In Defense of...Christ's Church
“But when the fulness of the time came,” the apostle Paul wrote, “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). God-incarnate had come to Earth, bringing the “good news” about the last and final covenant that Heaven would make with man. The series of events that began with the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, and culminated in His death, burial, and resurrection outside Jerusalem approximately thirty-three years later, stirred a whirlwind of controversy in the first century. Twenty centuries later, it still does.
To the Christian, there is little of more importance than the proclamation and defense of the Old Jerusalem Gospel that is able to save men’s souls. Christianity did not come into the world with a whimper, but a bang. It was not in the first century, neither is it intended to be in the twentieth, something “done in a corner.” Instead, it arrived like a trumpet’s clarion call.
Christ spent three-and-a-half years teaching in order to make disciples. When finally He was ready to call them to action, it was not for a quiet retreat into the peaceful, nearby hills. He never intended that they be “holy men” who set themselves apart to spend each hour of every day in serene meditation. Rather, they were to be soldiers—fit for a spiritual battle against forces of evil (Ephesians 6:10-17). Jesus called for action, self-denial, uncompromising love for truth, and zeal coupled with knowledge. His words to those who would follow Him were: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). And many did.
The teaching did not stop when Christ left to return to His home in heaven. He had trained others—apostles and disciples—to continue the task He had begun. They were sent to the uttermost parts of the world with the mandate to proclaim the gospel boldly through preaching and teaching (Matthew 28:18-20). This they did daily (Acts 5:42). The result was additional, new disciples. They too, then, were instructed and grounded in the fundamentals of God’s Word (Acts 2:42), and sent on their way to teach still others.
The results were extraordinary indeed. In a single day, in a single city, over 3,000 constituted the original church as a result of the teaching they had heard from Christ’s apostles (see Acts 2:41). In fact, so effective was this kind of instruction that the enemies of Christianity attempted to prohibit any further public teaching (Acts 4:18; 5:28), yet to no avail. Two millennia later, the theme of the Cross still is alive, vibrant, and forceful. Christianity’s central message, the manner in which that message was taught, and the dedication of those into whose hands it had been placed, were too powerful for even its bitterest foes to abate or defeat. That Christianity continues to be taught, and to thrive, is evidence aplenty of this fact.
While it may be true to say that some religions flourish best in secrecy, such is not the case with Christianity. It is intended both to be presented, and to be defended, in the marketplace of ideas. In addition, while some religions eschew open investigation and critical evaluation, Christianity welcomes both. Of all the major religions based upon an individual rather than a mere ideology, it is the only one that claims, and can document, an empty tomb for its Founder.
Furthermore, Christians, unlike adherents to some other religions, do not have an option regarding the distribution and/or dissemination of their faith. The efficacy of God’s saving grace—as made possible through His Son, Jesus Christ—is a message that all accountable people need to hear, and one that Christians are commanded to proclaim (John 3:16; Matthew 28:18-20; cf. Ezekiel 33:7-9).
CHRIST’S CHURCH—HIS SINGULAR,
UNIQUE BODY OF SAVED BELIEVERS
At Caesarea Philippi, situated at the base of Mount Hermon that rises over seven thousand feet above it, Jesus asked His disciples how the public viewed Him. “Who do men say that the Son of man is?,” He inquired (Matthew 16:13). The reply of the disciples was: “Some say, John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (16:14). But Jesus delved deeper when He asked the disciples: “But who say ye that I am?” (16:15). Ever the impulsive one, Simon Peter quickly answered: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Jesus’ response to Peter was this:
Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it (16:17-18).
Jesus had come “in the fulness of time” to bring the one thing that all the Earth’s inhabitants needed. From Cain, the first murderer, to the lawless men who eventually would put Him to death on the cross, mankind desperately needed the salvation that the heavenly plan would provide. In writing to the young evangelist Timothy, Paul observed that it had been God’s plan to save men through Christ even before the foundation of the world. He wrote of God, “who saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal” (2 Timothy 1:9). Through His foreknowledge, God knew that sinful man one day would need redemption from sin. In fact, throughout the history of Israel, God made both promises and prophecies concerning a coming kingdom, and its King. The promise was that from David’s seed, God would build a “house” and “kingdom” (2 Samuel 7:11-17—a promise, incidentally, that was reaffirmed in Psalm 132:11, and preached as reality by Peter in Acts 2:29-34 when the church began). Seven hundred years prior to Christ’s arrival, the great prophet Isaiah foretold:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of Jehovah of hosts will perform this (Isaiah 9:6-7).
Thus, Christ’s exclamation to Peter that the building of His church would be upon a “rock” was nothing more than what the Old Testament prophets had foretold hundreds of years before. Isaiah prophesied: “Therefore, thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone of sure foundation: he that believeth shall not be in haste” (Isaiah 28:16). Later, Peter himself—through inspiration, and no doubt with the events of Caesarea Philippi still fresh on his mind—would make reference to this very rock foundation when he wrote about the “living stone, rejected indeed of men.... The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner” (1 Peter 2:4,7). In fact, even Jesus Himself mentioned the “rejected stone” of Old Testament allusion. In Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, and Luke 20:17, He made reference to the psalmist’s statement about “the stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner” (Psalm 118:22), and applied the rejection of the stone by the builders to the Sanhedrin’s rejection and repudiation of Him.
Sadly, some today erroneously teach that Christ’s church was established out of desperation, as an “emergency measure” set in motion when the Jews rejected Him as Savior. The basis for such a view is the idea that Jesus presented Himself to the Jewish nation as its Messiah, but was rebuffed—a rejection that came as an unexpected surprise to Him and His Father. Christ’s failure to convince the Jews of His rightful place as their King forced Him to have to re-evaluate, and eventually delay, His plans—His intention being to re-establish His kingdom at some distant point in the future. In the meantime, the story goes, He established the church to allay temporarily the complete failure of His mission.
However, such a view ignores the inspired writers’ observations that “before times eternal” God had set in motion His plan for man’s salvation as His Son’s church. [The Greek word ekklesia, translated “church” in the English, denotes God’s “called out.”] It ignores the Old Testament prophecies that specifically predicted Christ’s rejection by the Jews. And, it ignores Christ’s own allusions to those prophecies during His earthly ministry. But worst of all, it impeaches the omniscience of both God and His Son by suggesting that they were “caught off guard” by the Jews’ rejection of Christ as the Messiah, thus causing Heaven’s emissary to have to rethink His plans. What an offensive, and unscriptural, view this is!
Jesus was a man with a mission—and He completed successfully what He had come to accomplish. Deity had come to Earth, taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7) to communicate to man the truth (John 8:32) about the lost state in which man now found himself (Romans 3:23; 6:23), and to pay the ransom for man (Matthew 20:28), thereby extricating him from a situation from which he could not extricate himself (Jeremiah 10:23).
When Christ died upon the cross, it was not for any sin that He personally had committed. Though He was tempted in all points like as we are, He did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). When Peter wrote that Jesus “did not sin,” he employed a verbal tense which suggests that the Lord never sinned—not even once (1 Peter 2:22). Isaiah repeatedly emphasized the substitutionary nature of the Lord’s death when he wrote: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.... Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6). When the prophet declared that our “iniquity” was laid upon the Son of God, he employed a figure of speech known as metonymy (wherein one thing is used to designate another). In this case, the cause is being used for the effect. In other words, God did not actually put our sins upon Christ; He put the penalty of our wrongs upon His Son at Calvary. Yet, in spite of the fact that all sinners deserve to be lost, God provided a way to “escape the judgment of hell” (Matthew 23:33).
Jesus made it clear that He would provide this way of escape through a plan that would result in the establishment of His church—i.e., His body of “the called out.” The first messianic prophecy was to be fulfilled: Satan would bruise the Lord’s heel, but the Lord would overcome, and bruise Satan’s head (Genesis 3:15). Against the building of Christ’s church, not even the Gates of Hades could prevail (Matthew 16:18).
Further, there would be one and only one church. Paul wrote that Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). In Ephesians 1:22, he stated concerning Christ that God “gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body.” Thus, Paul clearly identified the body as the church. Three chapters later, however, in Ephesians 4:4, Paul stated: “There is one body.” Expressed logically, one might reason as follows:
There is one body (Ephesians 4:4).
But Christ is the Savior of the body (Ephesians 5:22).
Thus, Christ is the Savior of one body.
Christ is the Savior of one body.
But the body is the church (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians1:18,24).
Thus, Christ is the Savior of one church.
The body, Christ’s church, would be known as “the church of the Lord” (Acts 20:28), “the church of God” (1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:13), “the house of God” (1 Timothy 3:15), “the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and “the kingdom of God” (Acts 28:23, 31). The Lord’s people were to bear Christ’s name (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The church would be His bride (Revelation 21:2), His wife (Revelation 19:7-8), and His kingdom (Revelation 1:9). Those in it would be victorious over Satan and death forever (1 Corinthians 15:26,54-56; 2 Timothy 1:9-10).
Unfortunately, men sought to alter the divine plan, and to infuse it with their own personal belief systems. Thus, the concept of denominationalism was born. Denominationalism, however, is unknown to, and unauthorized by, the Word of God. A denomination is defined as: “a class or kind having a specific name or value.” We speak of various monetary denominations—a five dollar bill, a ten dollar bill, etc. They are all different. The same is true of religious denominations. They are all different.
Denominationalism ignores the singularity and uniqueness of the true church, and establishes various groups teaching conflicting doctrines that are antagonistic both to the Bible and to each other. It also ignores the church’s relationship to Christ, described so beautifully in Ephesians 5 where Paul reminded first-century Christians that “the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (5:23). The apostle’s point was this: In a physical context, the wife is the bride, and the husband is the bridegroom; in a spiritual context, the church is the bride, and Christ is the bridegroom. [John reiterated this in Revelation 21:9.] In Acts, Peter discussed Christ’s relationship to His church when he observed that “neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Denominations are man-made institutions that neither are recognized in, nor sanctioned by, the Word of God. The simple truth of the matter is that John the Baptist—while a marvelous harbinger of the Messiah—did not die to establish the church. Why, then, be a member of a denomination bearing his name? As great a reformer as Martin Luther was, the fact remains that he did not die to establish the church. Why, then, be a member of a denomination bearing his name? The early church’s presbyters (i.e., elders, bishops, overseers) did not give their lives on a cross to establish the church. Why, then, be a member of a denomination named after such men? The Bible—although it prophesies the coming of the church and documents its arrival—did not make possible the church. Why, then, be a member of a “Bible church”? Instead, should not Christians seek to be simply a member of the singular church that honors Christ’s authority, and that He purchased with His blood? It is His bride; He is its bridegroom. His congregations are called the “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16).
Those who are true New Testament Christians are those who have done exactly what God has commanded them to do to be saved, in exactly the way God has commanded that it be done. In so doing, they have not “joined” some man-made religious denomination that, like a five-dollar bill is one denomination among many others, is simply one religious group among many others. If the church is the body, and there is only one body, then there is only one church. Further, one does not “join” the church. The Scriptures teach that as a person is saved, God Himself “adds” that person to the one true church (Acts 2:41) that bears His Son’s name.
CHRIST’S CHURCH—HIS DIVINELY DESIGNED,
BLOOD-BOUGHT, SPIRIT-FILLED KINGDOM
During His earthly ministry, Jesus taught: “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Having such authority from His Father, He alone possessed the right to be Head of the church, His singular body of believers (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). Recognizing Christ’s position as authoritative Head of the church, Paul was constrained to remind Christians: “And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of [by the authority of—BT] the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).
Christ announced while on Earth that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18). It would be divinely designed (John 10:25; Acts 2:23), blood-bought (Acts 20:28), and Spirit-filled (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Romans 8:9-10). On Pentecost following the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection, Peter rebuked the Jews for their duplicity in killing God’s Son, and convicted them of their sin of murder (Acts 2:22-23). Luke recorded that they were “pricked in their heart” and sought to make restitution and be forgiven (Acts 2:27). On that fateful day, at least 3,000 people were added together by God to constitute Christ’s church (Acts 2:41). Later, Luke noted that great fear fell upon the whole church as a result of God’s having disciplined sinners within it (Acts 5:11). There is no doubt that the church was established in Christ’s generation.
The Bible speaks of the church as Christ’s kingdom. Jesus said the time for its coming had been “fulfilled” (Mark 1:15), and that the kingdom was as near as the generation of people to whom He spoke, since some of them would not taste of death before they saw the kingdom of heaven come (Mark 9:1). Paul taught that the church is constituted of saints (1 Corinthians 1:1-2). But when he wrote his epistle to the Colossians (c. A.D. 62), he specifically stated that by that time the saints in the church at Colossae were subjects in “the kingdom of the Son of his love” (Colossians 1:13). If the kingdom had not been established, then Paul erred in saying that the Colossians already were in it. [Those who teach that the church and the kingdom are separate, and that the kingdom has yet to arrive, must contend that there are living on the Earth today some of the very people to whom Jesus spoke nearly 2,000 years ago—since He stated that some who heard Him would not die until the kingdom had come (Mark 9:1).]
The New Testament teaches that the church is composed of individuals purchased with the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28), and that those so purchased were made to be a kingdom (Revelation 1:5-6; 5:9-10). Since the church and the kingdom both are composed of blood-purchased individuals, the church and the kingdom must be the same. And since the Christians that constitute the church were themselves translated into the kingdom, it is conclusive that the church and the kingdom are the same. The establishment of the kingdom coincided with the establishment of the church. Not only did the Lord foretell both the establishment of the kingdom and the church in the His generation, but the New Testament writers spoke of both the church and the kingdom as being in existence during the very generation of His arrival (i.e., the first century).
CHRIST’S TRIUMPHANT CHURCH
From the first to the last of His earthly ministry, Jesus admonished those who would be His disciples that they would be both controversial, and persecuted. He warned them:
Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law: and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household (Matthew 10:34-36).
Jesus wanted no misunderstanding about the trials and tribulations His followers would endure. He constantly reminded them of such (Matthew 10:16, 39; 16:24; 24:9; John 15:2,18, 20; 16:1-2; 21:18-19). While He desired that men be at peace with men, His primary goal was to bring men to a peaceful, covenant relationship with God. In addressing the Christians at Rome, Paul wrote:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35,37-39).
Christ alerted His followers to the pressure yet to be brought upon them by other religions (Matthew 10:17), by civil governments (Matthew 10:18), and sadly, by some of their own (2 Thessalonians 3:1ff.). He said: “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:22). History records that Christ’s words accurately depicted what was to befall those early saints. As James O. Baird has noted: “In actuality, Christianity was opposed more vigorously than any other religion in the long history of Rome” (1978, p. 29).
Persecution against the church was, and is, rooted in the nature and work of Christ: “But me it hateth, because I testify of it, that its works are evil” (John 7:7). The world hated Christ because of the judgment He brought against what the world is, does, and loves. It will hate those in the church who remind it—by word and deed—of this judgment. Jesus lamented: “If the world hateth you, ye know that it hath hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Hatred often results in persecution. The church, if true to its mission, will be opposed. But Jesus also said:
Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).
One thing, however, was beyond doubt. Those saints who remained faithful—even unto death if necessary—would be triumphant (Revelation 2:10). As the great Restorationist, F.G. Allen, so beautifully wrote:
One by one will we lay our armor down at the feet of the Captain of our salvation. One by one will we be laid away by tender hands and aching hearts to rest on the bosom of Jesus. One by one will our ranks be thus thinned, till erelong we shall all pass over to the other side. But our cause will live. Eternal truth shall never perish. God will look down from His habitation on high, watch over it in His providence, and encircle it in the arms of His love. God will raise up others to take our places; and may we transmit the cause to them in its purity! Though dead, we shall thus speak for generations yet to come, and God grant that we shall give no uncertain sound! Then may we from our blissful home on high, watch the growth of the cause we love, till it shall cover the whole earth as the waters cover the face of the great deep (1949, pp. 176-177).
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In the March 1998 issue of Reason & Revelation (“In Defense Of...God’s Plan of Salvation”), I addressed the biblical requirements for entrance into Christ’s church. Space limitations precluded such a discussion in this article.]
Allen, F.G. (1949), “The Principles and Objects of the Current Reformation,” Foundation Facts and Primary Principles, ed. G.C. Brewer (Kansas City, MO: Old Paths Book Club).
Baird, James O. (1978), “The Trials and Tribulations of the Church from the Beginning,” The Future of the Church, ed. William Woodson (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman College).