The Universal Church
A study of the true church begins with the universal church, often referred to as invisible. The universal church comprises the whole number of God’s people, redeemed by the blood of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Invisible only God knows its number. Only He knows His own everywhere and through all the ages of the Earth. “The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his” (2 Timothy 2:19).
We know the true Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Revelation 21:2), the Children of God (Romans 8:16), the Church of God (1 Corinthians 1:2) and many other appellations in the Scriptures.
All persons throughout the world, born again of the Spirit and who confess Christ as the Son of God, comprise the visible Church of God.
The Visible Church
Within the universal or visible church, those professing the faith of the Gospel and who practice obedience unto our Lord according to His Word may be called the visible Church. These are they who have been led to the fellowship of other believers (1 Corinthians 1:9) and identified as a Church, or congregation of believers.
Paul and other Apostles addressed these bodies of believers as the Church of God which he identifies as “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
The True Church
Now, within the community of believers around the world, another sub-group exists that comprises those bodies where Christ is the true Head of the Church, in Whom by appointment of the Father (Ephesians 1:22, 23), all authority lives in matters of faith and practice (Colossians 1:18, 19).
Adherence to the Gospel, represented in all sixty-six books of the Bible, characterizes these bodies. They have roots traceable to the times of the Apostles, albeit through myriad historical paths, but evidenced by their similarity to the early Church as described in the Book of Acts and the Epistles.
Pastor and author John MacArthur provides a condensed overview of such a Church.
What marks a true church? It begins with the absolute authority of Scripture. It begins with a commitment to the absolute authority of Scripture.
The second thing that marks a church is a commitment to worship. It is God-centered, it is Christ-centered. It focuses outside itself on the one who is the object of worship.
Thirdly, it is doctrinally clear. A church is a collection of the people of God who know what they believe. There’s nothing vague about it. There’s nothing wavering about it. There’s nothing simplistic about it. It is clear, it is profound, and it is marked by strong conviction about what it believes.
A fourth element that flows out of this in the life of the church is that it’s marked by spiritual discernment. The church, the body of Christ, the people of God, are able to look at the world and understand it. They have the capability to sort out the things that are happening all around them, both in the realm of the physical world, as well as the spiritual. A true church is marked by discernment.
Another characteristic of the true church is the pursuit of holiness, the pursuit of holiness–true spirituality, not legalism; Christ’s likeness. Another characteristic is submission to the divine will. Another characteristic is devotion to discipleship. Another characteristic is that it submits to a plurality of godly leaders. Another characteristic is mutual love. And another characteristic is consistent service. And another characteristic is passionate evangelism.
The Headship of Christ
The glue that holds these attributes together is the Headship of Jesus Christ. With Christ in the center, all else falls into place. And how do we know Christ holds this position among bodies of believers? Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
In my name, that’s the key. We must meet in His name; worship in his Name; preach and teach in His name; Pray in His name; fellowship in his name; do the work and business of the Church in His name, and above all live Godly lives in His name. These and all other identifying marks of a true Church are only possible when Christ and His Word govern the body and believers. When leaders are servants who serve. When the disciples argued among themselves as to who was the greatest. Christ’s answer is a short course on leadership for the ages (Luke 22:24-27):
And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.