III. The Church as an Organisation for the World
1. What topics arise under this head?
Many of great importance: such as the responsibility of the church as the depository and defender of the truth; its missionary vocation; the methods of its spread; the relations of all its communities to each other; and their common relation to the kingdom for which they all prepare.
2. How is the church the depository of the truth?
As the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God, so was the Faith once for all delivered unto the saints (Rom. 3:2; Jude 1:3). Here the Faith is objective, and signifies the Christian revelation; the saints, also, is an expression that denotes, not the sanctified as such, but the body of professed believers.
3. And how is that deposit to be kept?
Wherever the church of Christ is found, it has the completed scriptures as its best possession: to be its standard of faith and its directory of duty and its charter of privileges. To guard the very text of these scriptures is an important function of the Christian community.
4. Is the defence of the faith limited to this?
It is the duty of every church, as it is of every individual Christian, to defend the truth against unbelievers: by its literature and pulpit to give a reason of the Christian hope (1 Pet. 3:15). Against heresies and all heresy it must protest by its creeds and confessions of faith.
5. How does the history of the church illustrate this function?
The early symbols were for ages a bond of union; and such they still are, especially the Apostles’ and the Nicene, the two really catholic creeds. The later confessions are mainly protests or defences against the corruptions of the ancient churches; and are rather to be held as regulative standards.
6. But do not the differences in these show that the church of Christ has not answered its end?
By no means: there is a body of truth common to them all; and the differences only prove that it is not the Lord’s will that His church should be perfected on earth: in other words, the end for which the church is raised up is not the establishment of a perfect dogmatic system of truth.
7. Does the missionary vocation express the end of the church?
It expresses that end so far as the external world is concerned. Visible churches are organisations for the spread of the gospel and the preparation for the final kingdom.
8. Has the history of the church witnessed fidelity to this?
The missionary activity of the Acts of the Apostles continued during the early ages in its purity; after the union of the state with the church the propagation of the gospel went on, but too much under worldly influences, for ages. The sixteenth century was not careful enough to include this great duty of Christendom among its reforms; but the present century has witnessed an extensive revival of missionary zeal.
9. Then, as the world is to be converted, what are the ecclesiastical theories of the process?
They are various: in fact, every doctrine of the church has its distinct doctrine of missions. The papal system has never swerved from the fixed aim to bring all nations under the chair of St. Peter. Some hold to the national or territorial theory: that national branches of Christendom doing their duty at home and abroad will make Christianity in due time universal. The more general idea in this age is that many denominations sending out independent missions will gradually win the world to the obedience of faith.
10. What is the result of the whole?
We must be on our guard against opposite errors.
(1) The church as an institution must not be overvalued: it is not an institution that has any marks of perfection or permanence; it is only the earthly house out of which the spiritual house is rising; and it is utterly vain to seek an outward ecclesiastical constitution, great or small, which perfectly answers the ideal presented in the New Testament.
(2) On the other hand, the visible church is the instrument used by its Head for the accomplishment of His purposes. The humblest and most obscure denomination which is based upon the fundamental doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and the evangelical system of truth which rests upon the Three Divine Persons, is taken up into the government of the church for the salvation of the world.
(3) The Spirit of Christ is the Lord and Giver of life, organic and ecclesiastical; and we cannot look abroad upon Christendom without being constrained to admit that He calls into existence and vivifies and uses communities which, having one common standard of appeal, differ in many subordinate matters.
(4) In every consideration of this subject, whether as it regards our own position or as teachers of others, we must always remember that the one and only true church is that which is possessed by the Spirit of the Head and one with Him.
This excerpt is from William Burt Pope’s Higher Catechism of Theology. Read more in Logos Bible Software or PDF (scans from Fred Sanders).