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Sunday, June 22, 2014 am                        Basics Index

 

BACK TO BASICS – 19
The ONE True Church – 3
Identifying a True Church of Christ

 

A study of the New Testament church is VERY fundamental to our faith.  There is so much misunderstanding about what the church is as well as its various characteristics.  If we were to properly grasp what the Bible teaches about the church, much of the religious divisions that exists between brethren as well as in so-called “Christendom” could be avoided.  That is why we want to give considerable consideration to this important BASIC subject.

We have both identified the church and examined when the ONE true church began.  But we also find in scripture, frequently, references to churches that meet in various locations.  We call these local churches (or congregations).  While we have noted that the church in its universal sense is about relationship with God (& Jesus and Holy Spirit), and that it has no earthly organization, we find that local churches DO have responsibilities.   In understanding these responsibilities, we can set out to find a church that truly does belong to Christ.

 I.                    The Local Church

a.        What is a local church?
While the universal church is about relationship with Christ, the local church is a group of saints (membership therein is based upon an understanding of their being saved and thus a part of the universal church) who join together in a given locale to do the work God has prescribed to be done collectively.

b.       Local churches do exist.  In examining scripture we find many of the epistles written to churches –
1 Cor. 1:2, Galatians 1:2 – churches of Galatia, 1 Thess. 1:1, “the church of the Thessalonians”
Romans 16:16, “the churches of Christ greet you.”
Revelation 1:4, “to the seven churches of Asia”.

c.        Local churches enjoy a direct relationship with Jesus – consider Revelation 1-3.  Rev. 1:9-19 describes a vision John has of 7 lampstands with “one like the Son of Man” in the midst of them.  That “Son of Man” is Jesus, and the lampstands are the 7 churches. 
NOTE: It needs to be observed that each local church exists independently answering directly to Christ.  Christ is its head (1 Cor. 12:27).  This is important to understand because EACH local church needs to follow Him! 

d.       Some are unsound, or in danger of losing their relationship with Christ. 
IN Revelation 2 &3, each local church has an individual message.  Within many of the messages are warnings of their danger in relation to Christ if they do not repent of wrongful conduct and attitudes (Rev. 2:5, 3:15,16, etc.).  From this and an examination of what the church is in scripture, we learn that if a congregation is not following God’s pattern, we should not bid it Godspeed.

 II.                  The Qualities of a Local Church

a.        Consists of Christians in ONE location – as the term “church” is used locally, it has reference to location.  But is more than just that. It is a group that has joined together and that comes together.

b.       There are many of them – Galatians 1:2, Rev. 1:4, Romans 16:16.  Contrast this with the ONE universal church.

c.        Each church is independent and autonomous.   By independent we mean that it is not tied to any other congregation on earth.  When making decisions, a church examines God’s word and determines what is right and wrong and does that which is right.  It doesn’t matter what other churches think – only what the Lord thinks. 
By autonomous, we mean self-governing.  In the Bible each congregation had its own organization (consisting of elders, deacons and saints) and did not answer to any earthly organization higher than itself.  There were no earthly headquarters, churches that sponsored works on behalf of several congregations, human organizations created to do their work, etc.  We will examine this in much greater detail in a future lesson.

d.       We join a local congregation– Acts 9:26-28 records Paul after his conversion seeking to “join the disciples” at Jerusalem.  They were hesitant, but Barnabas stood up for Paul and he was accepted.  In this text we find that one joins himself to a local church.
Another thought: A local church can deny membership.  Just as the church was hesitant to accept Paul (until they were sure he was truly a disciple), so a church can deny membership to someone they believe to be in sin who refuses to repent.  A study of church discipline also factors into this – as we are to withdraw from those who cause divisions (Rom. 16:17), those who are living immoral lives (1 Cor. 5:4-6), or those who walk disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6), etc.  
IF for the sake of purity a church can and SHOULD withdraw from one, then it is NECESSARILY CONCLUDED that they can refuse membership to one who fits in an ungodly category or poses a threat to the church.
Eph. 5:11, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.”

e.       Some human judgment involved – a true church (congregation) of Christ desires to follow Him in every aspect.  As such she will freely and willingly accept anyone who is a child of God.  BUT, being comprised of humans we cannot read hearts, so it is possible that one is admitted to a local church that is not saved in God’s eyes (unfaithful to Him, hypocrites, liars, etc.). 
NOTE: I REPEAT: Efforts need to be taken to avoid this - we try to follow God’s standard in our considerations.
BUT, far too many churches today will accept anyone to their detriment.   Consider the warnings to the churches of Thyatira and Pergamos that both tolerated false teachers and immorality in their midst.

f.         It can have divided in its midst – 1 Corinthians 1:10 says, “Let there be no divisions among you”.  It is clear from the letter that there were divisions - but the goal is to overcome those divisions and achieve true unity.  This is only done if all respect God’s authority.

g.        One may be saved and not be part of a local churchI hesitate to say this because of its abuse.  God desires that all saints find and join a local congregation.  It is essential to doing all that He commands of us.  BUT there are times when one might be in a saved relationship with God and not part of a local church.  What about the Ethiopian Eunuch who was baptized in the wilderness? (Acts 8:39)
Paul sought to join Jerusalem (Acts 9:26) just prior to that he was not a member of a congregation.
3 John 9-10 describes ungodly Demetrius putting out of the church those who were godly. 
But NOTE: In scripture ANY example of Christians not part of a local congregation is ALWAYS a temporary circumstance.  Perhaps one moves into a community and visits several congregations before committing to one.  Perhaps one has resisted false doctrine, ungodly leaders, etc. and is told to leave a congregation.  Until he finds (or starts) another congregation he could still be in a saved relationship with God.

h.       Death affects membership – when one dies, he/she is no longer a part of that congregation he was a member of.  The local church is an earthly body with a spiritual mission.  BUT, even though he dies, if he is in the Lord, he is saved and thus still part of the church universal (Rev. 14:13).

  III.                How to identify a TRUE Local Church

a.        Much of what we are about to say is preliminary and will be discussed in more detail in future lessons.  Understanding what a local church is, one might ask “HOW do I find a church that does belong to the Lord?”  This is a legitimate question when we consider the hundreds of different denominations each claiming to be the church of Christ.  And even outside of denominationalism, there are churches that engage in contradictory practices (one does one thing, and the other does the opposite).  They CANNOT both be true, so how do we find the TRUE church?
THE answer is: We look at it according to God’s word – according to God’s standard.  This is where the lessons on authority are applied.

b.       Consider its respect for God’s word – one of the first things I would look for is what a church’s attitude is toward the Bible.  Do they view the word of God as inerrant, relevant (applies today) and complete?  Many churches today either add to God’s word or take away from it.  IF a church has a creed book (Methodist Discipline, Book of Mormon, Baptist manual, etc.) that tells you IMMEDIATELY that what they do is adding to God’s word.  LEAVE immediately and keep searching!
The Lord’s church will NOT fear investigation of its teachings and practices according to scripture.  Let us be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 – search the scriptures.
WE should also consider how a congregation appeals to God’s word in its teachings.  Too many churches today are using less and less scripture, and more and more of man’s philosophies and stories.

c.        Consider how it identifies itself – a name is important.  It serves as a marker of identity.
In scripture we find various names:
- Church of God – 1 Cor. 1:2
- Church of Christ – Romans 16:16
- The church at… - 1 Thess. 1:1.  These recognized the Lordship of Jesus (as is borne out in the letters), but the identity had to do with where they were located.
Such names ALL describe relationship with its owner.  Jesus purchased the church with His blood (Acts 20:28, Eph. 5:25-27).  It is His body (Eph. 1:22-23)
IT is also the God the Father – Eph. 3:10-11 says it was according to His purpose.  NOTE: God planned it, but Jesus died for it.  We also realize that Jesus IS God, and as such that could be included in passages that make reference to “the church of God” or “churches of God”. 
IF a church has a name that is of man’s origin, it usually means that man has included his ideas of what the church is – Baptist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Mormon, etc.  If they can’t get the name right, how can trust what they teach?
NOTE:  Just because a church has a Biblical name does NOT necessarily mean it is the Lord’s church.  Plenty of churches call themselves the “church of Christ” but when you begin to examine other aspects, it is clear that they are NOT!  So we begin with the name, but we certainly do not end there!

d.       Consider its organization – we have already emphasized that the local church is the only unit we find in scripture.  You do not find any organization larger than a local church in scripture.  IF a congregation claims to be part of a body that is larger than itself, its organizational structure is wrong!  There are many denominations that have earthly headquarters – Mormons appeal to Salt Lake City; Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Watchtower Society; United Methodists have their annual conferences  (local, central and general);  Catholicism has the Vatican and a super-organization; Various Baptists are affiliated with “Conventions”, etc.
Also, some churches pool their resource or create human organizations to do the work God gave the local church.   We will examine this in much greater detail next month.
it has a local government.   In the Bible we read of elders (bishops), deacons and saints.  Phil. 1:1.
Elders are shepherds of a local congregation – Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-2, etc.  They must meet high standards (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9).  There is ALWAYS a plurality.
Deacons serve under the elders and must also maintain a good and exemplary standard) (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
There are no presiding bishops, popes, distinction between bishops and pastors, etc.  God’s organization is simple and very local.

e.       Consider its worship – we have extensively discussed proper worship when we assemble as the church.   It is simple and every act involves the heart.  There are 5 acts of worship:
1) Lord’s Supper – to be observed only on the first day of the week – Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 11:23-26
2) Giving – 1 Cor. 16:1-2.  Also exclusively on the first day of the week.  It is a free-will offering of the members – not fundraisers, businesses, etc.
3) Singing – without instrumental accompaniment.  Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, 1 Cor. 14:15
4) Preaching and teaching – Eph. 4:11-16; Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 4:17, etc.  Many of the epistles were written to churches instructing them.
5) Prayer – 1 Cor. 14:15-17,  Acts 12:5
Worship in many places today has turned into entertainment and additional acts that are not mentioned in scripture.  Many worship services are designed to provoke emotions to the neglect of truth.  Let us never forget that our worship is about God.

f.         Consider its work – the concept that the world has of the church now is that it is primarily a social relief organization and designed to cater to “the whole man”.  But in scripture you find the work of the church is very limited – there is evangelism which is the primary focus; edification – which in scripture is ALWAYS spiritual in nature; and limited benevolence – churches helping needy brethren and at times needy congregations in other places.  There are rules with which this is to be done. 
If a church today is about social activities and entertainment it is NOT the Lord’s church

g.        Consider its terms of admission and fellowship – there are many different plans of salvation being taught today.  The majority of the denominational world teaches “faith only”.  The Bible teaches not “only faith” but also repentance, confession and immersion for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:20-21; Acts 22:16, etc.)
This plan is integral to those who are added to the number of a local church.    If a church is teaching a different plan of salvation it is a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6-9) and should be rejected.

h.       Other considerations – a local church has a local treasury and practices its discipline locally. 

 

There may be other considerations, but if you weigh these elements, you will find the Lord’s church and you can serve God with confidence.  Here, we strive to follow this pattern in all that we do.   May God be pleased with what we do and may we always strive to be the church of Christ.  Think about it.