A number of years ago, brother Legard Smith authored a book entitled “the Cultural Church” in which he identified a number of societal pressures influencing us all. Pressure from outside of the church is what the apostle Paul warned the church at Rome about when he urged them “not to let the world squeeze them into it’s mold.” (Rom 12:2a) The paganism of Paul’s day is alive and well in much of the world but has in ‘western’ societies been replaced by secular atheism and postmodern philosophy. The singularity of the Lord’s church in the first century has given way to hundreds of churches all of whom claim to teach God’s truth and to follow Jesus Christ.
All of this is happening in a ‘communication age’ where we are ‘messaged’ to death, and drowning in a mix of information and disinformation. Post-moderns have redefined truth, replacing objective content with utility. If a ‘truth’ gets the job done, if it brings about the reality that you seek, then that is true. This new view of truth and the pressure to accept it is what you find when you peel back the label called ‘inclusiveness’. It turns out that there is nothing less inclusive than the cancel-culture of ‘inclusiveness’. The pressure to accept the subjective nature of truth is coming at us in a form that discourages dialogue by silencing and ostracizing all contrary voices. The ‘exclusiveness’ of ‘inclusivism’ threatens to silence the gospel by shaming those who want to speak a good word for the Lord.
True inclusiveness is what Jesus offers in the gospel. The apostles of Jesus were given a universal mandate – to go into all the world, and to preach the gospel to all creation (humankind). Salvation in the name of Jesus is available without respect to race or gender, or social standing. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of His word which is truth, and the only truth capable of saving us. God’s inclusiveness is based on truth that absolute – anchored his unchanging being, and objectively grounded in the historic reality of his work within history and as completed by his Son, Jesus Christ. It is when we get back to God’s truth that we are able to arrive at truth that is always true and universally applicable.
At the same time, God’s universal offer of salvation in Christ is his one and only offer. There is salvation in no one other than in Jesus. There is salvation on no other terms than those set out by the Lord through his apostles. The gospel therefore excludes every other ‘offer of salvation’ and every other set of terms of acceptance. It is thus both universal and exclusive: available to all while alone able to save.
The same must be said of the kingdom of God on earth. Life and worship in God’s kingdom is directed by God’s word which is normative for both. We are free to accept it or reject it and to accept the consequences of our actions. When Paul shared the gospel with those in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, some believed and others did not. Paul did not fault the gospel when some contradicted it and began to blaspheme the name of Jesus. He observed that they had ‘counted themselves unworthy of eternal life’ (Acts 13:44-46). Many of the epistles of the New Testament were written to correct false doctrine along with unacceptable practices and wrong behaviour in the church. These have been written and preserved also for our benefit, so that we may know how to be saved and how to live a ‘saved life’.
Given then that we wish to please God, by accepting salvation in Jesus and by living as citizens of his kingdom on earth (his church), is there such a thing as a New Testament church in existence today? And if so, what would it look like.
Some find the whole notion of a New Testament church both quaint and out of date. When we lived in the Waterloo region, we often saw horses and buggies with people wearing clothing whose style had not changed in a century. Yet, some of those buggies had inflated tires, bucket seats and were driven by someone talking on a cell phone. Faith and practice had a way of mixing old and new.
Which brings us to another question: just what is it about the first century that ought to be preserved? Why not be a thoroughly modern church?
There is a sense in which we are not really interested in being a first century church at all. What we really want to be is the church that is set out in the New Testament – which happened to be written in the first century when the church began. To some degree, hat we mean by the question is understood through our heritage in the Restoration Movement which is in turn taken from the Bible.
The story of God’s people which we find in the Bible, is all about restoration. God made a covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai about 3500 years ago. Time and again, God’s people strayed from their theological roots and Biblical practices only to have God call them back to His covenant. This was the task of every prophet until that first covenant was taken out of the way. King Hezekiah and Josiah both tried to restore Israel to the faith that had been delivered by Moses…but the people wouldn’t listen. But lest we miss the point…the concept of restoration is wholly Biblical and to the degree that God’s people stray…continually needed.
When the Mosaic covenant was fulfilled, God put another in place. It was God’s own Son who enacted it. Jesus shed his blood to put it into force. He sent the Holy Spirit to direct his affairs on earth, leading the apostles and guiding them into all the truth. And this took place in the first Christian century.
The church that began at that time had God’s approval. The writing of the New Testament was finished by the end of the 1st century. It was written by the apostles and inspired writers. And it set out God’s will for his people, furnishing a standard that has been in place ever since.
The New Testament as a whole is the written record of God’s final revelation through his own Son. It does not merely contain the word of God but it is the word of God. It is full and complete, lacking nothing. It is the faith delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3). It is both final and complete with the result that no one is to add to it or to take from it.
The apostle Paul said something profound about the authority of God’s word in his letter to the Galatians:
“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Gal. 1:8-9)
There are to be no alterations by men or angels. None. The Word of God trumps modern miracles and stands unchanged. When we ask the question then about being a New Testament church, we are thinking about a church that is based entirely and exclusively on the teachings of the New Testament. It is with the conviction that God has granted unto us all things pertaining to life and godliness – and that a knowledge of such is found only in the pages of that book, that we engage in a process of ongoing restoration.
Now there are certain things that we do not mean, as we set out to be a New Testament church.
We do not mean that we want to be a people who worship the New Testament. God is the one whom we worship. The New Testament is his verbal propositional communication to us and as such is the truth that alone can bring us to salvation.
As God’s final revelation, the New Testament commends itself to us as our only source of faith and practice. But we do not gather together to worship a thing. The Bible in general and the New Testament in particular are gifts from God to bring us to Him but are not themselves the proper objects of worship.
We also do not think that the New Testament is infinite in content. It is God’s finite revelation, written by and written to finite men. It is sufficient to accomplish the purposes that God had in mind when he gave it. The terminal point – the boundary of its authority is the end of time. When Jesus returns to this earth, he will fulfill all of the promises that remain and this earth will be no more.
Regarding the nature of God’s revelation in the New Testament: whatever it meant in the first century, is what it still means today. Whatever the Holy Spirit meant when he guided the prophets to write, that is what is still means. The principles set out in its pages remain intact and in force right now. It cannot now mean what it never meant in the past. What I am saying is that the New Testament is objectively true. It is not made up of a growing body of revelation. There are no inspired men among us today nor are there inspired interpreters. It is very important then that we do not supplement God’s word in any way, not even with church tradition.
The word of God is certainly not some kind of religious Ouija board or divining cup. We do not come to it expecting a supernatural event to take place. The truths of the Bible are not better felt than told. As a matter of fact, salvation comes through faith and faith is made possible by hearing or reading the word of God. The word of God is filled with content – it is true bread out of heaven
The word of God speaks to our minds. It changes our hearts by changing our minds. It stirs us to love and good deeds. It is God’s revelation to us – in language that can be understood. It is given to men and women who have the capacity to know it. And it is clear that God expects us both to know it and to do it.
Which brings us to a summary description of what a New Testament church is.
A New Testament church then is a church that accepts the New Testament as God’s final word and appeals to it as its ultimate guide and standard. It does this by settling every question with a “thus says the Lord”. It submits human preferences and sensibilities to the authority of God’s word.
The New Testament church is not a democracy in which God gets a vote. It is a kingdom in which no one votes. It is a kingdom in which the king’s word is final. It is a kingdom whose subjects seek to do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.
What then should we look for…or what should we be in order to be that church?
- What are some of the teachings and principles found in the New Testament?
- How should these find expression in the church belonging to Jesus?
Now it may seem like a trivial thing, but since the church belongs to Jesus, it seems right that it ought to be identified that way. There are a number of descriptive phrases in the N.T. for the church, such as:
The kingdom of heaven
The assembly of the firstborn
The bride of Christ
The body of Christ
The Israel of God
The church of God
The churches of Christ
Any church seeking to be a New Testament church ought to identify itself as it was identified in the New Testament. At the heart of this… is the principle of giving glory to the one to whom the church belongs.
Now a New Testament church is a church that understands the relationship between the Old Testament and the New. It understands itself as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and to Israel. It stands in continuity with the historical people of God.
A New Testament church is a church that is able to give a full Biblical answer to the question “what must I do to be saved”. This is perhaps the place where we should have started, because a New Testament church is a church made up of Christians.
It is made up of those who have:
- Come to faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
- Those who have confessed faith in Jesus as the son of God and continue to do so.
- Those who have repented of or renounced their former life of sin
- Those who have been united with Christ by being immersed into his death and in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Sprit for the forgiveness of their sins.
- And who are now indwelt by the Spirit of God.
Any collection of people who call themselves a church but who have not been saved in this way have no Biblical reason to think that they are saved at all. There is salvation in no other name but the name of Jesus. And there is salvation in the name of Jesus only for those who have accepted His salvation on His terms.
This was how the church got started on the Day of Pentecost. It is how the church spread all over the world. And it is the only way that the church can spread throughout the history of the world. A useful rule of thumb is – that if you cannot find any other kind of ‘Christian’ in the New Testament then you have no reason to believe that you can find such ‘Christians’ outside of the New Testament either.
A New Testament church is a church that teaches the truth in its entirety. It does not seek to find the truth within the truth. It is not in search of the essential gospel. It is not in search of the lowest common theological denominator. It preaches and teaches the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:18-26) taking its stand upon the faith delivered once for all to the saints.
A New Testament church does not pursue union with organizations that are not the church. It recognizes the difference between those who are ‘churched’ and those who are saved. And it pursues the salvation of the unsaved wherever they may be found1 (Acts 18:24-19:7)
A New Testament church is a church that preaches the truth about Grace. Salvation is not our doing. It is God’s initiative and the work of God from first to last. Grace is rooted in the person of God. God was moved by grace to create Mankind. It filled and shaped God’s thinking before the world ever began. A New Testament church is a church that gives full credit to God for it’s salvation.
A New Testament church understands that our common union with God is that thing that creates fellowship among us.
- Our fellowship is an organic oneness that is precious to God.
- It is a sanctified state brought about by the truth of God’s word.
- When you and I obey the truth, we are set apart for God’s use.
- A New Testament church is a church that preserves this divine unity by loving each other.
A New Testament church is a church that understands that unity must first take place in Christ before there can be any unity for the church to preserve.
A New Testament church is one whose organization is drawn from the scriptures. When there are men qualified to lead, each congregation ought to be served by a plurality of elders. These men lead by feeding God’s people on the word of God and among other things, guarding the flock against spiritual danger. When men who qualify are chosen to be deacons, they serve both the temporal and spiritual needs of the congregation. In addition to these, teachers and evangelists instruct and encourage.
A New Testament church is one that understands that all of its members are ministers. While that is true, it also recognizes the distinct and separate roles that God has given to men and to women. Spiritual leadership is provided by those men of the congregation qualified to do so. Each of these is crucial to the welfare and progress of God’s kingdom. Older women who are mature in the faith provide instruction and an example for younger women to follow (Tit 2:3-5)
A New Testament church is a church that has no other head but Jesus who presently rules the church from heaven. It recognizes no earthy headquarters and no supra-organization regulating its life and worship. Each congregation with its own leaders is directly answerable to God. But following the example of the New Testament church, congregations are free to work with each other to accomplish God’s work on earth. This is true of benevolence ( I Cor 16:1-4, 2nd Cor:8, 9 ) evangelism (Acts 13:1-3, Phil:15-19) and other Christian ministries.
A New Testament church is a church that recognizes, fellowships and works with other faithful congregations. It is also a church that understands that it is merely one part of Christ’s worldwide kingdom on earth.
A New Testament church is a church given to worship, to prayer and praise.
- It meets together on the Lord’s Day and partakes of the Lord’s Supper
- It honours God’s instructions for worship, praising God in song, in prayer and in word.
- It gives central place to the reading of scripture and to preaching the gospel
- It devotes itself to the word of God and seeks the will of God in order to properly seek the face of God.
A New Testament church is known for it’s love. It speaks the truth in love, understanding that there is no conflict between them. It is unselfish and forgiving, yet it dares to discipline because it truly cares.
A New Testament church is a giving and serving church. It understands that ownership is really stewardship. It gives from the heart, knowing that God has given first.
A New Testament church is a church that is not at home in this world. It is a colony of heaven – a corner of the kingdom of God. Or if you will – it is that part of God’s kingdom that exists on earth.
A New Testament church is a church that exists to do the will of God. It is a church that exists as an answer to Jesus’ prayer: for the will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:10)
A New Testament church is a church filled with and led by the Spirit of God. It is made up of those who are Christ’s special possession (Rom 8:9). It’s members are growing daily into the image of God’s Son (Eph 4:13-15) and for that reason, it is a church passing from one level of glory to the next (2nd Cor 3:12-18).
A New Testament church is a church consumed by the great commission. It seeks new opportunities to share the gospel. Its members encourage each other to reach out with God’s word. A New Testament church understands that evangelism is not merely something that it does. Evangelism is at the heart of what this church is. It must be evangelistic in order to be the church.
A New Testament church is a church that is looking for the return of Jesus. It believes that this same Jesus who disappeared into heaven as the the apostles watched – is coming back. It is ready for him to come back. And it stays ready…not by suspending life but by living it to the full – for Jesus.
A New Testament church is a church that does not go beyond what has been written. But it is also a church that goes as far as what has been written. It lives by sound doctrine and not man-made creeds and it makes the good confession, without consulting confessions of faith.
A New Testament church is the church that belongs to Jesus Christ.
The question for us is: are we that church? May God help us to be a New Testament Church.
May God help us to be His church.
1Consider the case of Apollos and the certain former disciples of John the Baptist.