To gain clarity about the church, we need to start with the Bible. In addition to answering the question of “What must I do to be saved?” it also tells me what to do next, once I have found salvation (Acts 16:31 and 2:47). The Bible governs my standing before God and my relationship with my sisters and brothers. If we earnestly want to seek the truth, we should remember that the truth is always simple. Since the way to salvation through faith is clearly laid out in the Gospels, why should the question of the church be uniquely shrouded in mystery?
People move in a number of different circles, like the family and the state. Each person belongs to a family, and as a citizen, everyone is a member of a state. But if I am a believer, a member of the body of Jesus Christ, where do I belong?
There is a church
Writing to believers in Corinth, the apostle Paul directs his letters “to the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2, 2 Corinthians 2:1). He also writes to “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:1). For Paul, the matter was simple: There was a local church in each of Corinth, Thessalonica, and the other cities. Having come to believe in the living God, they formed a congregation wherever they were.
At no point in the Scriptures do we read that there were several different congregations in a city, whether in the flourishing trade cities of Ephesus and Corinth or in the world capital Rome. This is already clear in the salutation, which simply says, “The church of God which is at Corinth,” making reference to a single church. That does not mean that all believers in a city always met at once, in a single location; rather, the church overall formed a single, cohesive unit toward the outside world.
The church should always maintain unity inwardly as well. The united front it presents to the world should be reflected internally, which is why the apostle instructs us to endeavor to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). This unity of the Spirit precludes any type of partisanship. The apostle Paul sees the existence of different parties as a sign of carnality (1 Corinthians 3:3). In the congregation, there should be no dissension or divisions (1 Corinthians 1:10).
The church has a name
The church has a specific name, being called the “Church of God” or the “Church in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” These are the only terms we find in the Word of God. Members of the church are called the sanctified in Christ Jesus; called to be saints; beloved of God; faithful in Christ Jesus; and faithful brethren. We never read of a church named after a person. The apostle Paul gravely criticizes the partisan spirit arising from personality worship. But where is the name “Church of God” today? A German hymn says that the church should never be called after a person or place. Is this always taken to heart by those of us singing it? Why do people not let the church bear its biblical name?
The name shows whose Church it is
This name was not chosen at random. “Church of God” has a deeper meaning: the church is God’s property. God Himself founded the church through His Word and His Holy Spirit. It also belongs to the Son because He saved it through His precious blood (1 Peter 1:18–19).
We read in God’s Word, “Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’…Jesus answered and said to him, ‘And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’” (Matthew 16:16–18).
The church in Philadelphia could have earned no greater praise than when the Lord said in Revelation 3:8, “[You] have kept My word, and have not denied My name.” It is of great significance that the apostle writes in the Epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 5, verse 23, “Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.” If the church belongs to the Lord, it cannot be organized and managed according to human whim.
God’s Word tells us who belongs to the church
If the apostle Paul talks about or to the members of the church in his letters, he refers to saints; those called to be saints; beloved of God; and members of the household of God. Often, the difference between the past and the present is expressly highlighted, not only by Paul but also by the other apostles.
Addressing the “pilgrims… elect,” Peter writes, “[you know] that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18–19). In verse nine and ten of the second chapter, he calls them “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people…who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” And Paul writes to the Corinthians, “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). At the end of the second chapter in Acts, we read, “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”
The Church of the Lord consists of believers, of people who have been saved from sin through the blood of Jesus Christ.