The Doctrine of the Church

By Leroy Forlines

Ecclesiology is a word made up of two Greek words meaning a study of the church. This division of theology concerns itself with such matters as church ordinances, the nature of the church, and church government. In this day of increasing attack on the institutional church, this doctrine becomes increasingly important.

Church Ordinance

Free Will Baptists believe in three church ordinances: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Feet-washing. There is no Biblical definition of a church ordinance. This means that we must first decide what the ordinances are and then prepare our definition. We consider Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Feet-Washing to be church ordinances.

The three of these have two things in common: (1) Each was instituted by Christ to be administered by the church. (2) Each is a visible rite that symbolizes Christian truth. We conclude that a church ordinance is a visible rite instituted by Christ to be administered by the church to symbolize Christian truth.


Baptism is a symbolic rite in which the believer is immersed in water. Being immersed and raised symbolizes the truth of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our identification with the death, burial, and resurrection, thus making them ours. Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indicates acceptance of the truth of the Trinity. Baptism is not mere submission to immersion in water. It is submission to immersion as a means of acknowledging ones faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and the Trinitarian view of the Godhead.

The Lord’s Supper

When the believer partakes of the Lord’s Supper, he gives public testimony to the fact that he believes that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross paid the penalty for our sins. The bread and the cup are symbols of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. It is designed to call to our remembrance the truth of the atoning value of Christ’s death.

We reject the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiationwhich considers the bread as being the actual body of Christ and the wine as being the actual blood of Christ after being blessed by the priest. We reject any other view that tries to make the bread and cup more than symbols.

The communion service should be observed with reverence and meditation on the cross. It should be preceded by self-examination, but no sincere Christian should deny himself of this blessing.


When Jesus laid aside His garments, girded Himself with a towel, and washed His disciples’ feet, we are reminded of the self-emptying of the incarnation mentioned by Paul in Philippians 2:5-8 (John 13:4-5). When Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, it seems that a symbol of spiritual cleansing was also involved (John 13:10-11). These truths come to mind when one thinks of Christ’s washing the disciples’ feet.  But in the washing one another’s feet, it is the truth of being servants one of another that is symbolized (John 13:14). We are saying that we can be counted on to practice Christian love by helping one another (John 13:36).


The word “church” is used in various ways, but in its most common usage it refers to a local church. A local church, when properly constituted, is an organized body of baptized believers who profess a common faith in Jesus Christ, recognize the Bible as an infallible authority, observe the ordinances, meet together for worship and edification, and give themselves to the carrying out of the Great Commission.

The word church is also used with reference to the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). In this sense it refers to all believers. All believers have been baptized into Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). As a result of this they make up the body of Christ.

Sometimes we hear reference made to the visible church and the invisible church. The visible church is made up of all, saved or unsaved who are members of local churches. The invisible church is limited in its reference to those who are saved. To be a member of a local church means that one has made a profession. The invisible church would embrace all those members of local churches who are members of the body of Christ.

A denomination should not be referred to as a church. It is a group of local churches that are organized together because of distinctive beliefs and practices. Any reference to the visible church should be either to a church, (or churches), or to the universal church which would consist of all local churches. A denomination consists of many local churches, but makes up only a part of the universal church.

Congregational Church Government

Free Will Baptists believe in that kind of church government that is called Congregational or Baptistic. The stress is upon the fact that each local congregation is a self-governing body and is in control of the deed to its property. Membership in an Association does not interfere with self-government of the congregation. Membership in the Association could be terminated by a majority vote of the congregation. Such a decision could not be reversed by the Association.

The Association has the authority to set conditions for membership, and to revoke that membership, and to revoke that membership from a local church if the conditions should fail to be met. Beyond this, the Association has no authority over the local church.

Associations are considered valuable because they provide an opportunity for people who share a common faith and common distinctives to fellowship and work together. The combination of resources makes possible the promotion of common causes such as schools, missionary programs, and children’s homes.

Congregational church government stresses not only that the congregation is not ruled by a higher authority in the denomination, but also that the governing authority within the church rests with the congregation. Pastors and boards may offer leadership, but the authority rests with the congregation. It may delegate a limited amount of authority for certain purposes to the pastor or board, but the major voices of authority for transacting business remains with the congregation.

Some denominations believe in other forms of church government. These forms vary, but the chief difference is with regard to the seat of authority. The local church has limited authority; it is subject to higher bodies. The higher bodies control the property, and in some denominations choose the pastor. In many cases, whatever limited authority a local church may have is almost or altogether exercised by a small official group in the church, Free Will Baptists are strongly opposed to any encroachment upon the authority of the local church. We advocate the independence of the local church so far as government is concerned, but we do not believe in an independent spirit. We find great advantage in working together with others in our associational type of denominational organization.