What Is the Church?
“Which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1Tim. 3:15).
If a stranger were to stop you on the street and ask directions to the church, how would you answer? In the first place, you would probably feel a twinge of irritation at the ambiguity of the request. The church? you ask yourself. There are several churches in town. If all he wants is a church, no problem. But the church raises the possibility of a heavy discussion about which is the true church. And such debate usually puts people in one of two camps—the one defending a particular denomination as the one God favors, the other arguing that God’s true church is known only to Him since His people are scattered in all churches and even outside any church.
Our church search is complicated by the fact that few words have a greater variety of meanings than “church.” It’s like saying “mother” to an audience of five hundred. The listeners do not rifle through an assortment of dictionary meanings; an image of a particular person emerges in each mind. Just so, whatever precise or technical definitions we might give “church,” they will have difficulty getting past the resident image in the listener’s mind.
Is it all that important to accurately define just what the church is? Actually, the danger of failing to do that can hardly be overstated. If there is a true church, if my connection to that church is a matter of my personal salvation, and if there are churches called “Babylon” who are doomed to destruction—I had better try to get this church thing sorted out.
Let’s focus on how the Bible defines the church. It doesn’t matter whether we call it the true church, the professed church, the remnant church, the lukewarm church, or the visible church. If it doesn’t measure up to the Bible definition, we will have to conclude it is a counterfeit. For our purposes just now, we will call it “God’s church.” Following are some characteristics found in the Bible.
1. God’s church is a divine institution designed and built by Jesus.
Jesus is the great Church Builder. “On this Rock I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18). He is not only the Architect, He is the Foundation (1 Cor. 3:11), the Chief Cornerstone (Eph. 2:20), the Senior Pastor (1 Pet. 5:4), and the General Conference President (Eph. 5:23). So, based on past history, it is reasonable to conclude that somewhere in this world today Jesus has a church, either under construction or finished and occupied.
And that means that God’s church has an address. People talk about an invisible church, and there is a sense in which that is true, but that falls far, far short of the Bible’s description of God’s true church. How could it possibly be otherwise? How can God say to those in spiritual Babylon, “Come out,” (Rev. 18:4) unless there is a tangible, visible place for them to come in? The physical facilities do not have to be fancy, but they do need to exist, whether that’s a stained-glass edifice or a thatched hut.
2. God’s church is message, messengers, and mission.
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, . . . ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . . teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you’” (Matt. 28:19, 20). Jesus specifies the message: “all things I have commanded you;” the messengers: “you” (every believer); and the mission: “go, . . . make disciples of all nations.”
Right here may be the most important item in the true church’s identity. Its mission and message must be Bible based. It is far more than what is popularly called the gospel. It is sound Bible doctrine. It is a call to obedience.
God has always had a special message to communicate to every generation. The church’s mission is to give that message. It cannot justify its existence on any other grounds. Churches that are saying the same things ought to unite. Churches that have nothing to say ought to go out of business.
To discover the true church is to discover a church with a message that can be obtained nowhere else. That church will have a present revelation of Bible truth, sometimes referred to as “present truth,” or “testing truth.”
And the acceptance of that message is crucial to my salvation. “The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved”(Acts 2:47). Church membership does not save us, but it will be a reality in the lives of those who are saved.
3. God’s church is organized for service.
The church exists for service and must organize its human and material resources to do that effectively. Suppose you were to take a severely injured person from the scene of an accident into the nearest town and stop to ask directions to the hospital. “We’re sorry,” you are told, “but we operate a home hospital. Our hospital is scattered throughout this city in various medical workers’ homes. You get x-rayed on Maple Street, receive transfusions on Skyline Drive, and surgery on Lincoln Avenue.”
It is just as preposterous to think that isolated individuals, or even home churches and independent ministries, are sufficient to carry out the monumental assignment of conducting a worldwide medical, educational, publishing, and evangelistic ministry. And besides, it needs to be organized in order to serve as a caring fellowship for its members.
4. God’s church has authority.
God has given His church authority to guide its members. “The church is God’s delegated authority upon earth. . . . The church is a power which is to control its individual members” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, p. 107). “When the judgment of the General Conference, which is the highest authority that God has upon the earth, is exercised, private independence and private judgment must not be maintained, but be surrendered” (Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, p. 492).
5. God’s church is members, both good and bad
No teaching of the Bible is more clear. Those looking for a perfect, Bible-based message of truth are to be commended, but those looking for a perfect people have not read or believed the Bible. The parables of the dragnet (Matt. 13:47), the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46), and the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13)—all teach the same lesson: the converted and unconverted will be in the church until separated by the great Judge according to heaven’s standards and heaven’s timetable.
6. God’s church is a place to worship and to learn how to worship.
Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together, there will I be in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). The church is where Jesus is. “The presence of the High and Holy One who inhabits eternity can alone constitute a church” (The Upward Look, p. 315). More light and power can come to that microscopic fellowship than to all the independent Christians in the world who are trying to survive apart from the church.
The church not only gives us a place to worship, it is to teach us how to worship the true God in Spirit and in truth. Jesus says the Father seeks such to worship Him (John 4:23). If our understanding of Bible prophecy is correct, the issue in the last days is worship. As the scroll unrolls, I believe we are going to learn that the way we worship will be as crucial as the day on which we worship.
7. God’s church is a place of multiplied power. UNITY!!!
“And when they had prayed, the place where they had assembled together was shaken; and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). We may not fully understand how it works, but it is still one of the “ground rules” in the great controversy: multiplying the prayer multiplies the power.
God never intended that one person should face the armies of Hell alone. In the church we are to find those whose praise and prayers and tears can mingle with our own as we wrestle for victory. It is the devil’s strategy to keep believers separated from each other and downplay the importance of church membership and fellowship. He seeks to isolate us and to prey on us in our aloneness. We need to remove the walls that separate us and experience the multiplied power of unity in Christ.
At this point, I suppose one could argue that several religious organizations in our world might meet the foregoing qualifications for “church.” There are churches out there who feel strongly about taking their version of the gospel to the world, who sincerely believe they are in compliance with the Bible, who are well organized and visible, and who constitute a caring, nurturing fellowship. Does that mean they can count themselves as approved of God and offering a safe haven for the lost? If so, who or what can properly be called the “remnant”? That’s next.
Condensed from the book, The Church that Does Not Fall, by Lee Roy Holmes, retired pastor, Stateline Seventh-day Adventist Church.