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by Carl Henry


The omission of a discussion of angels in almost every book on the philosophy of religion reveals the gulf between modern mentality and the biblical revelation. Philosophers of religion discuss God, the soul, and nature, but stop short of any serious discussion of angels. Skeptics will spend much time in refuting the proofs of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, but will not even wet the pen to refute the existence of an angelic host. In contrast to this treatment of angels on behalf of philosophers (religious or skeptical) are the profuse references to angels in sacred Scripture.

It must be admitted, however, that there are certain problems or ambiguities attending the discussion of angels, and Calvin himself expressed a great reserve and caution on the subject.f76 It is this discrepancy between modern mentality and the biblical disclosure about angels that causes Barth to begin his discussion of angels with so much hesitation.f77


Mankind has no handbook titled A Guide to All Possible Creations. It has no information about creation, apart from the data afforded by this creation. The how and the why and the what of creation can be gained only from the concrete character and concrete givenness of creation. Humanity has no a priori principles for judging the character or composition of a creation. And in that angels are creatures of God, what applies to creation in general applies to angels in particular.

Whether there shall be angels or not cannot be determined by any concept of necessity or fitness of things. There is nothing in the constitution of the human mind which enables it to judge this issue. If there is any necessity or

any fitness to the existence of angels, it is known and determined by the divine Majesty.

In a word, modern man can have no a priori objection to the existence of angels based upon some sort of principle of necessity or fitness. The existence or nonexistence of angels can be based only upon ana posteriori judgment arising out of the concrete character of creation itself.

The root of Christian theology is the knowledge of God conveyed to man through special revelation. This is the nerve of Christian theology, and if it is cut, theology atrophies into mere religious chatter (even though it be learned chatter). This knowledge of God takes the concrete form of a canon, a Scripture, or, in the technical language of the New Testament, a graphe. The New Testament uses this term graphe to indicate the ink and parchment embodiment of the revelation of God. It is thisgraphe which informs the church of the structures of creation, insofar as these structures pertain to our proper understanding of God, ourselves, and the character of our creaturely and spiritual lives.

It is from the graphe that the church comes to know the reality of angels. The real conflict with modern man and Christianity concerning angels is not really whether the concept of angels is rational or not, but whether the graphe bears an authentic knowledge of God which expresses itself with regard to angels. Modern man has no criterion within himself to judge this issue, apart from Scripture.


Furthermore, mankind has no divinely givensentiment whereby it can judge whether angels are proper or not. Why this refusal to discuss angels by the philosophers of religion, if there is not rooted deeper than reason a sentiment which is antipathetic toward angels? Is there not here an unwritten or unspoken appeal to a sense of propriety, a sense of fittingness, which boggles at the doctrine of angels?

In the universe of electrons and positrons, atomic energy and rocket power, Einsteinian astronomy and nuclear physics, angels seem out of place. They seem to intrude upon the scene like the unexpected visit of the country relatives to their rich city kinfolk. Atomsseem at home in our contemporary thinking, but not angels! The prospect of some interplanetary Beagle cruising among the planets gathering scientific data surprises no educated man of today. But if such a man were called upon to comment upon angels, he would either act very nervous or else he would

pompously deny that angels existed. He knows the principles whereby he can reasonably imagine a scientific cruise of the planets by a space-age Darwin, but he has no principles whereby he may discuss angels. So he prefers to dismiss the concept of angels as mythological.

The serious question which confronts the Christian theologian in view of modern man’s squeamish attitude toward angels is whether or not there is a logical or theological justification for this attitude. Christian theology would be faced with a serious logical problem if angels and atoms competed with each other in natural law. It is true that God does make angels as winds and as fires, (<580107>Hebrews 1:7) but the angels are never part of the scriptural explanation of the order or ordering of natural things. Angels and atoms do not compete! There can be then no formal logical objection to the existence of angels.

Christian theology would be confronted with a serious theological problem if it could be shown that the concept of angels is inappropriate to the notion of God. But this could only be the case if mankind had a an innate criterion by which to judge what is appropriate with reference to God. But as already indicated, man is not gifted with this sentiment, and therefore the only possible mode of judging this question is by the revelation of the knowledge of God in sacred Scripture.

The root of modern man’s objection to the reality of angels is not logical nor theological but psychological. It is a psychological squeamishness which stems from the antisupernaturalism of modern mentality. The medieval theologian-philosopher Occam affirmed that no more principles should be employed in explanations than those which are absolutely necessary. This principle has been called “Occam’s Razor.” Modern man feels (for he cannot make his case from logic) that Occam’s Razor enables him to trim off all supernatural principles and all superhuman beings in accounting for the sum total of phenomena in the universe.

To frame this another way, modern mentality may be likened to a decorator’s motif. Only certain colors and styles harmonize in the house, and furniture which does not harmonize is hauled out! Angels do not match the modern décor, so they are discarded.

Karl Barth has noted that there is one basis for modern man’s hesitations about angels. Angels are servants and have no reality or purposein themselves. We can imagine people without servants, but we cannot conceive of servants without people. The rationale of servants is the

rationale of people. There is no rationale for servantsin themselves. We can imagine God as existing without angels, but it is meaningless to imagine a universe with angels but no God. The rationale for angels is that they are servants of God and man in the interest of the redemption provided by God.


Creation is that order, that space-time reality, which is created by God and is thereby different from God. His omnipotent word spoke it into existence. (<581103>Hebrews 11:3) There is, therefore, an ineradicable difference between God and the creature. In the language of categories, it is the eternal contrasted with the temporal, the infinite with the finite, the uncreated with the created, and so on. The communication between this great God and finite, limited man must thus always be amediated communication.

This is not a judgment about the “impurity” of the world, which would force God to communicate indirectly lest he contaminate himself with the world. It is based upon the transcendence of Creator over the creature. Therefore, when God comes to humanity in revelation, He comes through mediators. The prophetic word is a mediated word. The theophany is a mediated manifestation of God. The Incarnation is the glory of God, mediated through the human nature of Christ. (<430114>John 1:14) Angels are part of the complex structure of the divine mediation.

With reference to this divine mediation man has noa priori understanding of it. Man does not know if there shall be one or a million mediators. He has no esthetic power whereby he can evaluate one scheme of mediation over another. If man wishes, he may reject the notion of angels. Barth cites Goethe as saying, “Let me name for you an appendage: What you call angels.” (p. 436) But the necessity of mediation remains, and if the divine Majesty shall say something to His creatures, it must be a mediated word!

In this matter, there is only one point of judgment. In the concrete data of revelation, either the mediatorial role of angels is set forth or it is not. At this point the witness of scriptural record (Cf. <440753>Acts 7:53; <480319>Galatians

3:19 <580207>Hebrews 2:7) is accepted or rejected. To speculate about angels apart from the concrete, historical, and specific character of revelation is like attempting to fly in a vacuum. We have noa priori principle to judge this matter; we have no innate esthetic sense to assess its fittingness. We either rest upon the contents of revelation or we pass the question by.


If angels function in the schema of divine mediation, their role is essentially that of servant, (<580114>Hebrews 1:14) The service of angels in special revelation and divine redemption is the second scriptural rationale for angels. Man is the earthly servant of God; Jesus Christ is the theanthropic servant of God. (<501405>Philippians 2:5) and the angels are the heavenly servants of God, for they are always represented as coming from heaven and returning to heaven.

Angels serve God in the administration of his kingdom and his redemption. (<270816>Daniel 8:16; <420119>Luke 1:19, 26 and so forth) The range of their service is phenomenal. From the Old Testament incidents in which they appear like ordinary men, (Judges 13) we move through the biblical record of their actions to the great dramatic pictures of the book of Revelation, where angels assume cosmic powers. The association of Jesus Christ with angels is remarkable — compare His birth narratives, His temptation, His experience in Gethsemane, His resurrection, His return with great hosts of angels.

In this connection is the remarkable Old Testament revelation of the angel of the Lord. Because the angel of the Lord is both a representation and a type there is some obscurity attached to the subject matter which an honest exegesis will not overlook. But the angel-form of the Mighty One who comes in the service of God is a happy anticipation of<501405>Philippians 2:5ff.; where the exalted Son of God empties himself to take the form of a servant.

One other remark is pertinent to the servant role of angels: everywhere in Scripture their worship or veneration is sternly rebuked.” (<510218>Colossians

2:18 <661910>Revelation 19:10)


The third rationale for angels is to be seen in the manner in which they surround the throne of God. (<581222>Hebrews 12:22) One of the names of God is the Lord of Hosts. He is pictured in Scripture as surrounded by an innumerable company of angels. (<660511>Revelation 5:11, “… numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands) One of the primary means by which Scripture represents to us the glorious nature of God is always to surround Him with an endless host of powerful and majestic angels, particularly the seraphim who cry “holy, holy, holy” day and night. (<230603>Isaiah 6:3) If the angelic hosts are deleted from our representation of

God, then one of the strongest possible modes of representing the glory, the might, the majesty, and the holiness of God is lost. Just as the royal palace, the fabulous furnishings, and the royal court are all part of the means of expressing the dignity and royalty of anearthly king, so the visions of heaven and the majestic court of glorious angels are part of the biblical method of impressing the human mind with the glory of God. The abstract listing of divine attributes may be theologically precise, but such a list can never do for the human imagination what is done by the biblical presentation of God surrounded with an innumerable host of great, glorious, and powerful angels.

If men have entertained angels unawares, (<581302>Hebrews 13:2) theologians should be the first to attempt to make their visit welcome, and their stay desirable.


One could wonder about the propriety of setting demonology within a series on basic Christian doctrines. Satan, the dark power of evil, who appears sometimes as an angel of light, (<471114>2 Corinthians 11:14) and whose designs are not unknown to us (<470211>2 Corinthians 2:11) — where does he fit into the system of Christian doctrine? Doctrine is an attempt to set forth the interrelatedness of the Word of God. But do we not have in demons the power that breaks the unity seen in the Word? In dogmatic theology we speak of our task as that of systematic reflection on the message of the Word. What can we systematize in the work of demons? Is not the diabolos the very personification of destruction and confusion, the direct opposite of system and order, especially the good order of God’s creation?

When we try to be systematic and orderly in regard to a study of Satan and his works, we are tempted to fit Satan into a legitimate and proper place within creation. We may also be tempted to use him as an explanatory principle of evil, principle which leads, if we are not careful, to an excusing of ourselves. For instance, the dualistic schemes of Persian religions set two eternal powers of good and evil in opposition, the good one causing the good and the bad one causing the evil of the world. This was a simple scheme. But the net result in practice was the same as that of any rational explanation of evil. The personal guilt of men was hidden in the shadow of the explanation of evil. And where personal guilt is obscured, the grace that frees men from guilt is obscured also.

Evil has often been systematized so rationally that the chaotic world of evil actually looked orderly. When evil is brought into a rational system that explains its existence, its evilness is always toned down. At times, thinkers have dared to seek the origin of evil in God, in spite of the Church’s most emphatic conviction that God may never be called the cause of evil. (Deus

non causa peccati.) This conviction comes from the Bible, which states the point with perfect clarity: “This then is the message which we have heard of him.., that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (<620105>1 John 1:5) When one is inclined to excuse himself on the ground that he is tempted of God, he is warned by the Word: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God.” (<590113>James 1:13) The point is made in many ways by the Scriptures: sin does not find its origin in God.

We see this in God’s wrath against sin, in His judgment upon sin, and especially in His redemptive action by which He brings grace to light in the punishment of sin upon the cross. The cross reveals the soundness of the church’s conviction that God is not the origin of evil. We also see in the cross that the dualism which hypnotized Augustine for nine years is wholly unacceptable. For the cross reveals that God does not eternally face an independent power of evil, but rather that God conquers evil and sets it within His service. The terrible evil accomplished by Judas, Israel, and the Gentiles around the cross is taken up into the triumphant fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan.


In regard to all this, it is still possible to speak about the powers of darkness with real meaning, as long as we speak the language of the Bible. It is not our concern to pursue an academic curiosity about evil. This kind of interest in evil has often been too keen. Consider the large Roman Catholic book on Satan, which fills 666 pages with a huge attempt to shed light on the demonic powers afoot in all phases of life. One gets an impression in such a book that evil is a triumphant, dynamic force, crusading unhindered through history. The Bible, to be sure, calls us to be aware of Satan’s craft. But the biblical summons in regard to Satan is not at all like an answer to our curiosity. The Bible sounds a warning. It never suggests that evil is an invincible power to which we are hopelessly and fatally captive. We hear indeed of the reality of temptation and rebellion, of resistance and disobedience, of confusion and destruction, but these are a reality over which God is surely triumphant.

God’s triumph is particularly manifest in the New Testament where the Apostles tell us that Christ has conquered and dethroned Satan. (<510215>Colossians 2:15) Resistance again arises threateningly at the appearance of the antichrist. But his very name suggests that Saran is not a primary figure; he gets his significance only as an opponent of Him Who has already conquered. When Satan falls out of heaven as lightning, he

rebels against the defeat that the cross and resurrection of Christ inflict on him. (<421018>Luke 10:18)

This is why we meet Satan and his demons in the environment of Jesus Christ. Satan manifests himself especially during the earthly ministry of our Lord. He is active among the people of Israel and in the world of the Gentiles whom he blinds, (2 Corinthians 4) In the Book of Revelation, the dark appearance of the dragon on the scene is set back of the foreground of the Lamb Who conquers. And it is the Lamb to Whom it is given to open the locked book of history, Who is the central figure of the spiritual course of human history.

But we still have to reckon with the power of Satan. “Your adversary the devil goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (<600508>1 Peter 5:8) But this is not dualism, as though we were pawns in a battle between God and Satan, with the outcome still uncertain. For there is, in Christ, the power of resistance to Satan. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (<590407>James 4:7) We must not fall prey to a superficial judgment that underestimates the power of Satan. Resistance to him is possible only in the immediate fellowship of the Lord of lords and King of kings. Without Him, we should discover to our woe that Satan is a foul spirit who possesses the power to overcome us: “how God anointed Jesus of Nazereth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, for God was with him.” (<441038>Acts 10:38)


But at the same time, given the fellowship of Jesus Christ, there is no reason to overestimate the power of Satan either. He is not free to pursue his own destiny. He cannot and has not frustrated God. God has frustrated him once and for all at Calvary. Our only danger is that we try to frustrate Satan within the limitations of our own power.

In our day, largely because of the many catastrophic outbreaks of evil in the world, theology has turned its attention anew to demonology. This concern with demons has not always been biblically oriented. But the old optimism about the conquest of evil is surely gone. (Long before Bultmann, Schleiermacher insisted that modern insights made serious acceptance of the reality of demons untenable, even though Satan still kept a place in the church’s hymns.) Attention is also once again directed to the antichrist figure of the New Testament. The question is asked how we are

to relate the victory of Jesus Christ over Satan to the present power that Satan seems to exercise in the world. Does it not seem that evil is a constantly resurgent power? Are not we and all the world subject to this power? In considering such questions, we can easily be overcome with pessimism and lose sight of the triumphant theme of the Gospel. We must not, however, forget that when our Lord saw Satan fall from Leaven, the triumph over Satan was already at hand. The preaching of the Gospel in our time must be clear on this point. Against human optimism, it must point up human inability to resist the power of evil, while at the same time proclaiming the full power of the Gospel to accomplish this.


The Bible, in reference to the demons, calls us to responsibility and prayer. Think, for instance, of the Lord’s Prayer. The last petition asks for deliverance from evil. But the prayer does not begin with evil; it speaks of evil only after guilt has been confessed. Satan is not an explanatory principle that does away with our guilt. The reality of Satan’s power does not undo the reality of our personal responsibility in evil. But when we have prayed for forgiveness of our own sin, we also pray for resistance against the evil power, against him who has only a little time left, (<661212>Revelation 12:12) who seeks to lead men astray, who accuses the brethren before the throne of God, and who strives mightily to blind men to the great salvation that has really come into the world.

For this reason, we shall not be able to do battle with the evil of the world in our own time by means of the armament of human morality and plans for world improvement. For Satan’s ways are not unknown to us — so says Paul (<470211>2 Corinthians 2:11) in warning the congregation. His designs can be summed up in one word: anti. He is anti-creation and anti-redemption. The antichrist shall appear to befor many things. He shall be for culture, for human religions, for the earth, for development of life. But he shall be anti-Jesus Christ. In this sense, the power of Satan is a negative power. It is a power that shall be revealed as nothing when theparousia of Jesus Christ confronts the parousia of the antichrist.(<530209>2 Thessalonians 2:9) The basic weakness of Satan since the cross will then be made manifest.

We fail to see this now. The power of Satan appears undiminished and Satan appears unconquerable at times. But our failure lies in part with the fact that Satan appears now as an angel of light. The false prophets, against whom Paul warns, bring this to the Apostle’s mind. Satan stands before the entrance to a dry desert and proclaims it as the gateway to Paradise. He

witnesses to the light with signs and wonders, but is really bidding men to follow him into darkness. Only in the light of Him who is the Light of the World does it become wholly clear that Jesus Christ is indeed the powerful conqueror of Satan.

Scripture and the faithful preaching of the church warn us against doing away with evil by finding an explanation of it. We are warned against explaining evil away by saying that God is its origin. We are warned against any dualism which makes a minor god the cause of evil. We are warned against making Satan an overpowering force who takes away our responsibility for our own sin. The Bible does not give us a rational explanation of everything about evil. But it is gloriously clear in showing the way that a man can travel in life. It is the way of faith and prayer and, in the power of the Gospel, the way of resistance to evil. In the perfect prayer, the right perspective is beautifully manifest. We pray for forgiveness of personal guilt and then go on to a doxology. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Whoever prays this prayer with his whole heart has grasped the inner meaning of the doctrine of evil


The Church of God, “that wonderful and sacred mystery,” (Aquinas) is a subject that stands at the very heart of the Bible. For the church is the object of the redemption which the Bible proclaims. It was to save the church that the Son of God became man, and died; (<490525>Ephesians 5:25) God purchased His church at the cost of Christ’s blood. (<442028>Acts 20:28) It is through the church that God makes known his redeeming wisdom to the hosts of heaven. (<490310>Ephesians 3:10) It is within the church that the individual Christian finds the ministries of grace, the means of growth, and his primary sphere for service. (<490411>Ephesians 4:11-16) We cannot properly understand the purpose of God, nor the method of grace, nor the kingdom of Christ, nor the work of the Holy Spirit, nor the meaning of world history without studying the doctrine of the church.

But what is the church? The fact that we all first meet the church as an organized society must not mislead us into thinking that it is essentially, or even primarily, that. There is a sense in which the outward form of the church disguises its true nature rather than reveals it. Essentially, the church is not a human organization as such, but a divinely created fellowship of sinners who trust a common Saviour, and are one with each other because they are all one with Him in a union realized by the Holy Spirit. Thus the church’s real life, like that of its individual members, is for the present “hid in Christ with God,” (<510304>Colossians 3:4) and will not be manifested to the world until He appears. Meanwhile, what we need, if we are to understand the church’s nature, is insight into the person and work of Christ and of the Spirit and into the meaning of the life of faith.


The church is not simply a New Testament phenomenon. An ecclesiology which started with the New Testament would be out of the way at the first

step. The New Testament church is the historical continuation of Old Testament Israel. The New Testament word for “church,” ekklesia (in secular Greek, a public gathering) is regularly used in the Greek Old Testament for the “congregation” of Israel. Paul pictured the church in history, from its beginning to his own day, as a single olive tree, from which some natural (Israelite) branches had been broken off through unbelief, to be replaced by some wild (Gentile) branches. (Romans11:1624) Elsewhere, he tells Gentile believers that in Christ they have become “Abraham’s seed,” “the Israel of God.” (<480329>Galatians 3:29; cf. <450411>Romans 4:11-18; <480616>Galatians 6:16)

The basis of the church’s life in both Testaments is the covenant which God made with Abraham. The fundamental idea of biblical ecclesiology is of the church as the covenant people of God.

What is a covenant? It is a defined relationship of promise and commitment which binds the parties concerned to perform whatever duties toward each other their relationship may involve. The two main biblical analogies for God’s covenant with sinners are the royal covenant between overlord and vassal and the marriage covenant between husband and wife, the former speaking of God’s sovereignty and lordship, the latter of His love and saviourhood. By His covenant, God demands acceptance of His rule and promises enjoyment of His blessing. Both thoughts are contained in the covenant “slogan,” “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people”; (Cf. <022945>Exodus 29:45; <032612>Leviticus 26:12; <243133>Jeremiah 31:33; <470616>2 Corinthians 6:16; <662103>Revelation 21:3; etc.) both are implied whenever a believer says “my [our] God.”

God expounded his covenant to Abraham in Genesis 17, a chapter of crucial importance for the doctrine of the church. Four points should be noticed here. First, the covenant relationship was announced as acorporate one, extending to Abraham’s seed “throughout their generations.” (<011707>Genesis 17:7) Thus, the covenant created a permanent community. Second, the relationship was one of pledged beneficence on God’s part: He undertook to give Abraham s seed the land of Canaan. (<011708>Genesis 17:8, a type of heaven; cf. <581108>Hebrews 11:8-16) This, as He had already told Abraham, would involve redeeming them from captivity in Egypt. (<011513>Genesis 15:13-21; cf. <020224>Exodus 2:24) Third, the end of the relationship was fellowship between God and His people: that they should “walk before” Him, knowing Him as they were known by Him.

(<011701>Genesis 17:1) Fourth, the covenant was confirmed by the institution of a “token,” (<011711>Genesis 17:11) the initiatory rite of circumcision.

Later, through Moses, God gave His people a law for their lives and authorized forms of worship (feasts, exhibiting His fellowship with them, and sacrifices, pointing to the bloodshedding for sin which alone could provide a basis for this fellowship). Also, He spoke to them repeatedly, through His prophets, of their glorious hope which was to be realized when the Messiah came.

Thus, emerged the basic biblical notion of the church as the covenant people of God, the redeemed family, marked out as His by the covenant sign which they had received, worshiping and serving Him according to His revealed will, living in fellowship with Him and with each other, walking by faith in His promises, and looking for the coming glory of the Messianic kingdom.


When Christ came, this Old Testament conception was not destroyed, but fulfilled. Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, was Himself the link between the Mosaic and Christian dispensations of it. (I.e. the “old” and the “new” covenants of Heb. 8-10 chapters which build upon <243131>Jeremiah 31:31ff) The New Testament depicts Him as the true Israel, the servant of God in Whom the nation’s God-guided history is recapitulated and brought to completion, (Cf. <400215>Matthew 2:15; etc.) and also as the seed of Abraham in Whom all nations of the earth find blessing, (<480308>Galatians 3:8f. 14-29) Through His atoning death, which did away with the typical sacrificial services forever, believing Jews and Gentiles become in Him the people of God on earth. Baptism, the New Testament initiatory sign corresponding to circumcision, represents primarily union with Christ in His death and resurrection, which is the sole way of entry into the church.(<450603>Romans 6:3ff <480327>Galatians 3:27ff <510211>Colossians 2:11ff)

Thus, the New Testament church has Abraham as its father, (<450411>Romans 4:11, 16) Jerusalem as its mother (<480426>Galatians 4:26) and place of worship, (<581222>Hebrews 12:22) and the Old Testament as its Bible. (<451504>Romans 15:4) Echoing <021905>Exodus 19:5f, and <280223>Hosea 2:23, Peter describes the Christian church in thorough-going Old Testament fashion as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; … Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God.”(<600209>1 Peter 2:9f.)


The New Testament idea of the church is reached by superimposing upon the notion of the covenant people of God the further thought that the church is the company of those who share in the redemptive renewal of a sin-spoiled creation, which began when Christ rose from the dead. (Cf. <461520>1 Corinthians 15:20; <510118>Colossians 1:18) As the individual believer is a new creation in Christ, (<470517>2 Corinthians 5:17) raised with Him out of death into life, (<490201>Ephesians 2:1ff) possessed of and led by the life-giving Holy Spirit, (<450809>Romans 8:9-14) so also is the church as a whole. Its life springs from its union with Christ, crucified and risen. Paul, in Ephesians, pictures the church successively as Christ’sbuilding, now growing unto “an holy temple in the Lord”; (<490221>Ephesians 2:21) His body, now growing toward a state of full edification; (<490525>Ephesians 5:25ff. Cf.<661907>Revelation 19:7ff.) and His bride, now being sanctified and cleansed in readiness for “the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Found as well, as in Ephesians, in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Colossians)

Some modern writers in the “catholic” tradition treat Paul’s body metaphor (<461213>1 Corinthians 12:13) as having a special “ontological” significance, and indicating that the church is “really” (in a sense in which it is not “really” anything else) an extension of the manhood and incarnate life of Christ. But, according to Paul, the church’s union with Christ is symbolically exhibited in baptism; and what baptism symbolizes is not incorporation into Christ’s manhood simply, but sharing with Him in His death to sin, with all its saving fruits, and” in the power and life of His resurrection. When Paul says that the Spirit baptizes men into one body, he means that the Spirit makes us members of the body by bringing us into that union with Christ which baptism signifies, (<461204>1 Corinthians 12:4-28; <451206>Romans 12:6-8; cf. <461615>1 Corinthians 16:15; <470901>2 Corinthians 9:1) Scripture would lead us to call the church an extension of the resurrection rather than of the in carnation! In any case, Paul uses the body metaphor only to illustrate the authority of the Head, and His ministry to His members, and the various ministries that they must fulfill to each other; and we have no warrant for extrapolating it in other theological directions.


The New Testament conceives of all ministry in the church as Christ’s ministry to and through the church. As the church is a priestly people, all its members having direct access to God through Christ’s mediation, so it is a ministering people, all its members holding in trust from Christ gifts of

ministry (i.e., service) for the edifying of the one body. (<490411>Ephesians 4:11; cf. <450101>Romans 1:1, 5, 9; 15:16) Within the context of this universal ministry, Christ calls some specifically to minister the Gospel, (<460310>1 Corinthians 3:10; 15:10) giving them strength and skill for their task (<460306>1 Corinthians 3:6f.)and blessing their labors. (Cf. <470405>2 Corinthians 4:5) As spokesmen and representatives of Christ, teaching and applying His Word, church of-ricers exercise His authority; yet they need to remember that, as individuals, they belong to the church as its servants, not the church to them as their empire. The church is Christ’s kingdom, not theirs. (<401820>Matthew 18:20) This is a basic point which Luther accused the Papacy of forgetting.


Paul speaks not merely of the whole body but also of local groups in an area, and even of a Christian household, as“the church.” No local group is ever called “a church.” For Paul does not regard the church universal as an aggregate of local churches (let alone denominations!); his thought is rather that whenever a group of believers, even Christ’s statutory two or three, (Romans 12 1 Corinthians 12) meet in His name, theyare the church in the place where they meet. Each particular gathering, however small, is the local manifestation of the church universal, embodying and displaying the spiritual realities of the church’s supernatural life. So Paul can apply the body metaphor, with only slight alteration, both to the local church (one body in Christ) (Ephesians 4) and to the universal church (one bodyunder Christ).(Cf. <401324>Matthew 13:24ff. 47ff <471305>2 Corinthians 13:5; <461534>1 Corinthians 15:34)


The Reformers drew a necessary distinction between the church visible and invisible; that is, between the one Church of Christ on earth as God sees it and as man sees it; in other words, as it is and as it seems to be. Man sees the church as an organized society, with a fixed structure and roll of members. But (the Reformers argued) this society can never be simply identified with the one holy catholic Church of which the Bible speaks. The identity between the two is at best partial, indirect, and constantly varying in degree. The point is important. The church as God sees it, the company of believers in communion with Christ and in Him with each other, is necessarily invisible to men, since Christ and the Holy Spirit and faith, the realities which make the church, are themselves invisible. The church becomes visible as its members meet together in Christ’s name to worship

and hear God’s Word. But the church visible is a mixed body. Some who belong, though orthodox, are not true believers — not, that is, true members of the church as God knows it — and need to be converted. (Cf. <490403>Ephesians 4:3) The Reformers’ distinction thus safeguards the vital truth that visible church membership saves no man apart from faith in Christ.

Another matter on which this distinction throws light is the question of church unity. If a visible organization, as such, were or could be the one church of God, then any organizational separation would be a breach of unity, and the only way to reunite a divided Christendom would be to work for a single international super-church. Also, on this hypothesis, it would be open to argue that some institutional feature is of the essence of the church and is therefore a sine qua non of reunion. (Rome, for instance, actually defines the church as the society of the faithfulunder the Pope’s headship; some Anglicans make episcopacy in the apostolic succession similarly essential.) But, in fact, the church invisible, the true church, is one already. Its unity is given to it in Christ.(<490404>Ephesians 4:4-6) The proper ecumenical task is not to create church unity by denominational coalescence, but to recognize the unity that already exists and to give it worthy expression on the local level.

In the purposes of God, the church, we have seen, is glorious; yet on earth it remains a little flock in a largely hostile environment. Often, its state and prospects seem to us precarious. But we need not fear. Christ Himself, the King who reigns on Zion’s hill, is its Saviour, its Head, its Builder, its Keeper. He has given his promise: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (<401618>Matthew 16:18) And He is not accustomed to break His word.


As in other matters pertaining to faith and practice, the evangelical looks to Scripture when he defines the boundaries of acceptable church government. At first glance, however, Scripture seems disturbingly indecisive, for no specific government is legislated for the church. The general principles of polity are clear, but not the details. This is one reason why questions of government have caused such deep and lasting divisions in the church.

It seems that the Spirit of God has been pleased to allow a certain flexibility in matters of form and order. In any case, we have no right to boast, for no branch of Christendom has precisely the same kind of government as that which existed in the early church.


According to the Apostles’ Creed, the church is a communion of the saints. This view comports with Scripture. True believers are a fellowship in Christ. This fellowship is not an external society whose rights dissolve when the corporation dissolves; it can exist without any organization at all.

But if this be true, why should the church be yoked with ecclesiastical rule? Why not let the fellowship carry itself? The answer is that government keeps the affairs of the church decent and orderly, in order that the ministry of the Word might not be hindered.

Although the church is not an external society, it is a vital society with a normative ground of existence. Christ is the head of the church, and Christ is confronted in and through Scripture. This is why the ministry of the Word is so essential to the fellowship. Unless Scripture is studied and

preached with diligence, Christians will not know what God requires of them.

But if the ministry of the Word is to prosper, it must be delivered from the distractions of secondary duties. Hence, the Lord has been pleased to ordain auxiliary ministries in the church — those of serving, teaching, and rule. These ministries, taken together, form the substance of church government. They give stability to the fellowship.


Scripture tells us that the ministry of serving was created to resolve a conflict of interests in the church. (<440601>Acts 6:1-6) The Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Charges of injustice threatened the fellowship. The Apostles knew that something had to be done about the matter and done at once. But they also knew that it would be wrong for them to leave the ministry of the Word to serve tables. Therefore, deacons were appointed to oversee the practical affairs of the church.Nothing must come between a pastor and his task of preaching the Gospel.

There is no limit to the ways in which the ministry of serving can lift burdens from the ministry of the Word. When a pastor is cumbered by much serving, he neglects his duties as a shepherd of the flock. Rather than giving himself to prayer and meditation, he types stencils for the bulletin, does janitorial work, or coaches a basketball team. Or his strength may be depleted by larger distractions such as fund-raising, building church properties, or managing a complex educational system. A pastor must follow the example of the Apostles: he must practice the art of delegation. Christian education directors and psychiatrists may be as necessary to the ministry of serving in the modern church as deacons were in the early church.


Although the Apostles entrusted the ministry of teaching and rule to elders, the appointment of elders — unlike that of deacons — did not arise out of a specific incident in the life of the fellowship. We are not toldwhen the first elders were set apart or why. We are simply told that when relief was sent to the distressed brethren in Judea, the money was delivered to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. (<441129>Acts 11:29, 30) It appears that the office of elder belonged to the government of the church from the earliest times.

When Christ founded the church, He drew on a fellowship which was already in existence. This fellowship was formed of Israelites who were accustomed to the mode of government that prevailed in the synagogue. Therefore, it was only natural that this mode would be carried into the new communion. The office of elder “continued, in substance, what it had been hitherto under the Jewish synagogue system in its best days, with suitable modifications and developments in accordance with the free spirit of the Gospel and the Providential circumstances in which the Christian congregations found themselves placed. This presumption is confirmed by all the evidence, direct and indirect, bearing upon the point in the New Testament documents which belong to this period of the history.”f195

Although the Apostles outranked the elders in authority, the elders were destined to become the highest permanent officers in the church. There is no record that the office of Apostle continued after the death of John; Scripture neither commands such a continuance nor does it specify the qualifications of those who should seek the office.

But the qualifications of those who seek the office of elder (or bishop) are specifically set down in Scripture. (<540301>1 Timothy 3:1-7) The question was not left to chance. The Apostle Paul appointed elders in the places where he had preached, and at great personal risk. We could ask for no more forceful proof that the Gentile churches were to be governed by the same polity that prevailed in the Jewish churches.


The elders were entrusted with the tasks of teaching and rule. “This double function appears in Paul’s expression ‘pastors and teachers,’ where, as the form of the original seems to show, the two words describe the same office under different aspects. Though government was probably the first conception of the office, yet the work of teaching must have fallen to the presbyters from the very first and have assumed greater prominence as time went on.”f196 The ministry of teaching and rule had exactly the same goal as the ministry of serving: to keep the affairs of the church decent and orderly, that the ministry of the Word might not be hindered.

After the elders were appointed by the Apostles, they served as a self-acting body. They could take the needed steps, with the concurrence of the congregation, to add to their number or to create any subordinate offices that might be needed for the more perfect life of the church.

It should be observed, however, that though the elders were to teach and rule, Scripture does not spell out their specific duties. Scripture assumes, as it does in the case of the deacons, that as long as the elders are full of the Spirit and wisdom, they will not only see what is required of them but they will discharge their duties with cheerfulness and dispatch.


The church is presently divided on whether the ministry of rule requires a separate officer, such as bishop or superintendent, or whether this ministry belongs to pastors or elders who enjoy parity of rank. Two points should be noted in this connection.

First, the New Testament equates the offices of “elder” and “bishop.” Therefore, any distinction between these officers is based on expedience, not principle. “There was in apostolic times no distinction between elders [presbyters] and bishops such as we find from the second century onwards: the leaders of the Ephesian church are indiscriminately described as elders, bishops [i.e., superintendents] and shepherds [or pastors]”f197 The validity of this exegesis is generally acknowledged.

Second, and more important, the ministry of rule, like other auxiliary ministries in the church, is free to develop its office according to the needs of the times. In the actual life of the fellowship, therefore, divergent modes of government may emerge. These modes may be the result of rich cultural and social influences. Or they may simply grow out of the dictates of expediency.

There may be times when a fellowship is so small that all the prescribed ministries in the church — that of the Word, serving, teaching, and rule — may devolve on the pastor himself. As he succeeds in training others, he can delegate the auxiliary ministries. But he must proceed slowly, for it is not wise to lay on hands hastily.(<540522>1 Timothy 5:22)

When a fellowship reaches vast proportions, however, expedience may dictate that a separate office of rule be created. And it makes precious little difference what name is given to the officer in charge — whether bishop, archbishop, superintendent, or state secretary.

In some cases it may be more expedient to vest the office of rule in a group of men — a council of pastors or elders, a pastor and his deacons, etc. Neither the number of men nor their title is important. The important thing is that the office of rule is founded on biblical principles.


When church members are guilty of gross immorality, they must be excluded from the fellowship until they give signs of evangelical repentance. The New Testament is clear on this point. (See for example, 1 Corinthians 5) Gross immorality cannot be ignored, and neither can it be tried by just anybody. If the fellowship is to be kept decent and orderly, specific persons must be vested with authority to administer discipline. Spheres of lawful jurisdictionmust be defined.

When church members follow false teaching, however, the New Testament is not so clear. On the one hand, Christians are commanded to continue in the teaching of Christ and the Apostles. But on the other hand, they are not told precisely what doctrines are essential to fellowship, nor are they told precisely what to do with errorists. For example, certain Judaizers went about teaching the necessity of circumcision. (<441501>Acts 15:1-5) The Apostles denounced the error, but they did not excommunicate the Judaizers. Again, there were some in Corinth who denied the resurrection. (<461512>1 Corinthians 15:12) The Apostle Paul was shocked by such a denial, but he did not command the Corinthians to undertake heresy proceedings. And so it goes. (See, e.g. <451617>Romans 16:17; <530314>2 Thessalonians 3:14, 15; <540603>1 Timothy 6:3-5; <550214>2 Timothy 2:14-19; <560309>Titus 3:9-11and <630109>2 John 1:9-11)

Since the data in the New Testament are not decisive, it is only natural that the church will be divided on how far to go when confronting errorists with the evil of their ways. Some denominations will create elaborate judicial machinery, while others will try to exclude errorists by the use of moral pressures alone. The mechanics of discipline are not important. The important thing is that the church is sincerely trying to continue in the teaching of Christ and the Apostles. Complacency and indifference are the attitudes most to be feared.


Since church government is a servant of the fellowship, it is a means and not an end. This is an important point. We must not separate from one another because we do not agree in details of government. If we do, we forget that love, not skill in ecclesiastical rule, is the sign of a true disciple. Worldwide Christian fellowship is the ideal for the church. Whatever hinders this ideal should be brought under the scrutiny of Scriptures.

Instead of boasting about superior polity, we ought to occupy ourselves with the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. “Happier are they whom the Lord when he cometh, shall find doing in these things, than disputing about ‘doctors, elders, and deacons.’”f198

Devising new offices is not the whole answer to problems arising out of the complexity of the modern church. The offices in the New Testament are simple and effective. The sheer multiplying of offices may be a sign that the church is substituting human wisdom for a life of faith and grace.

We do not need additional officers as such. What we need is prophets of God who can call existing officers back to biblical standards. As long as rulers are filled with the Spirit and wisdom,any form of government will do. And if rulers lack these virtues, even the most cleverly devised polity will be found wanting.

Too much government leads to tyranny, whereas too little government leads to anarchy. Either extreme disrupts the fellowship. Good rulers will not only steer the course between these extremes, but they will cheerfully acknowledge that their own authority is derivative and subordinate. Ecclesiastical rule has no independent rights. It exists as a handmaid to the ministry of the Word.