What is NOT a Church?

Let us make clear our attack in this study. We define a local church very specifically. There is a lot of things out there that act like a local church and pretend to be a local church, and they are not local churches. They enter the realm of the “universal church” which breaks with the Bible example of a valid New Testament church.

Universal Church versus Local Church

Before we begin with what is not a valid church, you should be familiar with what is a church. The three points we make here (trying to be as broad as we possibly can) are:

(1) A church is composed of truly saved people, Christians.
(2) A church is subject to the authority of God principally by the word of God, the Scriptures, the Bible.
(3) The only purpose of a church is to do the work of God.

Even being as broad as we can, we have already begun to eliminate and exclude some groups from being valid churches. Let’s begin by slowly examining each point and how it excludes some groups from being valid New Testament churches.

(1) A church is composed of truly saved people, Christians.

Here we have to understand the true biblical natural of the church before we can understand how this disqualifies some groups while other valid churches may have unsaved in it.

Recognizing the Mixed (Wheat-Tare) Nature of the Church and Dealing with it

So it is not necessarily the presence of unsaved among the membership that would disqualify a from being a valid church, because every church would have some of these. Churches should discipline those who do not work at living correctly, and remove them from their membership roles.

But here the main problem is that of the church’s public doctrine of salvation. If it is flawed, including works for example, then it would disqualify itself from being a valid church. What they say is salvation has to check with the Bible.

When witnessing to people, we usually open the conversation with

1 John 5:11 And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. 13 These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.

Our basis for discerning who is saved and who is not saved is that those who are saved “have the Son”. This means they have a relationship of redeemed to redeemer with the Son of God. Often people make the comment that a Catholic, a Jehovah’s Witness, or somebody a member other cult group then can be saved. I always point out that although that is possible, a Catholic (or whatever) cannot possibly be saved if they follow their church’s teaching on salvation because it is not biblical.

(2) A church is subject to the authority of God principally by the word of God, the Scriptures, the Bible.

Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses – Each of these group have added to the word of God, the Bible, an external authority that is unacceptable. The Seventh Day Adventists have added the works of Ellen G. White, the Mormons have added the works of Joseph Smith, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have added the works of the Watchtower. Each of these groups recognize officially that these are authorities, inspired works, on a pair equal to the Bible. This disqualifies them (or should disqualify them) from any obedient Christian’s thinking. They are simply wrong and invalid.

Refusing to recognize the Authority of Scripture.

(3) The only purpose of a church is to do the work of God.

Here I am afraid we will get into offending a lot of people, but here we go. A valid church (or we can say a biblical church) is a church that does the will of God.

What is the Work of God?

We focus on what is the work of God, salvation. It is of supreme importance to God, and it should be of supreme important to us. Everything else in the Bible revolves around Christ the Son, and the salvation that is His work.

While we do not want to give the impression that these many “other things” are not the work of God, we need to be clear. You can do all the rest and if you fail in the essential of salvation, you have failed all.

Here we will not say that these churches that fail in evangelism and salvation (because the both are highly linked and are essentially the same thing), but we put in great doubt and question “churches” that miss the boat and exist but do not elevate salvation and evangelism to be the heartbeat of their churches. Let’s face it, nobody really likes going out door to door and arguing with the unsaved and getting attacked or mistreated by people you are trying to help. But that is exactly what evangelism is all about.

It is embarrassing. Yes. But I imagine that hanging on a cross naked dying is also embarrassing. Even more embarrassing is to be innocent of all sin, and then to die as a criminal, everyone literally has abandoned you. Jesus did this for you, but you cannot suffer a few moments of scorn by somebody who is misguided and on their way to hell?

Matthew 18:20 – What it is NOT teaching!

Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Hebrews 10:25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

I have heard people use this verse to justify their lack of obedience in Hebrews 10:25. Their thinking is that if anytime Christians get together God is in the midst of them, then they do not need to necessarily go to a church in its tradition sense, but simply gather regularly with other Christians in a home or at a restaurant for fellowship, and they are fulfilling Hebrews 10:25. Unfortunately I have heard this more from “missionaries” in defense of their lack of church attendance than from others. Typically they see their ministry in Bible translation, Bible studies (Navigators), or some other “niche” ministry where they are dealing with people in a church setting, and they themselves stop going and then refuse to go. Typically in these cases they cannot find a church that will honor them and their ministry (which ignores the planting of local churches) so they either make a small group in their house and call it a church, or they simply present a cup of coffee with a Christian friend at Denny’s as their “church”.

First let me say that there is nothing wrong with a church meeting in a person’s house. There is a New Testament example and precedence for this (Romans 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 1:2). But these were valid churches that were organized as a church. Nowhere do we see just the casual crossing of paths of Christians being called a church.

This passage is an extremely difficult one for reasons beyond this verse. Matthew cites Jesus’ teaching here, and in Matthew 16:18 and again in 18:17 the word “church” is used as if those hearing him would well understand its meaning. In this context before the founding of the New Testament church, the hearers would have probably understand “church” as a congregation of some sort, probably around the temple concept or around the synagogue concept. Neither of these really are very acceptable here because God was going to stop using the Jewish nation (and hence the temple) and the synagogue system developed by the Jews is very similar to the New Testament church concept, but it is not really the same.

So Jesus introduces a new concept, the “church”. But neither of these passages really define what a church is even though authority from God is given to the concept. But we must interpret these passages in such a way as to make it plausible with the understanding of those present when Jesus taught this without putting the added understanding we have in hindsight.

Here we need to understand the context of Matthew 18:20. Jesus is teaching about offending a Christian brother, and this offense is apparently something so grave as to cause the offended person not to arrive in heaven. The person who claims to be a brother and does this needs to be confronted by his brethren, and disciplined. Now the context here is not one of saying that any time believers get together God forms a mini- instant “add water and shake” church.

The context is that God wishes for his sheep to come into the fold. One is left out or lost, and the good shepherd leaves everything (the 99) and goes to recover that one. Matthew 18:12-14. The probable cause of the sheep going astray is now presented, an offense (Matthew 18:15-17). The church has the authority to resolve such misunderstandings between brethren. One cannot plead the case that you and the church (congregation of believers) may differ with me but I and God are all I need. No. A person has to be in relation with his brethren and if he is not, that has to be fixed.

Matthew 18:15-17 clearly places a man who is stubborn in his offense and sin under the authority of his brethren in Christ. If he refuses to amend his life so that it is not offensive, we are to declare him “unsaved” or not a brother and treat him likewise. God further authorizes this in verse 18 with authority for the church to “bind” and to “release”. This is only in the case of stubborn “brethren” who offend and refuse to fix their offensive lifestyle or attitude. That is the context. It is offensive and it causes sheep to leave the fold.

In verses 19-20, God gives His authority to even as few as two or three Christians in dealing with this matter and judging this person in this situation. The promise that God is among even 2 or 3 of us is in the matter of discipline in the church, and not in the matter of congregating. The word “assembled” or “gathered together” is sunago, from which we get synagogue. It is not the word for church.

God’s presence is in the midst of even two or three people assembled for church discipline. This is not a validation for something other than a traditional church.

What are the Marks or Attributes of Legitimate, Valid Church?

First we must build on our three above points:

(1) A church is composed of truly saved people, Christians.
(2) A church is subject to the authority of God principally by the word of God, the Scriptures, the Bible.
(3) The only purpose of a church is to do the work of God.

Next we have to say that it follows the New Testament of a church. This being that it has its main purpose and focus on doing the work of God, and that it operates like a New Testament church.

Let’s look at some of these things.

First of all the early church met on the Lord’s day, i.e. Sunday. This day was set aside for the Lord. The people of God got together in one place on that day (congregated), and they observed, heard, and participated in the things God wanted on that day.

Typical Lord’s day activities were singing, preaching (expositing the Word of God), breaking break (Communion or the Lord’s Supper), exhorting, encouraging, comforting, praying, praising (thanking God for who He is and what he has done), worship (estimating highly God for who He is and what He has done), evangelizing the lost if present in the services, and taking up of tithes and offerings.

Next we see that the New Testament church had a distinct organization. By this we refer to pastors and deacons. These are its offices and its officers.

Next we see that the New Testament church had a distinct doctrine, the apostles’ doctrine. By this we mean that the doctrine came directly from God through God’s prophets, and in the case of the New Testament, it came directly from Jesus through Jesus apostles. Again we enter into the purity of the church like we did with unrepentant sinning amongst its members. Here that which is not of a biblical doctrine we have to publicly reject and preach against it. This is what the New Testament church against the heretics and false prophets and false teachers that attack it from within and without.

Perhaps one of the few things that most people we add into this identification of a true church is persecution. This needs some explaining. The people of God are set in a spiritual war, a spiritual battle, and as such, the enemy often is able to cause hardship, persecution, suffering and even premature death to the people of God. This is seen most dramatically in their faithfulness to their Lord and the cause they are involved in, and this in early centuries resulted in the death of thousands of Christians. They simply accept this as part of God’s will, and refuse to “bend” with the pressure of the world. They stand on their doctrines and beliefs, and “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 1:3)

What are the Marks of a Biblical Church?

Returning to what is not a Biblical Church, today we see churches of convenience. They have abandoned most or all of the “traditional” aspects of church and now have modern elements that make church more like a Christian night club. They stand for nothing except what is easiest and what they think up.

Some churches (usually smaller churches of 20 or less) take a stand against something, but then they fall on doing the rest of it. Evangelism is a mute point. Holiness is something they wish for. Doctrine is something that they only touch lightly on. The New Testament churches started in people’s houses, which we would guess would limit them likewise to 20 or 30 people. Yet they were full fledged churches from the start because they actively pursued everything they should.

We should also mean that there are specific threats against the New Testament church which should be dealt with harshly. In the main index menu we deal with various problems and issues that plague the church today.


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