Christian Denominations (I): The Unity of Christ’s Church

The church is the body of Christ. Membership in this body is exclusive.

The church is made up only of God’s elect people chosen in Christ from eternity unto faith. The body of Christ is elect in Christ. Since these elect are chosen by God unto faith, it is also true that only those characterized by a true and living faith belong to the body of Christ. Faith is that gift of God by which God grafts each one of His elect people into Jesus Christ that as a result they become one with Him. This is how they become members of Christ’s body. God by His grace works within their hearts binding them by faith to Jesus Christ that as a result each one becomes a particular member in the body of Christ. All those who are in Christ by a true and living faith are members of His body. No one else.

This body of Christ is the holy catholic church we confess together with the Apostles Creed, “I believe an holy catholic church”. The Nicene Creed states it this way “I believe one holy catholic and apostolic church”. In other words we believe in the church’s unity.

This means, in the first place, that there is one, and only one, church. There is one body of Christ made up of God’s saints from the beginning of the world to the end. Now, some would insist that the church is only saved and gathered by God in the New Dispensation. They claim, that God began gathering the church at the time of Pentecost. The saints in the Old Dispensation do not belong to Christ’s church. They are God’s kingdom people and have little or nothing to do with the gathering of the church in the New Testament. After all, they would contend, the church of Christ cannot exist before Christ was born. If the church is the body of Christ and Christ was not yet born how could someone belong to that body?

We together with the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21; Q & A 54 confess “that the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves unto Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in truth faith”. We confess this because the Bible very clearly teaches it. There are several proofs that can be cited from Scripture in this regard. We will limit ourselves to three of them.

First, if the body of Christ is made up of those whom God chose from eternity in Christ it follows that God’s saints in the Old Testament who are also God’s elect belong to the church of Christ too. Second, if God grafts each of His people into the body of Christ by faith then believers in the Old Testament were grafted into Christ too even though Christ was not yet born. The only difference between the faith of the saints in the Old Testament as opposed to the faith of those in the New is that in the Old Testament God’s people looked forward in faith to the coming of their Messiah. Believers in the New Testament look back to Jesus Christ with that same faith. But the faith is the same. Hebrews 11 testifies to the faith of God saints in the Old Testament. Besides, Scripture clearly teaches that believers today are by faith the spiritual children of Abraham. Abraham, as we learn in Romans 4 and in Galatians 3, is the father of all believers.

The third proof that God’s saints in the Old Testament were members of Christ’s church is found in those passages in the New Testament that referred to God’s people in the Old Testament as church. Speaking of Moses, Stephen testifies in Acts 7:38, “This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us”. Notice how Stephen calls the nation of Israel “the church in the wilderness”. Another passage of this nature is given us in Hebrews 12:22-23, “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect”. In this passage the writer to the Hebrews uses the terms mount S(Z)ion, Jerusalem, and the general assembly and church of the firstborn to describe the same body of people.

We believe in one church – the body of Christ. That church is a unity. It is unified in Christ who is the Head of the church.

This body of Christ, however, cannot be seen with our earthly eyes. It is a spiritual body gathered from the beginning of time to the end and from all nations. The only time we will be able to see the entire body of Christ will be at the end of time when Christ gathers all His elect people together with Him in the new heavens and earth. As such, the church as the body of Christ is an object of faith. It can be seen only with the eyes of faith. We believe there is an holy, catholic church.

Though this is true, it is also evident from Scripture that this body of Christ has always manifested itself visibly in this world by means of the church institute. At any given time throughout history the church of Christ has appeared in the form of an earthly organization or institution. This too is according to Christ’s command. Christ is the Head of the church, but He is no longer on earth. He reigns over the church from heaven at God’s right hand. For that reason, Christ appoints certain men as His visible representatives on earth to rule the church on His behalf. They are His undershepherds (1 Pet. 5:1-4). Christ uses these men to gather, defend, and preserve His church. The church of Christ both in the Old and New Testaments stood under the rule of these men whom God appointed. The kingdom of Israel was a theocracy, a nation under God’s rule. God was her King. God appointed prophets and priests to serve in office on His behalf. Later when the people of Israel in their sin insisted on having a king like the other nations, God appointed kings to rule on His behalf. In this way, the church in the Old Testament functioned under the three offices of prophet, priest, and king.

In the New Testament church these offices were replaced by that of minister, deacon, and elder. The church in the New Testament therefore carried on as an institution as well. It is an institution just as was the kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament. The church of the Old and New Testaments received the calling to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline on those who revealed by their confession and walk to be unbelieving. This three-fold calling was performed in a manner appropriate for the particular dispensation in which it was fulfilled. In the Old Testament the prophets preached the Word. In the New the pastors and teachers preach the Word. In the Old Testament, the elders of the people and later the kings ruled. These administered discipline. In the New the elders rule over the flock of Jesus Christ and administer discipline. In the Old Testament the priests administered the mercies of Christ. In the New the deacons administer such mercies. The point is: the body of Christ becomes visible in this world in the gathering of believers and their seed in the church institute.

There is one crucial difference between the church as the body of Christ and the church institute, however. The church as the body of Christ is made up of only elect. Its membership is exclusively that of believers. The church institute embodies those elect believers, but there are also members of the church institute who are not believers. Some of these are born into the church in the generations of believers. They are not all Israel that are of Israel. Others creep into the church unawares. They are hypocrites that appear on the outside to be believers but are not truly so. The church institute therefore, though necessary, is not pure and holy as is the body of Jesus Christ in this world.

All these truths we must understand if we are to ascertain why there are denominations. In fact, these truths will determine the necessity of denominations. We can say this even in light of the truth that the church is one, and that every denomination of churches is called to strive to maintain the unity of the church as the body of Christ. This we will begin to explain in the next article.

Written by: Rev. Wilbur Bruinsma | Issue 42