The Local Church – Its Character and Constitution
Randal Amos, Rochester, NY, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Part A: The Church’s Character
Character is a property that defines the apparent nature of something. Looking at the character of Christ’s church as revealed in the New Testament, we notice three main characteristics: holiness, truth, and love – all of which reflect the character of Jesus Christ our Lord.1
Much of today’s church seems to put an emphasis not on holiness, but on happiness. As long as all are happy, all is well. Yet, ‘holiness becometh thine house, O Lord, for ever’, Ps. 93. 5. The Old Testament tabernacle had holy places, not happy places. Holiness conveys separation from what God determines unclean and association with what He determines clean.
In Leviticus chapter 11, we see God’s call to holiness for Israel defined on a physical level. This holiness was conveyed by not eating certain meats. The foods God declared clean or unclean were the sole criteria, not personal preference. God was teaching them that His assessment of right and wrong is the way to live life, vv. 44-47.
In the New Testament, the church is told that, ‘God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness’, 1 Thess. 4. 7. We are to ‘cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’, 2 Cor. 7. 1. There is not only filthiness of the flesh (sinful behaviour) but filthiness of the spirit (religious evil). In an unholy world the church is to be characterized by being separated from all types of sin and spiritual error as it bears witness to Christ alone.
Truth is a fact that is accurate and absolute, apart from feelings or experiences. The church finds itself living in a world governed by the father of lies. The world cries for toleration. The church, however, is called the pillar of truth.
While the Pilates of this world are ignorant of what truth is, the church has come to know the truth. This is because our Saviour is the very source of truth, the holy scriptures call His words the ‘the word of truth’, 2 Tim. 2. 15.
Therefore, in a world of darkness, deceit, and demons, the true church, by proclamation of His word alone is the one mainstay of saving and enlightening truth.
In a world of bitterness, broken marriages, abortion, crime, betrayal, murders, cheating, and war, loving one another will be a stark contrast. Believers are taught to forbear and forgive rather than to fight and fret. Above all things, they are to ‘put on charity’ (love) which comes by setting our affections on Christ, Col. 3. 2, 8, 13, 14.
However, love ‘thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth’, 1 Cor. 13. 5, 6. God’s truth and holiness are not required to sacrifice themselves on the altar of love. In the full revelation of Jesus Christ all three characteristics are meant to complement rather than contradict each other.
God does not leave these character-istics uncontrolled. A river can be vital to a city’s life. Yet, a river without its two river banks to contain it can flood and bring destruction. The church’s love is to be between two river banks, ‘that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge [an aspect of truth] and in all judgment [discerning right and wrong, an aspect of holiness]’, Phil. 1. 9.
In order to help maintain a balance in these characteristics, the church is given a constitution to govern it.
Part B: The Church’s Constitution
A constitution is comprised of the laws defining the principles of government for people to function in an orderly way. Order balances character qualities. Correct order in the church will give true testimony to the person and gospel of Christ.
What is the authority that is to govern the worship and service of the Christian church? Is it culture, secular government, majority opinion (the people’s voice), inner hunches, common sense, a mystical spirit, or a professional ‘ordained’ man?
The constitution of the Christian church is Christ; ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, Phil. 2. 11. Christ is the Head of the church. The New Testament church is given ‘the commandments of the Lord’, 1 Cor. 14. 37. The apostles’ teaching is also the doctrine of Christ, for it was given to them from Christ. The early church ‘continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine’, not the apostle’s experiences.2 ‘That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour’, 2 Pet. 3. 2.3
Let us consider four areas the Lord has taught from His constitution. These written commandments and instructions will help the church maintain love, truth, and holiness as a testimony unto the Lord Jesus Christ in a recognizable and orderly way that pleases God. These are to be maintained and held fast as God-given principles until He comes, 2 Thess. 2. 14-15.
Commandments concerning a Governing Body (to maintain love, truth and holiness)
New Testament scripture gives teaching concerning the government of local churches. We read of ‘elders in every church’, Acts 14. 23. These elders are not made by man’s schools but God’s Spirit. Biblical elders have certain moral and spiritual qualifications. Elders function as overseers of the flock as they shepherd the sheep, 20. 28. They maintain truth by being on the lookout for error that corrupts, vv. 29, 30. They are more discerning than decision-making, not marketing managers developing new strategies to promote growth, like a business. Elders oversee that the flock is following the Chief Shepherd by being fed His word.
They also will be involved in the correcting and disciplining of sin in the church, thus maintaining holiness, 1 Cor. 5. 4; 2 Thess. 3. 14. They might also be involved in addressing the needs of poor Christians, thus maintaining love, Acts 11. 26-30.
Elders and deacons are the only official works that scripture knows of for local churches. According to its constitution, there is no higher human authority between the Lord and His church.
Commandments concerning Headship (to maintain love with order)
The apostles’ doctrine also gives the Lord Jesus’ instruction concerning the different roles of men and women. ‘But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God’, 1 Cor. 11. 3. This is to be demonstrated in a visible way in His church. The headship of God is manifested through the head covering for the woman, the uncovered head for the man, the oral participation of the man, and the silence of the woman when the church is gathered. ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak . . . for it is a shame for women to speak in the church . . . if any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord’, 14. 34, 35, 37. It is hard to picture how these commandments could be communicated with any greater clarity.
However, in this constitutional order, headship is not the same as kingship. A king gives orders to his servants for his personal pleasure. A head makes decisions for the welfare of its body. The woman and wife are taught to submit but one does not have to throw away the mind to submit. Submission means to ‘stay under’ and, thus, yield to the authority over you. God honours submission for, amazingly enough, through submission we have the very gospel of Christ Jesus. Women are given the incredible privilege of portraying the Lord Jesus Christ, 1 Pet. 3. 5-7, Phil. 2. 6-8.
This balance of give and take between man and woman is meant to complement each other and, when correctly employed, will promote respect with love, ‘So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself’, Eph. 5. 28.
Commandments concerning Order of a Church Meeting (to maintain truth)
The Lord’s teaching to His church when gathering together as an assembly-congregation envisages a plurality of men being involved, with various gifts and liberties to speak in prayer, singing, teaching, etc., 1 Cor. 14. 23-40. Others are to judge and have the liberty to participate with what God has given them. This provides accountability as a check and balance system, and the plurality of participation helps arrest error from just one dynamic man. This maintains truth.
Commandments concerning Matters of Discipline (to maintain holiness)
Though God is love He is also holy and righteous. While He forgives the due judgement of sin through the blood of Christ, there can be consequences. For example, if a Christian gets in a fight and loses his arm, as a believer he can be forgiven from judgement but the consequence of his armless state remains. Similarly, whilst a believer can be forgiven the consequences of his or her sin are not always easily erased. The church is to excommunicate sinning believers. This is to maintain the holiness of the church so such behaviour will not spread casually, 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3. 14; 1 Tim. 5. 20.
Justification for these types of actions is not legalism, but love. ‘If ye love me keep my commandments’, John 14. 15. These are some of the commands that are in the church’s constitution (the scriptures) that authorizes it to function in such a manner in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Until He comes again, may we hold fast these truths for His name and glory.
- That is: ‘for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are’, 1 Cor. 3. 17; ‘the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth’, 1 Tim. 3. 15; ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another’, John 13. 35.
- See also Jude verse 17, ‘But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
- What was heard from Christ’s apostles was eventually written by them in letters to various Christians and churches. These scriptures or epistles (written letters of instruction) are what the church has today, 2 Pet. 3. 16; 2 Thess. 2. 15. Christ is not on earth now but His word is – written in a book, Rev. 1. 11. Therefore, Paul the apostle could say, ‘The things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord’, 1 Cor. 14. 37. And Peter said, ‘And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you’, 2 Pet. 3. 15.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is a full time worker commended by Linwood Gospel Chapel and Northgate Bible Chapel and is in fellowship in the assembly at Rochester, New York. His ministry is greatly appreciated throughout N. America and he has also ministered in N. Ireland.