What is the church of Christ? It means different things to different people, but the bible has a definitive definition as to what the church really means. How can you truly know you are a member of the right church unless you first can define what the church truly means?
There is the Church of Christ in the “universal” sense and it is composed of all Christians. The church to which Jesus referred in Mt 16:18 is made up all the saved, both living and dead. Heb 12:22-24 There is just one universal church which is called the “body” of Christ. Eph 1:22-23 There is only one “body” (Eph 4:4); therefore, only one church. It began on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, following the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Ac 2:1-47 As Peter later referred to this day, it was the “beginning”. Ac 11:15
One cannot “join” the church by their own volition. Rather, they are “added” by the Lord Himself when they obey the gospel of Christ. Acts 2:41,47 The Lord keeps the books of membership. There is no agency on earth that keeps the registry of true members. Enrollment is in heaven and only the Lord knows those who are truly His. Heb 12:23 f; 2Ti 2:19 The church consists of all the saved. The Lord is presenting to Himself a church holy and without blemish. Eph 5:25-27 Those in the church who are sinning and refuse to repent are “cut off”, “cast out”, “spewed out”. Jn 15:2,6 ff; Rom 11:19-22; Rev 3:16
All must be in the church in order to be saved. Eph 5:23 Since the Lord adds one to His church when they are saved, one cannot be saved and not be in the universal church. The church has no earthly organization. However, the universal church has organization . Eph 2:19-22 f;1 Pet 2:5 Christ is its cornerstone, together with His apostles and prophets as the foundation, and all Christians as “living stones”. The church can’t be divided, for there is no earthly organization to divide. If division appears to exist, some unscriptural organization of churches must have been created. Such organizations can have division, but not the Lord’s universal church.Those who would seek to divide the church through doctrine, conduct, etc., are simply cut off by the Lord Himself.
Death doesn’t affect membership, for the universal church is made up of the saved, both living and dead. Heb 12:22-23 When one dies, they are still with Christ! Philip 1:21-23 f;1Th 5:10 Despite those who believe the church has many names, the church was named after the one who bled and died for it. The scriptures define the word ‘Body’ as to mean ‘Church’ and visa versa. Col 1:18 f; Eph 1:22,23 All Christians are members of the body of Christ. 1 Cor 12:13, 27 If body means church and church means body, then it is quite apparent that all members of the body of Christ are members of the church of Christ. In all references to the name of the church, ownership has never been denied. Even when the church is called the church of God, the God the scriptures has in reference is not God the Father or God the Holy Spirit, but rather God the Son. Acts 20:28 Even church of the first born is in reference to Christ. Heb 12:23 Therefore, all other names are invalid and impostors of the real church, the church of Christ.
There are churches of Christ in the “local” sense composed of Christians in one location. A local church is made up of Christians in one geographical area. The church at Corinth, the church of the Thessalonians are prime examples. 1Co 1:2; 1Th 1:1 There are many local churches of Christ. Rom 16:16 f; Gal 1:2 Wherever people join together, as the gospel spreads and people respond to it, those in a particular area start a local church when they agree to work together as one. Just as the church in Antioch began later than the church in Jerusalem. Acts 11:19-26 Whereas the universal church began in Jerusalem on Pentecost, local churches have begun at different places and different times. When one wishes to become an accepted member of the local church, they must “adjoin themselves” to that church such as Paul sought to do when he came to the church in Jerusalem. Acts 9:26-28 Whereas one is “added” by the Lord Himself to the universal church, we can seek to “join” a local congregation (if its members are willing to accept us). Enrolled by human judgment, whether we are accepted into a local church is a decision made by the leaders or members of that church. Sometimes people are rejected when they should be received and received when they should be rejected. 3Jn 5-9 Evil men may succeed in kicking one out of a local church, but only the Lord determines who stays or remains out of the universal church.
The local church consists of both saved and lost, since enrollment occurs through human judgment, because fallible decisions can be made. A local church may therefore have some who are nominal Christians. Re 3:1-4 Hypocrites may become members of a local church, but they can’t deceive the Lord to become members of the universal church. One can be saved and not belong to any local church. Such was the case of the Eunuch immediately following his conversion, and of Paul when he was in transit between Antioch and Jerusalem. Ac 8:39 f; 9:26 Of course, this should be temporary locally; in the universal church, it is impossible! Evangelist are examples of members of the universal church who are displaced from a local church or where a local church can’t be found.
A local church, when scripturally organized, will have bishops and deacons when and whenever possible. Philip 1:1 These bishops were also called “elders” and “pastors” whose role was to oversee and feed the local congregation. Acts 14:23 f; 20:17,28 Local churches can easily be divided over doctrine or personalities. Such was the case with the church at Corinth – 1Cor 1:10-13; 3:3,4 Death does affect membership, for when we die our membership in a local congregation ends. When Stephen died, he was no longer a member of the Jerusalem church. Acts 8:1-2 However, our membership in the universal church continues even after death.
CONCLUSION: What is the Church of Christ? It is not a denomination among other denominations. It is the Lord’s church, as defined and revealed in the New Testament. It bears His NAME, HIS GOSPEL, and His DOCTRINE. Rom 16:16 ff; Rom 2:16; 2 Jn 9 There is none other name given among men whereby we must be saved. Acts 4:12 All the saved are added to the universal church and all those who should be saved belong to a local church of Christ. The universal church of Christ contains the manifold wisdom of God and is the pillar and ground of the truth. Eph 3:10 f; 1 Tim 3:15 And so does the local churches of Christ which abides by the doctrine of Christ. The church of Christ is not one among many churches, but is the only church which Christ died for and to which all the saints belong!