“Look! That church wasn’t there this morning.”
“Well, it sure is now!”
How could a church be there this afternoon if it wasn’t there this morning? Easy! It happens all the time. In fact, it also happens in reverse. Of course, if you think of a building when you think of “church”, then this sounds preposterous. But if you think of a group of people when you think of “church”, then it makes perfect sense.
By an unfortunate turn of historical events, the word “church” found its way into English translations of the scriptures. This word’s usual meaning had to do with buildings for religious purposes. But in our English Bibles it is commonly used to translate a Greek word which did not have that meaning. The Greek word meant a group of people, a gathering, assembly or congregation.
So when Jesus Christ said “I will build my church,” he was not talking about building a building, but a group of people. He said this group would belong to him (“my church”) and that he would be its founder. We can also gather from what he said that he hadn’t founded it yet, but when he did, it turned out to be a unique and enduring body of people, which has lasted through centuries of persecution, wars, disasters, and successions of earthly empires. Even the might of the Roman empire, which set out to destroy her, could not overcome this church. People founded their own churches, trying to replace Christ’s one and wipe it out, but the Lord’s church is still here today. His words have proved true: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
So if you want to find Christ’s church, don’t look for a building; look for people. But how will you recognise this group? First you will have to get a description of it as it was when Christ founded it, and to do that you’ll need to open the scriptures, starting with the book of Acts, where we read about the beginning and growth of Christ’s church.
Acts 8:1 tells of a persecution that broke out “against the church”, and this persecution is mentioned again in Acts 9:1—but this time it is said to be “against the disciples of the Lord”. From that we see that “the church” is simply a collective description for the followers of Jesus Christ, like “team” is for “players”. So the people you’re looking for are disciples (followers) of Christ.
Some more specific characteristics of the Lord’s church are:
They obey God and Christ over and above anyone else.
Acts 5:29; Hebrews 5:9; 1 Peter 1:2
They imitate Christ’s example, especially his love.
John 13:34-35; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Peter 2:21-22; 1 John 2:6
They acknowledge their reliance on God’s mercy and grace for forgiveness of
their sins. Romans 3:23-24; 5:2; Acts 20:32
They are devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread
and prayers. Acts 2:42
They are determined not to go beyond Christ’s teaching, nor to let human traditions
and innovations get in the way of their obedience to him.
2 John 9; Mark 7:6-9; Colossians 2:6-8
They make other disciples, baptising them and teaching them to obey all that
Christ commanded his apostles. Matthew 28:19-20
They come together on the first day of the week to break bread.
They worship in spirit and in truth.
Their gatherings are conducted decently and in order, with a number of men
taking turns to conduct proceedings. 1 Corinthians 14:26,31-40
They have no “clergy/laity”, as all members are considered priests.
1 Peter 2:5,9; Revelation 1:6
Christ is their head, not someone on earth.
Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18
They have no organisational structure beyond local congregations.
Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5
They draw no lines between ethnic groups or social classes.
They are noticeably different to the world around them in the way they think and live.
Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 5:7-11; 2 Corinthians 7:1
They collectively describe themselves in a number of ways, such as: the church of God, the household (or family) of God, the household of faith, the people of God, the body of Christ, the church of the Lord (or the Lord’s church), the churches of the saints, churches of Christ, churches in Christ, etc. (They might use a clearer word than 'church', like congregation or assembly. The scriptures don’t tag God’s people with one particular name, but with a variety of descriptions, all of which tell us something about the nature of these people.)
Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 14:33; Galatians 6:10; 1:22; Ephesians 2:19; 4:12;
1 Peter 2:10; Acts 20:28
Of course nobody’s perfect, so one wouldn’t expect to find a church doing all of this perfectly, but if they are truly submitting to Christ, they will be genuinely trying their utmost.
Once you find God’s church, how do you get into it? Quite simply, if the church is the saved people of God, disciples of Christ, then it follows that you become a part of this church by becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. That’s how it was right from the start in Acts 2. “Those who had gladly received his word were baptised; and that day about three thousand souls were added. . . . And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” God’s people don’t get a choice of churches to join; God adds them to his church!
So wherever people are living in obedience to Christ, that’s the church of God. And if no one in town is doing that, then 50 chapels and cathedrals don’t mean God’s church is there. But as soon as someone becomes a follower of Jesus in the way the scriptures instruct, the Lord adds them to his church. . .
ZAP! — instant church!