How to Identify Christ's True Church
Excerpts from The Church of Jesus Christ - How Shall I Know It? by William Lewis
There are many different churches in the world that claim the name of Christ. Not all of these churches can be true, for they disagree in their creeds and teachings, and in many ways they conflict with the Bible, which should be the standard of judgement for all Christians.
One who is seeking for truth and light is left confused and uncertain by the clashes of opinion and the differences in creeds.
How can he/she tell which church belongs to Christ?
Can God be the author of all this confusion?
Can a church that teaches only a part of the gospel of Christ be true?
Christ's Church Established
Christ established his church while he was on earth, and started his disciples on the task of building the kingdom of God on earth. But opposition began to attack immediately:
And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. Matthew 11:12
In fulfillment of this statement, it is noted that prior to 312 A.D., no fewer than three million Christians lost their lives through persecution. Eleven of the twelve apostles were put to death. Truly the church and kingdom of God suffered violence.
Warnings of False Teachers
Paul foresaw the coming of a departure from truth within the church, and warned against false teachers who would betray the people:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. Acts 20:28-31
The Lost Hope of the Church
The war against the church of Christ was so effective that the church was overcome. Apostasy brought about its ruin, as the prophecy foretold.
William Smith, a classical and biblical scholar of the University of London, wrote in his celebrated Dictionary of the bible:
"We must not expect to see the church of Holy Scripture actually existing in its perfection on earth. It is not to be found, thus perfect, either in the collected fragments of Christendom, or still less in any one of these fragments; though it is possible that one of those fragments more than another may approach the scriptural and apostolic ideal." Article, "Church," - VI., page 163, 1868 Edition.
Another eminent voice spoke to the world concerning the great apostasy that had taken place in Christian faith and organization, and the consequent loss of the gospel gifts. the following is from John Wesley, Sermon 94:
"We seldom hear of them (manifestations of the gifts) after that fatal period when Emperor Constantine called himself a Christian. ...From this time they almost totally ceased. ...The cause of this was not (as has been vulgarly supposed) "because there was no more occasion for them," because all the world was become Christian. This is a miserable mistake; not a twentieth part of it was then nominally Christians. The real cause was, "the love of many," ... was "waxed cold." The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ, than the other heathens. ... This was the real cause, why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian church; because the Christians were turned heathens again, and had only a dead form left."
After the splendid beginning of the early church, with its hope of bringing peace and redemption to mankind, the picture of its later fate given to us above by Smith and Wesley is a sad one indeed.
Many Christians have complacently accepted the situation. They say that it is necessary to have churches to fit all kinds of people, to suit all varieties of thought and sentiment; that not everybody can see things alike.
Are there different kinds of truth for persons who happen not to like certain facts?
Does God change because some persons prefer him to be different?
Can churches that conflict and quarrel, that tell different stories about Jesus, that deny some of the things he said and did - can these churches serve him and build his kingdom, too?
If one thinks about these things, they will know the answers to these questions without being told.
Nineteen centuries ago there was one church: "One body, and one Spirit, ... one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:5)
There was the same God who said, "For I am the Lord, I change not" (Malachi 3:6)
Today there are hundreds of different Christian churches.
Is this the will of God?
The Organization of the Church of Christ
In spite of disappointed hopes, sincere people continue to look for the church of Christ. They read about it in the Bible, and they long to find it.
How would they know it if they found it?
The description of Christ's church is in the Bible. First, let us look at its organization.
The officers of the church are named:
And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach. Mark 3:14 (KJV)
And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. I Corinthians 12:28
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers. Ephesians 4:11
What is the mission and work of the above officers?
For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the edifying of the body of Christ. Ephesians 4:12
How long were they to continue in the church?
Was it only during the apostolic age, and merely to establish Christianity?
No. This idea is a serious mistake. These officers were to continue in the church.
Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:13
What benefit and protection were the apostles and prophets to provide for the church?
That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love. Ephesians 4:14-16
Inasmuch as the conditions above mentioned, namely, "for the work of the ministry," and so forth, are still essential, it is therefore reasonable and scriptural that apostles and prophets should be in the church today. against the contention that there were only twelve apostles in the church, we have evidence in the following Scriptures:
I Corinthians 4:6, 9
In the above passages of Scripture we have presented sixteen apostles, which proves that there were successors in office to the first twelve.
The Scriptures that have been quoted have given us some clear indications of the officers and the organization of the church of Christ. Now let us turn to another means of identifying the church of our Lord.
The Doctrine of Christ
If there is a church of Christ in the world today, it should teach the same doctrine that Christ taught, the same doctrines that were a part of the gospel in the times immediately following his ministry on earth. The seeker for truth, therefore will be interested in the teachings and doctrine of Christ, and they will look for them in the words of the Bible.
The "principles of the doctrine of Christ" are listed in the letter to the Hebrews (6:1-2): faith, baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement. Let us consider these separately as they are presented in the Scriptures.
But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. Hebrews 11:6
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. John 14:1
And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. ...Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance. Matthew 3:2, 8 (KJV)
And they went out, and preached that men should repent. Mark 6:12 (KJV)
Baptism for the Remission of Sins
John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. and there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. Mark 1:4-5 (KJV)
And he came into all the country about Jordan preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Luke 3:3
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Acts 2:38
And now why tarriest thou? arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord. Acts 22:16
The Mode of Baptism - Immersion
And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized. John 3:23 (KJV)
Some of the churches that claim to belong to Christ have substituted sprinkling for immersion as a method of baptism. If sprinkling were a method acceptable in ancient times, "much water" mentioned above would not be necessary.
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. Romans 6:4-5
Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through faith of the operation of god, who hath raised him from the dead. Colossians 2:12
"Buried" means to be "covered out of sight."
And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. Acts 8:38-39
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him. Matthew 3:16 (KJV)
Why should they both go into the water if sprinkling or pouring were proper for baptism?
Baptism of the Holy Spirit
You may have noticed that Hebrews 6:2 says "baptisms," indicating there is more than one. The first baptism was discussed above; the second follows:
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire. Matthew 3:11 (KJV)
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. John 3:5
For John truly baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. Acts 1:5
The Laying On of Hands
The laying on of hands is a ceremony accompanied by prayer (see Acts 8:15; 13:3), for conferring spiritual power and blessings for special purposes.
The laying on of hands is employed for confirmation, for bestowal of the Holy Spirit after baptism:
Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the holy Ghost. And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money. Acts 8:17-18
And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. And all the men were about twelve. Acts 19:6-7
The laying on of hands is also used in the blessing of children:
But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence. Matthew 19:14-15
And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them. Mark 10:16 (KJV)
A third ministry in which the laying on of hands is used is the healing of the sick. Among the powers promised to believers was this:
They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16:18 (KJV)
Jesus used the laying on of hands in the healing of the sick, according to some of the more complete accounts:
Now when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and he healed them. Luke 4:40
The gift of healing was exercised by another officer of the church, Ananias, who was not one of the apostles:
And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. Acts 9:17 (KJV)
The elders of the early church were directed in the matter of the ministry of healing the sick:
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. James 5:14-15
Other cases involving the laying on of hands are found in the ordination of Barnabas and Saul and the seven deacons:
And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. Acts 13:3
Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. Acts 6:6
A Divinely Called Ministry
God chooses his own ministers. Men cannot elect themselves to serve the Lord under ordination. This is the rule in the church of Christ:
Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. John 15:16
And no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron. Hebrews 5:4
As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. Acts 13:2
One who is seeking the church of Christ will, in accordance with these Scriptures, expect to find that the members of the ministry are divinely called in this manner.
Spiritual Gifts in Christ's Church
The spiritual gifts were used throughout the ministry of Jesus. Their power was enjoyed in the ministry of the apostles and servants of the church long after the ascension of the resurrected Christ. the first great meeting of the church after the Ascension, on the day of Pentecost, witnessed an outpouring of blessings through these gifts. Paul commented:
Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Ephesians 4:8
Christ promised the gifts, not only to the prophets but to all that believe:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16:17-18 (KJV)
Ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. Acts 2:38-39
The Description of Christ's Church
There you have the description of the church of Jesus Christ, in the words of the Bible. With that description you will be able to identify that church when you see it. You have read about its organization, its officers, its doctrine, its principles, and its spiritual gifts. You have learned how its ministers are divinely called to their work. You have the identification ready to use.
For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.
1 Corinthians 14:33