Tag Archives: laity

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.

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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (2): Martin Luther

Martin Luther, by almost anyone’s estimation, was the single most influential figure of the Protestant Reformation. (Gutenberg, with his printing press, is a serious outlying contender.) If Luther was the single most influential figure of the Reformation, the single most influential idea of the Reformation was surely Luther’s understanding of justification.

Luther did not set out to start a new church, and most children of the Reformation today do not belong to the Lutheran Church. Yet Luther’s understanding of justification has shaped the churches of all the children of the Reformation, just as it shaped his own developing conception of the church. Luther’s ecclesiology, then–and the ecclesiologies of each branch of the Reformation–was a by-product of a deeper concern: the nature of the gospel itself.

This, of course, is how it should be; if we define the gospel based on our churches rather than defining our churches based on the gospel, our ecclesiology will inevitably go awry. But this historical observation also reminds us that Luther’s ecclesiology was a work in progress. He, like us, did not possess a fully-formed and clear conception of the true Church and its temporal manifestations at the moment of his new birth. So as we consider Luther’s ecclesiology, let’s consider him a fellow student–not a complete novice, to be sure, but not an all-wise master, either.

Here, then, are some quotes about Martin Luther and ecclesiology from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (For the introduction to this series, go here. For the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, or William Tyndale, stay tuned. And here is my concluding post in this series.)

From Timothy George:

Far from attempting to found a new sect, Luther always saw himself as a faithful and obedient servant of the church. Thus his deep chagrin that the first Protestants, in England and France no less than in Germany, were being called “Lutherans”: “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians.” (Kindle Locations 1142-1145)

Luther did not see himself as an agent of ecclesiastical revolution, a sixteenth-century Lenin or Robespierre out to shake the world and overturn kingdoms. That the papacy and empire were shaken, if not overthrown, by the words of a simple German monk was, he thought, merely a providential by-product of his prior vocation. “I have done nothing. I have let the Word act.” What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. (Kindle Locations 1158-1161)

Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For Luther this was not simply one doctrine among others but “the summary of all Christian doctrine,” “the article by which the church stands or falls.”(Kindle Locations 1292-1293)

The person who has… received the gift of faith Luther described as “at once righteous and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator)… [As his theological understanding developed], Luther [used] simul iustus et peccator… in the sense of semper (always) iustus et peccator. The believer is not only both righteous and sinful at the same time but is also always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time. What does this mean? …Luther expressed the paradox thus: “We are in truth and totally sinners, with regard to ourselves and our first birth. Contrariwise, in so far as Christ has been given for us, we are holy and just totally. Hence from different aspects we are said to be just and sinners at one and the same time.” …Luther’s doctrine of justification fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merits and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself. (Kindle Locations 1459-1476)

The principle of sola scriptura was intended to safeguard the authority of Scripture from that servile dependence upon the church that in fact made Scripture inferior to the church… The church, far from having priority over Scripture, is really the creation of Scripture, born in the womb of Scripture. “For who begets his own parent?” Luther asked. “Who first brings forth his own maker?” Although the church approved the particular books included in the canon…, it was thereby merely bearing witness to the authenticity of Scripture, just as John the Baptist had pointed to Christ. (Kindle Locations 1640-1647).

At the same time Luther did not simply throw out the preceding 1,500 years of church history. In his treatise against the Anabaptists (1528), he said, “We do not act as fanatically as the Schwärmer. We do not reject everything that is under the dominion of the Pope. For in that event we should also reject the Christian church. Much Christian good is to be found in the papacy and from there it descended to us.” Sola scriptura was not nuda scriptura.
(Kindle Locations 1651-1655)

“Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him.” Thus Luther argued for the coinherence of Scripture and tradition , Holy Writ and Holy Church, while never wavering in his commitment to the priority of the former. (Kindle Locations 1662-1666)

The last thing in the world Luther wanted to do was start a new church. He was not an innovator but a reformer. He never considered himself anything other than a true and faithful member of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church…. [Luther’s acts] provoked a schism in Western Christendom that has not yet been healed. Luther, however, was no mere iconoclast . He revolted against the church for the sake of the church, against a corrupt church for the sake of the “true , ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.” (Kindle Locations 1735-1743)

He said, echoing Cyprian, that outside the church there was no salvation. (Kindle Location 1747)

But what exactly is the church? Luther once responded impatiently to this question: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” We have in this answer a major thrust of Luther’s ecclesiology: the essentially spiritual , noninstitutional character of the church. Luther disliked the German word Kirche (which , like church in English, or curia in Latin, derives from the Greek kuriakon, the Lord’s house) because it had come to mean the building or the institution. He preferred Gemeine, “community,” or Versammlung, “assembly.” For him the true church was the people of God, the fellowship of believers, or, as the Apostles’ Creed has it, the communion of saints. (Kindle Locations 1756-1762)

Against the Roman conception of the church, Luther stressed the priority of the gospel. Luther insisted that the gospel was constitutive for the church, not the church for the gospel: “The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”(Kindle Locations 1782-1784)

Like Augustine, Wyclif, and Hus before him, Luther talked about the invisible church whose membership comprised the whole company of the predestined… Its invisibility derives from the fact that faith itself is invisible, “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11: 1 KJV). If faith were a measurable quantity, we could identify the church by its outward characteristics. But because faith as the radical gift of God is not definable in external terms, the church, too, is not a physical assembly but “an assembly of hearts in one faith.” (Kindle Locations 1784-1790)

In addition to “invisible,” Luther also spoke of the church as “hidden.” This is a more complex concept and carries several connotations. It means first of all that the church, while manifest to God , is hidden from the world… The hiddenness of the church also extends to its holiness. Unlike the Anabaptists, Luther never espoused a pure church composed only of discernible saints. In this age the church is a corpus permixtum containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. The purity of the church is not subject to examination, nor does it depend on the moral qualifications of the members or the ministers. “Our holiness is in heaven, where Christ is; it is not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” (Kindle Locations 1791-1806)

It seemed to some that Luther’s emphasis on the hidden, invisible character of the church would undermine its tangible, historical reality. However, Luther intended neither to dissolve the church into a fairy castle in the clouds nor to reduce it to a loose-knit association of like-minded individuals. The gospel remained the sole, infallible mark of the church but the gospel in a particular sense, as it was manifested in the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Wherever these two “notes” are evident, the true church exists, even if it is composed only of children in the cradle. (Kindle Locations 1815-1819)

Luther did not invent preaching, but he did elevate it to a new status in Christian worship.(Kindle Locations 1824-1825)

Luther’s greatest contribution to Protestant ecclesiology was his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet no element in his teaching is more misunderstood. For some it means simply that no priests are in the church— the secularization of the clergy… More commonly people believe that the priesthood of all believers implies that every Christian is his or her own priest and hence possesses the “right of private judgment” in matters of faith and doctrine. Both of these are modern perversions of Luther’s original intention. The essence of his doctrine can be put in one sentence: Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another.
Luther broke decisively with the traditional division of the church into two classes, clergy and laity. Every Christian is a priest by virtue of his baptism… The priestly offices are the common property of all Christians, not the special prerogative of a select caste of holy men. Luther listed seven rights that belong to the whole church: to preach the Word of God, to baptize, to celebrate holy Communion, to bear “the keys,” to pray for others, to sacrifice, to judge doctrine. (Kindle Locations 1909-1920)

All of this means that no one can be a Christian alone. Just as we cannot give birth to ourselves, or baptize ourselves , so neither can we serve God alone. Here we touch on Luther’s other great definition of the church: communio sanctorum, a community of saints.(Kindle Locations 1926-1928)

How did Luther relate the priesthood of all believers to the office of the ministry? While all Christians have an equal share in the treasures of the church, including the sacraments, not everyone can be a preacher, teacher, or counselor…
Strictly speaking, Luther taught that every Christian is a minister and has the right to preach. This right may be freely exercised if one is in the midst of non-Christians, among the Turks, or stranded on a pagan island. However, in a Christian community one should not “draw attention to himself” by assuming this office on his own. Rather he should “let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others.” The call is issued through the congregation, and the minister remains accountable to the congregation. Luther went so far as to say: “What we give him today we can take away from him tomorrow.” (Kindle Locations 1935-1944)

The exigencies of the Reformation did not conform to Luther’s early Congregationalism. If the church were to be reformed, the governing authorities had to play a role. Luther referred to the prince as a Notbischof, an emergency bishop. Through the institution of the visitation, the territorial prince assumed a larger role in the affairs of the church. Eventually a network of state churches emerged in Germany. (Kindle Locations 1948-1951. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Timothy George goes on to survey Luther’s understanding of the state and its relationship to the church. It is here that I have some of my strongest disagreements with Luther. Time does not permit me to discuss Luther’s conception of church and state, but I do want to note one point: Luther taught a doctrine of two kingdoms–the spiritual government of the Church and the worldly government of the state. This may surprise some of us Anabaptists. We emphasize our “two-kingdom theology,” and rightly so. But I don’t think we always remember that Luther, too, had a  two-kingdom theology (as did many other Reformers). In fact, it was a quite nuanced two-kingdom theology, well-versed both in historical and systematic theology, and based in part on biblical passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13–14. To repeat, I disagree strongly with important aspects of Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms. But my point here is that I think we owe it to Luther and to ourselves to remember that we Anabaptists are not the only ones to have wrestled with such ideas.

Back to the quotes above. What do I like or dislike about Luther’s ecclesiology? First, some affirmations:

  • I like his humility and his desire to be a servant of the Church.
  • I think he was exactly right to stress the priority of the gospel in defining and creating the Church, and to insist that the Church was and is born in the womb of Scripture, not vice versa.
  • I like his preference of assembly over church, and his understanding that the Church is essentially a communion of saints, not a building or even primarily an institution.
  • I like his identification with the catholic Church across time and space.
  • I like his rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers.
  • I think he was right to say that there is no salvation outside the Church. (Of course, this statement hinges on your definition of the Church!)

What are some points where I might disagree with Luther’s conception of the Church? I’ll answer this question paragraph-style:

My biggest point of disagreement with Luther begins at my biggest point of agreement: I think he was exactly right to define the Church based on the gospel, but I don’t think his understanding of the gospel was perfect. Luther deserves great credit for helping to trigger a vast European discussion about the nature of the gospel, and I am eager to give him credit for this. His writings were very helpful to thousands of seeking souls, including many early Anabaptists such as Menno Simons. But this does not mean his understanding of the gospel was perfect in all respects.

For example, I think that Luther’s understanding of semper iustus et peccator (always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time) weakened the biblical link between faith and works in ways damaged his ecclesiology. While faith may be invisible, as Luther insisted, it does not exist without visible manifestation. Luther based his conception of an invisible church on his understanding of invisible faith. While I agree with the concept of an invisible church in the sense of how the true Church extends across time and denominational lines without respect to either, I do not think that this true Church is invisible in the sense that it is impossible to recognize a member of this Church when you see one. Our human discernment on such matters will always be imperfect. Yet “by their fruits you shall know them” applies, I think, not only to false prophets but also to true Church members.

This leads me to also disagree somewhat with Luther on the concept of a corpus permixtum–a Church containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. After Jesus told the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), he explained that the field that contained both wheat and weeds was “the world” (Matt. 13:38). This understanding of the parable matches Paul’s understanding of the church’s role in judging sinners (1 Cor. 5:12-13): “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.'” Thus, I think those Reformers were correct who added to Luther’s two “notes” of the church (right preaching and right sacraments) the mark of the proper exercise of church discipline. Luther was certainly right to root our holiness in Christ, but he was misleading to say that our holiness was “not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” Our holiness is not a commodity on the world’s market, for sure; we are not justified of damned based on the assessment of unregenerate observers. But the world around should indeed be able to “see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). (I will also add that I think some Anabaptists have fallen into the opposite ditch on the question of a pure church, but that is a topic for another post.)

I’ll end by repeating one of my favorite quotes from Luther, followed by one of my favorite statements of Jesus about the Church:

Luther: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

Jesus: “There will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

(Next up: the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli.)

What did you learn reading these excerpts from Timothy George about Martin Luther’s ecclesiology? Where do you agree with Luther? Where do you disagree, and why? What do you think our churches today should learn as we ponder Luther’s example and influence? Share your insights in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has so much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)


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