God has a people in this world, a people of His own possession (l Pet. 2:9-10). As far as I know there has never been any dispute about this. There has been, however, an enormous amount of concern and argument over who they are. Anyone who makes it his business to point them out to the exclusion of others usually gets in trouble fast. Therefore let it be stated at the very first that the purpose of this article is not to provide the name, rank and serial number of every child of God on earth. The purpose is rather to examine the whole practice of spiritual identification. Before anyone goes into the business of identifying God's children some basic questions ought to be asked and answered. First, CAN God's people be clearly identified? How? On what basis? SHOULD they be identified? For what reasons? By whom? Believing as I do that the readers of THE EXAMINER are for the most part mature and thoughtful Christians, I do not hesitate to offer some thoughts along this line. One thing sure, regardless of what is said here, confusion over the identification of God's people is not apt to be worsened for having considered it.
We must begin with the fact that God does have some spiritual children in the world today. No matter how bad conditions get between now and the end of time there definitely will be children of God around the day Christ comes, because some who "are alive and remain" will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord. If Jesus came today who, exactly, would those people be? They are described in many New Testament passages. Here, for example, are some "identifying marks" as found in the Galatian letter. They are those who have been called into the grace of God by the gospel (Gal. 1:6-8). They are those who believe in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26). They are those who have put Christ on in baptism (Gal. 3:27). They are those who have come to know God (Gal. 4:9). They are those who walk in the Spirit, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in their life (Gal. 5: 16, 22-25). Others could be given, but the point is this: such identifying marks allow us to recognize PEOPLE who are true children of God. This is all these "marks" can be made to do. And even in this we can make mistakes. There are always "false brethren" who claim faith in Jesus Christ, who go through the form of doctrine delivered, and fake many at tributes of genuine believers. Still, as long as we are only identifying individuals we do not have a lot of trouble. But in spite of our uncertainties, as long as we wrestle with the problem of "identifying" folks on this level, dealing with people we are actually acquainted with, we stay relatively free of a mess. It's when we leave home and start "identifying" thousands of people we do not know that we get in deep and muddy water.
We start correctly. We take a person and say, "This person has professed his faith in Christ, he has been immersed into Christ, he demonstrates by his conduct a real repentance toward God, therefore he must be a bonafide disciple, a member of the body of Christ." We do not stay with this kind of reasoning very long, however. The tendency today is to drop this approach, reverse our logic and say, "This religious organization has all the identifying marks of the Lord's Church, therefore all those who belong to it must be the lord's people." This seems to be backward. To say, "This is the right Church, therefore these are the right people" is to put the effect ahead of the cause. We should say, "These are the Lord's people, therefore they constitute the ecclesia, the Lord's called out assembly." We should identify PEOPLE, and let who and what they are determine their "membership" in the body of Christ. The way we usually go about it, we do not identify people at all; we only judge the religious institution they are affiliated with, then let that judgement tell us who the people of God are.
It certainly is convenient to have well known, clearly defined denominational Churches to work with for identification purposes, particularly from a negative standpoint. For instance, when a man says "I am a member of the Catholic Church" he has indeed revealed to us SOMETHING about his personal faith, and to that extent it is helpful. Here is precisely why it is so difficult for Christians today to maintain a strictly undenominational concept of the "church." The existence of all these organized denominations almost forces us into some type of denominated classification for ourselves. Therefore when a man says "I am a member of the church of Christ," he too has told something about his spiritual outlook, ideas and identity. As far as identification is concerned, what happens here is not much different from what hap pens in any other case. A clearly denominated and definable religious body (in this case the Churches of Christ) is used as the point of reference in establishing a person's spiritual status. Thus, no matter how often we cry "Undenominational Christianity," under present circumstances the DENOMINATED Church serves as the sole means of spiritual identification today. The question is, from a New Testament viewpoint, is this really the way God's people can be identified?
Notice a few implications in the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30, 37-43). Jesus said a man sowed good seed in his field, but an enemy came along and sowed tares among the wheat. Tares and wheat are different. They look quite a bit alike, yet upon close inspection they can be recognized and separated. You would have to assume from this that the children of God (the wheat) can be distinguished from the children of the wicked one (the tares). Both can be identified. But in the picture painted in the parable, the wheat and tares are all mixed up together in the field (the world). While they can be individually identified and the tares uprooted, according to the Master this is not necessarily the wise thing to do. In any event there is no suggestion that either can be identified or dealt with en masse, or by the bundle; i.e., over here is a field of wheat and over there a field of tares. It seems that since the Great Apostasy the scene has changed somewhat. Now it appears that the Wicked One has sown the whole world in tares, and we are trying to catch his men asleep so we can sow a little wheat. It may be also that the Wicked One has some big fields clearly labeled 'Tare Fields." To this extent Denominated Fields are helpful, as stated before, for negative purposes. (It is always easier to tell what people are NOT than what they are.) The only point I try to make here is this: In our efforts to identify God's people we seem to be looking, not for wheat, but for "The One True Wheat Field of the New Testament," complete with the correct sign out in front of it, with the rows all laid out in a true scriptural pattern, etc. In other words, we do not seem to be trying to locate wheat (God's children), we seem interested only in finding the right wheat field (the true Organization known as the Church). Apparently we think this is the best and quickest, if not the only way to discover the location of God's earthly children. It seems highly improbable to me that God's people today can be identified in this manner. If for no other reason this approach is unrealistic because of the fact, which we all admit, that many institutional "church members" have never really been converted at all.
To show how difficult it is to pinpoint the Kingdom of God on earth, we might ask another question: What is the present population of spiritual Israel? Can anyone come up with the exact number? National Israel of the Old Covenant could certainly be numbered. It was numbered more than once. God said to Moses, "Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by father's house, according to the number of the names, every male, head by head" (Numbers 1:2 RSV). When Moses did this it was nothing more than a head count. Today, if God's people could be geographically located within the boundary of a certain nation, or if they could be determined by virtue of pedigree like the children of Israel, then the total population of the Israel of God, the true ecclesia, could be determined. But can this be done? How shall we go about it?
Back yonder in the wilderness they took the number by going first to the tribe, then to the family, and finally to the individual person, head by head. I guess we could do the same. We could start with the Liberal Tribe and work down through the "Great Churches of Today" to the actual names on the roll. Or we could take the Anti Tribe, work down through the "Sound Churches of Today" to the names on the roll. If we did this with each Tribe of "the Restoration Movement" we presumably could come up with the sum total of all God's children, a complete list of saved people. Would it really be an ACCURATE list? Would some names on our list not show up in the book of life? Would there be. a soul somewhere on this planet, perhaps an entire congregation, overlooked in the numbering?
God's people today cannot be numbered in any such way. TRUE! That is my point precisely. But please note: If the "Church" of the Bible is what many seem to think it is - an institutional organization of the same type as the typical denomination, then the prospect of numbering spiritual Israel is not absurd at all. It can be done. A denominational Church can certainly number and name its members. They can keep statistics on them in the same way the United States government does its citizens. So could we IF "the Lord's Church" were of this sort. Personally, in case you are wondering, I seriously question that God's people can be institutionally identified like "members" of some denominated organization. I do not believe ANYONE can produce the name, address and telephone number of every child of God on earth, no matter how many church directories he has access to.
What has been said so far has had to do with the complications involved in identifying God's people in the aggregate. Before we get exercised over the difficulties of numbering all saved people, perhaps we ought first to decide whether this feat should be undertaken at all. The very fact that we put ourselves in an awkward position when we try to do this should give us a clue. Perhaps we are trying to do something that does not really need to be done. The question just now is, WHY does anyone need to locate and draw a ring around the whole spiritual body of Christ? Is it merely for statistical purposes, so we can put the activities and accomplishments of "the Lord's Church" down on paper beside those of some Apostate Church and compare figures? I doubt this is it, because after the comparison, Churches of Christ seldom come out looking very good.
There is but one reason I can think of why anyone should seek to identify collectively the one body of Christ on earth today: that is, to try to activate all members of the body in some concerted effort. The primary reason religious leaders seek and keep a record of the names and addresses of all congregations is so they might be contacted, appealed to, and in some way be brought into collective endeavors. The old argument about the effectiveness of organized effort is usually employed: "Individual Christians and lone congregations cannot do thus and so, but thousands of Christians and churches can!" This is the good sense of human reasoning. It sounds fine until you notice that it is the EXACT approach taken by the entire religious world and is the kind of thinking that has produced the highly organized bureaucratic de nominations all around us. If this is what we want, this is the kind of reasoning that will get us there. But to come back to the point, if God expects His people to perform spiritual tasks of such magnitude that they require the joint co-operative effort of all His children, I say IF God expects this, then certainly it is necessary that someone locate and contact all these children. This in turn makes it necessary that someone identify just who and where these people are. This gives rise to still another question.
WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY shall it be to do this identifying? Assuming that God's children could all be located somehow, who is able to correctly identify its every member? The answer is NO ONE! If Churches of the restoration heritage had a central form of government like the typical denomination this would present no problem, for then we would surely have an official bureau designated to keep such records. But they, theoretically, do not have this kind of set up. They, theoretically, do not have anyone in a Brotherhood post who can officially speak for, to, or about the Churches of Christ. Someone may volunteer to gather information on "Where the Saints Meet;" someone may put out a "World Directory of Churches of Christ". There is no reason to attribute evil motives to those who do this. No doubt such efforts are made so that they can all have information about the brethren the world over.
This brings back the question of WHY? Does anyone have to have such information in order to discharge his personal duties before God? Who really NEEDS to know the names and addresses of God's children for ANY reason? I for one do not feel the need to know. Let me say however, lest it be misunderstood, that I am not disinterested in what brethren are doing elsewhere. In fact, it is nice to meet Christians from other places, and to hear through the normal processes of communication about their faith and love. But, and this is my point, it is not at all necessary that I know them or that they know me, personally, statistically or in any other way. It is not necessary that we be identified together by earthly record keepers. This kind of worldwide "identification" is important to the workings of a denominational type Church, but not for the spiritual body of Christ.
If you and I are Christians, what is important is that God recognizes us as His people, not that we identify each other correctly. As Paul so well said, "The Lord knoweth them that are his." No child is ever born into God's family who is not immediately identified by his Father in heaven. God knows who His people are, where they are and what they are doing. WE may have trouble finding them and keeping tabs on them, but this does not matter. When Philip baptized the man of Ethiopia, that new convert to Christ went on his way rejoicing, a child of God, known by God in the special way that God "knows" all His children. The brethren in Jerusalem did not know him. They did not even know about him. But what did that matter? At times the news of a conversion did reach Jerusalem, and the apostles would send someone to help those new babes in Christ (Acts 8). This was a natural and good thing to do. We would probably do the same thing today.
On the subject of knowing just who are children of God and who are not, the ONLY TIME it is really important is when actual association is involved. Paul was converted at Damascus and later went up to Jerusalem. Although the brethren knew of Paul as a man, they "believed not that he was a disciple" (Acts 9:26). Evidently they had not accepted him as a true child of God. So Barnabas helped settle their mind about Paul, convincing them that he was a genuine Christian. This was vital at that time because he was trying to associate WITH THEM. Had Paul never gone to Jerusalem, it would not have mattered one way or another whether they ever heard of him; or, having heard of him, whether they believed he was a disciple. It mattered because he was present with them and therefore they were destined to have dealings with one another.
When we are actually associated with people in a spiritual way, serving with them, working with them, fighting the good fight of faith with them, THEN it is important that we be convinced of the genuineness of their faith. While our personal judgements of one another are subject to error even on this level, it does seem that if the practice of identifying God's people has any validity at all it would be here. Thus in a community of Christians the shepherds need to know the sheep, the sheep need to know the shepherds, and the sheep need to know one another. But beyond the range of normal activity and normal spiritual inter course between fellow-Christians who come into con tact with each other, this whole business of knowing, knowing about, identifying, recognizing, endorsing, labeling, and generally keeping books on the entire membership of the body of Christ is a rather useless occupation.
One last thought. Instead of getting worked up over who identifies with us and who will allow us to identify with them, maybe we ought to concern our selves with whether or not God recognizes us as His own. Jesus spoke several times of those who THOUGHT God knew them, only to hear Him say at the end, "I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me..." If God does not identify us as His people it really will not help to have others put their good seal of Christian approval on us. If God does acknowledge us as the people of His own possession, whether or not others recognize us as such will not matter in the least. The important thing to remember is, "The Lord knoweth them that are his." This is the only "identification" that will count come Judgement Day.