Belief of Our Fathers: The Church (Chapter 5)
July 1, 2019
This continues a study on the beliefs of our forefathers, based largely on the Dordrecht Confession of Faith from 1632. This section tells is a study of the Church. The article has been edited for space.
To read other chapters in this series on the Beliefs of our Forefathers, click below:
For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. (Ephesians 5:23)
The Old Testament accounts relating to the worship of God make it clear that by the time Jesus walked this earth, the worship and service of the Jews no longer resembled what God had originally given them hundreds of years earlier. We, too, could be in danger of forgetting what God’s purpose for the Church is. Has the church service become just a tradition without real meaning—something that makes us feel religious, but leaves us empty afterward?
Compared to what we see in the Scriptures, it appears that churches overall are lukewarm or asleep. It is time to wake up and do the work of the Church. Christ is coming back soon.
What Many Anabaptists Believe
What most Anabaptists generally believe is stated for us in the 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith. Of the eighteen articles listed in this Confession of Faith, eleven pertain to the church. Of these eleven, nine concern specific practices and ordinances that include baptism, the Holy Supper, foot washing, marriage, relation to secular authority, revenge, oaths, the ban, and shunning. The remaining two are devoted to the “Church of Christ,” and the “Election, and Offices of Teachers, Deacons, and Deaconesses, in the Church.” The reality is that the articles aren’t fully held to today. One case in point is that they speak of the ordination of deaconesses. Most conservative Mennonites and Amish do not practice that today.
The following is a short list of Amish church-related terms:
Ausbund: This historic Anabaptist song book, used in most Amish churches, also provides descriptions of Amish teachings.
The Church: That Amish group that has the correct form and practice. Other denominations or groups are viewed as apostate and are not the ideal church.
Church Membership: There is hardly hope of salvation without it. Church membership includes a vow of submission to church rules and leadership. This is marked by submitting to water baptism.
Righteousness: A person who models the church rules and the good things of Scripture, such as being peaceable, not soon angry, etc. is considered righteous. Jesus may finish making a person fully righteous if, after death, that person gets a white robe.
Baptism: The doorway to the church; the point at which all previous sins are washed away.
Ordinances: Ordnung is a German word for order, discipline, rule, arrangement, organization, or system. This is a behavioral code, a list of guidelines for daily living, a discipline, and a standard. These include practices derived from Scripture, such as baptism and the Holy Supper, but also includes an established letter that spells out practical details including things such as beards, pleats, brims, electricity, silo roofs, etc.
What the Scriptures Teach
What is the church? It refers to all those who have been born again by God’s Spirit, baptized into the body of believers through belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). Has the Church replaced Israel as God’s witness on earth? According to Romans 11:11, no, but rather, through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, to provoke the Jews to jealousy.
In the New Testament, we see the word church used most often to describe each individual group of like-minded believers in a certain locale (a local church).
The Beginning of the Church
While the nation of Israel had its beginning in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Church began on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2.
With the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives, the New Testament saints understood that their purpose on earth was to make God known to the uttermost parts of the world, beginning in Jerusalem. Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). The New Testament Church is made up of both Jews and Gentiles. The Church’s message is that the Messiah came, died, was buried, rose from the dead, and is coming again to gather up the saints to live with Him forever in heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:1–19).
Even though the gospel of Jesus Christ was made known to Abraham long ago (Galatians 3:8–9), God’s will for the Church was only revealed in the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote it this way: By revelation he made known unto me the mystery . . . which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel (Ephesians 3:3–6).
A body cannot live without a head. The body needs a head to tell it when to move, when it’s hungry, when it’s hurting, when it’s cold, etc. In any one local church, you will have many members working different jobs, but they need a head to keep everything running smoothly (1 Corinthians 12:12–31). If the foot decided to make the decisions for everyone, all would be stomping and kicking each other. Mankind was not made to function without a head. Christ has been appointed as our authority (our head). He alone has the right to tell us what to do and how to do it. [God] hath put all things under his feet and gave him to be the head over all things to the church (Ephesians 1:22).
Because of what my dad taught me, I remember growing up thinking that my grandparents watched my every move from heaven, as if they were my judges. Upon studying the Bible, I realized that was not true. I’m sure that my dad taught me that innocently, but I learned that all our instructions concerning the church and Christian living should come from our Head, Jesus Christ.
Do you remember how close God the Son was with His Father? Jesus wanted that same closeness with all those who followed Him in faith. He prayed in John 17:21 that all His followers would be one, even as God and Jesus were one: That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
Ephesians 5:22–33 uses this close, loving relationship of Christ and His church as an example for marriage. The church’s goal should be to be so close in relationship to Christ that we forget about our own selfish desires and live to bring glory to our Head. We bring glory to Him by spending time with Him, by obeying His every command under the Holy Spirit’s control, and by making Him known to the world, as John the Baptist did (John 1:7).
Under the Old Testament, Israel had a temple in Jerusalem in which they were commanded to worship, and they will again have a temple in Jerusalem during the one thousand-year reign of Christ when He returns. Within the New Testament church, though, each member is a temple because each person has been baptized by the Holy Spirit. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16). Therefore, New Testament believers can meet together for worship and prayer anywhere (Matthew 18:20). The actual building has nothing to do with it. Because the Church is built upon the rock, Christ, it will last forever (Matthew 16:18).
Members of the Church are considered members one of another (Romans 12:5). No one believer is to be independent of another. Can you imagine one of your ears taking off to live on its own without the rest of the body? That would be silly. It couldn’t survive without the body. The work of the Church is a group effort. The Church is not just your local denomination, but includes each and every genuine Christian.
God’s Spirit has given each member a spiritual gift for service to God. This does not refer to our human talents we receive at birth, but spiritual talents for the work of the Church that we receive at our second birth. These gifts are for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12). Every member of a local church body who serves God using their spiritual gift brings glory to their head, Jesus Christ. Yet without the Spirit’s control in our lives, our works would never be considered good, because they would be done in the flesh, in our own strength (Romans 8:1–11).
We need each other as much as our physical body needs each part in order to function as a whole. Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works; not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as ye see the day approaching (Hebrews 10:24–25).
In Acts 7, Stephen delivers a wonderful sermon on the history of God’s dealing with the Jewish nation in the wilderness, made up not only of the offspring of Jacob who were delivered out of Egypt, but also of a mixed multitude (Exodus 12:37–38). This assembly was made up of both those who had a heart after God and those who were along just because they were born Jews. God’s covenant was with the whole nation of Israel. Twelve spies went into the Promised Land, but only two of them believed God. This ratio of two out of twelve may well represent the nation as a whole.
The Church, however, is made up of only God’s children, whom He adopts because of their faith in the Son. They come from every nation on earth. There might be both believers and nonbelievers in any local church gathering and some of the nonbelievers may even be “members” of that local church, but God does not recognize unbelievers as members of His Church. The Spirit births us into the Church by faith (1 Corinthians 12:12–13). We should not even think about becoming a member of a local church if we are not yet a member of Christ’s Church. The local church is a place where each individual Christian can practice their faith with worship, group prayer, fellowship, and meeting the needs of each other. God never taught us in His Word that we can receive His grace through church membership. The church cannot save our souls.
Some denominations identify church members based upon water baptism. However, Christians are commanded to be baptized as a testimony of faith in Jesus Christ. Baptism symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism does not cleanse us from our sin. It is a statement to those who observe that we have already been cleansed by the blood of Christ as a result of faith in the gospel. The Ethiopian in Acts 8:36–39 is a good example of a believer who immediately obeyed the command of baptism after believing the gospel. Sadly, the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages (the state church) taught that baptism, not Christ, was the cleansing agent. They also taught that to become a member of the church, one must make a vow of loyalty to that church, and that if they ever left that church, they lost their hope of salvation. This was the teaching of our forefathers before they left the state church to become Anabaptists, and this false teaching seems to have been overlooked and carried over.
As we see in the Bible, though, this was never taught by Christ or the apostles. Our loyalty must be toward Jesus Christ and Him alone. To pledge your loyalty to the church is to pledge loyalty to man, not to Jesus. God asks us to submit to Him, but does not force us. He calls us to Himself for our own good, but He never gave the church authority to force us to live in a certain way. Yes, He commands us to submit to our church elders, but for our own good, not for the purpose of forcing us to live under a set of manmade rules. The local church is God’s tool for our spiritual growth and for getting the gospel out to the world.
Another ordinance of the Church is the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11). We don’t usually like to think about how our loved ones died, but we are commanded to remember how Christ died. His death was an act of the highest love, and He did it willingly (1 Peter 2:21–25). God knew how forgetful we are (just like the Israelites). We need constant reminders of Christ’s shed blood and broken body, which are symbolized by bread (Christ was called the Bread of Life) and the juice of crushed grapes (the pouring out of His blood). Some of us need reminded more often than others. That is why Jesus said to remember Him as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup (1 Corinthians 11:26). There is no limit as to how often a local church can celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection, but it should be done regularly. It is a time for repeated examination of our lives to see whether our focus is still on doing the will of God—to examine what sins we’ve been harboring and whom we have not yet forgiven. The Lord’s Supper keeps us serious about sin and eternally grateful to our Savior. It renews our love and commitment to Him and keeps us excited for His return.
I have seen churches of every shape and size. Some church services are loud, some are quiet, some treat church as a country club, while others put great importance on ritual. Culture has a lot to do with our methods for worshiping God. God knew we would criticize and judge each other within the Church body, so He gave us some guidelines and some liberties. We have to be very careful that our motives for ruling a church are to bring honor to Christ. As head of the Church body, Christ instituted order by instructing us to ordain elders in each local church gathering (1 Timothy and Titus). The goal of church leadership is to unify the body by sound Bible teaching guided by the Holy Spirit, so that all believe the same thing about Christ as taught in the Bible, and so that all grow up into mature sons and daughters of God living for Him in truth and love. These elders/bishops have the authority from Christ to discipline false teachers and unruly members who seek to glorify themselves.
In the local church, one member, under the Spirit’s guidance, may have liberty to do what another thinks is sin, yet we should seek the glory of God and holiness in all things. Carefully consider these passages on Christian liberties: Romans 14:1–15:13; 1 Corinthians 8; Colossians 2:16–23.
One of the great commands to the Church is to go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19–20). Acts 14:21–23 teaches us how the apostle Paul went about “planting” local churches in areas where Christ was unknown. And when they [Paul and company] had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many . . . they had a local church —a group of believers in the gospel of Christ from one locality. Paul periodically returned to these areas where he had preached to confirm the believers, making sure they understood God’s message correctly. He exhorted them to continue in the faith, because they would be persecuted for following Christ. Then he would ordain elders in every church.
Paul was like a shepherd to the converts, training them in the ways of God and helping them to grow in the ways of Jesus. The results of Paul’s concern for the local church are his Spirit-inspired epistles. Paul was an example of one who preached the word, as seen in Acts 20:27 where he said, For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God. Paul was a good example of a loving overseer who cared for the spiritual welfare of his flock and the reputation of Jesus Christ.
Faith Is the Root of the Church
First Peter 1 talks to Christians in general, that they are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. Their faith must be tried in order to be strengthened and bring honor and glory to Christ at His appearing. Their suffering was only for a season. Even though they could not see their Savior, they could still rejoice with joy unspeakable because they love Him (1 Peter 1:5–8).
Let’s now look at three great strengths of the Church: faith, hope, and charity (love): And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Each member of the Church has been given all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue (2 Peter 1:3). Faith in Christ is just the beginning, the root, of a Christian’s life. God expects us to grow and produce fruit —the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). The Church is to reflect the image of Christ and bear spiritual fruit.
Christians are told to add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5–8).
God desires His Church to be pure and to be a valuable tool through which He can carry out His will on earth. That means we must cultivate our faith in order to grow. This includes Bible study and prayer. The more you do so, the nearer you will grow to God, and in turn, the Spirit will produce His fruit through you.
Hope Is the Purifier of the Church
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the believers eagerly went to work for their Lord. They pressed on in hope of His promised return (Acts 1:11; John 14:2–3). Peter, in his first letter to the local churches, calls it a lively hope. It is alive because Jesus is alive. When [Jesus] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is [in His glorified body]. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure (1 John 3:2–3).
Biblical hope does not mean that we wish for something to happen. It is a sure guarantee—a trusted expectation that Jesus will keep His promises. You can’t have hope without faith. Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised (Hebrews 11:11). The same chapter also says that he that cometh to God must believe that He is [faith], and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him [hope] (Hebrews 11:6).
The Church cannot be useful to Christ, its head, without knowing and believing Him. The more we get to know Him, the more we will trust Him and find that He does indeed keep His promises.
Hope motivates the Church to keep their hearts clean because they want to please their Savior and be ready when He comes for them. The Church is built on the foundation of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:9–15), but we are to take heed how we build it, whether we do it in the Spirit or in the flesh. All believers will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Every [saved] person’s work will be made clear on that day and will be judged. Notice, that the believers’ works will be judged, not the believers, for their names are already written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (1 Corinthians 3:11–15). They will either receive a reward or suffer the loss of a reward for their works, depending on its quality. As the poem by C. T. Studd states, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Jesus promised to come back to this earth to lead His body into heaven for the wedding feast. As the groom, Jesus will present the Church to His Father as His perfect bride, made perfect by His blood (Revelation 19:7–8). Christ’s return is the hope of the church, and that hope encourages us to be found holy in our thoughts and lifestyle (John 14:1–3; Philippians 3:20–21; Colossians 3:1–4).
Love Is the Brand of the Church
Many of our characteristics show who we are. Our accent tells what part of the country we’re from. The way we dress gives clues as to whether we’re a doctor, a biker, or Amish. Even cattle are branded in order to identify to whom they belong. Can people tell that you belong to Christ? They won’t be able to tell by our outward appearance, but they can tell by what comes out of our hearts.
Each child of God should show Christ’s brand on his life. Jesus said that the outstanding mannerism of a believer should be the love of God. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13:35). This is not just a warm feeling, but it’s a supernatural love that only the Spirit of God can produce in a person of faith, as seen in 1 Corinthians 13.
Being a child of God is a great honor and is something the Church should advertise by its thoughts, words, and actions. Jesus dearly wants the Church to reflect His love. God uses His love to unify the brethren and draw others to Jesus. Love for our Savior, not duty, should be the our motivation to obey His commands. Do you love the return of Christ, or does the thought of it put fear into your heart? If you have fear, you have no hope.
These three simple phrases can characterize the job of each local church:
Exalt the Savior: worship Him (putting Jesus Christ first) in song, in teaching, and in fellowship (Eph. 3:21; 5:19–21).
Edify the Saints: teach no other doctrine but that which is stated in the Bible, edifying and loving others out of a pure heart and of a good conscience with truth and faith (1 Tim. 1:3–5; 2 Tim. 4:2–3).
Evangelize the Lost: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 1:8).
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers . . . praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:42, 47).
Open our eyes, dear Father, to see our utter emptiness and the beauty of Your holiness. Help us see the vanity of trusting in our plans and in our own righteousness. Thank You for Jesus, who is our righteousness. Make us complete in Christ. We look forward to the completion of Your perfect work when Jesus returns. While we are still here, help us to see more and more of Your wisdom, work, and love.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.
To read other chapters in this series on the Beliefs of our Forefathers, click below:
Chapter Five: The Church
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