This is part 2 of a 3-part series on the doctrine of sphere sovereignty. Parts 2 and 3 are a follow-up to a sermon on the family, which can be viewed by clicking here.
The doctrine of sphere sovereignty is a helpful guide in determining where certain authority lies and why. The three primary spheres of creation are the family, the church, and civil government. We have already addressed the family, its origins, and how authority is layered. Today we’ll address the church, what it is, and how authority functions within the church.
What is the church?
We must have a clear understanding of what the church is before we can think of authority. English has low-German roots, and the English word “church” comes from the German word “kirche”, sometimes seen as “kirk”. But the Greek word we translate in to church from the Greek of Scripture is ecclesia. It literally means “to be called out of”, but by the time of the New Testament it was primarily used in a sense of “gathering”.
Theologically, we can relate this gathering to God’s elect. The ecclesia is the gathering of God’s elect from among the four winds. Some theologians speak of the church in the Old Testament, which if understood as the elect throughout the ages, we can agree. Paul writes in Ephesians 2 that the Gentiles were alienated from Israel, strangers to the covenants, and hopeless (v.12). But God has broken down that dividing wall and made one new man out of Jew and Gentile in order to destroy any hostility between the two (vv.15-16).
Paul also writes in Romans 11 that we should think of the Jewish people as the branches and the Gentiles as a wild olive shoot growing naturally out of that branch (v.17). The image is of something growing naturally out of a tree. The root supports the branches, and the branches support the olive shoots. Note, then, that taken with Ephesians 2, we must say that there is one people of God, made of up Jews and Gentiles. The Jews mentioned are not even entirely ethnic Jews, for “not all Israel is Israel” (Romans 9:6). Not every Jew is truly regenerate, based solely on heritage.
Based on Paul’s imagery, we cannot say that the church is a completely different group from Israel, though it is distinct. The church’s roots (pun intended) are in Israel. That also means that neither has the church supplanted Israel as God’s people (see all of Romans 11). There is one universal church, one people of God, now made up of not only regenerate Jews but Gentiles also. When Jesus told Peter that he would build his church, Peter didn’t ask for an explanation. There is one people of God.
The church is the elect of God from all tribes, tongues, nations, and people, including Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free.
What does the church do?
The church’s primarily responsibility is to worship God. After Pentecost in Acts 2, we read that the believers were fed apostolic teaching, devoted time to being together in person, celebrated the sacrifice of Christ over food, and prayed (v.42). So the church is not just a weekly gathering, though that should be guarded at all costs. The church is the body whose head is in heaven. We live lives that are intertwined with other believers. They are our friends, our brothers and sisters. They are our spiritual fathers and mothers.
When the church gathers, we still hear apostolic teaching. This is the preaching of the word, “more fully confirmed” (1 Peter 2:19) than anything that came before. Preachers are not apostles, but preachers preach what the apostles gave to the church.
When the church gathers, we share in the memory of the sacrifice of Christ. After Paul gives instructions on preaching in gatherings, he moves immediately into the practice of the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). We share the bread and the cup, the body and the blood, remembering the reasons we are gathered together at all. In doing so, not only in preaching, but also in communion, we proclaim the death of the Lord, but we also look forward to his second coming.
We also gather at other times simply for fellowship. We should grow in our love for each other as brothers and sisters. It’s perfectly lawful to gather just to enjoy each other’s company. It is not our primary purpose in gathering, but it is a blessing beside.
We gather for prayer, as well. Of course we pray on our own, but there is power in gathered prayer. That’s why it’s an important part of Lord’s Day worship. We pray before and after the preaching of the word. We pray in Bible study time. We pray in small groups. Prayer is no small matter. When people are sick, we bring them before the congregation for special prayer. When people are leaving their families for extended periods of time, we bring them before the congregation for special prayer. Prayer does not change God’s mind, but it does change ours.
Who has authority in the church?
Christ is the head of the church. He is its sovereign ruler. When Peter first confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus blessed him (Matthew 16:17). The divinity of Christ was a divinely-revealed truth. Jesus then makes a pun, of sorts, saying that Peter is the rock on whom Jesus will build his church (Peter’s name in Greek means “rock”.). We do not need to do some complex theological maneuvering to avoid Roman doctrines of the papacy. Jesus clearly said that it would be upon Peter that his church is built. But you will find no doctrine of the papacy here. There is no Petrine succession, no church at Rome, no papal infallibility, nothing of the sort mentioned here.
Peter would go on to be a crucial member of the Jerusalem church. Even before Paul, he would minister to the Gentiles, such as Cornelius. He would become an apostle to both Jews and Gentiles. He would author Scripture. In the new city in the age to come, the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are written on the foundation, and the names of the twelve apostles are written on the gates. We should not elevate Peter to the vicar of Christ, but neither should we demote him from his divinely appointed role in the building of the church.
Even in the Old Testament, God considered the priests to be the shepherds of the people. Throughout the writings of the prophets such as Ezekiel, God condemns the shepherds of Israel for abrogating their duties. Later, Peter would call elders the shepherds of the church and Christ the chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4).
The New Testament regularly chooses different words for the office of elder, oftentimes focusing on a different responsibility of an elder based upon the word it chooses. Those words are elder, overseer, bishop, and pastor. Paul gives the qualifications for being an overseer in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, most of which are character qualifications. The only skill of an overseer that Paul calls out is the ability to teach (v.2). This skill is the primary qualification difference between elders and deacons, the other biblical church office. Paul tells Timothy to devote himself to example-setting and teaching (1 Timothy 4:12-13).
Based on other passages that describe the work of an elder, we can see what they should be doing. When Paul is saying his tearful goodbyes to the elders in Ephesus, he calls them overseers, emphasizing general leadership. He then tells them to care for the church by being alert to the kind of teaching that will try to come in to the church (Acts 20:28-31). This reinforces the fact that the primary discipleship of an elder is his teaching.
Paul says that elders who rule well should be honored (1 Timothy 5:17). He also says that the church should especially honor those elders who teach and preach, implying that just because every elder should be able to command a room and expound the word of God, not every elder will. Some may primarily be overseers while others focus on preaching and teaching.
Paul does command that the office of elder is reserved for godly, qualified men. When Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12), he is not giving a command to one particular culture and one particular time. This is based on his rationale for the command: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (v.13). This command is not based on established gender roles but on the order of creation, which transcends culture.
But that is not all that Paul says. Another passages that builds this doctrine for us is 1 Corinthians 11. Paul mentions that when women prophesy in church, they should do so with their head covered (v.5). Paul does not condemn the women who are speaking; he rightly orders them. Paul has spent considerable energy laying out the pattern of husband-headship and wife-submission in 1 Corinthians 11, and it is in that context that he speaks of women prophesying in gathered worship. Paul even gives the same creation-order rationale in vv.8-9, thereby setting the norm for how we think of these matters.
In chapter 14, Paul is writing about prophecy and how to believe and interpret it (read: preaching). It is when prophecies are being judged for their truthfulness (preaching) that women are to be silent, or not to lead. Male headship is still the norm. Women are permitted to pray and prophesy in church, but when it comes to the explanations of those prophecies, when it comes to preaching, they are to model submission.
It is completely appropriate to have women praying, reading, leading music, and more in gathered worship. But when it comes to explaining those prophecies, when preaching takes place, men model Christ’s headship of the church and women model the church’s submission to Christ when men preach and women are silent. When Paul says that women should ask their husbands about the prophecy and its interpretation, that means that the men in the congregation had better be listening and know their Bibles!
The second office of the church is that of deacon. Acts 6 records what might be called the formation of the proto-deacon. Greek-believing-widows were being passed over when food was being given out as an act of charity and love. The apostles knew that their role of teaching and preparing to teach would not permit them to handle the distribution of food. So they charged the congregation to choose seven men who could handle this responsibility. These men should have good reputations as well as be spiritually-minded and wise. Once the people agreed on seven men, the apostles laid hands on them and charged them to fulfill their duty with integrity. Note that by this time, the church in Jerusalem may have already had elders, such as James. The elders didn’t choose the deacons; the congregation did.
We see here the early deacon was not primarily a teaching role but a service/administration role. Surely these seven men did not hand out all of the food themselves. We even know that Stephen and Philip preached from time to time. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a deacon. Philip met the Ethiopian and baptized him. The consequence of delineating leaders from deacons was that the word of God and the number of disciples increased exponentially (Acts 6:7).
In the same way that oversees have qualifications, so do deacons. They are almost entirely the same character qualifications with the exception of the requirement to have teaching ability (1 Timothy 3:8-13).
But we should not come to the conclusion that the elders are completely in charge of the congregation. As Baptists, we hold to a congregational form of church government. This form of government realizes that there were letters written to both pastors (Timothy and Titus) and whole churches (Rome, Corinth, Galatia, etc.). When believers refuse to repent of ongoing sin, it is the fellow believers, not just the leaders, who call to repentance (Matthew 18:15-20). As an example, when a man who refused to repent of sexual immorality was found out in Corinth, Paul does not address the elders but the congregation. He tells them that, when they are assembled, to cast this unrepentant man out of the congregation (1 Corinthians 5:4-5). Might elders have an outsized role in this process? Probably. But it is not an elder-based decision; that responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the congregation.
This is only a smattering of passages. The church does not only gather for worship, but it also sends missionaries, establishes institutions, and helps those in need. Our worship should be regulated by the word of God, or else we wind up thinking our forms of worship will please God when they don’t. The church speaks prophetically to the world, calling sinners to repentance.
The whole earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Sphere sovereignty helps us see that analytically. Scripture speaks to the family, church, and government directly. When we understand how each sphere stands on its own, only then can we understand how they can work together.
Next week, we’ll see how Scripture addresses civil government.