A Leaky Container and Its Spoiled Contents
We don’t want to see the gospel spoiled. We desire to preserve the truth. If we hope for either, we must understand the way God designed to keep both intact. I’m not going to carry nuclear materials in a brown paper sack and not expect bad things to happen. We can say we care about the gospel and the truth, but we don’t and can’t respect either when we leave them unprotected.
The gospel and truth are popular topics today. I’m happy about that. I love the gospel and the truth. We have seen new alliances form today with the gospel supposedly at their center. They have set aside other doctrine—ecclesiological, eschatological, pneumatological—in order for what they say is a stronger emphasis on the gospel. I believe, however, that the greatest threat to the gospel and the truth relates to container in which they are held. The truth, and therefore the gospel, is to be protected and propagated by the church (1 Tim 3:15) and if so, it must be the church alone responsible for that task. However, it must be the church, the actual church, the scriptural church, that does the protecting. We should assume that something different than what Scripture presents as the church could protect the truth. And there are very distinct views of the church. One is that the church is universal and visible. Another is that it is universal and invisible. And a third is that it is local and visible. Each of those three is different than the other.
To see all of this, I want to provide a snapshot of what occurred in the history of doctrine. First, the Bible stands as the sole and final authority for faith and practice. The writing of the New Testament brings us back to the beginning of Christian belief and practice. Genuine doctrine springs from the Bible. Scripture provides the means for judging how men and institutions departed from the truth. The New Testament is a historical record. We can be sure of the history there, because it is inspired by God. We can’t be entirely certain of all the other history, because it truly was written only by men. From the period beginning shortly after the New Testament was completed in the first century, we can read what we call the “church fathers” or the “patristics.” Today when we read those writings, we are getting really only an edition of what they wrote, one that is less certain in its veracity than Scripture, because the patristics don’t come with the promise of preservation. It is possible, even probable, that later these writings were edited to look closer to Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholic theologians read their version of the church fathers. Later, the reformers read a probably amended edition of the church fathers and then the interpretations of the theologians who read them. The Protestant reformers corrected the soteriology of the church fathers and the Catholic theologians. They went to the Bible to do that. However, they didn’t amend the ecclesiology or the eschatology or even much of the hermeneutics of the church fathers and the theologians of Roman Catholicism.
What is clear from reading the writings preserved by Roman Catholicism, called the church fathers or the patristics, is that many of them mixed Greek philosophy with Scripture in their doctrine. By the time we get to Augustine in the 5th century, we have someone who combined the ideas of Plato with Christianity. Augustine originated the invisible church concept in the Donatist controversy. He was influenced by the Platonist belief that true reality was in the invisible, and if the visible represents the invisible, it always does so partially and imperfectly. The allegorical hermeneutic of Origen, borrowed by Roman Catholicism, also influenced the reformers in their ecclesiology, eschatology, and system of interpretation.
The purpose of this post is not to expose the passages necessary to understand what God’s Word says the church is. It is to show that the wrong view of the church will affect the preservation of the gospel and the truth. Someone may say that he shows his great love for the gospel by only dividing over the gospel or what some call “gospel-related truths.” However, I contend that if he does not hold the right view of the church, he contributes to the destruction of the gospel. The gospel can’t be preserved in a leaky container or its contents will be spoiled.
The same people most responsible for spoiling the gospel in history, Roman Catholics, are also most responsible for corrupting scriptural ecclesiology. The Catholics invented the universal church and then the invisible church. The Protestant Reformers did not amend that false teaching. Only churches who remained separate from Catholicism kept a scriptural ecclesiology, the belief in an only local and visible church. Through history they have been known by different names, but today they are called Baptist.
Scripture teaches an only local and visible church. Only that church, the only scriptural one, can keep the truth. The Lord Jesus Christ and His inspired New Testament give only a local and visible church, the only true church, the necessary means to keep the truth and therefore the gospel. Churches keep the truth through discipline, through the offices of the pastor and deacons, through the practice of separation, and through the purity of the ordinance of the Lord’s Table. A universal and invisible church is a leak container that will not preserve the truth. It treats the truth like an open pick-up truck treats an pile of tomatoes. If a few of the tomatoes fly or drop out, it won’t really matter as long as many or most get to their intended destination. Something beyond or in addition to a true church does not have the means necessary to keep the truth. For sure non-church institutions, like colleges or mission boards or publishers, can preserve the truth. The very existence of these parachurch organizations threaten the truth and the gospel. Cobbling together a coalition big enough to support the extra-scriptural institution requires laxity of doctrine.
No kind of viable, practical unity around common doctrine is possible and is not even available to all professing believers from all the various evangelical denominations. To attain some faux unity, doctrines and truths will be devalued and dropped by the wayside. Without the means possessed by true churches to keep the truth, doctrines will leak and leak until very little Scripture is believed and practiced. I believe the wrong view of the church has done more damage to the truth and the gospel than any other doctrine. Great damage will continue to be done to the truth and the gospel until there is a return to a biblical ecclesiology in Christianity.