Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

The Church of Christ — Ferguson (4): Salvation and Church Membership

The third chapter of Everett Ferguson’s book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today is perhaps my favorite chapter yet. This chapter is entitled “The Church and Her Savior: Salvation and Church Membership.” It is a rich read!

See also my series Introduction and my discussions of Chapter 1 (“Covenant, Kingdom, Christ”) and Chapter 2 (“What Is the Church?”).

Do you wonder what salvation and church membership have to do with each other? Hopefully this post will help you see that the two are very closely linked. Indeed, if you really grasp what salvation means, then you will think about church membership in a whole new way! Or, here is how Ferguson says the same thing, using theological categories: “Soteriology determines ecclesiology” (p. 136).

One thing I’m really enjoying about this book is that Ferguson does an exceptional job at letting the Bible shape the way he talks and thinks about the church. Some books on the church leave you feeling like the author had a predetermined concept of church—perhaps Baptist or Anabaptist—and then came to the Scripture to find evidence to support his ideas. Even if the author (say, a Baptist) lets the Scriptures challenge some parts of his ecclesiology (theology of church), it might feel that, despite some tweaking, it is still a predictable Baptist ecclesiology that he ends up with.

Perhaps this is because Baptists have the perfect ecclesiology! Or perhaps it is because our preconceptions always shape the questions we bring to the Bible. For example, a Roman Catholic might ask this question of the Bible: “In what spirit should a pope exercise his authority?” The question itself assumes something not found in Scripture: the office of the pope. Similarly, a Baptist might this question of Scripture: “How should the pastor administer the ordinances?” This question also assumes several ideas not taught in Scripture: that a church normally has only one pastor, and that there is a category of actions called “ordinances.”

Ferguson, though he is shaped by his Church of Christ heritage, does a better job than most theologians at hearing what Scripture actually says—letting the Bible shape the questions he asks and the truths he teaches. This means some of his ideas challenge our inherited theological categories. Wonderful! Disorientation enables learning.

Ferguson arranges most of this chapter under three headings:

  1. Human Need (human nature, sin)
  2. God’s Action (atonement, preaching)
  3. Human Response (faith, repentance, baptism)

Church membership might seem to be missing, but you will find it woven throughout, especially at the beginning and also near the end (such as here and here). Also included are fascinating discussions about baptism and about the spiritual condition of children. Dig in, and chew carefully!

Ferguson’s chapter introduction is worth quoting at length, and worth reading slowly:

The question of the membership or composition of the church is answered by the study of the nature of the church in the preceding chapter… One becomes a part of the church by being in the people of God, being incorporated into the body of Christ, and receiving the Holy Spirit… If, as studied in the preceding chapter, the nature of the church is that of Christ, then becoming a part of Christ, identification with his people, incorporation into him, answers the question of church membership

Another way of describing the nature of the church… is to say that the church is those persons who are saved from their sins. The church, therefore, may be defined as the community of the saved. In other words, soteriology determines ecclesiology…

Those who are saved from their sins are added by God to the number of his people (Acts 2:47)…

A negative way of saying the same thing about the church is suggested by 1 Peter 4:17-18. There the church is contrasted with those who are lost…

Such passages suggest the right way to describe the relationship between the church and salvation. The church does not save (Christ is the Savior), but neither does it have no connection with salvation. The church is the people who are saved. Some depend on the church to save them. Others make only the most minimal connection between salvation and church membership, saying that one is saved by one means and becomes a church member in another way. Both positions misunderstand the biblical teaching. God places the saved in the church, which is his people. The church is the community of the saved. (pp. 135-37, bold added)

This is a most unusual way to begin a discussion of church membership! Most discussions begin with the questionable assumption that we all already know what church membership is. If a definition is deemed necessary, usually the assumed or argued definition is something about entering into a covenantal relationship with a local congregation. Sometimes (and rightly so) there is a focus on the few NT passages that explicitly use the language of “member” (though these passages are often pasted onto preconceived modern concepts of membership).

Ferguson, in contrast, (a) doesn’t assume we know what church membership is, (b) shows that the concept is first rooted in the nature of the universal church, not the local congregation, and (c) defines church membership as “part of a broad doctrinal perspective” rather than based on existing church polity (government structures) or a narrow examination of NT passages about “members.”

1. Human Need (human nature, sin):

Ferguson begins this section by discussing “the paradox of human nature: greatness and wretchedness, majesty and misery” (p. 137).

Of all the competing worldviews, only the biblical doctrines of creation and fall account for the dual nature of humanity: aspirations, ideals, and moments of greatness; yet falling short, filled with frustrations and failures. (p. 138)

Ferguson discusses “four great realities of human nature” that he finds in Genesis 3: temptation, sin, punishment, and redemption. Under “redemption”:

Jesus Christ is the real, true man—what a human being was meant to be. He is the typical, representative person, the leader of the new humanity conformed to the Creator’s plan. (p. 143).

Ferguson adds some “further theological reflections on sin,” of which the following especially caught my eye:

Two opposing views have been maintained about the relation of humanity to sin: depraved in all his being versus inherently good. In spite of isolated texts that might be cited, neither view presents the overall biblical teaching. An alternative theological position will be set forth in the following sections… (p. 143)

“How is sin possible?” Ferguson asks:

God is good; he is not evil. He is not the author of evil… He does not want sin in the world, and he does not directly product it. Nevertheless, God maintains the conditions which make sin possible, and he has a purpose which appears to make it inevitable. In biblical language, when God sends or allows the influences that result in sin, he can be said to cause it (cf. Exod. 7:3 and 8:32; 1Sam. 16:14). (p. 144, bold added)

And “why is sin universal?”:

Christian theology has related this universality of sin to the doctrine of original sin. Although often reinterpreted, it refers historically to the teaching popularized by Augustine (5th century) that humanity shares the guilt of Adam’s transgression. This results from everyone inheriting a nature that is polluted. The transmission of sin occurs in the same way as the transmission of human nature, sexual generation. An alternative explanation current in Puritan theology is that Adam was the “federal head” of the human race; in that capacity he involved all his descendants in his transgression. Both of these views are theological explanations; neither has a direct biblical base, even if derived from selected texts. As far as express biblical texts go,the fall altered the human condition; it did not alter human nature. Human beings no longer live in Paradise and now struggle in surroundings where the influence of sin is great. Their nature is weakened by the generations who have sinned. On the other hand, the universality of sin cannot be simply blamed on human finiteness, ignorance, and environment.

The story of the first parents is also the story of everyone’s temptations and fall. Why everyone chooses to love self rather than God is left unexplained in scripture. It remains a fact… The effects of a weakened human nature inclining us to sin are intensified by the examples of sin about us. (p. 145, bold added)

I am heartened by Ferguson’s boldness in questioning, based on Scripture, a couple theological ideas that have become nearly sacrosanct. I have written before on the question of whether the idea of a sinful nature is truly biblical (see here, here, and here). Biblical or not, I am convinced that it has become so dominant in our thinking that we tend to miss other ways that the Bible talks about sin.

On the other hand, I am not ready yet to definitely assert with Ferguson that the fall “did not alter human nature.” So much depends on how we define terms. Even Ferguson, I note, is not entirely clear in how he talks about “human nature.” In the excerpt above, for example, he also says that our “nature is weakened by the generations who have sinned”; thus we have “a weakened human nature inclining us to sin.” I think I agree with Ferguson here, and I would want to add one more thing to the picture he paints: Paul says that when Adam sinned, “sin came into the world” (Rom. 5:12), thereafter ruling over us. I think this image of “King Sin” ruling from without pairs well with (and helps explain) the concept of a “weakened” human nature, such as Ferguson describes.

Ferguson ends his discussion of sin with an unattributed quote: “My pessimism about man is exceeded only by my optimism about God” (p. 148). Amen!

2. God’s Action (atonement, preaching)

Here, again, Ferguson’s effort to be biblical and not merely parrot denominational orthodoxies is clearly evident. I really enjoyed his approach to theories of the atonement:

Through Christian history thinkers have advanced various theories of the atonement—the ransom, satisfaction, and moral-exemplary having been the most prominent. The Bible, however, does not present a “theory of the atonement.” In many of its teachings, the Bible reveals a fact or declares a truth, but does not offer an explanation of why or how this is so. The saving significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus is one of these subjects. The Bible does not offer a systematic explanation of how the atonement works or why God accepts the death of Jesus as providing forgiveness of sins. The writers of the New Testament do describe the meaning of what God has done in terms familiar to the people of the time. They employ various images drawn from familiar experiences to convey a truth. These images describe a reality, but they do not actually explain how the reality works. (p. 149, bold added)

Ferguson discusses five such images:

Sacrifice—The Language of Worship…
Reconciliation—The Language of Personal Relations…
Redemption—The Language of the Marketplace…
Justification—The Language of the Law Court…
Victory—The Language of Warfare (pp. 150-59)

It seems to me that this approach of discussing varied biblical images is more faithful and fruitful than trying to defend one theory of the atonement as primary or even singularly sufficient. Jesus didn’t hand his apostles an outlined systematic theology, but he did present an example of using multiple images from common life to depict eternal truths about the kingdom of God.

Here are a few highlights from this section. First, regarding redemption and ransom: Ferguson notes that the Bible speaks of “the blood of Christ as the price of the purchase (Rev. 5:9)” (p. 154). But he argues regarding “the ‘ransom’ family of words” that “the emphasis in the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament is more on the resultant deliverance and freedom than on the price paid” (p. 155). Thus Ferguson notes “the difficulty with some expressions of the ‘ransom theory’ of the atonement”:

One must be careful not to extend the analogy beyond what the New Testament does. The biblical authors declare the fact or truth of the atonement under the imagery of a ransom. They do not go further to explain how this worked. That is what the ransom theory in some of its expressions sought to do. If God paid a price for human redemption, it was asked, to whom did he make the payment? It must have been the devil. If so, what is the claim of the devil over human life, and is it a just claim? And so the speculation goes. One finds it hard to give biblical answers to unbiblical questions. It is better to leave this description where the other imagery is, as a use of language familiar to people of the time to reveal the significance of what God did in Christ. To make any of these descriptions into a theory, or to extend them beyond the biblical usage, is, at best, to say more than can be confirmed, and, at worst, to say something the Bible does not say. (p. 155, bold added)

Influenced by E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn, Ferguson affirms some “new perspective” thinking on justification in Paul. (If that sentence was gobbledygook to you, just breath deeply and move on.) Here I would like to agree with what Ferguson affirms, but perhaps qualify what he denies:

Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith occurs primarily in Romans and Galatians, that is, in a context of defending the reception of the Gentiles into the church without requiring them to submit to circumcision and other requirements of the law of Moses. Justification… is contrasted with the law as a system or principle of justification. Justification by faith, in the sense of human faith, is not absolutized in the way it often has been in Protestant theology. Rather it is a way of universalizing the gospel, for the response of faith is open to all, Gentiles as well as Jews. (p. 157)

I could quote much more, but will end this section with Ferguson’s last paragraph on atonement:

Military victory overcomes the evil powers, justification overcomes law and guilt, redemption overcomes slavery to sin, reconciliation overcomes hostility and chaos, and sacrifice overcomes the need for appeasement… Each image of the atonement emphasizes what God did: he makes the atoning sacrifice, he reconciles, he redeems, he justifies, he wins the victory. In all aspects God is triumphant. (p. 159, bold added)

After “further theological reflections on the atonement,” Ferguson ends this section by discussing “the preaching of the cross”:

The preaching of the gospel provide the connection between the once for all action of God at the cross [and empty tomb] and the continuing human appropriation of salvation.. Calvary had to be followed by Pentecost. The victory in the Christ-event must be communicated…

The word “gospel” means “good news”… Preaching the good news about Jesus is preaching what accomplishes the atonement…

The preaching of the gospel calls forth the human response, but even this human side of salvation is God-initiated. God instituted not only the salvation but also the proclamation of the salvation… So, preaching is a part of God’s plan of salvation…

Both medieval sacramentalism and modern revivalism’s doctrine of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit tend to blur the distinctive place of preaching in God’s plan. (pp. 161-63, bold added)

3. Human Response (faith, repentance, baptism)

This section contains many rich theological discussions, but I’ll only share highlights.

First, Ferguson discusses faith. After stressing the importance of faith, he asks how a person comes to believe:

One explanation, derived from the church father Augustine and passed on to Protestants by Martin Luther and John Calvin, is that God predestines those who will be saved and gives to them faith. The direct opposite of this teaching is the secular view that faith is an arbitrary attitude arising from a person’s own irrational, perhaps superstitious, decision. The biblical explanation falls between these extremes. (p. 163, bold added)

Ferguson’s explanation is based on his theology of preaching: “Saving faith comes by hearing the word about Christ” (p. 163). While this answer begs more questions (Why doesn’t everyone hear? Why doesn’t everyone who hears develop faith?), it remains true:

The consistent order of conversion is summarized in Acts 18:8, “Many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.”

Since faith comes from hearing the word, there is a sense in which one may say that faith is given by God… Faith is not human generated… Only the word that sets forth the mighty, loving, salvific action of God can do this… Since God supplies the content of faith and the means by which it is created, he is the one who gives faith… On the other hand, God does not directly create the response. He does not give faith to some and withhold it from others… The preached word produces faith. (p. 164, bold added)

Ferguson helpfully discusses of “the elements of faith”—intellectual assent, trust, and obedience. He also explains that faith is not “meritorious,” but simply a “grateful acceptance” of God’s gift of salvation, which is received “in the only way any gift is received” (p.167).

He then turns to the “relation of faith to its expressions,” beginning with baptism. Here we will slow down again, and I recommend slow reading:

Faith saves, but when? At the point of believing, or when the divine condition attached to the promise is met?

Baptism is act of faith, not a work in the sense of Romans 4… As a condition attached to God’s promise of salvation it is not opposed to faith… Faith is the reason why a person is a child of God; baptism is the time at which one is incorporated into Christ and so becomes a child of God…

One cannot define work in such a way as to include baptism and exclude faith. There is a sense in which faith itself is a work… “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29)… So, if “work” is taken to mean something done by human beings, then faith no less than baptism is a “work”…

The teaching of baptism for the remission of sins… is not a contradiction to justification by faith. Indeed, baptism for the remission of sins is an expression of justification by faith. Baptism is an act of faith, dependent on the promise of God and a submission to him as the appointed way of claiming the promise. The death and resurrection of Christ are the basis of salvation on the divine side. Faith is the basis of salvation on the human side. Baptism represents the “when,” not the “how” (God’s action), nor the “why” (faith) of salvation. It is the appointed time at which that salvation offered to faith is applied and becomes effective in the person’s life. (p. 169-70, bold added)

This is difficult teaching for most of us, and we will be tempted to react, indeed, overreact, since we have likely been warned of the fallacy of “baptismal regeneration.” But before we react, let’s listen and try to understand.

First, we must note that Ferguson specifies that baptism is not the “basis” of salvation, just the “appointed time” when it becomes effective. Second, consider what we often hear regarding baptism—that it is “only” a sign or symbol of some prior spiritual reality. Is that really how Scripture talks about baptism? Can you find any verse that expressly talks about baptism in that way?

I think we should listen to Ferguson here. At minimum, we should let him push us closer to Scripture, which ties baptism and saving faith much more closely together than we often acknowledge.

If you would find it easier to read a Baptist’s take on this topic, I urge you to read an essay by Robert H. Stein: “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament.” Here is Stein’s thesis:

In the New Testament, conversion involves five integrally related components or aspects, all of which took place at the same time, usually on the same day. These five components are repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration, or the giving of the Holy Spirit by God, and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.

Stein argues that when Scripture mentions any one of these five, it normally assumes the presence of the other four. Thus “all five components described in my thesis (repentance, faith, confession, regeneration, baptism) are mentioned in the New Testament as bringing about salvation.” This includes baptism, which Peter famously asserts “saves you” (1 Pet. 3:21). Stein admits his own Baptist tradition is weak on this point:

Baptist theology also deviates from the New Testament pattern. Although repentance, faith, confession, and regeneration are associated with baptism, baptism is separated in time from these four components. Thus baptism is an act which witnesses to a prior experience of repentance, faith, confession, and regeneration. As a result such passages as Romans 6:4, 1 Peter 3:21, Titus 3:5, John 3:3ff., and others, which associate baptism with the experience of conversion, are embarrassing to many Baptists and often receive a strained exegesis at their hands.

Again, I urge us to be sure we understand Ferguson and have compared him carefully with Scripture before we judge his perspective. Perhaps he isn’t perfectly right; but I’m certain that the popular Mennonite understanding isn’t, either.

Ferguson next discusses the relationship of faith and works (synthesizing the apparent contradiction between Romans and James). He ends this subsection with some mature observations:

Faith is no more meritorious than works. It is the acceptance of a gracious gift. The importance of accepting a great gift does not detract from the significance of the gift, unless one glories in the acceptance… Some forms of the doctrine of salvation by “faith only” end in the very thing the doctrine was meant to oppose, namely trusting in what one does (in this case in one’s faith), which is the same as trusting in oneself…

A person can be assured of salvation. There is nothing more certain than the promises of God… “Do I have the right kind of faith?” “Do I have enough faith?”… God has given an objective assurance in the condition of water baptism… the outward, objective expression of faith in Christ… If one has enough faith to be baptized, one has enough faith to be saved. If one’s faith is in Christ as Savior, one will follow him in baptism. It is trusting God and his word to be baptized. (p. 173, bold added)

There is much more to faith and assurance than baptism, and we all know of those who were baptized without possessing saving faith. But it is interesting to note that Paul, like Ferguson, was not above pointing people back to their baptism to remind them of their salvation (Romans 6:3-4, etc.).

The confession of faith, Ferguson notes, “will involve the whole self”:

There may be many occasions when one is called upon to confess faith in Jesus in addition to the initial acknowledgment of him. (p. 175)

But since the focus of this chapter is “how one is brought into this relationship” with Christ and his church (p. 135), Ferguson focuses on a convert’s initial confession of faith. So he soon pivots again to baptism, providing another definition:

The confession that “Jesus is Lord and Christ” is made by act as well as by word. The action of baptism is a confession of faith in the resurrection… One submits to immersion only if he or she has faith in the resurrection… Baptism acknowledges Jesus as Lord of one’s life and king of the universe… Baptism is a confession that Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Son of God. Submitting to baptism is identical to the faith that is confessed. (pp. 174-75, bold added)

Ferguson’s last paragraph on faith ends by showing its relationship to church membership:

Faith in the God who raises the dead, specifically Jesus Christ, is the heart of the Christian faith… This is the faith by which one becomes identified with Christ and so a part of his spiritual body, his people, who wear his name. (p. 175, bold added)

Ferguson next discusses repentance. He is brief here, so I will be too! Repentance, he suggests, broadly involves three elements: (1) godly grief, (2) change of will, and (3) reformation of life. Repentance also has a narrower meaning, focusing on the second element:

The inward change that results from godly grief and issues in a reformation of life is what constitutes repentance in the strict sense. (p. 177)

What is the relationship of repentance to conversion?

If a distinction is to be observed, “repent” refers more to the inward turning and “convert” to the outward acts of turning.

The literal meaning of turning suggests an illustration of the place of repentance in conversion. A person is walking in one direction, stops (the conviction of sin; godly sorrow), decides to turn around (repentance), turns around (conversion), and walks in the opposite direction (reformation of life). (p. 178, bold added)

And which comes first, faith or repentance?

In the two passages where faith and repentance are mentioned together, repentance precedes faith… (Mark 1:15… Acts 20:21)… Some would argue theologically and insist on the priority of faith as the root of all human response to God… Probably we should not think in terms of sequence at all but in terms of describing a total response to God… (pp. 178-79, bold added)

With that, Ferguson turns to systematically discuss one of his favorite topics, baptism. After discussing the historical background of Christian baptism, he considers the meaning of baptism.

“Baptism is associated with many key ideas involved in conversion” (p. 180). Ferguson’s discussion here reminds me of Stein’s article, though his list of related components is not identical: confession of faith, act of repentance, forgiveness of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit, new birth, death and resurrection, and membership in the church.

Here are some highlights:

Baptism is a “calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16)… After baptism into Christ one wears the name of Christ. One now lives a Christian life because of becoming a Christian at baptism. (pp. 180-81, bold added)

Baptism is involved in the turning associated with repentance… According to the illustration offered [in the discussion of repentance and conversion] above, repentance is the decision to turn, and baptism is the turning around. Repentance is the inward turning, and baptism is the outward turning, which is followed by the new life of walking in the opposite direction. (pp. 182-83, bold added)

Baptism is the appointed time at which God pronounces forgiveness. Faith takes away the love of sin, repentance takes away the practice of sin, and baptism takes away the guilt of sin. (p. 183, bold added)

Here Ferguson notes the parallel construction between Acts 2:38 (“Repent, and be baptized… so that your sins may be forgiven”) and Matthew 26:28 (“This is my blood…, which is poured out… for the forgiveness of sins”). “Exactly the same construction and wording occurs” in Greek in the two passages, Ferguson asserts.

No one would suggest that Jesus’ blood was poured out “because of the forgiveness of sins.” He did not die because sins were already forgiven, nor was his blood poured out as a symbol of the forgiveness of sins. There was no doubt that the blood was shed “in order to effect the forgiveness of sins.” The same translation must be given to Acts 2:38… The blood provides forgiveness by the divine action; baptism appropriates that forgiveness for the penitent believer. (p. 183, bold added)

There is no magical power in the water nor merit in the act itself, for the value comes not from the water but from the intention with which the act is performed. The statement is not to be absolutized, but when placed in the total context of the gospel, it remains true: “Baptism saves.” [Citing 1 Peter 3:21.]… There must be an objective necessity about baptism, nor the New Testament writers could not speak of baptism in the way they do. (pp. 184-85, bold added)

Again, comments like this might make some of us uncomfortable, and they raise all sorts of questions. (What about the thief on the cross?) But I urge us to ask: Compared to Ferguson, is the way we often talk about baptism closer to the language of the Bible, or further? As we add nuance, let us be humble learners.

I find Ferguson’s reflections on the historical theology of baptism helpful, too:

The perspective outlined here makes problematic the designation of baptism as a sacrament… Roman Catholics have traditionally emphasized the inward grace, so much so that the benefits are applied in the rite if no resistance is offered (hence, an infant receives forgiveness of original sin in baptism)… Protestants, on the other hand, have emphasized the sign aspect, so baptism is a sign of God’s forgiveness that is given to a faith that has already happened (in the case of adult baptism) or will happen (in the case of infant baptism) and does not require the sign for it to happen (hence, the baptism is actually unnecessary). Against these ideas, the New Testament teaches that baptism has real value but draws that value only from the command of God and from an active faith. It is both necessary to the accomplishment of forgiveness under ordinary circumstances and the symbol of what is accomplished. (pp. 185-86, bold added)

I got excited when I read the next paragraph, for it confirmed something I concluded in my essay “125 Years of Seven Ordinances”:

This book has consciously avoided a separate category of “sacraments” in its organization of the material. Such a category is a later theological construct for which there is no explicit New Testament authorization. Moreover, it seems preferable to treat the actions sometimes called sacraments in the living context of their place in the church rather than to pull them out of that context and put them in a separate category. (p. 186, bold added)

Discussing John 3:3-5 and similar passages, Ferguson quips that “there are two elements of the new birth [water and Spirit], despite the efforts of some to dehydrate the new birth” (p. 188).

Is baptism a symbol? Ferguson addresses this while discussing death and resurrection:

The convert participates in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. There is a sharing in his experience. That makes baptism a richly meaningful act. More is involved than an imitation or repetition of what Christ did; what he did becomes operative in the life of the believer…

Baptism may be described as an act of dynamic symbolism, a symbol that partakes of the reality symbolized… Baptism began with John as an eschatological sign of cleansing; it was given deeper symbolism in Christianity by the death and resurrection of Christ. Anything but immersion destroys the symbolism of the act. (p. 191, bold added)

Ferguson’s language of “dynamic symbolism” reminds me of Bobby Jamieson’s term “effective sign” (see my review of his book Going Public):

The thesis of this book, then, is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effective signs of church membership: they create the social, ecclesial realities to which they point. (p. 2, bold added)

How does baptism relate to church membership? I find Ferguson’s discussion refreshing for its biblical integrity:

Baptism places one in the church. “For in [or by] the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13)… The Spirit places the person in the one body. Having the one Spirit is the means of sharing in the one body. (pp. 191-92, bold added)

The New Testament places no significance on the person who performs the baptism. The emphasis is always on the person’s response of faith and the divine action… The person doing the baptizing was not the important matter; what was important was the fact that it was done and the purpose that motivated it. (p. 194, bold added)

Since Christ is the body (1 Cor. 12:12), to be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into the body, that is, into the church as the people of God… Baptism serves as the act of initiation into the church. Any group or organization has to have some act which marks off its members from others, however informal this may be… Not only does the church need something to identify its members, but people need something they can look back on and say, “At that time I became a Christian, a member of the church.” God has designated something as the decisive act that only the truly converted will do. Baptism is the line between the church and the world. (p. 194, bold added)

Ferguson is certainly an idealist when he says baptism is something “that only the truly converted will do.” We all know this is not always true, and it would be wise for Ferguson to discuss what should happen when exceptions are discovered. (Perhaps he does later.) Nevertheless, I want to say here that it is important to properly recognize biblical ideals and use them as the foundation of our understanding of practices like church membership. Exceptions must be handled, but we must not use them as excuses to develop ideals and norms that are not biblical.

In my estimation it is not helpful, for example, to say that since not all who are baptized are Christians, therefore we will divorce baptism from either conversion, church membership, or both. Scripture ties all three together; it would be better to revise our membership paradigms to match Scripture more closely than to separate the three in order to preserve extra-biblical membership practices designed to ensure our members are truly Christians. Let’s hold to (or return to) the biblical ideal of a united conversion/baptism/membership experience and then invest the effort to actively disciple and discipline the “exceptions.”

Some final quotes on the meaning of baptism:

Membership in the church is more a result than the purpose of baptism. One is baptized not so much in order to join the church as to accept Christ and receive his salvation… God adds the person to the church, the community of the saved. The church is created by God. (pp. 194-95, bold added)

There can be a “subtle temptation to trust in baptism for salvation,” Ferguson notes. However, “there are [also] other things that can become misplaced objects of trust,” such as faith, experience, or doctrinal correctness. Thus this temptation is no reason to water down (pardon the pun) the Bible’s teaching on baptism. After all, “truly to trust in God includes responding to him in the appointed way,” which includes baptism (p. 195).

Who should be baptized? Baptism “is not a work by those already saved,” Ferguson notes. “Hence, the proper persons to receive baptism are penitent believers, or believing penitents.”

Ferguson lists three arguments against infant baptism:

(1) There is not mention of the baptism of infants in the New Testament. (2) Every account of baptism in the New Testament shows it to be a response by believers… (3) The evidence of church history places the beginning of infant baptism at the end of the second century. (pp. 195-96)

He then devotes three pages to refute four arguments often presented in favor of infant baptism:

The examples of household baptism…
[Giving] baptism the place of circumcision…
Jewish proselyte baptism…
The doctrine of original sin… (pp. 196-98)

I was impressed with the evidence Ferguson mounted to show that the accounts of household baptism do not reasonably describe infants. Regarding original sin, he argues that “infant baptism arose first on other grounds, and the idea that infants needed purification developed (at least in part) as a consequence of the practice.” Thus “original sin was not the basis of the practice [of infant baptism], but the practice was the basis of the doctrine” (p. 198). This historical sequence, if true, considerably weakens a key theological argument for infant baptism. (Some church traditions use other theological arguments, usually also redefining the purpose of baptism from forgiveness of sins to something less crucial.)

I really enjoyed Ferguson’s thoughts about the “condition of the child”:

The theology of the child is little developed in churches that practice believers’ baptism. Yet the status of the child is urgently in need of clarification as a foundation for religious education and as an explanation of the relation of the young person to the Christian community.

Sometimes there has been a tendency to come out where the old revivalism did: one must be lost in order to be saved, so the child is painted as a little sinner. Perhaps related is the tendency to baptize at a younger and younger age. (p. 199, bold added)

What, then, is a better theology and practice? Ferguson looks to creation and to the positive New Testament assessment of children, both by Jesus and by Paul.

The doctrine of inherited guilt from Adam was rejected above as lacking biblical support…

According to Matthew 19:13-15 the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as the little children…

Paul argues against a believer divorcing an unbelieving mate on the grounds that the believer sanctifies the unbeliever, a conclusion justified by this consideration: “Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14)… Salvation is not under consideration… The question is the legitimacy of the marriage relationship so that it is proper to remain in the marriage. A corollary is the condition of the children; are they in a state of purity as it relates to the Christian community? Paul indicates that the answer is “Yes.” Nothing is said here about baptism; the state of holiness comes from the believing parent not from baptism and no impurity requires the cleansing of baptism. If all children are born innocent, then the child of a Christian parent has an added advantage, for that child grows up… under Christian influence and in some contact with the Christian community… The child of Christian parents sustains a special relationship to the Lord that the child of non-Christians would not. [Citing Ephesians 6:1-4.] (pp. 199-200, bold added)

How might our practice reflect this theology?

There must be some way in which the religious experience of the child is not denied and treated as non-Christian but the real meaning of believer’s baptism maintained… It is proper to teach the child to pray, to study the Bible, and to practice Christian morality…

What then does baptism mean for the child who has grown up in a Christian home? It must still retain the positive significance that it has for the adult convert from the world, but it would not have the same sense of a radical break with the past… The baptism of a child of Christian parents should be seen in continuity with the childhood religious experience… At this time, one makes a profession of faith as his or her own… [Footnote: “One may compare the Jewish bar mitzvah, when the child becomes a ‘son of the commandment’ with responsibility to assume the duties of the law.] Baptism is the person’s acceptance of Christ and of responsibility for public involvement in the life of the church. (p. 200, bold added)

Ferguson resists the call to be more prescriptive:

At what time does baptism become appropriate? When can a decision for a life of faith be responsibly made? How long is a child in a state of “holiness”?… The Bible does not give an age. The person must face the consciousness of sin (which to some degree may come quite early) and the necessity of assuming responsibility for actions (that may be very much later). (p. 201, bold added)

As a parent of young children, I appreciate Ferguson’s biblical assurance that I need not call them quickly to a crisis faith decision. I want them to be conscious of the presence of the Lord from an early age, but do not feel an urgency to overwhelm them with a sense of responsibility for their own sins before they are developmentally equipped to handle it well.

Ferguson presents five lines of evidence for “immersion” or “dipping” as the proper mode of baptism:

The etymology of the word baptizó
Jewish practice in New Testament times for ritual washing…
The New Testament descriptions of baptism…
The symbolism of burial and resurrection…
The evidence of early church history… (pp. 201-203)

I already agreed with Ferguson that immersion is the biblical norm, and that other practices are post-biblical “exceptions.”

Ferguson winds down this chapter by discussing “three tenses of salvation” (p. 203). He notes that “if one loses faith and a penitent attitude, baptism loses its saving significance” (p. 204).

I get excited when I read the following sentences from the end of this chapter. Ferguson’s understanding of church membership is very different from the way we have been trained to think about church membership in our recent conservative Anabaptist tradition. But it matches so well what I have been concluding in my own reading of the New Testament! What would it look like if our churches understood membership in the following way?

Properly understood, “to be in the church is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ is to be in the church.”1 One is not “in Christ” because of being “in the church,” but one is “in the church” because of being “in Christ.” Membership in the church is not a matter of separate choice by the one joined to Christ (as if one could belong to Christ and not belong to his people). To be saved is to be in Christ, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the church. God by the same action that saves places the person in the redeemed community. (p. 205, bold added)

Ah, but Ferguson must be talking about the universal church, right? This would be quite impractical for a local church!

Not so fast. Here are the very next sentences, part of the same paragraph:

Nor is the church in the Bible an invisible body. It is always treated in the New Testament as a visible community of people, identifiable and distinct from the surrounding world… Not only is a visible fellowship part of God’s saving action, but it is also the context in which the salvation is lived out and the new life actualized. (p. 205, bold added)


And thus we return to where we began: soteriology determines ecclesiology.

If we are honest, I think we will admit what history shows only too clearly: we have some problems with our ecclesiology. Does this suggest that we also have problems with our soteriology? Might we not have a clear enough understanding of salvation? If we knew more clearly what it really means to belong to Christ, could we better recognize who actually belongs to him? And would we feel more deeply our spiritual bond with all who do, so that we would not dare to deny that bond by defining church membership in other ways (Eph. 4:3-4)?

Let us think on these things.


If you want to read more of Ferguson’s thoughts about baptism, check out his massive volume Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Meanwhile, it’s your turn: Share your responses in the comments below!


Ferguson’s fourth chapter (our post 5) is about worship and assembly. Subtopics will include things like attitudes toward worship, the day of assembly, and activities such as the Lord’s Supper and giving. I see in advance that I’ll disagree with Ferguson’s position on instrumental music, but I’ll do my best to learn as I disagree!


Note: I participate in an Amazon affiliates program, so if you buy a book using the link above, I will earn pennies. Thanks!

  1. Claude Welch, The Reality of the Church (New York: Scribner’s, 1958), p. 165.

Save page

In Which I Am Surprised to Agree With John Nelson Darby

I just finished a book called The Scofield Bible: Its History and Impact on the Evangelical Church, by R. Todd Mangum and Mark S. Sweetham. I recommend the book. It is slightly repetitive at points, perhaps because of the joint authorship, and it might be more engaging if it offered more specific examples and fewer general observations. But it is a very informative and apparently fair discussion of both the Scofield Bible (1909) and the man who created it, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921).

Readers are sure to learn something new about one of the most powerful influences that have shaped the modern American evangelical landscape. I also noted parallels between Scofield’s project and the theological and publishing efforts of Mennonite fundamentalists of the same era, such as Daniel Kauffman. In both cases, I believe, the church was almost certainly better off thanks to the efforts of such leaders. Yet their best intentions and most helpful efforts were unintentionally marred by significant weaknesses only clearly visible after subsequent generations used their writings. This is both encouraging and sobering for writers today.

Scofield was a skilled Bible teacher, but rarely original. His many influences include the Geneva Bible (the first annotated English Bible, millenial in nature rather than ammillenial as Catholics of the time), James Ussher’s historical dating system (adopted by Scofield though modified by the “gap theory” in Genesis 1), European evangelicalism (perhaps including Isaac Watt’s musings on dispensations, which nearly match Scofield’s), John Nelson Darby (dispensational promoter of a two-stage return of Christ and a secret rapture), Southern Presbyterianism (turning from postmillenialism to the more pessimistic premillenialism after losses in the Civil War and advocating the curse of Ham—the idea that black people are destined to be servants), and the American fundamentalist-evangelical movement of which he was a part (which included prophecy conferences).

These are some of his most prominent influences, but I’m only providing a sample of examples of how these influences shaped Scofield.

For the rest of this post I want to focus on one of Scofield’s influences, J. N. Darby (1800-1882, a leader among the Plymouth Brethren in Ireland), and on only one of his themes, the nature of the church—since this theme directly relates to a main theme of my blog.

In short, Darby’s beliefs about the church shaped his beliefs about prophecy. And what surprised me is that, while I disagree with many of Darby’s beliefs about prophecy, I identify with some of his thinking about church.

First, some excerpts from the book by Mangum and Sweetam:

One of the most interesting things about the way in which Darby’s interpretation of prophetic Scripture emerged is that his development of dispensationalism was a result of his disaffection with the ecclesiastical status quo. Especially in light of his later complaints that those he spoke to during his visits to the United States enthusiastically absorbed his prophetic teaching while ignoring almost entirely his views on church order, it is important to not that with Darby eschatology followed from (and was an implication of) ecclesiology. (pp. 65-66, bold added)

In the years following his conversion, Darby became increasingly disenchanted with the Church of Ireland… The primary cause is clear. While studying Scripture, Darby became increasingly dismayed with the Erastian nature of the Church of Ireland—its status as the established church of the state. (pp. 64-65, bold added)

Erastian: “of, characterized by, or advocating the doctrine of state supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). (The term is named after Thomas Erastus, a Zwinglian theologian who died in 1583.)

As I read this, I’m thinking: Darby sounds like a budding Anabaptist! The Anabaptists also rejected the church-state union promoted by magisterial reformers such as Zwingli.

More from Mangum and Sweetnam:

The Church of Ireland during this period enjoyed a unique position. Like the Church of England, it was the church established by law enjoying a special relationship with the apparatus of the British rule in Ireland. (p. 65)

This special relationship between the Protestant Church of Ireland and the British government led to oppression of the Catholic majority in Ireland, causing growing unrest.

Darby’s disgust and anger grew when his archbishop directed that oaths of allegiance to the British Commonwealth be imposed on anyone joining the church. Catholic conversions [which had been plentiful under Darby’s gospel preaching] completely dried up as religious faith became conflated and confused with political allegiance. (p. 65, bold added)

It was ecclesiological concern that led to Darby’s rethinking of prophecy. Up to this point, he seems to have held to [a] sort of postmillennial scheme… His own evangelistic efforts were a key part of the global spread of the gospel, which would eventually bring about the millennial bliss and the conditions for Christ’s return. His archbishop’s action and its consequences were probably not the only thing that changed this. But they did prove to be the legendary straw that broke the camel’s back. In the aftermath of these events, Darby became deeply pessimistic about the future of the world and disillusioned about the prospects of global evangelization and the growing success of the gospel…

Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (1828) was Darby’s first tract, and it outlined his emerging understanding of the nature of the church. Christ’s church, Darby argued, was spiritual in nature. Its unity was not, could not, be the product of human effort—it was a work of the Spirit alone. The Church of Ireland was following a path well worn by the churches through the centuries, a path that led to involvement in human power and civil government and away from the pristine simplicity of dependence on the Holy Spirit. These churches had fallen from their original position because they had lost sight of their heavenly calling and had become mired in human mechanism…

Darby gave practical expression to these views by resigning his curacy… He was discovering an alternative ecclesiology shaped by insights similar to his own, which were emerging in the small gatherings of believers that were eventually to develop into the Brethren movement.

By the time Darby’s first writing on prophecy was published in 1829—Reflections upon “The Prophetic Inquiry” and the Views Advanced in Ithe had, in line with his pessimistic view of the health of the church, adopted a clearly premillennial position. (pp. 66-67, bold added)

Up to this point, Darby still sounds like he could be one of the early Anabaptists. They, too, insisted on separation of church and state, and at least some of them held premillennial understandings. (I am not informed enough to be more specific than this on Anabaptist prophetic understandings.)

But as Darby further developed his prophetic understanding, he developed views very different from the early Anabaptists—views which some Anabaptists today promote, however, thanks in part to the mediating influence of the Scofield Bible.

One of the most important features of the dispensationalism that developed from Darby and that would be embodied in Scofield’s notes is the recognition of a distiction between Israel and the church… The longer tradition of Reformed exegesis had postulated a supersessionist, or replacement theology, mode of exegesis. Broadly speaking, this suggested that Israel had been replaced by the church as the people of God, its promises and position handed over wholesale because of their failure of obedience. This understanding of the relationship between God’s people in the Old Testament and in the New Testament was a standard feature of most biblical interpretation from the medieval period, through the magisterial reformers, and down to the present day. (pp. 69-70)

While the Anabaptists agreed that it was now the church, not ethnic Israel, who were the people of God, they differed from the magisterial reformers in their understanding of the Christian’s relationship to the OT. The magisterial reformers looked to the OT to support practices such as military participation and infant baptism, but the Anabaptists insisted more strongly that Christ’s teachings superseded the Law of Moses.

Both the Anabaptists and Darby were concerned that the “flat Bible” approach of the magisterial reformers was a problem, and that it supported a state-church union, which was also a problem. The church did not hold exactly the same position as Israel had. But Darby’s theological solution to this misunderstanding was different from the Anabaptist solution.

In his view this conflation of two distinct groups [Israel and the church] whom God had dealt with in different ways was little sort of disastrous. It was this mistake that underwrote the Erastianism [state-church union] that had so concerned him in earlier years; it was this mistake that obscured the church’s heavenly calling and nature. Israel had been, continued to be, and eternally would be God’s earthly people—his purposes for them would be worked out on earth. The church was a heavenly entity, entirely separate from Israel, and with a prospect that was purely heavenly…

This distinction between the peoples of God and his deep pessimism about the prospects of the contemporary church led Darby to the dispensations that gave their name to dispensationalism. (p. 70, bold added)

In summary: For the Anabaptists, there was both continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church. The continuity was rooted in the church’s identity as the children of Abraham, trusting in Christ just as Abraham trusted in God’s promise, thus becoming heirs of the promises given to Abraham. The discontinuity was found in how Christ and the apostles interpreted these OT promises, with the kingdom of God (spiritual Israel) being now not an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one. Like the magisterial reformers, the Anabaptists did not seem to see any special role for ethnic Israel after the coming of Christ. Unlike them, they did not believe that the church inherited the political and military role that national Israel had carried. (I am making generalizations here, and writing from memory as an amateur, so I invite your help if you want to add nuance to this historical summary.)

Darby’s solution to the church-state problem was different from either the Anabaptists or the magisterial reformers. Rather than positing an end to God’s special purposes for ethnic Israel, he separated the church and Israel entirely. God had contrasting but ongoing plans for both, so that the church and Israel run on separate but parallel tracks until the end of the age, each with different duties and hopes.

Thus Darby and the Anabaptists came to theological understandings that were very different. Yet both understandings accomplished one same result: the division of the church-state union.

I was familiar with Darby’s prophetic conclusions, but did not know about his concept of church. To complete this post, I’d like to share some excerpts I particularly enjoy from Darby’s first tract, Considerations on the Nature and Unity of the Church of Christ (bold added):

It is not a formal union of the outward professing bodies [church denominations] that is desirable; indeed it is surprising that reflecting Protestants should desire it: far from doing good, I conceive it would be impossible that such a body could be at all recognised as the church of God. It would be a counterpart to Romish unity; we should have the life of the church and the power of the word lost, and the unity of spiritual life utterly excluded. Whatever plans may be in the order of Providence, we can only act upon the principles of grace; and true unity is the unity of the Spirit, and it must be wrought by the operation of the Spirit… The Reformation consisted not, as has been commonly said, in the institution of a pure form of church, but in setting up the word, and the great Christian foundation and corner stone of “Justification by faith,” in which believers might find life… He is an enemy to the work of the Spirit of God who seeks the interests of any particular denomination; and that those who believe in “the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” ought carefully to keep from such a spirit; for it is drawing back the church to a state occasioned by ignorance and non-subjection to the word, and making a duty of its worst and antichristian results. This is a most subtle and prevailing mental disease, “he followeth not us [Mark 9:38],” even when men are really Christians. Let the people of God see if they be not hindering the manifestation of the church by this spirit. I believe there is scarcely a public act of Christian men (at any rate of the higher orders, or of those who are active in the nominal churches), which is not infected with this; but its tendency is manifestly hostile to the spiritual interests of the people of God, and the manifestation of the glory of Christ. Christians are little aware how this prevails in their minds; how they seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ; and how it dries up the springs of grace and spiritual communion; how it precludes that order to which blessing is attached-the gathering together in the Lord’s name. No meeting, which is not framed to embrace all the children of God in the full basis of the kingdom of the Son, can find the fulness of blessing, because it does not contemplate it—because its faith does not embrace it.

Where two or three are gathered together in His name, His name is recorded there for blessing [Matt. 18:20]; because they are met in the fulness of the power of the unchangeable interests of that everlasting kingdom in which it has pleased the glorious Jehovah to glorify Himself, and to make His name and saving health known in the Person of the Son, by the power of the Spirit. In the name of Christ, therefore, they enter (in whatever measure of faith) into the full counsels of God, and are “fellow-workers under God.”… The Lord has made known His purposes in Him, and how those purposes are effected. “He hath made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself, that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, he should gather together in one all things in Christ, whether they be things in heaven, or things on earth, even in him, in whom we also have received an inheritance” [Eph. 1:9-11]—in one and in Christ. In Him alone therefore can we find this unity; but the blessed word (who can be thankful enough for it? will inform us further. It is as to its earthly members “gathering together in one, the children of God who are scattered abroad.” And how is this? “That one man should die for them.” [John 11:50-52] As our Lord in the vision of the fruit of the travail of His soul declares, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will drawn all men unto me: this he said signifying what death he should die.” [John 12:32] It is then Christ who will draw – will draw to Himself (and nothing short of or less than this can produce unity, “He that gathereth not with him, scattereth” [Matt. 12:30]); and draw to Himself by being lifted up from the earth. In a word, we find His death is the centre of communion till His coming again, and in this rests the whole power of truth. Accordingly, the outward symbol and instrument of unity is the partaking of the Lord’s supper – for we being many are one “bread, one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread.” [1 Cor. 10:17] And what does Paul declare to be the true intent and testimony of that rite? That whensoever “ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.” [1 Cor. 11:26] Here then are found the character and life of the church, that into which it is called, that in which the truth of its existence subsists, and in which alone is true unity. It is showing forth the Lord’s death, by the efficiency of which they were gathered, and which is the fruitful seed of the Lord’s own glory; which is indeed the gathering of His body, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all” [Eph. 1:23]; and shewing it forth in the assurance of His coming, “when he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe.” [2 Thess. 1:10] Accordingly the essence and substance of unity, which will appear in glory at His coming, is conformity to His death, by which that glory was all wrought…

Unity, the unity of the church, to which “the Lord added daily such as should be saved” [Acts 2:47]…, was when none said anything was his own, and “their conversation was in heaven” [Phil. 3:20]; for they could not be divided in the common hope of that. It knit men’s hearts together by necessity. The Spirit of God has left it upon record, that division began about the goods of the church, even in their best use, on the part of those interested in them; for there could be division, there could be selfish interests. Am I desiring believers to correct the churches? I am beseeching them to correct themselves, by living up, in some measure, to the hope of their calling. I beseech them to shew their faith in the death of the Lord Jesus, and their boast in the glorious assurance which they have obtained by it, by conformity to it – to shew their faith in His coming, and practically to look for it by a life suitable to desires fixed upon it. Let them testify against the secularity and blindness of the church; but let them be consistent in their own conduct.

While the spirit of the world prevails (and how much it prevails, I am persuaded few believers are at all aware) spiritual union cannot subsist… For, let us ask, is the church of God as believers would have it? Do we not believe that it was, as a body, utterly departed from Him? Is it restored so that He would be glorified in it at His appearing? Is the union of believers such as He marks to be their peculiar characteristic? Are there not unremoved hindrances? Is there not a practical spirit of worldliness in essential variance with the true termini of the gospel – the death and coming again of the Lord Jesus as Saviour?…

Unity is the glory of the church; but unity to secure and promote our own interests is not the unity of the church, but confederacy and denial of the nature and hope of the church. Unity, that is of the church, is the unity of the Spirit, and can only be in the things of the Spirit, and therefore can only be perfected in spiritual persons. It is indeed the essential character of the church, and this strongly testifies to the believer its present state. But, I ask, if the professing church seeks worldly interests, and if the Spirit of God be amongst us, will it then be the minister of unity in such pursuits as these? If the various professing churches seek it, each for itself, no answer need be given. But if they unite in seeking a common interest, let us not be deceived; it is no better, if it be not the work of the Lord. There are two things which we have to consider. First, Are our objects in our work exclusively the Lord’s objects, and no other? If they have not been such in bodies separate from each other, they will not be in any union of them together. Let the Lord’s people weigh this. Secondly, let our conduct be the witness of our objects. If we are not living in the power of the Lord’s kingdom, we certainly shall not be consistent in seeking its ends. Let it enter our minds, while we are all thinking what good thing we may do to inherit eternal life, to sell all that we have, take up our cross, and follow Christ…

So far as men pride themselves on being Established, Presbyterian, Baptist, Independent, or anything else, they are antichristian. How then are we to be united? I answer, it must be the work of the Spirit of God. Do you follow the testimony of that Spirit in the word as is practically applicable to your consciences, lest that day take you unawares?… Professed churches (especially those established) have sinned greatly in insisting on things indifferent and hindering the union of believers, and this charge rests heavily on the hierarchies of the several churches. Certainly order is necessary; but where they said, ‘the things are indifferent and nothing in themselves: therefore you must use them for our pleasure’s sake,’ the word of the Spirit of Christ says, ‘they are indifferent: therefore we will yield to your weakness, and not offend a brother for whom Christ died.’ Paul would have eaten no meat while the world endured, if it had hurt the conscience of a weak brother, though the weak brother was in the wrong. And why insisted on? Because they gave distinction and place in the world. If the pride of authority and the pride of separation were dissolved (neither of which are of the Spirit of Christ), and the word of the Lord taken as the sole practical guide, and sought to be acted up to by believers, we shall be spared much judgment, though we shall not perhaps find altogether the glory of the Lord, and many a poor believer, on whom the eye of the Lord is set for blessing, would find comfort and rest… Let believers remove the hindrances to the Lord’s glory, which their own inconsistencies present, and by which they are joined to the world, and their judgments perverted. Let them commune one with another, seeking His will from the word, and see if a blessing do not attend it; at any rate it will attend themselves; they will meet the Lord as those that have waited for Him, and can rejoice unfeignedly in His salvation…

Let me ask the professing churches, in all love, one question. They have often professed to the Roman Catholics, and truly too, their unity in doctrinal faith, why then is there not an actual unity? If they see error in each other, ought they not to be humbled for each other? Why not, as far as was attained, mind the same rule, speak the same thing; and if in anything there was diversity of mind (instead of disputing on the footing of ignorance), wait in prayer, that God might reveal this also unto them. Ought not those who love the Lord amongst them, to see if they could not discern a cause? Yet I well know that, till the spirit of the world be purged from amongst them, unity cannot be, nor believers find safe rest…

I would solemnly repeat what I said before – the unity of the church cannot possibly be found till the common object of those who are members of it is the glory of the Lord, who is the Author and finisher of its faith: a glory which is to be made known in its brightness at His appearing, when the fashion of this world shall pass away, and therefore acted up to and entered upon in spirit when we are planted together in the likeness of His death. Because unity can, in the nature of things, be there only; unless the Spirit of God who brings His people together, gather them for purposes not of God, and the counsels of God in Christ come to nought. The Lord Himself says, “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. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” [John 17:21-23]

Oh that the church would weigh this word, and see if their present state do not preclude necessarily their shining in the glory of the Lord, or of fulfilling that purpose for which they were called. And I ask them, do they at all look for or desire this? or are they content to sit down and say, that His promise is come utterly to an end for evermore?

Yet will He surely gather His people and they shall be ashamed.

I have gone beyond my original intention in this paper; if I have in anything gone beyond the measure of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, I shall thankfully accept reproof, and pray God to make it forgotten.


While I admit that I wish some of Darby’s prophetic teachings would disappear (including from among Anabaptists), I am thankful that this tract of Darby’s was not forgotten. I might nuance a few things differently. But what a powerful call to examine our own hearts! Are we conformed to Christ’s death in a manner that will make true Christian unity possible?

I invite your response. Did you learn anything that surprised you about Darby or Scofield? Do you resonate with Darby’s words about the unity of the church? Share your insights in the comments below.


Save page

The Church of Christ — Ferguson (3): What Is the Church?

Close your eyes. I will say a word, and you tell me what you see. Ready?

“Church.”

Hey! You didn’t close your eyes!

Okay, that game doesn’t work well in print. But the question remains: What do you see when you hear the word church?

The answer to your question will shape your answer to a lot of other questions. For example: Who belongs to the church? Who runs it? What should it be doing? How should it relate to unbelievers, relate to one another, grow, make decisions, and spend its time and resources?

In the second chapter of his book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, Everett Ferguson focuses on the identity of the church. This chapter is entitled “The Church and Her Lord: The Nature of the Church.” (See also my series Introduction and my discussion of Chapter 1.)

Ferguson begins this chapter by re-emphasizing the centrality of Christ:

The characterizations of the church in the scriptures bring it into relation to the deity: some to God the Father…, some to Jesus Christ…, some to the Holy Spirit… Furthermore, all the principle descriptions of the nature of the church give prominence to Jesus as Lord over the church… If the church is the people of God, it is the people of God in Christ. If the church is the community of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is the gift of the resurrected Christ… The church is the assembly of God’s people gathered in Christ’s name. (pp. 71-72, bold added)

He then discusses the nature of the church under seven headings—which I’ll list here as hyperlinks, so you can read this long post in several installments, if you wish:

  1. The People of God
  2. The Body of Christ
  3. The Community of the Holy Spirit
  4. The Family of God
  5. Agricultural Images
  6. An Architectural Image
  7. The Meaning of Ekklēsia

(Again, each of these headings has enough meaty content that you may wish to read this in installments. I could have broken this into multiple blog posts, but decided to share only one post per chapter.)

1. Ferguson first discuss “the people of God”:

The combined expression “I am your God” and “you are my people” (Deut. 26:17-18; 29:12-13; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 31:33; Hos. 2:23) served as something of a covenant formula to describe the intimate relationship between God and his chosen people… To be the people of God carried the promise that he would live among them. (pp. 73-74, bold added)

This language is applied in the NT to the church, both Jew and Gentile, in passages such as 1 Peter 2:9-10:

The idea of “people” permeates the passage. In English, the word “people” is used for an aggregate of individuals: “How many people are here?” Or, it applies to human beings as such: “People will be people.” In the Bible, “people” customarily means a single corporate whole, a nation or a race viewed as a collective entity… We approximate this meaning when we speak of “the American people”… (p. 74, bold added)

Ferguson recognizes the importance of church leaders. But here he notes a more basic reality:

The word in Greek for “people” is laos, from which English derives the word “laity.” The word “laity” has been debased in modern speech from the noble conception of laos in the Bible. In modern usage we contrast the laity with the professionals (as in law or medicine) and particularly in religious language with the clergy or priesthood. Not so the Bible. In the Bible the laos is the whole people, not a part (not even the largest part)… The people is a priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), not contrasted with it. Indeed, the people (all Christians) is also the clergy (Acts 26:18; Col. 1:12). The English word “clergy” derives from the Greek klēros, meaning a lot, a portion, a possession, or something assigned. According to 1 Peter 5:3, the spiritual shepherds are not to lord it over “their charges” (klēron), that is, the people allotted or assigned to their care. By a curious (in view of modern usage) but not unusual semantic development, those who had a “charge” or “assignment,” a klēros, became themselves the klēros or “clergy.” (pp. 74-75, bold added; forgive the bold ē inserted by my blockquote feature)

After noting Paul’s use of Hosea 2:23 and Hosea 1:10 in Romans 9:23-26, Ferguson adds some pregnant observations:

What is involved in being “not a people” is indicated in Deuteronomy 32:21, “So I will make them [Israel] jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation.” A pagan nation is not truly a “people” in the full biblical sense, because it is not chosen by God, follows the ways of idolatry and immorality (“foolish”), and so has a false center of unity… To return to 1 Peter 1:10 [actually 1 Peter 2:10: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”], which also quotes Hosea 2:23, the parallelism of Hebrew poetry indicates that to be made a people is to obtain mercy. To feel a sense of oneness and community requires God’s mercy. The reverse is also true—to obtain mercy is to be made a people. Only by God’s calling and grace can individuals form a true community… We find our identity as persons only in community… God’s work, his “mercy,” is to gather a people, not just to save individuals but to create a community. Indeed, on an adequate understanding of human nature, “saving individuals” requires the “social wholeness” of a reconciled community. (p. 76, bold added)

(For some of my own musings about finding identity in community, our need for mercy, and our reliance on being chosen by God, see my recent poem, “How Do You Know Me?”)

Since in the NT the people of God is now the church, other OT language originally used of Israel is also now used of the church. Ferguson discusses some examples:

(1) Israel of God… [Ferguson cites Rom. 9:6-8; Matt. 3:9-10; 1Cor. 10:18; Phil. 3:3; and, possibly, Gal. 6:16.]

(2) Royal priesthood… [1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6]

(3) Holy nation… [1 Pet. 2:9]

(4) Righteous remantIn the progressive narrowing down of God’s people, the remnant was reduced to one man—Jesus, the righteous One (Acts 3:14). Even his disciples fled at the end. In his death and resurrection, the people of God died and rose again, and so there was laid the foundation of a new people of God. [Also Rom. 9:27-28; 11:1-5]

(5) Covenant people… [Gal. 3:6-29; Rom. 4:13-16; Luke 1:54-55, 72-73; Acts 3:25-26] (pp. 77-78, bold added)

Ferguson next has an extended (13-page) discussion of election. I do not feel equipped to adequately evaluate his understandings, and he does not often directly wrestle with alternative interpretations, such as Calvinistic ones. Yet I will say that I think he is correct to root concepts in their OT backgrounds, and I do find his emphasis on corporate election helpful. Here are a few excerpts to tantalize you (minus the exegetical support Ferguson provides):

Most of the references in the Bible to God’s election have to do with the choice of a group, corporate election… In these cases—Abraham, Jacob, Levi, David—the choice of an individual was the choice of a group, the descendants of the person chosen. (pp. 79, 81, bold added)

The choice of a group in the Old Testament did not guarantee the inclusion of all individuals in that group in the blessings for which they were chosen. There was a progressive narrowing down of God’s choice… God’s choice within Israel finally focused on the One Person… Jesus Christ is God’s Chosen One. He is the fulfillment of God’s choice of Abraham, Jacob, and David. (pp. 81-82, bold added)

All who are in Christ are included in his election… God continues to choose a category, a group—believers in Christ. Christians are in Christ as Jews are in Abraham and humanity is in Adam. (p. 82, bold added)

It is not said in scripture that God has chosen Christians individually. He has chosen those in Christ; he has not chosen who will be in Christ. God elects a community, and the community he chooses now are those in Christ. A person may reject Christ and refuse the election. (pp. 84-85, bold added)

(Here is where I wish he would wrestle with verses such as Act 13:48: “…as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”)

God in special circumstances chose individuals for a specific task… These were chosen for ministry, a service, not for salvation. Individuals chosen for a task could refuse… Election to salvation, in contrast to election of individuals for a ministry, is “in Christ” (Eph. 1:4). (p. 85, bold added)

Ferguson discusses Romans 8:28-30:

The plurals in this passage should be given their full force. The corporate body of believers is being talked about… “Those who love God”… echoes Deuteronomy 7:9… and is an expression for the corporate people of God… Although there is an apparent temporal sequence in the order of items, that is not the main idea. All the verbs are aorists; the presence of “glorified” indicates that all should be seen as timeless aorists. (pp. 87-88, bold added)

Ferguson ends this section by noting some implications of being the people of God (each worthy of meditation):

(1) The church must be separated from the conduct characteristic of the world…

(2) To be the people of God gives an sense of importance and purpose to life.. [yet also] removes any basis for pride…

(3) The church can never be merely a free association of like-minded religious individuals…

(4) There are false (and potentially sinful) principles of unity around which people organize themselves… (pp. 90-91)

2. Ferguson’s second topic is “the body of Christ”:

There was a “people of God’ from the call of Abraham; there is a “body of Christ” only after the resurrection. (p. 91)

The “body of Christ” is more than simply a figure of speech or image, but expresses a real relationship… The body finds its wholeness in Christ, and Christ has his fullness in his people… The church, according to Paul’s language, must never be separated from Christ; nor must it ever be confused with Christ. (p. 94, bold added)

Ferguson notes that in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 “Christ is… compared to the whole body, not to a part of it” (p. 95). But Colossians and Ephesians “call Christ ‘head’ of the body” (p. 96). However:

In Jewish corporate personality, the head stood for the whole. That provides the link between the language of 1 Corinthians and that of Colossians. (p. 96)

Yet “head” also implies additional concepts:

Christ is the principle of authority for the church (Ephesians) because he is its creative source (its beginning point and origin—Colossians). (p. 98)

Significantly, in all four letters Paul uses “body of Christ” language to underscore the unity-of-diversity that the church possesses (and must promote) in Christ.

Ferguson notes three “titles shared by Christ and his body”: chosen, holy, and beloved. He notes that for all three there is a “pattern of using the singular for Christ and the plural for his people” (p. 99). This helps lead him to several deductions:

To summarize the significance of these terms for understanding the nature of the church: (1) they emphasize the collective concept of the church—these things are true of the people, not as individuals but as part of the group; (2) they emphasize the relation to Christ—they are true only in union with him as the source of the status; and, (3) following from this fact, they show the derivative nature of the church’s status—it is the result of God’s grace in Christ. (p. 101, bold added)

Ferguson briefly discusses the term “Christian”:

“Christians”… occurs only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1Pet. 4:16)… [It] occurs primarily in contexts having to do with legal relations with outsiders… The means by which the name “Christian” came into use in Acts 11:26… is disputed, but Luke’s use of the verb often used for a divine oracle… may indicate that he wanted to suggest that… its use carried divine approval or authorization. (pp. 101-102, bold added)

Ferguson ends this section by listing ten “implications of being the body of Christ,” from which I’ll share a few quotes:

The church is where Christ is, where he is preached and confessed, where he is working and obeyed… There is only one body (Rom. 12:4-5; 1Cor. 12). This means that within the body there is to be unity and no discord… Nearly all the references to the church as a body have the theme of unity… Even as one cannot understand the human body by starting with the individual parts, so one cannot understand the church by starting with the individual Christians. (pp. 102-103, bold added)

In his discussion of the body of Christ, Ferguson doesn’t focus on some of the church polity questions that tend to preoccupy us. For instance, he doesn’t directly answer the question of whether we should talk about a “local body” or “local church membership,” let alone how we should define such. However, given his strong emphasis thus far on the church being those who belong to Christ, it seems to me that he is assuming throughout that there is only one body of Christ—what we often term the “universal church.” Perhaps this is so axiomatic to him that he did not think to clarify the point. Nevertheless, here are a few excerpts that provide hints of his understandings:

In some passages “in Christ” becomes virtually the same as “in the church.” (p. 92)

The act of “baptism into Christ” (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27) provides a basis for the identification of those baptized with the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), so much so that the church can be identified with Christ (1 Cor. 1:13). (p. 93)

The church is where Christ is… Christ is greater than the church… He is not necessarily where a “church” is. Christ is the only indispensable “part”; indeed, he is the whole… The church is made up of those who take their life from him… There is only one body (Rom. 12:4-5; 1Cor. 12)… Each member has a contribution to make to the growth of the whole (Eph. 4:16). (pp. 102-103)

While discussing Christ’s role as head of his body, Ferguson writes, “Wherever God acts for salvation of human beings, there is the church” (pg. 97). These excerpts suggest that Ferguson understands the NT’s language of the “body of Christ” and its “members” to refer to the universal church—an understanding I affirm. (Of course this also has implications for local congregations, but we will wait for Ferguson to develop those questions later.)

(3) Ferguson’s third topic is “the community of the Holy Spirit”:

Common participation in the Holy Spirit brings people together in community… Various experiences or common interests or shared principles may create human communities… The church, however, is a community, a fellowship, through the divine spirit. Hence, in its very essence it is a divine creation, not a human product. (pp. 103-104, bold added)

“At the risk of being overly precise,” Ferguson writes, “we may make two distinctions” between the Holy Spirit’s work in the Old and New Testaments:

First, in the Old Testament, there were Spirit-filled leaders but no Spirit-filled community… [Secondly,] when the Spirit came to individuals under the old covenant, the visitation was temporary. (p. 105)

After discussing the Spirit in the life of Christ and the relationship between these two members of the Godhead, Ferguson draws an implication for the church today:

From the beginning, the church has had trouble from those claiming to act and speak from the Holy Spirit and so has had need to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). That passage proceeds to offer an important criterion for testing the spirits: they are to be evaluated by conformity to the apostolic message… (1 John 4:6)… The description of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in John 16:13-15 provides a foundational test… If a spirit is indeed the Spirit of Christ, it will always work in harmony with the ministry of Christ. We know the life and teachings of Jesus fully from the Gospels and the writings of his apostles. This may not answer all problems that arise, but Christ himself does given an objective criterion for testing the spirits. (pp. 106-107, bold added)

“The Spirit is the life of the church,” as Ferguson explains:

Possession of the Spirit indicates membership in the people of God… The church… was not first a body into which God poured the Spirit as the living content. No, it was the coming of the Spirit that created the church… As Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit, so was the church. (p. 107, bold added)

Ferguson again emphasizes the corporate nature of the Christian life:

This indwelling of the Holy Spirit is both individual and corporate… The Holy Spirit is in the community because he is in the individual members, but it is also true that the Spirit is in the church and one receives the Spirit through connection with the Spirit-filled community. (p. 108, bold added)

Here I am reminded of Jesus’ promise to be present wherever “two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20), or Paul’s command to the church at Corinth: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus…” (1 Cor. 5:4). It is easy for me, adopting the individualistic mindset of our age, to forget that God’s Spirit is uniquely present when his people gather.

“The Spirit is present in and energizes many activities in the church,” Ferguson writes. Citing Scriptural evidence, he lists baptism, sanctification, Christian growth, love, joy, morality, serving God, worship, prayer, preaching, leadership and ministry, guarding the truth, enduring suffering, creating unity, and spiritual power (pp. 109-110).

Ferguson is no Pentecostal, however. He rightly notes that “only in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 are the charismata [“grace gifts”] brought into relation with the Spirit”; usually the term is used for other things such as deliverance from spiritual or physical death or even the power to live a celibate life (pp. 110-11). And the Holy Spirit is most often mentioned in connection with other topics:

When Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit apart from problems associated with claims to possess the Spirit, he gives prominence to the ethical role of the Spirit. Human attention, however, tends to focus on the more spectacular ecstatic and miraculous manifestations of the presence of the Spirit. (p. 111, bold added)

I track with Ferguson to this point, but think he later leans a little too close to cessationism (the doctrine that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing ceased at the end of the apostolic age).

Ferguson ends this section by drawing eight “implications of being the community of the Holy Spirit.” Here are a few highlights—with the second paragraph being one of my favorites in this entire chapter:

Legal, political, or institutional unions are ineffective without the unity of the Spirit…

The church as the community of the Spirit preserves individuality while denying both individualism and collectivism. Individualism that has its roots in selfishness is destroyed; individualism rooted in possession of particular gifts and graces (1 Cor. 12) is developed as long as these are used for the common good. Much of modern individualism does not distinguish self-consciousness from the Holy Spirit, and collectivism absolutizes the group at the expense of both the individual and the Holy Spirit. Under the guidance of the Spirit, the individual develops for the service of the whole…

The church as the community of the Spirit has but One Teacher (Matt. 23:10)… All human “teachers” must appeal for verification of their message to the same Spirit who resides in those taught (1 John 2:27). (p. 113, bold added)

Perhaps more than any part of this chapter so far, this section on the Holy Spirit makes me aware that the church is a miraculous creation. I am left hungry to know more of being part of a Spirit-filled community.

(4) Ferguson next examines the church as the “family of God”:

Since the church is a family, we must correctly identify the various members of the family and their respective roles. Ferguson notes several Scriptural patterns:

“Household” appears to be the primary imagery for the church in Hebrews. [Ferguson also cites 1 Peter 4:17,  Ephesians 2:19, and Galatians 6:10.]… According to this family imagery, God is the Father over his house… In the description of the church as a household, the overseers of the church function as stewards (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:5…), administering its affairs on behalf of the Father, who is head of the household. (pp. 114-15, bold added)

Another use of family imagery is to describe the relationship of God with his people as that of husband and wife… Christ as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. (p. 115, bold added)

Ferguson notes that this imagery expresses Christ’s loving lordship, our submissive desire to please him, the purity of the church, and our expectation of consummating our relationship with Christ when he returns.

A different use of the family imagery is Paul’s reference to himself as a “father” to his converts (1 Cor. 4:15), whom he cared for like a father (1 Thess. 2:11…) and whom he described as his children (1 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4). This is descriptive language. Jesus forbade the use of “Father” as an official designation or honorary title for human beings (…Matt. 23:8-9). (p. 115, bold added)

This, to my knowledge, is the closest that the NT comes to the idea that church leaders function as parents over other Christians. In these texts the idea is used of Paul in his role as evangelist and apostolic steward of the gospel. It emphasizes (a) the gentle way he exercised his authority, (b) the bond of love he enjoyed with his converts, (c) his diligence in training them,  and (c) the reasonableness of his desire that they imitate him. This imagery is associated with admonition, exhortation, encouragement, urging, charging, and the thread of “a rod” (1 Cor. 4:21; cf. 1 Cor. 4:14-17; 1 Thess. 2:11-12. See also 2 Cor. 6:13; 12:14; Gal. 4:19.).

John uses similar imagery when he calls his readers “little children,” an address that conveys affection, and also perhaps John’s senior age and his expectation that his readers will obey him.1

In contrast, Paul urges Timothy, a younger leader, to treat those in his care as fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters—with no mention of treating others as “children” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). In fact, Timothy is to consider older men as his fathers. This suggests that merely possessing an office does not make one a “parent” in the church.

In 1 Timothy and Titus an elder must “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive” (1 Tim. 3:4), a clause which may suggest that elders also serve as fathers over their congregations. But, as Ferguson noted above, these passages actually cast elders in the role of stewards, not fathers. Note the contrast Paul emphasizes in his parallel phrases:

For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Tim. 3:6, bold added)

Before we use the imagery of parents to describe the role of local church leaders, we should ask several questions: To what extent do elders today carry a similar authority over their converts that Paul and John carried as apostles specially entrusted with the initial proclamation of the gospel? If I as a father appoint a steward over my household, how does his authority differ from mine? To the extent that a fatherly aura may surround a leader, is it a natural result of his senior age and past spiritual care, or is it something “pasted on” merely through receiving an office?

We should also consider the NT balance between (a) acknowledging that too many Christians act as spiritual children and (b) urging them to become spiritual adults. (See 1 Cor. 3:1; 14:20; Eph. 4:14.) What approach to church leadership will best help believers become and act as spiritual adults? It seems clear that the dominant NT pattern is the language of brotherhood, not parentage, so in most cases it will be wiser to think in terms of brother-sibling relationships, not father-child relationships.

Ferguson next takes a closer look at Christ as Son and Christians as both children and brothers and sisters of Christ:

Christ is the Son over his Father’s house… “Son of God”… is one of the important titles that Jesus shared with his people. (1) Sometimes the imagery used is that of adoption… (2) Sometimes the imagery is that of becoming children of God by a spiritual birth… (3) Or again, to follow the imagery of the body of Christ explored above, through incorporation into Christ his people become what he is. (p. 116, bold added)

Whether by adoption or birth, “Jesus’ people become children of God by the Holy Spirit” (p. 118). Interestingly, unlike Paul, John reserves “Son” for Jesus, calling Christians “children.” (p. 116-17).

“The brothers” (the plural includes “sisters”) became a common designation for the Christian community… [This was] Luke’s favorite designation for the church [in Acts]… The religious use of “brothers” in the plural for the new spiritual family of God surfaces in all the remaining books of the New Testament except Titus, 1 Peter (which has “brotherhood”…), and 2 John. (p. 119, bold added)

“Firstborn” was a designation of Israel as the people of God (Exod. 4:22…) and of the Davidic king (Ps. 89:27). God’s predestinating activity in Christ was so that “he might be the firstborn among many brothers”… (Rom. 8:29). Thus his people are called the “firstborn ones” (Heb. 12:23). (p. 120, bold added)

(For more on the church as the family of God, see my review of Hellerman’s book When the Church Was a Family.)

(5) Ferguson next briefly addresses two “agricultural images”:

First “the vine and the vineyard,” an image rooted in OT descriptions of Israel:

The thoughts of solidarity and union between Christ and his people… which Paul expresses under the image of the body, the Gospel of John expresses under the image of the vine (John 15:1-11)… “Branches” perhaps says too much; we might better translate “twigs.” Jesus is the whole; his disciples are part of him. (p. 121, bold added)

Then “the sheep and the sheepfold”—another image led out of the OT:

As God owns the vineyard in which Jesus is the vine (John 15:1), so God owns the sheep for whom Jesus is the shepherd… The description of people as sheep is not at all complementary, but the point is not to describe human nature but to affirm something about God. As a shepherd cares for his sheep, so God cares for his people. (p. 123, bold added)

I am not entirely convinced that “the point is not to describe human nature,” for Jesus mentions how prone sheep are to being scattered (John 10:5, 12) and other NT passages build on that point, connecting it to our need of a leader who can truly save us (cf. 1 Pet. 2:25). As OT history clearly showed, human leaders alone do not suffice. Therefore:

According to the Johannine paradox, the Lamb will shepherd the redeemed (Rev. 7:17)… The theme of unity is also connected with the imagery, for there is to be “one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16-18)… By following Jesus the sheep are gathered into one flock. (p. 123, bold added)

Other NT passages present human leaders as shepherds serving under the “chief Shepherd” (1 Pet. 5:4; cf. John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28-30), but Ferguson does not develop that point here.

(6) Next up for Ferguson is “an architectural image”:

Unlike modern English usage, the word “church” in the Bible does not refer to a building but to a people. The church, however, is compared to a building. (p. 124)

Jesus promised to “build” his church (Matt. 16:18), and Paul likewise calls himself a “skilled master builder” (1 Cor. 3:10). The church’s foundation is also variously identified:

That the imagery of the foundation can be applied to Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11), the apostles (Rev. 21:14), and the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20) is a reminder that illustrations can be used in different contexts to teach different lessons without being contradictory. (p. 125, bold added)

“The building to which the church is most often compared is the temple,” Ferguson writes. This is developed in several ways:

Christians are not only a building but a body of functioning priests within the temple [1 Pet. 2:5]…

The significance of temples was that they were the house of the deity…

The Gospel of John presents Jesus as the new temple…

First Corinthians 3:16-17 refers to the local church as the temple of God… The church is now the dwelling place of God [2 Cor. 6:17-7:1]. The holiness resulting from this relationship requires separation from idolatry and all defilement…

The climactic statement on the church as the temple of God is Ephesians 22:19-22… Now the church is viewed as universal, not local

The passages on the church as a temple emphasize that it is God’s. (pp. 126-29, bold added)

(7) Ferguson’s last topic in this chapter is “the meaning of ekklēsia“:

After briefly explaining how the Greek word kyriakos (“the Lord’s”) morphed into Kirche (German), “Kirk” (Scottish) and “church” (English), Ferguson contrasts this with the Bible’s word for “church”:

The use of the word “church” for a building is proper in English, but this is not true for the Greek word it translates. (pp. 129-30)

Ferguson challenges a popular definition:

The Greek word translated “church” is ekklēsia. Its basic meaning was “assembly,” referring to what was done and not where it was done. The popular etymology deriving the word from “called out” (ek + kaleō) is not supported by the actual usage of the word. The emphasis was on the concrete act of assembly, not a separation from others. (p. 130, bold added)

Next he discusses Greek and Jewish usage of the word:

Its primary use in classical Greek was for the assemblies of the citizens of a Greek city. In the direct democracy of the Greek city-states, many decisions… were made in meetings of all the citizens… In Acts 19… the mob gathered in the theatre is called an ekklēsia (Acts 19:32, 40). The city clerk contrasted that irregular gathering with the “regular assembly,” the lawful, duly called meeting of the citizens (Acts 19:39).

The Jews adopted this Greek word to describe the assemblies of Israel [as seen in the Greek translation of the OT]… Ekklēsia was used exclusively to translate the etymologically equivalent Hebrew word qahal, but was not the only word used to render that Hebrew root. Another word used to translate qahal was synagogēIn the separate development of Judaism and Christianity synagogē became the Jewish word and ekklēsia the Christian word for the gathered people, but in an early Jewish Christian context both words could be used without difference of meaning (James 2:2; 5:14)… It would seem that the word [ekklēsia] did not have a technical sense for the “people of God”… Nevertheless, ekklēsia was a noble word from its political use in Greek civic life. (pp. 130-31, bold added)

Ferguson suggests that Paul uses ekklēsia in a range of ways, referring to (a) an actual assembly of Christians, (b) the people who assemble, and (c) the people, whether assembled or not—the latter usage showing that the word had become a technical term for Christians.

The great majority of instances of the word are in reference to a local church… Less frequently, ekklēsia is used ina universal sense for all believers (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18)… Whether the local or universal sense came first is in some respects a false alternative. Although Paul’s usage for the local assemblies occurs first in our surviving literature, the Jerusalem church presumably referred to itself as ekklēsia, so from the beginning the first local church was itself the universal church. (pp. 131-32, bold added)

Even the universal church includes the idea of an assembly, Ferguson suggests, given the promise of our being “gathered together” to Christ at his coming (2 Thess. 2:1; Matt. 24:31).

Ferguson suggests that “the word ‘assembly’ in itself says nothing about the nature of the assembly” (thus often “descriptive phrases are added,” referring to geographical areas, the nature of the people who make up the assembly, or God and Christ). This point is disputed by theologians. Some argue, for example, that the Greek use of ekklēsia to refer to regularly-summoned political gatherings provides a pattern for Christian churches: every person should have the right to speak and propose matters for discussion, and  decisions should be made by consensus. On the other hand, the Jewish use of the term for gatherings of other sorts challenges this interpretation, affirming instead Ferguson’s argument that the word simply implies an assembly of people.

Without studying the matter further, I would suggest both sides should be cautious here. It is probably illegitimate to draw too many conclusions about church decision-making directly from the Greek city-state ekklēsia model. However, even the basic definition of “assembly” suggests that important decisions, however they are made, should ideally be made when as much of the church as possible is gathered together, rather than by a smaller group intentionally secluded from the full body. This fits with Jesus’ use of the word ekklēsia as well; he could have used the more Jewish word synagogē to describe his followers, but instead he used ekklēsia and then described this ekklēsia as a decision-making, verdict-rendering body (Matt. 18:17-20).2 I think we see this pattern in some other places as well, such as with the church gathering described in Acts 15.

This conclusion also fits with some of Ferguson’s final words in this chapter:

The designation ekklēsia calls attention to the importance of meeting together for the nature of the church… The church, by definition, is an assembly. It is the people who meet together on a regular basis… When it comes together, the church exemplifies that it is indeed the church, an assembly (1 Cor. 11:18). (p. 133, bold added)


This has been another long chapter! Which of Ferguson’s observations especially interested you? Would you like to challenge him (or me) on some point? Where do you especially agree? Assemble your thoughts and share them in the comments below.


Ferguson’s third chapter (our post 4) is about salvation and church membership. We’ll also discuss some related topics like baptism. One quote to whet your appetite: “To be a Christian is to be a member of the church.” See you there!


Note: I participate in an Amazon affiliates program, so if you buy a book using the link above, I will earn pennies. Thanks!

  1. Yarbrough, Robert W. 1-3 John. BECNT. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 71-72.
  2. I am borrowing some here from Steve Atkerson, who adds that “it is important to note that the church, in its decision making role, should be judicial rather than legislative,” this being a difference from the ekklēsia  of the Greek city-states. Steve Atkerson, ed. House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural (Atlanta, GA: House Church Reformation Fellowship, 2008), 75.

Save page