Summary: The scriptures are replete with references to Jesus establishing a church, with himself at its head. Today, many people teach that the “church” is merely a collection of all those individuals throughout the world who have confessed in their heart that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, citing the scripture that says, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” However, most of the older, traditional churches have always had a structured organization that was essential for salvation. This article looks at the history and purpose of the church.
When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, “Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:16-18).
The scriptures are replete with references to Jesus establishing a church, with himself at its head (Ephesian 1:22; Colossians 1:18), but today it is taught that the “church” is merely a collection of all those individuals throughout the world who have confessed in their heart that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). This definition of what Jesus meant by the “church” comes from the words of Jesus when he said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Although this scripture in Matthew is used to support such a belief, the fact is that this is a fairly recent interpretation. For almost 1900 years, Christianity has taught that salvation is administered and maintained only through the church.
From the time that the apostles first began preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ the “church” was never designed to be a loosely knit group of individual believers who existed independently from one another, but rather it was a formal, structured organization that consisted of “apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11) that had a specific purpose to it.
Furthermore, from the very beginning, it was taught that in order to be saved, a person had to belong to this “church.” The way they joined it was by being baptized as a sign they had accepted Jesus as their Savior and promised to live their life according to his teachings. We know this from the writings of church leaders in the early second century.
However, those who didn’t live up to their promise and refused to amend their behavior were no longer counted as belonging to Christ’s church. The word that is used for this expulsion is excommunication, and whenever someone was excommunicated from the church, it was understood that they had lost their salvation, meaning that if they had not repented and came back into full fellowship with the church before they died, their soul would go to hell along with all those who didn’t believe in Jesus. Therefore, from the very beginning, it was always understood that only those who remained in the church organization and were faithful to its teachings were eligible to be saved. Thus, a person’s salvation was directly connected to their membership in the church.
In 110 A.D. Ignatius, who was the bishop of Antioch, used the word “catholic” to identify the church in a letter he wrote as he was being taken to Rome as a prisoner, to be put to death for being a Christian. Thus, the Catholic Church has existed by that name since shortly after the death of the apostles and was the only church at that time that taught the teachings of Jesus as preached by the apostles.
The apostles were the ones who gave instruction, guidance, and direction to the church as a whole, and taught what it was that Christians were to believe. They were also the ones who instituted the various priesthood positions in the church. When they died, the bishops assumed the responsibility of giving instruction, guidance, and direction to all who belonged to the church of Christ, and as the church grew in membership, they were the ones who added more administrative positions as they felt was needed to help govern the church. Therefore, from the very beginning, the church always had a formal structure consisting of bishops, elders, priests, and deacons.
In 1511 a Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther took exception with some of the things his church taught which resulted in him being excommunicated. In response to this, he started his own church. Today, many Christians honor Martin Luther as the father of the reformation but he too taught the need for a formal church organization that all believers had to belong to in order to maintain their salvation.
Because of his courage to challenge the teachings of the Catholic faith, many others followed his example, and thus was born the Protestant movement, led by such people as Wycliff, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Tyndall, and many others, yet each one of these men strongly believed in the need for a formal, highly structured church organization that was necessary for salvation.
In the 1600s, there was a group of people known as the Puritans, who wanted to purify the teachings of the Church of England, but instead the church considered them to be heretics, which was grounds for their excommunication. Yet, when they moved to America where they could worship God according to their own beliefs, they too had a formal organization and taught that anyone who didn’t live according to their beliefs were not saved. Thus, to them, salvation came, in large part, from belonging to their church.
In 1820 there was a religious revival in upstate New York where the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodist, “used all the powers of both reason and sophistry” to convince their listeners that they alone were teaching the true gospel of Jesus Christ and that all the other churches were in error, thereby “endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others” (JS History 1:9).
This led a young 14-year-old boy by the name of Joseph Smith to wonder, “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (JS History 1:10).
What caused this young boy’s confusion was that each church claimed that salvation only came from accepting what they taught and therefore, joining their religious denomination was the only way to being saved. It wasn’t until around the mid-20th century when the idea of not needing to belong to a specific church organization in order to be saved began to become popularly preached.
But why is it important to our salvation to belong to the right or correct church?
When Jesus walked the earth, he taught people what they needed to know in order to be saved and after his death, the apostles carried his message to the world, but what did they teach?
Today, some churches say they taught that baptism is absolutely essential for salvation, while others say it’s an important ritual that should be done but that it has no saving power, while still others say that baptism is nothing more than a nice symbolic gesture but is not necessary at all.
But, if baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, then all those who say otherwise are denying people the opportunity to become saved. On the other hand, if baptism is not necessary for salvation, then those who say it is, are deceiving their followers by teaching false doctrine.
Some churches say the apostles taught that salvation comes from keeping the commandments of God, while others say the apostles taught that we are saved only by God’s grace, and not because of anything we do. But, if keeping God’s commandments is essential for salvation, then those who say otherwise are preventing people from being saved. On the other hand, if keeping God’s commandments has no effect on our salvation, then those who teach the need to keep the commandments are leading their followers away from God’s grace.
Some churches teach that once a person has been saved, there is nothing they can do to lose their salvation, while other churches teach that our salvation can be lost if we commit certain sins without repenting, and both sides of this issue cite numerous verses from the New Testament to support their position.
As we’ve already discussed, most of the more traditional churches believe that a person must belong to their organization in order to be saved, while many of the newer churches say that our salvation is not dependent on which church a person belongs to.
Since all of these issues directly relate to our salvation, then it’s extremely important to know with certainty whose teachings are correct and whose teachings are false.
The apostle Paul explained the purpose of the church when he said, “And he (Jesus) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 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: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; Ephesians 4:11-14)
Paul explained that one of the reasons why Jesus established a formal church organization was to help “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God… That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:13,14)
One of the essential functions of the church is to teach correct doctrine and to prevent people from being led astray by those who teach false doctrine. Nearly every letter that Paul wrote as contained in our Bible was written to combat some form of false teaching that was already beginning to take hold among the members of the church. The Apostle Peter and Jude likewise wrote letters to combat false ideas that Christians were beginning to believe.
After the death of the apostles, there was an explosion of false doctrine that was being taught in the church, and it was the bishops, as successors to the apostles, who were responsible for making sure that their church members were being taught the correct doctrines.
As Paul explained, an important function of the church is to help us “all come in the unity of the faith and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind” (1 Corinthians 1:10). However, today, there is no unity among Christians in what they believe and instead of being “perfectly joined together in the same mind,” there is nothing but division and confusion among them. Instead of Christians being united in their “knowledge of the Son of God,” there are many different beliefs among Christians about what Jesus taught.
If there is no formal church organization with leaders who can declare with divine authority what is truth and what is error, then people are left on their own to believe whatever they want. This is the very reason why there are tens of thousands of different Christian churches in the world today, with each one teaching something different than all the others. As a result, today’s Christians are literally being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.”
The apostle Paul taught “though we, or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Each of the many different Christian churches today believes that what they teach is the true gospel of salvation as found in the Bible, but according to Paul, those whose beliefs are in error are accursed, and it’s very doubtful that those whom God curses will be saved into heaven.
Closely associated with knowing who is teaching the truth about how to be saved concerns another purpose of the church which is “for the work of the ministry.” After his death, Jesus commanded his followers to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Taking the gospel of salvation to the world is what the work of the ministry is all about, but to do this takes teamwork, coordination, organization, and money.
Small, individual churches who are not affiliated with any large, established church organization, are very limited in what they can do in spreading the gospel to the world, and their efforts are often very ineffective. It’s when everyone’s efforts are being coordinated together that the work of the ministry can accomplish great things. Therefore, it takes a formal church to organize, direct, manage, raise needed funds, and oversee the missionary effort.
But the most important aspect of this work is the message that’s being preached. If missionaries are going throughout the world teaching different things about how to be saved, then more harm than good is being done, because it’s creating further division and confusion about what Jesus taught. If there isn’t someone at the head of an organization making sure that the correct doctrines are being taught, then the missionary work is not going to be effective in bringing people the correct message of how to be saved.
But teaching correct doctrine isn’t the only purpose of the church. Paul said that it’s also “For the perfecting of the saints… for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come … unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
Jesus taught us to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and Peter taught “as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy” (1 Peter 1:15). But how do we become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, and be as holy as Jesus?
Most Christian churches teach that measuring up to the perfect holiness of Jesus is not possible. However, Paul says that one of the reasons why God has given us a church with apostles, prophets, pastors, elders, deacons, and teachers is to edify the believers in Christ and help perfect them so that they can eventually measure up to the full stature of Christ. As Paul taught, the goal of the church is to help us become conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29).
God doesn’t want to merely save sinners, but rather he wants to save us from our sins. He wants to transform our mind so they become like Christ (Romans 12:2). Instead of being in the image of the earthly man, he wants to change our character so that we “bear the image of the heavenly [man]” (1 Corinthians 15:49), and according to Paul, that is one of the important purposes of the church.
But if the church is to help us become more like Christ, how does it do that?
One way is through “edifying the body of Christ.” To “edify” means “to improve someone intellectually, morally or spiritually.” As members of the church come together to worship God, they hear sermons that teach them what they must do to become more like Christ. Whether a church is a small independent one, or a large, traditional denomination, all of them do a good job at edifying their members through teaching the word of God.
However, as important as that instruction may be, by itself, it is not enough. As every educator knows that people learn more by doing than listening, yet very few churches provide opportunities for their members to put into practice what they’ve been taught.
In the true church of Christ, there has to be many opportunities for its members to have hands-on experiences to practice doing the things that Jesus did. In this way they are able to participate in the kinds of activities that will help promote spiritual growth, which is designed to lead them to measure up to the example Christ has set for us.
Unfortunately, whether a church is large or small, very few of them provide their members with sufficient opportunities to grow spiritually stronger and become more like Christ. Yet, this is what Paul said is one of the purposes of the church.
Of course, those who don’t attend any church, or do so infrequently because they feel they’re saved simply because they’ve made a confession of faith one time, or were once baptized in the past, have cut themselves off from the perfecting process that only the church can offer.
Although there are many other benefits pertaining to our salvation that comes to those who belong to the church Jesus gave us, what the apostles taught is that Jesus created a formal, structured church organization, with divinely inspired leaders to help us not only become saved from our sins, but to keep us from being led astray because of false doctrine, and to help us become conformed to the image of Christ and measure up to his holiness and perfection.
It is the church that provides us with all that is necessary to become truly saved. For this reason, salvation can only come to those who are faithful members belonging to the true church of Christ.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Salvation