WHERE IS THE TRUE CHURCH?
Biblical Keys for the Searcher after Truth
There are many Christians who teach that the "true Church" is invisible, being made up of all people of all denominations who love the Lord in sincerity and try to serve Him the best way they know how. There is certainly some truth in this and New Covenant Christians refer to this Body of Believers as the invisible Church of the Holy Spirit.
There is, however, no good reason why the "true Church" should not be visible. As the Bible clearly teaches, the time will come when good people everywhere will detach themselves from their present affiliations and identify themselves with the body that most closely conforms to God's ideals in this present evil world (Rev.18:4).
Suppose someday you should look for such a body, what would you expect to find? What would it teach? What should be its standards? How should it conduct itself?
Here your Bible can be a "lamp to your feet and a light to your path" (Ps.119:105). Within its pages you will find all the specifications necessary for easy identification of the true Church.
1. It will radiate the love of God.
Jesus said: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35, RSV). Love is paramount. Any group that is critical, censorious, and legalistic could not possibly be the true Church. "He who does not love does not know God," says the apostle John, "for God is love" (1 John 4:8, RSV). "Beloved," he adds, "let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God" (v.7). Again he says: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (v.16).
In his great chapter on love the apostle Paul suggests that though a group may claim to have apostles, prophets, teachers, and even miracle workers, if it does not manifest love, it is no more than a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Cor.12:28-13:1, RSV).
In other words, love, expressed in kindness, graciousness, tolerance, and compassion, is the most conspicuous sign of the true Church.
2. It will exalt Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
Once when Jesus was talking with His disciples He asked them to tell Him who they thought He was. "Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt.16:16,18, AV).
"Upon this rock" Christ builds His Church. Not upon Peter, of course, but upon Peter's glorious affirmation of the divinity of Christ. Belief in this great truth is fundamental. As Paul says: "...if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom.10:9, NIV).
"Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved," said the apostle Peter (Acts 4:12).
John declared: "If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God" (1 John 4:15, NIV). And what is true of the individual is also true of a religious group. Unless it exalts Jesus Christ as the Son of God and confesses His divinity before men, it is not, and cannot be, the true Church. (See Matt. 10:32-33).
3. It will honour the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God.
In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul says: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim.3:16-17, RSV).
Likewise he tells the Romans: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope" (Rom.15:4, RSV). Former instructions are as valid today as they were then; all that was true in the New Covenant in former days is still true today, and whatever is preached today in the true Church will therefore harmonise with what was taught in olden times.
Peter says that the Word of God "liveth and abideth for ever" (1 Pet.1:23, AV) and that the "holy men of God" who wrote it "as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet.1:21).
Such was the attitude of the early Christians to the Holy Scriptures. They revered all that was written by the prophets, apostles, seers, and revelators -- past and present -- as the inspired Word of God. So will the true Church today.
4. It will obey all the Commandments as the holy law of God.
"By this we may be sure that we know Him," says the apostle John, "if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him' but disobeys His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in Him: he who abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked" (1 John 2:3-6, RSV).
So to be sure that we "know Him" and that we are "in Him" we must keep His commandments and walk as He walked.
How did Jesus walk? Unquestionably in the way of the Ten Commandments. "I have kept My Father's commandments," He says, "and abide in His love" (John 15:10, AV). Again, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Matt.5:17).
One great purpose of His first advent was to "magnify the law, and make it honourable" (Isa.42:21, AV), and such will be the purpose of His true Church in every age. Indeed it is said of His people in the last days of earth's history: "Here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus" (Rev.14:12, AV).
5. It will practice the Biblical method of baptism.
This follows very simply from the command of Jesus to His disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt.28:19, RSV).
Baptism in Bible times was not by sprinkling, but by immersion. You will find an example of this in Acts 8:38, where Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch "went down into the water" and later came up "out of the water". And there was a good reason for this method, as Paul points out in his letter to the Romans.
"Do you not know," he says, "that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom.6:3-4, RSV).
By allowing himself to be lowered under the water a new member of the Church signified his willingness to die to his old life of sin. By rising out of the water he declared his determination to live a new life in Christ.
It was a fitting introduction to the true Church, and its valuable meaning has not changed with the passing years.
6. It will teach the saints the "meat" doctrine once they have been obedient to, and matured in, the elementary principles of the "milk" doctrine.
Says the apostle Paul: "Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food ('meat' -- AV) is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." He continues: "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts (useless rituals) that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so" (Heb.5:13-6:3, NIV).
The true Church will teach new converts, and allow them to mature into, the six elementary principles of the gospel which are: (1) Repentance from acts of sin, (2) Faith in God, (3) Baptisms -- Baptism by immersion and the Gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 10:45), (4) The Laying on of Hands for healing the sick (Jas.5:14-16), the blessing of children (Mark 10:14-16), ordination (Acts 13:2-3; 1 Pet.2:5) and Confirmation (Acts 8:14-17), (5) The physical resurrection of the dead (John 11:25), and (6) Eternal Judgment (Matt.25:14-30).
To those who are grounded in the "milk Gospel" (Heb.5:13) the Lord promises to reveal "the secret ('mystery' -- AV) of the Kingdom of God" (Mark 4:11, NIV) and give "the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past" (Rom.16:25, NIV) which are to be "made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God..." (v.26). This is "God's secret wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began" (1 Cor.2:7, NIV).
Those who are true and faithful have the promise of knowing "the deep things of God" (v.10), the "mystery made known...by revelation...by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (Eph.3:3-4, NIV). These Christians become members of "Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God" (Heb.12:22, NIV). They become members of "the Church of the Firstborn" (v.23).
The true Church will therefore not only be administering the "elementary principles" of the gospel but also teaching the saints how to come to full spiritual maturity.
7. It will teach the New Covenant's form of financial stewardship.
In the parable of the talents Jesus taught the importance of financial accountability (Matt.25:14-30). The apostles taught the importance of hospitality and of sharing freely the gifts that God bestows upon His people (1 Pet.4:10).
To ensure equality between Christians, God gave the Law of All Things in Common or United Order to replace the preparatory Law of Tithing which was a part of the Old Covenant (Lev.27:30,32; Num.18:26; Deut.12:17; 14:22-23,28; 2 Chr.31:5; Neh.10:38; 13:12; Matt.23:23; etc.).
Luke wrote: "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No-one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had" (Acts 4:32, NIV). As a result of their obedience to this New Covenant Law, "...much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need" (v.33-35).
The true Church will therefore have apostles who, in addition to "testifying to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus" (v.33) will receive the wealth of the saints and distribute it as they shall have need.
8. It will declare the Lord's Supper in simplicity.
Says the apostle Paul to the Corinthians: "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said: 'This is My body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.' In the way also the cup, after supper, saying: 'This cup is the New Covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Cor.11:23-26, RSV, variant rendition).
He is something the true Church will do until the end of time. No grand and pompous ceremony is called for, but the reverent partaking of bread and wine in memory of the sufferings and sacrifice of its Founder.
How simple was the first such service revealed in Matt.26:20-30, Luke 22:7-20, and Mark 14:17-25, and John adds the sweet story of how, in preparation for the solemn ceremony, Jesus humbly knelt and washed His disciples' feet. "If I then, your Lord and Teacher (Master), have washed your feet," He says, "you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not a servant is not greater than his master; nor is He who is sent greater than He who sent Him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them" (John 13:14-17, RSV).
This ceremony -- footwashing followed by the Lord's Supper -- was conducted in private away from the world. The true Church will be found following Jesus' bidding and example.
9. It will possess the gifts of the Spirit.
When the Holy Spirit came upon the early Church it brought varieties of gifts" (1 Cor.12:4, RSV). To one was given "the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues (languages), to another the interpretation (translation) of tongues (languages)" (v.8-11).
Each of these gifts was for the help and blessing of the Church. Those receiving them were to work together in harmony for the edification of the entire membership, with no exaltation of one above another.
Repeating this information to the Ephesians, Paul says: "And His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph.4:11-13, RSV).
In view of the fact that these gifts are to remain with the Church until it attains "the stature of the fullness of Christ", it follows that all of them are still available to the true Church. Where they are in evidence, that Church is likely to be found.
10. It will be modest in appearance and gentle in spirit.
It would hard to associate the Church of the humble Galilean with lavish display, ornate ceremonies, and wasteful extravagance. Such things are completely out of harmony with His life of humble, holy, selfless service for others.
Says the apostle Peter, remembering the precious days by Galilee: "But as He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I AM holy'" (1 Pet.1:15, RSV). Then he bids women not to overdress, but rather to put on the "ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price" (AV). To all the saints he says: "Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary, bless, for to this you have been called..." (1 Pet. 3:1-9, RSV).
This is the sort of Church God wants today. Its members will manifest the same beautiful spirit both in their private lives and corporate activities.
11. It will be clean-living, upright, and noble,
eager to help in all good works.
The grace of God, says the apostle Paul, teaches us that "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world," if for no other reason than that Jesus"have Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus 2:12,14, AV).
Likewise Peter describes the followers of Jesus as "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people."
"As strangers and pilgrims," he exhorts, "abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that... they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation" (1 Pet.2:11-12, AV).
Ever seeking by divine grace to emulate the perfect example of their beloved Master, members of the true Church will be conspicuous for their upright and noble lives and their eagerness to help the needy. When disaster strikes, be it fire, flood, or famine, they will be the first in line to serve their fellow men.
12. It will abstain from all pagan customs.
Many Christian customs (so-called) are of pagan origin. Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus said: "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, 'This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.' You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men." (Mark 7:6-8, RSV).
He went on: "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!" (v.9). Paul likewise warned: "See that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than of Christ" (Col.2:8, NIV).
Christmas is one of these traditions. The whole Christian world knows that it is pagan in origin. "This is what the Lord says: 'Do not learn the ways of the nations'" (Jer.10:2, NIV). Yet that is what the majority of the Christian world does. Most Christians know that Christmas is pagan but invent all sorts of excuses to justify its continuance as a Christian festival even though the Bible nowhere speaks of a 25 December birth of Christ. Christmas has become so secularized in the Western world that it is almost exclusively used as an excuse to waste money and indulge in riotous behaviour. As a religious festival it has almost become meaningless.
Whilst Christians are given the freedom to honour Christ whenever they want, including 25 December (Rom.14:5-6) they are not given the freedom to imitate pagan practices. The Lord says: "The customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest...they adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not totter" (Jer.10:3-4, NIV). Every Christmas millions of Christians cut down pine trees and adorn them with decorations!
The true Church will not be observing "worthless customs" that are an needless drain on the family economy and contrary to the law of financial stewardship. These include Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Valentine's Day, etc.. Instead they will honour the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord has commanded, from one week to the next. If they do honour the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it will be free from all pagan trappings.
13. It will Possess Divine Authority
Religious authority is important for a Church claiming to be true. But what is that authority? This is defined in many ways in the Bible. Throughout His ministry there was always a contest between the legalistic authority of the Pharisees as the "custodians of the Law" and the true authority of Jesus Christ and His apostles.
(a) Divine Authority is authentic, powerful teaching: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at His teaching, because He taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the Law" (Matt.7:28-29, NIV). The teachers of the law (Scribes) taught from the written scriptures, just as many Christians do today, yet they lacked authority. Jesus's authority lay in the loftiness of His teachings -- the new revelation He brought -- and the presence of the Holy Spirit which delivered them through His mouth. True authority is therefore spiritual power and knowledge. This is the true sense of the meaning of the term "Word of God".
(b) Divine Authority is the power to forgive sins which is demonstrated in healing: "'But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...' Then He said to the paralytic, 'Get up, take up your mat and go home.' And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men" (Matt.9:6-8, NIV; see also Matt.10:1).
(c) Divine Authority is not rank: "Jesus called them together and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.." (Matt.20:25-27, NIV).
(d) Divine Authority is not given by mortal men to each other but comes directly from heaven: "Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him. 'By what authority are you doing these things?' they asked. 'And who gave you this authority?" (Matt.21:23, NIV). Notice that although Jesus was a legally ordained Rabbi according to the Law of Moses, He did not claim this as His authority. Instead, He asked them where John the Baptist -- who was an ordained Levitical Priest -- got his authority to baptize: "Was it from heaven, or from men?" (v.24-27).
(e) Divine Authority is vested in Jesus Christ: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me" (Matt.28:18).
(f) Those who have Divine Authority will therefore "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them (by immersion) in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (v.19). They will also "teach them to obey EVERYTHING (Christ) has commanded" (v.20). With such people Christ will be always, "to the very end of the age" (v.20).
This is how divine authority in the true Church is defined by Christ Himself. Though there is certainly what may be called "outer" or "legalistic" authority (Matt.23:2-3) within a Christian denomination, it is not the essence of divine or spiritual authority, which is divine knowledge, spiritual power, obedience to the commandments, humility and service.
14. It will look eagerly for Christ's return.
This outreach to others will be an outgrowth of a firm belief in the personal return of Jesus. The church that is "zealous for good deeds" will look with longing for the fulfillment of the blessed hope, "the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13, RSV).
It will cherish the Master's promise, "If I go...I will come again" (John 14:1-3).
It will ever be on the alert for the promised signs of His return (Luke 21:25-27).
It will heed His solemn warning to "watch" with increasing vigilance as it sees the day approaching (Matt.24:42), while its constant prayer will be: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus" (Rev.22:20).
Belief in Christ's literal, physical return is one of the most vital marks of the true Church.
15. It will have a world program.
It cannot help it, however small it may be. Ringing in its ears will be the Master's command: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15, AV). Nor will it ever forget His prediction: "This gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt.24:14, AV).
In the light of these great passages of Scripture, the true Church, no matter how small it may be, will not confine its activities to one locality, or one country, or even one continent. Its eyes will roam over the whole wide world. Its vision and compassion will reach to "every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people" (Rev.14:6).
With a mission program that encircles the globe, its members will dedicate themselves and their all to completing the proclamation of the "everlasting gospel" in order that their beloved Lord may soon return in glory. Fearlessly, daringly, confidently, they will cry "with a loud voice" to all mankind, "Fear God, and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come: and worship Him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of the waters" (v.7).
If you should ever hear this message, look at its messengers and their manner of life. Examine their credentials in the light of your Bible. See whether they fit in with the 15 identifying marks set forth in this booklet. If they do, let your heart leap with joy. You may well have discovered God's True Church, the spiritual home you have been seeking.
This page was created on 27 December 1997
Last updated on 20 February 1998
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