In our previous post, we discussed the nature of the church of Christ, particularly its unity, and the application of that unity in terms of church government. As an instance of this unity in government, we looked at the church at Jerusalem, which was a collection of churches existing under one group of elders. A conservative estimate would be at least 20,000 disciples in one “church,” with one body of elders. In this post, we will look in more detail at the unity of government of Christ’s church, and possibly in a future post at the causes and cures of ruptures in her unity.
The unity of the church of Christ was not merely demonstrated by its unity of government, but also in terms of its affections. As mentioned in Part 1, the unity of the Spirit is maintained by “lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.” These virtues are the bones and sinews of the church’s unity, but the spirit of this body is, so to speak, the affections:
Philippians 2:1 If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, 2 Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. 3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
Bowels are the deep seated affections of love that we feel for others. In the church of Christ, the affections that the saints have for one another conclude in unity of mind, love, and accord.
Thus, the unity of Christ’s body in government is merely an extension of her unity of affections and mind. In turn, these affections and oneness of mind are demonstrated by the actions of care and concern for other members of the body. Instances abound, but the unity of affections is demonstrated by the Apostle Paul’s gifts from the Gentile Christians to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (cf. Rom. 15:25-27 and 2 Cor. 8-9 passim).
The unity of mind and affection, being threatened in the early stages of Gentile conversion, the church’s unity of government was summoned in order to turn the tide:
Acts 15:1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
The context for this dissension of affections and disputation of mind is the joyous conversion of many Greeks, and the report back to the church at Antioch, under which presbytery Paul and Barnabas had been ordained, in Acts 13-14. Thus, Satan’s devices are to divide and conquer. While the church marches triumphantly toward the conversion of the Gentiles, Satan seeks to divide the army of God.
Yet the Church of Christ, being one body, does not resolve its dissensions or disputations with “every congregation its own presbytery.” Rather, the churches resolve to send delegation to the presbytery at Jerusalem, consisting of apostles and presbyters (Acts 15:2). The apostles and elders considered this matter (v. 6), along with Paul and Barnabas (v. 12). Once the matter was resolved, the council at Jerusalem sent a letter containing decrees, or τα δογματα. These dogmas were authoritative decrees, sent as binding directives for all of the gentile churches, “And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem,” (Acts 16:4).
Again, though the particular congregations affected were only those of the church at Antioch, yet their process for resolving such disputations, and for healing such breach of affections entailed appealing to higher courts to resolve such matters with authoritative decrees. This spells the death for any form of government which would make every congregation its own arbiter, every minister his own presbytery, and every congregation an island, only fraternally related to all others. No. Christ has given the ascending courts jurisdiction over particular congregations, even as all of the household-sized congregations in Jerusalem were under one council of presbyters.
In sum, Christ has instituted one body under Himself as Head. This one body is called upon to be one fold. The form of government within Scripture which fleshes this out is generally referred to as Presbyterianism. The soul that indwells this flesh is the unity of affection and mind that Christ gives to His church by His Holy Spirit. In our next article, we will examine barriers and walls that divide this unity, and prevent the success of Christ’s intent that we all be one fold, and look at steps for healing these breaches.