I am replying to your question about the church situation. Obviously it is a difficult matter, and only the Lord can lead you. You described your church this way:
“I am attending a church of small size, with a pastor who says he is fundamental, but in actual practice, he is new-evangelical. He does not name the names of false teachers. He won’t correct any parishioners in error. He will sound no alarm about ecumenism, apostasy, etc.”
You said that in your estimation only two or three of the families in the church care anything about a fundamentalist position and about separation from the world and apostasy, and those “cannot speak freely the whole counsel of God” because the leaders won’t allow it. You said this is the best church within your area, that there are two churches 40 miles away that claim to be fundamentalist but promote Dobson-style psychology and other things that a true fundamentalist cannot countenance.
Obviously that is not a good situation. It would appear to me that you have four options.
First, though, it is important to be reminded of how important the church is. Men have corrupted churches, but men did not create the church. The church is God’s institution, and it began with the earthly ministry of Christ (Matt. 16:18). The book of Acts is the record of the establishment of the first churches under the leadership of the apostles. Most of the New Testament was written to churches to instruct them about how to serve Christ. The church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and that is referring to the local assembly that has pastors and deacons (see the context of 1 Timothy 3). When Christ gave his final Revelation, He delivered it to seven specific churches of that day (Rev. 1:4), and seven times he said, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
There is no doubt that God has exalted the church and that it is not his will that believers neglect it. He warns, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25).
Having said that, I would make the following four suggestions to those who cannot find a sound church in their community:
FIRST, YOU CAN COMMUTE TO THE NEAREST SOUND CHURCH
I know many people that travel an hour and more to attend a good church. Some drive (or ride a bus or walk) in on Sunday morning and stay the entire day, then travel back home after the evening service. I find this to be a very reasonable thing to do. It is not uncommon today for people to commute hundreds of miles each week to work, and the church is even more important than one’s job.
In South Asia, I know of some dear believers who WALK four hours and more to church, and I know many who travel two hours to attend church.
SECOND, YOU CAN RELOCATE TO A PLACE THAT HAS A STRONG CHURCH
Assuming there is no church within commuting distance, my first recommendation is to try to relocate. In my estimation, the church should be the most important consideration in determining where to live. Of course, one must follow the Lord’s leading in such matters; but the fact is, as we have seen, that He has made it plain that He wants every Christian to be a fruitful member of a sound New Testament church and that the church is His ordained means of fulfilling the Great Commission.
The church directory we maintain at the Way of Life web site can be helpful to you in determining where to relocate. Look for churches that have two or three asterisks.
THIRD, IF THERE IS NO STRONG NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH IN YOUR AREA AND YOU CANNOT MOVE, YOU CAN ATTEND THE BEST CHURCH THAT IS AVAILABLE AND BE FAITHFUL AND PUT INTO THE LORD'S HANDS THOSE THINGS WITH WHICH YOU DON'T AGREE
Remember that it is the pastors who have the greatest accountability for the doctrine and policy of the church. A church member is responsible to test everything by the Word of God (Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:21), but he is not responsible ultimately for the decisions that are made, because those must be made by the church’s leaders.
I am not saying that a Christian should submit to a church that is teaching false doctrine or using a corrupt Bible or that is plainly departing from the Word of God. But there are many degrees of church problems and error. One must have godly wisdom to discern what is most important in church matters and what is less important.
Many of the things that we tend to have problems with have to do more with application and practice than doctrine, and we must be careful that we have clear Scripture to support our judgments. (For more about this see the articles “Fruitful Church Membership” and “The Pastor’s Authority and the Church Member’s Responsibility.” These are available in the “Church” section of the End Times Apostasy Database at the Way of Life web site.)
FOURTH, YOU COULD MEET WITH LIKE-MINDED BELIEVERS WITH THE GOAL OF ESTABLISHING A NEW CHURCH
This is not a simple or easy matter. It is a very difficult and dangerous situation not to be in a proper church.
It is dangerous spiritually because God has ordained that Christians be under the authority of duly constituted church leaders (Hebrews 13:7). They are to watch for our souls (Hebrews 13:17). They are to instruct us and protect us from error (Ephesians 4:11-14). They are to have the oversight (1 Peter 5:2). They are to be our examples (1 Peter 5:3). It is not enough to say that Jesus Christ has the rule over my life; God has ordained that men also have the rule over me. If God has not called me to be a church leader, then I am to be in submission to church leaders. There is no alternative in the will of God, except in certain abnormal situations in which there is no sound church and no possibility of starting one.
A New Testament church is not merely a group of believers meeting together to have a Bible study or listen to a recorded sermon. A New Testament church must have proper leadership, proper doctrine, proper ordinances, and proper organization. The epistles to Timothy and Titus were Paul’s instructions on how to form New Testament churches (see 1 Timothy 3:15; Titus 1:5). Titus was ministering on the island of Crete and many had been saved. Naturally, these would have met together for fellowship and teaching, but that was not enough. Titus was instructed to “set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). Some things were lacking, and those things had to do with duly qualified and ordained leadership and the proper organization of the church.
Not just anybody can start a new church. Not just anybody can lead a church. It is probably the most difficult job in this world. It must, first of all, be a man; it must, secondly, be a God-called man; it must, thirdly, be a biblically trained man (Titus 1:9); it must, fourthly, be a godly, qualified man (1 Timothy 3); and it must, fifthly, be a duly ordained man (Acts 13:1-4). The normal scriptural pattern for church planting is for churches to start churches. That is the pattern that we see in Acts 13-14. The Holy Spirit called two men in the church at Antioch and the church ordained them and they went out and started new churches in many places.
If you don’t have such a man or men to lead a new church, you can only wait and pray that such will come to your community. I have no doubt that God has oftentimes sent men strictly in answer to the prayers of godly saints who were discouraged with the existing churches and were beseeching the Lord for a biblically and spiritually strong church.
Remember, too, that we live in an imperfect world. It would be wonderful if it were not so, and one day we will finally have what we desire, which is sinless perfection. Like Abraham and the saints of old, we seek “a better country, that is, an heavenly” (Hebrews 11:14-16). Those who are saved will have it one day, but there is no perfection in this present world. Thus, our submission to authority must always be accomplished in the context of submission to imperfect men. A woman is instructed to submit to and serve her husband, and that means submitting to a husband that is less than perfect, a husband, perhaps, that is not even saved. She can only do this by having her eyes on Jesus Christ. She is submitting to her husband, but she is doing this “as unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). She is not submitting to a man so much as submitting to the Lord. The holy women of old who were in subjection unto their own husbands did not do so because they were weak, but because they “trusted in God” (1 Peter 3:5). Christians are instructed to submit to government, but again, this involves submission to a very imperfect government, at best. No secular government in this wicked world has ever been truly righteous in a biblical sense. There is always corruption, unrighteousness, and injustice in government in this present world. Yet God says submit to, honor, obey and support it (Romans 13:1-7). This principle is true in regard to all of the manifold duties of life.
I am simply saying that we live in a vastly imperfect world, and the churches are subject to this imperfection because they are composed of imperfect men and women. This is not an excuse to support an apostate or deeply compromised church. God commands His people to separate from apostasy. That is plain. What is not always plain is precisely at what point a church is to be rejected. Even the churches founded by the apostles had manifold problems and sins. Consider the church at Corinth and the churches of Asia described in Revelation.
What kind of church should you join? I have been looking at churches for more than three decades and comparing them with the Bible. For all of this time I have been a Baptist by conviction, because I believe that historic Baptist doctrine, for the most part, is biblical doctrine. I don’t apologize for being a Baptist, and I recommend that everyone be a Baptist. More important than Baptist, though, is the Word of God; and just because a church is Baptist certainly does not mean it is faithful to the Word of God. Without question, I would reject the denominational Baptists, because I don’t believe it is scriptural to form denominational structures. Each church should be truly independent under its one Head, Jesus Christ. In my view, then--particularly in the context of North America--that leaves fundamentalist, independent Baptists and some fundamentalist Bible churches. I wish I could say that you can simply find an independent Baptist church and join it and you will be in good shape, but that is definitely not the case. There are many independent Baptist churches of which I am ashamed and which I would not join. In fact, the percentage of independent Baptist churches that I personally support is probably less than 10%. Many are more like easy-going, no-standards, any-Bible-version-will-do, entertainment-oriented, positive-preaching, self-esteem-building, new-evangelical community churches. Others are more like a circus than the church of the living God. Others have replaced biblical evangelism with a man-made, no repentance, quick prayerism, “get those numbers as fast as you can even if there is no evidence of salvation” program. Others are more akin to a man-centered cult (requiring that the people give unquestioning loyalty to a pastor) than to a true church of Jesus Christ.
I don’t care so much about a church’s name; I care about its doctrine and position and heart and zeal and vision as compared with the Word of God. The Bible is the sole standard of a church’s authenticity, not a name or label or heritage.
Having admitted that there are no perfect churches and that one must sometimes endure things that are wrong, let me give a final warning about staying in a compromised church. MY FINAL WARNING HAS TO DO WITH ONE’S FAMILY. If you have children and you stay in a compromised, worldly church, you will very likely lose your children either to a worldly form of Christianity (“rock and roll Christianity,” as I call it) or entirely to the world. Even if you make every attempt to protect them from the worldliness and compromise in the church, they will be affected by it simply by being associated with the other young people in the church and by sitting under the ministry of compromised and worldly leaders.
The bottom line is this: The church is the body of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) and the members must be added by the Holy Spirit. You must earnestly pray that God will add you to the church of His choosing, and then be faithful to that church and serve Jesus Christ through it. Put your eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the church, not upon sinful, frail, imperfect men. Ultimately, the individual believer must make these hard decisions with the Lord’s guidance.
I trust this helps.
Sincerely in Christ,
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