Jesus promised to his disciples to build his church (Matt 16:13-19). There is no question, after reading these passages, that it was the intention of Jesus not to build any church but to build his church. The greatest problem to mankind today is to determine if he really did and, if he did, which one is it? Perhaps one way to determine what the church of Christ really is is to determine what it is not.
1. The church of Christ is not a material building constructed of perishable materials such as brick, wood, etc. (Acts 7:48; 17:24). Fear may come upon the church (Acts 5:11); from this fact it is clear that the people are under consideration. The church has ears to hear (Acts 11: 22). Again, people are under consideration, not a building. From these facts, we are forced to the conclusion that the church of Christ is not a building of anything material but is composed of people.
2. The church revealed in the Bible is not a continuation of the Jewish tabernacle, temple, or synagogue. The Bible points out that in entering Judaism one simply was born into it, but into the Christian era (i.e, into the church of Christ) one must be born again (John 3:3-5). Since the law of Moses has been blotted out and nailed to the cross of Christ (Col. 2:14), it follows that the institutions utilized under that law are no longer useful to the man who would please God.
3. The church is not a purely social organization to be used for the betterment of society, or for social change, not even for social activities among its members. Although many good social actions follow the deeds of dedicated Christians who may make up the local church in a given community, their primary function is spiritual. The social benefits are simply by-products of a spirit of Christ possessed by the membership. When the building where the church meets in a given community is misused for social functions, the nature of the church in its function and ownership is misunderstood.
4. The church is not a political organization any more than it is a social organization. Those who make up the local assembly in a given locality are encouraged to be good citizens in their community and in their country, but the purpose for the church’s existence is not to change the political status of a nation or of the world as such, but to change the life of the individuals who inhabit this globe (Matt. 28:18-20). From this, we know that the church is not a political institution at all. Christians are citizens of heaven and as such dwell not in the cares of this world but in the world to come (Philip 3:20 f; 2 Tim, 2:4).
5. The church is not a denomination. Denominations are founded by men and women. The church which Christ built was built by Jesus Christ (Matt 16:18). The Roman Catholic Church is the first false religious organization having come into existence about 606 A.D., Boniface III becoming the first “universal bishop.” In 1520, Martin Luther founded the Lutheran Church. In about 1534 Henry VIII founded the Church of England which became in America the Episcopalian Church. In 1536 John Calvin founded the Presbyterian Church. In 1550 Robert Browne founded the Congregational Church. In 1607 John Smythe founded the Baptist Church. In 1739 John Wesley founded the Methodist Church. About 1830 Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church. About 1830 William Miller founded the Adventists. About 1866 Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science. About 1872 Charles T. Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses. About 1907 a merger of several smaller groups formed the Nazarene Church.
We could go on and on with this list until we would have named literally hundreds of different religious bodies, yet not one of them is the church you may read about in the Bible. Why? Because the church of Christ is not a denomination; it was not founded by man and is the only church found in the New Testament.
After establishing some facts relative to what the church is not, let us examine the Bible to determine what the Church is.
1. The church is a spiritual institution composed of saved people (Acts 2:37-47 ff; 1 Cor. 10:17; Eph. 1:10; 4:4-5; Col. 3:11).
2. The church of Christ is an assembly. The word church occurs 23 times in Acts, 62 times in Paul’s letters, 2 times in Hebrews, once in James, 3 times in the third epistle of John, and 20 times in the book of Revelation.
The word as it refers to Christians means either, a “local assembly” or the “universal church” (i.e. the body of Christ). As we look to the teaching of the Bible in this regard we may see how the words are used and translated in their contexts. Notice the following:
A. In the following passages the word is used to describe a local assembly (i.e. congregation): Acts 5:11 cf; 8:1,3; 9:31; 15:22; 20:28 ff; Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; 4:17, etc.
B. In the following passages reference is generally applied to the universal church: Matt. 16:18 ff; Eph. 1:22; 3:10,21; 5:23,24,25,27,29; Col. 1: 18,24; 1 Tim. 3:15, etc.
The church of Christ is a building not made with hands, a building composed of saved people. When we fail to appreciate these features of the church we simply are failing to appreciate the relationship which we sustain to Christ who has purchased it with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
3. In the third place the church of Christ is an institution that Christ, its founder, adds the saved to (Acts 2:47). That being true, only the truly saved belong to it. In its local sense anyone may palm themselves off as a member, but in the universal sense only the saved belong to it. This difference is understood when we have properly understood the differences between the church in its local sense and the church in its universal sense.