding. No scholar pretends that the baptism of infants is taught in the Scriptures; they are absolutely silent on the subject; yet from this silence certain inferences have been made. It is sometimes assumed that a continuity of life unites the Old Dispensation and the New. As children were by birth heirs of the promise through Abraham, so they are assumed to be by birth heirs of promise through Christ. In this view the New Dispensation is organically one with the Old; baptism merely replaces circumcision, the church replaces the synagogue and temple, the ministry replaces the priesthood, while the spirit of all continues unchanged. It appears to Baptists, on the other hand, to be clearly taught in Scripture that the New Dispensation, though a fulfilling and completion of the Old, is radically different from it. Under the Old Dispensation a child was an heir of promise according to the flesh, but under the New Dispensation natural birth does not make him a member of the kingdom of God; he must be born from above, born of the Spirit. The church has for its foundation principle a personal relation of each soul to Christ, and not a bond of blood; a child might be born a Jew, but he must be born again to become a Christian.
The more this silence of the Scriptures regarding the baptism of infants is considered, the more significant it becomes. Jesus took little children in his arms and declared that of the childlike is the kingdom of God (Matt. I9: I4), but he nowhere authorized baptism save when preceded by faith. The cases where whole households were baptized do not fairly warrant the inference that they contained infants, as is now frankly admitted by all scholars.. Either they afford no positive ground for inference of any kind (as in the case of Stephanas, I Cor. I: I6; I6: I5), or they absolutely forbid the inference that infants were among the baptized (as in the case of the jailer at Philippi, where all who were baptized first had the gospel preached to them, Acts I6 : 32, 33). The case of Lydia and her household is often cited as one that proves infant baptism, but it is impossible to infer from the narrative (Acts I6 : I4, I5), anything certain, or even probable, regarding Lydia's family. Whether she was ever married, or whether she ever had children, or whether her children were not all dead or grown up are matters of pure conjecture. It is possible to guess any of these things, and a dozen besides, but guesses are not fair inferences, still less proofs.
Those who believe in a mixed church-membership, including unregenerate and regenerate, often cite the parable of the Tares (Matt. 13: 24-30). The field, they say, represents the church, and as the tares and wheat were to be suffered to grow together till the harvest, so the regenerate and unregenerate are to be intermingled in the church. It is a decisive objection to this plausible theory that our Lord himself interpreted this parable to his disciples (Matt. I 3: 36-43), and declared that the field represents, not the church, but the world; the tares being separated from the wheat in the final judgment of mankind.
If the church "consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children," as the Westminster Confession declares, does it not necessarily follow that children are equally entitled with their parents to all the privileges of the church? If they are fit subjects for baptism, they are fit subjects for the Lord's Supper. Whoso denies this certainly assumes the burden of proving the reasonableness of his position. There is nowhere in Scripture any authority to give the former ordinance, and to withhold the latter. The Greek Church recognizes the fact that infant baptism logically requires infant communion, and has the courage of its logic; but other Pedobaptist bodies save part of the truth, at the expense of consistency, by denying participation in the Lord's Supper to those baptized in infancy until these have reached years of understanding, and have made a public profession of faith.
The church at Jerusalem, composed of believers baptized on profession of personal faith in Jesus Christ, "continued steadfastly in the apostles" teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. There is no record in the New Testament that any joined in the breaking of bread, which is the usual term for the celebration of the Lord's Supper, without first having been baptized. What is stigmatized, therefore, as "close" communion is simply strict adherence to scriptural orderan order that bodies forth the spiritual significance of the two ordinances delivered to his church by Christ: baptism, as the emblem of the new birth, following immediately upon that birth, and being administered but once; the Lord's Supper, the emblem of union with Christ, and spiritual partaking of his nature, coming later and being often repeated. In coming to the table of the Lord, who shall venture to add or to take from the terms prescribed by himself and by apostolic example? Precisely because the table is the Lord's, and not theirs, his obedient followers are constrained to yield to his will.
Such was the first Christian church, as to constitution and ordinances; and such, in these particulars, the churches of Christ continued to be to the close of the apostolic era. There were no other ordinances in those churches, for to constitute an ordinance three things are needful: it must be a command of Christ himself; addressed not to individuals, but to Christians at large, and obviously intended to be obeyed for all time; and there must be evidence that the command was so understood and obeyed generally in the apostolic churches. Only baptism and the communion meet these conditions. The laying on of hands after baptism, and in ordination, is supported by Scripture precedent, but it is not an ordinance, for it was not commanded by Christ. Washing the feet of disciples is a command of Christ, but lacks the element of universality, and was evidently not practised as a rite in the apostolic churches. On the otherhand, the commands to baptize and to break bread are accompanied by words indicating that these things were to be observed perpetually by the followers of Christ. Of organization there was at first none in the church at Jerusalem. The apostles naturally took the lead and oversight of the flock, and for a time the need of officers was not felt. The first step was the appointment of deacons, in order to relieve the apostles from the labor and responsibility of distributing alms. These officers were chosen by the entire church, which is thus seen to be a democracy from the first, and set apart to their work by prayer and laying on of handsan apostolic precedent that Baptists have not always been careful to follow. The appointment of pastors to have oversight of the churches, as their numbers increased, was the next step, so that the apostles might be free to give themselves to their specific work of evangelization.
We first learn definitely of this office some fourteen years later, when Barnabas and Paul were returning to Antioch from their first missionary journey, visiting the churches they had founded: We read, "And when they [Barnabas and Paul] had appointed for them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed." The word translated "appoint" is conceded by all scholars to signify "to stretch forth the hand," probably for the purpose of voting. This is held to indicate that the congregations chose each its own pastor, the apostles setting apart the chosen ones with prayer, and, as is implied in other passages, with the laying on of hands. With the election of pastors, the organization of the church became complete, and in the New Testament there is no evidence of any further ecclesiastical machinery.
The chief officer of a New Testament church is called by various titles, "bishop," "elder," "teacher," "pastor." The latter two seem to describe functions rather than an office, and the former two are interchangeable but not synonymous. "Bishop" (episcopus) is a term of Greek origin, and means overseer, president. It indicates the duties of the office, which were executive. "Elder" (presbuteros) is of Hebrew origin, and refers to the honor paid this officer, as in the Jewish synagogue, an honor that was doubtless originally due to the selection of the older and wiser members for the office. It is admitted by all scholars that in the apostolic times "bishop" and "elder" were the same; but some advocates of episcopacy hold the later bishops to have been the successors of the apostles. Of this, however, there is no evidence, either in the writings of the apostles themselves or in the literature of the second century.
Not only was the New Testament bishop chosen by his flock, and the officer of the single congregation. but he is regarded as one of them and one with them. No idea of a division into "clergy" and "laity" appears in the New Testament. No priestly character or function is ascribed to either bishop or deacon, but the universal priesthood of believers is unmistakably taught. Sacerdotal ideas are not found in the generation immediately succeeding the apostles, but are distinctly of a later development, and are unmistakable marks of the degeneracy and corruption of the churches.
In the churches of Asia Minor, if not generally in the New Testament churches, there was a plurality of elders in each church. This may have been due to the fact that the churches of which we read most were in cities, and soon became too large for the oversight of one man. It is possible that in some cases, as at Jerusalem, they be. came too large to assemble in any one place, and met in separate congregations, each with its own elder. If this conjecture is sound, it still remains unquestionable that the several congregations were regarded as one, the division being merely for convenience; for while we read of "the churches" of a province like Galatia, we always read of "the church" at Corinth or Ephesus or Antioch or Jerusalem.
Simple in organization and democratic in government, the New Testament churches were independent of each other in their internal affairs. There is no instance of a single church, or of any body of churches, undertaking to control the action of another, or of a church being overruled by superior ecclesiastical authority. To the teaching of apostles guided by the Spirit of God, they did, indeed, defer much, and rightly; but not so much to the apostolic office as to the Spirit of God speaking through the apostle. The so-called council of Jerusalem, the nearest approach to the control of local churches by exterior authority (presbytery), had an authority rather moral than ecclesiastical, and its decision was final rather because it was felt to be the wisest solution of a grave question than because it was imposed by ecclesiastical powers and enforced by ecclesiastical discipline.
But though independent of external authority, the Churches were riot independent of external obligations. The church, in the broadest sense of the term, in the New Testament, includes all the regenerate living in obedience to Christ. Hence, though for convenience of administration divided into local congregations, independent of each other as to internal management, it is still the one body of Christ. The several churches owed to their fellow-Christians, both as individuals and as Christians, whatever of loving service it was in their power to render. They were bound to give counsel and help to sister churches that had need of either, and frequent records in the New Testament show that this obligation has been acknowledged and fulfilled. The interdependence and fraternity of the churches is a broader and more precious truth than their independence. If the former, when abused, leads to centralization and prelacy, the latter, pushed to extremes, leads to disintegration, discord, and weakness. The apostles urged upon churches as well as upon individuals the duty of bearing one another's burdens, comforting each other in trouble, assisting each other in need, and generally co-operating to further the interests of the kingdom of God.
The worship of the early Christians was simple and spiritual. The public services consisted of prayer, praise, and the preaching of the word, probably with reading of the Old Testament writings, and of the New Testament writings as they appeared and were circulated through copies. In these respects the first churches, as was natural, no doubt followed the custom of the Jewish synagogues, to which their members had been accustomed from infancy. Music filled an important place in this worship, as we may infer from the apostle's reference to the "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" as in common use. The chanting of psalms, antiphonal and otherwise, was no doubt a marked feature of Christian worship from the first, especially among those educated as Jews. Traces of ritual are found in the New Testament, not only in the Lord's Prayer and the doxologies, but in rhythmical passages in the apostolic writings. But this ritual was simple, plastic, voluntary; not a rigid and required service. Nothing is more marked in the spiritual life of the early church, so far as it is disclosed in the Acts and Epistles, than its spontaneity and freedom from the bondage of formalism. This is, of course, more markedly manifest in the informal gatherings, closely resembling the modern prayer-meeting, that supplemented the more public and general assemblies of the Lord's Day. These, however, like the agap?/em>, or love feasts, that for a time accompanied the celebration of the Supper, were liable to abuse, and against disorderly proceedings in them we find the Apostle Paul warning the Corinthian church.
The distinctive day of worship among apostolic Christians was the first day of the week, the Lord's Day. The disciples met on the evening of this day, on which the risen Christ had manifested himself to some of them, and he met with them. A week later they again assembled, and again he met them. There is no reason to doubt that the observance continued thereafter without a break. Thus, while there is no definite precept for the observance of the Lord's Day, there is definite precedent, and the example of the apostles, where it is clear and explicit, is tantamount to command. By the year A. D. 55 this first-day meeting of Christians seems to have become a recognized custom (Acts 20 7; I Cor. I6: 2); yet it is not until the second century that we have positive proof that the Lord's Day was universally observed among Christians. For some time those who had been bred Jews continued to observe the Sabbath in their usual manner, and the matter even became a subject of contention between Jew and Gentile (Rom. I6 : 5, 6; Col. 2 I6); but in the second century sabbatizing was condemned by Christian writers. Neither in the New Testament nor in the Christian literature of the first three centuries is there any confounding of the Sabbath and the Lord's Day, or any intimation that the fourth commandment has anything to do with the observance of the Lord's Day. On the contrary, the Sabbath is treated as typical and temporary, like circumcision, and done away with as were all the ordinances of the law.
There were doubtless other times of meeting in the apostolic churches, besides the first day of the week. For a brief time after the day of Pentecost, every day appears to have been a day of worship. as it even now is with churches during a season of special revival; and the Lord's Supper was at this time celebrated daily. At a later period it was celebrated, apparently, every Lord's Day, though there is nothing to indicate that this was regarded as obligatory. Any Baptist church, however, that should choose to spread the table of the Lord every Lord's Day would have sufficient Scripture precedent to justify it in so doing. The one thing for which no New Testament precedent can be pleaded is the letting of months go by without a celebration of the Communion.
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