EFCA Theology Conference: The Doctrine of the Church

Greg Strand – December 2, 2015 2 Comments

The theme of our upcoming Theology Conference is The Doctrine of the Church. As you think about this important doctrine, I encourage you to read carefully what follows. I include Article 7 of our Statement of Faith on The Church. I then include pertinent excerpts from Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America which espouse this vital doctrine.  

EFCA Article 7: The Church  

7. We believe that the true church comprises all who have been justified by God’s grace through faith alone in Christ alone. They are united by the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ, of which He is the Head. The true church is manifest in local churches, whose membership should be composed only of believers. The Lord Jesus mandated two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which visibly and tangibly express the gospel. Though they are not the means of salvation, when celebrated by the church in genuine faith, these ordinances confirm and nourish the believer. God’s gospel is now embodied in the new community called the church. 

God’s gospel is now embodied in the new community called the church. 

What follows is an excerpt from Article 7, The Church, from Evangelical Convictions. I encourage you to read this carefully, for this is what we affirm we believe about the doctrine of the church. In essence, the gospel creates the church. The church proclaims and manifests the gospel. The church, indeed, is an embodiment of the gospel. 

The Gospel and the Church 

“But God in his grace has purposed to restore his fallen creation and to redeem a people for himself. In Jesus Christ God has acted to rescue sinful human beings from his wrath and to reconcile them to himself. This work of Christ in his cross and resurrection is now applied to us by the Holy Spirit, who unites us with Christ so that what is true of him becomes true of us. And in uniting us with Christ, the Spirit also creates a new community we call the church. The church, as those saved by God’s grace and united with Christ by God’s Spirit, becomes the embodiment of the gospel in the world.” 

The True Church

“First, the Bible speaks of the church as the totality of all those united with Christ by faith, resulting in a new standing before God and a new relationship with one another. In this sense, Paul can say that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25) and that Christ is the Savior of “the church” (Eph. 5:23; cf. also 1:22-23). We refer to this as the “true” church, for it is a community ultimately known only to God, for only God can know the depths of the human heart. Only he can perceive with absolute certainty whether the faith that is professed is truly believed. We may consider the composition of the true church from two perspectives.”  

The true church comprises all who have been justified by God’s grace through faith alone in Christ alone.  

The true church comprises those united by the Spirit into the body of Christ of which he is the Head 

The Local Church: A Visible Community Manifesting the True Church in the World  

“One can speak of the church as a body known only to God, for in an ultimate sense only God knows those who are truly his. But generally in the New Testament, the church refers to a community visible in the world. And though the term can refer to the community of Christians within a large geographical area, it more commonly denotes a local gathering of believers in one place. Here in this local network of relationships the gospel is embodied in the world and worked out in our lives.”  

“This community of Christians in the local church is a microcosm of the universal church. In that sense, the local body is not simply a part of the whole, but a manifestation of the whole, encapsulating in itself its essential qualities as a community of believers redeemed by the blood of Christ. Paul can speak both of all Christians constituting the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23) and of a local community as that same body (1 Cor. 12:27). In each local church Christ is present (Matt. 18:20), and in the love displayed in its midst (cf. John 13:35; 17:20-22) and in the quality of the lives of its members living in the world (cf. Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:9-12), each local church is to demonstrate to the world something of the truth and beauty of the gospel of Christ.”

“Because the local church is to manifest the true church in the world, the essential requirement for membership in each should be the same—a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ5 . Therefore, we affirm that membership in the local church should be composed only of believers, regenerated by the Holy Spirit.”

The Church and the Gospel

The “God’s gospel is now embodied in the new community called the church. This means not only that the gospel creates the church, but also that the church proclaims the gospel. And the church proclaims the gospel not simply in what the church is called to do , but in what the church is.”

“The church is the centerpiece of God’s purposes for humanity. For the promise of the gospel is that God will redeem a people composed of those from every nation, tribe, people and language who will find their unity solely in their common relationship with Jesus Christ as they are united to him by the Spirit (cf. Rev. 5:9; 7:9). And it is in the church that this people-to-come is now being made visible to the world.

“In a sense, in the church the gospel message finds its initial realization. Paul in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 describes the creation of the one new humanity united in Christ as the purpose of God in all ages now revealed: “[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10-11).

“In this way, the church is the “first fruits” of what is to come. As one writer put it, “The church does communicate to the world what God plans to do, because it shows that God is beginning to do it.” In Christ a new age has dawned, and the church is to be an anticipatory presence of that new age and an initial signpost of its coming.”

The church is not just the bearer of the message of reconciliation, the church is a part of the message itself. The church’s existence as a community reconciled to God and to one another is what gives the message its credibility, for such a community is itself the manifestation of the gospel it proclaims. Jesus said as much. In speaking to the Father of his disciples in John 17, Jesus prayed, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:22-23). One way the gospel is to be declared to the world is through the loving unity of Christians.  

The church is to be a provisional expression of that new humanity united in Christ which God has graciously purposed to create for his own glory. So the church is missional in its very nature—who we are is an important part of our proclamation of the gospel to the world. For God’s gospel is embodied in this new community called the church. 

If this is so, then shouldn’t every Christian be a committed member of a church? If you believe, then you must belong. Many still persist in church hopping, always searching for something that might satisfy their desires. Evidently this is not a new problem, for a colleague of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, Philip Melanchthon, made this remark: “Let us not praise those tramps who wander around and unite with no church, because they nowhere find their ideals realized [because] something is always lacking.” We must not be church dabblers. We must dig in and discover the riches that can be had as we live out God’s purpose in real fellowship in the life of a local church. For without a commitment to the local church, we haven’t rightly understood God’s gospel.

Theology Conference

In our upcoming Theology Conference on The Doctrine of the Church, we will look, learn and discuss this truth and a whole lot more. We will not only learn about the doctrine of the church generally, but we will also discuss its implication for local EFC churches and the EFCA as a denomination. Please register and plan to join us!

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

2 responses to EFCA Theology Conference: The Doctrine of the Church

  1. Dear Pastor Strand:

    Thank you for your new article on church unity.

    One interesting strand in your above article discussed church hopping and dabbling. You wrote: “Many still persist in church hopping, always searching for something that might satisfy their desires” and “We must not be church dabblers.”

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    But, if I may, I would like to express a different interpretation for your consideration and the consideration of your readers.

    I believe that if all the local Christian congregations were actually functioning on a daily basis as branches of the One Vine (Christ), as arms of the One Body (Christ), as extensions and embodiments of the One Church (the One Bride of Christ), then church hopping and dabbling would be impossible. The pastors of each local congregations would not allow it, just as it was not allowed in Christ’s one church in New Testament times and in the first 1500 or so years of the church.

    This hopping and dabbling only became possible after the events that started in Germany around 1517.

    It is because the local Christian congregations are generally not in any meaningful communion with each other that hopping and dabbling is possible.

    Moral exhortations to believers to dig in and commit to one local congregation will not end church hopping and dabbling.

    Ultimately, this hopping and dabbling is not mainly the fault of hoppers and dabblers themselves. These moral exhortations from pastors strike me as a matter of “blaming the victim.”

    Ultimately, this matter is the fault of those church leaders who stubbornly refuse to restore their local congregations back into the state of church oneness that Christ commands for His church.

    I repeat: Don’t put all the blame on the hoppers and dabblers.

    Why not blame the church leaders who are guilty of the ongoing grave sin of Schism?

    Is it even possible for talk about “schism” anymore?

    I believe that schism as a grave sin is taught clearly in the Scriptures.

    “Biblically it appears clear that the rending of the body of Christ is sin and that there is no excuse for schism.” The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1984).

    Schism is not just something for the Eastern Orthodox Churches or the Anglican Communion to be concerned about. The Greek word “schisma” is used eight times in the New Testament.

    Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church have traditionally characterized the Roman Catholic Church as the only true church, and have characterized all other Christian congregations as committing the sin of Schism in refusing return to a state of communion with the pastors of the Roman Catholic Church. But this is nonsense, since the Roman Catholic Church is gravely defective in that it does preach or teach of the Gospel of Christ. What the pope or bishop of the Roman Catholic Church say is irrelevant.

    But what the Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ says about church oneness is of extreme importance to faithful Christians.

    And I believe what Christ commands regarding church oneness must convince all pastors of His church that they are guilty of the ongoing grave sin of Schism, and will continue to be thusly guilty until they follow the pattern of the Council of Jerusalem, the Council of Nicea, the Council of Constantinople, the Council of Chalcedon, and so on, and convene an ecumenical council for the purpose of conforming to Christ’s commands regarding church oneness and doctrinal oneness. All professing Christians who refuse to be attend this new ecumenical council, or who refuse to accept its doctrinal statements and decrees, will be declared by all the participating or submissive pastors as being excommunicated, and will be viewed as part of the mission field (no longer fellow Christians).

    Perhaps you will say, “Well, all that’s never going to happen.” I say: “Why not? It happened in A.D. 325, 381, 451, 787, and so on. Why can’t it happen in 2016? The only reason it isn’t happening is sin. Sin is a choice–even if it is enshrined in a tradition.”

    Imagine if there was a state law requiring all local high schools to teach the same core curriculum, and that state law also requires each student to attend classes at the local high school in the district where he/she resides, and that state law also requires all local high schools to be in regular communication with each other so as to enforce the law preventing school hopping by students. Then suppose that the principals of all the local high schools ignored state law, and allowed students to hop from school to school. Who would be more at fault in this situation? The high school principals, or the students? So who is more at fault, the church pastors or the church hopping attendees?

    Ultimately, what is needed is action, not just more discussion. The “ecumenical movement” seems irrelevant, since it taken the broad path of including groups that adamantly refuse to adhere to the essentials of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    What is needed is for some Gospel-preaching pastors to “stick their necks out” (so to speak) and convene an ecumenical council on par with the Council of Nicea, and invite representatives from all the Gospel-preaching local congregations in the whole world, and at this council restore and establish normal communion among all Gospel-preaching local congregations who are ready to repent of the sin of Schism. Even if only twelve local congregations were to be represented at the first of these modern ecumenical councils, even if the world-at-large mocked and ridiculed these twelve men–so what? A beginning has to be made. There was an earlier occasion, about 2,000 years ago, when a small handful of Gospel-preaching men in Palestine, Asia Minor and Greece were mocked and ridiculed.

    A new Martin Luther is needed, one to lead Christians out of their “diaspora” and back into the one “land” (metaphorically speaking) that God had ordained for them.

    • Two brief comments.

      First, there were divisions in the early church. Consider the party-spirit evident in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? (1 Cor. 1:10-13; cf. 1 Cor. 11:18). The word Paul uses in verse 10 for “divisions” is σχίσματα (σχίσμα), from where we derive the English word schism. The assumption is that there were schisms, divisions, which is why Paul needed to exhort them that it ought not to be. The reason: Christ is not divided. Our ecclesiology is grounded in Christology.

      Second, although your call for another ecumenical council is well-intended, it will not happen. Who is the authority to call such a council? From which church? Which denomination? Which Protestant body? Which segment of the Christian church, East or West? This is one of many reasons we cry, Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20). At this point, but not until, the Bride will be whole, complete and glorified.

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