August 3, 1997

FINDING A CHURCH

Consequently, you are … members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. Ephesians 2:20

Are you looking for a perfect church? I’m not. If I could somehow find a perfect church, I couldn’t join it, or it wouldn’t be perfect anymore. I need a church that has room for a sinner like me. And you need a church that has room for a sinner like you. Unless you are perfect, don’t look for a perfect church.

Besides, there is no perfect church this side of heaven. If you think you’ve discovered one, you don’t know the people well enough. No matter how great a church might be, it is made up of people who struggle with sin. No matter what church you go to, there will almost certainly be some hypocrites who aren’t Christians at all, and even those churchgoers who are genuine Christians will still be a long way from perfect.

Unfortunately, some people can’t handle being part of an imperfect church. The moment they find an imperfection, they either boycott church altogether or resort to church hopping.

If you’re a boycotter, you use the church’s flaws as an excuse to stay away. Your boycott may take the form of ignoring religion completely, or it may take the form of trying to get your spiritual nourishment on your own without being part of any group. You depend on books or broadcasts to help you enjoy a “me and Jesus” relationship, but you stay away from church so that you can avoid the frustrations of dealing with real, flesh-and-blood people with all their weaknesses and failings.

If you’re a church hopper, on the other hand, you don’t feel right not going to church at all. You go to church, but you’re never in the same place for long. The moment you find something you don’t like, you’re off to look for a better church. You hop from one church to another to another, always hoping to find a congregation that suits you perfectly. But you never do.

If you’re a church hopper or a boycotter, it’s time you realized that you won’t find a perfect church. You need to find a church, commit yourself to it, and then stick with it.

Does that mean it doesn’t matter what church you’re a part of, as long as you join somewhere? Is any church just as good as another? No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. It matters a great deal what sort of church you’re part of. You’ll never find a perfect church, but you must find an authentic church.

Often at the end of our programs, we encourage people to join a church. We don’t tell you to find a perfect church, but we don’t tell you to join just any church, either. We urge you to find a church that exalts Jesus Christ and teaches the truth of the Bible. That’s the only kind of church that is truly a church at all. 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 or exalt Jesus, it will not be good for you no matter what else it might do.

Many churches offer a wide variety of activities. Some have aerobics classes and softball teams. Some host meetings of 12-step groups for people who suffer from addictions, or sponsor child care programs. Churches have a lot of different things going on, and maybe you are attracted by some of these things. And that’s not all bad. It’s wonderful to participate and to support each other, and if a church can encourage that through a variety of programs and activities, it may be a great help. But activities alone are not enough. 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. Only then is the church what God calls it to be. Only then is it be helpful for you to be part of that church.

Think of it in terms of looking for a home. When you’re looking for a home, you may like the carpets and the curtains, but if the foundation is collapsing, that’s one home you’d better avoid. In the same way, when you’re looking at a spiritual home, solid foundations are essential. If you’re looking at a church, don’t just look at the various programs and activities. Be sure to check the foundation.

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 on the inspired teachings of his prophets and apostles recorded in the Bible. A false church may have lots of activities and excitement, if it’s not Bible-based and Christ-centered, it is worse than useless. The only church worth joining is a church with a solid foundation, a church that teaches the Bible and exalts Jesus.

David Feddes here again, and we’re talking about choosing a church. We’ve seen that we shouldn’t expect to find a perfect church, but we also seen that we shouldn’t settle for just any church. We must be sure that the foundation is solid, that the church exalts Jesus Christ and teaches the truth of the Bible.

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, or even if you’re a long-time member of a church, be on your guard. Don’t be paranoid or nitpicky, but be careful. Check whether a church has a solid foundation and is spiritually alive.

Be sure to find a church that teaches the truth of the Bible. This is not optional; it’s essential. After all, the Bible isn’t just a big book with some nice ideas. It is the Word of the living God, our only reliable guide to salvation and holiness. As the Bible puts it, “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 says some things you’d rather not hear, even if there is some painful rebuking and correcting. God doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear; he tells us what we need to hear. Not everything in the Bible fits our ways of thinking, but it is all true. And a faithful church is one that proclaims the truth whether people like it or not.

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). Genuine pastors will preach the Word “in season and out of season,” when it’s popular and when it’s not, when people like it and when they don’t like it. If you’re seeking God’s truth, find a church that preaches the Bible.

Never join a church that openly and deliberately 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 had certain opinions about sex, 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” or “Jesus wasn’t really born of a virgin, you know; the New Testament writers just made that up.” Statements like these reveal that a pastor does not believe that the Bible is God’s Word. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Don’t listen to him, and don’t join his 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 standard of divine truth, where God’s Word matters more than human opinions, where the preaching rings with biblical truth, where the people are encouraged to study the Bible personally and confirm for themselves what God is saying. That’s the sort of congregation that the Bible calls “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Join a church which teaches the truth of the Bible.

The second thing to look for in a church is whether it exalts Jesus Christ. This goes together with proclaiming the Bible, of course, since the Bible’s main purpose is to point us to Jesus. Beware of churches that talk about lots of stuff but don’t exalt Jesus or help you to encounter him. The Bible says, “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). Find a church that exalts Jesus.

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. If a church seems more interested in a certain agenda than in the person of Jesus, it is built on sand. You won’t want to be in it when it collapses.

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 the 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 magnificent words about Christ, and every true church will echo them. Notice that the church is a body, with Jesus Christ as its head. This means that 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 each of these in more detail.

First of all, the true church exalts Jesus by worshiping him as God. Now, when someone says that Jesus was God, make sure you know 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 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). “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.

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. Some churches don’t talk much about salvation. Their main objective 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, you may think that’s exactly 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 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 hell 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 can rescue us from eternal hell.

Be sure that your church exalts Jesus as the one and only way to be saved. 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. Jesus 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 revelations they 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).

If you want to exalt 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 exalts Jesus as God, it exalts him as the only Savior, and it also exalts 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. A genuine 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 teaching 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 you can 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 genuine church may not be perfect, but it is the body of Christ, and it is the best place in the world to encounter Christ.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you are part of the body of Christ. 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. You can’t remain all by yourself. Faith in Jesus is personal, but it is not private. It’s not just a matter of you and 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. The church of Jesus will have opportunities for you to use your abilities to help others, to grow closer to your fellow believers, to rejoice together in good times and stand together in times of deep sorrow and discouragement and doubt.

Most importantly, the church is where we encourage each other to honor Christ and hold each other accountable to follow the teachings of the Bible. So if you haven’t done so already, find a place of Christian fellowship that exalts Jesus Christ and teaches the truth of the Bible.

PRAYER

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

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