THE HOUSE OF GOD

by Willard A. Ramsey

 

Although I have chosen to call this article "The House of God," primarily to call attention to the broad purpose of God to represent His name and His truth in the earth, my primary concern is with the New Testament church as the present embodiment of the house of God (I Tim. 3:15). Moreover, I want to sound an alarm to true believers everywhere to encourage a sober review of the fragmentation among the churches today and what God would have us do about it. Believing as I do that a true believer would eagerly obey the Word of God, except when pressured, intimidated, or deceived by powerful, prestigious, or traditional influences, I set these things forth for examination with the confidence that we may rise above such influences, acknowledge that the status quo which hopelessly confuses the unbelieving world is unacceptable, reevaluate the whole church question in the light of God's Word, and make supplication to God for the power to change.

THROUGH THE EYES OF CHRIST

If we were able to look through the eyes of Christ (and we may by use of the Scripture) and see what He envisioned when He said "I will build my church," how closely would it resemble what is commonly called "the church" today? Surely we would not see the confusing mass of warring denominations proclaiming every wind of doctrine and exhibiting moral and spiritual values wholly out of character with Christ and the Scriptures.
On the other hand we are faced with the exact same dilemma when we say the "true church" is the indeterminate number of all the saved people faithfully dedicated to these contradictory denominations, patronizing them, promoting them, financing, supporting, defending and teaching all these winds of doctrine and practice. Is this really what Christ envisioned when He said "I will build my church"? In our hearts we know it is not.
Then it is no light matter for Christians to continue to call such an entity the "true church," or "the body of Christ." Shall we make Jesus Christ responsible for building what may be the most fragmented, confusing, and contradictory religious movement in the history of the world — the so-called "invisible true church"?
To apply the label of the church of Jesus Christ to that which He has neither built nor approved is to seriously misrepresent Him. We grieve not only for this gross misrepresentation of the name and church of Christ before the unbelieving world, but also for those our brethren who continue, perhaps unawares, to perpetrate this act of misrepresentation. It is grievous that millions of gifted Christians, many of them famous and of high visibility, will not stop to weigh the serious question: "What is the church of Jesus Christ, what are its characteristics, and what changes must I personally make in my thinking, practices, and affiliations to avoid complicity and guilt in this serious misrepresentation of the name of my Lord and Savior"?
The canon of Scripture has now been complete and closed for nearly twenty centuries. If we are ever to team what Christ envisioned when He said, "I will build my church," it must be from these Scriptures. It does not take twenty centuries for an individual or a given congregation to make a deliberate and detailed study of the church and then to actually make the practical changes such a study would require. Five years would be sufficient. But if we will not use the Scriptures in this way, then God will require of us an answer. If God's people are content to go on in this fragmented condition, dally misrepresenting the name and truth of Christ, Is It possible that He will be pleased with us and will hold us all blameless in this serious matter? I think not.
Therefore I want to outline a few basic concepts to help to stimulate sound biblical thought on this serious issue. I want to strip away the details — they come later — and get down to the bare bones of what makes a church a church, and what makes it effectual. First I want to make it clear that salvation is not the Issue in this discussion, but rather that the House of God in all ages is for representation of the name and truth of God. Since salvation is and has always been wholly by grace apart from works (Rom. 4:2-8), anyone of any denomination resting his faith in the Savior is thus saved. His theology may be almost nonexistent; his morals may be in serious need of correction; his religious or denominational affiliation may be grossly unscriptural and may remain so until he is properly Instructed from Scripture. Even so, every true believer, by God's grace, is bound for heaven.
However, such a person Is in no condition to accurately represent the name and truth of God until his morals, theology, and affiliation are corrected. In a word, salvation is by grace apart from works, but proper representation of God's name and truth to others requires both grace, knowledge, and works. And this is preeminently the task of the church. An official ambassador must be more than a citizen of a country. He must know his country's laws, be trained in obedience to them, and have an official appointment. A citizen without an official appointment would be presumptuous Indeed to pass himself off as an ambassador authorized to represent his country officially to another.
Broadly, then, the House of God In any age is the only official representative of the name of God on earth.

THE ANCIENT FOUNDATIONS

God has long been concerned that a very accurate representation of His name, and all the eternal concepts implied in His name, should be established In the understanding and memory of every generation:"... this Is my name forever," He told Moses, "and this Is my memorial unto all generations" (Ex. 3:15). Then later God told Moses, "and let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8). Here Is the establishment of an official, authorized place, entity, or institution — localized and visible to men — that would be the only officially and miraculously approved and sanctioned place on earth to represent the name of the Almighty God. A tent in a wilderness, covered with badger skins, was the House of God at that period.
What an unlikely claim that this less-than-impressive tent was the only official representative of the name of God on earth instead of the splendid temples of Egypt. How were people to know? A shallow-thinking, appearance-oriented traveller would have missed this great truth and would have pointed to Egypt at once. But what made this tent God's House? Only one thing: God had designated it such. He had chosen It "And there I will meet with thee" (Ex. 25:21). It had been designed by God In great detail as a portable "temple" to suit His exact purpose during these years of wandering (Ex. 25:9). The principle here is that only God can design a perfectly functional house to perfectly represent His name. The problem today is that men have designed the multitude of houses which now misrepresent His name.
The significant issue of an official representation of God's name is that God chose: "But unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, even unto his habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come" (Deut. 12:5). This principle strips naked the free-lance Christian who Is in effect his own authority, operating his own "ministry" apart from the official House of God. The authority to represent the name of God is in the institution, not In the individual: "Ye shall not do ... every man whatsoever is right in his own [individual] eyes" (v. 8). "Then there shall be a place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there; thither shall ye bring all that I command you" (v. 11). There is no authority in this principle to perform ministries apart from the officially sanctioned and chosen House of God. And as we shall see presently, this principle extends to the New Testament church as well.
But It was Moses who spoke these things to the people. How were they to know If this really was the House of God? All they had was Moses' word for it. But God has never left such weighty matters without divine demonstration — so that the common people could see and know. When the tabernacle was finished, complete, and furnished: "Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle"{Ex. 40:34). And all the people saw it and knew that this was indeed God's officially sanctioned house.
After the people were permanently settled in the land across the Jordan, the old portable tabernacle was not the most functional house for God's name. So Solomon built a temple. But this was no pragmatic decision on Solomon's part, but a decision of God Himself. The form of the temple was optimum for its purpose, as the tabernacle had been, and every design detail was precisely described. It was complete, finished and furnished, but was it the Lord's house? "And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord" (I Kings 8:10). All the people saw it and knew this was the House of God.

THE HOUSE OF GOD — THE CHURCH

There came a time when the temple had fulfilled its purpose as a place of sacrifice typical of the coming Savior. Now yet another form was needed to suit the new function of the House of God. Moses built the portable tabernacle, which God miraculously and officially sanctioned, and Solomon built the temple which God officially sanctioned. But Jesus Christ built the church which God would now officially and miraculously sanction — a new format to the House of God to be suited to its broader purpose.
During the personal ministry of Jesus, He built His assembly—church — God's house. It was finished, complete, commissioned, furnished. It was gathered together, a hundred and twenty men and women, "living stones." There can be no doubt that there were other believers scattered from Galilee to Judea, but this gathered assembly, the church, was God's representative institution. It was not a crafted stone structure but a visible assembly. It was "builded together," not apart, "for an habitation of God through the Spirit" (Eph. 2:22). But it looked to the world like any other humble gathering. Who would have guessed this assembly was the House of God ordained to supersede that splendid and venerable temple system which would soon be leveled to the ground?
Peter and the others knew, but God has never left such weighty matters to the words of mere men. He again visibly and miraculously demonstrated that this was His choice of the House of God in a new and functional format. "And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and It filled all the house where they were sitting" (Acts 2:8). God had thus sanctioned the New Testament church, and the people saw it and knew this was the House of God.
This was now the official, the only official, representative of the name and truth of God on earth. No other assembly or individual had or ever would have this sanction unless such sanction extended through this institution. We recognize that many people have been misled concerning this truth, and we are fully aware that some may not have had the opportunity for exposure to these things. And it is certain that God never forgets to reward the good all of His people do. So perhaps there are some extenuating and mitigating circumstances in the case of some who are not a part of God's house. But neglect and indifference is a great factor; personal advantage is a great factor. But there are some who refuse to even consider, and deliberately despise the sanction, authentication, or official appointment from a church which had been officially sanctioned by another church true to the pattern. Such a person or institution has no claim to authenticity in or as the church of God except its own self-acclamation. There are no self-created churches.
Why would any institution calling itself a church refuse to conform to the biblical example of the perpetuity of the official House of God which we see so clearly and consistently exemplified in the New Testament? The official sanction of God was conferred ultimately from this Jerusalem church to all others.
The first group of Christians we find receiving the official sanction from the newly authenticated Jerusalem church, was the believers at Samaria converted through Philip's ministry (Acts 8:14-17). The Jerusalem church deliberately "sent unto them Peter and John," and God bore the Samaritans witness of His sanction with similar signs and wonders as He had done at Jerusalem. They were not a self-appointed, free-lance church; they were pleased to be "genetically" like the parent church at Jerusalem.
The next group, of which we have an account, to become a church and to receive the official authentication from the church at Jerusalem was the believers at Antioch. When the church at Jerusalem heard there were believers there "they sent forth Barnabas" (Acts 11:22) who taught them and doubtless baptized them, and they became a powerful church which in turn "sent' Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:3) in obedience to the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel and establish other churches. And others have repeated this process to the ends of the earth.

THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS

God then has miraculously demonstrated His official choice of an institution in the churches of the New Testament and has clearly exemplified a process by which this official choice is transmitted by an orderly succession from one church to another. Now if any "church" or para-church institution today despises this biblical principle established by God Himself, are we not justified in asking, "By whose authority do you claim to be an officially sanctioned representative of Jesus Christ"? If they say "by the authority of God," is it not fair to ask, "Then why did you not honor and obey the principle of succession God has exemplified in Scripture"?
Others will object that because we cannot trace the complete succession of churches through history that therefore we need not be concerned with it. But what is the authority for our faith and practice — history or Scripture? The succession is clearly exemplified in Scripture. Shall we now abandon Scripture because of the incomplete records of history? If the principle has been broken by some, shall we now abandon the scriptural principle because of the disobedience of others?

PRESERVATION OF THE OFFICIAL PATTERN

This principle of succession is no mere formality. It reflects the wisdom of God, as do all biblical principles, and is therefore indispensable as a practical measure to preserve the purity and unity of the churches. A church is a true church, or House of God, only if God has chosen it and has not later rejected it [i.e., has not removed its "candlestick" or church-hood (Rev. 2:5), or spewed it out of His mouth (Rev. 3:16) leaving an empty shell of a congregation]. Only God knows for sure when this happens.
But who can presume to know that an institution is His church unless it loves and conforms to the pattern of that which He has sanctioned as His official representative?
The wisdom of God then shines through in the principle of conferred official authority through the succession principle in that only those who love and conform to the pattern God has sanctioned will be approved and authorized by an existing church. Moreover, this principle, like a two-edged sword, cuts both ways; if a church remains true to the original pattern, it will also observe the principle of succession for that is a part of the original pattern.
It follows then that the multitude of divided denominations and the many winds of doctrine we see today could never have arisen except that someone departed from the original pattern. In the New Testament there was no centralized hierarchical agency over the churches, but this arose as the Catholic party departed from the pattern. This error was retained by the Protestants. There was no union of church and state in the early church, but this was seen again in the departure of the Catholic party in the days of Constantine, and was followed later by Luther, Calvin, John Knox, the Anglican Church, and the Puritans of New England. And with that came a further gross departure, the persecution of those who remained true to the pattern God had sanctioned.
The departures also affected the ordinances. Under God's approved pattern believers only were baptized, by immersion, under the authority God had vested in the sanctioned churches. But there have been departures from the pattern in baptizing infants, and by sprinkling, and by acknowledging as valid those baptisms performed by institutions having departed from the pattern (sometimes known as "alien immersion").
There was a discipline for maintaining purity in God's original pattern. But very many today have departed from the consistent exercise of that discipline. Neither do many churches, even Baptists, regard the acts of discipline of other churches who stand by the pattern. Many welcome to their membership those continuing in sin after having been disciplined, thus confirming them in their sin. Because of this, many "churches" are cesspools of sin, immorality, heresies, pride and the like.
Large volumes could be written about the many departures from the pattern of the churches God has sanctioned, but this is enough to establish as a very serious issue the recognition of and adherence to the principle that God Himself has designed, sanctioned and authorized an official institution, which Jesus called "my church," to be His representative on earth. To this institution He gave
the "keys," or the custodianship of the affairs of the kingdom of heaven on earth, and it follows then that every individual Christian has the solemn obligation to find, cleave to, and promote this institution and its glorious message of salvation in Christ. "Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end" (Eph. 3:21).
This whole matter is too serious for any of us to merely consider it and then continue "business as usual." The hundreds of institutions which have departed from the sanctioned pattern of God flourish today because Christians are causing them to flourish by their personal and financial patronage and support. To be guilty of causing to survive by our patronage that which should perish while permitting to perish for lack of patronage that which should survive, is a guilt we do not have to continue to bear. We can change.
Yet, I understand the pressure of intimidation felt by those whose whole experience and tradition has been centered in an institution which they know in their hearts is not a sanctioned House of God. To change would bring down intimidation of many forms, yet God is able to sustain them. And His people who live in His house hold out warm and encouraging hands and are ready to help banish the fears and doubts by sincerely searching the Word of God. All those whose hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ are all brothers and sisters in Him. We can talk openly to one another about the true House of God, and together we can, if we will, search for, find, and build up the House of God and exalt His name to all generations.


"For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up..." Psalm 69:9

 

 

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