Ecclesiology – A Study of the Doctrine of the Church

Descent of the Spirit by Dore

‘Decent of the Spirit’ by Gustave Dore’

Ecclesiology – the study of the Church: its origin, orders, sacraments, history and future.


I. Biblical images of the Church.

  1. The Church is described in the Bible with many titles and metaphors.
  • The background of the English word “church” is found by observing the various names for “church” around the world. They are commonly derived from the Greek kuriache, “those who are possessed by the kurios”, or “Lord”.
  • Ecclesia is another Greek word that we translate “church.” ‘Ecclesia’ means “a called out assembly”. This Greek word is based on the verb kaleo, or “to call.”
  1. St. Augustine described the Church as a corpus per mixtum, a “mixed body”.
  • In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus taught that “wheat” and “tares” (true and false believers) exist together in the visible Church.
  • Theologians throughout history have distinguished between the “visible” and “invisible” Church.
  • The true people of God are largely a part of the “invisible” Church.

3.  The Church is described in the New Testament as:

  • A ‘mystery’ (Eph. 3:3-6 & 9).
  • A Body over which Christ is the Head (I Cor. 12:12-14, 25-27).
  • A Building (Eph. 2:19-22).
  • The Bride of Christ (Revelation 22:17; Ephesians 5:25-32).


II. The origin of the Church.

  1. Some denominations within Christianity believe that the Church originated in Old Testament history.
  • This idea arose from a misinterpretation of Acts 7:37-38, which, in the 1611 King James Version is mistranslated as “This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness”. The verse should read, “was with the assembly in the wilderness”.
  • This theory states that all true believers in the one true God, since the time of Adam until the Second Advent of Christ, are part of the ‘church’ which is made up of all the faithful saints of God throughout human history.
  • It is the conviction of the author of this article, and the majority of Evangelical, as well as Catholic denominations, that this concept of the Church is erroneous.
  1. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He stated that He was yet to build His Church.

A) In Matthew 16:15-18, Jesus said He would build a future Church upon the testimony of Peter:

“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.’” – Matthew 16:15-18 (NKJV)

B) After His crucifixion and resurrection, He told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Holy Spirit:

“Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.” – Luke 24:49

C) When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, Jesus’ disciples were endued with power to be the Church and to fulfill the Great Commission:

“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, ‘Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.’” – Acts 2:1-11


III. The Church – One and Holy.

  1. There are other metaphors used to describe the Church.
  • The Church is described as a “body”, with Jesus Christ as the “head”.
  • The Church is also called the Laos tou Theou, or the “People of God.”
  • The Church is described as a building, built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, with Christ as “the Chief cornerstone”. The rest of the Church is made up of the individual stones.
  1. What are the chief characteristics of the Church?
  • In the fourth century, the Church was defined as “one, holy, catholic and Apostolic” in its character. (“catholic”, meaning “universal” or “world-wide”.)
  • These terms are rarely used in Protestantism, but they remain an excellent description of the true Church.
  1. What does it mean that we are “one”?
  • The Church is a community of saints, or communio sanctorum.
  • The visible Church always will be fragmented. The invisible Church is necessarily one.
  • When and why should churches split? Certainly not over minor matters. The error of schismatic behavior is as bad as remaining linked to a corrupt body.
  1. What does it mean that the Church is holy”?
  • No institution has been so gifted throughout history as the Christian Church. When we fail to obey the mission God has given us, we are all the more blameworthy.
  • So how can we say the Church is holy? We appear to be very unholy.
  • “Holy” means “set apart.” The Church is holy in the sense that it has a sacred mission. And God has promised that the Church will not fail in her mission.
  • Jesus said, “…on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:18
  • The Church is subject to the concentrated ministry of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Church is where the saints (“holy ones” or “called out ones”) are gathered, so this makes the Church a holy institution as well.


IV. The Church: Catholic & Apostolic

  1. The third characteristic of the Church is that it is “catholic,” or universal.
  • The Apostles’ Creed says that we believe in the “catholic” Church. But this is not referring to the Roman institution.
  • The fellowship of the Church goes beyond regional boundaries.
  1. The final characteristic of the Church is that it is “Apostolic”.
  • In the first century, the primary authority in the Church was vested in the Apostles. An apostolos is one who is “sent from a kurios (Lord)” to represent him.
  • There is a significant difference between the disciples (learners) of Christ and His Apostles.
  • Those who rejected the Apostles rejected Jesus. Groups such as the Gnostics disputed the authority of the Apostles, but tried to keep an allegiance to Jesus and other Biblical characters.
  • Apostolic authority is challenged today, especially by higher critics and feminist theologians.
  • Those who attack the Apostles attack the foundations of the Church.
  • The abandonment of Apostolic authority is at the heart of the demise of the visible Church in Europe.
  1. During the Reformation, as today, it was debated as to who was the true Church. The question is stated more accurately, “What is a true Church – What are its marks?”
  • Proper preaching of the Gospel.
  • Proper administration of the sacraments.
  • Proper discipline and government of God’s people.
  1. Catholic, Protestant (Reformed) and Eastern Orthodox Christians make up the three major branches of Christianity. However, some of the biggest obstacles we will encounter as Evangelicals are misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Catholics often use the very same terminology as Protestants or Evangelical Christians do, but with a different interpretation. They assume we are talking about the same thing, and we as well mistakenly assume that they understand what we are trying to share with them from the Bible.

Three fundamental differences in understanding between Catholic and Evangelical Christians:

  • The Church. Catholics view “The Church” as a visible institution outside of which there is no salvation (Protestants are ‘tolerated’ because the Pope declared them “separated brethren”). Protestants view the Church as a body of “called out” believers in Christ (the invisible “Body of Christ” which only God knows those who are truly His) who assemble to worship God and encourage one another in the faith.
  • Salvation by Grace. Catholics profess to believe in “Salvation by Grace through Faith”, but their interpretation of it is un-Biblical, because they see “grace” as being imputed to them through the Sacraments. Protestants accept the New Testament definition of “grace” as “unmerited favor” and Salvation as being by grace through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, and not through the Church.
  • The Priesthood. Catholics see the “Priesthood” as an elite class servants of the Church which have achieved a somewhat higher level of spirituality through Penance, Vows, Ordination into the supposed “apostolic line” of clergy, Seminary, and other religious training. Protestants believe in the “priesthood of all believers”; all believers may now come boldly to the throne of God’s grace because Christ has become our Advocate to the Father.


V. Worship in the Church

  1. Revelation 5 is one of the most powerful passages of worship in the Bible.
  • Every Christian should be able to relate to this kind of heavenly worship.
  • We were created to worship God. Once we are regenerate, we have a capacity and a hunger to express the worth and value of God.
  • One of the key functions of God’s Church is to express worship.
  1. Worship is the vocation of the Church. But what is worship?
  • Worship is a measure of worth, value or honor. Worship honors God as God.
  • Romans 1 teaches that, in our fallen state, our basic sin is refusal to worship God.
  • In the Old Testament, worship was seen primarily as an offering or a sacrifice. Some sacrifices were done simply to honor God. Music and praise were seen as a kind of sacrifice in that system, and it is not error to give this kind of sacrifice today (Rom. 12:1–2).
  • Adoration is another kind of worship that is characterized by expressions of intense love from our inmost being. This is a spiritual expression of love that defies precise definition.
  1. What does it mean to worship God in “spirit and in truth”? John 4 is where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman and tells her how to worship God. But what does it mean?
  • The second part is not too difficult. We are not to worship God falsely— neither through idolatry nor hypocrisy.
  • The first part is more difficult. It probably refers to “soulful” worship, worship that flows from the heart, from the very depths of our being.
  • During the Reformation, the priority was proper worship of God. All the Reformers were concerned with worshiping God in truth, that is, purifying their churches from idolatry.
  • The patterns of worship were dictated in Old Testament times. One principle we can learn from this was that the entire person should be involved in worship: the mind and the five senses, together with the heart, the will and the spirit.

VI. The Organization of the Church.

  1. The Holy Spirit’s gifts to the Church (Eph. 4:7 & 11 – 12; 1 Cor. 12:28):
  • Apostles
  • Prophets
  • Evangelists
  • Pastors
  • Teachers
  • Miracles
  • Healers
  • Helps
  • Administrators
  • Languages
  1. It’s Officers:

A) The New Testament teaches the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:4-5 & 9; Revelation 1:5b-6; Revelation 5:9-10).

B) Because the Canon of inspired Scripture is now complete, ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ no longer exist in the modern Church, except in the similitude of missionaries sent out from churches to unreached regions of the world to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

C) However, there are specific offices of ministry and leadership in the Church. They are:

  • Deacons – from the Greek word ‘diákonos’, meaning ‘servant’ or ‘helper’, an office usually accompanied by gifts of ‘evangelism’, ‘administration’ and ‘helps’.
  • Elders – from the Greek word ‘presbyter’, synonymous with ‘pastor’ and ‘teacher’.
  • Overseer – from the Greek word ‘epískopos’, usually translated ‘bishop’, meaning an ‘overseer’ or ‘overseeing-presbyter’; that is, a ‘pastor-teacher’ whose position and ministry spans a region or area of churches whose pastors are under his supervision.


VII. The Sacraments of the Church

  1. It is the privilege of an ordained minister to administer the sacraments.
  • As important as it is, Sacramentology is a hotly debated issue, with many controversies surrounding it.
  • Some churches prefer the word “ordinances”. One reason we use the word “sacraments” is that these actions are sacred.
  • This explains the seriousness of the debate.
  1. The number of the sacraments of the Church is one of the debated issues.

A) The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments, all of which are said to infuse grace into the soul. This grace is ex opere operato, which means “through the working of the works.”

B) In the Roman Church the sacrament does not work automatically, but it can be hindered by the recipient.

  • The first sacrament administered in the New Testament was “baptism”. This will be discussed in full in a subsequent article.
  • Even if a Catholic loses his justification, he is not rebaptized.
  • At “confirmation”, the second sacrament of the Roman Church, new grace is given to the child to prepare him for this new phase of his life.
  • “Penance” is the third sacrament in Catholicism. It is the “second plank” of justification. Grace is infused and, if justification is lost, it can be regained via penance.
  • “Matrimony” is the fourth sacrament and, as before, gives grace to those about to be married.
  • “Holy orders” is the fifth sacrament of Rome. It is given to those in ministry to enable them to dispense grace and offer the prayer of consecration, which changes the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
  • The sixth sacrament is “extreme unction”. It originally was not called “last rites,” but was based on James 5, which describes an anointing for healing not death.
  • The last sacrament we have left is the “eucharist”. “Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper” dispenses grace to the recipient. It will be discussed in full in a subsequent lecture.
  1. Most Protestants reduce the seven sacraments to two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are commonly referred to as Ordinances rather than Sacraments, and the other five are usually referred to as Rites.
  • Luther wrote “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” against the sacerdotalism of the Roman institution. “Sacramental salvation” was attacked in this book and “justification by faith alone” was exalted.
  • The Reformers said that the only sacraments they would recognize must be those directly instituted by Christ. This limited the number to two. Other activities, such as “ordination”, could be ordinances, but not sacraments.
  • The Reformers also said that the sacraments functioned ex opera operantis, meaning that “the benefits are received by faith”.
  1. The Sacraments are signs and seals. They are the Word dramatized. They represent God’s guarantee that we will receive the benefits of salvation.


VIII. Baptism

  1. The sacrament of Baptism is practiced in a variety of ways.
  • We baptize adults and children, and we do so for different reasons.
  • The baptism of John the Baptist is not the model for baptism today. It was directed specifically to the Jews, who were technically in Old Testament times. It should not be used as a pattern for today.
  • There was a Jewish practice known as proselyte baptism, one performed on Gentiles. John the Baptist proclaimed the need for Jews to be baptized in a similar manner.
  1. When Jesus instituted the New Covenant, He gave new signs to represent it.
  • Remember that God gave a sign to Noah to represent the covenant God made with him – the rainbow.
  • God gave a sign for the Old Covenant as well: Circumcision.
  • Paul asked, “What advantage is it to be a Jew?” The question was rhetorical — he was saying that the things that made them Jewish (such as the bearing of covenant signs) were not insignificant.
  • The cutting of circumcision represented not only the blessings of the covenant, but the cursings as well. On this basis, Paul was completely opposed to the Judaizing movement (see Galatians).
  • There is significant continuity between the Old Covenant and the New. But not identity. They are not separate, but they are distinct.
  • The reality of our union with Christ is made clearer by our baptism. God has made promises to us, and baptism reminds us of those promises.
  • In Colossians 2:8–12, Paul discusses exactly what the rite of baptism signifies for us.
  • If I were the only person in the world God had ordained to save, then Jesus would have had to die on the cross for my sins.
  • Baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ.
  1. Who qualifies for baptism?
  • The Scriptural qualification for baptism in the New Testament is that you sincerely believe in the Gospel – the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is called ‘Believer’s baptism’ and requires that the recipient at least be old enough to understand and believe the Gospel.
  • This was demonstrated in Acts 8:35-37 by Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?’ Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’”
  • Just as the Old Testament signs were given to believers and their children, New Testament signs were also given.
  • The Old Testament sign of circumcision also symbolized faith in God—there is no change at this point in the New Testament.
  • The validity of baptism depends not on the recipient or the baptizer, but on God.
  1. Modes of baptism.

Various “modes” of baptism have been used by Christians throughout Church history: Dipping – the head only, Sprinkling, Pouring and Immersion.

  • Romans 6:3-4 seems to suggest that “immersion” is the Biblical mode because it symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:3-4
  1. Some denominations, such as Catholic and Reformed churches, also practice “Infant” (also called “Covenant”) Baptism.
  • The case against “infant baptism” is found in Acts 8:35-37 where the “requirement” for baptism given by Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch was that he understood and believed the Gospel. An infant cannot meet this requirement.
  1. The Baptismal formula.
  • The “baptismal formula” used by the majority of Christian denominations is “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti” (from the Latin Vulgate).
  • The words of Jesus found in Matthew 28:19, “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”


IX. The Lord’s Supper

  1. The New Testament makes the Lord’s Supper a central part of the corporate worship of the Church.
  • The book of Acts records this event (Acts 2).
  • The Passover meal Jesus shared with His disciples emphasizes the importance of this sacrament.
  • Jesus changes the classical wording of the Passover rite when He makes reference to the bread being His “body” and the wine His “blood”.
  • This announcement of the New Covenant marks an important point in redemptive history: the beginning of the New Covenant and the end of the Old. Christ’s death becomes central to the Christian faith from this point on.
  1. But theological controversy has come from this event in the Upper Room. A major point of division for Christians around the world is the exact nature of the Lord’s Supper, both its essence and form.
  • The Protestant Reformation marked a separation from the Catholic errors concerning the sacraments, but even among themselves, the Protestants could not agree on the mode or manner of the presence of Christ in the sacraments.
  • Luther retreated to the words of institution: Hoc est corpus meum—“This is My body.”
  • Priests did the Mass in Latin, which was unknown to the people. They were ridiculed by the common man, who said things like, “Look at the priest and all his ‘hocus pocus’!” This portion of the Mass is where that phrase originates.
  1. The major views of the Lord’s Supper are claimed by the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Anabaptists, and the Calvinists.
  • The Roman Catholic view is that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus.
  • The doctrine of “transubstantiation” was developed to answer these objections.
  • The philosopher Aristotle said that all objects are made up of substance and accidens (appearance). The raw matter and the appearance to the senses of a given object were separated in his system.
  • So in the miracle of the Mass, the substance (inner core, essence) of the bread and wine change. The accidens, or appearance, does not. This was a double miracle—not only did the substance change, but the accidens did not follow that change. Supernaturally, the accidens is sustained even though the substance changes.
  • Objection: Luther said this is more miraculous than necessary. Jesus can be physically present without the bread and wine being changed. Jesus is added to the bread and wine; thus we call this view “consubstantiation”. The “con” means “with.”
  • Calvin objected to all of these views; he was concerned that a physical body (which Jesus has) can be in only one place at a time, and Jesus says His is in heaven. Thus, Jesus’ body (which is clearly said to be present in some way by Rome and Luther) can’t be present in the sacraments in any form. But the divine nature of Jesus can be everywhere at once. The divine nature of Christ is therefore present at the Lord’s Supper. He is really there, but spiritually, not physically.
  • The Anabaptists view the Lord’s Supper merely as a memorial. There is no miracle and no grace is communicated; we only perform a holy duty as instructed by our Lord.
  1. The time factors of the past, present, and future relate to the Lord’s Supper.
  • The Lord’s Supper focuses us on the past, as the Anabaptists emphasize.
  • It also focuses us on the present meeting we have with Jesus as we partake of the bread and wine, as taught by the other three positions in some way.
  • It also focuses us on our future, on the time when we will sit with Jesus and all the saints and happily partake of His holy food in heaven.

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