The universal church may be called invisible with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace. It consists of the full number of the elect who have been, are, or will be gathered into one under Christ her head. The church is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Heb 12:23; Col 1:18; Eph 1:10, 22-23; 5:23, 27, 32).
All people throughout the world who profess the faith of the gospel and obedience to God through Christ in keeping with the gospel are and may be called visible saints (1Co 1:2; Ac 11:26), as long as they do not destroy their own profession by any foundational errors or unholy living. All local congregations ought to be made up of these (Ro 1:7; Eph 1:20-22).
The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error (1Co 5; Rev 2; 3). Some have degenerated so much that they have ceased to be churches of Christ and have become synagogues of Satan (Rev 18:2; 2Th 2:11-12). Nevertheless, Christ always has had and will have in this world to the very end a kingdom of those who believe in him and profess his name (Mt 16:18; Ps 72:17; 102:28; Rev 12:17).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the church. By the Father’s appointment, all authority is conferred on him in a supreme and sovereign manner to call, institute, order and govern the church (Col 1:18; Mt 28:18-20; Eph 4:11-12).
In exercising the authority entrusted to him, the Lord Jesus, through the ministry of his Word, by his Spirit, calls to himself out of the world those who are given to him by his Father (Jn 10:16; 12:32). They are called so that they will live before him in all the ways of obedience that he prescribes for them in his Word (Mt 28:20). Those who are called he commands to live together in local churches for their mutual edification and the fitting conduct of public worship that he requires of them while they are in the world (Mt 18:15-20).
The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly displaying and demonstrating in and by their profession and life their obedience to the call of Christ (Ro 1:7; 1Co 1:2). They willingly agree to live together according to Christ’s instructions, giving themselves to the Lord and to one another by the will of God, with the stated purpose of following the ordinances of the Gospel (Ac 2:41-42; 5:13-14; 2Co 9:13).
To every church gathered in this way, conforming to Christ’s mind as declared in his Word, he has given all power and authority that is in any way necessary to conduct the form of worship and discipline that he has instituted for them to observe. He has also given them commands and rules to use and carry out that power rightly and properly (Mt 18:17-18; 1Co 5:4-5, 13; 2Co 2:6-8).
A local church, gathered and fully organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members. The officers appointed by Christ are overseers or elders, and deacons. They are to be chosen and set apart by the church, called and gathered in this way, for the distinctive purpose of administering ordinances and for carrying out any other power or duty Christ entrusts them with or calls them to. This pattern is to be continued to the end of the age (Ac 20:17, 28; Php 1:1).
Christ has appointed the way to call someone prepared and gifted by the Holy Spirit to the office of overseer or elder in a church. He must be chosen by the collective vote of the church itself (Ac 14:23). He must then be solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer. The body of elders of the church must lay hands on him if there are any already in place (1Ti 4:14). A deacon must be chosen by the same kind of vote and set apart by prayer and laying on of hands as well (Ac 6:3, 5-6).
The work of pastors is to give constant attention to the service of Christ in his churches in the ministry of the word and prayer. They are to watch over the souls of church members as those who must give an account to Christ (Ac 6:4; Heb 13:17). The churches to whom they minister must not only give them all due respect but also must share with them from all their good things according to their ability (1Ti 5:17-18; Gal 6:6-7). They must do this so their pastors may have a comfortable living without having to be entangled in secular matters (2Ti 2:4) and so they can show hospitality to others (1Ti 3:2). This is required by the law of nature and by the explicit command of our Lord Jesus, who has ordained that those who preach the Gospel should earn their living by the Gospel (1Co 9:6-14).
Although overseers or pastors of churches must be engaged in preaching the word as a function of their office, yet the work of preaching the word is not totally restricted to them. Others who are also gifted and prepared by the Holy Spirit for it and approved and called by the church may and should preach (Ac 11:19-21; 1Pe 4:10-11).
All believers are obligated to join themselves to local churches when and where they have the opportunity. Likewise, all who are admitted to the privileges of a church are also subject to the discipline and government of it, according to the rule of Christ (1Th 5:14; 2Th 3:6, 14-15).
Church members who have been offended and have performed their duty concerning the person by which they are offended, should not disrupt any church action or absent themselves from the assemblies of the church or administration of any ordinances because of the offence at any of their fellow members. Instead, they should look to Christ in the further action of the church (Mt 18:15-17; Eph 4:2-3).
Every church and all its members are obligated to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all churches of Christ in every place (Eph 6:18; Ps 122:6). They must also—at every opportunity within the limits of their stations and callings—exercise their gifts and graces to benefit every church. Also, when churches are raised up by the providence of God, insofar as they enjoy opportunity and favorable circumstances for it, they should have fellowship among themselves for their peace, growth in love, and mutual edification (Ro 16:1-2; 3Jn 8-10).
Cases of difficulties or differences—doctrinal or administrative—may arise, touching on the peace, union, and edification of all churches in general or an individual church. Other cases may occur when a member or members of a church are injured in or by disciplinary action that is not in keeping with truth and order. In such cases, it is according to the mind of Christ for many churches having fellowship together to meet through their messengers to consider and give their advice concerning the issue in dispute and to report their advice to all the churches concerned (Ac 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23, 25). Nevertheless, these assembled messengers are not entrusted with any church authority, strictly speaking. Neither do they have any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any discipline either over any churches or individuals or to impose their decision on the churches or officers (2Co 1:24; 1Jn 4:1).