1 Timothy 3:15
But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.
Beginning in Acts 2:14, Peter preached his first sermon to the people of Jerusalem, and it is recorded in verse 41 that the almost 3,000 people who received Christ as their Savior were added to the Church. These young Christians did not have much of a problem picking out a church to join because at that time there was only one - the church at Jerusalem. Even after many years passed, it must have been just as easy since each city had one church (see Revelation 2-3 for example). Today, in most of America, each city can have dozens or even hundreds of churches in it. In the last few lessons we have studied the importance of being a member of a local church and what that means. With so many Churches to choose from, we now need to consider what the normal Christian ought to look for when selecting a church to join. In addition, we shall look at why and how the normal Christian ought to leave a church.
It would be interesting to take a poll to find out the most common reasons people would give for selecting the church of which they are members. No doubt some would say they liked the preacher, some might have liked the programs, some would talk of the friendliness of the church, perhaps many would say it was because they were comfortable, and there would probably be some that ended up in their church by "accident". Some people join a church because of family or friends. While these might all be very nice reasons for joining a particular church, are they the right reasons? Joining a church, the pillar and ground of the truth, is a serious matter and one about which we should seek God's counsel. So let us look at some Scripture and see what criteria God would have us to use in selecting the right church to join:
In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul warns the churches in Galatia about those who preach a gospel that differs from that which was revealed by God (vs 12). He says of those who preach another gospel, "let him be accursed". Now this is a serious matter and solemn warning. The gospel is clearly defined for us in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 and it is the message that brings salvation (Romans 1:16, 10:13-15). Those who preach a different gospel are preaching a different way of salvation which is a way that will lead people straight to hell (2 Thessalonians 1:8). There is only one gospel through which man can be saved (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).
Obviously it would be wrong for any Christian to become a member of a church (so called) that preached a different gospel. What Christian would want to be part of a church whose preachers were accursed and whose message did not save? This was such a serious matter to Paul that he was prompted to write a letter to the churches in Galatia. He also mentioned this concern to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:1-4). It is essential that the normal Christian join a church that preaches the gospel.
Paul warns Timothy that evil men and seducers will "wax worse and worse" as the end draws nearer (1 Timothy 3:13), but to Timothy he exhorts "continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of". This must primarily be the "Holy Scriptures" that Paul refers to for he reminds Timothy of this in verse 15. He then says in verse 16, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness". He says in 1 Timothy 4:4 that there will be some who will " turn away their ears from the truth". The Bible is the truth (John 17:17) and the only standard upon which we can base our beliefs.
It would be a great mistake for a Christian to join a church that did not believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible word of God. The Bible was what Timothy was to continue in and what the wicked would turn away from. How could members come to any kind of agreement on doctrine if they did not share the same belief that the Bible is the truth? The normal Christian must select a church that believes right about the Bible.
In 1 Timothy 6:3-5, Paul tells Timothy to "withdraw" from those who would not consent to " the words of our Lord Jesus Christ" or to "the doctrine which is according to godliness". He had told him earlier, "take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine" (1 Timothy 4:16). Jesus had a few things against the church at Pergamos because they had members who followed the doctrine of Balaam and the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:12-17). The Church at Thyatira was in a similar situation with Jesus because of the doctrine that was allowed there (Revelation 2:18-29). Doctrine is "teaching" or "instruction", and clearly God lays a heavy importance to the doctrine that the church teaches.
No doubt if Timothy was to withdraw from those who taught heresy, that is doctrine contrary to what God has taught, a Christian would be foolish to join a church that taught heresy. The right kind of church will preach the doctrines of the Bible (all of them) and will follow those doctrines as well. Paul told Timothy, "Preach the word" (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul said also, "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1). The normal Christian needs to look for a church that teaches sound doctrine and follows what is taught.
Jesus was against the church at Ephesus because they had left their "first love" (Revelation 2:1-7). He was disgusted with the church of Laodicea because of their lukewarmness (Revelation 3:14-22). These churches had left their original purpose or emphasis. In a previous lesson, we looked at the purpose of the Church as given in Ephesians 4:16 - to increase in number and nature. Today we have a lot of churches that have left their original purpose and have become mere social clubs. We have a lot of churches that are dead because they left their original emphasis.
A Christian has no business joining a church that has the wrong purpose for its existence. Jesus gave the great commission in Matthew 28:19-20 that all believers are to follow. A church that does not emphasize soul winning and discipleship is not the right kind of church. This is why the normal Christian will not select a church because of its social programs or other forms of fellowship, but will look for a church that is actively trying to win the lost and increase the godliness of its members.
John said, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15). James said, "whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (James 4:4). Why would a Christian want to join a church that loved the things of the world? The normal Christian needs to check out a church's stand on Holiness and make sure they are conforming to Christ and not to the world (1 Corinthians 5:9, 15:33; Ephesians 5:11).
Just as there are many reasons people have for joining a church, there are a number of reasons why they leave as well. Some leave because they were lost (1 John 2:19). Some have good reasons and some have wrong reasons. Let us consider why a Christian should leave a church and how it ought to be carried out.
We need to understand that there is no perfect church - just look at the churches found in the New Testament. In fact, if you were to join a perfect Church it would no longer be perfect! Most likely there are going to have to put up with a few things that we don't like. Unfortunately, too many lazy Christians would rather leave than to help improve things. They want to be part of a perfect church but they have no inclination to help perfect a church. We also need to understand that there are no perfect pastors either. They may not be right about everything and they may make a few mistakes. We need to show them the same mercy that we would have God show to us. The truth is that we all need to observe Philippians 2:3, "in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves".
2. Difference in Preferences
Sometimes good Christians leave a good church because they have a difference of opinion over some minor issue. For example, they might not agree with having Sunday School promotions, fund raisers, or having fellowships on Valentines Day, Halloween, etc. They might not like the pastor's standards for church workers or his use of humor in the pulpit. We need to understand the difference between preferences and doctrine. Every church is different and a careful study of the New Testament will reveal that God has given the church a lot of flexibility. No doubt Jesus could have picked out a problem with every church and written a letter to each one rather than just the seven found in the book of Revelation. The fact is that Jesus did not treat each church problem with the same degree of seriousness (compare Sardis with Laodicea), and therefore neither should we.
3. High Standards
Some people leave a church because they feel like it is too strict. Can a church have too high a standard? Can we be too much like Christ? Look at the high standards God set for those who hold an office in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-13). What would be better for a Christian: to be in a church with lower standards than they have or higher?
4. Change of Job
Some people leave a church because they get transferred or because they find a better job in another part of the country. Paul sought the will of God with everything he did, and so should we. He worked a job in many of the places he went to take care of his own expenses (Acts 20:35, 1 Corinthians 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 2:9). Yet for Paul, his ministry had priority over his career. He found work where God wanted him to minister rather than finding somewhere to minister where he wanted to work!
There are at least two good reasons for leaving a church:
1. For the Ministry
Paul obviously left his work in Tarsus to help with the work at Antioch (Acts 11:26), and later he and Barnabas left that church to go to the mission field (Acts 13:1-3). So we find that one reason to leave a church is because God may move a Christian to a ministry in another place.
2. For Error
When a Church stops preaching the gospel, stops believing that the Bible is the Word of God, or one of the other reasons given previously for joining a church, it may be time to leave. This would have to be a last resort in the case where there was no chance for reconciliation.
Too many Christians have zero character when it comes to leaving a church. Most people with any integrity would not think of leaving a job without giving some kind of notice first. Yet they vanish from a church, a far more important institution being started by Jesus Himself, with not even a word to anyone. That is both sorry and cowardly behavior. Leaving a church ought to be something bathed in prayer and consultation with God. The normal Christian will consult with his pastor and discuss the matter first. Anyone who has sought God's will about leaving will not have any problem telling the pastor or the church. Paul says, "Let us walk honestly, as in the day" (Romans 13:13). It is those who know they are doing something sinful, who do things secretly in the dark, who are too afraid to tell anyone!