Article VI of The Baptist Faith & Message 2000: The church

Following is another in a series of columns on The Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

The church is neither a physical structure nor a man-made institution. It is the living, breathing body of Christ spoken of in two ways in Scripture: as a local body of believers, and as the universal body of the redeemed under the Lordship of Jesus.

Article VI of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 reads:

“A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

“The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.”

The Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia and means “called out ones.” The term  appears more than 100 times in the New Testament and refers to the community of believers over which Jesus is head (Col. 1:18). Thus, the church is neither a physical structure nor a man-made institution. It is the living, breathing body of Christ.

The Bible generally speaks of the church in two significant ways: as universal and local.

The universal church is the complete body of believers who have trusted in Jesus as Lord and Savior. It cannot be divided along denominational lines, although such distinctions provide clarity in beliefs and practices. 

Membership in the universal church cannot be bought, begged, stolen, inherited, earned, or conferred by any human or angelic being. It comes only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus (John 1:12; 5:24; Eph. 2:8-9). Key passages that address the universal church include Matt. 16:18; 1 Cor. 15:9; Eph. 1:22-23; 5:29-30; Col. 1:18; and Rev. 5:9-10; 7:9. 

Most New Testament references to the church focus on local congregations. The local church may be defined as a body of baptized believers in Jesus who live in the same community and gather at a common place for worship, fellowship, instruction, and service.

Scripture instructs Christians to identify with a local church in order to grow spiritually (Heb. 10:24-25). It is through the local church that believers exercise their spiritual gifts and take part in worship, fellowship, Bible study, church discipline, missions, and other communal activities. Key passages that address the local church include Acts 9:31; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 1:2; 16:19; and Col. 4:15. 

Body, building, bride

The New Testament describes the church in many ways:

As a body, with Christ as the head and believers as various parts of the body (1 Cor. 12:12-31; Col. 1:18).

As a building, with Christ as the chief cornerstone, the teaching of the apostles as the foundation, and believers as the building stones (Matt. 16:13-18; 21:42; 1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:1-11).

As a bride, to be kept pure and eager for the coming of the bridegroom, Jesus Christ (Matt. 25:1-13; Mark 2:19-20; John 3:29; 2 Cor. 11:2).

As a mystery, hidden from Old Testament believers but revealed to the apostles and given to Christians. The mystery of the church is closely tied to the mystery of salvation through Jesus, which welcomes Jews and Gentiles as adopted sons and daughters of God (Eph. 3:1-12; 5:32; Rev. 10:7).

And finally, as an organization with officers and ordinances.

Officers and ordinances

Ephesians 4:11-15 tells us Christ gave to the church apostles, referring to the twelve, but also apparently referring in a general sense to messengers sent on errands from one church to another (2 Cor. 8:23; Phil. 2:25), and in a general sense to all believers who help spread the gospel (John 17:18; 20:21).

Christ also gave the church prophets, or public proclaimers of God’s word; evangelistspastors; and teachers. Apostles, prophets, and evangelists tend to serve the universal church, while pastors and teachers do their work mainly in the context of the local church.

For the local church, the officers are pastors and deacons. New Testament words that Baptists identify with the pastoral office include terms translated as bishopelder, and pastor. These are complementary terms. “Bishop” means overseer;  “elder” refers to one with maturity, dignity, and wisdom; and “pastor” describes a shepherd who loves and cares for those God has entrusted to his service (Acts 20:28).

Deacons serve the local church in ways that enable pastors to devote themselves to teaching the word of God and prayer (Acts 6:3-6).

The two ordinances of the church are baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which we explore in the next column. 

Finally, there are several key distinctives of the local church: (1) autonomy, meaning that every local congregation has the authority to fulfill its ministry; (2) the lordship of Jesus over the church; (3) a congregation of believers who covenant together to fulfill the Great Commission; (4) a common baptism that binds us together as believers and establishes the boundaries of membership in the congregation; and (5) voluntary cooperation with other like-minded believers.

In Southern Baptist life, voluntary cooperation is best exhibited through a local church’s affiliation with an association, state convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s also demonstrated through voluntary giving to state, national, and international causes through the Cooperative Program.

Next: Article VII of the BF&M: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper

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