This is a very good question, and deserves a carefully thought out answer. We’ll break it down into two parts.
When we speak about New Testament churches, some are quick to lament “Here we go with another new denomination.” I get emails in which people list qualities of their particular church, and then ask if they qualify. Some ask what is required to “join the group.” We need to think about what a New Testament church really is, or if it is even right to speak of the subject at all.
The term as used on this website (and by many others) is not an entity or organization one can join. Rather it is an attempt to describe what a completely Biblical local church would look like. Think of the expression “mature believer” which we might use to define a fully developed and complete Christian. There is no list; do these 10 things and you are one; fail in 1 or 2 and you’re out. So we understand the spirit in which the apostle John wrote “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth,” (III John 1:4), i.e., they are becoming mature believers.
Carrying the analogy a bit further, we might define a mature believer as a “Christ-like person.” So we might define a mature church as a “bride of Christ-like church.”
Some will object that there is no such thing as a perfect church in this world. True enough. But neither is there any such thing as a fully sanctified Christian, yet we do not for that reason frown on attempts to describe the ideal. Set the standard high – where God sets it in both cases; the believer who “sins not,” and the church as the spotless and holy bride. Is the bride less than that practically? Of course, or we would not read of the Lord’s ongoing work to “sanctify and cleanse it.” (Eph. 5:26).
All of this leads on to the question “What qualities would characterize a fully sanctified and cleansed bride for the Lord?” This presents a logical challenge. Are we thinking of the church universal or the church at the local level? Fair question.
Biblically, the bride of Christ is composed of all true believers throughout the age, many of whom are already with the Lord. We do not find the term “bride” used of any local church. Well then, if no man has ever seen the complete bride, and its scope is so enormous that we can hardly do anything to affect it, what profit can there be in the discussion?
The answer to this was given by Paul the apostle in Ephesians chapter 5. It is a matter of revelation that the Christian marriage relationship is a picture of the Christ – church relationship. Students of the Word have written in great detail about this through the centuries. And what could the importance of all this be? Is it simply an incentive for Christian couples to try to have a good marriage? Much more.
There is an interesting charge given to servants, and by extension to employees in Titus 2:10. They are to refrain from pilferring and to work honestly so that they may “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.” In other words, the world is watching, and in many cases will form its estimation of Christian doctrine by what it sees of Christians in the workplace.
In like manner, how does the world know anything about the unseen realities of Christ and His bride? Only by watching the church at the local level. This leads us to a very important principle. The local church ought never to say or do anything that will be in violation of the church universal, i.e., the bride.
In this we find a faithful guideline for our conduct. It leaves us with great liberty to be extremely flexible as we face changing cultures, ages, human situations etc. But, it also confronts us with the importance of a thorough understand of what the Scriptures say about the church, as we must carefully avoid anything that tarnishes or negates what is true of the whole church.
Great harm has been done by those who insist on some particular detail of church life and conduct which is, in fact, a matter in which we have liberty. No command is violated; no principle is weakened. Think for example of the differences that have arisen over the sort of buildings in which the church should meet. It must be a majestic cathedral because God is majestic; it must be small and austere because Jesus was born humbly in a manger; it must be in homes because the early church often met in homes; and so the list goes on. When we face these folks with the fact that some early believers met in catacombs or under the stars, the answers are less than satisfying. The point? We may meet wherever we may, and no command is violated; no principle crumbles.
But of course not everything falls in this category. There are some essential principles that attach to the true church as revealed in Scripture. They are not so many as to be restrictive; in fact, we will discover that they all bring glory to God and hold the potential for great blessing among His people.
What then are some basic principles that we must discover, and by all our decisions and activities at the local level protect and defend because they touch the very heart of what it means to be the church. The study of this is the study of the church as revealed in the New Testament, or in other words, “The New Testament church.”
This will bring us to the second part of our answer.