October 20, 1991

CHOOSING A CHURCH

“(Christ) is the head of the body, the church;  he is the beginning and the firstborn from the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:18).

I’m not looking for a perfect church.  If there really were such a church, it couldn’t allow me to join, or it wouldn’t be perfect anymore.  I need a church that has room for sinners like me.

Besides, there is no perfect church this side of heaven.  If you think you’ve discovered one, you probably don’t know the people well enough.  Every church is filled with people who still struggle with sin and who still don’t have a complete understanding of the Bible’s teachings.  Some may be hypocrites who are not Christians at all, but even those who are genuine Christians will still be a long way from perfect.

Unfortunately, some people use the church’s imperfection as an excuse for staying away from church entirely.  Others hop from church to church in hope of finding the perfect congregation.  They are never in the same place for very long, of course, since the moment they discover something they don’t like, they move on to the next church.  If you’re at all serious about finding a church, please begin by realizing you won’t find a perfect one.

Near the end of every Back to God Hour program, we encourage people to find a church, and we don’t encourage them to look for a perfect church.  But we don’t tell them to join just any church, either.  We urge them to find a church where the Bible is proclaimed and Jesus Christ is exalted.  If you belong to a church like that, it will be good for you whatever its faults may be.  But if a church does not proclaim the Bible and exalt Jesus, it will not be good for you no matter what activities it has.

Some congregations have aerobics classes and softball teams, or host meetings of 12-step groups for people who suffer from addictions or sponsor child care programs.  Churches support a wide variety of fine activities, and maybe you are attracted by some of these things.  And that’s okay.  It’s wonderful, even essential, to have the support and friendship of other people.  But no matter what else a church may be doing, its main reason for existence is to draw people to the living Christ who communicates his truth on the pages of the Bible.

When you buy a home, you want it to have a solid foundation.  Even if you like the fine carpet and wonderful kitchen, you won’t want to buy the home if the foundation is crumbling.  When you are choosing a spiritual home, solid foundations are even more essential.  In Ephesians 2 the Bible describes the true church as “God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20).  The true church stands firm on Jesus Christ and the inspired teachings of his prophets and apostles, recorded in the Bible.  A building without a solid foundation is a disaster, and so is a church that has lost its foundation and chief cornerstone.  So if you’re looking for a spiritual home, don’t just look at the various programs and activities.  Be sure to check the foundation.  Find a church that proclaims the Bible and exalts Jesus Christ.

I wish we could just assume that every church fits this description, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Not every pulpit with a Bible on it actually proclaims biblical truth.   Not every place with a cross hanging on the wall really exalts Jesus.  Jesus himself warned, “Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).  So if you’re looking for a church right now, or even if you’re a long-time member of a church, be careful.  Don’t be suspicious or narrowminded, but check for yourself whether a church is spiritually alive.

Be sure to find a church that proclaims the Bible as God’s Word.  The apostle Peter says,  “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty …  Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16, 19-21).  In other words, the Bible was written by eyewitnesses under the direct leading of God, and therefore every word is perfectly trustworthy.

The true church proclaims the Bible because it is our only reliable guide to the way of salvation and obedience.  The apostle Paul wrote, “The holy Scriptures … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

So look for a church which teaches the Bible, even if you are confronted by some things you’d rather not hear about.  God tells us what we need to hear, not always what we want to hear.  Not everything in the Bible fits our ways of thinking, but it is all true.  The Bible commands pastors, “Preach the Word;  be prepared in season and out of season;  correct, rebuke, and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).

If you want divine truth and not human myths, find a church that preaches the Bible.  Genuine pastors will preach the Word on just two occasions:  “in season and out of season”–when it’s popular and when it’s not popular, when people like it and when they don’t like it.

Never join a church that openly contradicts the Bible.  The pastor may believe that the Bible is a valuable book, but refuse to accept it as the very Word of God.  He may say something like, “The authors of the Bible condemned sex outside of marriage, but we live in a different world, and we need different guidelines” or “We all know that this miracle couldn’t actually have happened, but we can still learn some good lessons from this story” or “The New Testament writers talked about hell, but today we must believe in a more inclusive God who accepts all people.”  Statements like these reveal that a pastor does not believe that the Bible is God’s Word, and such a pastor is not worth listening to.

This doesn’t mean, however, you should automatically reject any pastor or church which you think has misunderstood a particular part of the Bible.  A preacher who has full confidence in the Bible, who studies it earnestly, and who is a great blessing to his congregation, may still be mistaken from time to time.  A congregation or denomination which proclaims the Bible may still misunderstand what the Bible is saying at a particular point.  But that’s very different from a pastor or church that sees clearly what the Bible is saying and then contradicts it.  When a church says openly that the Bible is wrong, you need another church.

You should also steer clear of churches that hold any other book or human document equal to the Bible.  This doesn’t mean that a church shouldn’t have any creed or statement of faith, but it does mean that creeds and church traditions must always be subject to the supreme authority of the Bible.  Also, you should beware of people who claim to base their teaching on private revelations from God rather than on the Bible.

Find a church which holds the Bible as its supreme and only standard of divine truth, where God’s Word matters more than human opinions, where the preaching rings with biblical truth, and where the people are encouraged to study the Bible personally and confirm for themselves what God is saying.  That’s the sort of congregation where you will experience what the Bible calls “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  Join a church where the Bible is proclaimed.

Now, the ultimate objective of proclaiming the Bible is to exalt Jesus Christ.  We don’t really understand the Bible at all unless we encounter Jesus Christ, since the Bible is all about Jesus.  The apostle Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.  For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:8-9).  Any true church will exalt Jesus, and that means you can quickly rule out a place that seldom mentions his name.

One of our listeners wrote us about her search for a church.  She had attended Sunday services at a couple of churches, but she said that all they seemed to offer was advice on coping with AIDS and overcoming the drug problem.  They hardly talked about Jesus.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with addressing contemporary issues, but a church must do that in the context of the gospel of Christ.  When a woman goes to church hungry for Jesus and does not find him there, it is a tragedy.

To get an idea of what it means to truly exalt Jesus, let’s listen to what the Bible says in Colossians 1:15-20:

(Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created:  things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;  all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church;  he is the beginning and the firstborn from the dead so that in everything he might have supremacy.  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Now, those are certainly magnificent words about Christ, and every true church will echo them.  Notice that the Bible says the church is a body, with Jesus Christ as its head, so any church that lacks Jesus is like a body without a head–it is dead.   A genuine church will constantly exalt Jesus in at least three ways:  it will worship Jesus as the only begotten Son of God;  it will proclaim him as the only Savior of sinful humanity, and it will serve him as the only rightful master of every aspect of human life.  Let’s explore in more detail each of these essential ways that a genuine church must exalt Jesus.

First of all, the true church exalts Jesus by worshiping him as God.  Now, when someone says that Jesus was God, be sure what they mean by the word “God.”  Some people are quick to agree that Jesus was God, but then they add that everybody is a part of God.  They say that Jesus was one of the first human beings to realize he was divine, and now we can follow in his footsteps and declare ourselves to be God.  If a church says that you are part of God, or that you will become a god, then it has no idea who God really is, and you should avoid that church.

The prophets and apostles of the Bible did not think of themselves as God.  They knew that God is a personal being who is magnificent and splendid beyond human imagination.  In the Bible the Lord says, “I am God, and there is no other;  I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:9).  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).  The apostle Paul describes God as “the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:15-16).

A genuine church holds the highest possible view of God’s divine majesty, and then it declares Jesus Christ to be equal with God.  Speaking of Jesus, the book of Hebrews says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word”  (Hebrews 1:3).  The apostle John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1, 14).  God the Son existed from all eternity and took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  When the apostle Thomas saw the risen Christ, he worshipped Jesus by exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

The true church teaches that Jesus is God the Son, eternally a member of the Holy Trinity together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  So don’t join a church which says that Jesus was a good man but denies that he is God.  And don’t join a church which says that everybody is a god.  Find a church that exalts Jesus Christ as God the Son.

The true church also exalts Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.  You may encounter a church which does not talk much about salvation at all.  The main objective of the teaching seems to be helping nice people become even nicer and encouraging good people to be even better.  There is plenty of talk about self-esteem, but nobody mentions sin.  Well, if you don’t think you need a Savior, that may be just the church for you.  But if you know that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness and healing, you had better find a church that leads broken sinners to the cross of Jesus Christ.

False prophets specialize in pretending that everything is just fine.  The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah summed it up this way:  “… prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit.  They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:10-11).  False prophets don’t take sin and its disastrous consequences seriously, and so they can’t help sinners to be restored.  Find a church which teaches plainly that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and that only Jesus Christ can rescue us from eternal hell.

Be sure that your church exalts Jesus as the way to be saved from sin.  We can’t be saved by our own efforts or by religious rituals, but only by faith in the precious blood of Jesus.  The Son of God became a man and died in our place to take away the guilt and punishment of sin.  Jesus is the only one who can set people free from the power of sin and Satan and make them right with God.  Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  The apostle Peter declared, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

If we could be saved by our own homemade religions, do you think the Son of God would have shed his blood on the cross?  If we could save ourselves by keeping God’s law, why did Jesus die?  As the Bible says, “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).  It is a monstrous insult to Jesus Christ to say that anyone can be saved without the cross.  He would not have suffered the agony of hell on the cross if there had been a different way.

If a church does not teach that salvation is God’s free gift through faith in Christ crucified, stay away from it.  I don’t care how nice the people seem or what sort of revelations the leaders may claim to have.  As the apostle Paul put it, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:8).

So if you want to honor Jesus, and if you value your eternal soul, avoid any church which teaches that there are many ways to God besides Jesus.  The Bible says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 14:12).  There are many ways to death, but only one way to life:  Jesus Christ crucified.  Choose a church that exalts Jesus by proclaiming him as the only Savior from sin.

A true church will exalt Jesus as God, it will exalt him as the only Savior, and it will also exalt Jesus as the rightful master of every aspect of human life.  The church exalts Jesus by calling people to obey him and follow his example.  Jesus commanded his apostles to make disciples, teaching people to obey everything that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20), and that is still a vital part of the church’s task.  Jesus is the head of the church, and therefore he is the one who must direct each part.  This means you should choose a church that helps you obey Christ and live by the leading of the Holy Spirit.  The church will teach you to follow Christ in your words, in your use of money, in your sexuality, in your family life, in your attitude toward the poor, and in a host of other areas.  Find a church that exalts Jesus by putting his claims on every area of your life.

The true church will help you to adore Jesus as the eternal Son of God, trust him as your Savior, and obey him as your Master.  In such a church, the people worship and praise Jesus;  they offer prayers in Jesus’ name;  they baptize people into spiritual participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus; they eat bread and drink wine as a spiritual participation in the body and blood of Jesus.  So when you choose a church, find one that exalts Christ, that is full of Christ, that keeps bringing you again and again to Christ.

If you’re not a Christian already but are seeking God, a church like that is just what you need.  You can hear the gospel over television and radio, or read the Bible yourself, but God often uses the setting of Christian worship and the company of Christian friends to draw people to Christ.  The church may not be perfect, but it is the body of Christ, and so it is the best place in the world to encounter Christ.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you have already become a part of the body of Christ.  This means that you can’t remain all by yourself.  Faith in Jesus must be personal, but it is never private.  Christianity is not just a matter of you and Jesus.  The moment you trust him, you become part of his worldwide church, and you must find a congregation which is a visible expression of the body of Christ.  The church of Jesus will have opportunities for you to become involved, to use your abilities, to grow closer to your fellow believers, and ultimately, to grow closer to Jesus.

The Bible teaches that no part of the body can get along without the others (1 Corinthians 12:21-26), so don’t try to go it alone.  You need the encouragement and support of other Christians, and they need you.  We encourage each other to honor Christ, and we hold each other accountable to follow the teachings of the Bible.  We rejoice together in good times and stand together in times of deep sorrow and discouragement and doubt.  So I hope that if you haven’t done so already, you will find a place of Christian fellowship where the Bible is proclaimed and Jesus Christ is exalted.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, build up your precious church.  May more and more churches sound forth the truth of the Bible and lift up your name, dear Savior.  Help each one of us to avoid counterfeits and find a church which is vibrant and alive with you as its head.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.