“To me, the least significant of all the saints, this grace was given to declare to the nations the incomprehensible riches of Christ and to give light for all of the plan of the mystery hidden from the ages in God who created all things, in order that the manifold wisdom of God through the church may now also be made known to the authorities in heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord in whom the boldness and freedom to enter with confidence through faith in him.”
How does God make his mystery known to the world? Paul states very clearly that it is “through the church.” How that statement needs to be heard today and echo through the ears and hearts of every believer. Because of the errors the church has made, many have abandoned the church and sought to find their spirituality elsewhere. Yet, that is not Christianity. People will say, “But I don’t need the church to be spiritual.” Indeed, that is true. You can be a new-ager and define your own spirituality outside of the church, but you cannot be a spiritually mature Christian outside of the church. The church is the body of which we are a part and it is the body that is established upon the testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Now mind you, church is not a building nor is it an institution as it is often understood today. Church comes from the word, ἐκκλησία (ekklasia), which refers to an assembled body or gathering of people. By the very definition of the word, it means that we are a people that must gather together. Now, whether we gather with one another in a larger group or in a smaller, house-church model is irrelevant. A gathering is taking place. The gathering, too, shares a common purpose — to be a pillar and buttress of the truth, to tear down the strongholds of hell in our midst, making every thought captive to obey Christ, and to worship. The church gathered is a holy convocation as is often mentioned in the Old Testament.
The challenge today is that too many congregations of people that call themselves Christian churches are not so. That may be a hard word for some to stomach, but it is very much true. Historically, there are three marks that identify the true church from the false church. The first is the “pure doctrine” of the Gospel is preached. If the word of God is watered-down, if it is only taught in part, or if the whole Council of God is ignored (or misapplied for one’s own purposes), then it is not pure. So, ask yourself when you listen to a sermon: “Is the pastor teaching us from the Word of God or is he just talking about his own ideas?”
The second mark of the true church is that the sacraments are administered as instituted by Christ. One must ask, what are the sacraments meant to do and how are they received? Are they seen as a mark of the Covenant of God with the congregation or just something that the congregation does? Books can be and are written on the nature of the Sacraments; the question here is whether they are practiced and understood in a manner faithful to the Scriptures or whether they are being conformed to the ideas and preferences of men.
The third such mark is that church discipline is practiced for the correction of sin. Here’s the rub in many cases. It is not just good enough that the pure doctrine be preached; it must be lived out by the believer. Church discipline is designed to train and encourage people to live out their faith faithfully. If sin is ignored in the life of the church and if some are given a “free pass” due to their money, influence, or family relations, then the church is not a true church. The confessions call upon us to flee such places and to seek out a true church.
The sad reality is that many churches function more like social clubs — an expensive one at that! Churches also tend to exist to meet their own needs rather than to build the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Even the worship of many of these churches is more driven by the whims of men than by the direct command of God. People think that things are open game, so long as they are not overtly sinning, but when it comes to worship, if we do not worship as God tells us to worship, are we not in open disobedience? And is not disobedience another way of talking about sin? God has told you, oh man, what he expects from you… Will you do it? The true church is God’s agent to share the mysteries of God with the world.