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

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

P.T. O’Brien, W.E. Vine, and the Heavenly Assembly

Peter O’Brien in his commentaries on Ephesians and Colossians, in his article on the church in the IVP Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, and in his extensive chapter on the heavenly assembly in The Church in the Bible and the World  (edited by D.A. Carson) has argued for the eschatological orientation of the NT term “ekklesia.”  His arguments are persuasive and worthy of consideration for understanding the NT language of church and churches–though not all agree.  (I look forward to Gregg Allison’s book on ecclesiology and his interaction with O’Brien). 

Nevertheless, one person who does agree with O’Brien is W.E. Vine, the early twentieth-century philogist who is most well-known for his Expository Dictionary of OT and NT Words.  Reading W.E. Vine’s commentary on “the church” in Colossians 1:18 (in Volume 2 of The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine), I found a helpful discussion on the subject.  In it Vine makes an appeal for the plain reading of the Bible and concludes that the New Testament conception of the universal church is a heavenly concept.  He writes:

The word ‘church,’ as used in this and similar passages [Col. 1:18, 24; cf. Eph. 1], contemplates the entire company as it will be seen when the Lord comes to receive it to Himself.  it is nowhere in Scripture viewed as an earthly organization established in the world, it is heavenly in its design, establishment and destiny.  Its individual members are incorporated into it as each one is born of God through faith in Christ.  At no period can all the bleivers living in the world have constituted the church.  They could not at that particular time be spoke of the body of Christ.  Most of the church had not come into existence in the early part of the  present era.  At the present time most of those who form part of it are in Heaven (they are not ceased to be members because they are there [cf. Heb. 12:23]).  By some the term “the church” is applied to all the believers living in the world at any time, but such a view is not borne out by the teaching of the New Testament.  Belivers are formed into local churches, each of which is called a ‘body’ (1 Cor. 12:27).  But nowhere are the churches in any district or country or in the world organized into an entity or body.

Local churches, Scripturally formed, are visible communities, professing the same faith, governed by the same Lord, but this has never afforded any found for their external amalgation of for their being considered a church.  There is no such phrase in Scripture as “The Church on earth,” nor is the whole number of believers on earth viewed as, or spoke of, the church of God.  The idea is a pure inference and conveys a false impression, being a contravention of the teaching of Christ and the apostles (Comments on Colossians 1:18, p. 341-342).

May the Lord Jesus Christ give a greater love for his church as we understand it in its local and heavenly expressions.  

Sola Deo Gloria, dss