When I was a kid, almost everyone went to church because it was considered the right thing to do. Some people joined because being a respected church member was good for business. Others went to socialize with the right kind of people, and some probably felt it was a good way to salve a guilty conscience. We might be tempted to think church was better back then, but in reality, this kind of social mentality weakened the church, since quite a few attendees were not genuine believers in Christ.
In contrast, many people today consider church outdated and unimportant. Even some Christians don’t attend, claiming it’s not essential for their salvation. While no one is saved by attending church, Christ founded His church for a very important purpose. After asking His disciples who they thought He was, Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus then said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church” (v. 18). He wasn’t saying He’d build His church on Peter, a mere man, but on his confession of faith. All those who believe this truth and have accepted Christ as their Savior are part of His universal church that exists in heaven and on earth.
All those who believe this truth and have accepted Christ as their Savior are part of His universal church.
But when we talk about church, we usually mean a local gathering of believers. And this is what the writer of Hebrews 10:25 means when he says not to forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some.” How can we begin to imagine that we are exempt from participating in the community of faith Jesus established as His means of carrying out His purposes on earth? Christ is the head of the church, and we are called His body (Col. 1:18). The Holy Spirit gives each of us special gifts for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7), and Christ fits us all together so the body can grow (Eph. 4:15-16).
I often hear from Christians who aren’t part of a church because they don’t know which one to join. That’s why I’d like to give you some criteria for determining whether a church is faithfully fulfilling its calling to be “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The first standard is the doctrinal test. Does a church believe that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God without mixture or error? If this is not its foundation for truth, it is not a sound church. We cannot pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe and which to disregard without compromising the entire book God inspired (2 Tim. 3:16).
Another essential element of the doctrinal test is a church’s teaching regarding Jesus. First Corinthians 3:11 says, “No man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” A doctrinally sound church teaches that Jesus is both God and the Son of God who was also fully human, born of a virgin, died a sacrificial atoning death to redeem mankind, was bodily resurrected, and will one day physically return to judge mankind and rule on earth. A church that teaches a different Jesus cannot offer people genuine salvation.
The second criterion for a good church is the edification test. Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers the task of equipping the saints for service and teaching them God’s Word so they can grow in spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-13). Pastors are shepherds who are responsible to feed and care for God’s flock. Church should be a place where we are grounded in biblical truth, built up in our faith, encouraged to live holy lives, and equipped to serve the Lord. That’s why we all need a church that is focused on the Word, not merely on issues or social reform (2 Tim. 4:1-4).
The third condition is the mission test. Every church should have a balance of scriptural teaching, worship, and ministry to the world. Christ told His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). A good church has an emphasis on missions and encourages its members to share their faith with others.
Although methods may change, our message must remain the same.
But the most important issue is the message that is proclaimed. Although methods may change, our message must remain the same. The world needs to know about the hopeless condition of sinful mankind (Eph. 2:1-3), God’s loving provision of salvation through His Son (John 3:16), and our ultimate accountability to the Lord (Rom. 14:12). If we try to eliminate everything in the church that might offend unbelievers, we have then ceased to give them the true message of salvation. Jesus never watered down the gospel, and neither should we.
It’s a great delight and awesome pleasure to be part of a local group of believers who are grounded in God’s Word and concerned about those who don’t know the Lord. In a church like this, you can worship the Lord, grow spiritually, enjoy loving fellowship, and serve others with your spiritual gifts. The church is God’s idea, and He wants each of His children to be a part of it.
Charles F. Stanley
P.S. One of our goals at In Touch Ministries is to strengthen the local church. Everyone needs a loving community of godly people where they can grow spiritually and know they are accepted, loved, and useful to the Lord. We pray that the devotions and articles in our magazines will encourage you in your church involvement and strengthen you in your walk with Christ.