"The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments (ordinances) duly administered according to Christs ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same."
Here we have, clearly stated, the belief of Evangelical Methodists as it relates to its position concerning that body known
as the Church.
The following Scriptures are given to support this important doctrine. They are Matthew 16:18 and 18:18; Acts 7:38; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 1:22; Philippians 3:6; Acts 8:1 and I Corinthians 1:2. We would also refer you to Deuteronomy 4:10, 9:10, and 18:16 in the Old Testament and Hebrews 2:12 with Psalm 22:22.
This article was originally written in 1553 and very little change has been made in it. Much of the phraseology was taken from a corresponding article in the Confession of Augshurg. However, the Article here is more precise and guarded.
The object of the Article is three-fold. First, it gives a definition or description of the visible church and definitely excludes the claim of the Roman Church to be the only true church and at the same time does not embrace the definition of the church as given by the many sects of the Anabaptists. Thus, the article, also denies the claim of the Roman Church to infallibility. Finally, it states what is necessary to a true church, faithfulness in preaching the pure Word of God, which entails necessary discipline when pastor or member does not speak or walk in accordance with that "pure Word of God."
Bishop Jewell speaking on this article on Whit-sunday, 1563, stated, "But now herein standeth the controversy, whether all men do justly arrogate to themselves the Holy Ghost, or not. The bishops of Rome have for a long time made a sore challenge thereunto, reasoning for themselves after this sort. The Holy Ghost, say they, was promised to the Church, and never forsaketh the Church (here the Roman Church claims that the Holy Spirit was given to the Church collectively and we believe that the Holy Spirits coming and indwelling is individual according to John 14:23; John 15:26 and Romans 8:9-10, 14-16), but we are the chief heads and the principal part of the Church; therefore we have the Holy Ghost forever, and whatsoever things we decree are undoubted verities and oracles of the Holy host. That ye may perceive the weakness of this argument, it is needful to teach you first what the true Church of Christ is, and then to compare the Church of Rome therewith, to discern how well they agree together.
"The true Church is a universal congregation or fellowship of Gods faithful and elect people, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the head cornerstone. And it hath always three notes or marks where by it is known: (I) pure and sound doctrine, (2) the sacraments or ordinances according to Christs holy institution, (3) the right use of ecclesiastical discipline. This description of the Church is agreeable both to the Scriptures of God and also to the doctrine of the ancient Fathers, so that none may justly find fault therewith."
We need therefore to consider:
A. "The Visible Church"
The word "Church" is the English equivalent for the Greek word, "ecclesia." This word has passed through three stages of meaning. In its classical sense it is not a religious word at all, but simply stands for the assembly of the citizens of Athens and (later) of other free Greek cities, called together for the discussion of public business. In this sense it occurs once in the New Testament,at Ephesus in Acts 19:39. Then, it obtains a religious sense first in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament where it is used as the translation of the Hebrew word for congregation or assembly of the Israelites. See Psalm 22:22 and Deuteronomy 4:10, 9:10 and 18:16. In this sense it is found twice in the New Testament, Acts 7:38 and Hebrews 2:12. This Old Testament use of the term prepared the way for the New Testament use or third stage in its usage, adapted by our Lord as the name of the Society which He came to found on earth. It is so used by Him in the Gospels. See Matthew 16:18 and 18:18. Paul in his epistles and the Acts use it in the same sense in which our Lord used it. Sometimes it is used to designate a local assembly and sometimes it is used for the total Christian society. In I Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 1:22 and Philippians 3:6, it is used to designate the total Christian Society. In Acts 8:1; I Corinthians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; Revelation 2:1, it is used to designate a church in a particular place. Sometimes it was used to designate a meeting in a single home as in Romans 16:15; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Philemon 2 and Colossians. 4:15.
The phrase, "the visible Church," that is employed in this Article is very important. The Article states what the distinguishing marks of the Church are and then proceeds to explain them.
When the article was first drawn up there was a tendency, in some quarters, to give little if any importance to a "visible Church." They spoke of an "invisible Church" consisting of true believers known only to God, wherever they be found, outside and independent of all external organization. That tendency is a prevailing one in certain fundamental circles and needs today, as in 1553, to be refuted. It is true that God does know who are really His, in whatever body or society they may be found (see John 10:1-16), but when this is said, there is really nothing more that can be said about an "invisible Church." The existence of an "invisible Church makes him at once a "visible one." Thus the phrase "the invisible Church" is mischievous and misleading. It tends to lead men to attach little if no importance to the Divinely appointed external organization of the Church founded by our Lord (Matthew 16:18) and so continued by the Apostles as seen in Acts15.
There is no question that our Lord intended to found a Church and that this Church was to be "visible" as we have seen in passages quoted from the Gospel. Our Lord refers to this Church as the Society which He intended His followers to establish on the earth. Although, He does state in John 18:36 that this society is not of this world, He does state that it is in the world and "visible" to the world (Matthew 5:16; John 17:11-18; John 15:17-20). It will embrace good and bad alike as is indicated in the Parable of the Tares in Matthew 13:24-30 and that of the Draw Net in verses 47-50 of the same chapter. This thought is also included in the parable of the Wedding Garment in Matthew 22:1-14. It is intended to embrace all nations of the earth according to Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8.
All this implies a definite visible body with an outward organization or body which can properly be described as a "visible Church."
Entrance into the "visible Church" was through a visible act of initiation, the rite of baptism as seen in Acts 2:38; 8:12 and 16:15 and the act of "breaking of bread" or partaking of "the Lords Supper" as seen in Acts 2:42, 46 and 20:7. "Elders" were appointed in every church according to Acts 14:32 and wherever the word "Church" is mentioned it refers to a visible body. When persecution arose, it was against a visible body of believers as seen in Acts 8. So it was true when the "Church" gathered together in Acts 14:27, when they saluted one another in Acts 18:22 and when a church was established in Acts 16:5.
This is also true of the epistles, especially the Pauline Epistles, because when he writes, it is to a definite society of believers. Some were guilty of grievous sins, a mixed body, in which the evil are mingled with the good. This is also revealed in the letters to the Churches in Revelation 1-3 by the Apostle John. Thus everywhere throughout Scripture it is "the visible Church" which is spoken of, to which the promises are made, and in which hope of salvation is held out.
The "visible Church" is described in the Article as a "congregation of faithful men." This implies that the Church is a united definite body with an organism and life of its own. It is not merely an aggregation but a system of members knit together and pervaded by one life derived from Christ who is our life and who is the head of the Church.
The word "faithful" signifies professed believers. It does not imply anything as to character of the faith of such believers. It refers simply to all who call themselves Christians. It has already been stated that "in the visible Church the evil are ever mingled with the good." Thus the Church consists of bad as well as good, and therefore the word "faithful" must be understood in the sense already explained. While it is true that the visible body is made up of good and bad, one thing distinguishes a true Church from a false one, "the pure Word of God is preached." Our Lord charged His disciples after the resurrection to "make disciples of all nations" not only "Baptizing them," but also "teaching them to observe all things" that He had commanded (Matthew 28:19). Luke describes the early Church as continuing "steadfast in the apostles teaching," as well as "in fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers" (Acts 2:42). Saint Paul was sent to preach the Gospel (I Corinthians 1:17). He charges Timothy to "preach the Word" (II Timothy 4:2), to "hold fast sound words" which he has heard (II Timothy 1:13). It is generally assumed throughout the Epistles that there is a definite body of teaching to be handed on by the Church and her ministers (II Timothy 2:2; I Timothy 4:13-16; Jude 3).
We believe that the preaching of "the pure Word of God" includes the seven basic fundamental doctrines; the pre-existence of Christ, His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, mediation and glorious return to earth and the application of the teachings of Christ in the lives of believers through the inworking power of the Holy Spirit making such teachings practical in the daily lives of said "believers."
Then a true "visible Church" is marked by the due administration of the sacraments according to Christs ordinance. Our Lord appointed baptism as the rite of admission into the Church and ordained that the "Lords Supper" was to be instituted with the charge, "Do this in remembrance of Me." Paul restates this in the Corinthian epistle, saying that we are "to show the Lords death till He come" in this manner (I Corinthians 11:26). Thus, these two rites are the mark of any true church and any group that denies these rites must forfeit the right to be regarded as a branch of Christs Church.
B. The errors of the Roman Church
The article states in its entirety in the Anglican version that "the Church of Rome has erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith."
The article does not condemn the Roman Church as apostate, but does deny her claim to infallibility and recognizes her as just another branch of the "visible Church." We do not have time nor space to go into detail concerning how Rome has erred. However. Rome is recognized as the church, though an erring one.
In a statement made by the Anglican Church in 1537 under "Institution of a Christian Man" we read, "The Church of Rome, with all the other particular churches in the world, compacted and united together, do make and constitute but one Catholic Church or body," and, 'All the particular churches in the world, which be members of this Catholic Church, may be called Apostolical Churches, as well as the Church of Rome, or any other church wherein the apostles themselves were sometimes resident. The Church general has always accepted the ordination of Rome as valid and has never required reordination for admission with the ministry of any other Communion. However, the Church has always rejected Romes claim to the right to exclusive ordination.
Hooker states: "The Church of Christ, which was from the beginning, is and continueth unto the end; of which all parts have not always been equally sincere and sound. In Pauls time the integrity of the Church at Rome was famous. Corinth was reproved again and again. The Church of Galatia was out of step having lapsed into Jewish legalism. John, in his letters as recorded in the Revelation, declared Ephesus and Smyrna to be in a far better spiritual state than Thyatira and Smyrna. We hope, therefore, that to reform ourselves, if at any time we have done amiss, is not to sever ourselves from the Church we were of before. In the Church we were, and we are still. Other differences between our estate before and now we know none, but only such as we see in Judaism; which having sometimes been idolatrous became afterwards more soundly religious by renouncing idolatry and superstition. . .The indisposition, therefore of the Church of Rome to reform herself must be no stay unto us for performing our duty to God; even as desire of retaining conformity with them would be excuse if we did not perform that duty.
"Notwithstanding, so far as lawfully we may, we have held and do hold fellowship with them. For even as the Apostle doth say of Israel that they are in one respect enemies, but in another beloved of God, in like sort with Rome we dare not communicate concerning her sundry, gross and grievous abominations, yet touching those main parts of Christian truth wherein they constantly still persist, we gladly acknowledge them to be of the family of Jesus Christ; and our hearty prayer unto Almighty God is, that being conjoined so far forth with them they may at length (if it be His will) so yield to frame and reform themselves, that no distraction remain in anything, but that we "all may with one heart and mouth glorify God the Father of our Lord and Saviour whose Church we arc.
C. Ecclesiastical Discipline
In closing we need to consider the matter of ecclesiastical discipline. Certain authority was given to the apostles as we have it recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 and which is also expressed in the content of Acts 6 when the apostles felt that they must give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word and not be bogged down by such things as feeding the widows and caring for orphans. There were others in the church that were perfectly capable of such duties.
It seems, according to John 4:2, where Jesus baptized not, but His disciples did, in Acts 10:48 where Peter commanded others to baptize the household of Cornelius and in Acts 19:5-6, where Paul gave command for others to baptize, that ordination was not necessary in order to baptize others. Even the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the right of the laity to baptize. Paul in Corinthians states that he was not sent to baptize but to preach the Gospel (I Corinthians 1:14-17).
However the Church has always held that when it comes to the administering of the Lords Supper that the action of a rightly ordained minister is required. The Church has never, in any of its branches felt justified in sanctioning any relaxation of this rule.
Then the authority of James in the Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 (Acts 15) and his decision which became the law of the church to this day is evidence of authority. Paul spoke with authority and appointed ruling pastors over the various churches that he had established. He exhorted Timothy to exercise his authority as a ruling elder or supervising pastor. (I Timothy 4; esp. verses 12-13).
Then there are several passages in the New Testament which would declare the authority of the ruling elder or pastor of a local church or churches and that of a supervising elder over many churches. Let us turn first to Hebrews 13:17, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for this is unprofitable to you. Then Paul writes in I Corinthians 16:16, "Submit yourselves unto such, and to every one that helpeth us, and laboureth." Peter writes in I Peter 5:5, "likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto elder" Also verses 1-4 would lend themselves to supporting this teaching.
These ruling elders are called "Gods watchmen" in Isaiah 62:6; Jeremiah 6:17 and Ezekiel 3:17. They are called shepherds in Jeremiah 23:4; Acts 20:28 and in I Peter 5:2.
But with the opportunity of ruling elder goes tremendous responsibility as James tells in 3:1, "Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment."
Thus the visible Church of Christ is made up of faithful men in which the pure Word, of God is preached. In that Church the sacraments of baptism and the Lords Supper are duly administered according to Christs ordinance. This is to be carried out by such ruling elders as are called by God and anointed by the Holy Spirit for that task as shepherds under the Great Shepherd to whom they must give account.
The Church contains in it all the righteous and chosen people, from the first righteous man unto the last that shall be found righteous in the end of the Church Age. The visible Church is made of the good and the not so good, the chosen and the reprobate (or counterfeit), and generally of all those which say that they believe in Christ.
According to the Word, God in due time will separate the wheat from the chaff, the wheat from the tares, the good fish from the bad. Surely the judge of all the earth will do right as Abraham declared.