Because doctrine is fundamentally defining, a church will not know what it is or why it exists until it understands the Bible’s clear teaching on the doctrine of the church. If the church were merely a human organization, such as a country club or sports team, little would be lost or forfeited if it did not possess a basic knowledge of itself. However, because the church is an institution founded by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the church and the world suffer eternal repercussions if a church doesn’t perceive itself according to biblical doctrine. Moreover, even human organizations have at least a basic notion of who they are and what their purposes are. Therefore, a biblical understanding of the doctrine of the church is both natural and eternally significant, and the importance of such may be seen in the six main areas which a comprehension of this doctrine affects:1
First, the doctrine of the church matters for the leadership of the church. Pastors (also called bishops and overseers in Scripture) are commanded to “preach the word,” and “shepherd the flock of God” (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Peter 5:2). Such God-called pastors must understand these primary responsibilities in order to feed congregants with the “pure milk” of God’s word (1 Peter 2:2) and care for their wandering souls (Rom. 3:11), lest he starve the children of God of the spiritual food they require, and risk appearing ashamedly before the chief Shepherd (2 Tim. 4:1). The Scripture also teaches that pastors must be qualified by living “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:1; Titus 1:6). Ignoring this high and holy standard results in wolves behind the pulpit and the wolf in sheep’s clothing laying snares for both the pastor and the church (1 Tim. 3:7; cf. Heb. 13:17).
Additionally, the pastor must understand the Bible’s teaching on church discipline and the proper administration of the Christ-ordained ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Scripture teaches that those living in unrepentant sin must be properly disciplined (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 13). Without this, churches incur the displeasure and judgment of God (Rev. 2:12-29), and they reproach the holy name of Christ that they claim to represent (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15-16). Furthermore, baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be administered with careful consideration of a member’s salvation and standing with the Lord (Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-32). When this is neglected, the pastor risks offering unbelievers false assurance, and he blatantly contradicts the rich symbolism of the ordinances, which are solely for believers.
Second, the doctrine of the church matters for the members of a church. According to the Scripture, there are prerequisites and qualifications for church members. The prerequisites are simple: those who wish to join a local church must be baptized believers. That is, one must be a member of the universal body of Christ by faith and be baptized by immersion in water, with the latter symbolizing the former (1 Cor. 12:13). It is perfectly permissible for unbaptized believers to become part of a church upon their baptism, but not before it. The qualifications for members of a local church are also straightforward: personal holiness, love for one another, and involvement in the life of the church, to name a few. And such qualifications are evident not only in the commands to live holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16), love one another (1 Pet. 4:8), and use one’s spiritual gifts (1 Pet. 4:10-11), but also in the biblical prescriptions for disciplining such members who openly disregard such commands (as noted in the discussion above). Neglect of either the prerequisites or qualifications for membership leads to false assurance to unbelievers and false assurance to unrepentant believers.
Third, the doctrine of the church matters for the structure of the church. The Scripture teaches that churches must have qualified pastors, and that members must submit to such men in humility. Nowhere in Scripture is this more plainly stated than in Hebrews 13:17, which says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” God has uniquely gifted pastors to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12), and this work will never begin (or continue) unless shepherds are competent to equip and members are willing to be equipped. The Bible’s teaching on church structure is truly the rebar that holds it together, and it crumbles apart without it. Unfortunately, many evangelical denominations have abandoned biblical teaching on church structure through the ordination of women to the pastorate, exaltation of mere men as “apostles,” and restoration of morally fallen men who have no business near a pulpit.
Fourth, the doctrine of the church matters for the culture of the church. Churches are communities, and all communities are cultures. Thus, a church will inevitably cultivate a culture, with or without understanding the Bible’s teaching about the church’s identity or mission. However, with a proper understanding of the church’s identity and mission, a church cultivates a culture of Christ-centeredness, ongoing discipleship, multitude-of-sins-covering love, accountability, prayerfulness, and evangelism. Simply put, the word of God rightly understood and applied will transform the people of God. When a biblical understanding of the church is not prioritized, a church’s culture falls prey to pragmatism and emotionalism.
Fifth, the doctrine of the church matters for the character of the church. The character or testimony/witness of a local church matters in the eyes of both God and the world. A church must strive for holiness in order to prevent displeasing the Lord, who is the church’s “husband” (Eph. 5:32). But the church must likewise strive for holiness in order to testify to the world that she is set apart and transformed by the gospel. And such holiness is greatly promoted through personal holiness and the difficult, but biblical practice of church discipline. Through church discipline, unrepentant believers are lovingly warned, compassionately rebuked, and if necessary, excommunicated. And while this is a painful process, the eternal consequences of not doing so are far more painful.
Sixth, the doctrine of the church ultimately matters for God’s glory. God glorifies Himself primarily through the gospel—and the church is the Christ-founded institution commanded to proclaim it (Matt. 28:16-20). But, without a thorough knowledge of the doctrine of the church, a church stifles its gospel proclamation, robbing God of glory. Moreover, a church living in unholiness (due to ignorance of the doctrine of the church) contradicts the life-transforming power of the gospel that it claims to believe.
Here’s the sum of it all: right doctrine is a pillar for the church to stand upon, whereas wrong doctrine is sinking sand that will swallow her whole. Therefore, it is imperative that we get our doctrine right, and right from the Scriptures.
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.” — Romans 16:17-18
- This list originally came Mark Dever’s contribution to the systematic theology, A Theology for the Church. See: Akin, Daniel. A Theology for the Church (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 660-668. All of the explanations and expositions of the points are my own.