Chapter 11: THE CHURCH
Seventh-day Adventists Believe...
The church is the community of believers who confess Jesus
Christ as Lord and Saviour. In continuity with the people of
God in Old Testament times, we are called out from the
world; and we join together for worship, for fellowship, for
instruction in the Word, for the celebration of the Lord's
Supper, for service to all mankind, and for the worldwide
proclamation of the gospel. The church derives its authority
from Christ, who is the incarnate Word, and from the
Scriptures, which are the written Word. The church is God's
family; adopted by Him as children, its members live on the
basis of the new covenant. The church is the body of Christ,
a community of faith of which Christ Himself is the Head.
The church is the bride for whom Christ died that He might
sanctify and cleanse her. At His return in triumph, He will
present her to Himself a glorious church, the faithful of
all the ages, the purchase of His blood, not having spot or
wrinkle, but holy and without blemish.
--Fundamental Belief, 11
Overcome by anger, the elderly man pounds the rod he
carries against the boulder. Drawing it back, he swings
again, and shouts: "Hear now you rebels! Must we bring water
for you out of this rock?"
A stream of water gushes out of the rock, meeting
Israel's need. But, in taking credit to himself for the gift
of water instead of ascribing it to the Rock, Moses had
sinned. And because of that sin, he would not enter the
Promised Land (see Num. 20:7-12).
That Rock was Christ, the foundation on which God
established His people, both individually and corporately.
This imagery runs throughout Scripture.
In the last sermon Moses preached to Israel, perhaps
recalling this incident, he used the metaphor of the rock to
picture God's stability and dependability:
"`Ascribe greatness to our God.
He is the Rock, His work is perfect;
For all His ways are justice,
A God of truth and without injustice;
Righteous and upright is He'" (Deut. 32:3,4).
Centuries later David echoed the same theme--His Saviour
as the rock:
"In God is my salvation and my glory;
The rock of my strength,
And my refuge, is in God" (Ps. 62:7).
Isaiah used the same imagery of the coming Messiah: "`A
stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious
cornerstone, a sure foundation'" (Isa. 28:16).
Peter testified that Christ fulfilled this prediction,
not as a common stone, but a "living stone, rejected indeed
by men, but chosen by God and precious" (1 Peter 2:4). Paul
identified Him as the only sure foundation, saying, "No
other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid,
which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11). Referring to the rock
that Moses struck, he said, "And all drank the same
spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that
followed them, and that Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4).
Jesus Christ Himself used the image directly when He
declared, "`On this rock I will build My church, and the
gates of Hades shall not prevail against it'" (Matt. 16:18).
He established the Christian church on Himself, the Living
Rock. His own body was to be sacrificed for the sins of the
world, the striking of the Rock. Against a church built on
the solid foundation He provides, nothing can prevail. From
this Rock the healing waters would flow to the thirsty
nations (cf. Eze. 47:1-12; John 7:37,38; Rev. 22:1-5).
How feeble and weak the church was when Christ made that
pronouncement! It consisted of a few tired, doubting,
selfpromoting disciples, a handful of women, and the fickle
multitude that vanished when the Rock was struck. Yet the
church was built, not on frail human wisdom and ingenuity,
but on the Rock of Ages. Time would reveal that nothing
could destroy His church or deter it from its mission of
glorifying God and leading men and women to the Saviour
(cf. Acts 4:12,13,20-33).
The Biblical Meaning of "Church"
In the Scriptures the word church(*1) is a translation of
the Greek ekklesia, which means "a calling out." This
expression was commonly used of any assembly summoned by the
practice of calling people to meet.
The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Old
Testament popular in Jesus' time, used ekklesia to translate
the Hebrew qahal, which stood for "gathering," "assembly,"
or "congregation" (Deut. 9:10; 18:16; 1 Sam. 17:47; 1 Kings
8:14; 1 Chron. 13:2).(*2)
This usage was broadened in the New Testament. Note how
it uses the term church: (1) believers assembled for worship
in a specific place (1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19,28); (2) believers
living in a certain locality (1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1
Thess. 2:14); (3) a group of believers in the home of an
individual (1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2); (4) a
group of congregations in a given geographic area (Acts
9:31);(*3) (5) the whole body of believers throughout the
world (Matt. 16:18; 1 Cor. 10:32; 12:28; cf. Eph. 4:11-16);
(6) the whole faithful creation in heaven and on earth
(Eph. 1:20-22; cf. Phil. 2:9-11).
The Nature of the Church
The Bible portrays the church as a divine institution,
calling it "the church of God" (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:2).
Jesus invested the church with divine authority (Matt.
18:17,18). We can understand the nature of the Christian
church by viewing its Old Testament roots and the various
metaphors the New Testament uses in speaking of it.
The Roots of the Christian Church
The Old Testament portrays the church as an organized
congregation of God's people. From the earliest times
God-fearing families in the lineage of Adam, Seth, Noah,
Shem, and Abraham were the guardians of His truth. These
households, in which the father functioned as the priest,
could be considered the church in miniature. To Abraham, God
gave the rich promises through which this household of God
gradually became a nation. Israel's mission was simply an
extension of that given Abraham: To be a blessing to all
nations (Gen. 12:1-3), showing God's love for the world.
The nation God brought out of Egypt was called "the
church [or "congregation," RSV, NIV] in the wilderness"
(Acts 7:38, KJV). Its members were considered "a kingdom of
priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5), God's "holy people"
(Deut. 28:9; cf, Lev. 26:12)--His church.
God placed them in Palestine, the center of the major
civilizations of the world. Three great continents--Europe,
Asia, and Africa--met in Palestine. Here the Jews were to be
"servants" to other nations, to extend the invitation to
others to join them as God's people. In short, God called
them out in order to call the nations in (Isa. 56:7). He
desired, through Israel, to create the largest church on
earth--a church where representatives of all nations of the
world would come to worship, learn of the true God, and
return to their own people with the message of salvation.
In spite of God's continual care for His people, Israel
became involved in idolatry, isolationism, nationalism,
pride, and selfcenteredness. God's people failed to fulfill
In Jesus, Israel came upon a watershed. God's people were
looking for a Messiah to free their nation, but not a
Messiah to set them free from themselves. At the cross,
Israel's spiritual bankruptcy became evident. By crucifying
Christ they demonstrated outwardly the decay that was
within. When they shouted, "`We have no king but Caesar!'"
(John 19:15), they were refusing to allow God to rule over
At the cross two opposite missions came to a climax: the
first, that of a church gone awry, so centered upon itself
that it was blinded to the very One who had given it its
existence; the second, that of Christ, so centered on love
for people that He perished in their place to give them
While the cross signified the end of Israel's mission,
Christ's resurrection inaugurated the Christian church and
its mission: the proclamation of the gospel of salvation
through the blood of Christ. When the Jews lost their
mission they became just another nation and ceased to be
God's church. In their place God established a new nation, a
church, that would carry forward His mission for the world
The New Testament church, closely related to ancient
Israel"s community of faith,(*4) is made up of both
converted Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ.
Thus true Israel is all those who by faith accept Christ
(see Gal. 3:26-29). Paul illustrates the new organic
relationship of these diverse peoples by the imagery of two
trees--a good and a wild olive tree, Israel and Gentiles,
respectively. The Jews who do not accept Christ are no
longer the children of God (Rom. 9:6-8) and are represented
by branches broken off of the good tree, while those Jews
who received Christ remain attached.
Paul portrays the Gentiles who accept Christ as branches
from the wild olive tree grafted into the good tree (Rom.
11:17-25). He instructs these new Gentile Christians to
respect the divine heritage of God's chosen instruments: "If
the root is holy, so are the branches. And if some of the
branches were broken off, and you being a wild olive tree,
were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker
of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast
against the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do
not support the root, but the root supports you"
The New Testament church differs significantly from its
Old Testament counterpart. The apostolic church became an
independent organization, separate from the nation of
Israel. National boundaries were discarded, giving the
church a universal character. Instead of a national church,
it became a missionary church, existing to accomplish God's
original plan, which was restated in the divine mandate of
its founder, Jesus Christ: "`Make disciples of all nations'"
Metaphoric Descriptions of the Church
The metaphoric descriptions of the New Testament church
illuminate the nature of the church.
1. The church as a body.
The metaphor of the body stresses the unity of the church
and the functional relationship of each member to the whole.
The cross reconciles all believers "to God in one body"
(Eph. 2:16). Through the Holy Spirit they are "baptized into
one body" (1 Cor. 12:13)--the church. As a body, the church
is nothing less than Christ's body (Eph. 1:23). It is the
organism through which He imparts His fullness. Believers
are the members of His body (Eph. 5:30). Consequently, He
gives spiritual life through His power and grace, to every
true believer. Christ is "the head of the body" (Col. 1:18),
the "head of the church" (Eph. 5:23).
In His love, God has given to each member of His church
body at least one spiritual gift that enables that member to
accomplish a vital function. Just as what each organ does is
vital to the human body, the successful completion of the
church's mission depends on the functioning of each of the
spiritual gifts given members. What good is a body without a
heart, or how much less efficient is it without eyes, or a
leg? If its members withhold their gifts the church will be
dead, or blind, or at least crippled. However, these
special, God-assigned gifts are not an end in themselves
(see chapter 16 of this book).
2. The Church as a temple.
The Church is "God's building," "the temple of God" in
which the Holy Spirit dwells. Jesus Christ is its foundation
and the "chief cornerstone" (1 Cor. 3:9-16; Eph. 2:20). This
temple is not a dead structure; it displays dynamic growth.
As Christ is the "living stone," Peter said, so believers
are "living stones" that make up a "spiritual house"
(1 Peter 2:4-6).
The building is not yet completed. New living stones are
constantly added to the temple that is "being built together
to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Eph.
2:22, NIV). Paul urges believers to use the best building
materials in this temple, so that it will endure the fiery
test at the Day of Judgment (1 Cor. 3:12-15).
The temple metaphor emphasizes both the holiness of the
local congregation and of the church at large. God's temple
is holy, said Paul. "If any one defiles the temple of God,
God will destroy him" (1 Cor. 3:17). Close alliances with
unbelievers are contrary to its holy character, Paul noted,
and should be avoided, "for what fellowship has
righteousness with lawlessness?...And what agreement has the
temple of God with idols?" (2 Cor. 6:14,16). (His counsel
pertains to both business and marriage relations.) The
church is to be held in great respect for it is the object
on which God bestows His supreme regard.
3. The church as a bride.
The church is represented as a bride, the Lord as the
bridegroom. The Lord solemnly pledges, "`I will betroth you
to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in
righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy'"
(Hosea 2:19). Again He assures, "`I am married to you'"
Paul uses the same imagery: I "present you as a chaste
virgin to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2). Christ's love for His
church is so deep and lasting that He "gave Himself for it"
(Eph. 5:25). He made this sacrifice "that He might sanctify
and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word"
Through the sanctifying influence of the truth of God's
word (John 17:17) and the cleansing that baptism provides,
Christ can purify the members of the church, taking away
their filthy garments and clothing them in the robe of His
perfect righteousness. Thus He can prepare the church to be
His bride--"a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or
any such thing, but...holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:27).
The church's full glory and splendor will not be seen until
4. The church as "Jerusalem above."
The Scriptures call the city of Jerusalem Zion. There God
dwells with His people (Ps. 9:11); it is from Zion that
salvation comes (Ps. 14:7; 53:6). That city was to be the
"joy of the whole earth" (Ps. 48:2).
The New Testament sees the church as the "Jerusalem
above," the spiritual counterpart of the earthly Jerusalem
(Gal. 4:26). The citizens of this Jerusalem have their
"citizenship in heaven" (Phil. 3:20). They are the "children
of promise," who are "born according to the Spirit,"
enjoying the liberty by which Christ has made them free
(Gal. 4:28,29; 5:1). The citizens of this city are no longer
in the bondage of attempting to be "justified by the law"
(Gal. 4:22,26,31; 5:4); "through the Spirit" they eagerly
wait for "the hope of righteousness by faith." They realize
that in Christ Jesus it is "faith working through love" that
gives them citizenship (Gal. 5:5,6).
Those who are part of this glorious company "have come to
Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly
Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the
general assembly and church of the firstborn who are
registered in heaven" (Heb. 12:22,23).
5. The church as a family.
The church in heaven and on earth is considered a family
(Eph. 3:15). Two metaphors are used to describe how people
join this family: adoption (Rom. 8:14-16; Eph. 1:4-6) and
the new birth (John 3:8). Through faith in Christ, those who
are newly baptized are no longer slaves, but children of the
heavenly Father (Gal. 3:26-4:7) who live on the basis of the
new covenant. Now they belong to the "household of God"
(Eph. 2:19), the "household of faith" (Gal. 6:10).
Members of His family address God as "Father" (Gal. 4:6)
and relate to one another as brother and sister (James 2:15;
1 Cor. 8:11; Rom. 16:1). Because he brought many into the
church family, Paul sees himself as a spiritual father. "In
Christ Jesus," he said, "I became your father through the
gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15, NIV). He refers to those he brought in
as "my beloved children" (1 Cor. 4:14; cf. Eph. 5:1).
A special characteristic of the church as family is
fellowship. Christian fellowship (koinonia in Greek) is not
merely socialization but a "fellowship in the gospel" (Phil.
1:5). It involves genuine fellowship with God the Father,
His Son, and the Holy Spirit (1 John 1:3; 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor.
13:14, RSV, NIV), as well as with believers (1 John 1:3,7).
Members, then, give anyone who becomes a part of the family
"the right hand of fellowship" (Gal. 2:9).
The metaphor of family reveals a caring church "where
people are loved, respected, and recognized as somebody. A
place where people acknowledge that they need each other.
Where talents are developed. Where people grow. Where
everybody is fulfilled."(*5) It also implies accountability,
a respect for spiritual parents, a watching out for
spiritual brothers and sisters. And finally, it means that
each member will have toward each other member a love that
engenders a deep loyalty that undergirds and strengthens.
Membership in a church family enables individuals who
vary greatly, in nature and disposition, to enjoy and
support one another. Church family members learn to live in
unity while not losing their individuality.
6. The church as the pillar and foundation of truth.
The church of the living God is "the pillar and
foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV). It is the
depository and citadel of truth protecting truth from the
attacks of its enemies. Truth, however, is dynamic, not
static. If members claim to have new light--a new doctrine
or a new interpretation of the Scriptures--those of
experience should test the new teaching by the standard of
Scripture (see Isa. 8:20). If the new light meets this
standard, then the church must accept it; if not, it should
reject it. All members should yield to this Bible-based
judgment, for "in the multitude of counselors there is
safety" (Prov. 11:14).
Through spreading the truth, i.e., through its witness,
the church becomes "`the light of the world,'" "`a city that
is set on a hill'" that "`cannot be hidden,'" and "`the salt
of the earth'" (Matt. 5:13-15).
7. The church as an army--militant and triumphant.
The church on earth is like an army engaged in battle. It
is called to war against spiritual darkness: "We do not
wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities,
against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this
age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly
places" (Eph. 6:12). Christians must "take up the whole
armor of God" that they "may be able to withstand in the
evil day, and having done all, to stand" (Eph. 6:13).
Throughout the centuries the church has had to fight
against the enemy, both within and without (see Acts
20:29,30; 1 Tim. 4:1). It has made remarkable progress and
obtained victories, but it is not yet the church triumphant.
Unfortunately, the church still has great defects. By means
of another metaphor, Jesus explained the imperfections
within the church: "`The kingdom of heaven is like a man who
sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was
sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat,
and went away'" (Matt. 13:24,25, NIV). When the servants
wanted to pull up the weeds, the farmer said that when "`you
are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.
Let both grow together until the harvest'" (Matt. 13:29,30,
Weeds and wheat both flourished in the field. While God
leads the converted to the church, Satan brings in the
unconverted. These two groups influence the whole body--the
one working for purification, the other for corruption. The
conflict between them--within the church--will continue till
the harvest, the Second Advent.
The church's external warfare is not over yet either.
Tribulation and strife lie ahead. Knowing that he has but a
short time, Satan is angry with God's church (Rev.
12:12,17), and will bring against it "`a time of trouble,
such as never was since there was a nation.'" But Christ
will intervene in behalf of His faithful people, who will be
"`delivered, everyone who is found in the book'" (Dan.
12:1). Jesus assures us that "`he who endures to the end
shall be saved'" (Matt. 24:13).
At Christ's return, the church triumphant will emerge.
At that time He will be able to present "to Himself a
glorious church," the faithful of all ages, the purchase of
His blood, "not having spot or wrinkle, but holy and without
blemish" (Eph. 5:27).
The Church Visible and Invisible
The terms visible and invisible have been used to
distinguish two aspects of the church on earth. The
metaphors we have discussed above particularly apply to the
1. The visible church.
The visible church is God's church organized for service.
It fulfills Christ's great commission to carry the gospel to
the world (Matt. 28:18-20), and prepares people for His
glorious return (1 Thess. 5:23; Eph. 5:27).
Christ's specially chosen witness, it illumines the world
and ministers as He did, preaching the gospel to the poor,
healing the brokenhearted, preaching deliverance to the
captives and recovering of sight to the blind, setting at
liberty those who are oppressed, preaching the acceptable
year of the Lord (Luke 4:18,19).
2. The invisible church.
The invisible church, also called the church universal,
is composed of all God's people throughout the world. It
includes the believers within the visible church, and many
who, though they do not belong to a church organization,
have followed all the light Christ has given them (John
1:9). This latter group includes those who have never had
the opportunity to learn the truth about Jesus Christ but
who have responded to the Holy Spirit and "by nature do the
things contained in the law" of God (Rom. 2:14).
The existence of the invisible church reveals that
worship of God is, in the highest sense, spiritual. "The
true worshipers," Jesus said, "will worship the Father in
spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship
Him" (John 4:23). Because of the spiritual nature of true
worship, human beings cannot calculate precisely who is and
who is not a part of God's church.
Through the Holy Spirit, God leads His people from the
invisible church into union with His visible church. "I have
other sheep that are not of this sheep pen, I must bring
them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall
be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:16, NIV). It is only
in the visible church that they can fully experience God's
truth, love, and fellowship, because He has given to the
visible church the spiritual gifts that edify its members
corporately and individually (Eph. 4:4-16). When Paul was
converted, God put him in touch with His visible church and
then appointed him to lead out in the mission of His church
(Acts 9:10-22). Just so today, He intends to lead His people
into His visible church, characterized by loyalty to God's
commandments and possessing the faith of Jesus, so they may
participate in finishing His mission on earth (Rev. 14:12;
18:4; Matt. 24:14; see chapter 12 of this book).
The concept of the invisible church has also been
considered to include the united church in heaven and on
earth (Eph. 1:22,23) and the church in hiding during times
of persecution (Rev. 12:6,14).
The Organization of the Church
Christ's mandate of carrying the gospel to the whole
world involves also the nurturing of those who have already
accepted the gospel. New members are to be established in
the faith and taught to use their God-given talents and
gifts in mission. Since "God is not the author of confusion"
but desires that all things should be done "decently and in
order" (1 Cor. 14:33,40), the church must have a simple but
The Nature of the Organization
Let us consider church membership and organization.
1. Church membership.
When they have met certain qualifications, converts
become members of the new covenant community of faith.
Membership involves the acceptance of new relationships
toward other people, the state, and God.
a. Membership qualifications.
People who wish to become members of His church must
accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, repent of their
sins, and be baptized (Acts 2:36-41; cf. 4:10-12). They
should have experienced the new birth and accepted Christ's
commission to teach others to observe all things He
commanded them (see Matt. 28:20).
b. Equality and service.
In harmony with Christ's declaration that "you are all
brethren" and "he who is the greatest among you shall be
your servant" (Matt. 23:8,11), members are committed to
relate to one another on the basis of equality. Yet they
must also realize that following Christ's example means they
are to minister to the needs of others, leading them to the
c. Priesthood of all believers.
With Christ's ministry in the heavenly sanctuary the
efficacy of the Levitical priesthood came to an end. Now the
church has become "a holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5). "You,"
Peter said, "are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a
holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim
the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His
marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).
This new order, the priesthood of all believers, does not
authorize each individual to think, believe, and teach as he
or she chooses without accountability to the body of the
church. It means that each church member has a
responsibility to minister to others in the name of God, and
can communicate directly with Him without any human
intermediary. It emphasizes the interdependence of church
members, as well as their independence. This priesthood
makes no qualitative distinction between clergy and laity,
although it leaves room for a difference in function between
d. Allegiance to God and state.
The Bible recognizes God's hand in the establishment of
government and commits believers to respecting and obeying
civil authorities. The one who holds civil authority is
"God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who
practices evil." Church members, therefore, render "taxes to
whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom
fear, honor to whom honor" (Rom. 13:4,7).
In their attitudes to the state, members are guided by
Christ's principle: "`Render therefore to Caesar the things
that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's'"
(Matt. 22:21). But if the state should interfere with a
divine command their highest allegiance is to God. Said the
apostles, "`We ought to obey God rather than men'"
2. The major function of church organization.
The church was organized to accomplish God's plan to fill
this planet with the knowledge of God's glory. Only the
visible church can provide a number of the functions vital
to meeting this end.
a. Worship and exhortation.
Throughout history the church has been God's agency for
gathering believers to worship the Creator on the Sabbath.
Christ and His apostles followed this worship practice, and
the Scriptures admonish believers today not to forsake "the
assembling of ourselves together,...but exhorting one
another, and so much the more as you see the Day
approaching" (Heb. 10:25; cf. 3:13). Congregational worship
brings the worshiper refreshment, encouragement, and joy.
b. Christian fellowship.
Through the church the members' deepest needs for
fellowship are fully satisfied. "Fellowship in the gospel"
(Phil. 1:5) transcends all other relations, for it provides
an intimate relationship with God, as well as with others of
like faith (1 John 1:3,6,7).
c. Instruction in the Scriptures.
Christ gave to the church "`the keys of the kingdom of
heaven'" (Matt. 16:19). These keys are the words of
Christ--all the words of the Bible. More specifically, they
include "`the key of knowledge'" regarding how to enter the
kingdom (Luke 11:52). Jesus' words are spirit and life to
all who receive them (John 6:63). They bring eternal life
When the church proclaims the truths of the Bible, these
keys to salvation have the power to bind and to loose, to
open and shut heaven, because they declare the criteria by
which people are received or rejected, saved or lost. Thus
the church's gospel proclamation exudes "the fragrance of
life" or "the smell of death" (2 Cor. 2:16, NIV).
Jesus knew the importance of living "`by every word that
proceeds from the mouth of God'" (Matt. 4:4). Only by doing
so can the church fulfill Jesus' mandate to teach all
nations "`to observe all things that I have commanded you'"
d. Administering of the divine ordinances.
The church is God's instrument for the administration of
the ordinance of baptism, the rite of entrance to the church
(see chapter 14 of this book), and the ordinances of foot
washing and the Lord's Supper (see chapter 15 of this book).
e. Worldwide proclamation of the gospel.
The church is organized for mission service to fulfill
the work Israel failed to do. As seen in the life of the
Master, the greatest service the church provides the world
is in being fully committed to completing the gospel
"`witness to all nations'" (Matt. 24:14), empowered by the
baptism of the Holy Spirit.
This mission includes proclaiming a message of
preparation for Christ's return that is directed both to the
church itself (1 Cor. 1:7,8; 2 Peter 3:14; Rev. 3:14-22;
14:5) and to the rest of humanity (Rev. 14:6-12; 18:4).
The Government of the Church
After Jesus' ascension the leadership of the church
rested in the hands of the apostles. Their first
organizational act, in counsel with the other believers, was
to elect another apostle to take Judas' place
As the church grew, the apostles realized the
impossibility of both preaching the gospel and caring for
the church's temporal affairs. So they turned the church's
practical business over to seven men whom the church
appointed. Though the church distinguished between the
"`ministry of the word'" and "`serving tables'" (Acts
6:1-4), it made no attempt to separate clergy from laity in
discharging the mission of the church. In fact, two of the
seven, Stephen and Philip, were noted for their effective
preaching and evangelism (Acts 7 and 8).
The church's expansion into Asia and Europe called for
additional steps in organization. With the establishment of
numerous new churches, elders were ordained "in every
church" to ensure stable leadership (Acts 14:23).
When a major crisis developed, the parties involved were
allowed to state their respective positions to a general
council comprised of apostles and elders representing the
church at large. The decisions of this council were seen as
binding upon all parties and were accepted as the voice of
God (Acts 15:1-29). This incident illustrates the fact that
when it is a matter of issues affecting the entire church,
counsel and authority on a much broader level than that of
the local church are necessary. In this case the decision of
the council grew out of the agreement reached by the
representatives of all parties involved (Acts 15:22,25).
The New Testament makes it clear that as the need arose
God guided the leadership of His work. With His direction,
and in counsel with the church, they formed a church
government that, if followed today, will help safeguard the
church from apostasy and enable it to fulfill its great
Biblical Principles of Church Government
1. Christ is the head of the church.
Christ's headship over the church is based primarily on
His mediatorial work. Since His victory over Satan on the
cross, Christ has been given "`all authority'" in "`heaven
and on earth'" (Matt. 28:18). God has put "all things under
His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the
church" (Eph. 1:22; cf. Phil. 2:10,11). He is therefore
"Lord of lords and King of kings" (Rev. 17:14).
Christ also is the head of the church because the church
is His body (Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:18). Believers are "members
of His body, of His flesh and of His bones" (Eph. 5:30).
They must have an intimate connection with Him because from
Him the church is "nourished and knit together by joints and
ligaments" (Col. 2:19).
2. Christ is the source of all its authority.
Christ demonstrates His authority in (a) the
establishment of the Christian church (Matt. 16:18), (b) the
institution of ordinances the church must administer (Matt.
26:26-30; 28:19,20; 1 Cor. 11:23-29; John 13:1-17), (c) the
endowment of the church with divine authority to act in His
name (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-18; John 20:21-23), (d) the sending
of the Holy Spirit to guide His church under His authority
(John 15:26; 16:13-15), (e) the appointment within the
church of special gifts so that individuals can function as
apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors (shepherds), and
teachers to prepare its members for service and to build up
"the body of Christ" till all experience unity in the faith
and reflect "the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:7-13).
3. The Scriptures carry Christ's authority.
Though Christ guides His church through the Holy Spirit,
the Word of God is the sole standard by which the church
operates. All its members are to obey that Word because it
is law in the absolute sense. All human traditions, customs,
and cultural practices are subject to the authority of the
Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15-17).
4. Christ's authority and the offices of the church.
Christ exercises His authority through His church and its
specially appointed servants, but He never transfers His
power. No one has any independent authority apart from
Christ and His word.
Seventh-day Adventist congregations elect their officers.
But while these officers function as representatives of the
people, their authority comes from Christ. Their election
simply confirms the call they received from Christ. The
primary duty of the elected officers is to see that the
Biblical instructions for worship, doctrine, discipline, and
gospel proclamation are followed. Since the church is the
body of Christ, they are to seek its counsel regarding their
decisions and actions.
The New Testament Officers of the Church
The New Testament mentions two church officers--those of
the elder and the deacon. The importance of these offices is
underscored by the high moral and spiritual requirements set
for those who would fill them. The church recognized the
sacredness of the calling to leadership through ordination,
the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 13:2,3; 1 Tim. 4:14;
1. The elders.
a. What is an elder?
The "elders" (Greek, presbuteros) or "bishops"
(episkopos) were the most important officers of the church.
The term elder means older one, implying dignity and
respect. His position was similar to that of the one who had
supervision of the synagogue. The term bishop means
"overseer." Paul used these terms interchangeably, equating
elder with overseers or bishops (Acts 20:17,28;Titus 1:5,7).
Those who held this position supervised the newly formed
churches. Elder referred to the status or rank of the
office, while bishop denoted the duty or responsibility of
the office--"overseer."(*7) Since the apostles also called
themselves elders (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1; 3 John 1), it is
apparent that there were both local elders and itinerant
elders, or elders at large. But both kinds of elder
functioned as shepherds of the congregations.
b. The qualifications.
To qualify for the office of elder a person must be
"blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, soberminded,
of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to
wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not
quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well,
having his children in submission with all reverence (for if
a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he
take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being
puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as
the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among
those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the
snare of the devil" (1 Tim. 3:1-7; cf. Titus 1:5-9).
Before appointment to the office, therefore, the
candidate must have demonstrated his leadership ability in
his home. "The family of the one suggested for office should
be considered. Are they in subjection? Can the man rule his
own house with honor? What character have his children? Will
they do honor to the father's influence? If he has no tact,
wisdom, or power of godliness at home, in managing his own
family, it is safe to conclude that the same defects will be
carried into the church, and the same unsanctified
management will be seen there."(*8) The candidate, if
married, should demonstrate leadership in the home before
being trusted with the responsibility of the leadership of
"God's household" (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV).
Because of the importance of the office Paul charged, "Do
not lay hands on anyone hastily" (1 Tim. 5:22).
c. The elder's responsibility and authority.
An elder is first and foremost a spiritual leader. He is
chosen "to shepherd the church of God" (Acts 20:28). His
responsibilities include supporting weak members (Acts
20:35), admonishing the wayward (1 Thess. 5:12), and being
alert for teachings that would create divisions (Acts
20:29-31). Elders must model the Christian lifestyle (Heb.
13:7; 1 Peter 5:3) and set examples of liberality
d. The attitude toward the elders.
To a large extent, effective church leadership depends on
the loyalty of the membership. Paul encourages believers to
respect their leaders and "to esteem them very highly in
love for their work's sake" (1 Thess. 5:13). "Let the elders
who rule well," he said, "be counted worthy of double honor,
especially those who labor in the word and doctrine"
(1 Tim. 5:17).
Scripture makes clear the need to respect church
leadership: "Obey those who rule over you, and be
submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who
must give account" (Heb. 13:17; cf. 1 Peter 5:5). When
members make it difficult for the leaders to perform their
God-assigned responsibilities, both will experience grief
and miss the joy of God's prosperity.
Believers are encouraged to observe the leaders'
Christlike lifestyles. "Consider the outcome of their way of
life and imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7, NIV). They should
pay no attention to gossip. Paul warned, "Do not receive an
accusation against an elder except from two or three
witnesses" (1 Tim. 5:19).
2. The deacons and deaconesses.
The name deacon comes from the Greek diakonos, meaning
"servant," or "helper." The office of deacon was instituted
to enable the apostles to give themselves fully "to prayer
and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4). Although
deacons were to care for the temporal affairs of the church,
they were also to be actively involved in evangelistic work
(Acts 6:8; 8:5-13,26-40).
The feminine form of the term appears in Romans 16:1.(*9)
Translators have rendered this word either as "servant,"
(KJV, NIV), or "deaconess" (RSV). "The word and its usage in
this text suggest that the office of deaconess may have been
established in the church at the time Paul wrote the book of
Like elders, deacons are also selected by the church on
the basis of moral and spiritual qualifications
(1 Tim. 3:8-13).
The Discipline of the Church
Christ gave the church the authority to discipline its
members and provided the proper principles for doing so. He
expects the church to implement these principles whenever
necessary to maintain its lofty calling of being a "holy
priesthood" and "holy nation" (cf. Matt. 18:15-18; 1 Peter
2:5,9). Yet the church must also attempt to impress upon the
erring members their need of amending their ways. Christ
commends the church of Ephesus because it "cannot bear those
who are evil" (Rev. 2:2), but He rebukes the churches of
Pergamus and Thyatira for tolerating heresies and immorality
(Rev. 2:14,15,20). Note the following Biblical counsel on
1. Dealing with private offenses.
When one member wrongs another (Matt. 18:15-17), Christ
counsels the wronged person to approach the offender--the
sheep that went astray--and persuade him to change his
behavior. If unsuccessful he should make a second attempt,
accompanied by one or two unbiased witnesses. If this
attempt fails, the matter should be brought before the
If the erring member rejects the wisdom and authority of
Christ's church he severs himself from its fellowship. In
disfellowshipping the guilty person, the church simply
confirms his or her condition. If, under the guidance of the
Holy Spirit, the church has carefully followed the Biblical
counsel, its decisions have been acknowledged in heaven.
Said Christ, "`Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in
heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in
heaven'" (Matt. 18:18).
2. Dealing with public offenses.
Though "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of
God" (Rom. 3:23), flagrant and rebellious offenses bringing
a reproach on the church should be immediately dealt with by
disfellowshipping the offender.
Disfellowshipping both removes the evil--which otherwise
would work like leaven--restoring the purity of the church,
and acts as a redemptive remedy for the offender. Upon
learning of a case of sexual immorality in the Corinthian
church, Paul urged immediate action. "In the name of our
Lord Jesus Christ," he said, "when you are gathered
together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord
Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the
destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in
the day of the Lord Jesus....Purge out the old leaven, that
you may be a new lump" (1 Cor. 5:4,5,7). Do not associate
with anyone who calls himself a believer, he said, "but is
sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a
drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even
eat....`Expel the wicked man from among you'"
(1 Cor. 5:11,13, NIV).
3. Dealing with divisive persons.
A member who causes "divisions and offenses" (Rom.
16:17), "who walks disorderly," refusing to obey Biblical
counsel, should be avoided so that "he may be ashamed" of
his attitude. "Yet do not count him as an enemy," Paul said,
"but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thess. 3:6,14,15). If the
"divisive man" refuses to listen to the "second admonition"
of the church, he should be rejected, "knowing that such a
person is warped and sinning, being selfcondemned"
4. Restoration of offenders.
Church members should not despise, shun, or neglect the
disfellowshipped. Rather, they should attempt to restore
their relationship with Christ through repentance and a new
birth. Disfellowshipped individuals can be restored to
church fellowship when they reveal sufficient evidence of
genuine repentance (2 Cor. 2:6-10).
It is especially through restoring sinners to the church
that God's power, glory, and grace are revealed. He longs to
liberate the captives of sin, transferring them from the
kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. God's church,
the theater of the universe, displays the power of Christ's
atoning sacrifice in the lives of men and women.
Today Christ, through His church, invites all to become a
part of His family. "`Behold,'" He says, "`I stand at the
door and knock. If any one hears My voice and opens the
door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with
Me'" (Rev. 3:20).
1. On the origin of the term church Berkhof wrote, "The
names `Church', `Kerk' and `Kirche' are not derived from the
word ekklesia, but from the word kuriake, which means
`belonging to the Lord.' They stress the fact that the
Church is the property of God. The name to kuriakon or he
kuriake first of all designated the place where the Church
assembled. This place was conceived of as belonging to the
Lord, and was therefore called to kuriakon" (Systematic
Theology, p. 557).
2. "Church, Nature of," SDA Encyclopedia, rev., ed., p.
302; "Church," SDA Bible Dictionary, rev., ed., p. 224.
3. According to the modern translations that accept the
Tisschendorf reading of the singular, based on the Codex
Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, and Ephraemi
4. Except for their teaching about Jesus, the beliefs of
the early church were very similar to those of Judaism. Both
Jewish and Gentile Christians continued to worship in the
synagogues on the Sabbath, listening to the Old Testament
being explained (Acts 13:42-44; 15:13,14,21). The rending of
the Temple veil signified that the rituals had met their
antitypical fulfillment. The book of Hebrews intends to turn
Christian minds away from the types to the underlying
reality of the types: the atoning death of Jesus, His
priesthood in heaven, and His saving grace. The New
Testament era was a transitional time and although the
apostles sometimes participated in the Old Testament
rituals, the decision of the first Jerusalem council shows
that they perceived no saving value in them.
5. Charles E. Bradford, "What the Church Means to Me,"
Adventist Review, Nov. 20, 1986, p. 15.
6. See SDA Bible Commentary, rev. ed., vol. 5, p. 432.
7. See SDA Bible Commentary, rev. ed., vol. 6, pp. 26,38.
8. White, Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 618.
9. Diakonos can be either male or female in gender,
therefore the gender in this case is determined by the
context. Because Phoebe who is "our sister" is also a
diakonos, this word must be feminine even though it is
spelled as a masculine noun.
10."Deaconess," SDA Bible Dictionary, rev. ed., p. 277. In
New Testament times the term diakonos had a broad meaning.
"It was still employed to describe all who served the church
in any capacity. Paul, though an apostle, frequently
described himself (see 1 Cor. 3:5; 2 Cor. 3:6; 6:4; 11:23;
Eph. 3;7; Col. 1:23) and Timothy...(see 1 Tim. 4:6), as
diakonoi (plural of diakonos)." (SDA Bible Commentary, rev.
ed., vol. 7, p. 300). In these instances it has been
translated as "ministers" or "servants" instead of