Understanding the New Testament Church

In order to define a NT church, we must first decide on the basis or authority for such an investigation.  Some hold to a blend of Scripture plus human reason or experience.  Others say the authority for such matters comes from the Scriptures and the church.  These ideas are unworkable because we  must then decide who shall be the judge of which voice is to prevail in matters of disagreement.

No, the evangelical believer insists that Scripture alone is the authority sufficient for faith and practice.  Any theory wherein God starts man out on the right track with the basics (as in the early church) but then expects him to develop his own structure arising from the divine foundation, must be rejected as error for the simple reason that the church is always presented as God’s revelation from its inception to its consummation.  Nothing is left to imagination; all is part of the foreknown will and purpose of God.

That this is the correct view is confirmed by the fact that those who hold to other views have indeed built as seemed right to them, and the result is a bewildering maze of denominations, all very different and all claiming to be the true way.

Thus the question becomes:  What is the church according to the Bible (New Testament)?  The Scriptures present the church from two perspectives;  what is seen by God (often called the universal church), and what is seen by a man in a given location (the local church).  When we ask: What is the church (or what is the New Testament church), we are referring to the sum total of all blood bought believers of the New Testament age from beginning until the close.

If we ask:  What is a New Testament church? we are referring to a local expression of the whole in any one place.  But this presents us with a problem.  People and countries and cultures and customs being very diverse, the truths of the universal church are represented at the local level in very diverse ways.  Although these local representations may be peculiar, most of the time, the differences are inconsequential.

Nevertheless, sometime the differences are significant, and may violate essential truths so that the part ceases to be an accurate picture of the whole.  It is easy to understand, then, that down through the present age, a great deal of energy and discussion has gone into the study of exactly what constitutes a local church,  i.e., one that perfectly represents the universal church?

Now without question we are talking about an ideal; something as difficult to apprehend as a Christian who does not sin.  Not a bad analogy because both are set forth in the Scriptures as something to be earnestly sought; an ideal so real and so important that we must lay down our very lives for both.  Thus in one sense it is probably fair to say that there is no truly perfect New Testament local church anywhere on earth.

The very fact that local churches are filled with imperfect people guarantees imperfections.  But used in a more general sense, (the ordinary understanding), we can use the expression informally to describe a local church that seeks to pattern itself after the church as described in the New Testament.   To put it another way, a church that (except for differences in time and culture), the apostles themselves could visit with approval.

How would we describe such a church in simple terms?

A NT church would be a church in which all was done to “adorn” (as Paul puts it) the foundational principles of the “ekklesia” – the called out company of the elect meeting together as set forth in Scripture.  Let me suggest seven foundational principles that are key.  A New Testament church will express and never mar the truths of  1) the Headship and centrality of Christ;   2)  the unity of all believers;   3)   the priesthood of all believers;   4)  the family nature of the church;   5)  the sanctity of the sexes;   6)  the divine order in leadership;   7)  the mission known as the Great Commission.

A chart will help compare ways in which these vital truths may be either expressed or suppressed practically.

Truth Expressing the Truth Suppressing the Truth
Christ: Head & Center
Eph. 1:22-23;  Col. 1:18
Weekly breaking of bread
Circle with emblems in the midst
Earthly head  “The Pastor”
Earthly headquarters
Unity of all believers
Nature of the bride of Christ
I Cor. 12:13; Eph. 4:3,4;  Jn 17:21-23
Use of names that include all believers
(saints, believers, Christians, etc.)
No denominational names
Denominational names
Local church “membership” lists
Priesthood of all Believers
Church age:  all may draw near
Heb. 10:22;   Rev. 1:6
Spirit led worship and ministry
Giftedness of all believers
Clergy/laity division
Ministry by professionals
Family nature of the local church
Father; little children; brethren
Eph. 2:19 “the household of God”
Family functions of Acts 2:42
Use of letters of introduction
Receiving believers into fellowship
The church a mixed multitude
of saved and lost
Sanctity of the sexes
Order established at creation
Gen. 1:27;   2:24
Roles within the church
(men leading; women supporting)
Use of the head covering
Headship/sonship confused
Use of ‘cultural argument’ to
reject selected instructions
Divine order in leadership  Plurality under God  Safety in multitude of counselors
Tit. 1:5;   Acts 14:23
Elders: overseers in spiritual things
Deacons: administration in temporal
One man ministry & rule
(perhaps with board of subordinates)
Lack of accountability
Men of the church largely spectators
Mission = Great Commission
Love / gospel  ->  seek the lost
Mt. 28:18-20;   Acts 1:8
Witnesses & evangelists equipped
within the church and sent out
by the church
Lost expected to “go” to church
to find God
Verbal witness = “come to meeting”

How do we know if ours is a New Testament church?