If you were required to identify your mother from a lineup of similarly-looking women, do you think you could do it? Most people surely could. Some of the women might have similar eye color, aging, hair, height, build, personality, etc.; but your mother alone will have all the distinctive features that make her her.
In like manner, the Lord’s church — which, in a sense, is the “mother of us all” (cf. Gal. 4.26; Heb. 12.22-23) — also has distinguishing characteristics, enabling us to identify the “true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (Heb. 8.1-2) in a lineup of imposters. On the basis of these features, we can know with certainty what the true church, built by Christ two thousand years ago (Mt. 16.18), looks like.
As we examine these characteristics of the Lord’s church, ask yourself this: does your “mother church” bear the same characteristics as the church identified in the New Testament?
Is there anything in a name? Evidently, God himself thought so.
In antiquity, the Lord often placed great significance on the changing of various individuals’ names (cf. Gen. 17.5, 15, 19, etc.). He determined to “call his servants by another name” (Isa. 65.15), indicating a new relationship between God and his people under Christ (cf. Isa. 62.1-5; Hos. 1.10; 1 Pt. 2.10; Acts 11.26). In fact, salvation itself is forged on the basis of a name — Jesus Christ (Acts 4.10-12). Hence, names matter to God.
Nevertheless, the New Testament never assigns a proper name to the church — i.e., a formal designation used to denote it. Instead, its names are descriptive in character, allowing for dozens of different nominal configurations. Still, the designations of the church fall into these three categories:
(1) A description of who we are collectively: “church” (Acts 8.1, 3), “body” (Eph. 1.22-23), “flock” (Acts 20.28), “house” (1 Tim. 3.15), “tabernacle/temple” (Eph. 2.19-22), “firstborn” (Heb. 12.23), “kingdom” (Mt. 16.18-19; Col. 1.13), “saints” (Phil. 1.1), and “city” (Heb. 12.22-23) are each descriptions of the Lord’s church as a unit.
(2) A description of ownership: God alone owns the church; Christ is its “head” (Acts 20.28; Eph. 5.23). Jesus said: “I will build my church” (Mt. 16.18). Hence, it does not belong to John Wesley, Martin Luther, or even John the Baptist. It is the church of Christ (Rm. 16.16) and the church of God (1 Cor. 1.2).
(3) A description of location: this can include the church worldwide (i.e., “one” church/body; Mt. 16.18; Eph. 4.4); the church in a particular region — e.g., Judea, Galilee, Samaria (Acts 9.31), Galatia (Gal. 1.2), Asia (Rev. 1.4), etc; the church in a particular city — e.g., “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1.2); or even the church meeting at a specific house address — e.g., Aquila’s house (Rm. 16.5); Nympha’s house (Col. 4.15); Philemon’s house (Phile. 1.1-2), etc.
From these observations, we gather that none of these designations, of themselves, constitute a binding pattern.
Sometimes, the first category alone is referenced in the New Testament (simply "the church" — Acts 2.47; Eph. 5.25, etc.) — without reference to ownership or location.
Other times, only the first two categories are employed, without allusion to location — i.e., “the churches of Christ” (Rm. 16.16).
And in other texts, God makes mention of all three categories of designations: "the saints (#1) in Christ Jesus (#2) who are in Philippi (#3)" (Phil. 1.1); or, "the church (#1) of God (#2) which is at Corinth (#3);” or, “the church (#1) of the Thessalonians (#3) in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (#2).”
Hence, no singular terminology represents the only approved designation for the church. Any combination of these categories may be adopted.
Still, we are not at liberty to refer to the church in just any way we desire. Though we are not bound to any particular verbal formula (as we would be with proper nouns), we are bound to the ways in which the Lord describes his church. Hundreds of new churches are formed yearly, with an assortment of kitschy names, which in no way resemble the manner in which God describes his people (see Scaramanga, for examples).
Let us be content with God’s names for his church, and leave it at that (1 Pet. 4.11; 1 Cor. 4.6).
In our modern era, it is usually an advantage to be unique. The world, by and large, celebrates exclusivity — being one of a kind. Yet, ironically, the world hates a unique church. But the Lord’s church is unique, for there is only one of its kind.
First, the Lord built only “one body” (Eph. 4.4), which is the church (cf. Eph. 1.22-23; Col. 1.18). Jesus is the “head” of that “one body” (Eph. 5.23). Contrary to denominationalism, the head does not possess multiple bodies.
Second, the Lord is “not the author of confusion, but of peace” (1 Cor. 14.33). The word, confusion, has to do with disorder. It denotes an unstable state, directly linked to the evil wisdom of this world (Jms. 3.15-16). There is no greater source of confusion and instability in the religious world today than in denominationalism. God did not create denominational confusion, with varying creeds, worship practices, or organizational models. Rather, he designed a church that was to be one-size-fits-all — “perfect” because “not made with hands” (cf. Heb. 8.2; 9.11).
Third, the Lord prayed for his disciples to be united in his ways — not divided in their own (Jn. 17.20-21). To the church at Corinth, Paul wrote:
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1.10).
Denominationalism embraces the opposite of Paul’s plea — viz., division. In fact, one expert characterized denominationalism as:
“The system and ideology founded on the division of the religious population into numerous ecclesiastical bodies, each stressing particular values or traditions and each competing with the other in the same community under substantial conditions of freedom” (Brauer, 262-263).
Accordingly, although the Lord’s church consists of “many members” meeting in numerous locations around the world, yet God designed only “one body” for all of us (1 Cor. 12.12, 20). We are not permitted to pursue “schism” in religion; instead, we must conform to the Lord’s singular, exclusive plan for his church (1 Cor. 12.25).
Therefore, let us, with a firm love, attempt to persuade those who embrace and promote denominationalism to desist, for their wisdom comes not from God, but from this world.
“Creed” stems from a Latin word meaning, I believe. But a creed is more than a statement of conviction; rather, it promotes a set of beliefs which serve to guide one’s thoughts and actions. It is, effectively, a generic rule-book for adherents.
Through the ages, scores of man-made creeds, written in the name of denominationalism, each have formed the basis of a new sect within “Christendom,” dividing adherents into conflicting camps of belief and practice.
During New Testament times, however, the inspired Scriptures alone served as the official creed, directing both the individual Christian and the church at large in the matter of what to believe and do in order to please God.
2 Timothy 3.16-17 reads:
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The church needed nothing more than these writings to be “complete,” nor would anything less than them be suitable. The word of the Lord alone, in its entirety, serves as the Christian’s creed (cf. 1 Pt. 4.11; 1 Cor. 4.6; Rev. 22.18-19).
Hence, the Lord’s church does not follow the “Westminster Confession of Faith” or “The Philadelphia Confession” etc.; rather we must “carefully follow” the “good doctrine” — the word of God (1 Tim. 4.6; 1 Thess. 2.13).
Many promote the belief that man may worship the Lord in any manner imaginable, provided the worshipper’s intentions are sincere. Yet, never has the Lord sanctioned worship “devised” out of man’s “own heart” (1 Kngs. 12.33). “Self-imposed religion” (“will-worship,” KJV) is not permitted (Col. 2.23).
God excoriated Jeroboam for his innovations to worship (cf. 1 Kngs. 12.25-33; 14.16). Nadab and Abihu likewise were punished for worshipping in an “unauthorized” manner (Lev. 10.1-2, NIV). The case of King Uzziah similarly demonstrates that there is “no honor” for those who presume to worship God in ways which man deems suitable, but which God has not permitted (2 Chron. 26.16-18).
Jesus insisted that God is “seeking” “true worshippers” who will “worship the father in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4.23). In fact, we “must worship in spirit [with a sincere attitude, Josh. 24.14] and truth [according to God’s word, Jn. 17.17]” (Jn. 4.24).
Consequently, the Lord’s church worships by praying (Acts 2.42; 20.36), giving to the collection on the first day of every week (1 Cor. 16.1-2), preaching (Acts 20.7), singing without mechanical instruments (Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16; for more, see my article: “The Music Matters Too!”), and eating the Lord’s Supper, consisting of unleavened bread and grape juice (the fruit of the vine), every Sunday (Acts 20.7; Mt. 26.26f; see my 4-part series on "The Communion").
Furthermore, males alone are authorized to lead these acts of worship, while females (and the remaining men and children who are not leading the service) are to participate in a “submissive” capacity (cf. 1 Cor. 14.34-35; 27-32; 1 Tim. 2.11-14). Many denominations regard these instructions as chauvinistic and demeaning; consequently, they disregard them. Yet:
(1) far from being degrading, submissiveness, in Christianity, is an honorable trait (cf. 1 Pt. 5.5-7; Mt. 23.11); besides, those men who lead prayers, songs, preaching, etc., are not lording it over women (or the other men in the congregation), as the people of the world do; rather, the male leaders are serving the congregation;
(2) these instructions are “the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14.37). To disregard the roles of men and women in the church is to impugn the integrity of the Lord, and to assume you know better than him (1 Cor. 14.36).
The organization of the Lord’s church is neither Roman Catholic (consisting of Pope, Cardinals, Diocesan Bishops, Priests, and a headquarters in Rome, with various dioceses), nor is it Protestant in character (with an earthly headquarters, and centralized conferences dictating church polity). Rather, the Lord’s church is organized as follows:
First, unlike sectarianism, the Lord’s church has no earthly headquarters. Instead, the universal church is overseen by Christ in heaven (Eph. 5.23; Col. 3.1; 4.1).
Second, on a local level, the Lord’s church is congregational — each separate congregation is self-governing. Ideally, each local congregation, like the church in Philippi, will have elders and deacons (Phil. 1.1).
Elders in particular (also known as "bishops," "shepherds," and "pastors" — 1 Pt. 5.1-2; Acts 20.28; Tit. 1.5-6) are married men who are aged and seasoned in the faith, who “oversee” the spiritual and administrative needs of the local church (1 Pt. 5.1-2). There must always be a plurality of elders in each congregation (Tit. 1.5; Acts 14.23) — one-man oversight is not permitted (cf. 3 Jn. 9-10). Please observe that each eldership only has authority over their own flock (1 Pt. 5.2; Acts 20.28); they have no jurisdiction over any other congregation of the Lord’s people.
But elders must first be qualified to serve in that capacity (1 Tim. 3.1ff; Tit. 1.5ff). Not every congregation can produce a plurality of qualified elders. Hence, the less-than-ideal arrangement, in which the men of the congregation are given authority (1 Cor. 11.3; 1 Tim. 2.11-14), must be pursued, until such time as that congregation can appoint qualified men to serve as their overseers.
Finally, never did the Lord’s church assign titles such as “pope,” “reverend,” or “father” to any of its earthly leaders. Such titles of religious distinction run counter to the Lord’s teaching (Mt. 23.5-12).
No one joins the universal church; nor do church members “vote them in.” Instead, when a penitent believer is baptized, he is “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12.13).
Thus, on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.1ff), after “three-thousand souls” believed, repented, and “were baptized,” “the Lord added” them “to the church” (Acts 2.47). When God saves, God also adds the saved to his church.
On a local level, Christians must also function as members of a congregation. We must meet together with those of “like precious faith” (2 Pt. 1.1; cf. Acts 2.42; 20.7-12; 1 Cor. 14.1-40; 16.1-2). We are not permitted to forsake these local assemblies (Heb. 10.25). Each Christian is responsible for “building up” the local church (Eph. 4.16-17; 1 Cor. 12.12-31). Too, in congregations where a plurality of men are qualified as elders, the members of the church are required to “submit” to their local overseers in the work of the Lord (1 Thess. 5.12; Heb. 13.17). Hence, it is not enough simply to be a “member-at-large.” We must also function as a member of a local congregation.
Consider the apostle Paul, as an example. When God washed “away his sins” in baptism (Acts 22.16), the Lord placed him into the church at large. He then began working with the church in Damascus (Acts 9.19f). However, when he “had come to Jerusalem” (about three years later, Gal. 1.18), Paul “tried to join the disciples” meeting there (Acts 9.26). Because of his reputation as a persecutor of Christians, they did not believe him at first. Eventually, however, they welcomed him into their local fellowship.
In short, while we do not join the universal church (since God automatically adds the saved to it), we must join a local church, work with it, and build it up, in order to be pleasing to the Lord.
In light of these characteristics, do you think you can identify the Lord’s church today? There may be many imposters out there, each bearing similarities here and there to it; but the Lord’s church is the only one which has all the features which make her her.
Does your “mother church” look like the New Testament church? Does she describe herself with a God-given name? Does she consider herself to be one body among many, or the only body of Christ? Does she follow a humanly-contrived creed, or only God’s word? Does she worship in the manner prescribed by the New Testament? Is she organized in the manner of the Lord’s church, or does she adopt an extra-biblical ecclesiastical hierarchy? How did you become a member of your “mother church?”
The church of Christ is here today. You can know what it looks like, and you can be added to it now! If you wish to be in contact with someone who can assist you with identifying his church in your area, please email me. I am more than happy to help!
This is a series of articles, with the following parts:
The Lord's Church (3): Its Identity
Brauer, Jerald C., Ed. The Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971. Scaramanga, Url. “A Church By Any Other Name…” Christianitytoday.com. Access date: March 23, 2017. http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2010/april-online-only/church-by-any-other-name.html