The Church

The church is the assembly of all faithful believers in Christ, regardless of local church affiliation or denomination. The apostle Paul referred to the church as the body of Christ. (Eph. 4:12, 5:23, 5:29-30; 1 Cor. 12:27; Col. 1:24) He explained that it is made of a variety of parts from different cultural backgrounds (Jews and gentiles, slaves and free people) and with different interdependent gifts. (1 Cor. 12:12-31; Rom 12:4-8; Eph. 4:1-16) In contemporary English we use the expression "member of the church" or more generally "member of an organization" probably because the Latin origin for the word "member" is "membrum", which means "limb of the body". (See http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/membrum ) The church is also called the temple of the new covenant by the apostles Paul, Peter, and John . (See Temple.)

The Great Apostasy

There are scriptures indicating that there will be a great apostasy and that many will rebel and fall away from the truth and that false prophets will arise. However, there is no scripture in the Bible that states that the Christian Church, once established by Christ, will be completely lost from the earth. The Apostle Paul clarifies that some people will fall away during the apostasy: "The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith…" (1 Tim 4:1, italics added)

Paul provides a prophecy regarding the great apostasy:

Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thess 2:3-4, italics added)

Paul describes a rebellion ("falling away" in the KJV) between the establishment of the church and the end of times. The term "rebellion" (or "falling away") is apostasía in the original Greek scripture, which means "apostasy". The word apostasía does not even imply a loss of the whole of something. It refers only to a defection of one or more individuals (apostates) away from the whole body of believers.

Corruption at the top levels of the Christian church during the Middle Ages could possibly lead people to the belief that the church was lost after the earthly mission of the Savior, and that the gospel that He had established on the earth was lost. Accordingly, this belief would imply that all true believers either died or fell away from the truth. But this is based on the paradigm that a central church government must exist on the earth. In reality, the central government of the church is Christ and Christ alone. There are not two heads of the church, one in heaven and an additional one on earth:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. (Isa 9:6-7, italics added)

"And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy." (Col 1:18)

Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. … Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. (Phil 3:18b-20a)

Those who declare that a general apostasy has occurred (or complete apostasy of the entire church) are declaring the ineffectiveness of Christ. It is a claim that Christ came to the earth on a special mission only to create something that would quickly collapse. And the Lord declared that there could be no possibility of a total abeyance of his church from the earth:

On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matt 16:18)

There has been an on-going apostasy throughout the church age, and ultimately there will be a great apostasy immediately preceding the second coming of Christ.  However, to reach the conclusion that authority and true Christianity could be completely lost from the earth, one must make a series of assumptions: (1) that Christ organized his church with an earthly headquarters, (2) that Christ's authority is transmitted through the earthly bureaucracy of the church, and (3) that the bureaucracy of the church is disrupted by apostasy. Although all of three of these assumptions are necessary to demonstrate a general apostasy, there is no Biblical or historical justification for the first two.

The great apostasy has its origin in chapter 3 of Genesis with the fall of man. In this fallen world people seem to keep rejecting the will of God over and over again. Instead of following God’s plan, people keep replacing it with their own inventions, and this pattern has been clear in the church ever since it was founded. This pattern can be seen in man-made inventions being incorporated into church tradition throughout the church age – inventions that are not of Biblical origin. (Romans 1:30) Thus, the great apostasy will undoubtedly be the culmination of an ongoing process.

Ironically, one of these apostate inventions is the key assumption upon which the belief in general apostasy is based, and the invention to which I am referring is the apostate doctrine of “priesthood lineage of authority”. According to this doctrine, church authority (or “priesthood authority”) is passed from man to man, in a conferral process, usually by the laying-on of hands. Accordingly, it is passed on as if it were worldly property under the control of mortals. It is not surprising that it would become part of apostate Christianity because it has been part of many human organizations. It seems that when people invent or design an organization, that is the way that they confer authority. But that is not the way that God conferred authority in the Bible, neither in the Old Testament nor in the New Testament. In the Bible, people receive their authority to act for God from God, not from other mortal men. (See Priesthood.)

Without the doctrine of “priesthood lineage of authority”, the foundation for the belief in general apostasy is gone, and thus that whole theory collapses. This is because corruption in man-made church hierarchies does not keep God from authorizing true believers throughout the church era.

Thus the declaration of general (total) apostasy is itself a product of apostasy.

Indeed there is much evidence of apostasy.  There has been much corruption in the church throughout its history, and corruption continues.  Yet ancient history indicates that the original church grew rapidly. Even though corruption has entered into many "official" church organizations, God does not turn his back on those who remain true to the faith. Today the Christian church is growing very rapidly, and it is filling the earth.

Filling the Whole Earth

In interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the prophet Daniel received a revelation that the kingdom of God would be "cut out, but not by human hands" and would fill the whole earth:

A rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them … the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth. (Dan 2:31-35)

The Church of Jesus Christ is indeed beginning to fill the whole earth!  It is not any one earthly organization, but it is the whole assembly of all believers in heaven and on earth. Approximately a third of the people on earth are Christians. And in the major continents of Africa and Asia where Christianity has been virtually non-existent before the 20th Century, there are now about 400 million Christians in Africa and about 300 million Christians in Asia.  Thus Christianity has truly become global, and there is no country on earth that has not been significantly touched by the gospel.

Furthermore, the revelation specified that it would be "cut out, but not by human hands." The Lord's church uniquely matches this description among the world's major religions through the ages between the revelation and the present day. There have been numerous religions on the earth with numerous man-made temple buildings throughout history. However, in the Lord's church, the temple is the church, with the believers as building blocks, and with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. The temple, that is the church, is not built by human hands. (See the chapter, The Temple for more details on this issue.)

Church Offices

The church continues today with the leadership callings of the New Testament church: elders (2 John 1); deacons (1 Tim 3:10); pastors, teachers, and evangelists (Eph. 4:11); and the presbytery (1 Tim 4:14). (See Bishop & Apostle.) There is one High Priest today over the entire church, Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:14 & 7:26-8:2), and He is the only One who presides over his entire church, and all believers are his priests. (See the chapter, The Priesthood for more details on this issue.)

Christ Centered

Jesus is the Head of the church, and he leads the church through the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:1-8) Although there are local earthly leaders, there is not an earthly church-wide leader.  Jesus is the church-wide leader.  Many religions and denominations have earthly church-wide leaders (a president, an arch-bishop, and so forth), and that is in keeping with man-made organizations.  In the 8th chapter of 1 Samuel, the people of Israel wanted to have a king as other nations do:  "But when they said, 'Give us a king to lead us,' this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD.  And the LORD told him: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you." (1 Sam 8:6-8)

The church is not a repository of divine authority, nor does it dispense salvation. All authority is in Christ (Matt 28:18) and all salvation is directly from Him. (John 14:6) Becoming a member of a church, being active in a church, and participating in church ordinances do not provide immortality or eternal life to the individual.  The church brings people closer to Christ, but only Christ himself provides for eternal life of his disciples.  Unless an individual has personally consecrated his life to Christ, that person is not destined for heaven no matter how "churched" he is.  So neither authority nor salvation is dispensed by middlemen. Our devotion should be to Christ exclusively, not to the church or to any unit within the church or to leaders of the church. The Bible writers teach obedience to leadership (Heb 13:17), but not blind submission. In some religions the leaders claim to be general authorities that demand unconditional submission by the members to their personal authority. But Jesus did not establish his church in that way. He said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave." (Matt 20:25-27)

We should consecrate ourselves to Christ, and we should serve Him with the best of our ability by serving in his church and by giving generously to the church. Jesus established his church because it is necessary. Without the church Christians would be like stay sheep in the wilderness that contains a voracious lion (1 Peter 5:8). Through the church a large body of people with complementary gifts can work together inviting people into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.  C.S. Lewis wrote, "the church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ." (Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1943, book IV, chapter 8)

Being a disciple of Christ is not a church-centered activity, it is Christ-centered.  Becoming a member of a church organization does not make a person a disciple of Christ. Nor does participation in any ordinances or rituals. A person becomes a disciple of Christ through personal dedication to Christ.  Of course a disciple is a member of a team, and that team is the church.  But the church is not the basis of discipleship.  I believe that any organization or religion that emphasizes church membership as pre-requisite to full discipleship detracts from the true meaning of Christianity because such an organization is attempting to shift the spotlight from Christ to itself.

I am grateful for my association with fellow Christians in the church. It is reassuring to be part of a close-knit group of fiends who genuinely care about each other and pray for each other and who serve the Lord together. I know that the Lord is my shepherd, and thanks to his companionship I will never walk alone. In addition, it is critically important to have others here on this earth with whom to walk as well.

© 2011 William C. Hamer