THE ONE CHURCH
We live in a world where there are many "churches." I could name some of the more common denominations and you would immediately recognize each one. Many people would also recognize that these denominations are of recent origin compared to the origin of the church that Jesus promised to build in Matthew 16:18. In fact, one can go back into history and learn exactly when most of these religious denominations were established and those who are members of them would agree as to when they were established and by whom.
It is very common today to hear preachers utter prayers thanking God for all the many different "churches" so that each person can "join the church of his own choice." I wonder if it has ever occurred to these preachers that each person ought to strive to be a member of the church of Jesus' choice, rather than his own choice. Why should anyone want to be a member of a church other than the one of Jesus' choice if their purpose in life is to please Him?
We all recognize the division that exists in the religious world brought about by the fact that each denomination teaches some distinct doctrine or doctrines that separates it from all the other denominations. In this study we are going to look at what the Bible teaches about the church that Jesus built, at what the Bible teaches about religious division, and we are going to make a plea for all people to be members of the church of Jesus' choice rather than the choice of their own choice.
A LOOK AT MATTHEW 16:13-19
In our text in Matthew 16, we find Jesus promising to build His church. He clearly stated that He would build His church on the great foundational truth that Peter confessed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Thus, we learn immediately that Jesus' church is built upon the authority of the Only Begotten Son of God. Therefore the church of Christ did not originate with any man, it originated in the mind of God and was built by the Son of God. In this respect, it is unlike any denomination. Every denominational "church" had its origin with some human being or group of human beings. That's not true of the church of Christ.
Notice also that Jesus used the singular when He said "I will build My church." He did not say "I will build my churches" (plural). In fact, Jesus never promised to build more than one church. The Bible does not teach that Jesus will accept more than one church. The Bible does not teach that Jesus ever promised to build even one denomination.
Notice also that Jesus' church is the same as His kingdom. When Jesus built His church, He established His kingdom. That's why He said in verse 18, "I will build My church", and then in verse 19 speaks of giving the apostles the "keys of the kingdom of heaven." On the first Pentecost day following the resurrection of Christ, the Lord established His church and the keys of the kingdom were used by the apostles in their preaching of the gospel to open the doors of the kingdom and thus the Lord added to the church daily (Acts 2:47; See also The Coming of Christ's Kingdom).
CHRIST'S PLEA FOR THE UNITY OF BELIEVERS
There is a very important prayer uttered by our Lord that has been recorded in John 17 that enters into our study of the one church. Jesus said, "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me." (John 17:20-21). Notice that Jesus was speaking of the apostles when He said "I do not pray for these alone." Then He said He was also prayed for those "who will believe in Me through their word." Here He spoke of all those who listened to the preaching of the apostles in the first century, and all of us today who read their preaching in the New Testament in the twenty-first century. Thus, Jesus' prayer is just as binding on us today as it was on those in the first century. Jesus was praying for you and me -- for all those who believe on Him.
And what did Jesus pray for? "That they all may be one." Christ wants us to be one. He prayed that all those who believe in Him would be one. And then He gave the greatest example that He could as to how He wants us to be one, "as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us." Now what does it mean to be one as God and Christ are one?
When we observe the religious world today, surely no one would affirm that it is one. We see divided, factious, distinctive groups, teaching and practicing different and often contradictory things. Surely this is not what Christ desired when He prayed for us to be one as He and the Father are one. Is being divided up into different groups, teaching different and contradictory things and worshipping in different ways the answer to Jesus' prayer? Can you imagine God the Father and Christ the Son acting that way? Can you imagine them teaching different and contradictory doctrines? Have you ever read anywhere in the Bible where Jesus and the Father ever taught different doctrines? No, and you will never find any occasion. Why? Because THEY ARE ONE! And when you are ONE you don't teach and practice different and contradictory things!
Would you not agree with me that for believers to be ONE as the Father and Son are ONE, we must be united in teaching which would necessarily mean we would be united in practice, work, worship and purpose? Would you not agree that we must be united on the Word of God? Is there any other way we could be one? If so, how?
Paul, in dealing with the division in the church at Corinth spoke about this principle: "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment." (1 Corinthians 1:10). How could the Corinthians be united in Christ Jesus? They were to all "speak the same thing" and be "perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment." Now someone is bound to say, "That's just impossible! You'll never get all religious people to give up their creed books, distinctive names and doctrinal differences and speak the same thing." Impossible? Well, the Holy Spirit evidently didn't think it was impossible, because He inspired the apostle Paul to tell the Corinthians to do just that. Christ has never required the impossible of us, yet He prayed that we would all be one. Did He pray for the impossible? Certainly, there is no person who is open-minded, who believes the Bible, who after reading Jesus' prayer in John 17 and reading what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 1:10, can truthfully say that Christ is pleased with the religious division that exists today in denominationalism. Impossible? It's not impossible for you, is it? Can't you learn to speak the same thing as other faithful Christians and be joined together in the same mind and same judgment as other faithful Christians? Certainly you can. We all can, if we want to. It begins with YOU and ME!
The prophet Amos in the long ago set forth a principle which should help us in our study. He asked, "Can two walk together unless they are agreed?" (Amos 3:3). To ask the question is to answer it. If believers disagree as to what the Bible teaches, as to how to worship God, as to what name to wear in religion, as to what book to follow, they cannot walk together. There will be division and that is what we see in the religious world today. Two cannot be ONE unless they are in AGREEMENT!
In light of the fact that two can't walk together unless they are agreed that means to agree to disagree doesn't answer Jesus' prayer for unity. To agree to disagree doesn't make believers one. To agree to disagree doesn't make believers speak the same thing and certainly doesn't join them together in the same mind and in the same judgment. Does it?
How can we be one? How can we agree so that we can walk together? Paul shows us how this unity of all believers can come about. He wrote, "Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind." (Philippians 3:16). How can we be united with all believers? We must walk by the same rule and be of the same mind! There are some who seem to think that the New Testament is just a series of "love letters" and not a "rule book"? That's evidently not what the Holy Spirit thinks. There is a rule book. It is the New Testament. It is the word of Christ. It has rules to WALK (live) BY! After all, it is Christ's word that will judge us in the last day (John 12:48).
So this is the way to be one. This is the way to agree. This is the way to speak the same thing and to be perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment -- to walk by the same rule.
Of course this principle requires us to know what the rule is. It demands that we rightly divide the New Testament (2 Timothy 2:15). It demands that we really know what the New Testament teaches. And this is really where the obstacle is. Many people will not study the Bible for themselves. They let their preachers do their studying for them and just follow what they say or they read books that others have written about the Bible, but never read the Bible for themselves. If you want to walk by the same rule that all other faithful Christians are walking by, you must study the New Testament for yourself.
But someone might say, "I just can't understand the Bible." Friend, you can understand the Bible. Look at Jesus' promise in John 8:32. Do you believe His promise? If you do, you must accept the fact that you can come to an understanding of the Bible. It takes effort, hard work, and hours of study. It takes developing proper study habits. But it can be done! Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't understand the Bible. Jesus said, "If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority." (John 7:17). If our desire is to truly do the will of God, He will see to it that we have the opportunity to come to a knowledge of His will. But it will not be without effort on our part.
Someone else might say, "we can't all understand the Bible alike." My friend, when two people disagree on what the Bible teaches, there are only two possibilities:
If both people understand the Bible both will understand it alike (i.e. understand it to teach the same thing). The Bible does not say one thing to you and something else to me. Jesus said we can know the truth (John 8:32). This means there is truth and we can know what the truth is. The fact that the Bible is the truth (John 17:17), shows that when two people come to a knowledge of the truth, they will understand it alike. Now either Jesus was right or He wasn't. But in order for us to know the truth (understand the Bible) we must put forth the effort to do so. We have to study the Bible for ourselves. And when two people do that, they will come to the same conclusion as to what it teaches if they both understand it. If you are not willing to study the Bible yourself, then you are not worthy to be a disciple of Christ.
So, this is how we can be one. Study the Bible and walk by it. When we do that, we will speak the same thing and be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment and division among believers will become a thing of the past.
WHAT BEING ONE WILL ACCOMPLISH
Jesus tells us what being one will accomplish. He said, "that the world may believe that You sent me" (John 17:21). Jesus tells us that religious division, disunity, denominationalism (all of which are the same thing) causes people to reject Him. How can that be a good thing? How can religious division contribute to the good of this world? It can't! It doesn't! It has the opposite effect. It contributes to unbelief.
Perhaps you have heard the old story of the African leader who saw missionaries from all the different religious denominations coming to his country to teach their different doctrines, trying to convert his people to their particular view. When asked why he did not want to listen to them he said, "you go back home and agree among yourselves, and then come back and I will listen to you." That man saw what many people cannot see. Division causes unbelief. Religious division causes people to reject the word of God.
When every believer decides that he will walk by the same rule, speak the same thing, and be perfectly joined together in the same mind and same judgment, with every other believer, then we will be much more successful in getting people to listen to the gospel.
One thing I should make clear: I am not advocating that we just compromise with one another or that we just agree to disagree. That's more or less what we see in the religious world today, but that's not unity. That's not walking by the same rule. That's not speaking the same thing. No, unity must be based upon a rejection of every man-made command and teaching, and a correct understanding and acceptance of the Bible.
THERE IS ONE CHURCH
As we stated in the beginning of our study, Jesus didn't build many churches. He promised to build HIS CHURCH (singular). He could have used the plural word (churches) if that's the idea He intended to convey, but He did not. He used the singular word (church).
I know that the word "churches" is used several times in the New Testament, but it is never used in the denominational sense. It is never used to refer to different religious groups teaching and practicing different things. It is used to refer to different local congregations of Christ's church. So Paul writes to the "churches of Galatia," not referring to the denominations of Galatia (because no denominations existed in the first century), but to different congregations of the SAME church, the Lord's church that He built (established) through the preaching of the gospel in the area of Galatia. All of those churches in Galatia spoke the same thing. All walked by the same rule. All followed the same word of God as their guide. When any congregation began to teach something different than the others (cf. the Corinthian congregation; 1 & 2 Corinthians), they were corrected by the apostle Paul and others (See also Christ's rebuke of the churches in Revelation 2-3).
No, the Bible never uses the word "churches" to refer to different denominations. In fact, it clearly teaches that there is ONE church. I am not ashamed to say that. Why should I be ashamed to say plainly what the Bible teaches? It's not a matter of questioning other people's sincerity or honesty. It's not a matter of questioning whether people who associate themselves with denominations desire to please God. It is a question of what the Bible teaches!
WHAT IS THE ONE CHURCH?
Paul wrote, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." (Ephesians 4:4-6).
All of us know what the word "one" means. It means "sole, only, lone, single." Paul says that there is ONE body. That means there is only one, not two or more, and certainly not hundreds or thousands. By the use of the word "ONE" Paul teaches that there cannot be more than one and that we cannot teach that there is more than one and please God. There is ONE!
Paul also says there is ONE Spirit, which no doubt refers to the Holy Spirit through which God has revealed His word. Now would it not be wrong for us to teach that there is more than one Holy Spirit? Yes indeed, for the Bible teaches that there is only ONE!
Paul also says the same thing about the ONE hope, faith, baptism and Father. Would it not be wrong to teach that there is more than ONE of each of these? Would it not be fruitless for me to contradict Paul and try to teach that there is more than one of each of the things listed here? Well, fruitless or not, there are those who profess to be Christians who try to teach that there is more than one body, baptism, hope and faith. But Paul said there is ONE of each.
Now, there are just as many bodies as there are Holy Spirit's, Lord's and Fathers. If not, why not? How many bodies does Paul say there is? ONE! What is that body? Let Paul answer by inspiration: "And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence." (Colossians 1:18). Now who is the head? Jesus Christ. Notice that there is only one head. There are not two heads of the church (one on earth - the Pope; and one in heaven - Jesus). There is only ONE. And that is Jesus Christ. The singular is used in reference to "the head" for a reason. There is only ONE! What is Jesus the head of? The body. Again, the singular is used. He does not say "the bodies", he says the body (singular). He doesn't use the plural here. And what is the body? The church. Again the singular is used. It would have been a perfect time for Paul to have taught that the many denominational churches can make up the body of Christ. All he would have had to do is to use the plural: "He is the head of the body, the churches." That would have settled it once and for all. Then we could teach that the body of Christ is made up of many different churches. But THAT IS NOT WHAT HE SAID! He used the singular! "HE is THE HEAD of THE BODY, THE CHURCH." How many heads are there? ONE! How many bodies are there? ONE! How many churches are there? ONE!
"You mean you're saying you don't believe that all the different denominations make up the body of Christ?" IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT I SAY! WHAT DID THE INSPIRED APOSTLE PAUL SAY? That is the question! The church that Paul speaks of here is the one that Jesus promised to build (Matthew 16:13-19). It is the one that was established on the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ in the city of Jerusalem about 33 A.D. (Isaiah 2; Joel 2; Acts 2) hundreds of years before the first denomination came into existence. It is the church of Christ. There was no other church in the first century!
The Roman Catholic Church and the various denominations teach something completely different than what the Bible teaches about the church of Christ. Perhaps it could be illustrated like this:
Let me put this as plainly and as kindly as I can. If you are not a member of the church that Jesus built, the one church you read about in the New Testament, the one established on the first Pentecost following the resurrection of Christ in the city of Jerusalem (Acts 2), the church of which Christ is the only Head, the one that is the one body and bride of Christ, then you are a member of the wrong church. This does not mean that "your church" doesn't teach any truth. It does not mean there are not good people in it. It simply means that the Bible never speaks of even one denomination in its pages. If you are a member of a denomination, you are a member of an organization which has no authority for its existence higher than man. Why would we not want to be a member of the church that Jesus built rather than a "church" which has been established by a man, woman, or a group of men or women far too late to be the church of Christ and which the Bible says nothing about? Why would we want to be a member of an organization that contributes to disunity in the religious world, rather than contributing to the unity for which Jesus prayed?
Paul teaches, "For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body." (Ephesians 5:23). Jesus is the Savior of the body. The body is the church (Colossians 1:18). Now what church do you suppose He will save? Will He save the church He built or will He save a "church" He did not build and which has absolutely no authority for it's existence other than man's authority? You answer.
Anyone can become a member of the church that Jesus built. All he has to do is to take the steps outlined in the New Testament. Believe that Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 16:16); Repent or turn from sin (Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38); Confess Christ as Lord, the Son of God (Romans 10:9-10; Acts 8:37); and be baptized (buried in water - Romans 6:3-4) into Christ for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:15-16; 1 Peter 3:21). (See also "God's plan of Salvation in the Book of Acts"; "God's Chain of Salvation"; "The Place of Baptism in God's Plan of Salvation" and "Examples of Conversion"). The Lord will add you to His church just as He did those who obeyed Him on Pentecost day (Acts 2:41, 47).
Jesus died for you. He built His church. He established His kingdom. Now you have the opportunity to obey Him and become a member of His church and a citizen of His kingdom.
The plea I am making is not for you to join another denomination. It is not to ask you to move your membership to another denomination. I am pleading with you to give up your association with denominationalism altogether, and to just be a Christian, a member of the church that Jesus built. Find a local congregation of the church of Christ and let them assist you in your obedience. If you need help in finding a congregation please feel free to email me at the address on the main page and I will provide that help. (See also, The Church that Jesus Built).