The Identity of the New Testament Church

Vol. 2 No. 4 (1958): 180-86

The Identity of the New Testament Church

W. B. Barton

This paper will deal with the question of the Identity of the New Testament Church. This is an important question; upon it the Restoration Plea depends. If there were no such thing as the church in those times with certain identifying characteristics, then it becomes absurd, of course, to suggest that the solution to the disunity in the Christian world today would be a return to those most primitive times. It has in fact even been suggested by one that such a return is impossible for this very reason. It is generally conceded among certain theologians of our time that there was such a variation among the differing congregations of the first century that it would be impossible to find any distinctive form of the church. That, in fact, such a form not only is impossible to discern in the texts that have come down to us, but that such a form was never intended to exist.

Of course, we must first of all understand what we will mean by a "form" throughout this paper. Ordinarily in theological treatises on the subject of the church, form usually deals with the outward organization of the church, whether it is episcopal, presbyterian, congregational and that sort of thing. However, it is possible that one of the reasons why the true nature of the church is not perceived is that we do not make proper distinctions. One of the grandest themes to be found in the epistles of Paul the Apostle is the concept of soma Christou (the body of Christ). By this phrase this holy writer meant, not simply the physical body that was crucified nor that glorified body which was raised from the tomb on that most auspicious Sunday morning, but the church as well. In the mind of the Apostle Paul when he thought of the church of which he was privileged to be a member and in which he functioned as an apostle and an ambassador of Jesus Christ the Savior, he thought of it as a group of people so intimately related together in one spirit and sharing one faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, that he sets forth the figure of the body of Christ as that most adequate to depict this grand relationship. Christ himself was the head, the church is the body of Christ. This is an important figure and I think it is central for an understanding of what we want to really mean when we speak of the form of the New Testament church. It is a most important theme if we are to understand what the diversities among the churches of the first century meant, if there is to be any historical ground to our belief in the existence of the first century church.

[181] It goes without saying that the earliest church on record was not an amorphous body. There were apostles present1 and when a difficulty arose over the distribution of the goods held in common by the members of the congregation a board of seven men was appointed to look after this material business, in order that the apostles might spend their time with the preaching and teaching of the word.2 We see from this that a practical need dictated the appointment of this board. It was certainly the church or the body of Christ before the seven men were appointed. There is good evidence that wherever the apostles established a church in Judea or elsewhere the members were especially blessed with charismata, spiritual gifts, and yet, apparently it was possible for a church to exist without these. When Philip went up to Samaria, a saved assembly of people resulted from his preaching, who had no spiritual gifts until the apostles came from Jerusalem.3 When the Apostle Paul and Barnabas in their first missionary journey preached in Asia Minor, churches of the Lord existed before they were organized under the rule of local elders. Notice the text tells us "they ordained them elders in every church,"4 on their way back. It is possible, therefore, for us to conclude that the church could exist in the New Testament times without the presence of elders. There is also some indication that an evangelist was not absolutely necessary for the existence of the church. However, the presence of Titus in Crete made possible the setting in order of things that were wanting, such as the ordaining of elders and deacons.5 But the church in Crete apparently existed before it was ruled over by elders. These few points are enough to establish that essentially the church does not consist in outward forms alone, though necessary these may be for its proper functioning.

We must, therefore, make a distinction between what is the essential form of a thing and its accidental forms. The essential form has to do with what makes a thing, whatever it might be, to be just what it is and not some other; whereas the accidental forms depend on what is essential for their existence, For example, it seems that every single kind of being must have some essential nature which distinguishes it from every other kind of being and without which it just simply would not be what it is at all. The old definition of man as "a featherless biped" misses the point. These are accidental characteristics of man. A man may lose one leg and still be a man. In defining a man the ancients knew that you had to take into account his essential nature and so they said that "man is a rational animal," for this distinguishes him from all the other members of the animal kingdom. Man is rational; this is his essential characteristic; all other things you say about a man depend on this essential nature. All definition has been based on this recognition and there is no reason why such a distinction cannot be used when we speak of religious matters. If we identify the church by some accidental form and make this the distinguishing characteristic then it [182] is as much to say that the church cannot possibly exist without it, yet this, as we have seen from the few examples noted above, is just simply not true.

But, on the other hand, this is not to argue that those forms which are merely accidental to it are not important for its proper functioning. They may well be. "A rose by any other name might smell as sweet," but it's not likely that we would identify a thing as a rose if it smelled like vinegar and looked like a pineapple. Here the ancients made one further distinction that's worth remembering between the property of a thing and its accident. They chose to call that a property that seemed to follow of necessity from the understanding of the essential nature of a subject. That "man has a nervous system" refers to such a property. This they called a generic property. They further divided property into specific and individual. The statement, "man is a tool-making animal," refers to a specific property. That Alexander Campbell was born on Sept. 12, 1788 or June, 1786, County Antrim, Ireland, refers to an individual property. While a property is an attribute which is peculiar to a subject it is not obviously a part of its very essence. And so for this reason, we wouldn't ordinarily include this in the definition of the thing. But notice that it is commensurate with the subject itself so that the subject just can't be thought of as functioning properly without these kinds of properties. An accident, on the other hand, is an attribute which has no necessary connection with the understanding of the essential nature of a thing. In other words,. it is not included in the essence of the thing. It is an attribute which mayor may not belong to a subject. When we say "a man is virtuous," for instance, it isn't essential to the nature of man to so be, for there are so few virtuous men. This is an accident. Let us then for convenience divide what we have been calling accidental forms into properties and accidents. By making this distinction, perhaps, along with recognizing that every single being has an essential form in which both properties and accidents inhere we will be better able to understand the essential nature or form of the church, its essential properties necessary for it to function adequately and what are mere accidents which it may and may not have. After all, such a distinction is merely using our heads, to understand anything and these distinctions can be found in any good textbook on logic.

It will help us see the inadequacy of such a statement as the following: "The New Testament says nothing about the form this church should assume in human society in which it exists. Weare not told in which way the church should be the same or different from other groups and associations. In matters of church order we find great variations between the different communities mentioned."6 This quote is taken from one of the outstanding Protestant theologians and probably represents the opinion of many. He has followed the lead of Karl Holl, who seemingly based his conclusions on [183] the fact that the Jerusalem churches and the churches established by Paul were very different in some respects. This has led a man like Garrison to suggest that there was no church in New Testament times that can be restored.7 Since such considerations do strike at the very heart of the great Restoration Plea, it is necessary that we take account of them and make a careful study of the relevant texts.

First of all, let us admit that there were variations and differences in the churches of New Testament times. There can be little doubt that the organization of the church with the exception of the apostles was something that grew gradually, perhaps as need arose. And it may well be that the church in Jerusalem and most of the Jewish churches were not entirely organized in the same way as the churches the apostle Paul established. There is certainly some indication that in Jerusalem they honored men in a way calling them "pillars" which the Apostle Paul was not inclined to do. However, we do know that they had elders in the Jerusalem church, for when the controversy over "circumcision" and "eating of meats" arose they were present along with the brethren and the apostles in that first great conference in Jerusalem to determine these important issues.

But before we take account of these apparent differences between the churches let us first seek for what they had in common, that which set them apart from the synagogue of the Jews, from the pagan mystery cults, from the various associations of the Roman world, that which set them apart and enabled Paul to refer to the church as "the body of Christ." In this way, perhaps, we will best be able to understand the differences and divergencies that seemingly arise. It must be admitted, first of all, that the focal point of these early Christian communities, be they Jewish or Gentile was faith in Jesus Christ as the divine son of the living God. That confession which is recorded in Matthew 16:18 became normative for every believer. This distinguished him from the pagans. This distinguished. him from the rest of the Jewish community, if he were a Jew. When Caesar would strike at the very heart of the gospel message, it was with a counter-confession that Caesar, not Christ, was Lord. Perhaps the most primitive form of this confession is preserved in Acts 8 :37 where Philip baptized the eunuch from Ethiopia after he had made the statement, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."8 A Christian was one who believed this formula and who had on the basis of it submitted to the commandments of Christ. The divinity and lordship of Jesus of Nazareth was the focal point. This all Christians had in common.

Just as the Word that became flesh, the God-man, had both a divine and a human nature, so his church, which is his body, is made up on the human side of men and women who have believed and obeyed the gospel. But there is the divine side also to the church. [184] Christ is specifically called its head. It is also a Spirit-filled body, "for by one Spirit," said the Apostle Paul, "were you all baptized into one body and were all made to partake of the same spirit."9 The human side is Spirit filled, filled with the Divine Spirit which is granted unto those who submit to Jesus Christ.

But there were differences between the churches that Paul established and the churches in Judea, especially at Jerusalem. Certainly the attitude of leading brethren in Jerusalem was never that entirely compatible with what we find expressed in Paul's epistles concerning such things as eating of meats, circumcision, keeping the law. One of the earliest controversies in the church was over this very point. And though it was officially solved in favor of the gospel as the Apostle Paul preached it, this Judaizing spirit plainly continued to exist. But this should cause no great concern among Christians today, for the Apostle Paul is the Apostle to the Gentile world. Clearly the Apostle himself makes a distinction between the ministry of Peter and himself.10 If we do discern differences between the Jewish communities and the Gentile churches, this is no reason for despair. We will follow the Apostle to the Gentiles. If we make this kind of distinction, which certainly we are obliged to do if we follow the teaching of the New Testament concerning the church, then the divergencies which are recognizable in the New Testament church do not really affect the unity and organization of that branch of Christianity which most concerns us. There can be no doubt that those churches which Paul established and those which were directly influenced by him had many characteristics in common.

I think, however, we make a mistake when we suggest that the church of New Testament times was not organized on a basis larger than the local congregation, for it is clear that the Apostle Paul was concerned directly with each congregation he had established and was looked to as the final arbiter of all questions. The New Testament church was apostolic in its organization. The apostles were the final authority. Today they still are in those words which they have left concerning the life and order of the church of Christ. They still judge spiritual Israel.11 Each local congregation, however, was organized separately and had its own elders and apparently its own deacons when men were qualified to meet the requirements of these high offices.12 Paul elaborates with great clarity on the formal properties of the New Testament church in Ephesians and 1 Corinthians. These passages read as follows: "And he gave some apostles and some prophets and some evangelists and some shepherds and teachers with a view to the perfecting of the saints, for work of the service, for building up of the body of Christ."13 "And certain did God set in the assembly (ecclesia) first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then works of power, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, kinds of tongues."14 Paul's address to the Ephesian elders as recorded by Luke makes it certain that the pastors or shepherds [185] referred to in Ephesians 4:11 are overseers, episkopos. "Take heed therefore to yourselves and to all the flock wherein the Holy Spirit set you overseers to shepherd the assembly of God."15 That the episkopos was the same person as the presbuteras, that elders and pastors were the same can, of course, easily be established. There is, however, no indication in Paul's writings that he recognized an episcopal organization of the church where one bishop overruled elders under him. Although deacons are not mentioned in the passages we noticed above, there were deacons in all of the churches that were set in order according to the will of Christ. These offices must be considered a part of his church and we must consider these from the standpoint of the church as the body, essential properties, those kinds of properties that are due to a thing before it can properly fulfill its function. Although the church may exist without them, it cannot bring about the perfecting of the saints without them. Yet there are many accidental forms involved in the order of the church: how the church carries on its mission program, where the church meets, what time of day, the exact order of service, the education of the members in the Scriptures, the benevolent work and the way it is to be conducted. All of these would seem to flow out of the order of the church that we have reviewed and therefore are subject to the needs of time and place. To bind a certain way of carrying on the general commandment to go preach the gospel to every creature would be illogical. To bind a certain method of appointment of elders and their ordination might also be considered in this category of what is merely accidental. To bind mere custom on the church would be the same sort of mistake. Customs change, man's way of doing things progresses. But we notice all of this only to emphasize the fact that it is possible for the reader to identify the church of the Lord by its form in New Testament times.

If we are to believe the New Testament that Christ chose Paul as his ambassador to the Gentile world then why is it not possible to restore the church along the lines as set forth in the writings concerning Paul as recorded in Acts and the epistles of Paul? Of course, some of the divergencies in the churches must be seen from the standpoint of the growth of the church. It would be absurd to expect the first assembly as we discover it on that great Pentecost to look and act just like the churches did fifty years later when they had been organized under the inspired direction of the holy Apostles. By making a descriptive analysis of the epistles of Paul it is a very simple thing to reconstruct the order of those churches which he established and nurtured by his apostolic authority.

Divergencies can be explained as due to the progressive revelation of the will of Christ, the head, the needs of the church as they arose, the first century being no doubt normative in this respect for every generation. But they are also due to the fact that the gospel was first preached to the Jews and then to the Gentiles and some of the [186] Jews apparently were not willing to accept fully the implication of this gospel which must be preached to all the world. It was not the purpose of this paper to discuss in detail the various aspects of the form of the New Testament church but only to indicate that such can be done and that the New Testament church can be identified. Let us notice further, then, with respect to those churches established by the Apostle Paul which we have concluded must be normative for us today since the most of us fall within that branch of the human race known as Gentile. Paul makes no difference between priesthood and laity. All the members of every congregation are called saints. Each saint is privileged to approach the throne of God without a mediation of anyone. They had a consciousness of being different from the old Jewish synagogue and in fact considered themselves no longer under the law, but under grace. Each member had received the earnest of the spirit and some, or perhaps most, had received miraculous powers whereby they could speak in tongues they had not learned, could heal and manifest unusual powers. However, in l Corinthians 13, Paul seems to indicate that such special powers were to cease with time, likening the church in its growth to the growth of the child to manhood, when it no longer needed the pedagogical supports of childhood. But there is no indication throughout the writings of Paul that the basic organization of the church was ever to be changed and he emphasized over and over again the church as the body of Christ. Christ is its head; there is room for no other.

1 Acts 2:42, 43

2 Acts 6: 1-6

3 Acts 8:14-16

4 Acts 14 :23

5 Titus 5:1-16

6 Eduard Schweizer, "Unity and diversity in the New Testament Teaching Regarding the church," Theology Today, January, 1957.

7 W. E. Garrison, Religion Follows the Frontier (New York: Harper's, 1931).

8 Regardless of whether we accept this as to be found in the original text or not, it does represent a very ancient form of the confession of all who would become members of Christ's ecclesia.

9 1 Cor. 12:13

10 Gal. 2:7, 8

11 Luke 22:30

12 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-16

13 Eph. 4 :11-12

14 1 Cor. 12 :28

15 Acts 20:28

Note: For more on the subject of "definition," see:

H.W.B. Joseph, Introduction to Logic, Oxford U. Press, 1942, Chap. IV, pp. 66-110

Noclai Hartman, Logic, pp. 47-50

Aristotle's Topics, a, iv; 101-b-17 to 25; viii

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