TheoThought 300

David W. Hegg


The Church:

 Nature and Leadership


Introduction: We all talk about the church but what is it? What makes a group of people church? Are there required marks of the church? And how is the church to be governed? These are questions that lie at the very heart of understanding the nature of the church today, and how it is to function as the primary means of God’s mission being accomplished in the world today.


The Nature of the Church


1. Definitions:


• Church: This word is used in several different contexts and its meaning is shaped by them. Technically, the church is the community of truly regenerated believers.


community: The most used word to describe the church in the New Testament is ekklhsia (ekklesia). This term can refer simply to an “assembly” as it does in Acts 19:32 where it describes the mob in Ephesus. Yet, overwhelmingly, this term is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew qahal (assembly or congregation of God’s people), and in the New Testament to refer to the gathered people of God. What is apparent is that the corporate or community aspect is highlighted. The church is a community that gathers together as a function of its nature.


Note: Today there is a strong movement away from the gathered church by the emerging generation. Their post-modern ethos has created a deep suspicion toward monolithic institutions, including the church. What they don’t realize it that no generation gets to “re-imagine” or “redefine” the nature of the church. That has already been done by God in the New Testament.


regenerated believers: Those whose “belief” is a result of the regenerative power of God the Spirit. Even in the Old Testament, genuine belief was brought about by the operation of the Spirit. This part of the definition recognizes that there are “believers” whose belief comes short of trust in Christ (see: John 2:23,24; 8:30,31,44,59 below).


John 2.23   Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name  when they saw the signs that he was doing.  24 But Jesus  on his part did not entrust himself to them, because  he knew all people


John 8.30 As he was saying these things,  many believed in him … 31   So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him,  “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, … 44  You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and  does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies...59 So  they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. 



• Other Uses of “church”:


1) As a religious entity: “The church in America is facing serious challenges.”


2) As a building: “Are you going to church today?”


3) As a religious meeting: “I haven’t gone to church in ages.”


4) As a denomination: “Today the Roman Catholic church announced …”


5) As an historical movement: “For centuries the church has taught …”


But: When we speak about the “church” as the Bible presents it, we must understand that the church is people, not buildings, or denominations, or anything else. The church is the community of regenerate people of all time.


2. The Church Universal/Invisible


• Universal: Since all those who are truly regenerate are in Christ and thus, part of the church, it is clear that the church can be found around the world. The term for this is the catholicity of the church. The term “catholic” simply means “world-wide” and is properly used to describe the church. This is not to be confused with the “Roman Catholic Church” which is a particular organization claiming to be part of the Christian religion.


• Invisible: It is also apparent that the true church differs from the visible church. That is, what we see when we look at the church certainly contains unbelievers. The true make-up of the true church is not visible at this time.


Grudem: “In its true spiritual reality as the fellowship of all genuine believers the church is invisible. This is because we cannot see the spiritual condition of people’s hearts. We can see those who outwardly attend the church, and we can see outward evidences of inward spiritual change, but we cannot actually see into people’s hearts and view their spiritual state – only God can do that.” (Systematic Theology, pg. 855)


Thus, we do not see the church as God sees it. He sees all those in Christ, in every place, but we do not.


3. The Church Local/Visible


• Local: We also understand the concept of the “local” church. That is, local assemblies of regenerate believers. Scripture describes the church as having both a geographical and local sense:


Gal. 1.1  Paul, an  apostle— not from men nor through man, but  through Jesus Christ and God the Father,  who raised him from the dead—  2 and all  the brothers  who are with me,   To  the churches of Galatia.


Here we see Paul’s understanding that in the region of Galatia there were multiple churches (plural local assemblies of regenerate believers).


Col 4:15,16: Give my greetings to the brothers  at Laodicea, and to Nympha and  the church in her house.  16 And when  this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.


• Visible: We can say that the church is “visible” when we look at local assemblies of people claiming to be Christ-followers.


We can summarize the nature of the church this way:


The universal and invisible church is what God sees when he looks at the hearts of the people of the world. Those he sees as “in Christ” make the church universal, but that church is invisible to us.


The local and visible church is what we see when we look at those assemblies that claim to be following Christ.


4. The Church and Israel


Few discussions have created more controversy than the relationship of Israel and the church.


• Supersessionism: Some theologians have determined that Israel, having forfeited its privileged position as the people of God, has now been replace by the church. The church as superseded Israel, and all the promises to Israel will now be fulfilled in the church.


Dispensationalism: This theological school believes that, down through history, there will be two peoples of God: Israel and the church. Progressive dispensationalism has taken up the challenge of dialogue and sees it somewhat differently:


Blaising and Bock: “Israel and the nations on the one hand and the church on the other are neither replacement peoples nor parallel, dual-track peoples but different redemptive dimensions of the same humanity.” (quoted in Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird, pg. 720)


• Historical Pre-Millennialism: This viewpoint is summarized below:


The church does not replace Israel but is the planned representation of God’s people in the Messianic age. This is especially true in the person of Jesus the Messiah. He is the true Israel, and all those who are in him are “the Israel of God” (See Gal. 3:27-29; 6:16 below).


Gal. 3.27 For as many of you as were baptized  into Christ have  put on Christ.  28  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave  nor free,  there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  29 And  if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring,  heirs according to promise.


Gal. 6.16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon  the Israel of God.


Bird: “Ethnic or empirical Israel is not so much replaced as expanded in scope to become a renewed messianic Israel. God is not finished with national Israel, and salvation will yet avail for them. However, the locus of God’s covenanting and electing activity is clearly the church made up of believing Jews and Gentiles. (Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird, pg. 725).


All this raises the question of the future of ethnic Israel:


Bird: “There remains an outstanding hope for Israel to one day respond to the gospel. That is Paul’s hope in Romans 10 and 11. Luke grieves at Israel’s disbelief in the gospel, but he holds out hope for the remnant of believing Jews to grow at the end of Acts 28. The church inherits all (emphasis his) the promises given to Israel, but not in such a way that means ethnic Israel has been written off by God. What we have here are not two parallel covenants, not two ways of salvation, but one tale of two Israels. There is an elect line that runs through Scripture, including Adam, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, post-exodus Hebrews, postexilic Judeans, and Jesus. Yet, John the Baptist warned his audience that ethnic descent from Abraham was no guarantee of salvation (Matt 3:9;Luke 3:8). Paul taught that “for not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6), which implies a national election of the people and a special election of individuals within the nation. As Calvin wrote: “Yet, despite the great obstinacy with which they continue to wage war against the gospel, we must not despise them, while we consider that, for the sake of the promise, God’s blessing still rests on among them.” (Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird, pg. 726. 727


5. The Church and the Gospel


The reason for the church has everything to do with the Gospel.


• The church is a community forged by the Gospel: Those who are in Christ have a new identity. They are no longer the same! They are new creatures, and it is the Gospel that explains how this all happens. Apart from the Spirit working through the Gospel, there is not church.


The church is the guardian of the Gospel:  Over and over in 1 and 2 Timothy Paul exhorted him to “guard the gospel.”


1Tim. 3.14   I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that,  15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.


1Tim. 6.20   O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you.  Avoid the  irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,”  21 for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.    Grace be with you.


2Tim. 1.14 By the Holy Spirit  who dwells within us, guard  the good deposit entrusted to you.


2Tim. 4.1  I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,  who is to judge the living and the dead, and by  his appearing and his kingdom:  2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season;  reprove, rebuke, and  exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  3  For the time is coming when people will not endure  sound  teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,  4 and  will turn away from listening to the truth and  wander off into myths.


• The church is the public advertisement of the Gospel: The transforming power of the Gospel is to be seen by the unbelieving world in the lives of those who are in Christ.


Matt. 5.14    “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so  that  they may see your good works and  give glory to your Father who is in heaven.


Eph. 2.10 For  we are his workmanship,  created in Christ Jesus  for good works,  which God prepared beforehand,  that we should walk in them.


• The church is interprets the Gospel for every age: The gospel is not only written in the Bible, but it is incorporated into a community that brings it relevantly, yet without compromise, to succeeding generations.


The church, made up of people saved by grace and “in Christ” become the proclaimers and defenders of the Gospel in every age. They are the “preachers” through whose lives and lips the gospel is mediated to every generation.


Rom 10:13 For  “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14   How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him  of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear  without someone preaching?  15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written,  “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”  16 But  they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says,  “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  17 So  faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.


6. The Church Evangelical


As stated above, the church is brought into being by the gospel, the “evangel.” This means the church is an evangelical community. But what does this mean?


1) To be evangelical means to believe that God works on the hearts of people through the evangel, the “good news”, the gospel. Salvation is God’s work, accomplished as the Spirit rides in on the gospel to bring new life and grant repentance and faith to the individual. Salvation is not mediated by the church through ritual or sacrament.


2) To be evangelical means to see the gospel as the everyday foundation of Christian life. The good news is not just the smallest amount of truth we must believe in order to get on the bus to heaven. Rather, it is the full story of God’s redemptive love extended to a fallen world through the person and work of Jesus Christ.


3) To be evangelical is to live out the ramifications of the gospel as individual Christ-followers, and as a corporate body.


4) To be evangelical is to be consumed with proclaiming the gospel in every situation in order to be actively engaged in the process by which God is drawing people savingly to Jesus.


5) To be evangelical is to see the proclamation of the gospel around the world as a priority.


7. Scriptural Metaphors for the Church




1Tim. 5.1    Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father,  younger men as brothers,  2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.


1John 3.1   See  what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called  children of God; and so we are. The reason why  the world does not know us is that  it did not know him.  2 Beloved, we are  God’s children  now, and what we will be  has not yet appeared; but we know that  when he appears   we shall be like him, because  we shall see him as he is.


• bride of Christ:


Eph. 5.32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.


2Cor. 11.2 For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since  I betrothed you to one husband,  to present you  as a pure virgin to Christ.


• branches connected to the vine:


John 15.5 I am the vine;  you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that  bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.


• olive tree:


Rom. 11.17   But if  some of the branches were broken off, and you,  although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root  of the olive tree,  18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.  19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you  stand fast through faith. So  do not become proud, but  fear.  21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.  22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you,  provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise  you too will be cut off.  23 And  even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.  24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.


• crop field:


1Cor. 3.6  I planted,  Apollos watered,  but God gave the growth.  7 So  neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each  will receive his wages according to his labor.  9 For we are  God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field,  God’s building.


• building:


1Cor 3:9 For we are  God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field,  God’s building.


• household:


Eph. 2.19 So then you are no longer  strangers and aliens,  but you are  fellow citizens with the saints and  members of the household of God, 


• temple:


Eph. 2.19 So then you are no longer  strangers and aliens,  but you are  fellow citizens with the saints and  members of the household of God,  20  built on the foundation of the  apostles and prophets,  Christ Jesus himself being  the cornerstone,  21  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into  a holy temple in the Lord.  22 In him  you also are being built together  into a dwelling place for God by  the Spirit.


• pillar and buttress of the truth:


1Tim. 3.15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.


• body:


1Cor. 12.12   For just as  the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,  so it is with Christ.  13 For  in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves  or free—and  all were made to drink of one Spirit….27   Now  you are the body of Christ and individually  members of it. 




Leadership in the Church


1. Terms: In the New Testament there are 3 Greek terms that are used interchangeably to describe the one leadership office in the church.


Acts 20.17, 28   Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called  the elders (presbuterous) of the church to come to him … 28  Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all  the flock, in which  the Holy Spirit has made you  overseers (episcopous),  to care (periepoiasato, shepherd) for  the church of God,  which he  obtained  with his own blood.


1Pet. 5.1   So I exhort the elders (presbuterous) among you,  as a fellow elder and  a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  2  shepherd (poimaisate) the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight (episkopountes),   not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;   not for shameful gain, but eagerly.


Elder: presbuteros: Used 67 times in the New Testament

            - used in various contexts to refer to OT patriarchs, members of the Sanhedrin,

              elderly people, the 24 Elders of Revelation, and local church leaders.

            - always in the plural

            - only 16 times of church leaders


Overseer (Bishop): episcopos: Used 9 times in the New Testament

            - used in various contexts to refer to Judas’ office, general watchfulness, Christ,

               and local church leaders

            - only 6 times of church leaders


Pastor (Shepherd): poimain: Used 28 times in the New Testament

            - used in various contexts to refer to Christ, literal shepherds, apostate leaders,

              Peter’s assigned task, local church leaders.

            - Used only 3 times of church leaders (only once in the noun form: Eph. 4:11)


2. Why 3?


Each term speaks to a different aspect of the leadership office:


Elder: speaks to the gaining of wisdom over time as well as a general life experience.


Overseer: speaks more to the organizational aspects of leading the church.


Pastor: speaks to the leading and feeding aspects of leading the church


3. Why always in the plural?


The term most used to describe church leadership in the New Testament is elder and it is always found in the plural.


Acts 14.23 And when they had  appointed  elders (plural) for them in every church (singular), with prayer and fasting  they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.


Although there is no specific command that church governance be carried out by a plurality of godly men, both wisdom and the examples of the New Testament press us to consider the advantages of such governance:


1) The gifts necessary to the right leading and teaching of the church are seldom found all in one man to the extend they are needed in the church. With a group of men the various gifts, abilities, experience, and sensitivities necessary to the proper leadership of the church more likely to be present.


2) A functional plurality makes it easier to see Christ as the head of the church and not one man.


3) Plurality is a safeguard against one man’s strengths and weaknesses becoming dominant.


4) Plurality accords most closely with the New Testament examples of plural leadership in the church.


4. Qualifications for Church Leadership


Paul and Peter give us an indication of the qualifications necessary for church leadership in these three texts:


1Tim. 3.1-7   The saying is  trustworthy: If anyone aspires to  the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.  2 Therefore  an overseer  must be above reproach,  the husband of one wife,   sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable,  hospitable,  able to teach,  3 not a drunkard, not violent but  gentle, not quarrelsome,  not a lover of money.  4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity  keeping his children submissive,  5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for  God’s church?  6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may  become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by  outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into  a snare of the devil.


Titus 1.5-9    This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and  appoint elders in every town as I directed you—  6  if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife,  and his children are believers  and not open to the charge of  debauchery or insubordination.  7 For an overseer,   as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not  be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent  or greedy for gain,  8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy,  and disciplined.  9 He must  hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in  sound  doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.


1Pet. 5.1-4   So I exhort the elders among you,  as a fellow elder and  a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  2  shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,   not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;   not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  3 not  domineering over those in your charge, but  being examples to the flock.  4 And when  the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the  unfading  crown of glory. 


5. Form and Freedom in Church Leadership Today


Francis Schaefer: “There is a place for the church until Jesus comes. But there must be the balance of form and freedom in regard to the polity and the practicing community within the church. And there must be a freedom under the leadership of the Holy Spirit to change what needs to be changed, to meet the changing situation in the place and in the moment of that situation. Otherwise, I do not believe there is a place for the church as a living church. We will be ossified and we will shut Christ out of the church. His Lordship and the leadership of the Holy Spirit will become only words.” (The Church at the end of the 20th century, pg. 77)









Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem.


Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird


The Church at the End of the 20th Century, Francis Schaeffer


The Team Concept, Bruce Stabbert


The Church in God’s Program, Robert Saucy




John Piper