Paul F Pavao
In this article, as in all my articles, I use "Church" (capitalized) in reference to the universal Church and "church" in reference to local churches.
So many choices; so many competing churches. Does the Bible say anything about whom we should fellowship with?
There is at least one verse that directly addresses the subject:
Flee youthful lusts, but pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Tim. 2:22)
This gives us something to work with. Our goal is not to have awesome worship with a choir or band leading us into the presence of God. That can be a wonderful thing if the musicians are not idolized, but it is not our goal.
The goal of our fellowship is not terrific preaching. Terrific preaching can be wonderful when it is the truth that is being preached, but it is not our goal.
The goal of the fellowship of the saints is to pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, and all those who call on the Lord from a pure heart should be doing that together.
You can see that purpose in Hebrews as well.
Let us think about one another so we can provoke one another to love and good works, not abandoning the assembling of ourselves as is the practice of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the approaching day. (Heb. 10:24-25)
Here Hebrews ties the importance of gathering to the importance of provoking one another to love and good works.
I read a social media post by an Orthodox believer—not sure which branch of Orthodoxy—which said the goal of their service for 2,000 years has been to bring each congregant into the presence of God. The focus is never on ourselves, but always on God. Obviously, this is a direct contradiction of what I am writing in this post. I do wonder, though, how they address Scriptures like Hebrews 10:24-25, which I just quoted? Even more so, I wonder how they explain the earliest description of a church service, which is quoted later on this page. In that description, Justin Martry says the Scriptures were read, then whoever was presiding exhorted everyone to "the imitation of these good things."
When we look for a church, typically we base our choice on a statement of faith or doctrine, but the Bible gives us a "sure foundation" that we can trust:
Concerning the truth, some have erred, saying that the resurrection is already past, and they overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the foundation of God stands sure, having this inscription: "The Lord knows those who are his," and, "Let those who name the name of the King depart from iniquity." (2 Tim. 2:21-22)
There are many doctrines which divide churches and Christians, but God appears to care most about one: stop sinning.
Turn away from iniquity.
God says he knows who belongs to him. That's not for us to worry about. What is for us to worry about is that those who name the name of King Jesus are turning away from iniquity.
I must emphasize here that everything I am writing assumes that you are a Christian who has been baptized and received the Holy Spirit. To turn away from iniquity requires being born again, which involves being washed from your old sin and receiving the Spirit of God (Jn. 3:3-5 with Acts 2:38). Apart from Christ, we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5).
Please don't assume that I am "Church of Christ" (as founded by Alexander Campbell and Warren Stone) because I reference John 3:3-5 and Acts 2:38. I am not. Until the last few centuries, everyone understood that water baptism was the appropriate way to respond to the Gospel (rather than the "sinner's prayer"). The Scriptures are clear and consistent on the subject. I realize many, if not most, evangelicals are wrong on this subject, and God saves many of them anyway. On this site, though, I have to teach based on the Bible, not on evangelical tradition.
If we are born again and the Holy Spirit lives in us, then we have everything we need to obey Jesus and fellowship with the Father as long as we are also getting the fellowship of the church that this page talks about. Romans 6:3-14 tells us that we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:3-14 tell us that we are able to "fulfill the righteous requirement of the law" when we live by the Holy Spirit.
It is possible, though, that the most powerful passage of all describing the power God has given us to live righteously is Titus 2:11-14:
The grace of God that is the salvation of all men has appeared, instructing us, in order that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts we should live sensibly, righteously, and godly in this present age, awaiting the blessed hope and grand appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us in order to ransom us from all lawlessness and purify for himself a prized people, zealous for good works.
Evangelicals all know that we are saved by grace, but too often we confuse grace with mercy. We are saved by mercy as well (Tit. 3:5), but grace is much larger than mercy. This passage tells us that grace teaches us how to live godly lives. Romans 6:14 tells us that grace takes away sin's power over us. Ephesians 2:8-10 tells us that grace is what makes us a new creation, "created in Christ Jesus for good works."
Titus 2:11-14 is powerful in announcing to us that grace and the atoning work of Christ free us from all lawlessness, make us zealous for good works and teach us how to live out those good works in our life (cf. Eph. 2:10).
Another passage that might compete with this one for announcing the power of our new life in Christ, and giving instruction on how to apply that power, is 2 Peter 1:3-11, which I recommend reading on your own separately.
Having cleared up the fact that we can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:5; Gal. 2:20), let us return to the purpose of being part of a local church.
The Church has a lot of purposes, and I cover some of those elsewhere. Here I am arguing that only one of those purposes should be used as a test for choosing a church to be part of.
Many evangelical churches have an unfortunate and unscriptural distaste for the term "good works." This is unfortunate because on earth and in this age, the Bible is clear that the churches should actively be seeking one goal: to be like Jesus by turning away from iniquity.
We have looked at some passages that say this, but let us look into the Scriptures more deeply.
He has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love. (Eph. 1:4)
This is a faithful saying, and I want you to affirm these things constantly, that those who have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men. (Tit. 3:8)
These verses tell us that from the very beginning, even before the creation of the world, God intended us to be holy and without blame, living in love. To fulfill this goal, the apostle Paul wants us to "constantly" affirm that God's people should be "careful" to continue doing good.
Let's also revisit the passage in Hebrews that we looked at earlier:
Let us consider one another in order to provoke one another to love and good works, not abandoning the assembling of ourselves as is the practice of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the approaching day. (Heb. 10:24-25)
What is a church meeting for? We can get a good idea of the purpose of a gathering of the church by looking at how the writer of Hebrews tells us to prepare for it. If we are supposed to think about our brothers and sisters in order to provoke them to love and good works, then surely the purpose of the gathering is to equip us for love and good works.
This only makes sense. The purpose of the Scriptures is the very same thing!
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
There are a lot of ways to use Scripture. We can teach, reprove, rebuke, correct, and train with Scripture. All of those uses, though, are towards one purpose: "that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
I think we would all agree that the Scriptures should be a central part of the gathering of the church. It certainly was in the early days of the church:
All who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. Then, when the reader has stopped, the one presiding verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought ... there is a distribution to each ... and to those who are absent, a portion is sent by the deacons. Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly because it is the first day on which God ... made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead on the same day. (Justin Martyr, c. AD 155, First Apology, ch. 67)
I included so much of that chapter because I thought you, the reader, might be interested in this description of a second-century church gathering. You will notice, though, that the first and most important part was the reading of the Scriptures and the exhortation to "imitate these good things." (You can also read the only second-century sermon still extant and see how at least one teacher "exhorts to the imitation of these good things.")
Since we will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of our deeds, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10), it is a very good thing that a church should focus on equipping us for good deeds and exhorting us "constantly" (Tit. 3:8) to be careful to continue in them.
It is not just in the gatherings of the church that we need to be exhorted. Hebrews 3:13 tells us that we need to be exhorted daily so that we are not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Before we go further it is important, extremely important, that we know how to exhort. The Greek word translated "exhort" in our Bibles is "parakaleo," which is also translated comfort (e.g. 2 Cor. 1:4). Thus, Hebrews 3:13 could be translated "comfort" one another daily. We are not left to wonder whether we should exhort or comfort, though, because the Scriptures give us clear guidance on "exhorting."
Encouraging and exhorting one another is an art that must be learned. Paul told the Thessalonians, "Warn the disorderly, comfort the faint-hearted, stay close to the weak, be patient with everyone." You must distinguish between the disorderly, who simply refuse to get in line, and the weak, who cannot yet stand in the battle. The former should be warned, the latter helped by close attendance. Both should receive patience from the rest.
As I pointed out at the start of this article, the fellowship we need is the fellowship of those who are pursuing righteousness, faith, love, and peace from a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:22). It is with these kind of Christians that we can help each other along the narrow path that leads to life (Matt. 7:14).
Paul writes about the fact that we grow together as a body only so far is it includes the participation of each member, "speaking the truth to one another in love" (Eph. 4:13-16). God does provide leaders for the church, but their job is to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). We need those leaders, but even more we need the saints equipped so that we can grow. This can be seen in so many verses that use "each other":
I could make this list much longer. There are 81 occurrences of "one another" in the New Testament. (I searched the New King James Version New Testament.) I think, though, you can see already how important "one another" is to the church.
Both Paul and John speak of the church, through its spiritual members, as the protectors of the truth. In Ephesians 4:11-16, the saints who have been equipped by gifted men for the work of ministry are no longer deceived by wicked and cunning men. The passage goes on to say that the trained saints speak the truth in love to one another and do their part. We do our part by exercising the gifts the Spirit has given us and obeying the command of Jesus to love one another.
John tells us that the church doesn't need outside teachers because the Anointing will teach everything, and it will be true and not a lie (1 Jn. 2:27). It is important to know that every "you" in 1 John 2:27 is plural. It is not individuals who can claim an anointing from the Holy Spirit that is trustworthy; it is the church, together. And just as Paul says that the cooperation of the members will lead to growth and to overcoming deceit, so John tells us that trusting the anointing in us—"us," not "I"—will lead us into reliable truth. If we also look at verse 26, then we see that this trust in the anointing of the Holy Spirit will protect us from those who are trying to seduce us.
I think it is also noteworthy that when Jude commands, "Contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints," the command is addressed to "those that are being made holy by God the Father" (Jude 1:3).
In Jude's day, the problem was the rise of gnosticism. The saints, for the most part, did not have access yet to many of the apostles' writings, but they did have the basic teachings of the faith that were given to them at baptism. They knew that the one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, had created the world through Jesus in the beginning, and they knew that Jesus was the Son of God who must be obeyed. The gnostics violated both those articles of faith, so the saints were equipped to "contend earnestly" in defense against the gnostics.
Finally, Paul writes that the church is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches would have us believe that they are that Church. In light of Ephesians 4:11-16 and 1 John 2:27, though, the church that is the pillar and support of the truth is the local church, led by gifted men, functioning together in love and the power of the Spirit, and submitted to Jesus in obedience.
Jesus said that we would know true prophets by their fruit, and this applies to knowing true churches too (Matt. 7:15-20). The context of this is walking the narrow path (v. 14) and doing the will of our Father in heaven (v. 21). If we keep going in Matthew 7 we see that Jesus promises the ones who hear and obey his words that they are building on the Rock. Everyone else is not. Thus, the only criteria that Jesus gave us for judging the morass of denominations that we face today is obedience to him and his Father.
In the modern day, it is not easy. It is easy to find a place to sit in a pew, or even join a ministry of the church or a small group. It is hard to find even a small group, however, that is being trained and whose members are willing to teach, correct, rebuke, and train in righteousness so that each one is complete, ready for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
This does not get us off the hook. We are told to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:22). We are also told that we are in danger of deception if we are not helped by our brothers and sisters every day (Heb. 3:13). Being a Lone Ranger is a very dangerous choice, much more likely to lead to deceiving yourself than to rescuing others from deception.
I have friends who have taken their places in traditional churches of all denominations. There they seek to obey Jesus and influence others, gathering as best they can those who are pursuing righteousness, faith, love, and peace.
I have other friends who have opted to start their own churches. The major problem with this is that if a Lone Ranger gathers others to be taught by him, how does that Lone Ranger avoid being deceived?
For me, the answer has been to stay connected even beyond the local church. I choose the men (and women) that I allow to speak to me and shape me based on their conduct (cf. Heb 13:7). Are they loving God, loving others, and obeying the commands of Jesus and the apostles? If so, then I want to follow Jesus with them, leaning on them to prevent self-deception.
The Christians I respect the most have lived life with a purpose. Jesus most certainly lived life with a purpose, and he never lost sight of it. He was always headed toward the cross, and he was aware both of the cost and the reward that lay on the other side. This is a troubled age, and there are a lot of voices vying for our attention. We can distinguish those voices if we know our purpose.
Find the place where you can pursue righteousness, peace, love, and faith along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. If the goal is clear and the desire is strong, you will find a way to do that, even in the mess of twenty-first century Christianity.
I wrote God's Solid Foundation at the same time I wrote this one, working on both together. The articles arranged by category is a good place to get to know the site. You might want to go to my best blog posts.
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