Question 20 By what means do persons so called become a church of Christ?

Answer They are constituted a church, and interested in the rights, power, and privileges of a gospel church, by the will, promise, authority, and law of Jesus Christ, upon their own voluntary consent and engagement to walk together in the due subjection of their souls and consciences unto his authority, as their king, priest, and prophet, and in a holy observation of all his commands, ordinances, and appointments.

Matt. 18:20,28:19,20; Acts 2:41,42; Exod. 24:3; Deut. 5:27; Ps. 110:3; Isa. 44:5,59:21; Eph. 4:7-10; 2 Cor. 8:5.

Explication — That the Lord Christ hath constituted such a church-state as that which we inquire about hath been proved already. Unto a church so constituted he hath also, by his word and promise, annexed all those privileges and powers which we find a church to be intrusted withal.

This he hath done by the standing and unalterable law of the gospel, which is the charter of their spiritual society and incorporation. Neither are nor can any persons be interested in the rights of a church any otherwise but by virtue of this law and constitution. This, therefore, is first to be laid down, that the sole moral foundation of that church-state which we inquire after is laid in the word, law, and appointment of Christ. He alone hath authority to erect such a society; he is the builder of this house as well as the lord over it, Heb. 3:3-6. Neither without it can all the authority of men in the world appoint such a state or erect a church; and all acceptable actings of men herein are no other but acts of pure obedience unto Christ.

Furthermore, we have declared that the Lord Christ, by the dispensation of his word and Spirit, doth prepare and fit men to be subjects of his kingdom, members of his church. The work of sending forth the means of the conversion of the souls of men, of translating them from the power of darkness into light, he hath taken upon himself, and doth effectually accomplish it in every generation. And by this means he builds his church, for unto all persons so called he gives command that they shall do and observe whatever he hath appointed them to do, Matt. 28:20; in particular, that they profess their subjection to him, and their obedience, in joining themselves in that state wherein they may be enabled to observe all his other laws and institutions, with the whole worship of God required therein. Being converted unto God by his word and Spirit, they are to consider how they may now obey the Lord Christ in all things.

Amongst his commands, this of joining themselves in church-societies, wherein he hath promised his presence with them, Matt. 28:20, — that is, to dwell amongst them by his word and Spirit, Isa. 59:21, — is the very first. This, by virtue of that command and promise of his, they are warranted and enabled to do; nor do they need any other warrant. The authority of Christ is sufficient to bear men out in the discharge of their duty to him. Being then made willing and ready in the day of his power, Ps. 110:3, they consent, choose, and agree to walk together in the observation of all his commands. And hereby do they become a church; for their becoming a church is an act of their willing obedience unto Christ. This is an act of their wills, guided by rule; for this also is necessary, that they proceed herein according to the rules of his appointment, afterward to be unfolded.

And herein, upon their obedience unto the commands of Christ, and faith in his promises, do believers, by virtue of his law and constitution, become a gospel church, and are really and truly interested in all the power, rights, and privileges that are granted unto any church of Christ; for in this obedience they do these two things, which alone he requires in any persons for the obtaining of an interest in these privileges: — First, They confess him, his person, his authority, his law, his grace; secondly, They take upon themselves the observance of all his commands.

Thus did God take the children of Israel into a church-state of old. He proposed unto them the church-obedience that he required of them, and they voluntarily and freely took upon themselves the performance of it: Exod. 24:3, “And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do:” so Deut. 5:27. And hereby they had their solemn admission into their church- state and relation unto God. And the like course they took whenever there was need of renewing of their engagements: Josh. 24:18-22, “And the people said, We will serve the LORD; for he is our God. And Joshua said unto the people, Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen the LORD, to serve him. And they said, We are witnesses.” This was the covenant that was between God and that people, which was solemnly renewed so often as the church was eminently reformed. Now, although the outward solemnity and ceremonies of this covenant were peculiar unto that people, yet as to the substance and nature of it, in a sacred consent for the performance of all those duties towards God and one another which the nature and edification of a church do require, it belongs to every church as such, even under the gospel.

And this is the way whereby believers, or the disciples of Christ, do enter into this state, the formal constituting cause of any church, this account doth the apostle give of the churches of the Macedonians: 2 Cor. 8:5, “And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God,” before the performance of other duties; and in order thereunto, they first gave themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, or took upon themselves the observance of his commands and institutions, which is the intendment of that expression.

Among these commands one was, that they should give up themselves to the apostles’ doctrine, rule, and government, in the order by Christ prescribed, — that is, in church-order. This, therefore, they did by the will of God, according to his will and appointment.  This description doth the apostle give of the way whereby the believers of Macedonia were brought into churches. It was by their own obedience unto the will of God; consenting, agreeing, and taking upon themselves the observation of all the commands and institutions of Christ, according to the direction and guidance of the apostles. So did the believers at Jerusalem, Acts 2:41,42. Being converted by the word, and making profession of that conversion in their baptism, they gave up themselves to a steadfast continuance in the observation of all other ordinances of the gospel.

Besides, the church is a house, a temple, — the “house of God,” 1 Tim. 3:15; the “house of Christ,” Heb. 3:6; the “temple of the Lord,” Eph. 2:21,22. Believers, singly considered, are “stones, living stones,” 1 Pet. 2:5. Now, how shall these “living stones” come to be a house, a temple? Can it be by occasional occurrences, civil cohabitation in political precincts, usage, or custom of assembling for some parts of worship in any place? These things will never frame them into a house or temple.

This can be no otherwise done but by their own voluntary consent and disposition: Eph. 2:19-22, “Ye are fellow-citizens 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; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” Eph. 4:16, “From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”  From these and sundry other places it is manifest that the way and means of believers’ coalition into a church-state is their own obedience of faith, acting itself in a joint voluntary consent to walk together in a holy observation of the commands of Christ; whence the being and union of a particular church is given unto any convenient number of them by his law and constitution.

The Life and Works of John Owen Vol.15