"I will build My church," proclaimed Jesus Christ to His disciples (Matthew 16:18). Many have believed Christ's promise and seen the profound need to find that true Church. Yet, strangely, almost no one has sought to understand the other important questions about the Church — such as why Christ built the Church, what that Church really is, how it is organized and governed and how one becomes a part of it.
The basic doctrine
Briefly, the Church is that group of persons, led by Christ through an organized structure and ministry, in whom dwells the Holy Spirit of God. It exists to preach God's message to the world as a witness, and to nurture and teach its own members with the knowledge of salvation.
The usual teachings of this world
At first glance nothing seems earth shattering or controversial in those statements. Yet upon examination, it is obvious these truths differ markedly from concepts held by most professing Christians. Most people, for example, consider a church to be a building, or at least those persons who have "joined" a certain organization by registering on its official rolls. Some think the purpose of a church is merely to perpetuate itself and do little more than provide social events for its members. Others take an almost opposite approach and become virtually obnoxious by trying to proselytize and force people to believe as they do and join with them. Many at least give tacit approval to the contradictory concept that the true Church consists of everyone everywhere who is at least trying to obey his own conscience or moral code, in spite of the fact that others' beliefs may violently oppose his own. Certainly, the Bible supports none of these false yet common misconceptions.
The Bible teaching
Various analogies are used in the Bible to help us understand the function and purpose of the Church — it is described as a body, a family, a bride and even a temple. But the word translated "church" in the Bible is just the Greek word ekklesia. It is a common noun meaning simply "a group, crowd or assembly." Upon this group God has stamped the only true name and title of His Church, "The Church of God" (I Corinthians 1:2 and many other verses). No other name, no matter how derived or well-intentioned, is authorized by God's Word. In spite of common misconceptions to the contrary, one does not become a member of the Church of God by merely deciding to "join" or register on the Church's rolls. The process of finding and uniting with God's Church begins not with the individual convert, but with God (John 6:44). However, once a person is called by God and after he responds to that call with repentance and belief, he will be baptized in accordance with the scriptural admonition (Acts 2:38). At that time he will be begotten by the Holy Spirit of God through the laying-on-of hands ceremony that accompanies baptism (Acts 19:5-6). It is the receipt of this Holy Spirit that places the convert into the Church, and it is this same Spirit that is his "card of membership" in the Church (I Corinthians 12:13, Romans 8:9)! Hence, the Church is not a building or a computer listing of registered believers, but a spiritual organism or group composed of those who have in truth been called by God, baptized and received the Holy Spirit. This is not to say, however, that the Church is some amorphous collection of believers of different faiths or creeds, without organization or unity. Jesus said He would build His Church (singular), not churches (plural). Thus, the Bible reveals there is only one true Church (Ephesians 4:4-5). The true Church is not divided into schisms or divisions (I Corinthians 1:10-13). Some may recoil at the suggestion that there is only one true Church. Yet all churches by their very existence proclaim themselves different from others, and if different, then uniquely correct (certainly not wrong!). But their self-proclamations do not make them the true Church. For the Church is that genuine body of believers in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, a Spirit not given to everyone, no matter how sincere, but to those who repent and obey God (Acts 5:32). Even God's true Church, although in the final analysis a spiritual organism, is not without physical organization. The Bible reveals a structure and government for God's Church that is faithfully followed. That structure consists of two main parts — the membership in general and the ministry. Membership, as has been shown, comes from the calling of God through baptism and receipt of the Holy Spirit. Many verses show the authority of the Church to decide who is or is not a valid member of the Church and hence who may or may not fellowship as a member with it (Romans 16:17). To administer the government of the Church and to serve and teach its members, God has provided an ordained ministry. It is composed of those whom God has specifically called to the role, rather than the laity or volunteers or those who merely wish to choose the ministry as a career (Hebrews 5:1-4, I Timothy 3:1-7). Those who show proof of such calling by displaying the fruits in their lives are ordained to the role rather than elected. Church government is from the top down (a pyramidal hierarchy). At the very control of the universe and all things is God the Father. Under Him, with direct and complete responsibility to the Church, is Jesus Christ, who "is head of the church" (Ephesians 5:23). Under Christ are the ministers, beginning with the rank of apostle (Ephesians 2:20), with the other ranks of the ministry such as pastors and elders, along with unordained administrative helps, following down in authority and responsibility as their abilities and calling permit (I Corinthians 12:27-28). To govern the Church, Christ has given to it certain authority and responsibilities, such as the power to baptize, ordain further ministers, decide matters of administration (Matthew 16:19), decide disputes between members (Matthew 18:15-17), determine who is a valid member and discipline members if necessary, even with excommunication if need be (Romans 16:17). In our modern society the financing of the Church is of supreme importance. The Church has not been commissioned to finance itself through the sale of the Gospel, and is indeed forbidden to do so (Matthew 10:8). Nor has it been relegated the undignified chore of begging or asking the public for money by broadcast, mail or on a street corner. God instead has commanded all who would obey Him to faithfully tithe their increase and give offerings of their substance. To support the Church, God has given it the right to collect these tithes and offerings due God under His law. God has not left His Church without a specific duty or purpose. Its primary purpose is to preach and publish the Gospel of the Kingdom to the world, not to proselytize, convince or convert, but merely as a witness (Matthew 24:14). This true Gospel message is decidedly not the message taught by this world's churches, either in subject or purpose. Our free booklet What Is the True Gospel? explains further. Read it today! The second purpose of the Church is to baptize and teach those whom God calls into His Church (Matthew 28:19-20). To this end the Church is like a mother who nurtures and teaches her children until they graduate into life. The ministry fulfills this purpose as directed by Scripture (II Timothy 4:2) and holds weekly meetings on the Sabbath for such instruction, in accord with Hebrews 10:25, biblical examples and the meaning of the Sabbath itself, which is said to be a "holy convocation" — a holy assembly or meeting time (Leviticus 23:3). In addition, the various spiritual needs of the congregation are met with youth groups, Bible studies and a host of activities designed to promote unity and fellowship. At no time, however, is the Church allowed to drift from its primary purpose of selflessly preaching the Gospel and so degenerate into a local social club that exists merely to entertain or further itself.
The biblical doctrine concerning the Church is so important that it makes sense to remember some key verses about the subject. Some are: Matthew 16:18 — Jesus said He would build His Church; Acts 2 — the Church was founded on the day of Pentecost with receipt of God's Spirit; I Corinthians 12:13 — we are placed into the Church (a spiritual body) by receipt of God's Spirit; Ephesians 2:20 — Christ is the head of the Church; I Corinthians 12:4-5, 28 — the Church has a government and is administrated by ministers and lay helpers under them; Matthew 16:19, 18:15-19 – the Church has authority to make binding decisions. Jesus Christ's promise to build His Church has not gone unfulfilled. But only those who truly understand the purpose, role, identity and function of the Church can fully understand the purpose and plan of God.