God's people and their franchise

Elements of Seventh-day Adventist faith: The church, the remnant, and the mission

Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #11: The Church. "The church is the community of believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. In continuity with the people of God in Old Testament times, we are called out from the world; and we join together for worship, for fellowship, for instruction in the Word, for the celebration of the Lord's Supper, for service to all mankind, and for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel. The church derives its authority from Christ, who is the incarnate Word, and from the Scriptures, which are the written Word. The church is God's family; adopted by Him as children, its members live on the basis of the new covenant. The church is the body of Christ, a community of faith of which Christ Himself is the Head. The church is the bride for whom Christ died that He might sanctify and cleanse her. At His return in triumph, He will present her to Himself a glorious church, the faithful of all the ages, the purchase of His blood, not having spot or wrinkle, but holy and without blemish. (Gen. 72:3; Acts 7:38; Eph. 4:11-15; 3:8-11; Matt. 28:19, 20; 18:18; Eph. 2:19-22; 1:22, 23; 5:23-27; Col. 1:17, 18.)"

Statement of Faith #12: The Remnant and Its Mission. "The universal church is composed of all who truly believe in Christ, but in the last days, a time of widespread apostasy, a remnant has been called out to keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. This remnant announces the arrival of the judgment hour, proclaims salvation through Christ, and heralds the approach of His second advent. This proclamation is symbolized by the three angels of Revelation 14; it coincides with the work of judgment in heaven and results in a work of repentance and reform on earth. Every believer is called to have a personal part in this worldwide witness. (Rev. 12:17; 14:6-12; 18:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:10; Jude 3, 14; 1 Peter 1:16-19; 2 Peter 3:10-14; Rev. 21:1-14.)"

Statement of Faith #13: Unity in the Body of Christ. "The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality; and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation. Through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures we share the same faith and hope, and reach out in one witness to all. This unity has its source in the oneness of the triune God, who has adopted us as His children. (Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; Matt. 28:19, 20; Ps. 133:1, 2; 2 Cor. 5:16, 17; Acts 17:26, 27; Cat. 3:27, 29; Col. 3:10-15; Eph. 4:14- 16; 4:1 -6; John 17:20-23.)"

When Jesus replied to Peter's confession of faith in Him, "On this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18); He spoke in the future tense. Technically speaking, the Christian church was not birthed until after Christ's resurrection, though it was certainly conceived during His earthly ministry. And it had a long prehistory before that, for God's people can be traced back to the beginning of sacred history.

The remnant and the development of the church Starting with Cain and Abel the human race has separated into two groups those who had faith in God and chose to obey Him, and those who did not. In the Bible we witness a long series of widenings and narrowings, cycles in which God's people multiply, while the majority apostatizes. At these points God calls out a remnant of faithful ones to make a new beginning. Thus God chose the line of Seth, then the family of Noah, then Abraham and his family. Indeed, the Bible is in a hurry to get to Abraham, devoting only eleven chapters to every one who went before him.

Abraham is the father of the faithful, for he "believed the Lord, and he cred ited it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). God made powerful promises to him and his offspring (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 24:7), including the promise that "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:3).

The apostle Paul noted that the word "offspring" (Gen. 12:7) was in the sin gular, and therefore found its fulfillment ultimately in one Person, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). But that gets ahead of our story.

Not all of Abraham's children were heirs of the promise. Isaac was the cho sen one, and of his children, only Jacob. Jacob's line became the nation of Israel. But that nation divided into the Northern (majority) Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. Only the latter survived, becoming known as the nation of Judaea, whose people were called Jews.

But there was yet another narrowing, for most of that nation went into Babylonian captivity, from which again a minority returned to their land. Each time a narrowing took place, the Bible calls the faithful minority that was called out "the remnant" (see for example Isa. 10:20-22 and Mic. 2:12).

Sometimes the remnant was distinguished by their having not forsaken old truth, and sometimes by their having embraced new truth. The latter situation was the case after the beginning of the Christian era, when the Pharisees believed themselves to be defenders of their faith when they rejected Jesus and His message.

The church and Jesus' arrival

With the coming of Jesus the final narrowing of Israel occurred in fact Israel was, in effect, narrowed down to one Person, who was the Real Israel. But immediately another widening happened, for this New Israel came to include everyone who united with Jesus the church.

The New Testament teaches this concept in several ways. In Hosea 11:1 the Lord had called Israel "my son"; in Matthew 2:15 that prophetic word is applied to Jesus.

In John 15:1 -5 Jesus taught that He is the Vine and His followers are the branches; the vine was a symbol of Israel in Isaiah 5:1-7 and in the decor of synagogues.

After Saul persecuted the church the followers of the Lord Jesus the Lord met him on the road to Damascus and said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me!" The many are thus closely identified with the One.

The church is metaphorically the Lord's body on earth (Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:12, 13) and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16,1 7). 2 The Gospel of John is fond of using words and making statements that have a double or even a triple meaning. In John 2:19 He said, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

Many religious leaders of Jesus' time thought He meant the architectural temple from which He had just expelled the sellers of sacrificial animals and money changers. But John tells us He meant His body that was to be resurrected. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ was not only the rising of His literal body; it gave rise to the church, which Paul spoke of as a body (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12).

The work that Jesus began on earth in the flesh is being continued by His church. While on earth Jesus was the Bearer of the Spirit, who descended upon Him as a dove and remained upon Him (John 1:32). Now the church is the bearer of the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The Spirit is given to empower for ministry.

The rise of the church

The church sees itself as the continuation of Israel.3 In the Old Testament the assembly of God's people was called the qahal—the congregation of Israel. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint translation), the Hebrew word qahal was sometimes translated synagdge and sometimes ekklesia.4

Jewish congregations used the word synagoge, and so sometimes did Christians at first (as in James 2:2,Creek). Christians came to use ekklesia as their self-designation, the word we translate "church."

The word "church" is used several ways in the New Testament. It could mean a local congregation, at that time usually meeting in houses (Phil. 3; Col. 4:15). It could mean all Christians in a city, such as the church of the Thessalonians. Even in the singular it could refer to all Christians everywhere (Gal. 1:13) ultimately the worldwide church.

The word "synagogue" has never been used in this universal sense. (One never speaks of a worldwide synagogue.) Matthew is the only Gospel that uses the word "church," and it is interesting that it (Matthew) uses the word in both the universal sense (16:18) and the local sense (18:17).

There are two ways we use the word "church" that are not found in the New Testament. There it does not refer to a building (though the word synagogue was so used) or to an organization (though it had organization). Church was always people, the people of God, the people of Jesus, especially when they assembled together. Collectively they are the saints, and they are priests (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6).

We have seen how Israel was narrowed down to Jesus, and then widened again by the act of grafting Gentile branches into Him.

Healthy church unity and the necessity of a remnant

Does the story end there, or does the cycle of multiplication, apostasy, and the calling out of a remnant, continue to be repeated?

Revelation 12:17 speaks of a woman (representing the church5) and the "rest of her offspring" ("the remnant of her seed" in the King James Bible), against whom the dragon (representing the devil) makes war.

Seventh-day Adventists have taken this to refer to themselves and their antecedents. They certainly did emerge from the larger body of Christianity when the latter rejected "Present Truth" as it came to be known among them. But this continuing cycle after cycle of new multiplication, new apostasy, new remnants, raises a troubling question. Is this a never-ending process? Is every new remnant fated to give birth eventually to another one, and another, and another?

The doctrine of the remnant must be balanced against the doctrine of church unity and Christian forbearance. Human groups that are formed around strong beliefs and opinions are often fractious, and some believers think every difference of thought should be fought over, and in any case not tolerated.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome precisely because some of them thought that way. Some argued that Christians were obligated to do all the Jewish things observing the festivals and maintaining scruples about food offered to idols, and so forth (Rom. 14:1-22). Others were "liberal" in regard to these matters.

In this setting, Paul made a beautiful plea for mutual tolerance and respect. Agree to disagree if you must, but accept each other. As in a marriage, not every difference of opinion is worth split ting over. In fact, very few are worth it.

Sometimes family fights are the worst kind, and the church is a family. Nonbelievers can be content just to say, "You're wrong." But believers soon find themselves going further and saying, "You're of the devil." No wonder Jesus said, "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other" (Mark 9:50). The New Testament epistles are replete with warnings against church strife and with pleas for peace.

Throughout history most remnants separated from the larger body either because they were forced out, or because they were clearly directed by the Lord to come out. It is not a move to be made lightly or willfully, because there is a fearful warning against dividing the church so as to cause separation. Paul wrote: "If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple" (1 Cor. 3:17).

Holding together two models of the church

In this context, it helps to keep in balance' two different models of the church, both are found in the New Testament. They may be called the Pauline model and the Johannine model.

Paul's model of the church assumed that membership in the church is visible, and it is possible to fall from it (cf. 1 Cor. 5:12, 13). The church at Corinth had some serious problems, but when Paul addressed them he said, "To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy" (or "called to be saints"). For Paul "sanctified" did not mean "behaviorally perfect," but rather "dedicated to God."

Martin Luther spoke of people who are justified by grace through faith as simul Justus et peccator—at the same time righteous and a sinner. He was thinking of individuals, but the same thing can be said of the church. It is a very human institution, defective and feeble, but Christ loves it. 6

The Johannine model of the church is different, as revealed in two texts. In 1 John 2:19 the writer warns against false brethren, saying, "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us."

In other words, it is possible to be in the church but not really be of the church. The fact that those John describes in his epistle did not really belong to the church while they were in it, is shown by the fact that they finally leave the fellowship.

But there is another important aspect to consider as we look at John's model of the church. In John 10:16 Jesus said, "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd."

In other words, it is possible to be out of the church without really being out of it. The fact that they belong in the sheepfold is revealed when they come in.

In this Johannine model it is possible to speak of a visible and an invisible church. One is the church that we see, and the other is the church that God recognizes. The two obviously overlap, while they are not identical.

The church and God's reign

Alfred Loisy, a French scholar, once wittily wrote, "Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and it was the Church that came."

What is the relation of the church to the reign of God? Catholic thought tends to make the two synonymous, but that is not the way the New Testament explains it.

In fact if we turn to one or two of the places in the Gospels where Jesus speaks of the kingdom and try substituting the word "church," it's interesting what hap pens. Try it, for example, in Matthew 12:28. Would you want it to say, "If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the church has come upon you"?

George E. Ladd sums the matter up neatly with five propositions: The church is not the kingdom; the kingdom creates the church; the church witnesses to the kingdom; the church is the instrument of the kingdom; the church is the custodian of the kingdom.7 The kingdom of God is found wherever God reigns. It is now in human hearts, and later it is when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. In a sense, the kingdom is a government in exile. But the church is here.

The church is an interim institution, a place holder for the kingdom. When Christ comes again the church as an institution will be no longer needed, just as physicians and lawyers will be no longer needed.

But the people of God, the seed of the church, will remain and will assemble to worship with the angels, saying: "Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!" (Rev. 7:12).

The church is where we can all practice that song and teach it to others.

The work of the church

Jesus taught and preached the good news of the kingdom, and healed (Matt. 4:23). The church continues that work; or rather, Jesus continues that work through the church. It sows the Word of God (Mark 4:14). It makes disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19) and demonstrates what it means to be a disciple by loving and serving one another (John 13:35, 14), and by being willing to die (Mark 9:34-38). It is ideally the model society.

If everyone in the world treated each other the way church members treat each other, what kind of a world would it be? If our local churches provided the pattern of life for our cities, what kind of cities would there be? Has the salt lost its savor? Is it then simul justus et peccator? Again, the church lives in a paradox.

Her Lord wants her to be without spot or blemish (Eph. 5:27), but at the same time she stands in need of His forgiveness. Let her and all her children therefore be forgiving. Let them bear fruit, beginning with the fruit of repentance.

1 Quotations from the Bible are taken from the New International Version (NIV).

2 In the Greek of 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17 "you" is a collective plural, while "temple" is singular. It is saying that the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit.

3 One way in which this concept is expressed is in the metaphor of the olive tree in Romans 11:13-21. Some branches arc lopped off, others are grafted in, hut the trunk remains the same. In the rest of this chapter, however, Paul makes clear that the Lord is not finished with ethnic Israel. Perhaps the same can be said of the wider Christian church.

4 The Septuagint translates with synagoge in the first four books of Moses and with ekkl'sia in Deuteronomy.

5 Just as in the Old Testament Israel is represented as the bride of the Lord, in the New Testament the church is represented as the bride of Christ (cf. Eph. 5:25-27).

6 Ellen White wrote: "Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard. It is the theater of His grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform hearts." The Acts of the Apostles (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 12.

7 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974), 111-119.

 

 

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Robert M. Johnston, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

November 2003

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