The church of Christ is described in Scripture in various ways. It is a temple. She is a bride. It is a body. It is a flock. He is a man. And more. Critical to each of these analogies is that the church is one. She is one bride, one flock, one temple, etc. Moreover, this unity is not only a thing to be perfected in the future, but is also required to be a present reality. One important aspect of the church’s present unity is with respect to church government. However, before discussing the particulars of the “house rules,” it is important to consider the unity upon which this government is based.
The unity of the church is rooted in Christ Himself:
Ephesians 2:15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; 16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby… 19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; 20 And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; 21 In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: 22 In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
Christ is the foundation for this one temple. It is His household. The church is one man in Christ, and is one body.
Our Lord goes so far as to compare the unity of the church to the unity that exists in the Godhead:
John 17:20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; 21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
Thus, the unity of the church of Christ not only reflects the unity of the Godhead, but also calls the Gentiles into the fellowship of this one church.
The church’s unity does not merely reflect the Father and the Son, but is one also of the Holy Spirit:
Ephesians 4:1 I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, 2 With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; 3 Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Unity, therefore, reflects the Father and the Son, and flows to us through the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we are responsible to endeavor after maintaining this unity. The virtues of lowliness, meekness, longsuffering, forbearance, and love help to secure this unity. We may reasonably conclude that pride, harshness, impatience, and hatred tear this unity apart. What is also demonstrated by this passage is that unity is also secured by the hope of our calling; by the object of our worship and faith, and by the administration of the sacraments, particularly baptism. This last point brings us to consider the unity of government to which Christian unity calls us.
The wise man tells us that “Through desire a man, having separated himself, seeketh and intermeddleth with all wisdom,” (Proverbs 18:1). Thus, proverbial and natural understanding teach us that separation is contrary to wisdom. Nor are we left to mere natural wisdom in the government of Christ’s household, but are given particular instruction regarding how the functions of the church are related to trinitarian unity. Since Christ is the Head of this body, every particular congregation may be seen as so many branches of one tree.
For example, the “church at Jerusalem” is referred to in the singular (cf. Acts 8:1, 11:22, and 15:4). It is not “the churches at Jerusalem,” it is “the church.” This was also true of the churches of Antioch (Acts 11:26 and 13:1), Ephesus (Acts 20:17 and Revelation 2:1), and Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 1:1).
Yet to any unbiased mind, Scripture demonstrates that this one church was not, and could not possibly be, one particular congregation. In a hostile city, where the church’s Head was recently crucified, and the leaders of that city were charged with His murder, there were about 5,000 adult males in the congregation (Acts 4:4). Could anyone possibly expect 15,000, possibly more, to meet in one congregation? What about the multitude more added in Acts 5:14 to this conservative figure? Later in Acts, the number of the disciples could be referred to as “myriads,” or tens of thousands (21:20). Thus, this one church may have likely had 20,000 – 30,000 disciples at Jerusalem. And this multitude of disciples had “elders:”
Acts 21:17 And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. 19 And when he had saluted them, he declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands (μυριαδες; myriads, or tens of thousands) of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law.
Thus, the unity of the church was expressed by tens of thousands of disciples in one place being referred to as one church, and having one college of presbyters. Nor do we need to wonder at this, since Christ is building one temple, has one bride, and therefore we would expect that this church would function as one church, so far as is practicable.
From this one instance of the church at Jerusalem, we may thus conclude that the unity of the temple of the Lord was expressed in one particularly important way: that her government was under collections of presbyters, joined together in one ruling body over several congregations. Our next article will examine this topic in further detail.