The Lord of the Church

by John MacArthur

The truth that Christ is Lord of His church may sound somewhat benign to a casual listener in our generation, but the struggle for Christ’s authority in the church has come to us through the ages on a sea of blood. Thankfully, literal bloodshed over the issue is no longer very common. But faithful Christians are still waging a fierce moral and intellectual battle for Christ’s lordship over the church.

One of the major early catalysts in the Protestant Reformation was a book by Jan Hus, a Bohemian Christian who preceded Martin Luther by a full century. The book was De Ecclesia (The Church), and one of Hus’ most profound points was proclaimed in the title of his fourth chapter: “Christ the Only Head of the Church.”

Hus wrote, “Neither is the pope the head nor are the cardinals the whole body of the [true] holy, universal, catholic church. For Christ alone is the head of that church.” Pointing out that most church leaders in his era actually despised the lordship of Christ, Hus said, “To such a low pitch is the clergy come that they hate those who preach often and call Jesus Christ Lord.”

Hus’ candor cost him his life. He was declared a heretic and burnt at the stake in 1415.

More than a hundred years later, already at odds with the papal establishment, Martin Luther read De Ecclesia. After finishing the book, he wrote to a friend, “I have hitherto taught and held all the opinions of Jan Hus unawares; so did John Staupitz. In short, we are all Hussites without knowing it.”

Emboldened by his reading of Hus, the reformer took up the fight for Christ’s honor as true head of His church. Luther wrote, “I am persuaded that if at this time, St. Peter, in person, should preach all the articles of Holy Scripture, and only deny the pope’s authority, power, and primacy, and say, that the pope is not the head of all Christendom, they would cause him to be hanged. Yea, if Christ himself were again on earth, and should preach, without all doubt the pope would crucify him again.”

In many ways, the question, who is Lord of the church? was the over-arching issue of the Protestant Reformation from the start. (That’s what Luther was tacitly acknowledging when he said “we are all Hussites.”)

Of course, Roman Catholic canon law still insists that the pope is her supreme earthly head and the ruling vicar of Christ in that capacity.

But the historic Protestant commitment to Christ’s lordship over the church has also subtly eroded, and that is a trend that deeply concerns me. It’s an issue I have written much about over the years.

For example, some evangelical leaders aggressively teach that it is not even necessary to confess Jesus as Lord in order to be saved. That’s what the so-called “lordship controversy” is about. It would be hard to imagine a more obvious attack against the lordship of Christ over His church, but “no-lordship theology” has thrived for years and seems to be gaining strength.

Evangelicals also gave birth to the “seeker-sensitive” movement wherein church services are tailored to please trend-savvy unbelievers. Novelties ranging from circus acts to slapstick are deliberately injected into corporate “worship” in order to keep worldly minds entertained. That is a practical denial of Christ’s lordship over His church, relegating His Word and ordinances to secondary status while granting hedonistic fashions the right to determine even the order of worship.

Feminists want to redefine the idea of headship, eliminating the idea of authority from the concept altogether. That, too, is a frontal attack on Christ’s lordship over His church.

Bible translators and paraphrasers who tamper with the true sense of God’s Word; emergent church leaders who question the clarity of everything Christ has said; and above all, preachers who seem to talk about everything but Scripture — all of them do what they do in direct defiance of Christ’s rightful authority over His church.

One thing would do more than anything else to answer every challenge to Christ’s authority: the restoration of clear, powerful, expository preaching to its rightful place at the center of all the church’s activities. If we truly believe Christ is Lord of the church, then the church needs to hear His voice. His Word must be proclaimed and its content taught accurately, systematically, and unrelentingly whenever the church comes together.

Jan Hus said the same thing. Declaring that the lordship of Christ over His church means emphatically “that the Christian ought to follow the commandments of Christ,” Hus then cited Acts 10:42 (“[Christ] commanded us to preach to the people”) and called on church leaders of his day to preach the Word of God at every opportunity — even though a papal bull was then in force, strictly limiting how and where the Scriptures could be proclaimed.

The church today is badly in need of reformation again. And Christ’s lordship over His church is still the central truth we must recover, which requires the unleashing of His Word among His people again. We cannot merely float along with the latest evangelical trends and expect things to get better. Like Jan Hus and Martin Luther, we need to fight for the honor and authority of Christ as Lord of His church.

Dr. John MacArthur is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and president of The Master’s College and Seminary. He is author of the The Gospel According to Jesus. Each month, the editors of Tabletalk select an influential pastor or scholar to address issues pertinent to the life and ministry of the church in Pro Ecclesia. © Tabletalk magazineFrom Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine.

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6 thoughts on “The Lord of the Church

  1. Interesting that Dr. McArthur failed to address the central cause of how the Roman Catholic Church arrived at the point of subverting Christ as Head of the Church. Their zeal to defend the Pope’s “authority”, even if it meant burning “heretics” such as Jan Hus, was rooted in a doctrine that was at the core of the “heresy”: apostolic succession.

    Apostolic succession is Christianized version of the Levitical priesthood minus the familial geneology. Not that it was exempt from even that for a while! After much abuse by nepotism, the vows of celibacy were introduced in order to purge it from the papal apostolic succession.

    The reason I bring this up is because apostolic succession, and the resulting usurpation of Christ’s Supremacy over the church, is not just a problem among Roman Catholics. It is found among Baptists as well, except that they claim succession from the Apostle Paul and/or John the Baptist. And just like their Roman Catholic counterparts, if they had the power to burn people at the stake TODAY, they WOULD.

    Apostolic succession is rampant among the Old Line Primitive Baptists (also Landmark Baptists and some Missionary Baptists). And the murderous is spirit is alive and well too. If this was the 14th Century and not the United States of America, I’d be dead just like Jan Jus. I too, am a Hussite. I rejected their apostolic succession, and they rose up with all the power of hell itself to destroy me. But they couldn’t. Jesus Christ is with me.

    “The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; the God of my rock, in Him will I trust. He is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my savior; Thou savest me from violence.”


  2. Lizzie,

    I grew up as a Southern Baptist. However, over time I have run across many fugitives from those legalistic forms of the Baptist faith. Even in their liberty, these always struggle many aspects of our faith that are based in grace. My grandfather Ratliff was a Baptist preacher and he was one who stood firm against this stuff. It cost him. I suppose I have inherited that same “spirit.” Since the fall into apostasy by many SBC leaders and their flocks, my wife and I have become part of a Sovereign Grace church in our city. We celebrate our liberty in Christ every day and know that our entire standing before God is established in Christ alone. What a joy!

    Apostolic succession says that those who claim it have the same authority that Peter and Paul had, which is bunk. This is why God gave us His Word for when authority rests in men it will always become corrupt. Those who claim it will eventually resort to persecution of the elect for they proclaim liberty in Christ alone and refuse to bow the knee to any man, just Christ.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  3. “Those who claim it will eventually resort to persecution of the elect for they proclaim liberty in Christ alone and refuse to bow the knee to any man, just Christ.”

    E X A C T L Y !!!!

    Sadly, in the case of the Old School Primitive Baptists, they not only give all Baptists a bad name, they give the precious doctrines of grace a bad name. Unfortunately, people link the two with “guilt by association”. PS It was the PB’s who excluded me over rejecting apostolic succession.


  4. No Mike. I’ve attended six different churches over the past ten years, and helped start one which never grew beyond the initial charter members. We were really just a flock of scraggly sheep looking for a peaceful watering hole for a while, not really a “church”. Mostly, I end up falling out the back door for various reasons: doctrine, practice, the church itself split, the leadership cut and run so the church folded, etc. I’ve called and spoken with just about every pastor of existing or new church plants within 20 miles of home, and frankly, I’m just tired of looking now. Haven’t been to church in over a year.

    But I’ve made some great friendshps along the way, so it wasn’t all for nought.


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