Another Step Toward a Biblical Ecclesiology: Acts 9 on Baptism, Membership, and the Church

baptism_of_st_paul_-_capela_palatina_-_palermo_-_italy_2015-2The book of Acts is pivotal for understanding the nature and function of the church. It is also challenging, because it presents a church that is “born” on Pentecost, at first contained to Jerusalem, but later expanded to Judea and Samaria and finally unleashed the ends of the earth. At the same time, it’s founding members were believers before receiving the Spirit and yet the gift of the Spirit is one of the distinguishing marks of the church as it spreads from Israel to Italy. In four instances (Acts 2, 8, 10, 19), the Spirit is given, but in no two instances are the exact events the same. For instance, speaking in tongues accompanies the Spirit in Acts 2, 10, 19, but not Acts 8. Likewise, water baptism precedes the Holy Spirit in Acts 8, but follows in Acts 10.

From just a sampling of evidences, the book of Acts is both foundational and frustrating for understanding the nature of the church. It is foundational because of the patterns we see in how churches are formed—the Word of God is preached, Jews then Samaritans than Gentiles repent and believe, they are baptized, and then gathered into churches. Yet, it is frustrating because not everything in Acts is reproducible today. The personal visitations by Jesus, the miracles of healing, the speaking in tongues, and the survival of snake bites are all incidents that we might say have discontinued—unless one believes otherwise. For now my point is not to defend or deny cessationism, but to merely highlight how that debate among others finds difficulty in Acts.

Any point of ecclesiology, therefore, needs to be aware of Acts transitional nature. It should take into account how the Holy Spirit has given us this book to teach us about the founding of the church, but it is not a manual for every point of doctrine. That being said, where else do we turn in Scripture to find how to plant, revitalize, and shepherd churches? Therefore, we do need to watch for patterns and principles in Acts, but always with awareness of some discontinuity between Acts period of transition and our own day.

Clearing Up Two Points of Ecclesiology

With this approach to Acts in mind, I want to clear up two points of ecclesiology from Acts 9. From this chapter, I have heard two statements about the church:

  1. Paul’s baptism by Ananias suggests a local church is not (absolutely) needed for a legitimate baptism.
  2. The Church is fundamentally a universal concept, as Acts 9:31 describes the church regionally, not locally (i.e., in one spatio-temporal location).

While there is truth in these statements, ultimately I think we are on more solid ground to say

  1. Paul’s baptism was unique, but not so unique as to break from the normative pattern of the New Testament. We should exercise caution when making application from his experience, but at the same time, we can see how his unusual experience fits the larger pattern of baptism and “church membership” in Acts.
  2. The universal Church “throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria . . .” is a located in spatio-temporal “locales” (something I’ve tried to describe elsewhere).

In what follows, I will argue that Paul’s baptism is both a unique point in redemptive history and one that follows the pattern of baptism and church membership (i.e., association with other disciples in a local church). Exploring the relationship of Paul’s baptism to the churches in Damascus and Jerusalem will also prove the corollary: life in the universal church is experienced through local assemblies. In the end, I will list seven points of application from this chapter related to ecclesiology. Continue reading

Let’s Increase the Drama: Kevin Vanhoozer on the Church as Gospel Theater

drama.jpegWhy should you commit to, participate in, become a member—or however you want to describe it—of a local church? Because Christians are called to gather to “dramatize” the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While “drama” in the church is often a troublesome condition related to strife and gossip; rightly understood, drama is the very reason why the church exists. Consider the insightful words of Kevin Vanhoozer (The Drama of Doctrine), who describes the communion of the church as a theater troupe called and commissioned to interpret God’s Script through their faithful living and Word-based improvisation.

The church has to celebrate what no other institution can celebrate: communion with God and communion with others. The Lord’s Supper is a communal act of solemn, yet ultimately joyful, thanksgiving. The shared bread and wine recall the theo-drama’s climax and rehearse the play’s conclusion. It is a key scene to the meaning of the whole, and it ought to affect our interpretation of all the other scenes. The Supper cannot, however, be performed by individual actors, no matter how virtuosic their talent; it takes a company. A company is, in the first instance, an assembly. The church is that singular assembly that keeps company gospel and with one another, not least by breaking bread together (com panis = “with bread”). But the church is a company, second, in the theatrical sense: a troupe of speakers, singers, and actors. It is the company of the forgiven, and this is why the company communicates, indeed radiates, joy.

Continue reading

The Church’s Place in *Framing* the Gospel (A Review of 1 Corinthians 1–10)

sermon photoIn 2016 our church has spent the year in 1 Corinthians, at least the first 10 chapters. As we turn our attention to the birth of Lord in just a couple weeks, we took time to review a few aspects of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) that we’ve seen in Paul’s letter. For now the debate about Trinity-gender analogies (1 Corinthians 11:3) and head coverings (11:6, 10) will have to wait.

In what we considered yesterday, I made seven applications from 1 Corinthians 1–10 related to the universal and local church. Here they are in list form. You can listen or read the sermon notes; study questions and further resources are listed below.

  1. The church is both local and universal.
  2. The universal church is made of local churches.
  3. Individual Christians experience the universal church thru the local church.
  4. The local church calls the universal church to walk together as disciples of Christ.
  5. The local church (not the universal church) has been given leaders who know their sheep.
  6. The local church has power AND wisdom to exercise the keys of the kingdom.
  7. The local church provides visible boundaries for the universal church.

All sermons in the series “The Life-Changing Gospel in God’s Local Church” can be found here. Continue reading

An Ecclesiology of Churches: Why the Universal Church Is Best Regarded as a Myriad of Local Churches

 

lights To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus,
called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name
of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.
– 1 Corinthians 1:2 –

When someone says, “I’m a part of the universal church,” what do they mean? Do they mean they are a Christian and by implication they must be a member of the world-wide communion of saints? In our day of individual expression and come-as-you-are spirituality, I think this is what many mean. But it’s not just those who try to do Christianity on their own that may feel a pull towards the universal church sans the local church. There are plenty of well-read, Bible students who have also found fellowship and community outside a local assembly.

But if that is so, where do universal church-ers, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Leeman, celebrate communion? Under whose authority are they? And does such spiritual oversight need to come from a church? Is there any connection between the church they attend on Sunday and the elect of God from all nations? If not, why go to a local church at all? But if there is a relationship between the local church and universal church, what is it?

How Do I Get to the Universal Church?

I ask these questions because I suspect many Christians have not given lengthy thought to the relationship between the church or churches they attend on any given Sunday (i.e., a local church) and the elect of God who will one day gather around the throne of Christ (i.e., the universal church). After all, when was the last time you heard a sermon on the differences and distinctives of the local and universal church? Continue reading

A Perfect Balance: The Church Universal and Local

churchTo the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
— 1 Corinthians 1:2 —

In the ancient world Corinth collected many cultures and housed large numbers of gatherings. It is not surprising Paul sought to establish a church there (Acts 18) and when he wrote his first letter to them to address concerns he described them as ‘the church of God that is in Corinth.’

In these words, Paul intersected the two aspects of the church—the church universal (church of God) with the church local (that is in Corinth). Such a balanced presentation of the church foreshadows much of what Paul would say throughout his letter and it reminds us that whenever we think of the church, we must avoid two errors:

  1. Parochialism. Focusing so much on the local church one can forget the larger work of God in the world. In this, the local church blocks out a vision of the growing kingdom.
  2. Expansionism. Focusing so much on the universal church one can neglect the importance of the local gathering. In this, the kingdom of God engulfs the church.

Corrective to both of these extremes, we can see in 1 Corinthians 1:2 how the local and universal church intersect. Moreover, in the matrix between local and universal, there is great potential for fruitful reflection, much like the marketplace in Corinth itself. Continue reading

Theological Triage (pt. 2): Unity in the Gospel, Separation in the Church

t4gOn Monday, I considered the idea of theological triage—the process of holding different Christian beliefs at different levels of importance—and how the first level differentiates “mere Christianity” from errant cults and false religions. Today I will continue to consider theological triage as it relates to second-level Christian beliefs, those doctrines on which gospel-believing churches agree to disagree.

Recognizing and Affirming Historical and Doctrinal Differences Increases Unity

Within orthodox Christianity, second level doctrines separate genuine believers. Points of division at this level include baptism (What does it signify and who is the proper candidate?), the Lord’s Supper (What do the elements represent?), and the use of spiritual gifts (Do tongues continue today?)—to name a few prominent ones. How such doctrines are espoused and questions are answered causes the need for different assemblies of worship. Historically, it has often been disagreement on one of these issues that have separated (or created) different churches (or denominations).

For Baptists, our pedigree originates about 400 years ago, when a growing number of Protestants began to realize from Scripture that baptism by immersion was the proper mode for professing believers. Stepping away from state churches, local Baptist congregation were free and responsible to God for their actions, and on their biblical conviction they recovered the practice of believer’s baptism. Because of its historical roots, Baptist churches share much with other evangelical denominations (e.g., all the matters agreed upon in the first level), but there are enough distinctives that make it impossible for Baptists to congregate with paedobaptists. Continue reading

Where Do Leaders Come From?

Russell Moore, dean of Southern Seminary, provides an encouraging and evangelistic reminder that the most energetic saints may not even be saved today.  He writes,

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.

Moore’s essay points to the larger state of things in Christianity, and the way we can easily get discouraged when we evaluate “how things are going.”  His response is salutary.  When we feel discouraged our nation, our city, or our college, we should remember what Carl F. H. Henry said to him when he asked the late evangelical leader if he had hope for the future. Henry replied, ““Why, you speak as though Christianity were genetic,” he said. “Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans.”

The same is true for local churches and their pastors. While we may often think that we need to find the next nursery director, Sunday School superintendent, or missions director from within the pews, it is just as likely that this Sunday they will be shuffling home after waking up in a Hooter’s parking lot.

This is a great reminder to begin the year.  God is at work all around us, and that we ought to trust less in the men we know, and more in the God who knows all. God makes leaders, and we ought to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send many into his harvest field.

Read the rest of “The Next Billy Graham Might Be Drunk Right Now.”

Sola Dei Gloria, dss