The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:1-5: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love,3 endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
In writing this exhortation to the Ephesian disciples, Paul acknowledged that the time was quickly coming when issues like greed, pride, envy, prejudice and dissention from the pure doctrines of Christ would seep into the Church and destroy many congregations. These divisive and destructive vices would be the greatest enemies of the Church in the 1st century.
Seeing the danger of this situation, Paul implored the brethren to be of one mind and of one purpose, united in the faith and in fellowship, even as there is but one body. Given the presence of so many religious bodies in the world, such a declaration may seem strange, but this is undoubtedly the clear teaching of the Scriptures. The singularity of the Lord’s body is an idea repeated several times throughout the New Testament. Romans 12:5: “so we, being many, are one body in Christ…” 1 Corinthians 10:17: “For we, though many, are one bread and one body…” 1 Corinthians 12:12: “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.” What is this body? Paul says in Ephesians 1:22-23: “And [God] put all things under [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body…” The body is the Church and according to Paul there is only one.
Is this the way it is in the religious world? Not at all. The world is full of churches, full of denominations and all varieties of religious factions, all claiming to be or be part of the one true Church. Can every church be the church? Not according the Bible. Remember the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1: “Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ 13 Is Christ divided?” The answer, of course, is no. The body of Christ does not have divisions. Just are surely as there is one God, one Redeemer, and one Spirit, the Lord has only one people and one body. There can only be one Church.
This principle, that the Lord has only one people and one true Church, is somewhat unsettling, but it’s certainly not an idea unique to the New Testament. Beginning with the calling of Abraham and moving forward through the entire Bible there has always been just one people and one way of salvation. When the Lord redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery he opened one way across the Red Sea one time. There was one tabernacle and one temple. There was one Promised Land and one Holy City, Jerusalem. He chose one people with one promise and gave them one Law. There is now one plan of salvation and one savior who died on the cross one time. Like the Apostle Paul said, there is “One mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ…” (1 Timothy 2:5). In the words of the Apostle Peter, there is “no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus himself is the one head and has but one body and one people to whom he provided one way of salvation and established one institution, the one true Church.
It’s a startling fact, but still a fact we all have to face – not every church is the Church. In fact, if we believe the words of Jesus, we might even be so bold to say that most religious bodies are not the true body. Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 7: 13-14, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. 14 Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Though we may find many religious bodies in the world, even many “Christian” bodies, not every body is the body. Not every church is the Lord’s Church.
Why so many churches?
This present situation is unsettling given our religious landscape, yet it’s hardly a situation unique to our generation. It’s a story that started only a few years after the church began. In 2 Thessalonians 2 the Apostle Paul explained that there would be a “falling away” or literally, a “defection from truth”, turning away from the pure doctrines of Christ.
What happened? In what way was there a falling away from Christ? There wasn’t some massive upheaval among the brethren. There was no civil war in the Church. The Church wasn’t overrun by Bible-burning atheist. This defection from truth happened quickly yet subtly, and all in the name of Christ. Remember what Paul said to the Galatian church, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” They believed in God, they believed in Christ, but still they were lost. How so? Later in the book Paul explained more precisely how this church had lost its place in God’s grace. Galatians 5:4: “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” They believed in Jesus as their savior, yet they also believed that elements of the Mosaic Law were still useful and even binding in the Church.
The change was simple and subtle, yet it was enough for these people in the early church to lose their salvation. It wasn’t a different gospel that caused these people to fall; it was a perverted form of the gospel of Christ. Many churches that were once part of the Church fell away. They still called themselves “Christians”, they still went to “church”, yet in reality they were no longer Christians at all. Like Jesus said in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven…” One true Church becomes many false churches when the truth is changed.
Christ came to Earth one time, he died one time, he established one Church, he died for one Church, and he will save one Church. This is the message from Genesis through Revelation that God offers one way of salvation and has only one body. If only one, which one? Which Church is the right Church?
In the same place that the Paul teaches that there is but one body (Ephesians 4) he also describes some of the common characteristics that members of this body will share. Among these “ones” he mentions that the one body has one faith. What is this faith? The Bible explains.
The one faith is not one belief, but many beliefs that make up the whole doctrine of Christ’s Church. So what are these beliefs? How do we know what the church should look like and what it should do? According to the Bible, the faith of the one true Church is discovered in the teachings of the Apostles found throughout the New Testament. Before Jesus left the Earth he gave his Twelve Apostles a special responsibility that he gave to no one else. Speaking to the Apostles, he says in Matthew 16: 19: “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Later, just moment before he ascended into heaven, Jesus gave the Apostles this commission in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” When the Church had been established in Acts 2:42 it’s said that the early disciple “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine…”
The one true Church is not built on any faith or any doctrine; it’s described in the Bible as being faithful to the teaching of the Apostles that came from Christ himself. In the beginning there was one body, when the Church had one common faith, and made a mutual effort to follow carefully after the Apostles doctrine. One body became many bodies when that one faith was abandoned. If a church doesn’t look like the Church in the Bible, if it’s not carefully following the design laid down by Christ and his Apostles, there’s a good chance that church isn’t the Church.
Once you’ve found Christ make certain to also find the one true Church.
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.