Identifying the True Church Today – Jerry C. Brewer

Jerry C. Brewer

How is Christ’s church—the only true church Jesus built—to be identified among all the so-called “churches” today that claim to belong to Him? In every age, God has had a pattern for men to follow in worshiping and serving Him. Contrary to the modern concept that man can do as he pleases in religion and still please God, a divinely-ordained pattern exists today for us to follow. That pattern is the New Testament and revealed in its pages is the pattern for the church of Christ. Three times, at strategic points throughout the Bible, man is warned to neither add to nor detract from what God has said. “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it” (Deut. 4:2). “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar” (Prov. 30:6). “…If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18-19). God has given His pattern and we dare not change it.

When God instructed Noah to build an ark, He gave him a pattern (Gen. 6:14-21) and Noah did exactly as God instructed in His word (Gen. 6:22). When God told Moses to build the tabernacle and gave him detailed instructions, Moses did not deviate from those instructions and it was said of him, as it had been written of Noah: “Thus did Moses: according to all that the Lord commanded him, so did he” (Exo. 40:16). The word of God is a divine pattern with which we are forbidden to tamper, and that includes His pattern for the church of Christ.

That pattern is plainly revealed in the New Testament and if we follow it we cannot be wrong, but any religious organization that is not built according to His pattern is not His church. The true church of Christ can be easily identified today by the following:

By its Builder

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am? And they said, Some say thou art John the Baptist; some Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:13-19).

Jesus knew the hearts of all men (John 2:24-25), so it’s certain that he did not ask men’s opinions of Him to gain knowledge of their thoughts. He put this question to His disciples for their benefit. While others looked upon Him as a prophet—certainly a man from God, as Nicodemus said in John 3:2—they did not understand that He was more than a man. But Peter’s confession not only recognized Him as the Messiah, but as “the Son of the Living God.” Jesus implicitly affirmed that He is the Son of God, for had Peter been wrong, Jesus would have corrected him (John 14:2).

With the fact of His Sonship firmly established in their minds, Jesus promised that He would build His church upon the bedrock of Peter’s confession—Christ’s Deity. In this passage, Jesus also used the word “kingdom” interchangeably with the word “church,” indicating that the two terms describe the same institution. The church of Christ is the kingdom of heaven. Prior to this statement, the focus of His preaching had been the same as that of John—“the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In this passage, Jesus defined the kingdom He preached as a spiritual entity that He called “my church.”

In promising to build His church, Christ also alluded to His death, saying, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Noting that even His own death would not prevent His establishment of His church, Jesus then gave the very first prediction of His own death. “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matt. 16:21). The link between His death and the establishment of the church had been prophesied in the Old Testament.

Therefore thus saith the Lord God, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste. Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place. And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand (Isa. 28:16-18).

When He said, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” Jesus alluded to Isaiah’s prophecy. The “gates of hell” to which He referred is the same thing as the Jews’ “covenant with death,” and their “agreement with hell” in Isaiah’s prophecy. The word “hell” in Isaiah 28:18 is the Hebrew word sheol, and in Matthew 16:18 it is the Greek word hades. Neither of these words refer to the place of eternal punishment, but to the unseen realm of departed spirits of men and represent death. When the Jews conspired with Pilate to crucify Jesus, they made a covenant with death to consign Him to hades, thinking that would be His end. But Jesus said that even His own death would not prevent Him from establishing His church because their covenant with death and their agreement with hell (hades) would be disannulled by His resurrection.

Thus, in the promise to establish His church, Jesus foretold both His death and resurrection. Christ died for the church (Acts 20:28), but even His death could not prevent its establishment. There is not a man-originated church on the face of the earth today that truthfully can claim to be built upon a dead, resurrected, and ascended man. In the above passage, Jesus also referred to the church in the singular. He did not say, “I will build my churches,” but that, “I will build my church.” He promised and built only one, and all others are counterfeit. Any church built by one other than Jesus Christ is not the church revealed in the pages of Holy Writ.

By the Time and Place of its Establishment

The church of Christ was established on the day of Pentecost which immediately followed the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Acts 1-2). Any church which had its beginning at another time or place cannot be the one which Jesus built. The Lutheran Church is not the church of Christ. for it does not meet the Scriptural criteria given above.

The Lutheran Church dates from the eve of All Saints Day, Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther tacked his celebrated 95 theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, in protest against the sale of indulgences as carried on by the Roman Church under Tetzel in Germany. Luther had no intention at the time of withdrawing from the Catholic Church, in which he was a priest, or monk, but was striving to put down a great evil. However, unconsciously he had struck a great blow at the papacy and this led to the Reformation and the origin of the Lutheran Church (L. G.Tomlinson, Churches of Today in The Light of Scripture, 11th edition, Gospel Advocate Co., Nashville, 1967, p. 32.

The Roman Catholic Church had a beginning much later than the Pentecost immediately following the resurrection of Christ and far removed from Jerusalem.

The Catholic Church had an embryonic beginning. The early church departed from the simplicity of a congregational form of government, guided by the New Testament as the only Rule of Faith and Practice, and permitted more and more authority to be vested in the bishops of the various churches. By the middle of the second century the church was well united under the authority of the bishops who gradually came to be regarded as successors to the apostles…The adoption of a creed as the rule of faith and practice in the third century put forth the bud, the union of church and state under Constantine; and the writing of the Nicene Creed in 325 brought forth the flower; while the setting up a ‘papa’ or pope as the ecclesiastical head of the church, culminating in the doctrine of his infallibility in 1870, produced the fruit as manifested in the Catholic Church of today (Ibid, p. 17).

The Presbyterian Church began under the leadership of John Knox in Scotland. Its first book of discipline was written in 1560 and it became the established religion of Scotland in 1592—almost 1,600 years too late to be the church of Christ.

The Church of England was established by Henry VIII as a result of his quarrel with the Roman pope, Clement, who refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

When the pope refused to grant the divorce, which would permit Henry to marry Ann Boleyn…Henry broke with the pope. He then sent himself up as head of the Church of England…Thomas Cranmer who had been Henry’s chief advocate in attempts to obtain papal recognition of the divorce was made archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. He immediately pronounced Catherine’s marriage to Henry void and the marriage with Ann, which had taken place three month before, legal (F. W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, 1961, Gospel Light Publishing Co., Delight Ark., p. 269).

Henry persuaded the English Parliament to proclaim him “Supreme Head” of the Church of England in 1534. This man-originated church—known in America as the Episcopal Church—resulted from a fornicating king seeking to satisfy his own lust, and in our day the American version of this man-made organization elected a sodomite as its bishop. Neither the Church of England nor the Episcopal Church is the church of Christ.

Another man-originated church which was established at the wrong time and place to be the church of Christ is the Methodist Church. Known today as The United Methodist Church, this organization was founded in England in the 1700s.

Methodism was founded by John Wesley, an ordained priest in the Church of England….John and Charles Wesley, with Whitefield and about a dozen other students at Oxford formed themselves into a society for the purpose of overcoming the formalism and ritualism of the Episcopal Church and to stimulate piety and spirituality among its members. Other societies were organized and because of their methodical manner of life they were called Methodists. The appellation obtained currency and upon the death of Wesley these societies banded together under a conference and became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, although for a time they considered themselves a part of the Episcopal Church…The Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States originated with the Christian Conference held in Baltimore, Dec. 24, 1784 (Tomlinson, p. 57).

Neither is any Baptist Church the church of Christ. While Baptist origins are somewhat obscure, the first known Baptist Church was organized in Holland by John Smyth and the first Baptist Church in England was organized by Thomas Helwys in 1611. These efforts are 1,600 years too late and at the wrong place to be the church of Christ.

Seventh Day Adventism began in Massachussetts in 1831 under the leadership of William Miller. The Mormon Church—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—was established by the false prophet Joseph Smith, April 6, 1830 in Fayette, New York. Russellism, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult began in the United States in the late 1800s, as did the Christian Science Church of Mary Baker Eddy.

These man-originated Churches bear no likeness to the church promised and built by Christ, the Son of God. They originated too late, at the wrong place, and by the wrong people to be the church Jesus built. They are neither part nor parcel of the church of Christ, but counterfeits palmed off on men to deceive them and destroy their souls. Like tares sown among wheat, the churches of men will be rooted up and cast away at the last day (Matt. 13:24-30). Jesus said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13). Men’s churches were neither planted by God nor have His approval and none of them can be found within the pages of the New Testament. That also applies to every other brand of “church” founded this side of Pentecost Day in Acts 2, including—but not limited to—Community Churches, Cowboy Churches, and every other so-called “church” concocted by men.

By its Nomenclature

The church of the first century had no proper name. The term “the church of Christ” is a possessive term indicating ownership. When one speaks of “the farm of John Brown,” he isn’t naming the farm, but indicating who owns it. The same is true of the term, “the church of Christ.” It is Christ’s church and its numerous local bodies were known as “churches of Christ” in the New Testament (Rom. 16:16). As Christ and the Father are one, it was also termed “the church of God” (1 Cor. 1:1-2, cf. John 17:10, 20-21).

Neither do members of the church of Christ denominate themselves into parties by their names. There were no hyphenated Christians in the first century, such as “Baptist-Christians,” “Methodist-Christians,” “Presbyterian-Christians,” or “Anglican-Christians.” The saved are simply Christians and wear this God-given name without hyphenating it. The name Christian is worn by individuals, not the church.

That was the new name of which Isaiah prophesied, and was given in precise fulfillment of his prophecy.

For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name (Isa. 62:1-2).

The fulfillment of that prophecy is found in Acts 10 and 11 in the New Testament. The “righteousness” of Jerusalem and that which the Gentiles would see was the gospel which would be preached among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem (Luke 24:45-47) and which would save Jew and Gentile alike (Rom. 1:16-17; Eph. 2:11-22; 3:1-6).

The apostle Peter was called to preach to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile Roman soldier (Acts 9-10). It was at the house of Cornelius that Gentiles first heard and obeyed the Gospel, and in the exact order of Isaiah’s prophecy the disciples of Christ were given a new name—Christian—in Acts 11:26. That’s the first of three times the word is used in the New Testament. The others are in Acts 26:28 when Agrippa said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” and in 1 Peter 4:16 where Peter wrote, “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed.” There isn’t a single denominational name found in the New Testament that was divinely applied to the disciples of Jesus Christ.

By its Organization

The New Testament knows nothing of the councils, conferences, synods, or conventions that characterize modern denominational structure. Each local church of Christ in the first century was organized on a level no higher than the local, autonomous congregation. Under the supreme authority of Jesus Christ as head of the church (Eph. 1:22- 23), each congregation worked and worshiped under the oversight of men known as “elders.” Each congregation had a plurality of men serving as elders (Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:5). Divinely ordained qualifications for men so serving are given in First Timothy 2 and Titus 1 and only those meeting these qualifications are fit to serve as elders of the church of Christ.

These men were also known as bishops and shepherds. All three terms—elder, bishop, shepherd (or pastor)—refer to the same office in the New Testament and are descriptive of some aspect of the office. The word “bishop” is from the Greek episcopos which means “overseer.” This word indicates that the elder has oversight of the activities of the church, but his oversight extends no further than the revealed word of God through Jesus Christ as the Head of the church (Matt. 28:18).

The word pastor comes from the Latin term for shepherd and is another word describing the men who oversee the local church of Christ. The shepherd is responsible for seeing that the flock under his care is fed the pure word of God, and protected from evil teaching and influences. That was the entire thrust of Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-31. The word elder indicates a man who is mature in the faith. In fact, all three terms describing the same office are found in Acts 20. In verse 17, Paul, “sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church.” In verse 28, he called them “bishops” and “shepherds.” The Greek for “shepherd” is poimain and the verb form is poimaino. That is the word translated “feed” when Paul said, “feed the the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (v. 28).

By its Worship

The worship of the church of Christ is devoid of modern trappings of ritualism and show business. We follow the New Testament pattern in our worship to God in its scriptural simplicity and purity. As did the first century church, we sing praises to God, and teach and admonish one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16). This is a reciprocal action as commanded in Ephesians 5:19, so we do not use choirs, “praise teams” or special singing groups. There is no command in the New Testament for the church to use mechanical instruments of music in worship and in keeping with the injunction of Colossians 3:17 we do not use them. They are not authorized by the Lord, therefore we cannot play an instrument in His name (by His authority).

The church of Christ teaches the Bible in its assemblies as commanded in First Timothy 4:1-2, and as the Jerusalem church did when it continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine (teaching) (Acts 2:42).

The church of Christ also observes the Lord’s Supper each first day of the week as we have an example thereof in Acts 20:7. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial feast of unleavened bread and fruit of the vine which represent the body and blood of our Blessed Lord in His death on the cross. He instituted this supper on the night of His betrayal (Matt. 26:26-29) and the New Testament church regularly observed this rite in each first-day-of-the-week assembly (Acts 2:42; 20:7).

Prayers led by men (1 Tim. 2:1-8) and contributing money to further the cause of the Lord (1 Cor. 16:1-2) are also part of our worship on the first day of the week. All of these items of worship are authorized by the word of God and constitute the simple New Testament pattern for acceptable worship to Him.

By its Terms of Membership

The terms of membership in the church of Christ are not given by human councils, synods, conventions or conferences. They are the terms preached by first century Christians and found in the New Testament. Salvation by “faith only” that is taught by most modern denominations is a concept foreign to the New Testament and is a doctrine of the devil. We are certainly justified by faith (Rom. 5:1) but not by “faith only” (Jas. 2:24). Saving faith is that kind of faith found in the worthies catalogued in Hebrews 11. It is faith that hears the word of God and does what God commands, for “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Noah heard God’s instructions and obeyed them (Heb. 11:7). So did Abel (Heb. 11:4), Abraham (Heb. 11:8, 17), Moses’ parents (Heb. 11:23), and Moses himself (Heb. 11:24-25).

Those who come to God must believe in Him (Heb. 11:6) and in His Son, Jesus Christ (John 8:24). Having done that, they must then repent of their sins (Luke 13:3) confess their faith in Christ (Matt. 10:32; Acts 8:37) and be baptized into Christ for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; Gal. 3:26-27). Having done these things, they are then added to the church by the Lord (Acts 2:47). These are the terms of salvation from sin and membership in the body of Christ that are delineated in the eternal word of God.

Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). There is no appeal from His word, nor is there a single syllable in the New Testament that indicates one is saved by some so-called “sinner’s prayer.” Obedience to the gospel saves one and makes him a member of the church of Christ. He does not “join” the church, but is added to it by the Lord. These were the same terms preached by Peter on Pentecost in Acts 2 and those who obeyed on that day became Christians and members of the church of Christ. Those same terms, faithfully preached and obeyed today will make men the same thing—Christians and members of the church which Jesus built and for which He died.

Whenever you find a church fitting the above pattern, you have found the one and only true church which Jesus built. There is not a denomination on earth that fits that pattern. In fact, no denomination can be the church which Jesus built in any sense, as succinctly explained by Foy E. Wallace, Jr.:

A denomination properly defined means a religious organization larger than the local church, but smaller than the whole church. It takes many local churches to constitute a denomination. So a denomination is larger than the local church, but it is smaller than the whole church; because no denomination claims to have all the saved in it, they will tell us there are Christians in all denominations. So no denomination has all the saved. It is therefore smaller than the whole church, but it is larger than the local church, because it takes many local churches to compose it. So a denomination is not the church in the whole sense, because it is too small. And, it is not the church in the local sense because it is too large. Our only conclusion then can be that a denomination is not the church in any sense; in no scriptural sense at all, because the word church is never used in the New Testament, in any denominational connotation; that is outside the use of the word church in the New Testament. So that gives us the definition of the church. In the whole sense it is the entire body of the saved, the called of Christ, by the gospel; in the local sense all the saved, or the called, in a locality, meeting together to worship and serve the Lord (Number One Gospel Sermons, Foy E. Wallace, Jr. Publications, Nashville, 1967, pp. 2, 3).

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