This is a long article – please don’t try to read it all at once. Take your time and go through it when you have time to think it through. It could be a major life-changing experience. Read the scriptures referenced and meditate upon them. Click on the links for further information. And please, ask us questions.
Article Table of Contents Introduction What Does the New Testament Teach on This Subject? How Does a Local Church Get Organized? Characteristics of Autonomy The Criteria Starting Points for Finding a Sound Church Frequently Asked Questions 1. If I obey all of the commands of Jesus to be saved, why should I need to meet with a local church? 2. Why are you constantly referencing the book of Acts? 3. What is the best way to go about restoring the first century church? 4. What should I be looking for in a local church? 5. Is there some typical descriptor for churches that are attempting to restore New Testament Christianity? 6. Who can help me in this regard? 7. Why can't you just give a name?
We often hear the question "What church do you recommend" from those who have gone through this web site and generally agree that the articles are consistent with what the bible teaches. In addition, they know Hebrews 10:25: “not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting (one another); and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh," This teaches that Christians have a responsibility to associate with each other on a regular basis. So the question is asked is: “To which church should I go to be sure that only the truth of God’s word is being taught and practiced?”
This is a good question, and I am sure that the answer that you would get from many would be the name of a denomination. Or perhaps you would be told that it really does not matter – just go to the church of your choice. Either of these responses would be erroneous, and following the teachings of these various religious institutions could cost you your soul. Doctrine and practice do matter. Choosing the people who you are going to be in fellowship with spiritually is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life – it is Satan’s goal to trivialize it!
What Does the New Testament Teach on This Subject?
For one thing, local churches discussed in the New Testament did not have denominational names because there were no denominations in the first century, and there is no good reason that there should be denominations now. If God did not name the church, why do men think that they should? God’s people had descriptions – church of God, church of Christ, church of the first born, family of God, kingdom of God, sometimes just “church” – these are just a few of over a dozen descriptors, but they all point to the exact same church, because there was only one. If you are interested in names and descriptors, we urge you to read Name for God's People, which is quite detailed in this regard.
So, as we study the book of Acts we find that there was only one church, the “called out” that Jesus built (Matthew 16:18). The Greek words that are translated as church in our bibles are from the Greek words that literally mean “called out.” As the years went by, there were a large number of local churches that were created by the evangelical efforts of the apostles and the scattered Christians (Acts 8), but these all recognized each other as being comparable religious groups. Each of these had their own elders who provided the leadership over them (Acts 14:23). There is no evidence of any organization about the local level -- it was totally unnecessary then since the apostles doctrine was sufficient. This has be adequately documented for us in the sacred writings of the New Testament today, and therefore there is still no reason for organization above the local churches. Such organizations are not authorized, and the feeble efforts made by some to attempt to justify them using scripture should speak for itself. Click here for more information on the use of the same word "church" to apply to local churches as well as the one universal collection of all saints everywhere and for all times.
The creation of a super organizations to pull local churches together has very dire consequences in terms of polluting the doctrine that is taught. Please consider thoughtfully the question: "if that super organization is not in God’s word, then why should there be any insistence in only following the dictates of the New Testament?" How much effort is spend in justifying a non-scriptural entity instead of concentrating on what the New Testament teaches that the Lord’s church should be? And, when the super organization goes wrong in its teachings, it drags down with it all of the local churches attached to it. Historically we have seen this go to seed in the corruption within the Roman Catholic church over the centuries.
God’s plan is infinitely wise, but many people today believe that independently organized local churches cannot even function. But they do! The plain truth is that when Christians in a locality band together and resolve that they are only going to use the bible for all of their teaching, they come to the same general conclusions, and their practices are quite similar. This consistency in practice is ample evidence that the bible alone is sufficient to guide, not only the individual, but each and every local church unto every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
How Does a Local Church Get Organized?
In the book of Acts we find conversions always preceded the creation of a local church. Corinth is a good example (Acts 18). There was no concept of a church coming into an area, building a building, and signing up members; or any other such process. There was no church at Corinth when a single Christian (Paul) came to this city. People were taught the truth first, they obeyed the truth, and then they banded themselves together with others locally of the same faith, and that created the local church at Corinth. If someone was converted after a church had been organized in that local area, the convert would associate with those who were already practicing Christians, and they become part of that local church. Churches met in a variety of places -- homes, upper rooms, a borrowed facility at a school (Acts 19:9), and (shortly after Pentecost) in the temple complex at Jerusalem (Acts 2:46), where their presence was tolerated for a short time. Today the particular shelter is not important – we can borrow, rent or buy -- whatever is the most expedient -- to facilitate the worship and the work of the church.
The same concept should apply today, but there are many denominations claiming to be parts of the church that Jesus built. We urge anyone reading this to seek out and find a church that mirrors the local churches that we read about in the New Testament. You can learn about them in the book of Acts, because these local churches were not formed until after the first converts were baptized (recorded in Acts 2). These local churches were not denominations. While the word was being delivered and the New Testament was being written they were guided by the apostles and the first century prophets who became such by the laying on of the apostles hands (Acts 8:18). Today we have these words written for us in the New Testament (Ephesians 3:1-4).
Churches that are attempting to restore the first century church will be totally independent from each other organizationally. They may have spiritual ties and communicate with each other in various ways, but there is no concept of a "mother church" or any guiding super organization or hierarchy. This it what is meant by a truly non-denominational church. It has its own (and only) leadership locally, and the bible provides all of the guidance as far as its worship and work is concerned. It needs no higher rule and rejects any attempts from others to subjugate it. It is sufficient. Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 18:20 "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” But the scriptural model will not work unless the bible is the only source of doctrine, and that principle is respected by all of the members. The local leadership cannot make it up as they go along, and they should insist that all members recognize their responsibilities in assuring that all teachings are totally 100% Bible.
In discussing this with many people who have been affiliated with denominations all of their lives, we have found that they honestly believe that such is impossible. We are not going to try to prove that is is here -- the book of Acts does an adequate job of that. And you can determine this for yourself. If you are searching for such a church and you find it, that will be sufficient proof that it can be done. Those who are serving God within such churches certainly do not need proof; they are the proof. It can be done, and it is being done by thousands of local churches throughout the world. The fact that their worship and work is so similar despite there being no overarching organization is sufficient proof that the bible is totally adequate to provide all that they need to direct their worship and their work.
Because these churches are independent, it is impossible to create a list of sound churches. If a group of men took it upon themselves to mandate which local church is acceptable and which is not, then they would become the central authority for the churches under their mandate, and the churches would no longer be independent. This is why we are in no position to dictate a church; we may make recommendations, but even these are given to you with qualifiers – it is essential for YOU to seek out and find God’s local church for yourself. It will not be that difficult. For sure, you will not have to go around and visit every denomination as many feel is their duty.
It should be clear from reading 1 Corinthians and the book of Revelation that it is quite possible, and highly probable, that some churches that once were sound are no longer so. There is always this tendency to want a king and for some to have more power than the local organization of the church will allow. Thus, many churches drift toward denominationalism, and ultimately they become denominations (e.g., the Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ are denominations that evolved from independently and scripturally-organized local churches).
On the other hand, a group that may have had major defects in their adherence to God's word can certainly put those errors away and may today be a sound church. This was the goal of the writing of Paul to the Corinthians and John to the seven churches of Asia, so obviously it is possible to reverse what seems to be the natural trend of worldliness in most churches today. However, we would warn you -- it has been our experience that the power structure in most local churches is to maintain the status quo, and if you are caught in a situation where you have tried to make a change and it has been rejected, the edict or Paul to those who were in false religious organizations certainly applies, 2 Corinthians 6:17-18: "Wherefore Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, And touch no unclean thing; And I will receive you, And will be to you a Father, And ye shall be to me sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty."
We dare not create a list, nor can we assert that any given church is sound. Further, we dare not create a list of characteristics that a church must meet -- doing so would be creating a creed. If that creed is any less than the bible, it is not enough; if any more, it would be too much.
Thus, the responsibility is on the part of the new convert to find a church that s/he can worship and work with in good conscience. We urge you to look around and evaluate the various alternatives in your area so that you can fulfill your responsibilities to your fellow Christians, and provide them with your spiritual support (fellowship and communion) as you are obtaining support from them. The criteria given below will narrow the field quickly, so it will not take a lot of “visiting around." Obviously, one of the first things to look for is whether or not they are teaching God's plan of Salvation, i.e., the conditions of salvation given by Jesus.
The most critical aspect of a local church responds to this question: "Are they attempting to do their best to do all things according to the New Testament?" Surely a group that says "we do many things that are not authorized by the New Testament" is freely admitting to you that they are not even attempting to center their practices on God’s word. If they are not open to your questions, or if they trivialize the need for biblical authority, then they are not what you are looking for. Move on.
Those who are serving God according to His word will have no fear and absolutely no resentment when you ask them to give you the scripture for all that they practice. Just pick something that looks different and ask them about it. It will “make their day.” They will get excited to see someone who cares enough to ask such questions. They will be glad to tell you why they do things because they KNOW why they do the things that they do. Since they are locally organized, no one is dictating to them what the bible says they must do. They have already taken the bible and resolved to the best of their abilities what the worship and work of the local church is. This is probably your greatest indication that you are hot on the trail to a sound group.
Look for the characteristic given in Hebrews 8:11: “And they shall not teach every man his fellow-citizen, And every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: For all shall know me, From the least to the greatest of them.” If it is a scriptural work, all of the leaders (at least) will know what the bible teaches on the plan of salvation, godliness and morality, and the worship and the work of the church. Of course, they will not be perfect – no man is, and therefore, no church is. But you will see the difference in their knowledge of God’s word and their hunger and thirst after righteousness in feeding from God’s word. The major difference is in the respect they show for it.
The links below provide addresses to various churches that the web site owners believe are trying to do all the bible teaches and only what the bible teaches. For the reasons given above, we cannot totally vouch for them, but we do believe that they are an excellent starting point in your search. The responsibility to find a group that you can work and worship with in conscience is yours. We make no pretense at being able to do any better than you can. Think about it: would it be right for us to do that for you? It would be a fearful thing for us if we did such a thing. This is your responsibility since it is impossible for us to know the hearts of the people in all local churches. But for sure a minimum qualification is that at least they are professing to be totally bible based.
You have the New Testament, and hopefully you live in a country where you can affiliate yourself with those of like precious faith. We urge you to put your knowledge of God's word to work, and do your best to find a sound group of people who are indeed "called out" by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. In this regard, remember that Hebrews 10:25 urges you to "not forsake the assembling of yourselves together."
Starting Points for Finding a Sound Church
With the qualifiers and warnings above, we give you this list to help start your search:
We give several web sites that are providing this service to further emphasize that there is no central authority over local churches other than Jesus Christ Himself. None of the people behind these web sites would dare to state that they have the authority to determine which of the groups the list is recognized by the Lord and which is not (see Revelation 2 and 3). These are just web sites like BibleThought.net.
Generally, these web sites say the same things that we said above with regard to vouching for the soundness of any given church. They are not taking it upon themselves to create a denomination – they realize how sinful such a thing would be and they avoid it at every turn. Nevertheless, they are providing a service just as one Christian would to another in making such a recommendation.
Do we have to say: “don’t be worldly in selecting a church?” Surely you know that the size and architecture of the building, or if the group has a building at all, has nothing to do with their ability to help you get to heaven. It may not have a full-time or paid preacher. This makes it no less a church that is pleasing to the Lord. Satan is using his worldly influence to make certain churches “the place to be” with “the in people.” If you are going to get caught up in that type of thing, the love of Christ and the truth will quickly get left behind. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with a nice meeting place or a paid, full-time preacher – but it is the responsibility of the members of a local church to be able to show you how you can better serve the Lord by having fellowship with them. Serving the Lord is of primary importance as you endeavor to work with your fellow Christians in glorifying God. Their job is to help you get to heaven, and your job is to help them.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. If I obey all of the commands of Jesus to be saved, why should I need to meet with a local church?
It is essential for us to associate with our fellow Christians if at all possible. The following is one of the most definitive commands in the New Testament -- Hebrews 10:24-27: “… and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting (one another); and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh. For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no more a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries.”
While this last sentence is referring to all of the teachings in the chapter, the fact that it is placed right after the command to meet and work together is telling. However, we should not need such threatening language to motivate us to want to meet together “to provoke [each other] unto love and good works.” We should see from Acts 2 and throughout the book of Acts and the epistles that a major part of the way early Christians worshiped and worked was through their local churches. It is important that we seek out and find fellow Christians with whom we can work, worship and pray. Clearly, this is part of God’s plan.
2. Why are you constantly referencing the book of Acts?
Acts 2 is a major turning point in the New Testament. The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) present the life of Christ to shortly before his birth to shortly after his crucifixion. The church was not organized at that point. Jesus had to totally fulfill Old Testament law (specifically the Law of Moses) for us so that it could be set aside (Galatians 3). There were no local churches when Jesus was on this earth. The Jewish counterpart for the church was the synagogue. Read Acts 2 and learn about the first Christians being baptized and added to the church. We know for certain that the practices of those churches were under the direction of the apostles who were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. Thus, when we do what they did, we can be sure that we are in harmony with God.
The major goal of Bible-based churches is the restoration of the church that existed in the first century under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. Of course, if it is necessary, it is essential that we first restore ourselves as individual Christians seeking the purity of God’s word to guide our lives. But once this take place, it is equally as important that each of us works to restore the local church, since it is the local church that provides the means today by which Christians can worship and work together to carry out the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20). When we restore a local church to the work, worship and organization as it was in the first century, we are restoring what the Holy Spirit gave to them directly, and to us through the holy scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Because of the independent nature of local churches, they can only be restored one church at a time, and this must be done by the faithfulness of the Christians who live in that area. It is our individual responsibility to have a part in that work.
3. What is the best way to go about restoring the first century church?
The good news is that there are more resources at the fingertips of faithful Christians to provide assistance in this regard than ever before. The bad news is that in many countries that have religious freedom, such as the United States, there are many counterfeit organizations claiming to be the true church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Counterfeit churches exist in other countries as well, but in some they do not thrive mainly due to persecution. Most of us have come to realize the extreme persecution that is occurring in Iraq, Syria and other areas of the Middle East today, but this persecution is in no way limited to that area. It is good that the world is recognizing this persecution for what it is, and what it will eventually lead to if not controlled. Read the New Testament to see the nature of false religious leaders and the extent to which they go to maintain and extend their power. They crucified Jesus, and it is obvious that some of them are gladly doing the same today to anyone who stands in their way
So, to answer this question, please consider the following:
Remember, it is not the fact that you are a member of a particular group that saves you; when you obey the truth you are added to the Lord's church (in the universal sense) -- so it is just the opposite from that which is commonly believed. Getting added to the church roles does not save; obeying the truth saves and simultaneously adds you to the Lord's church. But it is still your responsibility to find a local church that you can work with.
4. What should I be looking for in a local church?
Certainly you would not want to align yourself to any group that does not at least make the claim of being 100% Bible and Bible only – and this will eliminate many groups per se. For example, if they in any way denigrate the authority of the bible, or indicate that it is not necessary or sufficient, you would do well to look elsewhere. Clues here include their asking: (1) “How do we know the bible is complete?” (2) “Is there not truth in all religions?” (3) How do you account for all of the variations in translations? (4) “Don't you do lots of things that the bible does not authorize?” These and other similar questions are answered on this site; we list them here as examples that provide a big warning light that says: this group is not interested in serving God in total purity according to the way that He has specified in the New Testament!
5. Is there some typical descriptor for churches that are attempting to restore New Testament Christianity?
We need to be extremely careful in answering this question, and warn you to be wary of those who would jump all over it with a quick and definitive answer. We are often asked what our “religious affiliation” is, and this is a difficult question to answer because of the mistaken terminology and ideas of the ones who ask. Most simply put: we are Christians trying to serve God the best that we can according to His revealed word. This response requires an understanding of just what “His revealed word” teaches, and attaining that understanding is an effort that few are willing to put forth. So they prefer a silver bullet in the form of a simple name.
This quest for a name reveals a denominational mindset that makes it virtually impossible for them to conceive of local churches faithful to God just springing up spontaneously based on obedience to His word. They believe that there has to be some central organizational (denominational) force among these local churches, and that this organization must have a name. Look up the word denominate in the dictionary and you will see that one of its foremost meanings is “to assign a name to ...” usually to something that is a part of a larger entity.
We are not hesitant to say that most local churches that we have found to be faithful to the Lord refer to themselves as being a local “church of Christ.” We hastily add that we know of many local churches using this designation that are not faithful to the Lord. And, the New Testament does not state that “church of Christ” is to be used as a name. There is no unique name for the Lord's church, the one that Jesus said would be "My church" (Matthew 16:18). However, "church of Christ: is one among many legitimate descriptions of a local church that is doing all in its power to serve the Lord. This is one of many such descriptors. The difference between a name and a descriptor is that names most often lose their descriptive meaning. My name, David, means beloved. Does anyone know that? Does anyone care? The name works quite well in identifying me separate and apart from its original meaning. At this point in time the name is used to refer to, not to describe me as being beloved. And so it is with names of both people and institutions -- they assume a life of their own independent of their original meanings.
Perhaps this is the reason that the Holy Spirit saw fit to give a name to individual followers of Jesus -- that name being Christian (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16); but He did not assign any name to the the Lord's church. “Church of Christ” should be a descriptor; if it has become a name it has done that without scriptural authority. It is interesting that the descriptor “church of Christ” does not appear in the New Testament in the singular form. In the plural form it is used by Paul in Rom 16:16: “Salute one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ salute you.” There was no way that the universal church could salute them -- it has no office on this earth -- it is ruled by a king and that king is sitting at the right hand of God. In Rom. 16:16 it is plural, indicating that Paul was talking about a number of local churches. We would do well to discipline ourselves to maintain this practice, which is totally consistent with scripture. See the article on the local and universal church.
There is no name assigned to the Lord’s church in the New Testament. Does this give us the right to call it whatever we want? Obviously not. There are many descriptors that define what the true church was in the first century (and should be today), and any of these would be preferable to something that we arbitrarily make up to suit our own desires. [For more details see “Name for God’s People.”]
To summarize “church of Christ” should not be regarded as a name because it is not called a name or used as a name in the New Testament. It is a scriptural descriptor rather than a name, because it is given along with the many other comparable descriptors given in the New Testament. But, since most sound congregations use this term to identify themselves, this is an excellent starting point. We certainly would not encourage groups to avoid this descriptor just for the sake of being different.
6. Who can help me in this regard?
If you are a Christians who, out of faith and love for Jesus Christ, is doing your best to be pleasing to him, please recognize this: you are not alone. Please feel free to contact any of these church contacts, and members there will be glad to welcome you or advise you on other groups that might be meeting closer to you. Start by asking them: Is it your goal to restore the church as it existed in the first century, e.g., according to Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Remember, a scriptural descriptor does not guarantee that any particular group so designated is sound. However, an unscriptural descriptor is your first red flag – ask: why do you call yourself this? and where is that descriptor (or name) in the bible?
7. Why can't you just give a name?
It is impossible for anyone to investigate all local churches making the claim to be “of Christ” (or, “of God,” or any other scriptural descriptor) to see which ones are faithful to the Lord and which ones are not. It is the responsibility of every member of each of these churches to make sure that the church that they work and worship with remains faithful to the Lord, and to give answers when questioned by you or anyone might else (1 Peter 3:15). In some cases only the members of the local church can know, e.g., whether or not their contributions are being used for scripturally authorized purposes. Your responsibility in identifying with a sound church is very similar to their responsibility … so when you question the members of a group, that should immediately create a common bond, because they too are supposed to be questioning every teaching and practice of their local church.