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Ecclesiology: Going Beyond Popular Ideas to the Biblical Model


In popular terminology among evangelicals, ecclesiology conveys general ideas about how the church is independent of state government, and the general activities of the local church and its outreach.  John MacArthur, in this recent interview with Christianity.com, contrasted these common characteristics — including a serious attitude in one’s dress and overall worship service, plus shepherding, caring for people, and specific activities such as hospital visits and praying with a grieving widow — with what he termed “an event” where the gospel is preached along with rock and roll music and trying to be more like the entertainment-focused world.

But true biblical ecclesiology goes far beyond what MacArthur described in that interview, of the conventional model for modern-day evangelical churches that care for and truly shepherding their people.  Biblical ecclesiology closely adheres in both belief and practice to what scripture says concerning the structure and practice of the church (the New Testament era church).  This may indeed be a dying concept, increasingly rare in a world gone to the even further extremes of 21st century Christian “contextualization.”  Yet it is still practiced in a few churches, such as Believers Chapel in Dallas (where the late S. Lewis Johnson taught for many years).

Two articles written by William MacRae at Believers Chapel (1974) outline the points of true New Testament ecclesiology.  The second one lists nine distinctives for Believers Chapel’s practice in accordance with this model.
The Meeting of the Church      and  The Principles of the New Testament Church

Consider this excerpt, which addresses something I see as missing the mark when it comes to the overall leadership and “Senior Pastor” emphasis on John MacArthur and his leadership ministry:

I am often appalled by Christians who are meticulous about their Christology (the doctrine of Christ), and very careful about their pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), and are able to cross their “t’s” and dot their “i’s” in their eschatology (the doctrine of future things); but when it comes to ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), they are very careless. This, to me, is an amazing inconsistency. Perhaps it indicates the value or lack of value we place upon the church.

True New Testament ecclesiology, as pointed out in these nine distinctives, does not include members classes or offical church membership.  It does not include any liturgy, or any set format with time limitation.  It is not something led by one “Senior Pastor” overseeing a group of pastors and/or elders, but is led by a plurality of elders.  The NT church does not have a recognized office of pastor/teacher; rather, such are considered “gifted men” but not the church leaders.  The church meeting, which was held on Sunday evening, does allow for any men among those in the congregation to participate and share something with everyone else, as opposed to the modern-day structured church format in which only certain individuals contribute to the meeting.

Here are a few excerpts concerning distinctives #3 and 4.  Distinctive #3 concerns church offices.  See also this recent blog, Is the Position of Senior Pastor Biblical?

It may surprise some of you who have been coming to Believers Chapel for just a short period of time to discover that I am not the pastor of Believers Chapel. I have never been ordained. I do not have any official title. I am not the head of Believers Chapel.

We do not have any individual who occupies such an office in the New Testament. Pastoring is a gift (Eph. 4:11) and a work (I Pet. 5:2). But it is no more an office than “showing mercy” or “giving” or “exhorting.” Thus we do not have anyone in Believers Chapel who occupies the office of Pastor. The organizational structure of a New Testament local church has been diagrammed by Dr. S. L. Johnson, Jr. as follows:

The New Testament speaks of only four offices in the local church: The Head (Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:22). Elders (I Tim. 3). Deacons (I Tim. 3) and Priests (I Peter 5:9). Christ alone is Head. Several may be elders and deacons. All believers are priests.

The government of Believers Chapel is under the rule of a group of elders who function under Christ the Head. They are the decision-making body.

I am offended when you refer to this as Bill McRae’s church. You do a great disservice to Dr. Johnson to refer to it as Dr. Johnson’s church. It is a great affront to the Lord to refer to it as Dr. Blum’s Church. Why? In each case, you are putting a man in the position that Christ alone can and does assume in his church. He is the Head and we recognize only Him in His position of Headship.

Distinctive #4 puts into practice the idea of a NT church meeting:

Every Sunday evening, following the pattern of the New Testament church, we gather together for the meeting of the church in which we give the Holy Spirit freedom to superintend the meeting of the church. There is no officialism, no liturgy, no rituals, no stereotyped program, no man made rules, no time limitations.

The Holy Spirit is free to exercise one to stand and give a hymn, then another to read a passage of the Word of God, another to pray, or to give a word of exhortation, to give thanks for the bread, or to give thanks for the wine, or to pray for the president and for those in authority over us, or to pray for that unsaved neighbor down the street, or to share a particular prayer request or to praise God for something He has done in his life last week. It is a meeting with a three-fold purpose:

1. Edification of believers -I Cor. 14:26 This may be achieved through hymns (Eph. 5:19, I Cor. 14:26), ministry of the Word (I Cor. 14:26), and personal testimonies (Acts 14:27, 15:4, 12).
2. Worship of the Lord. This may be expressed in hymns, prayer, ministry of the Word, the observance of the Lord’s Supper (I Cor. 11:23-34), and the offering of our gifts to the Lord (I Cor. 16:1-2).
3. Evangelism of the Unsaved. Those unbelievers present may be evangelized by the proclamation of the Lord’s death in the observance of the Lord’s supper (I Cor. 11:26). For those unbelievers who are absent we are instructed to intercede for their salvation (I Tim. 2:1-8).

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