Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 9, 1964
NUMBER 48, PAGE 1,9-12

The Identity Of The Lord's Church

Luther G. Roberts

The Present Picture

"In 1947 there were approximately 74,000,000 persons in the United States affiliated with some religious body, this being about one-half of the estimated total population as of that date. By far the greater number of these were members of a very few large denominations, more than 90% of them belonging to two dozen bodies. There are, however, more than four hundred different religious groups in the country." (The Small Sects in America, Elmer T. Clark, Introduction, p. 9).

In an article by George W. Cornell, Associated Press Religious Writer, published in The Statesman, Salem, Oregon, December 28, 1963, the following information is found:

The "Church Membership Total" of Americans is given as 117,946, 002. This is 63.4 per cent of the population of the United States of that date. "The picture was traced in the '1964 Yearbook of American Churches,' published annually by the Council," (the National Council of Churches) "with statistics gathered from Christian, Jewish, and other religious bodies." "The total showed 117,946,002 Americans are members of churches, synagogues or other places of worship, up 1,846,073 or 1.6 percent," that is, over the previous year.

According to these statements there are at least four hundred different religious groups in this country claiming a membership in the aggregate of almost 118,000,000 people. Of these four hundred religious groups in America, is there one of them which can be identified as the church — "religious group" — found described on the pages of the New Testament? If so, how would you go about identifying it?


"Identity" means "sameness of essential character:" "sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing;" "the condition of being the same with something described or asserted; as, to establish the identity of stolen goods." To identify a person, a group, a nation, a church, or a thing is to point out the distinguishing marks or characteristics of such a person, group, nation, church or thing.

As an example of the meaning of the term "identity" let us use the illustration of identifying "stolen goods," say, an automobile. This automobile is a 1962 model. But there are many 1962 model automobiles, and there are some marks that are common to all those of this year. All of them have a motor, So we will have to deal in particulars to find the car for which we are searching. The car is a 1962 Pontiac Catalina, four-door sedan, two-tone color of white top and turquoise body. However, there are many cars with these marks. We are trying to identify such a car with serial number 36254411, license number 7N-1436 issued by the State of Oregon, and with title number 3168143 N. Now, we have the automobile identified. For though there are many automobiles with many of the same characteristics as this one, yet this one has certain characteristics which set it apart from all others. There is not another car that has the same serial, license, and title numbers as this one. Other cars have one or more of the same marks but none of them has all the marks. They are not the same car.

The Identity Of The Lord's Church

As it is with the car described above, so it is with the church we are looking for, seeking to identify. We are seeking to identify one particular religious body, the one described in the New Testament, among some four hundred religious groups in the United States today, 1964. How shall we go about establishing the identity of the Lord's church, the one described in the New Testament? Shall we say, find one that worships God and that is it? No, all of them worship God. This would be one of the marks to distinguish it, but there are others. Is it one that loves the Lord? Yes, this would be one characteristic, but all of them claim to love the Lord. This would be like trying to establish the identity of a particular automobile by saying that it has a motor. A particular automobile does have a motor but so do all others, also. Let us turn to the New Testament and find the church described therein, and then search out the religious body that exists today with the same traits, marks, or characteristics and then we will have that church identified among the more than four hundred religious groups in existence today.

The Building Of The Church

Jesus said, "I will build my church." (Matt. 16:18) This promise was fulfilled. Jesus was crucified, buried and raised from the dead. He ascended to heaven and "sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high." He sent the Holy Spirit to his apostles according to his promise. (Acts 1:5; 2:1-4) The apostles guided by that Spirit preached Jesus as the Christ on the first Pentecost after the ascension of Jesus. (Acts 2:14-36) Many of these people who heard the gospel believed it, and were told, "Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto" (for) "the remission of your sins." (Acts 2:38) "They then that received his word were baptized; and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls." (Acts 2:41) "And the Lord added to the church daily those that were being saved." (Acts 2:47)

Jesus thus fulfilled his promise to build his church. Jesus built his church through the apostles. "So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built (having been built) upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone." (Eph. 2:19, 20) "The foundation was laid by them. The prophets are New Testament prophets." The apostles and prophets preached Christ and those who obeyed the gospel were added to the church. Thus that church had its beginning. Paul went to the city of Corinth and was constrained by the word, "testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ." (Acts 18:5) Luke records the result, "and many of the Corinthians hearing, believed, and were baptized." (Acts 18:8) Later Paul addressed a letter to those baptized at Corinth and he addressed it to the "church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2), and told them "ye are the body of Christ." (1 Cor. 12:27) The Lord's church was started by the preaching of the gospel. Was the church of which you are a member started in this way?

The Builder

The builder of the church is another characteristic by which to establish the identity of the church described in t h e New Testament. Jesus promised to build his church. "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it." Jesus, the Lord, built the church through his apostles. This was done by the apostles through the preaching of the gospel of Christ.

The Place

Where did the church have its beginning? Jerusalem according to prophecy was the place where the "Lord's house" was to be built. "For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." (Isa. 2:3) Jesus said, "That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." (Lk. 24:47) In Acts, chapter two, we have the beginning of the church in Jerusalem, and the record of people being added to it as they "were being saved." (Acts 2:47)

The Time The church was to [be] established in "the last days." (Isa. 2:2) The Holy Spirit was to be poured out in the last days. (Joel 2:28), Peter identified the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on the day of Pentecost of Acts 2 as the "last days." He said, But this is that which hath been spoken through the prophet Joel: And it shall be in the last days, saith God, I will pour forth my Spirit upon all flesh." (Acts 2:16) In the "last days" God would speak by his Son, (Heb. 1:1,2) Peter, by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost commanded 11, people to "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins." (Acts 2:38) This was God speaking by his Son. Peter also referred to the occasion of Pentecost as "the beginning" (Acts 11:15) This is the time of the beginning of the church Jesus said he would build.

The Foundation

Isaiah prophesied, "Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone of sure foundation: he that believeth shall not he in haste." (Isa. 28:16) The apostle Peter identified this "stone" as Jesus Christ as recorded in 1 Peter 2:6. Jesus said to Peter, "And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter," Petros, a little stone, "and upon this rock," Petra, solid rock — "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" — "I will build my church." (Matt. 16:17, 18) "For other foundation can no man lay than which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 3:11) The New Testament church, then, was not built on Peter, nor on the teachings of men, but on Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

The Head

"For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church." (Eph. 5:23) "....and he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth a 1 l in all." (Eph. 1:22, 23) "And he is the head of the body, the church." (Col. 1:18) No man is the head of the church described in the New Testament. The religious body today that has a human head cannot be identified as the New Testament church. For you cannot find in the New Testament a human head of the church revealed in it. Jesus Christ is the head of his church.

Its Creed

The creed of the church found revealed in the New Testament in the primary meaning of the term is the belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, In the sense of an authoritative formula of religious belief, the New Testament itself, the apostles' doctrine, is the "creed" of the church. "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine " (Acts 2:42) "Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God...." (2 John 9) "Every scripture is inspired of God that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16, 17)

Terms Of Membership

The plan of salvation from sin through faith was designed by the God of heaven through his grace, mercy and love. This plan of salvation is revealed in the gospel of Christ. (Rom. 1:16, 17) The church is the called out — those who are called out of sin by the gospel of Christ — the saved, constitute the church. Those seeking membership in this church were required to believe that Jesus is the Christ, (Mark 16:16) They were required to repent of their sins. (Acts 2:38; 17:30, 31) They were required to be baptized (immersed) for the remission of their sins on a confession of Jesus as Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:38; 8:35-39; Rom. 6:3, 4; 10:9, 10)

Its Organization

"As all churches look upon their organization as one of their distinctive features, it is well to inquire into the organization of" the church that Jesus built as revealed in the New Testament. The organization of the New Testament church was the local churches. Each congregation, when fully organized, had a plurality of elders and deacons. (Phil 1:1; Acts 14:23) Each local church was directed by a plurality of elders, bishops or pastors, when it was organized. (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2, 3) "When the whole body of Christ, or kingdom of God, consisted of the church in Jerusalem, it was essentially what every other congregation became when established. Hence, each congregation contained within itself all the elements of the church of Christ for all lands and all ages." There was no organization of churches of Christ. "Each church is said to be the body of Christ, as each church is said to be the temple of God (see ch. iii. 16, note): not that there are many bodies or temples; but that each church is an image of the whole aggregate, a microcosm or little world, having the same characteristics." (Alford's Commentary on The New Testament, p. 1055).

Each congregation was of like faith and order and each was autonomous. "The scriptures teach the autonomy of the church and its right to function independently of any other body on earth. For this reason, churches of Christ recognize no ecclesiastical head on earth, nor do they delegate their rights to any council, synod, or conference. There is no higher organization on earth than the local church. The church, with its elders to oversee it, the deacons to serve, and the evangelists to proclaim the word is an entity and answerable only to Christ." (Annual Lesson Commentary, Gospel Advocate Company, 1946, p. 337) Churches of Christ cooperated but in such cooperation the churches acted concurrently and on an equality. There was no organization of churches of Christ and no one church was subordinated to another church.

Its Name

The people called out of sin by the gospel and added to the church by the Lord were called the "church." In further identifying these groups or churches they are referred to in the New Testament as "churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16); "churches of God" (1 Thess. 2:14); or merely referred to as "the church" or "churches." Paul referred to the "church of the Lord" (Acts 20:28, AVS), the "church of God." (1 Cor. 15:9) The whole body, the church, is called "my church" by Jesus, church of God, church of the Lord, the body, the church, body of Christ, the temple of God, the house of God, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ and God, and other terms kin to these mentioned here. The church as found in the New Testament was not known by "party names distinguishing them as to faith and order from any of the other people of God." It is right to use any name applied to the church in the New Testament as it was used there. Since the New Testament church is not a sectarian body or partisan group it is clearly not in harmony with the scriptures to call the Lord's church by a party or sectarian name.

The followers of Christ in their individual capacity were called disciples, saints, children of God, brethren, and Christians. They are to be identified by these designations and others found applied to them by inspired writers in the New Testament.

Its Worship

The disciples came together to worship God. Paul writing to the saints at Philippi said, "For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus." (Phil. 3:3) The disciples in Jerusalem "continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers?' (Acts 2:42) Luke records, "And upon the first day of the week, when we were gathered to break bread, Paul discoursed with them...." (Acts 20:7) Paul wrote to the "church of God at Corinth," "Upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come." (1 Cor. 16:2) Paul in writing about the edification of the church said, "I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also; I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also." (1 Cor. 14:15) He wrote to the saints at Ephesus and at Colossae to "be filled with the Spirit, speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;" "in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God." (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) The disciples at Corinth came together to eat the Lord's supper. (I Cor. 11:20f0 In the assembly on the Lord's day they met for worship in prayer and teaching, and sang hymns unto God. (Acts 12:5; 5:42; 16:25) In thus worshipping in the name of Christ we identify the worship of the church delineated in the New Covenant.

Its Work

The work that the church we read about on the pages of the New Testament did under the direction of its head, Jesus Christ, was to preach the gospel to the lost, to edify the saints be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vain-glory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself." (Phil. 2:2, 3) One church is to love a sister church. Paul urged the church at Corinth to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem, and said, "Show ye therefore unto them in the face of the churches the proof of your love, and of our glorying on your behalf." (2 Cor. 8:24) Paul likewise gave thanks to God for the church at Colossae, "Having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have toward all the saints." (Col. 1:3,4) In the local church there must be evidence of love abounding one toward another, and the church must be united in "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Eph. 4:3)

Purity And Love In the letters to the seven churches in Asia Christ shows that a church must keep itself pure and free from error and sin to retain its identity as a church of the Lord. Christ said to the church at Ephesus that he would come "and will move thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent." (Rev. 2:5) He said to the church at Laodicea, "So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth." (Rev. 3:16) The church that lacks love for God, Christ, the truth, and for brethren is lacking in an essential characteristic of that church for which Christ died. (Eph. 5:25) Also, the church must hate sin and error. Jesus said to the church at Ephesus, "But this thou hast, that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." (Rev. 2:6) To the church at Corinth Paul said through the Holy Spirit, "Put away the wicked man from among yourselves." (1 Cor. 5:12) The church must love truth and purity so strongly that it will not tolerate error and sin in its midst.


We have found that for a church to be identified as the church of the Lord that it must have Christ as its builder, be established at the right place, in the right time, that it must have Christ as its foundation and head, with the apostles' teaching as its rule of faith and practice, the same unto love and consideration for fellow saints in Christ Jesus.

On the pages of the New Testament we have sketched for us by the pen of inspiration the activities of the church in assisting needy saints. The church in Jerusalem supplied the needs of its members as we learn from Acts 2:44,24; 4:32-35. In Acts 6:1-6 we have an example of the same church providing the necessary arrangements in the congregation to alleviate the needs of certain widows in its membership who were destitute. The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that "If any woman that believeth hath widows, let her relieve them, and let not the church be burdened; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed." (1 Tim. 5:16) "Widows indeed" were widows who were saints in need and were without sons or daughters or nephews or grandchildren, or near kin to supply their necessities. When one church was in need and unable to take care of the needs of its own members other churches sent to their necessities. This the disciples in Antioch did for the brethren that dwelt in Judea, "sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul." (Acts 11:27-30) The churches of Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia sent relief to the needy saints in the church at Jerusalem. (Rom. 15:25, 26; 1 Cor. 16:1,2) The saints in Jerusalem were in need and the churches in these other localities sent unto their necessities. The churches doing this selected their own messengers to carry their bounty unto Jerusalem. (1 Cor. 16:3) The church that engages in these works today according to its ability can he identified with the church made known in the New Testament in this particular characteristic.


The church of the Lord is a spiritual relationship. The members of the church are related to one another and to their head as members of a physical body are related to each other and to their head. (1 Cor. 12:12-27) In the general or universal sense of the term "church" the church is only a relationship, not an organization. But in the local sense of the term the church is a relationship and an organization. (Phil. 1:1, 27) In both relationships brethren are to love one another. Paul said to the church at Philippi, "Make full my joy, that ye and to alleviate the needs of saints. Paul thanked God for the "fellowship in furtherance of the gospel from the first day until now" by the church at Philippi. (Phil. 1:5) He wrote to them, "and ye yourselves know, ye Philippians, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church had fellowship with me in the matter of giving and receiving but ye only; for even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my need." (Phil 4:15, 16) The church at Philippi preached the gospel by supporting Paul while he proclaimed the gospel. The church was doing its work. Paul also wrote to the church of God at Corinth, "I robbed other churches, taking wages of them that I might minister unto you." (2 Cor. 11:8) He asked, "Or did I commit a sin in abasing myself that ye might be exalted, because I preached to you the gospel of God for nought?" (2 Cor. 11:7) Other churches supported Paul during the time he preached at Corinth. Paul wrote Timothy, "These things write I unto thee, hoping to come to thee shortly; but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." (1 Tim. 3:14, 15) The primary work of the church is preaching the gospel to the lost. The church was purchased with the blood of Christ that men might be saved from sin in it. (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:9,20)

But the church is to edify, build itself up, in the faith. "And he gave some, to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ." (Eph. 4:11, 12) The church edifies itself by each member supplying his part in the body that it may make increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love. The avenues through which the body builds itself up, makes itself stronger in the faith, strengthens itself in love, is through worship to God in spirit and in truth; through faithful teaching in the sound doctrine; by the proper discipline of unruly members under the oversight of faithful elders or bishops in the church; by engaging in good works authorized by the head of the church, Jesus Christ; and by provoking one another, terms of membership as related in the New Testament, with the organization in accord with the church made known in the scriptures, that it must bear and wear the names found in that book, its worship must correspond with that of the church started by the preaching of the gospel in the first century of this era, and that its work and relationship must be that approved by the writings of inspired men recorded in the last will of Christ.

Christ warned the church at Ephesus, "I have this against thee, that thou didst leave thy first love. Remember therefore whence thou art fallen, and repent and do thy first works." (Rev. 2:4,5) He knew the works, love, faith, ministry and patience of the church in Thyatira. (Rev. 2:19)

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