By Mike Willis
Living in an age when many people who profess to be religious choose not to affiliate with any church, one might be inclined to accept the view that the church is unimportant. Indeed, many religious leaders teach that one can be saved without being a member of any church. Unsurprisingly, many are choosing to do just that — to have a salvation experience without ever being identified with any church. This makes the church a relatively unimportant and unessential organization.
The Church in Ephesians
In some respects, the book of Ephesians has the most extensive comments about the church that one can find in the Bible. Let us look at some of the statements made in this book:
1. The church is the fulness of God. As the book opens, Paul gives praise to God for the salvation he wrought in Christ Jesus our Lord. He concludes the chapter by describing Jesus’ glorified position:
. . . And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23).
This statement emphasizes that the church is not an afterthought in God’s eternal scheme. Later in the letter, Paul ties the church to God’s eternal purpose in Christ Jesus: “And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:9-11).
In the phrase, “the fulness of him that filleth all in all” one sees the church as the consummation of God’s work through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The gospels of Christ confirm this understanding of the church. Using the figure of the church as the “kingdom” of God (see Matt. 16:18-19), the gospels open with an announcement that the time has come for the establishment of the Lord’s kingdom. John the Baptist preached, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). When Jesus began his public ministry, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). When the apostles were sent out on the limited commission, they were told to “preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:2).
Recognizing that the church is a part of God’s eternal purpose in Christ Jesus and that it is the kingdom of God on earth, one sees that the church is not an afterthought of God. The church was not established because the Jews rejected Jesus as their king. Quite the contrary, the church is the consummation of God’s eternal plan through Christ Jesus. That being the case, the church is not an unimportant spiritual institution one may or may not choose to join.
2. The church is the saved of God. The second thing one notices about the church is what it is. Sometimes men understand the church to be a building, an organization of local churches in a particular denomination, or a mystical institution composedof all of the churches in the world. It is none of these. The word church is used in two senses in the Scriptures: (a) To include all of the saved people in the world and (b) To describe those saved people in a given locality who choose to work together in a local fellowship.
Looking at the first use of the word, one sees that one cannot be saved without being a member of the Lord’s church. In Ephesians 2:16-17 Paul wrote, “And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.” This passage emphasizes several important truths: (a) Reconciliation to God occurs in the body of Christ, a synonym for the church (see Eph. 1:22-23). Therefore, one cannot be reconciled to God without being a member of the church. (b) All men are reconciled to God in one body. The context of Ephesians 2 is that both Jew and Gentile are reconciled to God in the one body, the church. Paul found no room in the first century for two churches — one fitted for Gentiles and another fitted for Jews. Rather, all men are reconciled to God in one body. (c) Men are reconciled to God in one body by the cross. One’s salvation by the cross involves his being a member of the church.
Later in Ephesians, Paul describes what God has done for the church. Writing in Ephesians 5:23-31, Paul states the following about the church:
For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body (Eph. 5:23).
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).
Jesus is the “saviour of the body.” Hence, if one wishes to be saved, he must be a part of the body that Jesus saves, which is his church. Jesus “gave himself for” the church. If one is going to benefit from the shed blood of Christ, he must be a member of his church. Those who are in his church are washed clean by his blood; they are a “glorious church, not having spot of wrinkle,” not because they have never sinned, but because their sins have been washed away in the blood of the Lamb of God. Consequently, those in the church are “holy and without blemish.” The church is all of the saved people of the world. Those who are not in the church do not benefit from the blood of Christ.
Looking at the second use of the word church, to describe a fellowship of saints in a given locality who are working together to accomplish the revealed will of God, one notices that Christ expects his saints to be affiliated with a local church. Saints are taught not to forsake the assemblying of the local church (Heb. 10:25), to give money to support the work of the local church (1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 9:6-9), and to assemble each Sunday to remember the Lord’s death in partaking of the Lord’s supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-34). When first century saints moved from town to town, they sought to identify themselves with the local saints (Acts 9:26; Rom. 16:1-2). We do not read of saints being “members at large,” that is being a part of the “saved,” but not affiliated with a local church.
3. There is one church. A culture that accepts that there are literally thousands of different denominations is surprised to learn that, in the New Testament, there was but one church. There were many different religions in the first century. The pagans had temples that gave homage to many deities — Zeus, Hermes, Diana, and hundreds of others. The Jews worshiped in the Temple at Jerusalem but were divided into various sects, such as Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians, and perhaps others. But one could not be saved in any of these religions. He had to believe in Christ Jesus for salvation, so says the Scriptures:
I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins (John 8:24).
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (John 14:6).
Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
If one is not a member of Christ’s church, he cannot be saved. And, Christ has only one church. He promised to build his church (Matt. 16:18), not “churches.” Jews and Gentiles are both reconciled to God “in one body” (Eph. 2:16). After identifying Jesus’ body as his church, Paul said, “There is one body” (Eph. 4:4). The numeral “one” means more than none and less than two!
What is expressly stated, that there is but one church, is confirmed by Paul’s illustration. Paul wrote of Jesus’ spiritual headship after his ascension saying, “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:21-23). Jesus is the head of the body. No head is attached to more than more one body, as would be the case were Jesus head of hundreds of churches or denominations. Nor is there a body with more than one head, as would be case if both Jesus and the pope, a president, a synod, or council were heads of any given denomination. There is but one body or church and that body has but one head, Jesus Christ.
Inasmuch as the church is composed of those saved through the blood of Christ, one should understand that whatever are the conditions for salvation are the conditions for membership in the Lord’s church. When one is saved from his sins, he is added to the church by the Lord (Acts 2:47). When one believes in Christ, repents of his sins, confesses his faith in Christ, and is baptized in water for the remission of his sins, he is cleansed of his sins by the blood of Christ and added to the Lord’s church — those people who have been saved by Jesus Christ. A person cannot join the church in this sense, for only the Lord can add him to the church. One who has obeyed the gospel unto salvation needs to affiliate himself with others in his area who have done the same thing. In this sense, he joins himself to a local church — a group of Christians who have been saved by the blood of Christ who and have agreed to pool their resources in order to work together under common oversight (cf. Acts 9:26).
One who lives outside the fellowship of the church is seeking to do something other than God’s determinate will. The church exists, not because some men think it is a good thing, but because the Lord willed it to be established and providentially oversees its continued existence. Are you a member of the Lord’s church? In our next lesson, we will study the identifying marks of the Lord’s church.
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