The Church's Identity
"These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” 1 Timothy 3:14-15 KJV
This week our Session of elders interviewed several new families for membership in our church. These families all made credible professions of faith in the Lord Jesus and were subsequently received into our fellowship warmly. Membership interviews are always joyful occasions as we hear how the Lord has worked in the lives of individuals, bringing salvation through believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
To conceive of joining a church, one must first know what a church is. One must not assume that this is something that everyone knows. No church has any right to be just anything at all. For example, a new church may not be planted by surveying a few individuals and asking, “What kind of church would you like this to be?” The church must never be niche-marketed along consumer brands of preference.
Complicating matters further, the idea that “human nature is a given, something that has an intrinsic, non-negotiable authority over who we are” has been almost abolished.1 Given the prevailing confusion over human identity, one would expect that an aggregate of modernists, forming a church, would be greatly confused as to what the group is or should be. But no human’s identity, and no church’s identity, is plastic. A biblical church can be nothing other than what God has defined and constituted her to be in his Word. 2 For any “church” to aspire to be anything else is spiritual infidelity against her Lord, no matter how universal or successful that institution becomes.
The concept of a “church” is found in both testaments. In the Old Testament, the words most commonly used are, Êעדה meaning “congregation”, and,Êקהל meaning “assembly” or “congregation” of God’s people for religious worship. Smaller, local gatherings were called “synagogues” meaning, a “gathering together”. In the New Testament, the word “church” in the English language comes from “kuriake”, meaning “belonging to the Lord”;3 the Koine Greek word for church is ekklesia, meaning “called out ones”, that is, distinguished from the common lot of humanity. One can intuit the compatibility of these words in both testaments. The Lord has always had, and will always have, a gathered people to worship him on earth (Psalm 79:13).
Paul gave Timothy a fundamental definition of a church in 1 Timothy 3:15. This passage identifies the church as “the house of God”, and “the pillar and ground of the truth.” Turretin notes that “In this sense, the church is the guardian, herald and defender of Scripture.”4 The church is a house for truth. It owns and preserves the truth, expressly, the truth as it is known in Jesus Christ. It is the truth confessed universally by all believers, as taught in the next verse (1 Tim 3:16). The truth is known as it is revealed by the Spirit of Christ in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. It is this truth that the church must protect, uphold, and preserve. The church is unique — it is the only institution that has been given this charter. Academies, seminaries, publishing houses, the US Library of Congress, copyrighted authors, bloggers, influencers, and heads of families may draw from and be enriched and enlightened by the church’s truth, but the truth’s God-ordained home is the church.
The truth of Scripture is what reveals the church’s identity.5 Louis Berkhof notes the following figurative designations of the church in its various aspects. The church, he says, 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.
The church is also variously known as the Bride of Christ, the Visible Kingdom of God, The Family of God, God’s Vineyard, God’s Army Militant, The Courts of God, etc. All of these Biblical titles identify the church in her various roles as she relates to God and man. All of these designations are important and must be kept by the church. In this way no designation gains the supremacy to the exclusion of the others, e.g., “The church is a family”, or “The church is a preaching post.”
As the “pillar and ground of the truth” the church as a whole must guard against all fallacies, errors, and heresies that would compromise her unique charter. Calvin comments, “By these words Paul means that the church is the faithful keeper of God’s truth in order that it may not perish in the world.” The only way it can do this is by consistently ministering the truth as it is in Scripture and never legislating any new dogma.8 The faith that the church contends for has been “once for all time delivered to the saints” (Jude 3); nevertheless, its stewardship as an office or ministry belongs to each and every church elder individually and severally in the various courts of the church (1 Cor 4:1,2; Tit 1:7). In our presbyterian denomination, the Session of a particular church, the regional presbytery, and the general or national assembly are all visible manifestations of the same church. Wilhelmus a Brakel gives the following Biblical reasons why the truth must be kept entirely pure as God has revealed it:
(1) God is the only Lawgiver (James 4:12);
(2) one may neither add to nor subtract from Scripture (cf. Deut.. 4:2; Rev. 22:18–19);
(3) the Lord Jesus rejects human commandments and institutions (Matt. 15:9);
(4) it is the calling of ministers to teach all that the Lord has commanded them in His Word (cf. Matt. 28:19–20);
(5) every member must be watchful against becoming a servant of men, not allowing himself to be brought under the dominion of anyone (cf. Gal. 5:1; 1 Cor. 7:23).
When the truth of Scripture is avowed and kept in the “house of God, it will be found to be sufficient to reveal the church’s full identity. Then the church’s manifold designations as the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and other designations will, by God’s grace, be manifested to all.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:30-21 ESV).