When you ask, “What is the church?” men will give you a variety of answers. Some think the church is a building; some think that the church is composed of all of the saved of all denominations; some use the term to refer to a part of the saved who rally around a certain body of doctrines and form of organization. Each of these ideas manifests a misunderstanding of what the church is.
Meaning of “Church”
The word “church” simply means “the called out ones.” It can be used in a non-religious sense (Acts 19:32, 41 – “assembly”) to refer to any called out (assembled) body of people. However, it is used in a special sense to refer to those who have been called out by Jesus. When used with reference to those called out by Christ, the word is used in these senses: (a) universal to refer to everyone whom Christ has called out (Matt. 16:18 f; Eph. 5:23-25); (b) local to refer to those in a given place who have been called out by Christ (1 Cor. 1:2 f; 1 Thess. 1:1).
The Called Out Body
Why are God’s people referred to as a “called out body”? Let us consider the pertinent facts.
1. They have received a divine calling. God Himself has “called us with an holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9). “God has called us . . . ” (1 Cor. 7:15; f; 1 Pet. 5:10).
2. They have been called into fellowship with God. “‘God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9; f. 1 Jn. 1:14).
3. They have been called out of darkness into light. “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). God’s calling is a call to turn from sin and wickedness to walk in the pathway of righteousness. When Paul was commissioned to go to the Gentiles, he was sent “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God. . . ” (Acts 26:18). Christians have forsaken the works of the flesh in order to enjoy the fruit of the Spirit.
4. They have been called into the Lord’s kingdom. Paul wrote, “. . . that ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you into the kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12). Those who have heard the Lord’s call and answered it are fellow citizens with the saints. They are no longer under the authority and dominion of Satan; they have become citizens of the eternal kingdom and under the authority of Jesus Christ. As citizens of the kingdom, they enjoy all of the joys and privileges of citizens.
5. They have been called to inherit heaven. The hope of our calling is heaven. “. . . knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9). “. . . that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18; cf. 4:4). Those who have been called by God have a rich and abiding hope that they shall live eternally in the presence and fellowship of God in heaven.
These facts demonstrate for us that the church is composed of those people who have heard the calling of God and answered it. Hence, the church is the saved people of the world. Those who are not part of the church are not part of the saved. A man cannot be saved without becoming a part of the called out body of Christ.
How We Are Called
If a man must be a part of the called-out body of Christ in order to be saved, he needs to learn how to be called of God. Paul wrote,
But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you brethren beloved of the Lord, because God has from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 2:13-14).
God calls us through the gospel. This is the same gospel which is to be preached to every creature of every nation of the whole world (Matt. 28:18-20 f; Mk. 16:15-16). Those who hear that gospel preached hear the call of God. Those who respond in obedience to the gospel answer the Lord’s invitation.
Hence, God does not call us through some still, small voice in mysterious ways and circumstances. He calls us through the gospel. The invitation is not limited to a few “elect”; the invitation is extended to every man.
While on earth, Jesus called men saying, “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). This invitation to come has been extended to all men in the preaching of the gospel.
The conditions for answering that call are: (a) hearing, for one cannot answer an invitation which he has not heard (Rom 10:17); (b) belief in the gospel of Christ (Jn 8:24); (c) confession of faith in Christ (Rom 10:9,10) (d) repentance of sins (Lk. 13:3 f; Acts 17:30); (e) baptism in water (Acts 2:38 f; Mk. 16:15-16). Those who have done these things have answered heaven’s call and are a part of the called out body of Christ – the church.
Conclusion: All of those who have obeyed the gospel are members of the Lord’s called out body – the church. None of those who have not obeyed the gospel are members of the called-out body. The denominations of men do not teach the gospel plan of salvation; they delude men into thinking that they can be saved by “faith only,” before and without water baptism. To speak of those who have never obeyed the gospel of Jesus Christ as being members of the church deludes people into thinking they are saved when they are lost. Those who have never obeyed the gospel are not members of the Lord’s church, although they may be members of the church established by Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Smyth, Joseph Smith, Ellen White, and others.
Some have suggested that we ought to fellowship the Christians in all denominations. First of all, we ask how can one become a Christian without obeying the gospel? Hence, are the denominations filled with Christians (men who have obeyed the gospel)? Secondly, if these people are not Christians whose doctrine and practice are pleasing to God, we should not fellowship them (Eph. 5:11). Joining hands in fellowship with them endorses their errors in violation of 2 John 9-11.
The Lord’s church is not made up of the good people of all denominations. It is composed of those who have obeyed the Lord’s gospel in order to become a Christian and who continue to abide in in the doctrine of Christ and His apostles (Acts 2:42 f; 2 Jn 9). Instead of joining hands with the denominations, we need to be preaching the Lord’s call for men to forsake humanly devised religion in order to become members of His church.