Which Is the New Testament Church?
By Eddie Cloer

"So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another" (Romans 12:5).

Of necessity, accountable living in this world requires making decisions. We might even say that life, when boiled down to the basics, consists of two traits: time in this world and decision making.

Most of our decisions are small, momentary, and somewhat insignificant. They affect our living briefly and then are forgotten. Other decisions are influential and determinative. They cast long shadows and affect our living not only today but also our futures. They will either help us or haunt us tomorrow. Consequently, a poorly made major decision is often regretted for a lifetime.

We make some of our decisions hurriedly and without much thought, with our response being given so quickly that it is like a reaction. These decisions do not weigh heavily on our minds before or after the decisions are made. Other decisions require deep thought and a careful weighing of the evidence which may stretch into weeks or months.

Some decisions are so critically important that they affect the way we will live before God in this life and will determine our eternal destiny. These decisions which influence life and eternity require serious thinking and prayerful research before being made.

These truths about decision making remind us that no more far reaching decision perhaps could be considered than the decision proposed by the question "Which is the New Testament church?" The decision we make regarding this question will influence our daily living for God, our spiritual identity, our worship, and our spiritual service. This question, then, must be thoughtfully considered until it is answered according to the clear teachings of the Scriptures and our best unprejudiced reasoning.

Our world is filled with different churches which plead for our commitment and allegiance. A decision must be made. Which is the New Testament church? How shall we decide?

Common sense guidelines obviously must be followed to help us think carefully about the evidence and make the right choice, the choice which will please God. If we follow these guidelines with integrity, we can identify the New Testament church in the world today.

What are these guidelines?

CONSIDER ITS BEGINNING

One of the identifying marks of the New Testament church is the time of its beginning. Any church which began at a different time from the New Testament church is obviously not the New Testament church.

Three fourths of the way through His personal ministry, Jesus promised, "I will build My church" (Matthew 16:18). He fulfilled His promise on the first Pentecost Day following His resurrection (Acts 2:41 47). From this Pentecost Day forward, the church is spoken of as being in existence throughout the rest of the New Testament (Acts 5:11; 7:38; 8:1, 3).

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No denomination of any kind is found in the New Testament.
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Suppose someone said, "My church started in the Old Testament." His church is too early. The Old Testament predicts the coming of the kingdom, but it does not record its establishment. Suppose someone said, "My church started during the third century A.D." His church is too late. This cannot be the New Testament church. The New Testament does not end looking for the establishment of the church some day in the future. Rather, it ends with the Roman Empire quaking under the mighty spread of the church throughout the world.

In general, the Protestant churches sprang into existence during the sixteenth century, during or after the Reformation. No denomination of any kind is found in the New Testament. The New Testament church was established, and then centuries later, as apostasies from the New Testament order began to occur, denominations were formed. The picture in the New Testament is that of people becoming Christians, living, and worshiping as the body of Christ long before any denominations came into existence.

As you consider a specific church, ask, "When was its actual beginning?" If it goes back to any time other than the time of the first Pentecost after our Lord's resurrection, it cannot be the New Testament church.

CONSIDER ITS AIM

Another identifying characteristic of the New Testament church is its purpose or aim. The New Testament church has no other goal in this world but to be the New Testament church. It does not seek to be similar to it, akin to it, or nearly it. It intends to be it!

When considering the question "Which is the New Testament church?" you can ask of a specific church, "What is its aim or purpose in this world?" The New Testament church was the body of Christ in the world. Paul said, "So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another" (Romans 12:5). Any church that is not seeking to be the body of Christ in its community is simply not the New Testament church.

The body of Christ in the New Testament could not have been made up of denominations, inasmuch as denominations did not exist in the first century. It was made up of individual Christians who had entered that body by belief in Jesus (Acts 16:31), repentance (Acts 2:38), confession of Jesus as the Son of God and Lord (Romans 10:10), and baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 22:16). As the body of Christ, they met together for worship and fellowship in the communities where they lived (Acts 2:42). Those Christians were not the body of Christ and something else; they were not called by another name as they sought to be the body of Christ; they were just the body of Christ, the church of Christ (Romans 16:16). They worshiped together, looked out after each other, and carried on God's work together with a unity that is illustrated by the unity that adheres between the members of a physical body.

Christ did not call people to be His disciples by being a denomination. He called them to be His disciples by being His body in the world. This body is to wear His name, worship together in His name, and do His work in the world for His glory.

CONSIDER ITS PRACTICES

Still another identifying mark of the New Testament church is its practices. It is one thing to say that a church is the New Testament church, but it is quite another for that church to demonstrate its identity by its practices. Anyone can claim to be the New Testament church, but the proof of the claim is always in the practice.

The practices of the New Testament church are easily seen in the New Testament. The New Testament church met for worship on the first day of the week and broke bread in remembrance of the Lord's death. This was done every first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:20; Hebrews 10:25). Christians would sing together, making melody in their hearts and edifying one another. The New Testament contains no record of the use of instrumental music in their worship nor any command for them to do so (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). They gave of their material prosperity on the first day of each week for the carrying on of God's work and the helping of the poor (1 Corinthians 16:1, 2). They prayed together and considered God's will which was being revealed by inspired men (Acts 2:42). Each congregation of the New Testament church governed itself through overseers or elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7), looking to Jesus as the only head of the church. Deacons (1 Timothy 3:8 11) and evangelists (2 Timothy 4:1, 2) served the church under the oversight of the elders.

Suppose I had several bicycles in front of my house and I offered to give you one of them if you could find it. You would immediately ask, "What are its characteristics?" so that you could find it. If I said, "It is red in color, has on its handlebars a wire basket containing six apples, and has two red reflectors on its back fender," you would know exactly what to do. You would go outside and look at the bicycles there, and you would attempt to match the characteristics I had named with one of the bicycles in front of my house. When you had made the match, you would claim that bicycle as your own in harmony with the agreement we had made.

Is our task not the same today in identifying the New Testament church? We must list the characteristic practices of the New Testament church and then compare this list with the churches we see around us. When we find a true match, when we find a church which follows the New Testament pattern, we have found the New Testament church, the Lord's church.

CONSIDER ITS DESIGNATIONS

Another identifying mark of the New Testament church is its designations. The descriptive phrases which are used for the New Testament church in the Bible are revealing and distinguishing.

The New Testament church is designated in the New Testament as "the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12), "the church of God" (1 Corinthians 1:2), "the churches of Christ" (Romans 16:16), the "church of the first born" (Hebrews 12:23), "the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:19), and simply "the church" (Ephesians 1:22). These designations describe the nature and identity of the church. They are descriptive phrases more than they are names.

What if you are considering a church which is designated by a phrase or name which is not found in the New Testament? Surely we must admit that this is unacceptable. First, if this church is the New Testament church, why does it use a designation for itself which is foreign to the New Testament? Second, if this church is the New Testament church, why does it not use the New Testament designation for the church to indicate to all that it is the New Testament church?

By God's grace, the honest seeker of truth can identify the New Testament church in the world today.

Third, if this church is the New Testament church and it is using a phrase foreign to the New Testament as a designation without really thinking about it, surely, when this is called to their attention, they will gladly change to the New Testament designations so that no one will mistake them for something other than the New Testament church.

Designations are important. They identify and distinguish. It is true that a rose by any other name is still a rose, as William Shakespeare said. However, if a lily wanted to become a rose and wanted everyone to know that it had become a rose, it would not only want to take on the characteristics of a rose, but it would want to call itself a rose. If a lily wanted to become a rose, had taken on the characteristics of a rose, and wanted everyone to know that it is a rose, it would not make sense for it to call itself a sunflower.

So it is with the church. If a church wants to be the New Testament church, has taken on the characteristics of the New Testament church, and wants everyone to know that it is the New Testament church, it should apply to itself the designations given in the New Testament for the New Testament church and only those.

CONCLUSION

By God's grace, the honest seeker of truth can identify the New Testament church in the world today. Four guidelines which are especially helpful in identifying the Lord's church are these: (1) Look at its beginning, (2) look at its aim, (3) look at its practices, and (4) look at its designations. When these characteristics are used as identifying features, one can readily determine the true church from the false ones.

While walking down a crowded hallway in the building where I teach each day, I heard a student say, "Dr. Cloer, wait just a minute!" I stopped and turned around to see a student rushing up to me to ask a question. I had been walking down a hallway among dozens of students and professors, but I was different from every one of them and was recognized and singled out by this student. How did he pick me out? All of us have characteristics and uniquenesses which make us different from everyone else. Our facial appearances, our body builds, our mannerisms, our voices, and many other traits enter into making up our composite uniqueness. We are different from everyone else, and everyone who knows us sees that difference. Through its unique characteristics, the New Testament church stands out from all the manmade churches of the world. When we look at its special traits, we are able to distinguish the Lord's church from them. It will require, however, weighing the evidence, making unbiased comparisons, and asking pointed questions.

Should we settle for anything but the New Testament church? Who would want to?

Why be a substitute when we can be the real thing?

QUESTIONS FOR STUDY
AND DISCUSSION

  1. Why is deciding which is the New Testament church a far reaching
      decision?
  2. List verses of Scripture which show that the New Testament church began
      on the Day of Pentecost in
Acts 2.
  3. When did denominations spring up?
  4. What is the aim or goal of the New Testament church?
  5. Who composes the body of Christ individual Christians or denominationa
      churches?
(See 1 Corinthians 12:24.)
  6. Did Christ call His disciples to be denominations in this world? How do
      you know?
  7. What are the practices of the New Testament church?
  8. Should churches today follow the practices of the New Testament church?
  9. How is the New Testament church designated in the New Testament?
10. Why should a church which is seeking to be the New Testament church
      designate itself the same way the church in the New Testament is
      designated?
11. Why are designations important?
12. Is it realistic to believe that we should be able to distinguish and identify the
      New Testament church today?