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The Christian and the Church

The word church in Scripture most often refers to the body of Christ, all believers. It can also refer to a subset of the full body meeting together in a specific place (e.g. the church at Corinth). It never refers to an organization such as today’s denominations, many of which call themselves churches. In the Scriptural perspective, even local churches are seen as groups of believers, not as organizations. God speaks and gives instructions to Christians, not to organizations.

Class Structure
The early church was not organized. This came later as the bishop of Rome gained ascendancy and the Roman Catholic Church came to dominate the originally independent assemblies. The Reformation that came much later did not eliminate the organizational structure that Rome had established. They reduced it to a two-level, class system with pastors, priests or bishops at one level and the membership below. Today, even the most conservative Reformed denominations still have this class system in place.

That the current system is class oriented is evident in that pastors are ordained by presbyteries comprised of other pastors and are typically not considered to be members of the churches they teach and lead. Elders, that are members of their congregations, have only a limited voice in the decisions made in the upper echelon of these organizations. The upper class is typically in complete control of all preaching in all the congregations of the denomination. This is so because the ordained pastors do virtually all the preaching; over time, this shapes the thinking of the congregation as a whole. Dissenters within the congregations are typically unable to gain enough support from enough of the congregation to have their grievances heard. When and if they do gain a hearing, their cases are judged by pastors from other congregations and the upper class retains its control. In the better denominations, this is viewed as a benevolent arrangement where the persons most knowledgeable of Scripture keep the lesser knowledgeable out of trouble and on the right path (as they see it). This is very often the case but it leads to an unhealthy freezing of doctrine to some past standard of orthodoxy (a very serious problem); above all, it is not Scriptural.

Scriptural View
In the picture Scripture gives us, there is not a hint of a segregated class system. All Christians whether apostles, presbyters, bishops or just individual believers are responsible to Christ, first and foremost. All human authority is secondary and subject to being overridden whenever the believer judges it to be in contradiction to God’s word. This is the freedom all believers have in Christ; obedience to rulers, whether church or state, is by conscience only (Rom. 13:5). In the church, the membership, collectively, is responsible to God for whatever transpires within the church. This responsibility may be exercised through a body of elders but each believer or at least each family head should feel it personally. The congregation sees the authority of pastors and elders as delegated authority and subject to criticism and discipline as needed. They are responsible to judge whether or not what they are being taught or asked to do is or is not in accord with God’s word. This, of course, requires knowledge of the word and may be exercised only to the limit of that understanding. Study of the word is assumed and the Christian must also have an appreciation of his limits therein.

The fact of congregational authority is reflected in the election of elders and pastors; the congregation votes them into office and can to vote them out as well. The congregation is mindful of its ongoing responsibility for the welfare of all of its constituents including its officers (perhaps especially its officers). Each believer sees the church as his church. In the baptism ceremony, for example, it is the pastor or an elder that presides but it is the congregation as a whole that is accepting the new member into its communion. The person presiding is performing the ceremony but it is the congregation that is baptizing the new member. Christians are not just observers, but are participants in whatever activity is in process. This sort of attitude is one that brings vitality and vigor into the church. It also is a safeguard against the introduction of false doctrine or, to the extent that doctrinal growth ceases, the locking-in of existing doctrines. Historically, Protestant denominations have fallen into one or the other of these pitfalls, the liberals typically to the former and the conservatives typically to the latter.

This is not just an academic question. Christian apathy toward the cultural degradation that is now evident in America and throughout the West is to a great extent a consequence of their seeing themselves as peripheral to the work and purposes of the churches they attend.