Summary: In the not too distant past it was taught that unless a person belonged to a particular church, they would not go to heaven when they died. However, today most Protestant religions teach that Jesus did not establish a formal organization known as a “church.” Instead they say that it is the entire “body of believers” throughout the world that constitutes “the church.” According to this belief, our salvation doesn’t depend on which religious denomination we belong to. This article examines what the church of Christ is and its relationship to our salvation.
One day, as the disciples of Jesus were talking with him, he told them, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).
In the not too distant past it was taught that unless a person belonged to a particular church, they would not go to heaven when they died. In fact, even today, the Catholic Church teaches that unless someone has been baptized into their church by one of their authorized priests, when they die they will go to hell. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century the Church of England taught that anyone who was not a member of that religious organization was likewise destined for hell. Therefore, if a person was excommunicated from one of these churches it was felt that their soul was being condemned to spend eternity with the devil and his angels in a lake of fire and brimstone where they would face a life of endless torment. In other words, salvation only came through being a member of a particular church.
However, modern-day Protestants point to the verse just quoted as biblical evidence that Jesus did not establish a formal organization known as a “church.” It is their understanding that when someone accepts Christ as their personal Savior, he accepts them as his children and they automatically become sons and daughters of God. According to this doctrine, belonging to the family of God is the same as belonging to the church of God. Therefore, when two or three Christians meet together to have a Bible study, or simply sit around talking with one another about the gospel, they are having “church.”
The Greek word that is translated as church is ekklesia, which is defined as “a company of Christians; those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united into one body; the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth” (Strong’s Concordance). From this, modern Protestants teach that it is the entire “body of believers” throughout the world that constitutes “the church,” and not a particular formal religious organization.
This idea is further reinforced when Jesus told the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is not something that is observable but “is within you” (Luke 17:20,21). In other words, it is said that the kingdom or church of God is not something tangible or physical that is found in a specific location that can be seen and touched with human senses but is something spiritual that resides within the heart of every believer. For this reason, Protestants teach that belonging to a specific religious denomination has no effect upon a person’s salvation. The only thing that matters is our faith and belief in Jesus Christ.
From this they conclude that it doesn’t matter to God if someone is a Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, or any other Christian believing faith. Instead, what matters to him is whether or not they believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior, that he is the Son of God, that he died on the cross for their sins, and that he rose from the dead.
In fact, many people say that belonging to an organized church is the opposite of what Jesus and the apostles taught. They say that in the earliest days of the Christian faith, the believers met together as small groups in the home of an individual where they informally shared their faith with one another. Then, as persecution increased and being a Christian became a crime, they would secretly meet in underground caves known as catacombs.
Furthermore, it is said that instead of religious organizations bringing people closer to God, they force people to follow man-made rules, dogmas, and ceremonial requirements, that only turn people into hypocrites who are intolerant of others. Others believe that organized religions act more as a middle man between us and God thereby preventing us from interacting directly with God. Still others contend that those believers in Christ who don’t adhere to a particular faith with its mandatory creeds, codes, and philosophies, actually become better Christians.
In contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that not only did Jesus establish a formal church organization with apostles at its head, who guided and led the church, but it also consisted of officers known as bishops who did the same in their particular city under the direction of the apostles. Under their supervision were other offices known as elders, deacons, and teachers, all of whom were priests which gave them the divine authority to act in behalf of Christ.
In the New Testament the term “kingdom of God” is used eight-five times and while most people think this is referring to heaven, the LDS Church declares that their organization is that kingdom here on earth. To understand why we need to understand what a kingdom is.
First and foremost, a kingdom is a form of government that is ruled over by a king who reigns supreme over all things that are contained within his area of control. For example, the King of England only rules over the land known as England. However, he has no power or authority over the area of France, Italy, Spain, or any other nation. Furthermore, everyone who lives in the area over which the king rules is subject to his laws, decrees, and pronouncements.
In heaven, God is the king and all those who live there are likewise subject to his laws, decrees, and pronouncements. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22) and as his obedient servants we are to be in subjection to his laws, commandments, and pronouncements. In addition to this, as Christians we believe that Jesus is directing, controlling, and guiding his church. Furthermore, we believe that Jesus is the king of kings. Thus, his church fits the definition of a kingdom.
But a kingdom is made up of more than just a king. In fact, the larger the kingdom, the more bureaucracy is needed to administer it, meaning there is a hierarchy of people who oversee the functioning of the kingdom. For example, in the kingdom of England there were Lords, Dukes, Earls, and other titles conferred upon people for the purpose of giving them authority to manage various estates or lands that belonged to the king.
In heaven we read about archangels and angles, who are further divided into various responsibilities such as ministering angels, guardian angels, and warrior angels, all of whom do the will of God, their king, As we have already seen, in the earliest Christian church we find a hierarchy of apostles, prophets, bishops, elders, deacons, and teachers. As the church grew in population it became necessary for further layers of supervision to be added, and as this happened we see the formation of what has come to be known as the Catholic, or universal church. In that organization we have at its head the Pope, and under him the college of Cardinals, then archbishops, bishops, and priests. Likewise, in the LDS Church there is a President at its head, with a quorum of twelve apostles. Under them is a quorum of general authorities, then regional authorities, stake presidents, and bishops, all of who follow the chain of command that comes from of Jesus Christ, their king.
The apostle Paul wrote that the purpose for having a church organization that is made up of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers is “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12,13).
The same apostle wrote that there is to be “one faith [and] one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). But it is impossible for believers everywhere to come to a unity of the faith and for the entire body of Christ to be edified in a way that we can become perfect if every Christian is working independently from all other Christians with no one guiding or supervising their spiritual growth. That is not how the early Christian church operated as evidenced by the epistles the apostles wrote that were meant to give guidance, direction, and clarification on what Christians were to believe. In fact, the very reason why today there are literally tens of thousands of different Christians churches with each one teaching different doctrines about salvation is precisely because there is no organizational structure that unites them into one faith.
In order for there to be a unity of the faith whereby we can all come to a correct knowledge of the Son of God and a means by which we can be helped to measure up to the full stature of Christ, there has to be some sort of governing body that unites all believers into one collective, cohesive community where they can be spiritually cared for, watched over, taught the correct doctrines of Christ, and helped in their spiritual growth. Clearly, this is not happening among today’s fractured and disjointed Christian community where each religious faith seeks to gain converts to their own particular belief.
Therefore, it is evident how vitally important it is that people belong to Christ’s one true church if they expect to inherit the kingdom of God in heaven, otherwise it doesn’t matter what someone believes about Jesus and his teachings. For example, Jesus taught “except a man be born of the water and of the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). Obviously, our salvation is dependent on following this injunction but there is much disagreement among Christians as to exactly what Jesus meant by this statement.
Some say being born of the water means we need to be baptized in order to be saved, while others say this merely refers to our physical birth. Among those who say it means being baptized, some say that it doesn’t matter who does the baptizing and others say it does. Some say that the way we are born of the Spirit is by having a priest confer the Holy Ghost on us through a ritual known as an ordinance, while others say it means that God’s Spirit descends upon us automatically the moment we accept Jesus as our Savior, while others say it comes after we have been baptized, while others say that it comes as we yield our heart to Christ. As we have already seen, Christians can’t even agree upon the definition of what constitutes Christ’s church, let alone what Christ taught about salvation.
Some people say that the Jehovah Witness and the Mormon churches aren’t really Christian because of what they believe about who Jesus is and yet both of these faiths strongly proclaim that they are teaching the correct message of salvation that Jesus proclaimed. If it doesn’t matter what church we belong to then it doesn’t matter what we believe about being born of the water and of the Spirit, keeping the commandments, repenting, or any other of the many doctrines being taught about salvation. In other words, if we believe that belonging to a church isn’t necessary for salvation then we are forced to conclude that Jesus will let us into heaven no matter what we believe about him or his message.
But if we say that what we believe about salvation has to be correct in order to inherit eternal life, then it must be equally true that we must belong to that faith which teaches the same doctrines that Jesus proclaimed. And if that is true, then our salvation has to be dependent on us belonging to the one true church of Christ, according to the correct meaning of the word “church.”
And, in fact, this was what the apostles themselves taught. As we read their epistles we find that most of them were written to correct false teachings about salvation that were infecting the church. If it wasn’t for the apostles, the early Christian church would have splintered into many different sects and, in fact, that is exactly what happened after the apostles ceased to exist. If this is not true then the Catholic Church has to be Christ’s true church. To say that it isn’t is to admit that it has strayed from the teachings of Christ, which is exactly what started the Protestant reformation movement. And even today, many Protestants churches believe that most of the other Christian churches have strayed from the truth except their own.
This is why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints boldly declares that Jesus has restored his church organization in these latter days, with living apostles and prophets who are able to keep his followers united in the faith and help perfect the saints so they can be helped to eventually measure up to the full stature of Christ. This is why they can confidently declare that it is only through belonging to Christ’s true church that salvation is possible.
However, there is a more profound reason why our salvation is dependent upon us belonging to the right church than just believing in the right things about how to be saved.
In the kingdom of God, there is a king who rules over all of those who accept him as their king. This is not only true in heaven, but it is just as true on earth. The reason why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the kingdom of God on the earth is because it is ruled over by the very same king who rules in heaven and those who accept Jesus as not only their Savior but their Lord and Master have willingly submitted themselves to his authority to rule over them.
Thus, those who have become part of Christ’s church aren’t merely members of a religious organization but are citizens of the kingdom of God (Ephesian 2:19). As such, they are not only entitled to certain rights and privileges but as loyal citizens they have also taken upon themselves the obligation to fulfill certain duties and responsibilities. However, those responsibilities don’t go away once we have died.
What that means is, if the LDS church is the kingdom of God here on earth and when we die we hope to go to heaven, then when we get there we will continue to be part of the same kingdom of God as we belonged to here on earth. However, if we don’t become part of that kingdom while we are alive in mortality we will not belong to it when we die. In other words, to be part of the kingdom of God in heaven, Jesus calls us to voluntarily and willingly join his kingdom now by pledging our allegiance and obedience to him. If we refuse to accept his offer or we are not faithful in living up to the promises we made to him, then we are refusing to become part of his kingdom in heaven. In that case, we cannot live in heaven where Christ reigns as king because we rejected him as our king here on earth (see Luke 19-14).
The key to understanding this concept is to realize that the kingdom of God and the Church of Christ are not two separate and distinct organizations. Rather, they are one and the same. A kingdom and a church both have the same objective, which is to govern a large number of people. For example, as Moses lead the children of Israel through the wilderness, he soon discovered that he could not manage that many people by himself so he organized them into small groups with a hierarchy of judges to watch over them, with himself being the chief judge and ruler.
The scriptures tell us that in heaven there are an innumerable company of angels and the only way God can govern that many beings is through some kind of an organized structure such as what Moses had and, in fact, as we have already seen, in heaven there is a hierarchy of ranks among the angels. We also see that same kind of organizational structure in the Church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, whether we refer to that organization as a kingdom, church, divine government, or by some other name to describe it, we are still referring to the same institution where God reigns as king and everyone else in it are his obedient servants.
The scriptures further tell us that those who are saved in heaven are “just men [who have been] made perfect” and who belong “to the general assembly and church of the firstborn” (Hebrews 12:23). Since Jesus is God’s firstborn, therefore, all those who inherit eternal life will belong to the church of the firstborn or, in other words, the church of Jesus Christ. As Paul has said, the purpose of the church that Jesus established on earth is for the “perfecting of the saints,” but once we become perfect we will continue to be part of that same church forever in heaven. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the eternal church of Jesus Christ will be divided into competing denominations as we see today among the thousands of Protestant organizations, therefore it is obvious that there can only be one true such church.
But, as citizens of the Church of Jesus Christ, what will we be doing in heaven? In other words, what kind of duties and responsibilities will we have? Most Christians answer by saying that all we will be doing in heaven is singing praises to God throughout all eternity as we express our unbounded gratitude for him allowing us the undeserved privilege of living with him.
However, Jesus told us to lay up our treasures in heaven where rust and moth can’t corrupt (Matthew 6:20). But what kind of treasure are we storing in heaven ahead of our arrival there if all we will be doing is singing praises to God? The scriptures also tell us that we have a great reward waiting for us in heaven (Matthew 5:12; Luke 6:23), but what is that reward? Is it just the fact that we made it to heaven so we can spend eternity singing? Yet the scriptures tell us that God will reward everyone according to their work (Matthew 16:27). Clearly that implies that some people will receive a greater reward than others. And since a reward is something we get for something we’ve done or earned, what works must we do to receive a better reward than someone else? Most Christians don’t have even an inkling how to answer these questions.
The scriptures tell us that Jesus was exalted to sit on the right hand of God (Acts 5:31; Philippians 2:9), and yet they also tell us that he who humbles himself shall also be exalted (Luke 18:14; 1 Peter 5:6). Does that mean we too shall become as exalted as Jesus and sit on the right hand of God?
The Protestant world denies this interpretation but they have no explanation for what it means for us to become exalted, Yet, there are numerous places in the New Testament where it talks about those going to heaven as receiving a crown, but the only people who wear a crown are kings and their queens. And, in fact, the scriptures tell us that those who inherit eternal life will be made “kings and priests unto God” (Revelation 1:6 – and surely women will become queens and priestesses) and that they will sit on thrones (Matthew 19:28; Revelation 3:21). Is that what our reward will be, and if so, does that mean some kings will have more power and authority than other kings?
The Protestant world has no answer to these questions but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does because God has revealed that knowledge to his church. In our day he has said, “This…is the promise which I give unto you of eternal life, even the glory of the celestial kingdom; which glory is that of the church of the Firstborn, even of God, the holiest of all, through Jesus Christ his Son” (D&C 88:4,5). “Verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn; And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same and are the church of the Firstborn” (D&C 93:21,22).
What this revelation tells us is that those who belong to the church of the Firstborn and have been faithful to him will become partakers of the same glory that Christ and his Father have and will sit on thrones and reign with them (Revelation 5:10). The apostle Paul similarly wrote that “if [we are] children [of God], then [we are] heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17).
To be “joint-heirs with Christ” means that we jointly inherit everything that Jesus has inherited, which is the full glory of the Father. And when that happens then we will all be “glorified together.” This is what the apostle John meant when he wrote, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doeth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2).
An entire book could be written about what that means and what we will be doing in heaven as glorified kings and priests unto God, but the short answer is that what we are doing here on earth is merely building the foundation for what we will be doing in heaven. Since a foundation is not the structure itself but is what the structure is built upon, what we as members of Christ’s true church are doing now is preparing ourselves to do something in the future that is far grander and much more magnificent than anything we can presently comprehend.
It is by serving in Christ’s church while here in mortality that allows us to learn the rudimentary principles of godliness that we will build upon when we become heavenly kings and queens, priests and priestesses unto Christ where we will spend our time assisting him in building his eternal kingdom that will continue to grow and expand throughout the rest of eternity. This is what all the covenants we make in the temples of the Lord are all about.
But without our membership in Christ’s true church and our commitment to serving him while here in mortality there can be no foundation on which to build such a glorious future. As such, our salvation truly does depend on us belonging to the Church of Christ.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Salvation