THE CHURCH OF GOD
“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” -- Acts 20:28
Believers cannot exist in this world in spiritual health without the strength, ministry, support, and help of a local church family. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that every child of God know the purpose and value of the church of God in this world and commit himself to it.
The text, which heads this page, is taken from the Book of Acts. One great purpose of that book, which is really a brief history of the early church, is to show us how God works in this world through his church. It is the inspired record of the progress of the church during its first thirty years of existence in this world. The most prominent figure in the church during those first thirty years was the Apostle Paul. It is this man, Paul, who is speaking in chapter 20. He is giving a solemn charge to the elders at Ephesus regarding their responsibilities as the servants of God. He says, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.”
What is the Church of God?
It cannot be denied that the word “church” is used in at least three ways in the New Testament. First, it is used to describe all true believers of all ages, both those of the Old Testament and those of the New, both those on the earth and those in heaven. Considered in this sense, the church is universal, made up of all true believers. It is the mystical, spiritual body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. It is that spiritual body of which Jesus Christ is the Head (Eph. 1:22; 5:25-27).
Second, the word “church” is used to describe local, visible assemblies of professed believers in a given place. In every local church there are both believers and unbelievers, wheat and tares, sheep and goats, true possessors of faith and false professors of faith. Every local church has in its membership both the true and the false. Still, every local assembly of men and women who profess faith in Christ and the gospel of his grace is set forth as a local church, and is called “the church of God” (Rom. 16:1-5).
Third, the word “church” is used to describe all true gospel churches at any given time in the world. Obviously, I do not mean to suggest that the church of God is made up of all churches and denominations. However, it does include all true New Testament churches at any given time in the world. We are one in Christ, one in purpose, one in heart, and one in desire. All true gospel churches are one in this world (1 Cor. 10:32; 12:28).
In Acts 20:28 Paul is addressing the elders of a particular local assembly at Ephesus, or perhaps elders from several local assemblies in the Ephesus area. In either case, the words “the church of God” in this text have reference to the local church. Here Paul tells us three things about the church of God, which are true of every local, gospel church.
1. The church belongs to God. Grace Baptist Church of Danville is “the church of God” at Danville, Kentucky. I am not talking about the building in which we meet, but about the people who meet here. We are “the church of God.” This church does not belong to the Baptist denomination, or to me, or to you. It belongs to God exclusively. We are God’s people and God’s property. God chose us to be his people in sovereign election before the world began (2 Thess. 2:13). God redeemed us to himself by the precious blood of his dear Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Tit. 2:14). God called us to himself by the irresistible power and grace of his Spirit, creating spiritual life within us and giving us faith in Christ (Col. 1:12-14).
These things are true of all true believers. And, though there may be unbelievers among us, we all profess to be believers, so these things are true of us collectively as a local church. This is the church of God. Let all beware. He that harms God’s church touches the apple of God’s eye (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
2. The church of God is a flock of sheep. It is called “the flock of God,” because it is made up of Christ’s sheep. “A church of Christ is compared to a flock of sheep, being in Gospel order, folded together and feeding in the same pasture, attending the Word and ordinances, under the care of shepherds appointed by Christ the chief Shepherd.” (John Gill) Before we were converted, we were as sheep going astray from our God and Savior (Isa. 53:6). After conversion, God’s people are compared to sheep, because they are meek, inoffensive, patient, and totally dependent upon Christ, who is our Shepherd.
God’s church is well compared to a flock of sheep, because sheep are far from perfect. They are a good bit less than what we might consider ideal creatures. Sheep are silly, ignorant, helpless, defenseless, straying, dirty, needy animals that cannot even bear their young alone. Therefore, they need and must have shepherds, pastors, to care for them. And it is the pastor’s responsibility to feed the sheep with knowledge and understanding, protect the sheep with his very life, lead the sheep by going before them, comfort the sheep with the gospel, help the sheep in trouble, and sometimes to gently carry the sheep in loving arms. However, contrary to the opinions of many, it is never his responsibility to discipline and chasten the sheep. The Chief Shepherd alone has the ability to do that.
3. The church of God was purchased by the blood of Christ, who is God. Paul describes the church as being “the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” The Purchaser of the church is God himself. The price of the purchase was “his own blood.” The purchase was made by the legal payment of our debt, the satisfaction of justice, to ransom our souls from the hands of divine justice and the penalty of the law. -- It was a particular purchase. Christ purchased his church. All God’s elect, the chosen members of this church, were purchased by Christ. -- It was a complete purchase. Christ purchased all his people at once out from under the curse and penalty of the law (Gal. 3:13). -- It was an effectual purchase. When he is finished with all things, all for whom the Son of God died shall stand before the holy Lord God in perfect holiness (Eph. 5:25-27).
What is the purpose of the Church?
Why did our Lord establish his church in this world? Why did the apostles gather believers into local churches in every city? What is the purpose of our existence as a local church? In 1 Timothy 3:15-16, the apostle Paul tells us that the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.”
We are not the source of truth; but we are the pillar and ground of the truth. We are not the devisors of truth, but the dispensers of truth. It is our responsibility to preserve the truth, promote the truth, and proclaim the truth of God in the generation in which we live. Truth is the legacy we have received from the preceding generation; and truth is the legacy we must leave to the generation to come. That particular body of truth, which we are responsible to maintain, is the gospel of Christ. Our creed is “Christ and him crucified.” The truth we maintain and declare is the great “mystery of godliness,” redemption by Christ, the incarnate God. Let us never lose sight of our divinely ordained purpose in this world.
How is the Church to be governed?
At first, the church was under the direct government of Christ himself. Then, it was governed by the Apostles of our Lord. They, by the direction of God the Holy Spirit (Acts 6), appointed deacons to relieve them of the mundane duties of watching over matters of money, property, and the care of widows. As the Apostles died out, the pastors they had appointed in different places had the responsibility of being overseers of the churches. Sometimes the pastor is called “elder,” and sometimes “bishop” in the New Testament. But wherever you read the words “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” in the New Testament, the men mentioned are the same, they are pastors, undershepherds to Christ, overseers of the church, spiritual rulers in the house of God.
The church of God is not a political body, or a business corporation, or a social club or organization to be ruled by the democratic vote of the people or the whims of men. The commonly accepted practice of congregational rule among Baptist churches is totally without foundation in the Word of God. The church of God is a kingdom, under the rule of Christ. It is governed by Christ’s appointed pastors, through the Word of God, as they are taught and led by the Spirit of God (Heb. 13:7, 17).
It is the pastor’s responsibility to rule in the house of God (1 Tim. 3:1-7). He does not rule by bullish force, or intimidation, or legislative power; but he does rule. He is to rule in the house of God in precisely the same way a husband is to rule in his own house. The pastor rules the house of God by the Word of God. He rules by his own example of faith and faithfulness. As God’s overseer, he rules the church in love, love for Christ, love for the truth, and love for the people of God. The pastor must rule the house of God as he is led by the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God.
I know that giving one man such power over so many can be a very dangerous thing, if that man is not himself ruled by the Spirit of Christ. Many have suffered greatly by the abuse of pastoral authority. However, the answer to the problem of abuse is not to restrict the pastoral office, but rather to seek the direction of the Holy Spirit in choosing a pastor, carefully following the guidelines of Holy Scripture, and praying for God’s mercy and grace to abide upon, preserve, and keep the pastor in the way of truth, faith, and righteousness.
When a local church is ruled by the voice of the people, there is no limit to the evil that may be done. In the Word of God, I find four places, only four, where the course of action for God’s people was decided and determined by the congregation (Ex. 32:1-6; Num. 16:1-4; 1 Chron. 13:1-14; Acts 12:15-26). The results are a commentary on the subject of congregational rule. In Exodus 32:1-6, the children of Israel are seen dancing naked around the golden calves. In Numbers 16:1-4, they tried to kill God’s prophet, Moses. In 1 Chronicles 13:1-14, the Lord made a breach upon the people, because they defiled the ark of God. In Acts 1:15-26, the church chose an apostle God had not ordained. The axiom of democracy is “the people are always right.” But in spiritual matters the majority is almost always wrong. The majority almost never rules according to the mind of God.
It is the responsibility of God’s church to follow and obey that man who rules over it as pastor by the will of God. Again I emphasize the importance of local churches exercising great care in calling a pastor. They should get to know all they possibly can about him. Make certain that he measures up to the requirements laid down in Holy Scripture. If he does not measure up, no matter how well he can preach, no matter how likeable he appears to be, he must not be called as pastor. Once a man has been called as pastor, the church has placed herself under his rule. If he is God’s man, it will be a blessed relationship. If he is not, it will be disaster.
It is every believer’s responsibility to yield a voluntary subjection and obedience to your pastor as God’s messenger to your soul. It is an obedience based upon love and trust. If you are not happy with your pastor, if you have reason to question his ability to faithfully watch over your soul, you can do one of two things: (1.) You can ask God to remove him, and wait for him to do it. Or, (2.) you can quietly remove yourself from his rule. In either case, you better be very sure of what you are doing. You must never dare to assume that it is your responsibility to remove your pastor. That is God’s work.
How do people unite with and join the Church?
A person is united with the church universal when he is united with Christ by faith. A local church must be joined by some public act. Many think church membership is insignificant; and there are some who place too much importance upon it, making church membership a basis of hope before God. Still, in the New Testament, believers did publicly unite with one another in local churches (Acts 9:26-27; Rom. 16:1-2).
A local church is an assembly, or congregation, of believing men and women, united to Christ and one another in love. A local church is a society of saved sinners, knit together by the Spirit of God. According to the pattern laid down in Acts 2, four things are necessary for membership in the church of God.
1. You must hear Christ preached (vv. 14-40).
2. You must believe the gospel (v. 41).
3. You must confess Christ in baptism (v. 41).
4. You must be compelled by Christ, by the direction of his Spirit to unite with his people. You must make a public identification with and commitment to the people of God (vv. 41-47).
Every local church, if it is truly the church of God, is a habitation of God through the Spirit (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Cor. 3:16). The church is more than a mere unit of men. It is a union of hearts. It is more than a bare uniformity of doctrine, though that is important. It is a union of spiritual life in Christ (Eph. 4:1-7). We are “one body,” united to Christ our Head. We are made to live by and in “one Spirit.” We all have “one hope.” Our hope is Christ our Substitute. We all submit to “one Lord,” our crucified and exalted Redeemer. We all live by “one faith,” the faith of Christ who loved us and gave himself for us. The Object of our faith is One -- Christ. The doctrine of our faith is one -- The Gospel. The goal of our faith is one -- The glory of God. We have all been buried with Christ by “one baptism” into his death. We all worship “one God,” who is the Father of us all.
Those are the things that characterize the church of God. If those things describe any local church, it is “the church of God.” If they do not, it is just another religious club, with a name that it lives, but is dead!
What does Church membership involve?
It is one thing to have your name on a church role, but it is something else to be a member of the church of God. Church membership is an alliance of hearts to one another in Christ. It is a voluntary commitment of love, a loving commitment to Christ and to one another for Christ’s sake. To unite with the church of God is to make a public commitment to the worship of Christ, the gospel of Christ, and the church of Christ.
Church membership involves commitment to the worship of our Lord Jesus Christ. Local church families come together to read his Word, sing his praise, observe his ordinances, call upon his name, and be instructed in his gospel (Acts 2:42).
It involves commitment to the gospel of Christ. All true churches are united in the defense of the gospel and the furtherance of the gospel. For this reason, we assemble to hear the Word, give to publish the Word, and go forth to proclaim the Word. Together believers as a local assembly support one man to give himself to the ministry of the Word, so that he may feed their souls with knowledge and understanding (Jer. 3:15). Together they help supply the needs of pastors, missionaries, and evangelists around the world, so that they may publish the gospel without distraction by carnal cares. Together they publish the gospel around the world that others might know the gospel and worship our God.
Church membership involves commitment to the church of Christ. Believers are committed to one another for Christ’s sake. In a local church the members of the family are devoted, their very hearts are devoted to one another (Phil. 2:1-4). God’s people love each other, pray for each other, encourage each other, and forgive each other. That is the way families live.
Why should I join the Church of God?
Perhaps you have been debating the matter of church membership in your mind. You may be looking for biblical reasons to join the church of God. I could give you numerous reasons from the Scriptures why you should unite with a local New Testament church; but I will give you just one. If you are a believer, if you trust Christ, if you are born again by the grace of God, here is one reason why you should unite with the church of God. -- You need us! You need the regular ministry of the gospel. You need the fellowship of God’s family. You need the help, strength, and encouragement of your brethren (Heb. 10:24-25).
The church of God is neither more nor less than an assembly of men and women whose hearts are united together in the faith of the gospel, the fellowship of the Spirit, and the love of Christ. Every true local church has all that any church should have.
· A Priesthood -- The priesthood of every believer in Christ.
· An Altar – Christ Himself.
· A Sacrifice -- The blood of Jesus Christ.
· A Law -- The law of Christ our Head, the law of faith and love.
· A Creed -- The Word of God, the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
· A Message -- Jesus Christ and him crucified.
· A Program with activities for every age -- Prayer, praise, and preaching.
· A Set Goal for which we strive earnestly – The Glory of God.
As Moses said to Jethro, his father-in-law, so I say to saved sinners everywhere - “Come, thou, with us and we will do thee good.”
 What I have said here, relating to the local assembly of which I am a member is, of course, true with regard to all local churches, all true gospel churches.