Identifying a New Testament Church

by Steve Dewhirst
Sentry Magazine, December 2002

Traditionally, we gospel preachers have spoken of "identifying the New Testament church" in an effort to distinguish it from the sects roundabout. But in so doing, we have sometimes obscured the true nature of the body of Christ. We begin to preach about the church Jesus said He would build (Matthew 16: 18) in a broad, universal sense, then transition immediately into the organization and work of a local assembly, without explaining the difference between the two. Some have even taught that "the organization of Christ's church is congregational," or, "Christ gave His church a congregational form of government," as though the body of Christ is a body of congregations - in the manner of the sectarian world. With this mode of teaching, not only is it difficult for our brethren to comprehend non-sectarian Christianity, but it's confusing to the world as well.

To be specific, the "government" of the body of Christ is an absolute monarchy, with Christ as King (Acts 2:29-36; Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18). It is a body of people saved by the blood of Christ: all the saved, of all the earth, of all ages (Hebrews 12:22-24). It is a spiritual body that defies physical identification. As Jesus said in Luke 17:20-21, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." Men and women seeking "primitive Christianity" do not join the church of Jesus Christ; it is not an institution to be joined. But men and women are added to it when they are baptized into Christ as an expression of faith in God (Acts 2:41; Colossians 2:12). In a general sense, we acknowledge that "the saved" are part of the body of Christ, but it's a dangerous presumption to state that all local churches compose the body of Christ. First, Christ is the one who, alone, determines "who's in" and "who's out." And secondly, such a statement assumes that every single member in every local church is in a right relationship with God. Only in an accommodative sense can we point to a local church and refer to it as the body of Christ. In fact, it would be best to avoid such references altogether.

At the same time, however, local churches are readily identified in scripture, and easily identifiable today. And so we speak of "identifying a New Testament church." God's plan for individual Christians (having been saved from sin and added to the body of Christ) is to join themselves to one another in local assemblies for worship and work under the oversight of elders. The search for a New Testament church is not the focus of the conversion process, but the result. The focus is reconciliation to God through Christ.

How, then, are New Testament churches identified? What are their distinguishing marks? First, they will be comprised of individuals who have been baptized into Christ and who, presumably, share a common fellowship with Deity (Romans 6:3-4; I John 1:3). We humans must determine who will or will not be admitted to a local church, and while we are careful to assess one's relationship with God, our judgment is finite and imperfect.

A New Testament church will also be comprised of Christians who share a passion and commitment to the Lord's work. While this may be a feature lacking in some "churches of Christ," it should be a most prominent attribute. Christians must have a strong sense of personal responsibility. Local assemblies are built up "by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part" (Ephesians 4:16). And first on the list of personal responsibilities should be the teaching of Jost sinners. If a local church appears not to have that work as a priority, it's not a church with which one should identify.

A New Testament church will be made up of people sharing profound respect for the authority of Christ and His word (Matt. 28:18-20). It will be committed to following "the standard of sound words" (2 Tim. I: 13). Such an attitude will be reflected in worshiping and working according to the biblical pattern, as well as resisting the spirit of the age with all its innovations.

But of equal importance, a New Testament church will be characterized by its striving for spiritual growth. It will not be satisfied with "scriptural correctness" in work and worship while neglecting scriptural exhortations to edification (I Corinthians 14:26). It will not be satisfied with form over faith, but "speaking the truth in love" will "grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ" (Ephesians 4:15). A local church unconcerned with increasing spiritual understanding isn't fit for a disciple of Christ.

And although some people seem to think it shallow, a New Testament church will be made up of brothers and sisters who love each other. Not an emotional, sappy, touchy-feely "love" that tolerates sin to spare feelings, but that noble agape love that seeks what is in a brother's best spiritual interest.

It's a love that gives of oneself for the benefit of others. All the "scriptural correctness" in the world is but a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" without the love Christ enjoins upon His people (I Corinthians 13:1; I John 3:14-18).

Our interest in evangelizing the world should lie, first, in reconciling people to God through faithful obedience to the gospel (Romans 1:5). Secondly, we must continue to study with babes in Christ, helping them to grow spiritually and making appropriate applications in their lives. And we must place a priority on teaching them how to identify faithful New Testament churches where they can be nurtured spiritually. But if we make "identifying the New Testament church" the focus of evangelism, we may be perpetuating the notion that conversion is merely a search for the right denomination.

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