God’s Church is the body of Christ on earth. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Cor. 12:27). 1 Corinthians 6:15 states, “Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? …” “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body…. For the body is not one member, but many” (1 Cor. 12:13-14).
Membership requirements of God’s Church are repentance and baptism for all its members. “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy [Spirit]” (Acts 2:38). Members accept one another as brethren by the physical act of baptism and laying-on of hands for receiving the Holy Spirit. God knows the hearts of the members who have truly repented and to whom He has given the gift of His Holy Spirit.
Christ and the Apostles made clear that not everyone who resides in the body is a spiritual member of the body of Christ. “But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him” (John 6:64). Peter states, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you . . .” (2 Pet. 2:1).
Therefore, God’s Church is not defined by a physical organization or building, though both may be present. It is defined by those individuals who sincerely repent of all their past sins, are baptized by complete water submersion (Matt. 3:16) and receive God’s Holy Spirit, all in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:36-39).
Furthermore, God chooses the membership. Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him . . .” (John 6:44). So, one cannot simply choose to become a Christian, or be proselytized purely by human efforts. We read in the book of Acts 2:47, “… And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” One fact can be established immediately. Unless God is doing the adding, the Church is not truly growing regardless of the numbers attending. David wrote in Psalm 127, verse 1, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. . . .”
How does God add to the Church? In general, God sends chosen men into the world to proclaim the Gospel. Jesus states, “… The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38). The Apostle Paul writes, “. . . How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? …” (Rom. 10:14-15). In our modern era, spreading the Gospel is simplified through mass media, but this does not address the need to maintain the Church. Jesus Christ encourages His members to pray to the Father for more laborers. By doing so, we are asking God to both grow and maintain the Church.
The labor of the ministry cannot be sustained without financial support. God created mankind as physical beings and therefore have physical needs. Christ instructed His Apostles saying, “And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire …” (Luke 10:7). The Apostle Paul asks, “Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? Who planteth a vineyard and eateth not of the fruit thereof …. If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your [material] things?” (1 Cor. 9:7, 11). Without tithes to fund the activities and duties of the ministry, maintenance, let alone growth of the Church, will suffer.
Through preaching (either speaking or writing), God opens the hearts and minds of individuals to understand the Truth, thereby adding to the membership. Sadly, understanding is no guarantee of conversion. The parable of the sower is a sober reminder that while individuals may initially show a positive response, they can quickly turn aside, some before the word can even take root (Matt. 13:20-22).
As was stated earlier, some who followed Christ did not truly believe. These eventually were offended at Christ and separated from Him. Jesus spoke saying, “… Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father. From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:65-66). We do not know the number that separated, but we know it was many.
This may have been a demoralizing event for the twelve apostles as Jesus asked them, “… Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67). The Apostles did not permit this to offend them but Peter answered, “… Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69). Christ spoke plainly and this sometimes offended certain listeners.
Here was the Messiah, Himself, beginning to build His Church, seemingly suffering a dramatic setback. Yet, whatever the Apostles may have been feeling then, was not to be compared to how they felt when the Lord was crucified. “Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad” (Matt. 26:31).
At that brief moment in history, it appeared to the Disciples that all had failed. The Disciples were scattered. The One whom they believed to be the Messiah was dead. They were confused and doubted (Mark 16:11-14). They could not see, at that darkest hour, how God was dramatically building His Church, beginning with the cornerstone of our faith, Jesus Christ. “… The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes” (Matt. 21:42).
A growing, vibrant church is not proof of the true Church. Churches of the world make their organizations attractive. They woo people into affiliation by making salvation as simple as saying, “I believe.” They teach that men no longer need to observe God’s commandments, and in doing so, they make the gate wide and broaden the way (Matt. 7:13). Their efforts to build and grow their churches are with numbers being the measure of their success. They do not understand God’s plan of salvation, but believe they must save the world now. See our article, “Salvation – What Does It Mean?” for the Truth about salvation.
Nominal Christianity will utilize numerous methods to build up their congregations. Various forms of entertainment are incorporated into their services, along with blanket invitations to the general public. Sometimes they will knock on doors and invite strangers to attend a worship service, offering food and beverages afterwards.
The New Testament Church was formed through powerful preaching and miracles of God. Jesus had sent the Apostles into the world to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). This command was without boundaries. But the book of Acts relates several examples where God sends His servants to certain people or territories, and in other cases prohibited them from making contact. “Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy [Spirit] to preach the word in Asia, After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not. And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night…. And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them” (Acts 16:6-10).
There are certain times when God, in His mercy, uses discretion in deciding to whom He reveals the Truth (Matt. 13:11). Although He now hides the Truth from many, the time will come when He will open the door to all (Isa. 66:22-23). It is easy to look at the condition of this present world and be discouraged. David wrote in Psalm 12, verse 1, “Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men.” Yet the Lord informed Elijah, when he thought he was the only prophet left alive, that He had reserved seven thousand in Israel that had not forsaken Him (1 Kings 19:18).
Isaiah wrote, “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you; for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him” (Isa. 51:1-2). God called Abraham alone. The Bible indicates he was the only man on the face of the earth God was directly dealing with, at that time. There are periods in history when God did not choose many servants.
Out of Abraham, He created the nation of Israel through successive generations. Out of one man, Abraham, God made the Church. “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13). “And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily” (Acts 16:5).
With the birth of the New Testament Church, we saw incredible growth and the power of God affirming that it was His doing (Acts 2:41, 43). However, God did not sustain this rate of growth indefinitely. In fact, about seventy five years later, we see the Church struggling with decline. Jude wrote, “. . . It was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).
The Apostle Paul warned the disciples years earlier saying, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). The Apostles eventually were laid to rest, and historical writings indicate massive departures from the original faith. The same events can be observed in our day, as the Bible predicted there would be a falling away from the Truth in the last days (2 Thess. 2:3).
Jesus said, “So the last shall be first, and first last: for many be called but few chosen” (Matt. 20:16). God is seeking men and women of quality. It would seem contrary to God’s purpose to lower His righteous standard for the sake of quantity. However, it may be understood that there is a cycle revealed by Christ’s parables of the harvest. First comes the sowing of the field (Matt. 13:24). Then comes the development of the sown seed along with the tares (Matt. 13:25-27). Finally there comes the harvest of the field in which the tares are bundled together to be burned, but the wheat is gathered and laid up in the barn (Matt. 13:30).
Throughout generations, Christ has been sowing the seed of the “children of the kingdom” (Matt.13:38). There are times when He has sown many, but other times very few. The book of Amos indicates that there will be a time near the end when the word of the Lord will be scarce. “Behold the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it” (Amos 8:11-12).
As stated earlier, the Apostle Paul wrote, “. . . How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14-15). It seems logical that the Church of God would not grow during a famine of the hearing of the words of God. Where we specifically stand today in God’s time line is not certain. Only God knows the condition and status of the field (world) today. Perhaps it is nearly ready for another great sowing, or perhaps not. Our duty is to humbly hold faithful to the unalterable Truth, bear fruit with patience while trusting God, and by God’s mercy be set aside in His “barn” for the day of reward. “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).