What is a Christian, who is my brother and what is the Church?
Three important questions need to asked and answered lest we be led astray. Jesus, Paul and other writers of the New Testament warned us of false Christs, false brothers and false shepherds who would seek to draw away Christians to follow them (Acts 20:28-31). We therefore need to be able to discern the true from the false: what is a true Christian, who is a true brother and what is the true Church?
While we need discernment we also need to exercise humility and grace to those we may differ. Instead of building unity we may end up causing division and animosity where there shouldn’t be – with a brother for whom Christ also died. More on this later.
The term ‘Christian’ only occurs 3 times in the New Testament. Its first use is in Acts:
…and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26).
So a Christian is simply a disciple of Christ, one who believes in Him and who does what He says to do.
A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus Christ
This is the essential qualification, repeated numerous times throughout the New Testament and especially in the gospel of John where believing in or having faith in Jesus is used over 50 times.
But what does it mean to ‘believe in Jesus’? Believing in Jesus is more than acknowledgement of His existence and historical facts about His life. It is more than mental agreement to the truth about Him. It involves two aspects: believing that and believing in.
We are to believe that:
1. That he is the Christ, the Son of God (not a son but the Son) and so we become a son (child) of God.
but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:31) .
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the [child] born of Him (1John 4:15; 5:1).
2. In his resurrection – that he died and rose again and that we too will rise again at his coming.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus (1Th 4:14).
and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:4).
3. That we receive forgiveness of our sins
Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43).
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3).
4. That our salvation is by his grace – not by what we have done.
But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are (Acts 15:11).
Because we believe that Jesus is the the Christ, the Son of God, that he rose from the dead and that we are saved and receive forgiveness by his grace, God accepts us as his children. Yet upon this foundation of faith we need to grow from believing that to believing in.
We are to believe in Jesus:
In the original Greek, where we are told to believe in Christ, it literally says we are to believe into (eis) Christ. It is a complete, personal trust and confidence in the One whom we put our faith. As an illustration, if I were to say I believed in the prime minister of Australia it would imply I trusted him completely, his judgement, his decisions, his wisdom and be prepared to do whatever he asked.
So when we say we believe in Jesus we are saying we completely trust Him, His word, His promises (though not yet fulfilled), His judgement and are prepared to do whatever He asks of us. It means we trust in Him, not in our own wisdom or ability. We might be a ‘good’ moral person who has been baptised and attends a church regularly but that does not necessarily mean we are a Christian – one who believes in Christ.
When we believe, trust in Christ, in that initial step of faith, so much is given to us by the grace of God and through Christ’s death and resurrection: we are forgiven of our sins, we are justified (that is, made right in God’s sight), we are saved from Satan’s dominion and power, transferred into Christ’s kingdom and authority, we become born again – of God’s Spirit, we are adopted as sons – children of God, we become Jesus’ brothers – fellow heirs, His sheep and branches of the true vine (Jesus), members of His body – He being the head.
Upon this foundation of faith we are to work out our salvation:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
and as James says – ‘faith without works is dead‘ (James 2:26).
True faith is therefore never passive but shown in what we say, do and how we live.
To believe means to confess Him
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven (Matthew 10:32 ).
… if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God (1 John 4:15).
To believe also means that we repent
and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15).
and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:47).
To repent means we change our mind: our thinking needs to change – not only about what we have or are doing wrong but also of what we have neglected to do and wrong attitudes – especially pride and self righteousness.
To believe means to obey Him
Why do you call Me, ’Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:46).
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (John 3:36).
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23 ESV).
So we can’t claim to believe in Jesus if we are not willing to obey Him. If we aren’t prepared to do all He has asked us to do we can’t say we belong to Him. It is hypocrisy.
To believe means to follow Him
Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life (John 8:12).
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me (John 10:27).
To follow Jesus is to both obey Him and live by His example at whatever cost personally.
To believe means to eat and drink of Christ
Jesus used the metaphors of eat and drink to illustrate what it meant to believe in Him:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live (John 6:53-57).
As food and water are essential for the life of our body, so Jesus Himself is our true life – we draw our spiritual sustenance from Him and without Him we are dead.
To believe means to love Him
Believing in Jesus will be shown in our love for Him – in our obedience and deepest joy:
He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him (John 14:21).
Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5).
and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1Peter 1:8).
A Christian then is someone who:
Believes that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed One of God, that He is the Son of God, that He was crucified and rose again from the dead, that through Him, by His grace and not by what we have done, we receive forgiveness of our sins. A Christian loves, trusts and seeks to obey Jesus at all times, putting their hope in His promises even when facing the loss of all we hold dear in this life and that their true life, eternal life is in Him alone.
True faith needs to endure
It is not sufficient that we have once believed but that we continue to believe (have faith).
In scripture where we are asked to believe it is, in most cases, the present tense (as, for example, in John 3:15-18 and 36 where a literal translation would read ‘is believing in‘), that is one that begins and continues. In the parable of the sower (Luke 8:13) Jesus tells of those who ‘believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away‘. Therefore we can expect our faith to be tested.
The parable of the sower – the danger of shallow and weak faith
Those on the rocky [soil are] those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no [firm] root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. The [seed] which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of [this] life, and bring no fruit to maturity. (Luke 8:13-14).
Here Jesus teaches us that faith needs to run deep, to hold fast to His words so as to endure the inevitable trials and temptations of this life. Faith needs to resist the pressures, possessions, pleasures and distractions of this life.
Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (Revelation 2:10).
To be faithful to Jesus may cost our reputation before men. It may even cost us our life as is now happening to Christians in many parts of the world.
Our faith will be tested through trials to prove it is real and through endurance we will grow in spiritual maturity:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6).
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
So whatever we may endure as Christians we need to keep eternity in perspective – the hope and joy that will one day be ours.
Belief can be in vain
Scripture teaches us that while we might have believed, it can be in vain, that is to no effect. How?
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1).
And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain – for He says, “At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, now is “the acceptable time,” behold, now is “the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
What does Paul mean by saying our faith can be in vain? Our faith is in vain when it is of no effect, that is there is no fruit in our lives, shown first in love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who are in need or suffering. Faith is in vain if it fails to continue in the midst of trial or persecution as in 1 Peter and James above.
Those who continue to have faith in Jesus are protected by the power of God
Though trials will come, Jesus tells us to be faithful and obedient and assures us that God, by His grace, gives us the power and strength to do so:
...who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:5).
…and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (Ephesians 1:19 ESV).
Therefore we need never despair when our faith is tested (and we can expect at some time it will be). Trust In God and His strength.
Is my brother only someone who is part of my church, excluding others? Or his he anyone who claims to be a Christian?
Jesus answered this question:
While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him.
Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! “For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).
Luke, recording the same incident says this:
My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8:20).
Our brothers are those who do God’s will, who trust and obey Him. Which brings the next question: what is the will of God?
Jesus tells us:
For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day (John 6:40).
We believe in Jesus and all that means. If you believe He is the Son of God, that He is the Christ, that He rose again on the third day, confess Him as Lord, that you are saved and forgiven by His grace alone, have repented of your sins and old way of life, obey and love Him – you are my brother.
Yet we should be on guard against the common idea that only those who are a part of our church or who agree with us on every point of doctrine are our brothers. But this does, I believe, give us the right and responsibility to speak the truth in love to anyone who professes to be a Christian – especially if they are walking in error according to God’s word.
This means there is a line which we must draw: those who don’t believe, have not put their faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, that He is the Christ, the Son of God who was crucified and rose again from the dead – are not Christians and not a brother in Christ. Scripture also warns us of those who preach another Jesus and another Gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4). Such we must expose and separate from.
We are also told to separate from those who claim to be Christians but are living immorally because to tolerate or condone their sin will cause sin to spread in the Church. Yet we are not to regard them as an enemies, but to warn them as a brother (1 Corinthians 5:11 and 5:6, 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 14-15).
While we commonly associate the word ‘church’ with a building used for Christians to meet in, or an organisation based on particular interpretations of Scripture, that was never the case in the early church. The word translated in English as ‘church’ comes from the Greek word ekklesia (meaning called out ones). It refers to an assembly of people, not a building or organisation, who have been called by God, out of the world system and into Christ’s kingdom through His death and resurrection. The church, assembly, body of all believers in Christ collectively is simply referred to as ‘the church of God’. Today we have numerous denominational ‘Church of xxx’, some even claiming to be the ‘one true church’.
In the New Testament, whenever a letter was addressed to a church, it was to the church within a certain city or locality. In the early church Christians met, either in public places or in private homes for the first three hundred years. It was only after the Roman emperor Constantine embraced and legalised Christianity throughout the Roman empire that buildings dedicated for Christian meetings were constructed. In recent times many Christians have sought to return to the early church structure through what is known as the house church movement. This article on ‘the simple church’ is also informative.
Scripture reveals a mystery, something that was once hidden but now revealed, that the church, the household of God is the body of Christ, He being the head and the chief cornerstone upon which the body, the church, is built.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:18).
The Church as a Spiritual Building
Peter, as Paul previously, reveals the Church as a spiritual house, built with living stones, Christ being the cornerstone:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:4-6 ESV).
The church was founded by Christ when He rose from the dead after His victory on the Cross. Each believer becomes part of His spiritual body and joined to Him. Every believer is a priest in the sense of offering to God spiritual sacrifices (see also Romans 12:1 and Hebrews 13:15). As members of His body we each have unique, individual abilities and functions given to us by the grace of God for the purpose of edifying one another, building up the church, motivated by humble, selfless love not pride or desire for power and control.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV).
For this reason, as in ‘Tribulation: How To Prepare and Respond‘, we can’t be lone ranger Christians. One of the worldly values which has crept into the Church is individualism. This is the idea of being accountable to no one but Christ and where my perceived personal needs prioritise anyone else’s. Jesus has made us one body and we are mutually responsible and accountable to one another. That is the practical love Jesus requires of us.
The Church as a Vine
Jesus tells us that we are branches of a vine, He being the vine:
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
Obviously Jesus is using metaphorical language here but the message is clear: the Church is not made, grown or held together by man-made rules, hierarchy or organisation but by each believer being joined to Christ through believing and obeying the truth and loving his brother (and sister) in Christ. Church leaders have the responsibility under Christ to first be an example and secondly to shepherd, watch and teach those under their charge to follow Christ and keep the faith in word and deed. This is not done by ‘lording it over the flock’ but in love and gentleness. As Peter says:
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to [the will of] God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).
The church is therefore the whole body of those who believe in Christ, living stones built into the spiritual body of Christ, under the direction of Him as the head. It is not any one visible church organisation here on earth. We are joined to Christ, to His body, not through another man or earthly organisation and not a certain ‘one true church’. When we are baptised we are baptised into Christ, into His spiritual body, not a church here on earth.
Therefore it is not what church on earth we belong to but who in heaven we belong to. This is a most important fact to recognise, for to believe we are responsible to another man or organisation here on earth so as to be joined to Christ and God the Father is to effectively put that man or organisation in place of Christ.
What should the Church be in this world?
First we should always keep in mind the Church is not a man-made organisation though to those outside this is what it often appears. Jesus is the source, head and Lord of the Church. Therefore we live by the standards of the kingdom of God as Jesus taught us. We are to be a holy people – not just in name but in our living (1 Peter 1:14-16). For this reason we will be a counter-cultural community who live – not by the world’s standards – but by Jesus’. We will be seen by those outside as those who challenge and contradict the world’s values and ways. We are, as ‘aliens’ in this world (1 Peter 2:11) and so it should not surprise us we are regarded as such. As such a community the foundational quality by which we relate to one another is by love, agape love – not the love as the world knows. As John says:
By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).
And we are able to live and love as Jesus asks us because He has given us His Spirit.
Leadership of the Church
The early church was led or governed, as revealed in the book of Acts and through the writings of the New Testament, by elders – who fulfilled the role of overseeing and shepherding the church within a locality. The later development of having a 3 or 4 levelled hierarchy of pope/patriarch/archbishop – cardinals/bishops – priests/pastors has no basis in the God’s word. While God has worked, in His sovereignty, through all church structures, there have been many times through history where man-made authority structures have hindered the growth of the body of Christ on earth.
Our faith and allegiance therefore must be in Christ, and in Him alone, not in the fact we are a member of a particular church. If our faith and security lies in any organisation or person other than Christ our faith will be in vain.
A Word of Caution
Differences of opinion between Christians on many issues have existed since the Church began. In one sense this is healthy as Paul stated:
For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you (1 Corinthians 11:18-19).
We may have sincerely held positions on church government, the Millennium, end-time prophecy, the age of the earth, gifts of the Holy Spirit, the role of women in the church etc. These may be valid issues which in our view have serious implications. Yet the Church should be a place where Christians can have differences of opinion and be able to express them. But we need caution: we may well be ‘right’ but totally wrong in the way we express it.
While it is true Jesus used some strong language in correcting and even condemning those who were in error we need to be cautious in imitating the same. Very simply: we are not Jesus! Because we still live in a body and mind tempered by sin such correction must be done first from a position of humility and inner inspection – ensuring we don’t have a log in our own eye while trying to remove the splinter in our brother’s. Second, it must be done out of love and in a spirit of gentleness.
Jesus and the apostles emphasised our need to strive for unity – but not a unity imposed by church authority. It is that which is achieved through love for one another and unity of the Spirit but never at the cost of compromising the truth. And in not compromising we should be on guard against another error: emphasising one truth while neglecting another (which Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing). We need to know and obey the whole counsel of God. It is Scripture which must give the final answer – not a long-held church or even theological tradition.
Yet as described above (Who Is My Brother?) there is a line which we must draw.