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.)
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)
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)
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:
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.
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.)
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)
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.
© 2011 William C. Hamer