What Did God "Establish"?

World scholars seem to agree that the church was established in Jerusalem, the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ. Acts 2 gives the record, and only a few with some creed to defend offer objection. But WHAT was established when the church was established? Foolish question? Well, read Acts 2 carefully.

Any “dedication” services? “Chairman” appointed? Any of the “institutional” procedure one would expect if today’s common conception of “church” were correct? It just isn’t there.

Today, the emphasis is upon the party—the church is something like a lodge, or “Royal Order of Saints”—a society, somehow related to certain buildings. This conception is missing in God’s record of establishment.

Prophecies concerning the establishment of the church invariably refer to the relationship, or the basis for the relationship, between God and individuals. Isaiah says, “the mountain of Jehovah’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains” referring to the establishment of God’s law for all nations (Isa. 2:1-4). The promised kingdom was a promise of peace according to divine government (Isa. 9:1-7). The ransomed of Jehovah would walk in “the Way of Holiness” (Isa. 35:8-10).

 

Little Red Wagon

It seems many think of the church as something like a little red wagon. “Established on Pentecost”—it stood ready to roll, and people could jump in and ride to heaven. But somewhere along the line a side-rail broke, an axle was bent, the tongue came loose, and finally a wheel fell away. Luther tried to put the wheel back on, but further bent the axle in his effort. Others replaced the tongue with a new but different instrument—unsuited to the purpose and function of the original tongue. Alas, the church was broken down and out of service.

Then Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone determined to restore the church. They straightened the axle, replaced the tongue with an original model, repaired the side-rail and put the wheel back in place. Now people could again ride home to heaven.

Have I stretched the picture? Perhaps—but only to emphasize what I believe to be an entirely erroneous conception of the church established on Pentecost. This is a denominational concept. It glorifies the “party” and does not properly distinguish between faithful and unfaithful people.

 

WHO are The Church?

The word “church” is a collective noun, and it “collects” people. But not just any people. Christ’s church consists of “saints and faithful brethren” (Col. 1:2), “a people for God’s own possession.” (1 Pet. 2:9) Of all the multitude gathered in Jerusalem, only those who “gladly received his word” and “were baptized” became members of the church. (Acts 2:41)

Members of the church do sin, but they are expected to repent and pray God for forgiveness. Failing to do this, they are denied the fellowship of Christians (1 Cor. 5:1-5). A congregation of Christians who, collectively, no longer act in keeping with God’s will is unworthy of a name and place among the churches of Christ (Rev. 2:1-5). The Lord’s church consists of people identified with the truth—not just a people identified with a party.

 

God’s Establishment Unchanged

What God established—truth, the New Covenant—never changes (1 Pet. 1:23-25). But the party, the people, could fall away (1 Tim. 4:1-3). First, their attitude toward divine authority is altered, then their practices, then—usually many years later—their terminology. Because the rule is one thing and the people who supposedly follow the rule is another, Paul said we must not measure ourselves by our selves (2 Cor. 10:12-17).

One may “stay with the building,” “stay with the preacher,” “stay with the elders,” “stay with 90% of the people”—and yet leave the church which God established. In fact, this is precisely the history of denominationalism with its creed-bound people.

Christians today need to restudy their conception of Christ’s church. We must rededicate ourselves, not to some “party,” but to the Christ and to His cause. I must know the truth and obey it, regardless of the action of others—“in the church” or out of it. I must remember that it is the purified and cleansed church—not the “party”—that Christ promises to save eternally (Eph. 5:26-27). What God really established is firm and sure, and cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28-29).

– Robert F. Turner
January 1964

About Jason Hardin

Jason lives in southern Indiana with his wife Shelly and their three daughters. He works with the Charlestown Road church of Christ. Jason has written three books and a variety of workbooks. He's a fan of photography, baseball, mountains, wildlife, BBQ, banana pudding, and coffee. You can contact him here or connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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6 comments

  1. Read this recently from bro. Turner’s “People of God.”
    Thanks for all you do.

    • Thanks for reading, Mark. Turner put out a whole lot of good stuff, especially concerning the church. There are voices from the past that definitely need to be heard in the present.

  2. Good stuff. I love the little red wagon illustration. What a great rebuke of the majorly denominational view of the church that too many brethren are developing these days.

    But I do have one question from the article. Or perhaps one observation.

    The statement made from Revelations 2:1-5 seems to me a bit of an overstatement or needs to be modified. I can’t help but think of Revelation 2:18-28 in which Jezebel was tolerated by Thyatira. However, some did not hold the teaching despite the general nature of the church. Then there is Revelation 3:1-6. Sardis had a reputation for life, but was, in general, dead. However, even within it there were people who had not soiled their garments. So, even though a church had a problem that might bring judgment on it, there were still individuals who were faithful.

    I guess I worry that when we put too much emphasis on a congregation and its “worthiness” we lose sight that our real relationship with God is not through the congregation anymore than it is through a priest. Our real relationship is one on one and so being in a congregation that is judged “unworthy” does not necessarily mean every individual within it is unworthy.

    Am I missing something? Is there more I need to understand on this?

    • I think your point is a good one, Edwin, and I agree. It’s easy to generalize without regard for the “faithful few.” We need to be thankful for them, “for they are worthy,” (Rev 3:4) and if Jesus thinks they are worthy, that’s what ultimately counts.

      But I also imagine that’s probably why Turner inserted “collectively” in the statement you brought up. There’s a difference between a congregation with a “faithful few” and a congregation “who, collectively, no longer acts in keeping with God’s will.”

      At least that’s my two cents. Too bad Turner isn’t here to offer his 😉

      • I guess my question is an issue over words. What does it mean collectively? Does it mean everybody in the congregation or just in general. I’d say that collectively Thyatira and Sardis were messed up. But there were some that were faithful.

        That is, as a collective, something was wrong. That didn’t mean everyone in the collection was bad.

        Thus, I read that as saying if the collective has problems then watch out, even if you are doing well, you might get judged along with the whole local church. I think that generates a lot of, “We’ve got to get out of here before God removes this candlestick.” Instead of generating, “Wonder what we can do to help people grow and overcome these problems.” Then you have church splits, church hopping, church wars, etc.

        I know Turner wasn’t advocating any of that. I’m just concerned about the semantics of it and making sure our words present the right picture.