By Mike Willis
The American concept of the church is largely a product of what is seen to be practiced by those who call themselves a church. Americans should draw their concept of the church from the New Testament rather than from their experiential contacts with denominations. However, since the normal method of coming to an understanding regarding the church is what it is, Americans equate the church with a building, a socio-recreational group, and an agency which accomplishes anything labeled as a good work. To anyone familiar with the New Testament concept of the church, the American, twentieth-century concept of the church is only a badly mutilated imitation of the New Testament church. Perhaps this article will clarify some mistaken concepts about the church.
What Is The Church?
The church is the people of God. They are the ones who have hearkened to God’s call to come out of darkness and into the light. These are those who have believed the good news that God has provided salvation for sinful man through Jesus Christ. Their faith is one which has taken God at His Word, expressing itself in obedience to His divine commands to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Therefore, these are the ones who. are recipients of Christ’s blessings; they have’ received “remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Since they have believed and been baptized, they are the saved (Mk. 16:16). The church, then, is the body of believers-all of the saved persons in the world.
Some will immediately conclude that the church is a mystical body which has no visible organization. Indeed, this is the usual concept maintained by Americans about the church. Yet, in New Testament times, the church was not something, which was undefinable, ambiguous, or vague because, although the church was the body of all the saved of the world, it also had local manifestations. Every local group composed of those who had responded in submission to. Jesus worshiped regularly in the respective towns and was known as the church (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2; Acts 14:23). Keep in mind that these local groups were all alike in doctrine, worship, organization, and work; any local congregation which deviated from the apostles’ doctrine was quickly the recipient of apostolic rebuke (cf., for example, Rev. 2:1415,20-21). There is no evidence which indicates that the different congregations could, under divine approval, teach conflicting doctrines. There did not exist a thirty-second cousin to twentieth-century denominationalism in New Testament times.
To only those who were in the blood bought church (Acts 20:28) did Jesus promise to be the Savior (Eph. 5:23). The New Testament doctrine revealed that the only way to God the Father was through Christ Jesus (Jn. 14:6); His way involved the church. I say this because not a few believe that one can be saved without worshiping and working with the church. God did not plan from all eternity a church which was unimportant or non-essential; it has a purpose in the scheme of God. Realizing this, let us notice so m!e of the distinguishing marks of the Lord’s church.
Distinguishing Marks of the Church
Our list of distinguishing marks is designed as only an introductory lesson about the New Testament church and makes no pretentions to be exhaustive. However, no church can be scripturally called the Lord’s church without these distinctive marks. The plight of each of us should make the remainder of the lesson relevant and important. We must be a part of the people of God to be saved; the church is the people of God. Thus, you need to know how to find God’s people.
We can begin by saying that no group can properly be called the Lord’s church which teaches a different plan of salvation than Jesus taught. Surely this is self-evident. The church is the saved; A group which does not properly tell people what to do to be saved is not the saved! Here is what Jesus revealed to be necessary for salvation: (1) Belief in Jesus Christ (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 8:24), (2) Repentance of one’s sins (2 Pet. 3:9; Acts 17:30; Lk. 24:47), (3) Baptism (an immersion in water) for the remission of one’s past sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21; Mk. 16:15-16), and (4) A life of faithful service (Rev. 2: 10; 1 Jn. 5:18; 3:9). If you will simply contrast this with what you hear the different groups teaching about salvation, you can quickly perceive which group is the Lord’s church. Notice that you can not read the following popular methods of salvation in the Bible: (1) “Just accept Jesus as your personal Savior.” (2) “He that believeth and is saved should be baptized” (contrast with Mk. 16:16). (3) “A man can be saved the moment he believes.” (4) “Just get on your knees and pray to God and you will be saved.”
Perhaps we could list other contemporary schemes of redemption devised by man but just remember that Jesus revealed the only way, which says: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mk. 16:16). No group which teaches otherwise is the Lord’s church! Secondly, we should notice that the Lord’s church will wear a Bible name. Either God will allow a congregation to wear any name or there are some revealed appellatives chosen by God for it to wear. If God allows a congregation to wear just any name, it could scripturally be called “The Devil’s Domain,” “Mike’s Mumblers” or “The Lutheran Church.” However, if God has designated several names, anyone of which is approved by God for the church to wear, the New Testament church must wear them only. Here is a partial list of scriptural names:
Church of God (I Cor. 1:2)
House of God (I Tim.3:15)
Body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23)
Church of the Living God (I Tim. 3:15)
Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 16:19).
Church of Christ (Rom. 16:16)
No group which wears any name other than one of the approved Bible names is the church of the Lord. Let me emphasize that if you cannot find the name of the church with which you worship in the New Testament, you can rest assured that it is not the Lord’s church. Let me insert a word of caution: a group can wear a Bible name without being the Lord’s church. To illustrate this suppose that I was looking for James Smith in Indianapolis. The 1974 phone book contains two columns of men bearing this name and another column bearing the name J. Smith. Knowing the name of the individual is insufficient information to locate the individual. Likewise, knowing the scriptural names of the church is insufficient information to locate the Lord’s church. One group, for instance, known as the Church of God, wears a scriptural name but teaches a false plan of salvation.
A third mark which distinguishes the New Testament church is its program of work. The New Testament church had a limited field of endeavor; it taught the gospel to the lost, assisted the needy among the saints, and edified the saints (Eph. 4:11-12). The primary work of the church, as you can easily perceive, was spiritual; the benevolence practiced by the church was secondary to the preaching of the gospel (no attempt was made at universal benevolence as was made at universal preaching). Any church which is involved in activities other than these cannot be called the Lord’s church. One reads nothing of church-sponsored recreation, a church entering business ventures, a church supporting secular educational institutions or having its own kindergarten or grade school, or church hospitals. Despite this fact, American churches engage in business ventures (usually tax-free) ranging from the Christian Brothers distillery operated by the Catholic Church to Burlington Mills operated by the Baptists. Churches are supporting hospitals, schools, old folks homes, the NAACP, and practically any other work which someone of some influence has labeled as “good.” If the church you attend is engaged in these extra-biblical activities, it is not the Lord’s church. Are you in the Lord’s church or a humanly devised and governed institution?
Truth Magazine, XVIII:34, p. 8-9
June 27, 1974