My Quest To Find The Church
Allow me to begin this with a simple disclaimer. I do not sit here and declare that only one single Church can provide people with the path to Salvation. I do not presume to know the judgement that God holds in his own mercy, and his own providence so do not view this in that light. I do know that I have found the New Testament Church and want to share THIS one place where I know the “words that contain Life” are presented.
Salvation is a common theme in church circles, many have their concentration on it and many think their way to understand it is correct. Over the years I have progressed through many churches, belief structures all under the name of Christianity. I was consistently searching for the “New Testament Church” and always believed it existed as a physical entity, humans that were growing and learning, gaining in grace and knowledge of God.
The New Testament Church had to exist, after all, Jesus said, “on this Rock I will build my Church and the gates of hades will not prevail against it.” I could go into full discussions as to what he was talking about, what the ROCK was that he referred, and such but to start this out, I will state my own premise for this essay. He is referring to the Rock of the confession that He was the Christ, the son of the Living God. He is also talking of the organization that HE would build on that rock. HIS Church, not just a group, but a Church. The Church could not disappear, become invisible, fall into apostasy or in some way be corrupted by man. It must still exist.
I wanted to find the New Testament Church, so I continued to search. What I found consistently was churches whose teachings were based on the New Testament. Many who organized their church on New Testament principles or on what they understood of history. All seemingly organized around their founders’ personal interpretation of a single scripture. Sometimes a church is organized around a name, sometimes a single doctrine, sometimes around a concept of Salvation, or the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” but they all claim to be part of the overall “Church” claiming that the Church is invisible. “All people who believe are part of it”, they say.
So I’m looking this over and I see some things that I cannot accept. If Jesus built His Church, and founded it on the Apostles testimony, then it must be discoverable. It cannot be invisible. It must be visible and I must be able to find it. It is the Body of Christ on the earth and as such there can only be one body. It is the Bride of Christ, and as such there can only be one of those as well.
If the Body of Christ was not defined and physical then how would I know if I were part of it. To hear it described by many in the Protestant religions one can be part of a church, “feel called” go down the road and start a new congregation and that new group is as much the Body of Christ as the group which he left. This gets real convoluted when the new group (started by someone who left the previous group) does not emphasize the same doctrinal positions as the group he came from. For instance, if the first group emphasized believing and be baptized but not much past that and the new group decides those are important but one must then receive the “baptism of the Holy Spirit and speak in unknown tongues” then are they all still the same “Body”?
So I concluded that the Body of Christ must be definable and be a group following the same doctrine. Must it be a single local group? I have to examine that question. The history of the Church shows me that there are local churches in each geographical locale. After all, Saint Paul wrote letters to the Church in Galatia, the Church in Corinth etc. I have those letters in my New Testament so there was a Church that was local but part of the whole. What could bind them together? What bound the Church together immediately following Pentecost?
To answer the question of “What bound the Church together immediately following Pentecost?” I decided to see what bound the together BEFORE Pentecost. Acts 1:14 (KJV) says: “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” So I see that the Church had begun to organize and the most prominent members stayed together maintaining vigilant prayer and supplication.
In Acts 1:15 (KJV) we see: And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,) Why would Luke insert the parenthetical statement? “The number of the names” after all, this wasn’t like it was some hierarchy was it? This wasn’t some organization, was it? Well, while they probably didn’t hang up a sign, but they did keep a list of the people. They numbered the names. So I might be presumptuous but I really think they were more organized because they had a list of people.
My next follow-up question was, “What bound the Church together AFTER Pentecost?” In order to answer that I look at Acts 2 and I find this: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,” (Acts 2:41-46 KJV)
I want to point out a couple things, I highlighted them. The Church continued in the apostles’ doctrine, they ate together, fellowship, and prayer. Also they continued attending the Temple, and ate together. So they were being taught the apostles’ doctrine. The apostles had their own doctrine, teachings that they passed on. The most interesting thing I noted from this is that the “apostles’ doctrine” is not explained in the Book of Acts. There’s no part of the New Testament that we can point to and say we know what the Apostles taught as their doctrine. This is important for me because it appears from this reference that it is the apostles’ doctrine, coupled with worship, prayer together, and fellowship as well as meals bound the people together. How can I determine what the “apostles’ doctrine” was? If it specifically was not explained in this account then it must be in history. There must be something to explain this.
It seems that we have clues to what happened in the first century. Unlike many of the Protestant scholars, I don’t presume that the Scriptures contain everything that the Church said, did or taught during the first century. The Acts of the Apostles was the only historical account canonized into the New Testament. The letters of Saint Paul, Saint Peter, Saint James and Saint John did not specifically identify doctrines taught. They are pastoral in nature to guide and direct the Church with specific needs.
We do have the instructions that Saint Paul gave to Timothy and to a lesser degree to Titus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2 KJV) and Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. (Titus 1:9 KJV). These two men were left behind when Saint Paul left, Timothy in Asia Minor and Titus in Crete, to ordain bishops, deacons, and elders. The consistency here pointed out, is that these men, those who would be bishops, were to be able to teach sound doctrine. That same doctrine that Saint Paul exemplified and taught was to be passed on to those who could teach others.
Now, if we don’t have everything in scripture that was taught, what do we have in scripture? From reading, I see many general instructions to act in a Godly manner. These are very important, teachings that we can emulate but not organizational instructions.
The history of the Church contains much of the organization of the early Church. Bishop is the title given for those men who were overseers of the Church. The word is the translation of the Greek word Episkopen. I have found only two translations of that, bishop or overseer, both words have the same connotation. We also see Deacons and Presbyters in that New Testament instruction. The apostles also ordained deacons to serve the widows and orphans in Jerusalem.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote to Polycarp several times. They were living at the end of the first century. Ignatius referred to bishops, presbyters and deacons. It would appear that there was a well established hierarchy in the Church. None of this organization was prescribed in the scriptures that we have, so history is our only record. If we were to limit our studies so that only scripture could explain these things then we would have no understanding of the organizational structure of the early Church. After all, the Church began its growth in 33 a.d. And the New Testament scriptures were not collected, and canonized (they decided what books were to be considered Scripture) until 386-389 a.d. so there’s a minimum time space of 353 years. That’s 353 years that the Church existed, ordained clergy, and had teaching of doctrine.
So then, what does this all mean? There is a New Testament Church, a Church formed in the beginning of the New Testament and living in the time written in the New Testament scriptures. It is a physical and visible Church and one that we can find. There is a structure, formed by the Apostles under the direction of the Holy Spirit and following the commands that Jesus gave them. In future essays, I will examine in more depth, as time permits, the specific teachings of the Fathers of the Church. After all, one small essay, by an even smaller writer cannot begin to probe the depth of the structure of the Church.