By Mike Willis
A previous article (March 15, 2001) emphasized that one who is saved are added to the Lord’s church and obligated to join himself to other saints in a local church for collective worship and service to God. This poses the need for a person to find a group of saints with whom to labor and work. How does one find the Lord’s church in today’s world?
In order to find the Lord’s church, one must know what that church is like. In this article, we shall look at the identifying characteristics of the Lord’s church as revealed in the New Testament. By learning these marks, one will recognize the Lord’s church when he sees it. Let’s consider the following identifying marks of the Lord’s church.
1. The Lord’s church was established in the city of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus. The Lord’s church was established in fulfillment of divine prophecy. In approximately 700 B.C., the prophet Isaiah (2:1-4; with parallel prophecy in Micah 4:1-3) foretells the establishment of the Lord’s house. In contrast to its desolate condition at his time, the prophet foresaw a time “in the last days” when the Lord’s house would be exalted above the mountains. At that time (a) “all nations” (in contrast to Jews only) would flow into it; (b) the word of the Lord would go forth from Jerusalem; (c) the kingdom would not be expanded by military force, for it is a peaceable kingdom.
Daniel also foretold the establishment of the kingdom. In chapter two he saw a vision of four coming kingdoms — Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Grecian, and Roman. As his vision described the events to transpire during the fourth kingdom, the Roman kings, he said, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever” (2:44). The Lord’s kingdom was (a) to be established in the days of the Roman kings, (b) to be an eternal kingdom, and (c) to be a kingdom that included men from all nations. Later, he had another vision in which the establishment of the kingdom was foreseen: “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (7:13-14). In this vision, Daniel sees the kingdom established when “one like the Son of man” comes “with the clouds of heaven” “to the Ancient of days.”
Moving forward in history to the time of Christ, we should not be surprised to see divine prophecy fulfilled in the establishment of the kingdom. After that John was put in prison, Jesus preached “the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15). This was the right time. It was in the days of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman king (Luke 3:1). The gospels speak of the imminent establishment of the kingdom throughout their pages: the kingdom is “at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17); but, it is to be established during the lifetime of those who then lived. Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1). After his resurrection, Jesus told the apostles that they would receive “power” when the Holy Spirit was come upon them (Acts 1:8) and that they were to tarry in Jerusalem until that “power” (Spirit) came (Luke 24:49).
When Jesus died, the kingdom had not yet been established. Shortly before he ascended to heaven, the apostles asked, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus then ascended into heaven — one like the son of man came in the clouds to the Ancient of Days and was given dominion, in the language of Daniel (7:13-14). The disciples had been instructed to return to Jerusalem to await the coming of the power when they would receive the Holy Spirit. Acts 2 relates the fulfillment of the promise: the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles, they were endued with power from on high (the Holy Spirit) to preach the first gospel sermon announcing salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. In his sermon, Peter announced that the last days had come (Acts 2:17; cf. Isa. 2:2 — “it shall come to pass in the last days”). The time for the kingdom to be established had arrived. For the first time the Apostles preached salvation through the blood of Christ. Three thousand obeyed the gospel that day and, significantly, Luke adds, “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).
From that time on, when the kingdom was spoken of, it was spoken of as in existence (Acts 8:12-13; 28:23, 31; Col. 1:13-14; Rev. 1:9). It is variously known as the church (Matt. 16:18), the house of God (1 Tim. 3:15) and other terms. The word “kingdom” is also used to describe heaven as the final abode of these in God’s kingdom on earth (2 Pet. 1:11).
The first cardinal point about the church is to know that it was established in the city of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost following the resurrection of Christ. Any religious group that traces its origin to any other place and date is not the Lord’s church.
2. The names by which the church is called. There is no one exclusive name by which the Lord’s church is called in the Scriptures. It is described by a number of terms, any and all of which are scriptural names by which to call the church. Here are some names (the list is not complete) by which the Lord’s church is called in the New Testament;
Churches of Christ (Rom. 16:16)
Church of God (1 Cor. 1:2)
Kingdom of God (Acts 8:12)
House of God (1 Tim. 3:15)
Church of the Living God (1 Tim. 3:15)
Kingdom of God’s Dear Son (Col. 1:13)
However, the Scriptures condemn calling the church by names that are unauthorized. The church at Corinth suffered fragmentation because groups rallied around men, calling themselves after men’s names. Paul wrote, “Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13). The point is this: One should not be called by the name of one who did not die for him and into whose name one was not baptized! There is no difference in the people at Corinth who were condemned for calling themselves after men (“I am of Cephas,” “I am of Apollos,” etc.) and the modern practice of calling oneself Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, or Episcopalian. Both are equally wrong. If the name of the church of which you are a member is not found in the Bible, it is not the Lord’s church. Check to see if the name of your church is in the Bible!
3. The worship of the church. God has legislated how the church is to worship, otherwise there would be no condemnation of idolatry and other forms of illicit worship. The Lord requires that his saints assemble on the Lord’s day, the first day of the week, to offer its worship (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Rev. 1:10). This marks a change from the worship practice of the Jews who assemble on the Sabbath (Saturday) for their worship (see Exod. 20:8). The items to be performed in worship are the following: (a) Teaching apostolic doctrine (Acts 2:42; 20:7); (b) Prayer in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:42; John 16:23-24); (c) Breaking of bread, or the weekly observance of the Lord’s supper (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-34); (d) Congregational singing (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16); and (e) Taking a contribution (1 Cor. 16:1-2).
The worship of the church has been changed in numerous ways. Unauthorized items of worship have been introduced including such things as burning incense, lighting candles, baptizing babies, and using the rosary. The music of the church has been changed from congregational singing to a choir or using a semi-professional band; prayer is offered in the name of Mary rather than Jesus; the Lord’s supper is observed once a year instead of weekly; apostolic doctrine has been replaced with anecdotes and stories; free-will offerings taken on the first day of the week are replaced by tithing and several contributions being taken at every assembly of the church. If the church you attend does not practice the five items of worship each Sunday, it is not the church of the New Testament.
4. The organization of the church. The church is organized according to a pattern revealed in the Scriptures. First of all, one notices that there is no inter-congregational organization that ties local churches together under some denominational organization, such as is done in the Southern Baptist Convention, and the organizational structures of most Catholic and Protestant denominations. Each local church is autonomous and independent.
The church is organized under elders and deacons (Phil. 1:1). God reveals the qualifications of the officers in the local church in great detail (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-11). A plurality of elders also called bishops, overseers, and pastors who meet the qualifications revealed in Scripture are to oversee or govern the local church (Acts 14:23; 1 Pet. 5:1-3). Deacons are special servants of the church, whose qualifications also are revealed in Scripture, who implement the tasks the elders decide need to be done. The absence of any reference to officers in the universal church and any listing of their qualifications is strong evidence that these things did not exist in the first century church.
There is no earthly, universal head of the church, such as a pope, for Christ is the only head of the church (Eph. 1:22-23). There are no cardinals, arch-bishops, or bishops in the denominational sense in which one man oversees a diocese of churches. The local preacher, called the “pastor” in some fellowships, does not oversee the local church. Women do not serve in leadership roles in such official capacities as pastor, deacon, Sunday school superintendent, and such like offices (1 Tim. 2:14-15). If the church you attend is not organized like the one you read about in the Bible, it is not the church of the New Testament.
5. The conditions for membership in the church. On what conditions can one hold membership in the local church? The same act that saves one’s soul is what adds him to the universal church (Acts 2:47). In many cases, a person who is converted in a local area is rather automatically considered a member of a local church. This may blur the distinction between the local church and the universal church to some people. Truthfully, one joins the local church by agreeing to work together with a group of saints, to submit to common oversight, and to pool one’s resources to do a collective work. When Paul came to Jerusalem, he joined the local church (Acts 9:26); when Phoebe moved to Rome, Paul commended her to the saints in Rome (Rom. 16:1-2). Hence, one becomes a member of the local church when he expresses his desire to be a member and the local church accepts him based on its judgment that he has obeyed the gospel to be saved from his sin, is living a life of moral purity, and is loyal to the commandments of the Lord.
When churches impose allegiance to a creed book as a condition for membership or require that one tell his “better felt than told” experience, they are requiring more than and other than what the Bible requires for church membership. When a church receives into its fellowship and allows to maintain in its fellowship those who are living immoral lives, they are no longer the fellowship that Christ identifies with (1 Cor. 5:1-11).
6. The mission of the church. The mission of the church can be divided into the following categories: (a) evangelism (1 Tim. 3:15); (b) edification (Acts 20:32); and (c) benevolence for its own members (Acts 6:1-6; 11:27-30). These are the only works God has given to the church. When churches become involved in building hospitals, colleges, orphan homes, old folks homes, family counseling programs, entertainment activities (Valentine’s Day party, New Year’s Eve celebration, July 4th fireworks display, etc.), aerobics, CPR training, and such like programs, it has departed from the mission God gave his church to perform, and is no longer like the Lord’s church as revealed in the Scriptures.
There are other things that could be said about the Lord’s church, but these should help one to find the church that Jesus established in the community in which you live. If there is no church like the one found in the Bible, a person should start one. Remember that God has established and built only one church and that you need to be a member of it in order to be saved. May God bless your quest to find the Lord’s church or to start the Lord’s church in your community.
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