Tag Archives: -Matthew 18:20

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.


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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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