Five Questions About the Church

By Jim McDonald

This article is part of a tract that was written for distribution in the Philippines. We are using part of it this issue and will be concluded in the next issue of Guardian of Truth.

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples whom men said he was. A variety of answers were given. Some said he was Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Some thought he was John the Baptist. Then he asked, “but whom say ye that I am?” Peter’s response was immediate. “Thou art the Christ the son of the living God.” Jesus then said, “Blessed art thou Simon Bar-Jonah for flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee but my father who is in heaven. And I say unto thee that thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

Nearly twenty centuries have passed since that day. In our age we see hundreds of bodies claiming to be that church yet all wearing different names, teaching different doctrines and practicing different things. Was this what Jesus had in mind when he promised, “Upon this rock I will build my church” or does the condition of our world represent something foreign to the purpose and aim of Jesus? An examination of what Jesus and his apostles said about the church will help us to determine which of these latter two questions is correct.

There are five very important questions we wish to ask.

1. What is the church?

2. Is there but one church?

3. Is church membership essential to salvation?

4. How can I know which church is right?

5. How can I become and remain a member?

What Is The Church?

There are many mistaken notions about the church. Consider first some things the church is not.

The church is not the building. The building is the place where the church meets. The church is people.

The church is not an appendage or sect of Judaism. Paul’s allegory in Galatians 4:21-31 is a clear contrast between the church and Judaism. The command “cast out the handmaid and her son for the son of the handmaid shall not inherit with the son of the freewoman” shows that the church and Judaism are distinct and antagonistic to each other (Gal. 4:29-30).

The church is not a denomination. Christ is not divided, his body (church) is not divided either (1 Cor. 1:13).

What is the Church?

The word “church” comes from two Greek words ek kaleo to call out, an idea borne out in the following verse: “But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). God calls us through his gospel (1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14; 2 Cor. 6:170. Those who answer God’s call are his church.

There are many different terms by which the church is designated. Since Christ is the head of the church who directs it and unto whom the church is subject, the church is called the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22f; Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:23), In such a relationship the individual parts of the church are members (1 Cor. 12:27). The church is likened unto a flock (Acts 20:28). Christ identifies himself as the “Good Shepherd” who (unlike a hireling) laid down his life for the sheep (John 10:11-13). Christ’s sheep are those who hear his voice and follow him (John 10:3-5). They hear his voice and know him because they have seen that his claims are true. The church is called the family of God (1 Tim. 3:15). God is our Father, Christ is our elder brother and Christians are brothers and sisters (Eph. 3:14-15; Phile. 15, 16). The church is the bride of Christ in which Christ is the husband and the church his wife (Eph. 5:23-32; Rom. 7:1-4; 2 Cor. 11:2). The church is the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17). In the temple God is the true object of worship who seeks true worshipers (John 4:23). Christ is our high priest who offers sacrifice for us, himself (Heb. 5:1-5; 7:27; 8:1-3). As high priest, Christ is our mediator, advocate and propitiation (1 Tim. 2:5; 1 John 2:10. Christians are also priests who offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet. 2:9; Rom. 12:1 f; Heb. 13:15).

There is no figure more appropriate for the church than that of a kingdom. The word “kingdom” signifies rule or reign and inherently includes those who are the ruled ones (1 Kings 21:7). W.E. Vines in his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines kingdom thus: “Basileia is primarily an abstract noun denoting sovereignty, royal power, dominion . . . by metonymy a concrete noun de-noting the territory or people over whom the king rules” (Vol. 2, 294). To ignore this is to ignore a basic truth revealed by the Holy Spirit. Daniel predicted: “And in the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed nor shall the sovereignty thereof be left to another people; but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms and it shall stand for ever.” That prophecy had reference to God’s special rule over a certain people as well as that body of people who would recognize (accept) that rule. When both John and Jesus spoke of the approaching kingdom they referred to that body of people called the church (Matt. 3:2f; Mark 1:14f). The church and kingdom are spoken of in the same breath as the same thing (Matt. 16:180. Churches in Colossae, Thessalonica, and Ephesus were identified as the kingdom (Col. 1:2, 13; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:12; Eph. 1:1; 2:19; 5:15).

There are some instances in which the word “kingdom” has no reference to the church just as there are instances in which the word ekklesia (church) has no reference to the “ekklesia of Christ” (Acts 19:41). In such instances the context will bear out that departure from its usual meaning. In every instance in which the word “kingdom” refers to God’s people on earth in our age, it always has reference to the church . While the two words are admittedly not synonymous in technical, etymological meaning, they are synonymous to each other in that both refer exclusively to the same body of people. This is true not only of the words “kingdom/church,” it is true of the other words to which the church is likened.

The word “church” (called out body) does not literally mean temple, bride, flock, nor family but, as earlier shown, all these words are used to describe the church and may be said to be synonyms with the word “church.” It is equally true of “kingdom.” In his kingdom, Christ rules as king in the hearts and lives of his subjects. Christians are citizens who having subjected themselves to his laws, have entered that kingdom by a new birth (1 Tim. 6:15; Col. 3:15; Gal. 6:2; 1 Pet. 3:15 Eph. 3:19, John 3:3, 5).

Is There But One Church?

No question is more loaded emotionally than this one but no matter how sensitive, the Bible does have an answer for it.

After Peter said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, ” Jesus responded: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee but my Father which is in heaven. And I also say unto thee that thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The word “church” in the text is singular. The “church” herein promised is used in an universal sense and in that sense is always singular (see Eph. 1:22f; Col. 1:18f, et. al.). When reference is made to the universal church one sees a relation-ship between Christ (the Savior) and he who has been saved. All who have been saved by Christ have been added to the church (Acts 2:47; Eph. 5:23).

The word “churches” also frequently appears. One reads of the “churches of Galatia” and “the churches of God which are in Judea are in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 16:1; 1 Thess. 2:14). Paul speaks of “all the churches of the saints” and John wrote to the seven churches which are in Asia (1 Cor. 14:33; Rev. 1:4). “Churches” is a plural term. Still, that does not answer the question, “Is there but one church?” Jesus commanded that disciples were to be made of all the nations and local congregations circling our globe are necessary for Christ required joint action of his disciples on a local basis which demands assembly and organic structure. “The disciples came together to break bread,” “not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together” (Matt. 28:18; Acts 20:7; Heb. 10:25). Elders were appointed to oversee and feed all these congregations (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:3; 1 Pet. 5:1-4).

In the local sense Christ desires many “churches” (congregations). Yet, there is no indication there was diversity in doctrine, thus differing denominations. The only diversity the language implies is diversity in location. We read of churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Thyatira, Pergamum, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea  the seven churches of Asia. The churches of which Paul spoke and wrote were all taught the same doctrine (1 Cor. 4:17). Yes, variant doctrines did exist but those who departed from apostolic doctrine taught a perverted gospel that would damn them for such did not have God (Gal. 1 :6-9; 2 John 9-11).

Is there but one church? “And he is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22). The church is the body, the body is the church. “There is one body”  “In one spirit were we all baptized into one body.” “Now are there many members yet but one body.” We are “called in one body” (Eph. 4:4; 1 Cor. 12:13; 12:20; Col. 3:15). If there is but one body, and that body is the church, then there is one church. The figure of a body suggests one head (Christ) and one body (church). There are as many heads as there are bodies.

But some respond, “We agree there is only one universal church and these passages all are references to the universal church.” This is not precisely true. The word “body” is applied to the local church at Corinth. “Now ye are the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). Still, granting that objection to be legitimate would not negate the earlier premise: “churches” in the New Testament is a reference to diversity in location and not to a diversity in doctrine.

Paul wrote: “Timothy . . . shall put you in remembrance of my ways which are in Christ, even as I teach in every place and in every church” (1 Cor. 4:11). Since Paul taught the same thing in every church, all the churches were taught the same doctrine. The first of Jesus’ parables in Luke 8 is the parable of the sower. Seed was sown in four different soils. One soil produced nothing, the plant in the second soil withered away, the plant in the third soil was unfruitful, but one soil produce a fruitful plant. Jesus explained: “The parable is this, the seed is the word of God” (Luke 8: 11). A law applicable both in physical and spiritual realms is this: seed produces after its own kind. Paul wrote: “Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). Whatever else may be said, the three plants resultant from the seed were all the same kind of plants no matter what happened after they germinated and grew. By the same token the seed (God’s word) produces the same kind of plant. One can no more plant just the word and reap from that Catholics, Baptists, Mormons, etc. than he can plant a package of corn and harvest from it beans, tomatoes, cabbage, beets, squash, and corn. Corn produces corn . . . only. God’s word produces Christians . . .only.

There are many religious bodies in our world, but they result from the different seed and are the work ofthe great enemy (Matt. 13:24, 25). The doctrines of men make our worship vain and will be rooted up in the last day. Those who build up such plants labor in vain (Matt. 15:9; 15:13; Ps. 127:1).

The purpose of Jesus in his coming and his plea to men shows Jesus purposed to build but one church. He said: “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold. Them also I must bring and they shall hear my voice and they shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). This prediction found fulfillment when Jesus removed the law (a partition wall between Jew and Gentile) when he nailed it to the cross. This he did that he might “create in himself of the two one new man . . . and might reconcile them both in one body unto God.” The appeal of the Holy Spirit is “that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you.” God warns, “The works of the flesh are manifest . . . factions, divisions, parties . . . of which I forewarn you . . . that they who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Eph. 2:15, 16; 1 Cor. 1:10; Gal. 5:19-21).

Guardian of Truth XL: No. 18, p. 13-15
September 19, 1996