This is the final blog in this series on discerning the true church. I have waded in deep with the intention of digging down into the foundations of what makes the Church the true Church. I readily acknowledge that I have not explored all that can affirmed about the characteristics of the true Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. To adequately explore that would require a lengthy book to address just the basic dimensionality of the true Church. This is a mystery I do not presume to be able to do anything more than sketch out the foundation of; the implications of the miracle of the true Church of the living God will be unveiled in ages to come (see Ephesians 2:4-7)!
The reader should know that I never set out to give a full answer the question of how to discern the true church. That is beyond the scope of this format and beyond the scope of my theological imagination. I have sought to understand and critically reflect on this question: What are the keys to understanding the spiritual foundation of the Church?
Within the circle of my friends and acquaintances who regularly attend church there is a common phrase I have heard, “That is a good church.” I have long been fascinated by what criteria people have used to define a “good church”: Is it the denominational affiliation of the congregation? Is it the theology affirmed there? Is it the personality of the pastor(s)? Is it the content of the pastor(s) teaching? Is it the tight-knit relationships in the congregation? Is it the format for a Sunday morning service? Is it the kind of instruments and style of music employed in “the worship time”? Is it because they have lots of ministry options for children and young people?
I myself have articulated different reasons for involvement in the churches I was privileged to be part of. These have varied: Personal history (where my parents went to church), congruence with my own convictions about church polity, congruence with my theological convictions regarding doctrine and praxis, finding a “home” of believers who are authentically seeking God together.
Yet is it not ironic that I can even make this trek in my mind through such criteria at all? It is precisely because I have so many choices living in the United States of America that deciding what is or is not a “good church” is forced upon me. (For millions of people on earth there are few (if any) options to be part of the community of believers in Christ!) And since I am inclined to choose criteria based on what is most convenient for me and meets my own perceived needs I am not at all sure that the criterion of truth would be part of my consideration.
The considerations (listed above) for what makes a “good church” are mostly pragmatic and, in my opinion, not as weighty as the criterion of sound teaching. They express cultural concerns that have some validity to be sure; however, so often people are willing to overlook points of error being taught and modeled in a congregation because it offers something else that they like. What I assert is that the most important criteria to consider is not whether it is “good church” (according to some other set of measures) but whether or not that congregation (or denomination) teaches the truth of the Gospel and holds to the standards of sound teaching (2 Timothy 1:13).
The reason for this should not have to be explained but given people’s openness to error and thus blindness to God’s truth (as clearly taught in Scripture) this is needful. And to clarify, I am not mainly referring to outright erroneous teachings—such as one finds in groups whose core doctrines differs from historic Christian orthodoxy. Rather I am referencing biblical teachings that are blended in with error.
One’s theology or doctrine matters because it is the expression of what that person’s belief in God and Christ. Someone may object that an affirmation of Christian orthodoxy can be stated and then contradicted through one’s manner of living. Yes, this is true. Paul affirms this terrible reality (see 2 Timothy 3:1-6; Titus 1:15-16).
However, more often the grave error in churches is dilution of the truth by the introduction of erroneous notions—whether of doctrine or praxis. Instead of these being identified as erroneous and renounced we tend to hold onto them while also trying to retain the plain teaching of Scripture on other points. William Gurnall makes this point better than I can.
“Like milk diluted with water, the Word mixed with error is not very nutritious. All error, no matter how innocent it seems, is a parasite. And as ivy saps the strength of the tree it intertwines, so error saps the strength of truth. The soul that feeds on tainted truth cannot grow fat and healthy. . . . Paul talks about believers being wedded to Christ. When you receive an error, you take a stranger into Christ’s bed and commit spiritual adultery. One of the horrible things about adultery is that it turns the adulterer’s heart from the true spouse. It turns his thoughts and attentions toward the illicit affair, and away from his first love. We see this happening in the church today, where a faction embraces some doctrinal error or flaming heresy, and contends for it with more zeal than for the simple gospel truths that led them to Christ in the first place. The loss in such instances is great, for Christ can never share true, conjugal love with a soul that is coupling with error.” (William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 1 [Banner of Truth], p.202.)
Gurnall’s warning is a prophetic word to every generation of believers. He echoed what the Lord himself said in the Revelation letters to the churches. He specifically named and warned them about the toleration of certain erroneous teaching that he hated (Revelation 2:6). Specifically, he had
“a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nocolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Revelation 2:14-16, NRSV)
I am more and more convinced each day that the greatest triumph of the demons work among people in this generation is this: Convincing people who otherwise profess faith in Christ to not personally seek to be discerning of God’s truth in the totality of life. And thus to not seek to partner with God’s own people for the sake of the Gospel—regardless of which denominational title they affiliate with. The hyper-individualistic emphasis of modern American culture is a powerful ally in this the demons’ effort to drive people away from commitment to a local community of believers.
So then, if this is the enemy’s strategy what might we who claim the name of the Lord Jesus Christ do? We seek to discern and practice true spirituality in Christ. We discern the true Church and commit ourselves to serve God among his people as our neighbors as the community of the living One—the Lord Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews summarized this matter well.
“And let us hold on, without wavering, to the hope which we profess, for he who has given us his promise deserves to be trusted. Moreover, let us be mindful of each other, stirring each other up to the uttermost to love and to the performance of noble deeds, making sure at the same time that we do not, as is customary with certain people, fail to be present at the gatherings which are held by us. No, let us rather encourage one another in this, all the more so because, as you can see for yourselves, the great day is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25; Heinz Cassirer, God’s New Covenant: A New Testament Translation [Eerdmans:1989].)
We decide to critically self-evaluate our assumptions about what makes the Church the Church and hold lightly those criteria that not essential to fellowship together. We agree with the Holy Spirit to be open to other believers’ convictions on non-essential matters. We covenant with those who seek to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:18, NRSV) We boldly proclaim the Gospel to all who will listen to us and seek to foster the demonstration of truth in love in our congregations. The world desperately needs the Church to be the Church of the living God.