The true church is a universal church, often referred to as invisible. It consists of the whole number of God’s people, redeemed by the blood of the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Invisible because humankind can’t know its number. Only God knows all His people 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), and many other appellations in the Scriptures.
All persons throughout the world, born again of the Spirit, make up the whole Church of God. Among this population, those professing the faith of the Gospel and practicing obedience unto our Lord according to His Word may be called the visible Church. These are they who have been called 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.
Now, within the community of believers around the world, another sub-group exists that consists of those bodies where Christ is the true Head of the Church, in Whom by appointment of the Father (Ephesians 1:22, 23), all authority resides in matters of faith and practice (Colossians 1:18, 19). Adherence to the Gospel 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 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 that 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 about who was the greatest, Christ’s answer was 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.
Primitive Baptists have a greater opportunity to mold themselves into the Biblical pattern discussed above than the great majority of denominations in the world today. Historically, we have no centralized ecclesiastical hierarchy that governs the business of the local Church. Each congregation enjoys autonomy with the right and privilege to conduct themselves according to their faith and the Word of God. This, of course, can be abused but the benefits of localized governing far outweigh the bonds placed on bodies of believers under the authority of an ecclesiastical organization.
An error one finds in Church histories regarding Primitive Baptists is that they broke away from mainstream Baptists because of opposition to missionary efforts. The opposition that created the first open schism between among Baptists had nothing to do with carrying the Word of God to all the nations, but rather societies and committees and institutions that dictated how to carry out such efforts. This encroachment into the autonomy of the local Churches created a division out of which the Primitive Baptists emerged. But beyond that, the break among Baptists was rooted in the diminishing of the faith as relating to the sovereignty of God as men and their organizations assumed more authority in Church matters.
Primitive Baptist Churches sprung up primarily throughout the south, but in time expanded into other regions from Georgia to California and Florida to Maine. Despite suffering from divisions among themselves regarding practices, Primitive Baptists have generally maintained agreement in matters of the Faith once delivered to the saints.
In these days, when Churches too often resemble corporations and preach and teach the inventions of men, Primitive Baptists seek those who desire to worship in reverence and simplicity in the manner of the early Church. Paul feared the breakdown of the church in this regard. “I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”
That is both our fear and our incentive for holding fast to God’s Word and maintaining the good traditions of those in whose paths we tread, that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) Of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 12:38). As Primitive Baptists, that is our hope and prayer. To God be the glory. Amen.