Summary: Most Protestant Christians believe that Jesus didn’t set up a formal church organization. Instead, they teach that the term “church,” as found in the New Testament, merely refers to all those who believe in Jesus Christ. Many of them therefore believe that a local congregations of believers were never meant to be united into one, large organization that had a central governing body of men. This article examines what the apostle Paul had to say about the church.
The apostle Paul explained to the saints living in Ephesus the purpose of the church when he said, “And he (Christ) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:11 – 14).
Most Protestants today teach that Jesus Christ didn’t set up a formal church organization. It’s their belief that the term “church” doesn’t mean a structured government that unites all believers into one universal institution. Instead, they say that the Bible refers to “the church” as the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27) which is made up of all those who have come to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, no matter where in the world they may live. As such, their concept of “the church” is not a physical building located in a particular place, but rather it’s a spiritual, living organism made up of individual people, united in their belief of Jesus Christ.
They point to Matthew 18:20 which says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Based on this verse of scripture it’s their belief that whenever or wherever two or more people gather together to worship Jesus, that local group of individuals is “the church.” However, they also believe that each local congregation is meant to act independently of all other local congregations where they decide for themselves how they want to arrange their own affairs.
Nearly all Christian denominations have teachers and pastors, and many of them have evangelists, but nearly none of them have apostles and prophets. The most common reason is because Christ has given the church the writings of some ancient prophets and apostles to guide and direct the believers, but since we have their written words, it is said that there is no more need for living apostles or prophets in the church today. As one person put it, we no longer need prophets and apostles because they can’t tell us anything new or different that isn’t already contained in the Bible.
Another basic tenant of Protestant Christianity is that we are saved solely by the grace of God and not because of any “works” we do. The term “works” is often defined by them as performing any kind of physical labor, such as being baptized, caring for the poor, doing good for others, and even preaching the gospel to non-believers. Although these acts are all worthy and noble in and of themselves, yet, they have no bearing on how or whether a person becomes saved.
Closely associated with this is the idea that once a person has become saved there is nothing they can do to lose their salvation. It is said that all God asks of us in order for him to grant us eternal life, is to “believe in thine heart” and confess with our mouth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Romans 10:9-10; 1 John 4:15).
But what if someone commits a serious sin after they have accepted Jesus as their Savior? The answer given is that we “are sanctified, [we] are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:11) “And by him all that believe are justified from all things” (Acts 13:30). We are not saved because of anything we do or don’t do “but [solely] by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we [who] have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). Therefore, “being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), “we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7).
But what if two people fully accept in their heart that Jesus is the Son of God and that he alone is our Savior yet one person believes that our salvation is dependent on us keeping his commandments, but the other person doesn’t believe that keeping the commandment is necessary for salvation, or one person believes that being baptized is absolutely essential for salvation but someone else thinks it’s not important? Are they both saved, seeing how they both believed in their hearts and confessed with their mouth that Jesus is the Christ, yet they both believe different things about how salvation is obtained?
If we say that salvation is only dependent on accepting Jesus as our Savior, then it doesn’t matter what we believe about what Jesus taught. And if that is true, then it doesn’t matter what church we belong to or what they teach. And if that is the case, then why do so many churches disagree and argue with one another over various points of doctrine, if none of that matters?
However, nearly all Christian faiths say that what we believe about Jesus and his teachings does matter, yet that is not what they say when talking about how we become saved. Very rarely will you hear a pastor, preacher, minister, priest, or evangelist say, “You must not only believe in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior but you must also believe in a long list of other doctrines as well in order to be saved.”
But, if it is true that what we believe about Christ is essential for salvation, as so many Protestant preachers claim, and if it is true that once a person is saved, they can’t lose their salvation, then what happens when a person accepts Jesus Christ and joins a Protestant church, but then later is converted to a church that teaches a different doctrine than the one they first accepted? For example, what happens if someone gives their heart and soul to Christ at a Protestant worship service, but then later becomes converted to Catholicism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or to the Jehovah Witnesses, or the Seventh-day Adventists?
Most Protestant faiths consider the teachings of these churches to be unchristian, and some pastors have gone so far as to say that those who follow the false doctrines of such churches are destined to spend eternity in hell because they have taught a different Jesus than what the Bible teaches. But if that is so, then are those former Christians who have converted to these churches still saved, or have they lost their salvation because they changed their mind about what the Bible teaches?
If they are still saved, then it doesn’t really matter what we believe about Christ, but if what we believe is essential in order to inherit the kingdom of God and our beliefs change, then it would seem that our saved condition should also change. And if that is the case, then we can lose our salvation.
Or what if a person accepts Jesus when they are young, perhaps at a youth camp, but later in life they become disillusioned with religion all together and become an atheist? Or what happens if they become converted to Islam, or Buddhism, or some another religion that doesn’t accept Jesus as their Savior? Are they still saved or has God withdrawn his saving grace from them? These are not theoretical questions, because there are many people who have experienced such a change of heart.
When speaking about the church, Paul mentions four reasons that it exists. One is “for the work of the ministry.” Just before Jesus ascended into heaven he told his disciples, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19,20).
Among Christians, this is known as the Great Commission, which is that the disciples of Christ are to take the good news about Jesus to others. Paul says that one of the reasons for there being a church is to help facilitate spreading the gospel. Yet, Jesus said that we are to teach people everything that he taught, but if Christians can’t agree among themselves what Jesus taught, then how can we fulfill this commandment?
Another purpose of the church is “for the edifying of the body of Christ.” The word edify means “to educate, instruct, guide, enlighten, improve, uplift, or elevate.” The reason we go to church is to be taught the word of God, to have it explained to us, to instruct us in what it means to be a Christian and how to live like one. The role of a preacher is to enlighten our understanding, help us to improve our life, to uplift us spiritually and elevate us to a higher, more Christ-like level.
Another purpose of the church is “for the perfecting of the saints.” In his sermon on the mount Jesus commanded us to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The goal of the gospel is to help us become more like Christ, and as Christians we believe that Christ was perfect. Paul says that the purpose of the church is to help us become “a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” In other words, the purpose of the church is to help us to measure up to the full stature of Christ or measure up to the standard of perfect righteousness that he set.
It can be argued that it doesn’t take a great organization in order for the church to meet these three requirements. In fact, it could be said that local, independent congregations can fulfill each of these assignments on their own without needing to coordinate with other congregations or receiving direction from a central governing body. However, there is one other purpose Paul gives for why Christ instituted the church and that is to help us “all come in the unity of the faith.”
To better understand this role of the apostles, we can look at what they did in the early Christian church, and the best record we have to show this is in the letters of Paul.
As all students of the Bible know, Paul made three missionary journeys where, during his travels, he would go into a city or town and begin preaching the good news of salvation. Many people didn’t accept his message but some did, yet either way, when Paul decided that there was no more advantage to staying there, he would move on to another city or town and begin preaching there.
However, even though he left these newly converted Christians – or saints as they called themselves – when Paul moved on, he kept in touch with them because of his concern about their spiritual welfare, and he did this primarily through reports he received from the companions who traveled with him, such as Timothy, Luke, Onesimus, Epaphras, and others. Later in life when he was in prison, he continued to receive reports on how the saints he had helped convert were doing. Therefore, what we see is that Paul didn’t just convert people to Christ, but constantly watched over them to make sure they were remaining faithful to what he had taught them.
The reason why Paul wrote most of his letters was because of reports he had received that some of the saints were departing from the faith, and since he could not be there to personally address the problems they were having, he wrote them epistles, explaining where they were deviating from the gospel Christ had taught and what the correct doctrine was that they should follow.
To the churches in Galatia he wrote, “¨I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:6-8). Later, in that same letter he lamented “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth?” (Galatians 3:1).
In his letter to the saints living in Clossae he wrote, “And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words… Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind” (Colossians. 2:4,8,18).
To be united in the faith means that we all believe the same thing, and what we see is that Paul watched over the saints he had brought unto Christ, and when he saw that they were believing things that were different from what he had taught them, he attempted to bring them back to the true faith as best he could.
In time Paul ordained Timothy to be a bishop. The Greek word we translate as bishop is episcopos which means someone who is an overseer. Thus, Timothy was left behind in Ephesus to oversee or watch over the saints in that city. Later, Paul ordained Titus to be the bishop of Crete. In effect, these two men acted as surrogates for Paul, doing for those under their care what Paul wanted to do but was unable because of his travels.
In his letters to these two men, Paul gave them instructions on what their duties were. To Timothy he gave him the charge to “teach no other doctrine” than the one Paul had taught (see 1 Timothy 1:2), and warned him to “take heed unto thyself and unto the doctrine [I taught]; continue in them: for in so doing thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee” (see 1 Timothy 4:16). He went on to counsel Timothy to “hold fast the form of sound words which thou has heard from me” (2 Timothy 1:13). He likewise counseled Titus to “hold fast the faithful word as you have been taught” (see Titus 1:9).
What we see is that after Paul had converted people to Christ, his greatest concern was making sure that the saints remained firm and steadfast in holding true to the doctrines he had taught them, and the reason for this concern was because he saw how quickly people were inclined to believe false teachings.
The biggest false belief that Paul had to confront was with the Jews who had converted to Christianity. In their mind, Jesus was their Messiah and not that of the Gentiles. Because of this, at first, they were adamant that the Gentiles should not be allowed to accept Christ, but when the apostles declared that the Gentiles were heirs of salvation, the Jewish Christians strongly felt that the Gentiles should have to become Jews if they accept Jesus as their savior. This not only meant that Gentile Christians had to be circumcised but that they had to live by all the ceremonial rituals of the law of Moses. In many of his letters, Paul argued strongly against this kind of thinking. In fact, the first six chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes exclusively about this heretical doctrine.
But this wasn’t the only false teachings that were creeping in the church. There were some who denied that Jesus rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12). There were some who said that the resurrection had already happened (2 Timothy 2:18). There were others who were eating meat that was offered to idols, which was part of the ceremony conducted during the worshipping of idols. There were Christians who were engaging in the worldly lusts of the flesh, and for this reason, in many of his letters Paul speaks frequently about the sin of fornication as well as other sexual sins. It is clear that these kinds of things were being practiced by those who called themselves Christians. In fact, at Corinth, there was a member of the church who was having sex with his father’s wife and the rest of the saints there were applauding him (1 Corinthians 5:1,2). There were others who had been deceived into “voluntary humility and worshipping of angels” (Colossians 2:18).
Paul warned Timothy that some of the saints have “already turned aside after Satan” (1 Timothy. 5:15). This is why he counseled Timothy to “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (1 Tim. 4:2,3). He likewise warned Titus, “For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not” (Titus 1:10-11), He then counseled, Titus to “speak thou the things which become sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). In his letter to the Hebrews Paul wrote “we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip” (Hebrews. 2:1).
The idea of having a “unity of the faith,” of there being “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” of the saints being “of one accord [and of] one mind,” of being steadfast, firm, and grounded in the doctrines that the apostles taught, and not departing or slipping away from that teaching, is found throughout Paul’s writings. And the reason why is because this was something that was a constant problem in the church.
But this wasn’t a problem exclusive to Christians. In the Old Testament, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all taught their children the truth about God, but after being slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, with no one to keep them grounded in the faith, they lost the knowledge they once had of who they worshipped. It took a prophet named Moses to bring them back to a true knowledge of their God.
In the days when Saul ruled over Israel, he had the written law of Moses and knew what was expected of him, yet he disobeyed God and offered a sacrifice that was not acceptable to the Lord. When the prophet Samuel came to him, he didn’t tell King Saul something he didn’t already know when he said, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:23). Rather, he reminded the king of how he was straying from the law.
King David loved the Lord and sought to keep the law all of his life, until one day when his eyes saw Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. After she became pregnant by him, David sought to cover up his sin by making sure Uriah was killed in battle. When Nathan the prophet came to him, he didn’t tell King David something he didn’t already know. Instead, he rebuked the king for having deviated from the law.
In the days of Isaiah, the Jews had the law of Moses, and they knew what God expected of them, but they had fallen so far from the faith of their fathers, that God said through Isaiah that he was disgusted with their burnt offerings, their oblations, the burning of incense, the keeping of the new moons and sabbaths, and the calling of their assemblies (see Isaiah 1:11-15). These were all things that were contained in the law God gave to Moses, but by this time the Jews had corrupted the law, even though they were still going through the motions of performing all of the required rituals. Isaiah didn’t tell the Jews of his day something they didn’t already know. His job, as a prophet, was to bring them back to a correct belief in God and help them live according to the law they already said they believed in.
When Jesus walked the earth, he had the same problem. The Pharisees of his day thought they were meticulously keeping the law of Moses and had gone so far as to create a long list of rules that were intended to help people from violating God’s law, but even in their zeal to live by what God had already given them, they had departed from the faith, as Jesus often pointed out them.
Paul explained to the Ephesians that an important purpose of the church was to keep the saints from being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness whereby they lie in wait to deceive,” and said that the church was “built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles, [with] Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). When he wrote this, there were living apostles in the church, guiding the saints in their understanding of the true teachings of Christ. The clear implication is that what we believe about Christ and his teachings is crucial to becoming saved. When false doctrine is being taught, it can take us away from Christ and his salvation, therefore, it is the role of a prophet to remind people of and encourage them to follow correct doctrine..
Because of what he saw happening among the saints, Paul lamented “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). At another time he said, “In the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Timothy 4:1).
History shows that as soon as the last apostle had passed away the Christian faith began fragmenting into different competing beliefs about Jesus. When we look at what the earliest church leaders wrote who lived from 100-200 A.D., we see them denouncing numerous false teachings that were being taught within the church. In an effort to maintain the purity of Christ’s teachings, the church began excommunicating people who didn’t renounce their false philosophies, and to be excommunicated was understood to mean that they had lost their saved status.
However, in time, even the leaders of the church began to argue among themselves over what was correct doctrine and what was false teachings. The most memorable of these arguments happened early in the fourth century when a priest by the name of Arius taught how the scriptures showed that Jesus was inferior to the Father. This idea infuriated his bishop, a man named Alexander, who thought that such a doctrine was blasphemous because it lessened the stature of Christ.
Within a short time, the church was evenly divided between these two competing ideas, and the Emperor Constantine called a council meeting of bishops to assemble in the city of Nicea to resolve this issue. Although the council produced a statement of belief known as the Nicene Creed, it did little to end the controversy and the church remained as divided as ever.
In 451 A.D. another council was held at Chaldcedon,to discuss yet another doctrinal dispute, but instead of resolving that issue, the Christian churches in Egypt and North Africa refused to sign the new statement of belief and broke away from the universal church to form their own version of Christianity, that is known as the Coptic Orthodox church. In 1054 the Universal or Catholic church split apart again over doctrinal issues, but this time it broke almost in half, with one part being known as the Roman Catholic church and the other known as the Greek Orthodox Church.
But there is another reason why apostles and prophets are needed in the Church. We see in Paul’s writings that the saints of his day had questions about the gospel. There were some who had a question about “How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?” (1 Corinthians 15:35). Some wondered what should they do if their spouse was not a Christian? There was a question about whether to obey kings, emperors, and magistrates. There were slaves who had converted to Christ and wondered about how they should behave towards their masters. But these kinds of questions didn’t end after the apostles died. In fact, they multiplied.
After the death of the apostles, the church held numerous councils to decide on questions that the Bible didn’t explicitly answer, where the leading bishops would meet together to discuss doctrinal differences, but these meetings were more like debating clubs where everyone offered their own opinion of what they thought the scriptures taught. Their way of resolving these disputes was to present their case as persuasively and forcefully as possible with the hope of convincing others to agree with their position. When a vote was taken, the majority opinion won the day, but that didn’t mean that those who disagreed with the majority agreed with the decision. Most often those who disagreed with the decision of the counsel continued to oppose the ruling and when that happened, they were either excommunicated, or exiled. It was in this way that the “unity in the faith” was enforced.
But this wasn’t how the church functioned when there were living apostles and prophets. As we read Paul’s letters we see in them a man who had the authority to declare what was truth and what was error. Numerous times Peter received revelations from the Lord explaining doctrine to him. The apostle John received a revelation while he was in exile on the island of Patmos. Even Paul said that the way he learned the gospel was not by conferring with flesh and blood, but because God revealed his Son to him (Galatians 1:16). In fact, it was Paul who taught “the things of God knoweth no man but (except by) the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:11).
The living apostles didn’t meet together to exchange personal opinions of what they thought the doctrines of the church should be. Instead, they were guided in their decisions by divine revelation from God, and when they did come to a decision, it was agreed upon by all of them, with no dissention. And when they proclaimed their decision, whether it was a new doctrine, such as allowing Gentiles to become Christians, or a new program, such as collecting money for the poor and setting up a committee to administer the program, there was no dissension among the believers because when the apostles spoke, their word was as if it had come from God himself. As such, from the very beginning, the church was able grow because they “continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:42).
The church has always had evangelists, pastors, teachers, and priests, and they’ve even had the writings of the ancient apostles and prophets that were used as sacred documents, but what they didn’t have was living apostles and prophets. As a result, those who were most responsible for making sure that all believers remained “in the unity of the faith” couldn’t maintain that unity of belief even among themselves. As a result, the church could no longer continue to be steadfast in keeping to the doctrines that were taught by the apostles.
Today we have a plethora of questions that biblical scholars disagree over. For example, is homosexuality a sin? Some confidently declare that the Bible definitely says it is while others just as confidently say that the Bible says no such thing. Is there a hell? Some say there is and others say there isn’t, yet those who say there is can’t agree among themselves about what hell is like (see The Doctrine of Hell ). Some say that the Bible teaches that socialism is the perfect law of God while others say it teaches just the opposite. And the list of questions grows longer and longer each day.
If there was one source that everyone could agree on as being the officially recognized authority on all matters pertaining to what Jesus taught, then there could be a unity of the faith, but that’s no longer the case, and as a result, there is not “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism” among the followers of Christ. Christians are not “likeminded… being of one accord, of one mind.” Instead, they are divided and splintered into tens of thousands of different beliefs
The role of an apostle and prophet is not so much to prophesy about the future, or to give us new revelation, or tell us things we don’t already know, or even to leave us a written record of what to believe. Their primary responsibility is to watch over the church, overseeing “the work of the ministry, making sure that the body of Christ is being edified, and that the saints are being perfected to where they can measure up to the full stature of Christ. And the way they were able to perfect the saints was to make sure they were all united in the faith. It was when the apostles and prophets were missing in the church that the saints – including their leaders – were tossed to and fro by every wind of new doctrine that came along, and were torn apart by dissention, contention, and ‘strivings about the law.”
It is true that “the church” Jesus Christ established is made up of a “body of believers” but that body was meant to be united under the direction, guidance, and leadership of divinely called living apostles and prophets. If what we believe is not correct then we have deviated from the path that leads to salvation. The reason why having living apostles and prophets is so crucial to our salvation is because they not only show us the way to God but, more importantly, they help keep us on the straight and narrow path that takes us to God.
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