Shopping for the Right Church
As a general rule, the results of American capitalism have been good when one is at the grocery store. A dozen brands and a dozen varieties of every conceivable item compete for one’s attention, and promise dependable quality at a reasonable price. And if any of these items fails to deliver the expected quality, one might cast it aside without a second thought, and turn to any number of more satisfactory products. This is not at all a bad arrangement when one is shopping for groceries; but the stark truth is that, in America (and, to a large degree, in the rest of the world), people have developed a consumer’s mindset which extends far beyond the supermarket. In fact, even in the process of pursuing opportunities to be involved with the body of Christ in its local expression, many consumer-minded Christians approach the task much as they would look for the best milk and eggs: they shop around, and when they find a church which meets their expectations, or at least when they have discovered which one comes closest, they summarily forget whatever other churches are in the area, and devote themselves to that one exclusively.
Now, let me be clear here: I am not saying that a Christian should not attach himself to one particular gathering of believers, things being what they currently are in the state of the American church. Neither am I saying that he should not do some research to determine which of the churches around him is the most solidly-grounded in doctrine and the most genuinely-reflective of its doctrine in vibrant practice. But if, when one finds such a church, he can allow himself to forget the believers in close proximity with him who do not attend that church, as easily as he could forget an inferior brand at the local store, then he is evincing a deep-rooted problem. And I fear that far too many Christians can forget other believers not in their immediate circle quite that easily (I fear I myself may be included among the ranks).
But really, what indication do we have in the New Testament that each city should have numerous churches with little or no contact between themselves? On the contrary, it would seem that the very concept of a local church is just a concession to the geographical constraints endemic to our present status as finite, time- and space-bound people. Yes, Paul speaks occasionally of “the church in so-and-so’s house”; as it is manifestly evident that there should be small groups of believers meeting together from house-to-house in the days before the concept of a church building took root. But it is also clear that, in the same epistles, the local church was often just a term used to set apart as a distinct group from other cities all the believers which were in a certain city. The church in Priscilla and Aquila’s house (Romans 16:5) was simply a designation used to make more specific those who were fundamentally and inter-connectedly a part of “all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7). “The church of God which is in Corinth,” is simply those Corinthians who were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 1:2). And the examples could continue.
Why is it that the actual state of the church has drifted so far from what Paul considered it to be, what it essentially is even now, in spite of the disheartening outward appearance of things? Perhaps in part because of the predicted proliferation of false gospels and false teachers. Many have arisen in Jesus’ name who are false brothers, who subvert the faith of many, and who corrupt the gospel once delivered to the saints. Many churches are churches in name only. But this reality cannot account for all of the division and lack of co-operation; in what sizable city in America may one not find many churches close to each other in terms of geography and doctrine, and yet unimaginably far in terms of actual fellowship? Is this commendable? Ought it not to be denounced, and ought we not labor to change this unseemly reality?
“But how might we go about the task?”, someone may ask. Must we overlook all the doctrinal differences between us and anyone else we are willing to call a Christian, so that we might have fellowship together? On the contrary, the pursuit of right doctrine is among the most important tasks which ever faces the church. The most loving thing believers can do for one another is to denounce in clear and scripture-laden terms those false doctrines which pose as the gospel, and to prod each other on to an ever more scripturally-sound understanding even in those areas about which two Christians might think differently and still be genuine saints. But if, when we have drawn the lines between true Christianity which errs in some lesser particular and false doctrine which ought not even to be called Christian, how will it be ultimately beneficial to spend all of our time only with those Christians who are already in agreement with us on the secondary matters? Should we not rather spend much time in constructive, biblically-grounded discussion with those believers who do not yet share our point of view? If this happens, in a spirit of love and humility, what wrong can come of it? Either the Spirit will show me, through this other believer, where I have been in error, or he will show him where he has been in error – or, at the worst, neither will be convinced by the other, but both will be driven to a more candid and thoughtful examination of the scriptures.
So how could this all happen in the sloppy realities of every day life and churchly existence? I would suggest a variety of tactics both on a corporate and on a personal level. First, on a personal level, when one finds himself involved with a local church, and is neighbors with any number of legitimate believers from a different church, would it not be appropriate to seek out these believers and arrange for a regular time of joint prayer, fasting, worship, scripture-reading – and eventually that sort of dialogue which arises from a genuine, loving relationship, which seeks the good of the other, and which is open to examining the Word of God on every doctrinal difference to see if those things be so? Would that not be a welcome and fitting addition to the fellowship that already takes place in one’s own local church? Would it not be a step taken towards the unity and love which ought to characterize those who are united because they are together in Christ?
On a corporate level it may not be so easy to pursue the sort of unity which is becoming the gospel. Elders who care for the spiritual sustenance of their sheep will not want other believers sitting under the instruction of those who have significant doctrinal errors – even if they would acknowledge them to be true Christians. But if they do acknowledge members of another local church as true Christians, they are, in essence, saying that those people are one body and one loaf with them. They have all participated in Christ’s self-sacrifice, they have all eaten his body and drunk his blood, to use the symbolism left us by the Lord. So what excuse do we have not to acknowledge our unity in Christ by participating together in the Lord’s supper? Ought we not, as true local manifestations of Christ’s body, to join together regularly (even if not as frequently as we do with our own local church), if for no other reason than to sing together, read the scripture together, and, in culmination, partake of the Lord’s Supper together as is befitting saints in the Lord? If this much were done, and love and the desire for Church-wide unity and doctrinal maturation took root, then other ways in which the various members of the various churches could devise to labor in love for the growth of their brothers in grace and knowledge, would certainly spring up, and be effective in their implementation.
It is an interesting observation that, in those areas of the world where the Church is being persecuted, or is significantly in the minority, such manifestations of unity and love among believers of different denominations and doctrinal convictions is much more commonplace – and yet without the compromise of all the particular doctrines which each one holds dear, but rather a labor to understand and be understood, or, in a word, to grow up together to greater doctrinal maturity and unity. Perhaps this is because, to them, the battle is real, the enemy is ferocious, and they feel most poignantly their need for one another. I would contend that, in America, the battle is just as fierce, the enemy is just as deceptive and strong, and our need for one another is just as desperate. If we could have the scales lifted from our eyes but for a moment, even as Elisha prayed for his minister (II Kings 6:15-17), what differences would we see in the attitudes and practices of the American church today?