This essay is an attempt to contrast the church as it is observed in the world today and the church described in the New Testament. The writer will show his understanding of what the modern church should do to reflect a better image as the body of Christ.
The Church in the New Testament
The subject of the Church is a mystery hidden from past ages. The church was founded by Christ Jesus who stands as the supreme Head and leader of it (Matthew 16; Ephesians 4). It is spoken of as the ecclesia; the community of God’s called out ones. It is build upon the foundation of apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20) and membership into the church is through the new birth (John 3:3-5) and a profession of faith in Christ manifested by one’s immersion into the waters of baptism (Acts 2:37-39). Repentance and faith towards God is a prerequisite to salvation after hearing the Gospel’s message (Romans 10). The Church is the new people (laos) of God, those who stand in a special relationship with God, not to replace Israel as in replacement theology but to stand alongside Israel in its worship of God.
While in the Gospel narratives, the occupying thought is with the establishment of the kingdom, Jesus hinted on the establishing of the church in Matthew 16. We find the church being born at the feast of Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and empowering them to be witnesses of Christ. With Peter’s initial announcement of the kingdom (Acts 2), about two thousand believers became the members of the first church having repented and been baptized by the apostles. These stayed in Jerusalem and learned about the church before returning with the Gospel to their nations. However, the church was predominantly Jewish at first before the conversion of the Gentiles. Later, God attested to the salvation of the Gentiles by giving them the same Holy Spirit that the apostles had received.
The growth and expansion of the Church is rooted in several factors: 1) the faithful obedience of early followers to witness for Christ in anticipation of his parousia, 2) the zeal of sharing God’s good news with unbelievers, 3) persecution and 4) the empowering presence of the indwelling Holy spirit. The church is the creation of God through the Holy Spirit; it is more than a fellowship of believers bound together by a common cause. There is only one ecclesia and one Holy Spirit for all. Because the early church understood this, the love of God motivated them to tell the world about the gospel story.
The church is described in two phases: universal (Acts 15:41; 16:5) and local (Acts 11:26). The church universal consists of believers from all ages that have been born by the spirit of God. The local church designates the geographical locations where these believers are found. The church is thus one body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). It is also the bride of Christ and Christ is the bridegroom. The believers are saints, those that have been sanctified by Christ. They are God’s elect, called by God (1 Corinthians 1:9).
There were certain activities that were carried forth in the church such as teaching, the breaking of bread or fellowship (Acts 2:42), the use of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14), evangelism, singing and prayers (Colossians 3). Their worship was marked by great simplicity, gathering in Christian homes and at the temple and the breaking of bread in communion. Members were welcomed into fellowship that accepted the Lordship of Christ and received water baptism (Romans 6). There was no interval of time between repentance and baptism.
The Organization of the Church
The leadership of the church was made of apostles at Jerusalem. On close examination, the apostles stood as spiritual guides than legal rulers. By that time, the church was not an organization; it was a spiritual body with no denominations and sects and had no appointed leaders. However, when challenges arose, additional leadership was put in place in the form of deacons (Acts 6), and we are also told the church later had elders or bishops appointed (Acts 11:30). It is not clear how the elders were first appointed but we later learn in Paul’s epistles of how elders are to be appointed. The offices of elder and deacon seem to have been the church’s recognized offices. However, there were prophets (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5) who would speak of future events (Acts 11:28; 21:10) and words of revelation for the edification of the church (1 Cor. 14:6, 29-30). Prophets “spoke for” God; foretelling the future seems to have been a minor part of that function and not all prophets had that capacity. There were also teachers, evangelists, administrators these were functions, not offices; even elder and deacon roles could be described in that way. (1 Corinthians 12:28) and a number of gifted individuals in each local church. Apart from The Twelve, the Holy Spirit later added another group of apostles such as Paul (Acts 14:14; Galatians 1:19; Romans 16:7). It is clear that in all churches there were leaders (1 Thess. 5:12).
The Mission of the Church
God has made himself known to the world through the church in these times since the church bears the mission of the missional Christ (Matthew 28:12-20). A missions mandate was failed by Israel, and Christ came to seek and save that which was lost. He entrusted the same mission to the church beginning with the apostles whom he summoned become fishers of men (Matthew 4:19). The mission of the church is to gather nations to be the Messianic people of God through the proclamation of the Gospel. This is not the work of a few elites but the task of every member. Those who win souls are promised an eternal crown and glory for their labours in the advancement of God’s kingdom. The mission started at Jerusalem and is anticipated to reach to all nations (Acts 1:8).
In his earthly ministry, Jesus limited his ministry sphere to the lost house of Israel and on rare occasions ministered to the Gentiles. However, prior to his ascension, He gave specific instructions that had to do with a mission to the Gentiles (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21). Thus, the mission of the church will be to bring the good news of salvation to all the nations and each member participates through praying, going and giving resources. After Pentecost, we see Peter and Philip making efforts to reach Gentile nations. The Jerusalem Council agreed with the prior revelation of Christ to minister to gentiles and not to burden them with Jewish laws (Acts 15). Paul’s labours are clearly among the Gentiles having been rejected by the Jews. In the final analysis, the New Testament church had a missional worldview that encompasses all nations. Today, the same mission continues to be carried by the modern church in fulfilment of the Old Testament eschatological vision of God’s desire for all nations (Romans 1:1-4). The mission of the church is the current hope for the world and without the presence of the church in the world; the world is hopeless and doomed.
The Behaviour of the Church
Paul urges Christians to remember that they are being watched and need to behave in ways that commend the gospel (Philippians 2:15; Colossians 4:5-6; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; Titus 2:9-10; cf. 1 Peter 2:12). This carries great significance into the conduct of the redeemed community of God’s people. Because God is holy, he requires that those who serve him should be holy and separate from the corruption of the world. As holy and royal priests (1 Peter 2), God wants the bride of Christ to be blameless, without wrinkle, blame or spot (Ephesians 5). As a result, failure on the part of the church to be blameless will lead to stumbling in presenting the Gospel of Christ and destroy the mission of the church.
Righteousness in God’s kingdom and the church is a prerequisite and vital to a healthy relationship with God (Matthew 6:33) and without holiness the church stands condemned together with the world. Christians are to do the truth and live in truth. Their moral standards and behaviour should exemplify Christ as citizens of another world. Thus, conformity to the worldly standards is greatly discouraged and believers are encouraged to be filled with the spirit and not to obey the lusts of the flesh. Believers are further exhorted to be on guard against temptation and the worship of idols. Friendship with the world is considered to be enmity with God.
The believers are God’s temple and should keep themselves pure. Purity is expected in character, conduct and conversation. The works of the flesh should be put to death and believers should pursue righteousness. The former life that was characterized by sin is not supposed to be normative for believers. Laziness is discouraged; a Christian should have a productive life that is aimed at helping others. Believers are to live in harmony with each other and to pursue peace while avoiding temptation and sin at all cost. The struggle against sin is a constant battle that a believer won’t win alone without guidance from the Word of God and total reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Worship is to be done in spirit and truth. Prayers, hymns and spiritual songs, reading and study, meditation and fasting are part of the church’s worship. Communion on the Lord’s Table and giving of gifts in support of the weak, the poor and God’s mission is also part of New Testament worship.
An Evaluation of the Modern Church
There is a great divide today between the New Testament church and the modern church. Today, the church has moved from biblical principles into man-made principles. Membership in the church is no longer based on one’s personal decision to accept Christ. The church has become a human organization where the supremacy of Christ is challenged. Whereas, in the New Testament Christ was the supreme head, today’s churches are led by spiritually unqualified leaders who have denominated the church. Some churches deny baptism in water and strongly believe that Spirit baptism is only important.
Tele-evangelists undermine the physical meeting of believers and offers convenient church services on the internet which robs believers’ fellowship. Most church services are now sensual shows with worldly inclinations with women dressed like prostitutes. The behaviour of modern believers lacks true spiritual transformation but evidences conformity with the world. Biblical values have been eroded. Church leadership is no longer vetted by the spiritual criteria; those with money can bid and vote for spiritual positions. Gay bishops are ordained and there is no biblical evaluation of spiritual character.
There is lack of spiritual discipline as open practice of sin is no longer a concern among churches. Those who are caught in the open practice of sin go undisciplined. Holiness which adorns God’s house is no longer manifest. Pastors have become conmen and exploits church money to build their vast empires. In Africa, the Sprit’s movement has been replaced by magical arts and hypnotism. Many church leaders use witchcraft and spiritism to secure their spiritual authority in churches.
To reflect a better image of Christ, the Church today should examine itself and seek repentance and restoration from the Lord. Church leaders should be willing to transform and reform in light of biblical exhortations. The Bible should be given back its authority and not church constitutions and creeds. Believers should seek to live holy living that manifests Christ’s character and mind to the world. The church should seek to win the lost by propagating the true Gospel of Christ without worldly dilutions. Exhortations to prayer and fasting should be seriously taken and the Holy Spirit should be given room in our hearts and lives to transform us to the image of Christ as the church yields itself to the founder and leader of the Church.
In conclusion, this essay sought to show the nature of the true church in the New Testament and how modern church differs with it and to provide a basis for change in today’s church as we look at the biblical mirror.