By O. C. Birdwell
Statements are often made which indicate a prevalent lack of knowledge about Bible teaching concerning the church. Some ask, “Do you mean that one has to be a member of the church to be saved?” Another may say, “The church is not the savior,” inferring by the statement that someone teaches that the church is the savior. Also, one might hear, “I believe one church is as good as another,” indicating that they believe Jesus built many and that they are all equal. To this list the reader may be able to add similar statements he has heard, or possibly some that he himself has uttered. With this problem before us, let us do some simple, but honest and revealing, study about the church in the New Testament, and try to see how that church relates to our salvation.
“Church” in the New Testament
The Greek word “ekklesia, ” in the Greek New Testament, has been translated in different places by the words “church,” “congregation,” and “assembly.” The word “church” is used when reference is made by Jesus to the universal body He would build (Matt. 16:18), and also, by the apostle Paul, when he addresses a local congregation (1 Cor. 1:2). The word “congregation” is used on occasions when the writer is speaking of the local church or assembly (Heb. 2:12, ASV, or Matt. 18:17, ASV, see footnote in ASIA. The word `ekklesia”was commonly used in the days of the apostles to refer to most any assembly of people. Such is its usage in Acts 19:39, where it is translated “assembly.” The word is used by Luke to refer to townspeople who were not Christians. The word is also used in our day to refer to bodies of people who obviously do not belong to Christ. Just because a group may be a church does not mean they are “of Christ.” The word, however, is the one used by our Lord in Matt. 16:18 when He spoke of the spiritual institution He would build. He also called it the kingdom and revealed that it would begin in Jerusalem, in the lifetime of the then present disciples, and with the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide them unto all the truth. The event took place in Jerusalem on the Pentecost following the ascension of Christ (Luke 24:46ff; Acts ch. 1 and 2). The facts of the gospel were preached. People believed the facts and asked “What shall we do?” They were told to “repent and be baptized.” The Lord added “to them day by day” (v. 47, ASS, or to “the church daily” (KJV), such as were being saved. Obviously, those who were saved from past sins were added by the Lord to His church. They did not “join the church” but became members through their obedience to the gospel. In our day, if one has forgiveness of past sins and enters the church, he will do so through this same process.
Are Denominations the Church?
It is popularly believed that the church is the sum of all the denominations in the world. Often John 15:5 is used for proof. Jesus said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” Many interpret this statement as they view modern denominationalism. They conclude that Jesus means that the different churches are branches. This is not the case. Jesus is speaking about His disciples, individually, being branches. He said, “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch”‘(v. 6). It is somewhat ridiculous to suppose that the denominational bodies, many of which teach diametrically opposed doctrines, could come together to make up the one body of Christ. The idea is surely not taught in the New Testament.
Why Do Many Churches Exist?
Many have asked, “From whence, then, came all the :denominations?” First, we can say assuredly, and without fear of successful contradiction, that they were not built by Jesus Christ. This should be enough. If this is not enough, in the second place, we can show that all of them came into existence through human invention and intervention. In the early centuries following the establishment of the church, there was a falling away from the truth of the New Testament. This was predicted by New Testament writers (Acts 20:28-31; 1 Tim. 4:1-4, and others), and began even before some of them died. The completeness of the falling away has been presented by historians. In the falling away from the truth, false religions were established upon false doctrines. Since that time there have been many efforts to reform existing false religious institutions. These efforts have, in the main, resulted in still other denominations being started because the reformers have not gone back to only the Bible. They have followed men and men’s creeds. Even as did Israel of old, people have trusted in their “multitude of mighty men,” instead of depending upon Jehovah’s revelation for their guidance (Hos. 10:13).
Some of Their False Teaching
For many years some preachers in denominational bodies have claimed a direct guidance by the Holy Spirit. They have claimed this for their teaching, and some even affirm the ability to perform miracles by the Spirit. Yet, they, as already shown, teach contradictory doctrines. Surely one ought to have the right to suppose that they do not affirm that the Holy Spirit verifies, by signs and wonders, one teaching by one man, and, at the same time, another altogether different teaching by someone else! This would place the blame for the existing religious divisions on the Holy Spirit. But such is the doctrine of denominationalism! It teaches that the Spirit operates in one church to teach a doctrine and operates in another church to contradict the same doctrine.
One radio preacher, who preaches for a United Pentecostal Church, recently severely criticized the denominational machinery of the national denominational group with which he is identified. He affirmed that his local church is independent; that this is right, and the others are wrong and violate scripture. Yet, he still believes the organizational preachers can speak in tongues and work miracles, which power he also claims for himself. So, he has the Holy Spirit verifying what he believes to be right, and at the same time, verifying what he believes to be false. The truth is, the Holy Spirit has already confirmed the word through signs and miracles. That word is written in the New Testament. He does not continue, through direct intervention, to verify it today. Denominationalists need to see that the Holy Spirit has never endorsed any false teaching by enabling the teacher to perform signs and miracles. It is mere folly to claim such endorsement today.
One plea that we make to you, our reader, and to all who hear us preach, is that people should not become members of any of these man-made churches. They are not essential to salvation. Membership in the church Jesus built, however, is essential. To say this is not to say that the church is the savior. Rather than being the savior, the church constitutes the saved. Those who repent and are baptized are, upon this obedience, added to the church (Acts 2:38-47). Paul affirms that Christ is the savior of the church (Eph. 5:23).
Jesus, in presenting a parable about the kingdom, said, “The seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). That which will produce the kingdom or church today in any community or nation is the pure and unadulterated word. Add to it the theology of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or any other uninspired man, and something other than the church of the New Testament is produced. This is what has happened in our day. Jesus has not promised to save these bodies, but only the faithful in His own.
Truth Magazine XXII: 19, pp. 311-312
May 11, 1978