Written by Paul J. Bucknell on January, 14, 2020
The Church and Its Design (Mat 16:18)
I want to know if Christ Jesus promised to establish his church. If yes, how do we know and identify the church, its teachings, and names, etc.?
Jesus, without question, is fully committed to God’s full and eternal redemptive plan, which is intricately involving the church. Jesus, as part of His plan, not only promised to build a church but possessively called it “My church” (Mat 16:18). The church is the fruit of Christ’s work (Is 53:10-12). Christ, now ascended at the right hand of the Father, leads as Head and Savior of the church (Col 1:18). It is for this purpose Jesus incorporates the words in the Lord’s prayer, “Let thine kingdom come, Thy will be done” (Mat 6:10). Not only did the Lord found the church but insisted that nothing in the world, even the devil with all his powers, can or will stop the building of the church.
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Mat 16:18)
This does not mean that the church would not face its challenges, however. Church history is littered with miscarriages. The difficulty in giving a clear answer hovers about the many ways the evil one has hindered, infiltrated, or otherwise crippled the church. Persecution, for example, largely drives the people of God underground. Christians around the world have wondered about the Christians in China after the communist party’s attack. Some even questioned aloud whether the church was still in existence. The answer was a resounding “Yes,” but the church looked very different from what it might look in a country not facing persecution. The church faces different foes in the various lands where she finds herself. The Nepalese church, for example, has only in the last decade come to maturity when the strong socialist government ceased its severe restrictions.
How do we know and identify the church?
Your question is rightly based on the assumption that Jesus has indeed originated the church. Jesus Christ is king, while His people form His kingdom (Rev 1:6). So your question proceeds by seeking its identity. How do we know and identify the church—the true people of God? What is the church’s teachings and names? The answers to these questions can be very extensive, but we will be necessarily brief.
The most accurate way to identify the followers of Jesus, the church, is by the confession and water baptism of His people. Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 passed on His authority to teach about Jesus and baptize. And so, despite the many thwarting distractions, we return to Jesus’ clear teaching.
I do not desire to pursue the affirmation of denominational groups, except to say that they should become extended efforts affirming what has just been stated above.
While some demand that new believers affirm complicated doctrinal statements, I would emphasize the new believer’s confession of Christ and one’s willingness to obey Jesus to be sufficient. Yes, we need to clarify who Jesus the Christ is and how Jesus’ death on the cross brings salvation, but unless one is brought up in the church, not much more should be demanded. These things need to be taught after their assurance is confirmed. Nor would I place any strong statements on the mode of water baptism but only insist on the believer’s baptism. The believer himself must believe—not his parents or some youth leader (John 1:12-13). One’s confidence must be in what Christ has done for them rather than in what another person or the church has done. Jesus is the Savior.
The believers are known by their faith and obedience to Jesus. They are known by their love for one another. Christians typically are easily observed because they congregate together in the common worship of God through Christ and place themselves under the local church’s leadership.
At the same time, we need to be very concerned that many so-called “churches” are apostate or betrothed to the world rather than to Christ.
But are there not wolves among the lambs?
Jesus had confidence in God’s work to save His people. Yes, it might start small and be, at times, imperceptible like a mustard seed, but it would grow tall and obvious as time passed. God the Father carefully watches over His children. Even when Jesus sends out His “lambs,” He at times sends them among known wolves. “Go; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). The Parable of the Tares pointedly reminds us that there will always be unbelievers among God’s people. Our job, therefore, is not to ferret out unbelievers from believers but patiently disciple all who profess to follow Christ. So though the church is being formed in time, she is not totally purified until Christ comes for His bride (Mat 25; 1 John 3:1-2).
How can we identify the name and identity of the church of God?
Revelation, chapters two and three, point out that the church, though global and interspersed through time, reveals itself in functioning local church congregations. The names of the congregations (or church) are not important, but their confession and obedience to Christ remain critical. The churches’ situations form part of their calling. The evil, as much as possible, assaults these churches. The Reformation came about because the truth of the Gospel was masked and locked away in the powerful Roman Catholic Church. The church does not always wisely handle these challenges. We must persist in judging churches by their practice and doctrine but equally remember that each congregation faces struggles, often invisible to the human eye. Just consider, for example, how hedonism has grown in its seductive powers by the media’s warping of conservative sexual mores. This movement deserves the name of the Great Harlot (Rev 17:1), which is roaming freely in some so-called churches! Many churches dismiss the horrible sins of sexual fornication, immorality (along with divorce and remarriage), and other kinds of God-condemned encounters.
For the early church, the relationship of the congregations to the apostles shaped the authorities of the church. Denominations later developed as the origin of local churches were tied to certain leaders—evangelists or teachers. In many cases, they would retain certain doctrinal emphasis from their leaders.
A Personal Testimony
In a personal testimony, I would affirm that from the outside we can and should condemn churches that openly defy Christ’s teachings, like the one that I grew up to the north of Boston. The church, like many others, had left its biblical roots. The hymns, statements, and professions would not at that time reveal their treachery unless one pursued discussing their views of Christ. But despite this large falling away, God was simultaneously releasing the Gospel through the involvement of seminary students to people like me. From the outside, our congregation, even a large part of that denomination, had gone astray from the Lord. On the other hand, God was busy seeding the Gospel in that same wayward church. God’s work happens in all sorts of amazing ways. The basement of this apostate church became a Gospel fountain to many in the Northshore area. God transformed the unbelieving young people, who had plans for a typical coffeehouse, to become a Christian coffeehouse by the way His Spirit swept through the young people there.
In conclusion, when trying to discern the identity of a church, I am trying to say that it is not as easy to make accurate judgments as one would think. However, to protect our young, and even ourselves, we need to attend churches that love and cherish God’s Word and seek to complete His mission through them.
For further study:
The Church in All Her Glory seminar in Discipleship #3 Digital Library.
1. What is the church?
2. How are many denominations formed?
3. What basic expressions of faith should we expect from new Christians? Christians in general?
4. How should we treat a church if they do not share a common belief in Christ as told in the Scriptures?
5. Is it okay for a church to differentiate from another group over “small” teachings such as Jesus’ second coming, kind of water baptism, details of understanding salvation, etc.?
6. What makes a good church? Why?
7. How should we treat apostate churches?