Concerning the Church
The material on this page was written in the 1970s to respond to the criticisms of Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the original “Bible Answer Man.” CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research Institute”). The text of this article is published here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.
From: Answers to the Bible Answer Man (Vol. 1)
Why do we call ourselves “the church in Anaheim,” “the church in Huntington Beach,” or “the church in Los Angeles”? We have been fully misunderstood concerning this matter and even charged by the speaker at Melodyland with “enormous egotism.” This is mainly due to ignorance concerning God’s revelation of the church.
In the heart of God in eternity past was an “eternal purpose,” and the means by which this purpose would be fulfilled is called “the church” (Eph. 3:10-11). Therefore, this name “the church” came out of the heart of God. Then the Lord Jesus gave this same title to this same marvelous entity when He spoke in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church.” In Revelation 2 and 3, the Holy Spirit is revealed again and again as speaking to “the churches.” Furthermore, throughout the narrative of Acts and the writings of the apostles, the same unique title “the church” or “the churches” is used repeatedly. No definitive adjectives are used before this title, denoting which church. There is only one church, “the church.”
Although this simple title—planned by God, spoken by the Lord, addressed by the Spirit, and referred to by the apostles—has been persistently misused and abused, we still would return to the Bible to call ourselves what the Triune God and the apostles have called us, “the church.” What church? The church. This does not mean that we are the church and others are not the members of the church. Every blood-washed, regenerated child of God is part of it. They were born into it. But many are not meeting as the church, but in a divided and confused situation. To prefix “the church” with adjectives, such as Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc., and to meet as such is to divide the church and separate members one from another. To call it a “fellowship” or a “center” is to miss the mark. God wants His people today to forsake every divisive name and standing and to meet together with other Christians simply as the church in their locality. This is what the Bible shows us.
Let us consider God’s Word. In the beginning of the New Testament, in Matthew, and at the end of the New Testament, in Revelation, the Lord Jesus Himself speaks of the church. However, in Matthew it is singular (“my church”), and in Revelation it is plural (“the seven churches”). In Matthew, He is speaking of the one universal church, whereas in Revelation He is speaking of the local churches. The one universal church must have an expression, and it is expressed practically in many localities as the local churches. “Local churches” is not their title, but merely a description of their nature.
Now notice the passage in Revelation 1:11. The Lord said, “What you see write in a book and send it to the seven churches.” Then He immediately proceeded to mention seven cities: “To Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” The Lord, as always, spoke very precisely and meaningfully. He said seven churches, and then mentioned seven cities, indicating that the city is equivalent to the church, or, in other words, the city is the boundary, the jurisdiction, of a local church. Nothing could be more clear.
This principle is repeated by the apostles in many instances in the Epistles and the Acts, and it is never violated. The Scripture says, “The church which was at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1), never, “The churches which were at Jerusalem.” It says, “The church that was at Antioch” (Acts 13:1), never, “The churches that were at Antioch.” If there was one city, there was only one church. When the Scripture refers to a district, with many cities, it consistently refers to the churches (plural) in that district: e. g. , “the churches in Judea” (Gal. 1:22), the churches of Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41), “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor. 16:19), and so forth. In one district there may be many churches, but in one city there can only be one church.
The saved ones are the called-out ones, but since they are still living among men, the Lord gathers them in the place where they are living. If you are living in Dallas, you must simply meet together with the other saved ones as the church in Dallas. If you are living in Seattle, you must simply meet with the other Christians as the church in Seattle. How simple and pure this arrangement is! There is no room for human opinion or human choice. The church that is built in Dallas is just the one church; the church that is built in any place is the same church, for the church is one in the whole universe. There is no difference in nature, but only in geography. If all God’s people could see this, there would be no divisions. Only geography is unavoidable. All other distinctions separating Christians are absolutely unnecessary and violate the unity of the church. Herein we find the wisdom of God. In one locality after another, in order to keep the unity of the church, God establishes only one church.
As further proof, consider Acts 14:23: “And having chosen them elders in each church…” Now compare this with Titus 1:5: “And establish elders in each city.” In Acts Paul says “elders in each church,” and in Titus he says “elders in each city.” These verses prove that the elders of a city are the elders of a church. They also prove that the boundary of the church is just the boundary of the city. If the church is smaller than the city or greater than the city, it is not a proper local church as delineated by the Scriptures.
Our standard must be the Word of God. We must be true to the light God has given, or our conscience will give us no rest. The proper standing for all genuine Christians as the one church in each locality is clearly set forth in God’s Word. There is no need to search for it, we only need to return to it. That is what we have done, and we are being condemned for it. But we strongly reject all charges of being divisive. We are simply standing on the ground where all Christians are one. This is not Witness Lee’s church. It does not belong to him, and he has never attempted to take it over. To make this charge manifests an utter ignorance of the facts.
The confusion found in Christianity today is mainly due to this matter. Christians are meeting together, perhaps ignorantly and unconsciously, on the wrong standing, a divisive standing, according to their own taste and choice. The sects and denominations of today could no longer exist if all would come together to express the one church in each city according to the Scriptures. Therefore, anyone who insists on keeping the denominations is divisive. In the light of this truth, the local churches are not dividing the Body of Christ, as we have been charged. The responsibility of division lies upon the denominations, fellowships, centers, and other groups who do not care for the practical unity of the Body in their locality. If a woman is married to Mr. Jones and yet insists on calling herself Mrs. Smith, it proves there is a serious problem. Such a practice would be extremely objectionable and even intolerable to Mr. Jones. The wife, if she would be proper, must return to her standing as Mrs. Jones and commence calling herself Mrs. Jones. The application to today’s situation is clear.
May the Lord lead many more of His children into the practical expression of the unity of His church.
Ephesians 1:22-23 says that God “gave Him [Christ] to be the Head over all things to the church, which is His body. …” Hence, there is a marvelous Person in this universe: Christ is the Head, and the church is the Body. Paul in his Epistles, especially in Ephesians and Colossians, speaks much of this divinely human Person in the figure of a complete man, the Head with the Body. Just as in a normal human being, the body shares the same life and nature with the head; so in the relationship of the church with Christ, the church partakes of the very divine life and nature of Christ. Otherwise, she could not be His Body. Verses such as Ephesians 4:15-16 and Colossians 2:19 further substantiate the fact by showing how all the Body is built up by the life supply flowing from the Head.
To the speaker who has recently said that “we cannot participate in God,” we answer, “In His Godhead, no; but in His life and nature, most assuredly and blessedly.” To the Scripture already presented, we add 2 Peter 1:4, which says in plain words, “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises; that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature…” What could be more clear?
In addition, the Scriptures tell us more. Christ is not only the Head, but also the Body. Very few Christians have seen this revelation in Scripture. Yet it is not obscure. I need not interpret, but only read 1 Corinthians 12:12, “For as the body is one, and hath many members and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” Paul is speaking of the body with its many members, and says that although the members are many, they are one body. Then he makes a startling statement: “So also is Christ.” We would have said, “So also is the church.” But the inspired writer said that this one Body with its many members is none other than Christ. To God’s Word we say, “Amen.” But in the figure of our physical body, is it not so? Is my body not me, just as my head is me? When anyone touches my body, he touches me. When anyone hurts my body, he hurts me. The way my body is treated is the way I am treated, for my body is no less me than my head. The head certainly holds a distinct and unique place in the body, yet it is so absolutely identified with the body that the body together with the head bears the same name. So it is with Christ and the church. This is the inspired word in 1 Corinthians 12:12.
Therefore, it is perfectly scriptural to assert that Christ is no longer merely the individual Christ, although He holds alone His lofty and distinct position as Head of the Body, but is now the corporate Christ as the Body with all its members. Through His death and resurrection, He gained the church, His Body, as His fullness, His corporate expression. Where the church is practically expressed, there He is in practical, corporate expression. The speaker at Melodyland said, “There is no corporate Christ.” But the author of these words is ignorant of the revelation in Paul’s Epistles.
The Lord’s word in John 12:24 reveals more concerning this matter: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The metaphor is clear. A grain of wheat, by being sown into the earth, germinates and rises in resurrection, producing many more grains of identical life and nature. The one grain has been multiplied from one to thousands of grains like itself, both inwardly and outwardly. The speaker said that, “Jesus Christ has not expanded into thousands and thousands of persons at all.” Again, the author of these words does not know the Scriptures, for the Lord Jesus likened Himself to a grain, that through death and resurrection would be multiplied, expanded, many times. Paul in Romans goes on to tell us that we will all “be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). We will be fully like Him; He will have many brothers just like Himself. This is the marvelous grace of God’s salvation.
The obvious conclusion, then, is that since Christ is embodied and expressed in so many members as His Body, and since Christ is God, then the church is none other than God manifest in the flesh. This, the speaker said, is “the last great heresy of Mr. Lee.” But, again, the author of these words is destitute of sight.
Consider 1 Timothy 3:15-16, which speaks in plain words concerning God manifest in the flesh. “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” Verse 16, we acknowledge, refers to Christ, for He undoubtedly is God manifest in the flesh. Christ also was the One who was justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up into glory. But we say also that this verse refers to the church as well. Allow us to prove it. The context of the whole passage is the church. Verse 15, the preceding verse, is speaking of the house of God, the church. The context of the whole chapter is the qualifications of the overseers and deacons in the church. Then this chapter on the church with its offices is concluded with verse 16: “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh.”
Moreover, the order of the items following “God was manifest in the flesh” further substantiates our affirmation. If this verse were speaking only of Christ, the last item, “received up into glory,” should precede “preached unto the Gentiles,” for Christ was received up before He was preached. Since it comes last, it coincides with the history of the church, for the church at the last, just like her Lord at the first, will be received up into glory. Hence, both Christ and the church, or we should say, Christ with the church, is God manifest in the flesh.
The apostle Paul said, “Now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:20-21). Surely this means that God as Christ was manifest in his flesh. It does not mean that Paul became deity, as we have been charged with promulgating concerning ourselves. He did not mean that, and neither do we. When we speak of the church being God manifest in the flesh, we mean, as Paul, that God as Christ is manifested and magnified through us.
Finally, consider the case of the meeting described in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25. “But if all prophesy, and there come in one unbelieving or unlearned,…the secrets of his heart are made manifest; and so he will fall down on his face and worship God, declaring that God is among you indeed” (ASV). This is none other than God manifest in the flesh. We often have the experience of this kind of meeting with this kind of issue in the local churches.
Copyright © 1994 Living Stream, Anaheim, CA, USA. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.