Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
The theme of our upcoming Theology Conference is The Doctrine of the Church. As you think about this important doctrine, I encourage you to read carefully what follows. I include Article 7 of our Statement of Faith on The Church. I then include pertinent excerpts from Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America which espouse this vital doctrine.
EFCA Article 7: The Church
7. We believe that the true church comprises all who have been justified by God’s grace through faith alone in Christ alone. They are united by the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ, of which He is the Head. The true church is manifest in local churches, whose membership should be composed only of believers. The Lord Jesus mandated two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which visibly and tangibly express the gospel. Though they are not the means of salvation, when celebrated by the church in genuine faith, these ordinances confirm and nourish the believer. God’s gospel is now embodied in the new community called the church.
God’s gospel is now embodied in the new community called the church.
What follows is an excerpt from Article 7, The Church, from Evangelical Convictions. I encourage you to read this carefully, for this is what we affirm we believe about the doctrine of the church. In essence, the gospel creates the church. The church proclaims and manifests the gospel. The church, indeed, is an embodiment of the gospel.
The Gospel and the Church
“But God in his grace has purposed to restore his fallen creation and to redeem a people for himself. In Jesus Christ God has acted to rescue sinful human beings from his wrath and to reconcile them to himself. This work of Christ in his cross and resurrection is now applied to us by the Holy Spirit, who unites us with Christ so that what is true of him becomes true of us. And in uniting us with Christ, the Spirit also creates a new community we call the church. The church, as those saved by God’s grace and united with Christ by God’s Spirit, becomes the embodiment of the gospel in the world.”
The True Church
“First, the Bible speaks of the church as the totality of all those united with Christ by faith, resulting in a new standing before God and a new relationship with one another. In this sense, Paul can say that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25) and that Christ is the Savior of “the church” (Eph. 5:23; cf. also 1:22-23). We refer to this as the “true” church, for it is a community ultimately known only to God, for only God can know the depths of the human heart. Only he can perceive with absolute certainty whether the faith that is professed is truly believed. We may consider the composition of the true church from two perspectives.”
The true church comprises all who have been justified by God’s grace through faith alone in Christ alone.
The true church comprises those united by the Spirit into the body of Christ of which he is the Head
The Local Church: A Visible Community Manifesting the True Church in the World
“One can speak of the church as a body known only to God, for in an ultimate sense only God knows those who are truly his. But generally in the New Testament, the church refers to a community visible in the world. And though the term can refer to the community of Christians within a large geographical area, it more commonly denotes a local gathering of believers in one place. Here in this local network of relationships the gospel is embodied in the world and worked out in our lives.”
“This community of Christians in the local church is a microcosm of the universal church. In that sense, the local body is not simply a part of the whole, but a manifestation of the whole, encapsulating in itself its essential qualities as a community of believers redeemed by the blood of Christ. Paul can speak both of all Christians constituting the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23) and of a local community as that same body (1 Cor. 12:27). In each local church Christ is present (Matt. 18:20), and in the love displayed in its midst (cf. John 13:35; 17:20-22) and in the quality of the lives of its members living in the world (cf. Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:9-12), each local church is to demonstrate to the world something of the truth and beauty of the gospel of Christ.”
“Because the local church is to manifest the true church in the world, the essential requirement for membership in each should be the same—a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ5 . Therefore, we affirm that membership in the local church should be composed only of believers, regenerated by the Holy Spirit.”
The Church and the Gospel
The “God’s gospel is now embodied in the new community called the church. This means not only that the gospel creates the church, but also that the church proclaims the gospel. And the church proclaims the gospel not simply in what the church is called to do , but in what the church is.”
“The church is the centerpiece of God’s purposes for humanity. For the promise of the gospel is that God will redeem a people composed of those from every nation, tribe, people and language who will find their unity solely in their common relationship with Jesus Christ as they are united to him by the Spirit (cf. Rev. 5:9; 7:9). And it is in the church that this people-to-come is now being made visible to the world.
“In a sense, in the church the gospel message finds its initial realization. Paul in Ephesians 2:11-3:13 describes the creation of the one new humanity united in Christ as the purpose of God in all ages now revealed: “[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10-11).
“In this way, the church is the “first fruits” of what is to come. As one writer put it, “The church does communicate to the world what God plans to do, because it shows that God is beginning to do it.” In Christ a new age has dawned, and the church is to be an anticipatory presence of that new age and an initial signpost of its coming.”
The church is not just the bearer of the message of reconciliation, the church is a part of the message itself. The church’s existence as a community reconciled to God and to one another is what gives the message its credibility, for such a community is itself the manifestation of the gospel it proclaims. Jesus said as much. In speaking to the Father of his disciples in John 17, Jesus prayed, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:22-23). One way the gospel is to be declared to the world is through the loving unity of Christians.
The church is to be a provisional expression of that new humanity united in Christ which God has graciously purposed to create for his own glory. So the church is missional in its very nature—who we are is an important part of our proclamation of the gospel to the world. For God’s gospel is embodied in this new community called the church.
If this is so, then shouldn’t every Christian be a committed member of a church? If you believe, then you must belong. Many still persist in church hopping, always searching for something that might satisfy their desires. Evidently this is not a new problem, for a colleague of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, Philip Melanchthon, made this remark: “Let us not praise those tramps who wander around and unite with no church, because they nowhere find their ideals realized [because] something is always lacking.” We must not be church dabblers. We must dig in and discover the riches that can be had as we live out God’s purpose in real fellowship in the life of a local church. For without a commitment to the local church, we haven’t rightly understood God’s gospel.
In our upcoming Theology Conference on The Doctrine of the Church, we will look, learn and discuss this truth and a whole lot more. We will not only learn about the doctrine of the church generally, but we will also discuss its implication for local EFC churches and the EFCA as a denomination. Please register and plan to join us!