“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
~ Henry David Thoreau,
There’s a lot of talk in the church about foundations and founders, especially when it comes to local churches or ‘ministries.’ I find it a bit odd when someone says “I founded that church,” or ‘so and so was the founder of that ministry, denomination,’ etc., but that being what it is, I’d like to take some time to look at what the scriptures have to say regarding whether or not the church’s foundations have already been laid, or if they continue to be.
In the Darby translation of the bible, Ephesians 2:20 reads this way:
“being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the corner-stone,”
In the New American Standard Bible is reads this way:
“having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner-stone,”
See the difference? In the Darby, KJV and others, “built” is present tense. In the NASB, NET, and others “built” is past tense. I think that understanding the tense in this verse is critical. I’m afraid that in dealing with this question, we will not be able to avoid some technical linguistics. The original Greek must be considered.
Unfortunately, there’s only this one occurrence of the Greek word – ἐποικοδομηθέντες (epoikodomēthentes) which can mean “having been built on the foundation,” or possibly “And are being built.” It is an aorist participle passive verb. More simply put, it’s an action that’s happened in the past of which we can not take part in. Again, it’s passive to those in Paul’s audience.
There is, however a very closely related verse that uses a slight variation on the word in Jude 1:20 – ἐποικοδομοῦντες (epoikodomountes) “are being built up.” Jude 1:20 reads this way;
“But you, dear friends, must continue to build your most holy faith for your own benefit. Furthermore, continue to pray in the Holy Spirit.” In this case, the verb is present-participle-active. In other words, the audience takes part in what has happened and what will continue to happen.
This raises the the question of who exactly is doing the building? I think the answer to this is multi-fold. Paul said “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” But he also said “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” (Romans 15:20) He acknowledges 3 things there;
- That he, Paul, could if he wanted to, ‘build’ on already existing foundations.
- That it is possible for other people to build foundations.
- That there may be a multitude of foundations (local churches) that make of THE FOUNDATION (The Church).
Yes, Jesus is the ‘chief corner-stone,’ which means that He is what the rest of the building depends on to stay true, level, and well fit. But the corner-stone is not the whole foundation, it’s THE CORNER STONE. Other stones are put on either side and top of the corner. In our case, that would the the Apostles, Prophets, and us. One could argue that “we are not the foundation, we are the walls,” but I think it would be fruitless. Unless, of course, there are still prophets and apostles in the church today.
If our understanding here hinges on whether or not there are still apostles and prophets today, then the foundation argument is moot. The New Testament mentions 13 more apostles than the original 12 and seems to argue for the continuance of a different class of apostle. The question here is whether or not that class of apostle can be the sort of which a foundation can be laid on. There’s much more to discuss here and feel free to use the comment section, but for now…
A few questions:
1. Has the foundation of the church been laid, or is it still being laid?
2. If the foundation has been laid (past tense) by the apostles and prophets, then does that suggest that apostles and prophets are no longer needed in the church today?
3. Is it reasonable to suggest that like a house owner who wishes to expand his or her home, they must add a new foundation or extend the existing before they can build on it? Is it reasonable to suggest that this might be the same with the household of God? It it reasonable to translate Ephesians 4:11,12,13 in this way;
“So Christ himself is still giving the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be extended, built up and connected in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”