God loves you, but not just you. The Bible makes it clear in both Testaments that God’s plan for redemption involves a people, not just individual persons. When theologians seek to explain this, doctrines of the church emerge. A biblical doctrine of the church has to answer at least three general questions: “What is the church?” (the identity question), “What does the church do?” (the mission question) and “How should churches be governed?” (the leadership question). The most important of these questions is the first, because biblical answers to the latter two questions only make sense in light of a clear understanding of question one. The reason for this is that both mission and leadership emerge from a proper understanding of a person’s identity as a part of the whole, and the relationship that the whole (church) has to God.
When Jesus began to draw a community of believers to himself, he instructed them to pray to God by saying “our Father.” He drew attention first to the relationship that these people had with God. The fact of that relationship was the most important thing for them to know. The same is true today. The most important thing anyone needs to know about the church is that it consists of people who have a relationship with God.
That relationship is described in images and with metaphors. Those metaphors are “the picture language of another century,” but still manage to speak the truth powerfully in our own. Even the term “Father” is a metaphor. While it is true that God is the creator of all humanity, we use “Father” to speak of a more specific relationship than the creator/creature one. God is the source of our existence, but he is more than that. He is the supplier of our every need, but he is more than that. He delights in our existence. We bring him joy by just existing, and greater joy when we reflect his nature by ours. Jesus taught that those who call God “Father” will act like it:
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” 
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” 
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The term speaks of a dependence upon God as well. We do what we do because we expect to be rewarded by our Father who commanded it.
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
The deeds themselves (and even the rewards) are not the point. Jesus condemned those who thought that good deeds themselves were what God wants. He commanded that his church do acts of righteousness as a manifestation of the relationship we have with our Father. We give because he first gave. We love because he first loved us. God is the chooser, we are the chosen.
The image of God choosing people to be his family begins in the Old Testament. He is the father of all in the sense of our creator, but “the usual biblical language speaks of him as Father in relation to his spiritual children.” God called Abram, and renamed him Abraham: the father of many nations. This was true physically, as many nations trace their ancestry back to him – not just Israel. But it is also true because Abraham is regarded as the father of the faithful as well.
In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
God’s sovereign and gracious choice of people from all ethnic, economic and social backgrounds, and both genders produces a whole new nation out of all nations. Being chosen suggests a special relationship which brings about a new identity with special status and responsibilities. It also implies a new destiny, an inheritance.
Being all in the same family, we now call ourselves brothers and sisters. God intends us to recognize and live according to that new distinction.
“Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
A church made up of children of God is expected to be different from the world from which it emerges.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions — is not from the Father but is from the world.
We have been adopted, and are therefore in the process of releasing the allegiances and habits of our old family, learning those of our new family. This is not an easy process, and the Adversary wants us to cling to the old self/kingdom/family because that remains under his control.
Within the shell of the old creation, there is now a new one. It gives us a new identity but also involves a struggle with the old one. All believers are encouraged to embrace the reality of their new selves. Paul taught that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Many aspects of our old life will remain, but they will be spiritually insignificant. We can still be categorized by race, gender, social status, age, geographical background, etc., but those categories no longer need to limit our new identity in Christ or our relationships with other believers.
The people of God are fresh new wineskins into which the Master Vintner is pouring his new wine. They are scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven, new treasures that the Master brings out of his house. They are a new garment, capable of taking a patch without tearing. They are participants in the new covenant. They are recipients of the new commandment. These images speak of the church as a fundamentally different way that God intends to do things in the new world, and we begin following those new instructions now.
There is continuity with the people of God manifested in Old Testament times as well. It is best not to make such a clear distinction between the New Testament church and the Old Testament saints. Movements within Christendom sometimes insist that the church was born at Pentecost, and did not exist before then. Yet this New Testament church had the same Old Testament Scriptures for its Bible, the same God for its Father and the same Messiah for its Savior as the Old Testament saints did.
Paul described it this way: the people of God are like a tree. The Old Testament saints are its root, those descendants of Abraham who rejected Jesus as the Messiah are natural branches that have been broken off of the tree and the Gentiles who come to faith are wild branches grafted into the tree. There are plenty of Gentiles in Old Testament times who, by faith, were grafted in to Israel.
There is both continuity and discontinuity in the analogy. The continuity is found in the faithful who have a relationship with God. The discontinuity is found in the “natural branches” which do not have a relationship with God, and therefore were broken off from the tree, and the fact that Jesus commanded his church to target all nations with the gospel.
There is only one church. We may call ourselves by many names and trace our existence to various traditions, but all true believers are united in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The church consists of many individuals, all of whom have the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and each of whom has a ministry to perform as part of the body of Christ. The temptation has always been for some individuals to “lead” by downplaying the gifts and ministries of others while promoting their own. This kind of leadership is disastrous, and does not reflect the reality that God wants to reach the world through all of us, has chosen all of us and has called all of us to ministry. Change is to be expected.
One of the most dangerous things that any church can do is try to decide what the original “biblical” church did, and force its membership to comply. Such attempts always produce division and stifling of the Holy Spirit. The church at Pentecost was a product of both continuity with the old traditions and radical changes brought on by the new wine, which required the development of new traditions.
The most important question any church movement should ask is not “Do we conform to the patterns of the past?” but “Are we accurately reflecting our relationship with God?” The people of God has undergone numerous changes since Old Testament times, yet has survived those changes because of its relationship with God. Therefore, believers should be less worried about conforming to some artificial standard and more concerned with the reality of their individual relationships with the Lord.
Believers need to be more comfortable with the diversity that exists among themselves and less inclined to correct each other’s faults. Paul taught the Romans, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” That certainly applies to the issue of interdenominational cooperation. We should feel free to support and work with any true believer, and any organization of true believers, regardless of their historical background or chosen affiliation. Believers should look on each other not according to the limits and preconceptions inherent in who they are “in the flesh” but according to who they will be for eternity thanks to their new relationship with God through Christ. The limiting factors of our “in the flesh” existence will not survive the new age, when Christ comes and gives us our immortality. Instead, we will be “like angels” — no longer defined by the things that limit us now.
By Rev. Jefferson Vann
(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)
 Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 17. Matthew 5:16.
 Matthew 5:44-45.
 Matthew 5:48.
 Matthew 6:1.
 Matthew 6:3-4.
 Matthew 6:6.
 Matthew 6:17-18.
 Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 114.
 Galatians 3:26-29.
 Romans 16:23; 2 Corinthians 1:1.
 Romans 16:1; Philemon 2.
 2 Corinthians 6:17-18.
 1 John 2:15-16.
 Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5.
 2 Corinthians 5:17.
 Galatians 6:15.
 Matthew 9:17.
 Matthew 13:52; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37.
 Mark 2:21; Luke 5:36.
 Luke 22:20.
 John 13:34.
 Matthew 19:28.
 Romans 11:16-21.
 Romans 14:4.
 Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25.