Dear Church Family,
When I was a chaplain in the army, I would teach Bible studies at various times – depending on what time was more amenable to the schedule of the soldiers: during lunch time, in the evenings, in our home, etc. One time, when my wife and I were hosting an evening Bible study in our home, when the meeting was over, one of the men in attendance and I were talking. At one point, he said something that caused me much distress. He said, “You know, I don’t much like my church anymore, so I stopped attending. I now think of this Bible study as my church home.”
I immediately confronted and rebuked the man, “This is not your church.” I said, “I’m glad that you are able to attend, but you need to get back to your church.” We talked some more, and he told me the reason that he stopped attending: someone in leadership at the church had said something that upset him. In my mind, it was a slight matter, but it really upset him. Still, it was no reason to leave his church. So I told him that he needed to go speak with that person directly, or to the pastor of the church if need be.
Let’s call the whole thing off?
Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all the time. People break fellowship with a local church for all sorts of unbiblical reasons. Certainly, there is a time to break fellowship with a church and seek out membership in another. The Belgic Confession (Article 29) actually gives three marks of a true church: (1) the pure preaching of the Gospel; (2) the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; and (3) the practice of church discipline for correcting faults.
Even if we were to discern an error in any of these three areas, the first and proper thing to do is to make one’s concerns known to the leadership of the church. When it seemed to Paul that Peter was behaving in a way contrary to the Gospel, he opposed him to his face (Galatians 2:11ff). And, the Lord gave detailed instructions for His Church as to how to deal with sin in their midst (Matthew 18:15-20). Yet, some Christians today have a low view of the church and the importance of church membership. Something upsets them, they find a minor difference of opinion, or just become ambivalent – and, suddenly they’re singing with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “You say ‘tomato,’ I say ‘tomato’ – let’s call the whole thing off!”
No lone-ranger believers
I was reminded of these things in a recent article by Sinclair Ferguson entitled, “John Calvin on the Keys of the Kingdom.” While acknowledging that the elders of a church have a responsibility to be sufficiently watchful in their care of the church, Ferguson explains the responsibilities of members as well:
The truth is, elders can turn down the thermostat of a congregation virtually at will. Yet Calvin is also concerned about Christians who act in haste and without grace and precipitously separate from the church because of its faults. The individual dare not do that simply out of personal whim or a unilateral declaration of independence. He is, after all, a member of the church, not a lone-ranger believer. Unwise zeal, pride and arrogance, false views of holiness (or, more accurately, false views of other's holiness or lack thereof) need themselves to be disciplined.
Separation from the visible church is, therefore, to be considered only when it actually ceases to be the visible church--for in its very nature its sanctity is mixed with ongoing sin and failure. Thus, when the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Savior himself are considered, we learn a biblical balance of commitment to truth with commitment to the imperfect community. It is inexcusable for an individual to abandon the church so long as it remains a real church.
I’ve been thinking about these things lately, as well, because of the testimony that Jesus made before Pilate during His trial. We examined Jesus’ testimony before Pilate in a recent sermon from John 18:28-40, “A Kingdom Not of This World.” We saw that Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom over which He is the sovereign ruler. The subjects of Jesus’ kingdom are those who hold to the truth of the Gospel and wield the divinely powerful weapon of the Word of God as they fight to advance His Kingdom.
Finally, we saw that the manifestation of Jesus’ kingdom on earth is the church. As such, the church functions in this world as an outpost of the kingdom of God in this world. And, Jesus prioritized the church as the locus of His saving work. Of no other institution, did Jesus say, “I will build it” (Matthew 16:18).
When Jesus testified before Pilate – “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) – He was speaking about His church. And, this church is both in the world, but not of the world. Being in the world, Christ’s church is comprised of people who still sin and are in need of forgiveness (1 John 1:9-10); they will not be made perfect until Christ’s second coming (1 John 3:2). Being not of the world, Christ’s church is comprised of people who are also described as a chosen race and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9); their citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
Because of this dual citizenship, as Sinclair Ferguson puts it, we must “learn a biblical balance of commitment to truth with commitment to the imperfect community.” We must learn to find our home and our identity in the church as the outpost of the kingdom of God on earth. We must learn to look out for the interest of Christ Jesus, namely, the welfare of the saints (Philippians 2:20-21) – seek and show grace to one another. For, the Church which the Lord Jesus Christ has erected in this world for the gathering and perfecting of the saints is His visible kingdom of grace (BCO 1-2).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch