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In most areas of life, people consider it an advantage for something to be unique, uncommon, or unequaled. Sales commercials emphasize that their product is distinctive from other products. An antique is especially valuable if it is rare or uncommon. Athletes are especially honored if they win championships or set records.
In religion, however, many people consider it unacceptable, poor taste, or politically incorrect for a church to claim to be unique or unequaled. They object if members defend a church as being special or better than other groups. Some say, "One church is just good as another. Why are you so intolerant and strict? We need to be broad-minded in religion. Don't criticize other groups. How can one little group be right and all the others be wrong?" People want members of many different denominations to be acceptable to God, so they object if you believe otherwise.
Unfortunately, instead of considering what God says about these subjects, most people base their views on their own opinion, what some preacher says, what they personally want to believe, or what their parents believed.
In this study, let us set aside the opinions of men and examine what God says in the Bible about the unique, uncommon, and unequaled character of the church that belongs to Jesus. When we do, we will also find the answers to other questions many people are asking.
Did Jesus plan and build just one church or many different denominations? Should Christianity be characterized by religious unity or by division? Should we approve and accept the existence of many divided "Christian denominations," or should we believe and teach that there should be just one true church?
Consider the Bible answers to the following important questions:
To understand the uniqueness of Jesus' church, we must begin by studying the fundamental importance of obedience. Many people believe it does not much matter whether or not a church obeys Jesus. When evidence is given that a church is somehow disobeying God's word, some people say this doesn't matter because the people in that church believe in the true God and love God, etc.
This is important to our study because, if Jesus requires obedience, then that is at least one way that the church needs to be unique compared to churches that do not obey. But if disobedience can be overlooked, then there would be no advantage in being part of a church that was obedient.
So what does God's word say? In a world of religious groups that say obedience is not essential, does God expect His church to be unique by emphasizing the need for obedience?
Ephesians 1:22,23; 5:23,24 - Jesus is the head over all things to the church. The church must be subject to Jesus, just like a body should obey the instructions of its head.
Colossians 3:17; 2:8,19 - Since Christ is head of the church (1:18), all we do should be done in His name - i.e., according to His authority. We must "hold fast the head" by obeying Him instead of following human philosophies and traditions.
Matthew 15:9 - Our worship to God is vain if we follow human doctrines instead of Jesus' teachings (cf. 2 John 9; Galatians 1:8,9; John 4:24).
Jesus' church should emphasize obedience to its Head. When a church teaches that we do not have to obey Jesus to be saved, that church is admitting it is not honoring Jesus as its Head! If a church obeys human doctrine, then men are its head.
Matthew 7:21-27 - It is not enough just to call Jesus our Lord. We must do the will of the Father. If we do not obey Jesus' teachings, we are as foolish as a man who builds a house without a solid foundation. Just as that house will not stand in bad weather, so our lives will not be acceptable in the judgment.
Hebrews 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:8,9 - Jesus is the author of salvation to all who obey Him. Those who do not obey the gospel will receive eternal destruction when Jesus returns.
This is not to say that anyone who ever disobeys is forever without hope. Such a person can be forgiven, but to do so he must repent and make up his mind to become obedient and then be forgiven by Jesus' blood (Acts 2:38; 17:30; 2 Peter 3:9; Mark 16:16).
Clearly it is a serious mistake to think that obedience is not essential. Yet many churches deny the need for obedience. So one way Jesus' church should be unique is that it should honor Jesus as its Head by obeying Him. Furthermore, as we proceed we will see that this obedience is a source from which necessarily spring many other unique features of the church.
(See also James 1:21-25; 1 Peter 1:22,23; Romans 6:17,18; 1 John 5:3; 2:3-6; 3:6-10; John 14:15,21-24; Romans 2:6-10.)
Most people somehow believe that they will be saved, and most people like to think that the majority of other people will be saved. If that were true, then those who are saved would not be very unique. And if most people really were saved, then that would make Jesus' church large. So people tend to reject small churches. Being small would make the church unique, but here again most people don't like uniqueness.
It is true that God has provided a plan whereby all men can be saved. He would be pleased if everyone would follow that plan and receive eternal life (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; John 3:16; Mark 16:15,16). However, we have seen that only those people who obey God's plan actually will be saved, and all others will be lost. So should we expect the number of saved, obedient people to be large or small compared to the number who disobey? Are most people saved, or does being saved make one unique?
Matthew 7:13,14 - The way that leads to destruction is broad and many travel that road. The way that leads to life is narrow and "few there be that find it." Many people fail to do the will of the Father, but only a few will obey and be saved (cf. vv 21-27).
1 Peter 3:20 - In the days of Noah, only a few souls were saved - only eight out of the thousands alive (cf. Genesis 6). Men in general were extremely wicked and were destroyed.
1 Corinthians 10:1-6 - Even among those who were God's chosen people in the Old Testament, with most of them God was not well pleased, so He destroyed them. In fact, of all the older generation who left Egypt, only two were allowed to enter the promised land - Joshua and Caleb (Num. 14:28-30). All the rest died because of disobedience. This is presented by God as an example to us.
Today if you believe your religious views are correct and you disagree with other people, many people will object. They will accuse you of intolerance and narrow-mindedness. To their way of thinking, the very fact you think you are right automatically proves you are wrong! You may be unique, but they don't like it at all. Yet throughout the Bible, those who pleased God were unique in that they were in the minority.
Romans 9:27; 11:2-5 - In Israel, the number of people who were acceptable to God is frequently called a "remnant" - a small part of the whole number. In Elijah's day, that remnant consisted of 7000 men. So today those who are God's true people are a "remnant." Note that the number of obedient people in Elijah's day was considerably greater than in Noah's day or in Joshua's day. Yet it was relatively small compared to all the people on earth.
The number of people who are truly acceptable to God varies from time to time. The cases we have cited were times of widespread corruption. There may be other times when faithfulness is not as rare as in these times (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2). At any given time, the actual number of faithful people would be known only to God. But in virtually every age, those on the road to life are "few" compared to the "many" on the road to destruction.
We should not expect God's church to consist of a majority of people in any community. Nor should we reject a church or a teaching simply because it is a minority or its views are unpopular. Jesus' church is truly "unique" in that it will always be relatively small, and those who are members of it are truly "uncommon."
(See also Matthew 22:14; Luke 13:23-25; Revelation 3:4).
In the world today there are many different denominations that teach and practice different and contradictory faiths. They disagree in name, organization, plan of salvation, and worship. People want to believe that, in spite of these contradictions and disagreements, many of these groups are acceptable to God. If that were so, then there would be no one unique church that was right.
We have seen, however, that to please God we must obey Him. Are the few people who obey God to be found in many different denominations, or is there only one unique church teaching and practicing one true faith?
Matthew 16:18 - Jesus promised to build His church - one, not many.
Colossians 1:13 - Christians have been translated out of the power of darkness into the kingdom of God's Son - one kingdom, not many.
Ephesians 5:22-25 - Christ is the head of His body (the church - 1:22,23), just as your head directs your body and just as a husband is head of his wife. But a head directs one body, not many bodies. A husband is head of only one wife (with God's approval), not many wives.
And so Christ is head of one body. There are "many members, yet but one body" (1 Corinthians 12:20). If Jesus had many churches, He would be like a man with many wives. This would be spiritual adultery!
John 17:20,21 - Jesus prayed for those who believe in Him to be one as He and His Father are one. Do He and His Father disagree and contradict one another about how people should worship, how people may be saved, or what church people should be members of? They do not, and neither should we, for we are to be one as they are one.
1 Corinthians 1:10,13 - Division is contrary to God's will. Is Christ divided? Does He give contradictory commands to men? Surely not, for if He did He would be a hypocrite!
Since Jesus' commands are not contradictory, it is clear that when the practices of people conflict and contradict one another, then someone is not obeying Jesus. Religious division exists, but we must not condone or excuse it. Nor should we participate in error for the sake of unity - to do so would be to disobey God (cf. James 3:17).
Whenever some people obey God and some people disobey God, division will exist between those groups; but the people who will be condemned for the division will be those who disobey God, not those who obey Him. (See 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1; Luke 12:51-53; John 10:19-21; Acts 14:1-4; 19:8,9; 28:22-25; 2 John 9-11.)
Ephesians 4:3-6 - We should strive for unity based on the oneness of each of the seven things listed here. There is one body (church) and one faith, just as surely as there is only one God and Father. To say there are many conflicting and disagreeing bodies, all of which are acceptable, would be as wrong as saying there are many different Gods, all of which are acceptable.
Nor can we say that the one body is made up of many different denominations, for the passage says that the one body must follow one faith, whereas denominations follow different faiths. There may be many different false gods, but there is only one true God. So there may be many different false churches and false faiths, but there is only one true church and only one true faith.
Note that this does not mean there is only one local congregation. In the New Testament, there were many local congregations of God's people, and there are also many today (Galatians 1:2; Acts 8:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Revelation 1:4,11; etc.). But these local churches should all believe and practice the same common faith (Ephesians 4:3-6; Jude 3; Titus 1:4). In this sense, the members of these local congregations are all members of the one true church, but not members of many disagreeing, conflicting denominations.
Truly, Jesus' church is unique and unequaled, for there is only one true church.
As we have discussed, people tend to think that obedience is not essential, and they think most people will be saved. This leads them to believe that we should "leave other people alone and don't criticize other religious beliefs."
But we have learned that obedience is essential to please God and that most people are not obeying God. Now should God's people speak out and warn other people about the danger of not obeying God? Should we rebuke the people in sin and urge them to repent? If we do, once again we will surely be unique, and once again we can expect people to dislike it! But what does God say?
2 Timothy 4:2-4 - We should continually preach God's word, reproving and rebuking sin (i.e., warn against error). Why? Because we want to help people avoid the danger of departing from truth to follow error.
Those who obey God must contend with the wicked (Proverbs 28:4). They must not participate in sin, but must rebuke it (Ephesians 5:11). They must earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 3). If they fail to do so, they themselves will stand condemned before God (Ezekiel 33:1-9). (See also Titus 1:9-14; 1 Timothy 5:20).
Luke 24:47 - Faithful followers of Christ regularly preached that people need to repent (Matthew 3:1-8; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30). But when a person repents, he must admit he has been wrong and must decide to change. So to preach repentance means to tell people they are wrong.
On almost every page of your Bible, examples can be found of apostles and prophets warning people, even religious people, when they were wrong. (See Matthew 14:1-11; Acts 2:14-41; 6:9; 7:51-54; 13:8-11; 18:24-28; 1 Corinthians; Galatians 1:6-9; 2:11-14; etc.). We should imitate their example (1 Corinthians 11:1; Hebrews 13:7).
Revelation 3:19 - Because Jesus loved people, He reproved and chastened them when they were wrong. He testified that their works were evil (John 7:7). (See examples in Matthew 15:1-20; 22:23-33; chap. 23; John 8:31-55; etc.) We should imitate His example (1 Peter 2:21).
2 Timothy 2:25,26 - This explains why we must correct people who are in sin and why such correction is an act of love. A person in sin is a captive of the Devil; he will be lost unless he repents. If we teach him and he repents, he can be saved from death and have eternal life (James 5:19,20).
When we warn a child not to play with matches, sharp knives, or electrical outlets, are we being egotistical and self-righteous, or are we showing love for the child? So it is also an act of love to try to help people avoid sin.
John 3:20 - The main reason why people say Christians should not point out the errors of other people is that they do not want their own errors (or the errors of their loved ones) to be pointed out. The truth hurts their consciences and makes them feel guilty. They should repent and be forgiven; but if they are unwilling to repent, then they will object to the preaching (cf. Acts 7:51-54; Matthew 14:1-11; John 7:7; Proverbs 28:4).
This is not to say we should rebuke others out of self-righteous motives - to exalt our own pride, to win an argument, or to prove we are right and others are wrong. Nor should we condemn people who are not guilty of sin. But when people are guilty, if we justify their sin, we are as wrong as if we condemned them when they were innocent - note Proverbs 17:15.
When we realize how important obedience is and that there is really only one way to please God, then and only then will we appreciate the importance of speaking out against sin. As long as we think people can be saved while they continue in unforgiven sin, or as long as we think there are many different groups that please God, then we will see no value in warning people to cease sin. When we realize the uniqueness of God's true church, then we see the value in warning people to turn from sin and become members of Jesus' church. But this practice will make us even more unique, since most people do not do it.
When we learn the teaching of God's word, then we understand that Jesus' church must be unique and unequaled. This does not mean we should deliberately try to be different, just for the sake of being different. Rather, we should simply seek to diligently obey Jesus. But when we do, we will find that we are different from the many people who do not obey Him.
Again, we should want everyone to be forgiven of sins and enter the church. Yet we should not be ashamed of the church if it remains few in number - much less should we think the smallness of the church proves there is something wrong with it. Instead, we should recognize that Jesus said it would be this way.
And finally, members of the church should not become self-righteous and egotistical because they have found the church. Instead, we should thank God for His grace, and we should strive to help others learn about the true church so they can be saved and share the blessings in Christ.
What must a person do to become a member of Jesus' church? He must simply follow the gospel and be forgiven of sin, for the true church is simply the body of people whom Jesus has forgiven (Acts 2:47; 20:28; Ephesians 5:23,25). To be saved and enter the church, one must hear the gospel, believe it, repent of sins, confess Christ, and be baptized (immersed) in water for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of sins by Jesus' blood (Mark 16:15,16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 10:9,10,17; 6:3,4).
(C) Copyright 2001, David E. Pratte; gospelway.com
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.