Money, politics and religion can stir up controversy. Within Christendom, opinions about church run deep. Yet, most agree what the New Testament teaches, such as its insistence there is one church. Disagreement arises over how this teaching should be applied to our world.
Can we understand how the Bible’s teaching regarding one church relates to our world? Can the confusion be untangled? I believe yes.
The appropriate starting question is, “what is the church?” If we are going to allow scripture, not sociology nor inherited perspectives, to define it we will have a reliable answer.
From the New Testament we learn that the church consists of those people who by grace have been purchased by Christ’s blood, whom the Lord has added to his one community, who seek to serve God and in whom God dwells by his Spirit. Another biblical description could be it is Christ’s new covenant community made holy, forgiven and brought into existence by his blood.
Where can we find this one church within our world today? The straightforward answer, that most of Christendom would accept, is wherever you find those whom the Lord claims as his people. This might not seem like much of a step forward toward clarity, however it is for two reasons.
First, it strips away our faulty definitions of the church. Since the church is made up of those who have been bought by Christ’s blood, understanding who God is purchasing and adding to the church, will enable us to recognize the Lord’s one body. Accordingly, this means that if we are going to see the one church in today’s world, we can not look at brick and mortar, nor any other principle beyond asking that fundamental critical question, has God added these people to his one church?
The determinative principle for being the church is neither the size of a gathering, the historical lineage of a community, people engaging in worship, the title on a shingle hanging over a doorway, nor the ardent claims, “We know the Lord.” What determines whether a community belongs to God’s one people is simply this: Does the Lord acknowledge these people as his because Christ’s blood has redeemed them? (Galatians 4:9; Mt. 7:21-23; 1 Jn. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:19; Eph. 2:13-22).
It is precisely at this point where we might be tempted to switch our definition of what identifies the church. We might slip into a sociological or contemporary framework causing us to call a large gathering of worshipers the church, just because they are honoring Christ. However, no one is incapable of transforming themselves into becoming God’s people by worshiping God. We do not become God’s people by works; nor is the church brought into existence because people are good enough. Rather, God must extend his grace toward us to save us and to add us to his one community. Thus the church is synonymous with those who have entered salvation.
The second reason why we gain greater clarity about the church by understanding who the Lord claims as his people is because we can know who God is saving and placing into his church. When people choose to acknowledge and to trust in Christ crucified by being buried in baptism into Christ’s death: 1) They encounter his saving blood, 2) God redeems them and 3) God adds them to his people (Acts 2:41,47; 1 Cor. 12:12-13; Heb. 9:13-14; 10:19, 22; Rom. 6:3-4; 10:9-10; 1 Pet. 1:18-23; Rev. 5:9-10). Since all of this is made possible “though faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:24-25), this explains why both faith and baptism are tied to salvation.
Wherever you find a community whose obedience to the gospel includes acknowledging Christ and trusting in him through being buried with him, you are looking at a local manifestation of the Lord’s one church. This provides a straight forward application of scripture to today’s world.
We should also note this does not imply that the Lord is pleased with every part of his one church. Spiritual sickness, immaturity and faithlessness can infect both individuals and congregations. This is why some of God’s people received stern warnings (Gal. 5:4; Rev. 2:5; 3:15-19; Heb. 10:26-31; 1 Cor. 3:1-3, 13-17).
If we listen to scripture, not other sources, it enables us to perceive the Lord’s church. We do not need to live in confusion nor in doubt. Unfortunately, we can not assume that in the Lord’s sight all of the one church is healthy.