In 1 Timothy 3:15 the Apostle Paul comes nearer to saying what a church is for than anywhere else. He was writing some careful directions to Timothy in regard to the obligations of the Christian life in general, and then added special Instructions concerning pastors and deacons. "I am writing these things," he says, "in the hope of coming to you right soon, but in case of delay, in order that you may understand how they must live who are in a household of God, which is an assembly of the living God, a pillar and ground of the truth." There seems to be no sufficient reason for changing the punctuation. With this translation the hiatus betwixt verses 15 and 16 disappears. The "mystery of godliness" is involved in the word here translated "live." The essential '"mystery" of the Christian life is the divine life in Jesus, of which his people are in some real sense partakers. Primarily, their great function is to set forth this life in him. They represent God. He is in a profound sense speaking to the world through them. So far as is revealed the only voice he now uses is a human voice. And the only organized force in the world which has the support of the divine authority and the promise of the divine guidance is an assembly of his people, working under the Spirit's direction, with the sacred Scriptures as the law of their life, and personal devotion to Jesus as the ratio of their constitution is not so easy, as might at first be supposed, to state these three "marks" of a New Testament church in their logical order. First of all, however, is the work of the Holy Spirit. And this is not merely his providential guidance, but his giving of spiritual life. No aggregation of persons can rightly be called a church of believers, of saints, of disciples, of children of God, unless they have become such by means of personal faith in Jesus. The initiative is with the Holy Spirit. To resist him is death. To yield to his suggestion (or, if it be preferred, to his power) is to be led into harmony with him, and to receive the reconciliation in Jesus. In the New Testament teaching this is fundamental. This antedates all forms, as life precedes motion. Ordinance and organization are alike subsequent to this. New Testament example is uniform in placing baptism after the inner, spiritual change here indicated.
A company of baptized believers thrown together temporarily, however, is not a church, according to New Testament example though it is an ekklesia in the Greek "usus loquendi". Such assembly could not exercise administrative functions of a church. It would have no authority to administer discipline, to celebrate the ordinances, to set apart ministers or deacons. The element of permanence is indispensable. So, in the New Testament history baptized believers' congregation in their own vicinities and organized themselves into the propagation of the Gospel. This is clear. The machinery of such organizations was of necessity the simplest, since each one shared with every other the primary obligation to publish the Gospel to the whole world, an elaborate organization would generally have been impossible. Every believer was a propagandist, but not everyone had 'the gift of preaching. Men chosen by the Holy Spirit were "Set apart for this special work, the apostolic precedent of public recognition being followed for the protection of both preachers and churches. The preacher stood in a different relation to the churches from that of the deacon. The deacons were a sort of committee on ways and means in their own locality. The preacher exercised his "gift" wherever opportunity offered. Pastor, elder, bishop, are names of the This and the office of deacon are the only ad functions named in the New Testament. The apostolic office was personally bestowed by Jesus himself, and without succession and without function after the es and the authoritative instruction of the churches.
It is not easy to mark off the work of the various "gifts" named for Instance, in Ephesians 4:11, but everyone is concerned with the propagation of the Gospel. Doubtless they over lapped as they still do. Thus every church shared the common obligation of all, namely, to give the whole Gospel to the -whole world. No narrower purpose than this would have afforded a sufficient reason for being. Nothing else would have involved or sanctified every subordinate end of church life as this did. Any lower aim would have lacked the very genius and spirit of the Gospel itself. Indeed, it is not too strong a statement to say that this is an essential "mark" of a New Testament church.
If it be thought that this presentation of the subject wanders from the heading above, some comparison of a Baptist church with the kind of church shown in the New Testament may at least be useful. The churches of apostolic times were composed of persons who had been baptized upon becoming believers in Jesus. The best modern learning is unanimous here. It is also unanimous in holding that they were immersed. These churches had as officers only the pastors (sometimes called elder and sometimes bishop, according to the point of view) and the deacons. Naturally, if not indeed inevitably, the deacons would become the pastor's councillors [sic] and helpers; but neither they nor he could "lord it" over a church. The church was held to be competent to manage its own affairs. An example of this is seen in the management of the collection for the suffering Christians in Jerusalem and the election of men to go with the Apostle Paul and see that the money reached its destination. The apostle himself was careful not to assume any authority in the matter. There is every indication that the churches were purely democratic. They had no connection whatever with the civil power, and in the nature of things received no support from it. There was no caste in those churches, nor any exploitation of rank. This is a striking fact when considered in the light of an age that never had dreamed of civil freedom as modern times know it, nor reached any adequate conception of the rights of the individual.
This simple comparison puts it beyond question that the Baptist churches of the present day exhibit every essential feature of the churches of apostolic times, at least so far as concerns their organization and their ordinances. It Is held by some that the New Testament has no church polity; but if the plan perfected under the leadership of inspired apostles has no claim upon the disciples of Jesus, it is difficult to see what claim any other plan can have. And, surely, no finer or more convincing illustration of the safety and wisdom of this plan could be expected than the age-long appeal of the Baptists to the individual soul, upon the sole and sufficient authority of the sacred Scriptures in both morals and in both conduct and creed. It may here be pointed out, too, how extremely difficult it is to foist an unscriptural belief or practice upon the Baptist churches. It was when the guardianship of the truth was taken from the churches and assumed by extra-scriptural and anti-scriptural bodies, that false teachings came in, which to this day are the heaviest and most degrading burden the religion of Jesus has ever had to bear. Corruption in doctrine led inevitably to laxity in life, and wrote the darkest, saddest pages in the history of mankind.
This suggests again the Apostle Paul's description of one of the functions - indeed the chief function - of organized Christianity. A church is a "pillar and ground of the truth." The publishing of the Gospel involves the protection of the Gospel. This was imperative. It is so now. And perhaps no two terms indicate the kind of protection the Gospel needs in every age more clearly than "doctrine" and "discipline". It would seem that these were in the apostle's mind. "Pillar" is rather "column" not - the support of a building, but a symbol of permanence. "Ground" is that which preserves. The apostle himself pronounced his anathema against the preacher of "another Gospel", even though he were an angel from Heaven (Galatians 1:6). He solemnly warned the churches to watch with ceaseless vigilance every symptom of misbelief. At the same time he set forth with the most insistent earnestness the imperatives of the Christian life. The discipline of a Baptist church is bound up with its doctrine of a re-born membership. But when one of these churches in its eagerness to outstrip in numerical growth other bodies which do not insist upon the Testament qualification, ceases its watchfulness in this respect, the day of trouble for that church already dawned.
The church that challenges the faith of men must challenge the virtue of men. It must show something other and better - the world has or can elsewhere
obtain. If the Baptist churches have made their noble history one age-long plea for the authority of the New Testament, they will throw away the best fruit of their splendid victory (which is already assuming world-wide proportions) if they relax their zeal for personal righteousness. A Gospel that does not make the heart better, that does not set the soul against sin, that does not perpetually renew the struggle for holiness of heart, is not worth preaching. Baptists have no appeal to emolument, to promotion, to power of place. They must show that they stand for all the truth of God, so far as he has revealed it, and they must illustrate that truth, for which they have often suffered the loss of all things, by holy living. They can have no fellowship with unscriptural teaching, nor can they abate in any degree the emphasis of their protest against every form of evil. There are no other bodies of people in the world that stand for the tings for which Baptists stand, and they are distinctly out of the race for worldly prosperity.
To hold the truth as it is in Jesus in a pure conscience, to show what that truth can do to make human life what it ought to be - according to the New Testament ideal - and to publish the truth to the whole world is the noble mission and the inseparable obligation of the Baptist churches “till he come.”
[From THE BAPTIST WORLD, September 16, 1909, pp. 9, 29.