As Christians, we are admonished not to forsake "the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is" (Heb. 10:25). Yet, in our own day, cultural individualism has spilled over into the churches, producing an unhealthy atmosphere of religious independency among those professing Christ. The duty to join in public worship is often treated casually, and church attendance is regarded as a merely optional matter.
When a professing Christian spurns corporate worship, he gives reason to question the state of his heart. Those who truly love God will exclaim with the psalmist, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord'" (Psalm 122:1).
Moreover, the Christian's obligations reach beyond simple attendance upon the public ordinances. The scriptures set forth numerous responsibilities of believers which can only be fulfilled within the context of the corporate body: pray for one another, exhort one another, share one another's burdens, etc (James 5:15; Heb. 3:13; Gal. 6:2; 1 Thess. 5:11). Often, we meet with professing Christians who wish to remain detached from any particular congregation. But if they dwell permanently in isolation, how can they fulfill their scriptural duties?
The Bible also delineates lines of authority within Christian congregations. "We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you, and esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake" (1 Thess. 5:1213). "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch over your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17).
These passages describe the proper submission of church members to ecclesiastical officers. Members are not subjugated to officers as unto tyrants. The officers of the church rule not for private commodity, nor of personal authority, "neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3). Church members are obligated to render submission as subjects in the kingdom of Christ.
Once we discern the duty of church membership, the issue becomes a question of which church to join. In the present era of religious confusion, there are myriads of assemblies in existence, all claiming to be true churches of the Lord Jesus Christ.
These facts lead us to consider the office of the believer. Christians have the obligation to submit to the government of Christ; but they also have the responsibility to refuse the claims of men who usurp the authority of Christ. "The sheep follow him [Christ]: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:45).
Again, all legitimate religious authority is derived from Christ; thus, the true believer should not heed the authority of any ecclesiastical government which is not subject to Christ's word.
During the Protestant Reformation, Christians were confronted with a dilemma not unlike our own. They were perplexed by the conflicting claims of different groups claiming the title of Christ's church.
The leaders of the Protestant Reformation possessed a strong pastoral vision. When they formulated the Protestant confessions, they addressed the issue of church membership from a pastoral perspective. They instructed Christians to seek churches which bear these three marks: (1.) the true preaching of the gospel; (2.) the proper administration of the sacraments; (3.) the right exercise of church discipline. This is sound advice for Christians in any era.
"Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). If a religious assembly has not the gospel of Christ, it is not worthy to be called a church. Without the gospel, there can be no true Christians; without true Christians, there can be no real church.
The administration of the sacraments is a indicator of a congregation's practices on worship. If an assembly substitutes man-made forms of worship, in place of the sacraments, it is not worthy to be recognized as a true church. And when a congregation adopts a multitude of humanly-devised "aids to worship," as supplements to the biblical ordinances, the leaven of idolatry is already present. Christians must avoid such corrupt worship, "for what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?" (2 Cor. 6:16).
Church discipline is designed to maintain the glory of God and the health of the church. If a person makes a profession of faith, but exhibits a life of moral corruption, men regard his profession as hypocrisy. Similarly, if an assembly claims the title of a church, while tolerating notorious heresies and scandals in its midst, it has degenerated so as to become no church of Christ, but a "synagogue of Satan" (Rev. 2:9; 3:9) Any religious assembly which lacks discipline will soon become a haven for heresy and moral corruption.
The Reformers warned Christians about false churches, urging them to keep away from the assemblies of Papists and Anabaptists. No one should become a member of such false churches, for they are synagogues of Satan.
By using the marks of the church as a guide, Christians can find and join sound churches. As noted, it is the office of church members to exercise discernment, especially as regards their ecclesiastical affiliations. Too often, church connections are formed on the basis of convenience, family expectations, or personal taste, rather than the scriptural principles which should govern this important duty.
Notes for Chapter 5
1. The marks of the church are treated specifically in The Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva (1556), the French Confession of Faith (1559), the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560), and the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561). See the bibliography for more details on these documents.
2. Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 25:5.
Copyright ©1983, 1994 by Kevin Reed