Marks of Identification

by Richard Nichols

Originally published in
The Christian Informer
May, 1996

A CASUAL READER OF the New Testament will readily see the beginning of a divine institution, that some in the apostle Paul's day mistakenly called "this sect" (Acts 28:22), but that which Jesus called possessively "my church" (Matthew 16:18).  There were some marks of identification which were distinctive to the church which we read about in the New Testament.  Those marks we wish to examine.  While engaged in this investigation we ask you to leave out all other religious groups.  Please draw, as it were, "a curtain" over all denominations and focus only on the New Testament church.  Leave behind "the veil" all others while we attempt to discover the traits peculiar to that body of people found on the pages of inspiration.


When we attempt a description of any religion of our day, the first question most often has to do with their creed.  When we have found that, we have taken a good step toward learning the distinguishing features of that particular party.  We inquire, then, for the creed of this ancient church.  And by their creed, we mean their book or writing of religious faith and religious practice.  Was it the Nicene creed?  No, that document is not old enough.  It was formed and adopted some three hundred fifty years after the church of the New Testament was established.  If then we can see that the Nicene creed is too new a document to have been the creed of the church we read about in the New Testament, what of the Augsburg Confession (1530 A.D.), and all other church creeds, "articles of faith," "catechisms," "confessions of faith," "church prayer books," "church decorums," ad infinitum, that have been formed since?  Not one of these can possibly be the creed of the body of people of which we read in the holy Scriptures.  If for no other reason, they are all too young!

One whose own message was "God-breathed" said: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim 3:16, 17).  This was said more in honor of the creed of the church rather than to describe it; nevertheless, it points clearly to the rule by which they regulated their religious practice as well as the way they lived their lives.

This same apostle said of its members: "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:19, 20).  The creed or "constitution" of a church is its foundation.  As Christianity is a system of faith as well as practice, so all church "constitutions" express the faith of the church built upon it.  This expression of faith is called the creed of the church.  Now as this New Testament church was built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, it was organized upon and governed by the teaching of these inspired men of God, and by that alone.  Thus, we have found their creed--namely, the Holy Scriptures, given by divine inspiration.

Paul said: "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon.  But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.  For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3: 10, 11).  So this church was founded upon this Truth that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God" and all these inspired preachers and teachers held to this foundation and built upon it.  (See Matthew 16:18, 19; Acts 2:22-41; 8:35-38).

For many long years no one contradicted the truth that the Holy Scriptures was the only creed book of the New Testament church.  All those who read "the Book" agreed that the church had no other creed, no other rule of faith and practice.  For the beginning, and for many long years after, those who claimed to follow Jesus Christ had nothing but the writings or teachings of the apostles and prophets of God.


In describing a religious order, it is essential to learn their name.  Two religious groups sometime adopt the same creed, and yet differ in name.  About one hundred years ago in the USA there were some five or six different sects that accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Hence, if you wished to know to which party a man belonged, it would not be enough to be told that his sect took that particular creed.  You could not determine from that whether he was a Covenanter, Seceder, or whether his was an Old or New School Presbyterian.  There were, of course, differences in certain theories and practices of these people; however, the best way to distinguish them one from the other was by name.  In pursuing a description of the church about which we read in the New Testament, we ask for its name.

We learn from their creed, the holy Scriptures, that they were called, as a collective local group the church of God, the church of the Lord, the church of Christ.  (See 1 Cor. 1:1; Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:5; Romans 16:16; 1 Cor. 11:16).  In their individual capacity thay were called saint, brethren, disciples of Christ, Christians.  (See Eph 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Acts 20:7; 11:26).  Now to any of these titles they would answer.  Call them saints, and they would respond, Here am I; call them disciples of Christ, and they would say, Speak, for thy servant heareth; call them Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, or Campbellites, and they would be as silent as the tomb.  Call the Christians -- "Here I am; for though I suffer as a Christian, I am not ashamed....  If I could, I would convert all others to be Christians too" (see 1 Peter 4:16; Acts 26:28).  Or should you speak to one of the early Christians about the congregation where he worshiped and he might say he belonged to "the church of God at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2), or the church of he Lord at some other place.  Others might send you greeting, saying, "The churches of Christ salute you."

Now this was name enough; these titles, or any one of them, showed precisely where those who wore it belonged.


This is a very essential part, always, in giving a description of any religious body; for churches differ more in leadership than anything else.  Therefore you have never fully defined a group until you have pointed out their office-holders and respectful positions.

Let us now look at the positions held in the church of which we read in the New Testament.  From a careful examination of this Book, we have discovered that in the ancient church, there were men to oversee the churches called elders or bishops; there were also deacons with certain tasks to perform, and preachers or evangelists who preached the gospel.  The term "elder" means "one advanced in years;" their bishops were all such men.  Hence, Paul, "sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church," to whom he delivered a very touching message, near the close of which he said, "take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers" (See Acts 20:17, 18).

Now the word which is here rendered overseers, episkopos, is the same that is rendered bishops, wherever the term bishop occurs in the New Testament.  We find a very similar expression in 1 Peter 5:2: "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof."  Here we have the word epislopee, which is defined: "An overseeing, charge; the officer of an episcopos."  Literally, feed the flock of God, exercising the bishop's office.  Here, then, are two instances in which the elders are commanded to do the work of bishops, shepherds of the flock, which shows that when the inspired writers used the term elder as an office-holder, they always applied it to the bishops or overseers of the church.

In further evidence of this position we read Titus 1:5-7: "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.  For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre...."  Why must the elders be of the character here described?  The reason is that "a bishop must be blameless."

The work which pertained to this office, according to "the creed" of the church (the New Testament), was to oversee and feed the church; to provide for the spiritual needs of the flock of God; to rule well; to keep things in order, and thus exercise a general oversight over the local church, watching for the good of their souls, as they that must give account.  And to them, or to their decisions, the members of the congregation were commanded to submit.  (See Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17; Hebrewa 13:7, 17).

In every individual congregation belonging to the body of which we now speak, where the properly qualified character could be found. they had a plurality of these bishops, or overseers.  True, congregations existed for a time without such ordained rulers.  Hence, Titus was left on the island of Crete, to ordain elders in every city--which shows that there were churches in those cities--but there was something wanting in these congregations; they lacked the proper overseers, and therefore, Titus, the evangelist, is left with the responsibility of seeing to that lack.

The same fact appears in Acts 14:23.  Here we see an account of a general tour made by Paul and Barnabas, on which journey they visited many congregations; and it is said, "And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed."  We have quoted this passage to again point out the fact that churches existed without elders; but it also proves that when the proper men could be found, they ordained a plurality of elders in every church, or individual congregation.  It is a church or congregation in the singular and elders in the plural.  This form of expression is found in Acts 20:7, where Paul "sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church"--church singular; elders plural.


The deacons, in the churches of Christ, seem to have been placed in charge of the temporal affairs of the congregations.  In every organized body composed of flesh, blood and breath, there must be physical concerns.  So it was in the church.  Naturally, the places where the congregations assembled had to be lighted, warmed, and kept in order; this required arrangement and finances.  Also there was a need to provide for the poor.  All these things and other contingencies, required forethought and funds; and this required men whose special business it should be to take charge of such matters.  Working under the leadership of the elders in the congregation,qualified men were to be appointed to the position of deacons to take care of these things.  The word rendered deacon is diakonos, which means "a minister, one who renders service to another, an attendant, servant."


The term "evangelist" comes from the Greek word euaggelistes, which means, "one who announces glad tidings."  To do the work of an evangelist, then is to preach the gospel or announce to the world the good news concerning Christ.  Such was Timothy, Titus, Phillip (Acts 21:8), and many others who, in the days of the apostles, went forth to proclaim salvation to the people, to convert sinners to God, and to plant congregations identical to each other, all of them speaking the same thing, being of the same mind and the same judgment (1Cor. 1:10).

Now what a beautiful arrangement this was.  In every individual congregation were the bishops, or pastors, the overseers of the church, shepherding the flock, laboring for their spiritual welfare, settling their difficulties, instructing the unlearned, strengthening the weak, encouraging the fearful, seeking out and restoring the wandering, and building up all upon their most holy faith.  Then, there were deacons, superintending the temporal affairs of the congregation, seeing that the poor, the widows, and orphans, were provided for, and that all the contribution of the brethren were properly and judiciously applied.  And then, there were the evangelists, going like swiftwinged messengers of light preaching the news of salvation to the dying world, turning them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, planting new congregations, and thus, enlarging the borders of Zion.

Also in this issue:
The Psychic Solution by Greg Jordan