How can one identify the true church?

Thousands of denominations claim to follow Christ. They cannot all be right, since they have conflicting doctrines and practices. Someone who believes in Jesus is faced with the challenge of identifying His church. What biblical characteristics distinguish Christ’s church from human denominations? What are the distinguishing marks of the church of Christ?

The true church was established by Christ and He is its only Head.

Jesus said, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18). A church created by someone else is not Christ’s church. This excludes many groups from being the true church. Sometimes they even wear the name of their founder.
Christ is the only head of the true church. The Father put all things under His feet “and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body” (Ephesians 1:22, 23).
Referring to the universality of His church, Jesus told the people of Israel: “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).
A church with some other head, is not the church of Christ. This also excludes many religious groups.

The true church was established at Jerusalem in the first century.

Peter preached the good news about salvation through Christ on the Day of Pentecost after His resurrection. “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (Acts 2:41). A church that was established at some other time, or at some other place, is not the church of Christ. Again, this excludes many religious groups. Sometimes they even wear the name of a city or country of origin.

The true church was established by Christ at Jerusalem in the first century. He is its head. Churches established by someone else, someplace else, or at some other time, cannot be the church of Christ.

Yet, it is not sufficient for some church to claim that Christ is its head, or that it was established at Jerusalem in the first century. This must also be true. How can we know if it is true?

The true church preserves the original faith by following the Scriptures.

Jude wrote: “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The Christian faith was delivered once and for all in the first century. Any church with a set of beliefs different from the original faith, is not the church of Christ.

The true church follows the Scriptures. Paul emphasized this when he wrote to Timothy: “But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:13-17). A church that does not follow the Scriptures, is not the Lord’s church.

The doctrine of Christ is normative for the true church.

It does not go “beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9). A church that goes beyond what is written, that does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, is not the church of Christ.

The true church is known for its love.

It keeps itself in the love of God (Jude 21) by obeying His commandments (1 John 5:3). The true church abides in love (John 4:16), walks in love (Ephesians 5:2) and speaks the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). True Christians love one another. Jesus said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35).

The true church worships in spirit and truth.

“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The worship of the Lord’s church is from the heart and is according to the New Testament.

Condemning superficial worship, God said: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6, 7).

The true church preaches the original gospel.

Because even in the first century some were already preaching a different gospel, Paul warned the Galatian churches: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-9). A church that preaches a message different from the original gospel, is not the church of Christ.

What is the gospel?

Christ’s death on the cross for the sins of the world, and His resurrection from the dead, are the facts of the gospel. Paul wrote: “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Jesus is “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

One must obey the gospel to be added to the true church.1

“And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

Jesus said: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).

“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation” (Romans 10:9, 10).

“Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

We are striving to be a church of Christ, to be a congregation of God’s people, to serve Him in spirit and truth according to His word.

How is one added to the true church?

If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died for your sins, that He rose the third day, if you repent (if you are sorry for your sins and are determined to dedicate your life to God), if you confess your faith, and if you are baptized for the remission of sins, you will be added to Christ’s church, His body. Then, with us, you too can strive for the faith, once and for all delivered to the saints. Amen.

Roy Davison

The Scripture quotations in this article are from
The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982, Thomas Nelson Inc.,
Publishers unless indicated otherwise.
Permission for reference use has been granted.

1 See 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17.

Published in The Old Paths Archive