His Church or Ours
Note: To properly understand the position of the writer please read the author's message "To The Reader".
The twentieth century brought to popularity many groups of churches proclaiming they were not a denomination; groups such as the Navigators, The Way and The Vineyard. Some of them no longer required formal membership. Some of these groups met in typical institutional buildings, while others preferred the less formal setting of the home. Regardless of where they met, each shared a few things in common. Each had an organizational structure which tied all of its assemblies together administratively. Each had leaders which functioned at both the local and corporate level and each taught frozen doctrine, a subject we'll discuss later.
As the interest in the independent church structures previously mentioned increased, so also did interest in parachurch organizations such as Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade and Youth With a Mission. All these avoided taking a denominational label. Most also preferred to meet on days and times not traditionally the same as the mainline denominational churches. In this way they could escape criticism from the traditional churches. In fact by encouraging their following to join a local church (most often the influence was toward the mainline), they could be seen as a friend and partner of the traditional mainline church. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusade was particularly successful in this endeavor and many mainline churches actively supported this parachurch outreach. In the beginning most parachurch organizations preferred to be seen as a friend of the traditional institutional church rather than a rival.
Who wants war with a denominational giant? In a worldly sense one could see the logic here. The parachurch was successful at luring to its bosom a percentage of the membership of some of the largest and most powerful church organizations in the world.
In all fairness to the parachurch, this trend ignited a revival in many Christian's hearts, hearts which had lost the joy of their salvation. In a sense it awakened within many a new thinking. It broke the umbilical cord that attached and held churchgoers to their mainline denominational mind set. Could we consider these parachurch organizations a denomination? What is a denomination if not an organization and certainly the parachurch was an organization. It wasn't biblical however, and if it's not authorized by God then it's not a work of God. If it's not a work of God, then it must be a work of man. Let's not at this point get into black and white thinking by this I mean lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. The Spirit of God dwells in each believer, and it was believers who began the parachurch. These parachurches were organized for the purpose of expanding God's kingdom, and they did, so you can see not everything was bad. What does this mean then? It means the right people had the right motive, but the wrong vehicle. Even though they had the wrong vehicle, they still put forth the word of God in the power of his Spirit, and as you know the word of God never returns void. (Isaiah 55:11) The right vehicle had been placed in our hands about 2000 years before by Christ and He called it the church.
Right or wrong, thousands were drawn to these new parachurches. Thousands surrendered their lives to Christ at their meetings, but when they returned to their own institutional churches, with a renewed spiritual hunger, many found nothing but starvation awaiting them. This famine for the word of God brought them death because they could not survive on the few, old, musty, morsels they were fed. Here lies the dilemma. The parachurch shook many sleeping Christians awake and led many non-Christians down the aisle to the feet of Christ through the inspired preaching of the milk of God's word. Milk delivered to them in power. The milk given by these parachurches was super charged with the Spirit. The only problem was that most mainline denominational churches were also offering the salvation message (the milk) week after week in an effort to increase church enrollment. The milk they gave was like soda gone flat. It had no carbonation (no spirit). The milk of God's word had been delivered in the weakness of the flesh so often that it was like eating week old leftovers. Here lies the dilemma, the parachurch could revive them but not hold them. The institutional church could, through tradition, hold them but not revive them. Eventually many Christians bounced back and forth from one to the other until they reached a hardened petrified state. At this point they felt they had heard it all. They had seen all the church had to offer and had resigned themselves to lifelong, lukewarm, spiritual mediocrity.
Some parachurch organizations became so large that they eclipsed many institutional churches. Parachurch organizations most always claim to be nondenominational or interdenominational. They would protest any attempt to be labeled as a formal denomination, even though they meet enough of the criteria to easily be considered one. They may not require a formal membership, but they conduct their affairs and meetings with a formal leadership. They may not engage in baptism, but they do feed their flocks frozen doctrine. They do tie their assemblies together under one organizational umbrella and one earthly administration. Proclaiming they are not a church or denomination they nevertheless continue to teach frozen doctrine just like their mainline institutional counterparts. As these parachurch organizations developed they too fell victim to the same empire-building vanity that gave us the denominations of today.
One day a certain man entered his bosses office and politely asked for a pay increase. The boss said though he was most happy with this man's work, he couldn't give him one. When the worker asked why, his boss replied, "It's against company policy at this time." The worker then asked to talk to someone who could change the policy, but the boss replied, "that's against company policy also". You see it's possible to reason with a man. A man has life and a will that can be changed but how do you reason with a policy. You can't. Change is impossible. You can't sit down and talk to a policy, which explains why companies have them.
This same thinking applies when discussing frozen doctrine. You see, it might be possible to correct an imperfect doctrine held by some member of the church congregation. It might even be possible to correct an individual teacher, but how do you correct or change the doctrine of an entire denomination? You could devote your entire life to this task and never achieve it. First, it's unlikely they'll listen to you seriously. If they do, most often they'll debate it with you until you either see it their way, or they ask you to leave. In a denomination, doctrine is printed or engraved in stone and becomes a policy and who can change policy? Even Jesus never tried to enter the world of the Pharisees and change it from the inside. He didn't stay within the system to try and make it better. He opted instead to serve, worship and teach the truth outside the system and let the Pharisees come to him. He knew the cold heart of the Pharisees would not be swayed by him but would continue to teach the same frozen doctrine.
What is frozen doctrine? It's doctrine that refuses to yield to truth. It guards against change. It insulates itself against all challenges whether correct or not. It takes refuge behind clichés, like "we've always taught it this way," or, "do you think you have greater insight than the church fathers," or "you need to see it in the Greek to really understand it." They have a programmed set of verses to defend their doctrine against all challenges and won't consider taking a glance at another position, even if the other position is reasonable and well supported by God's word. To the denomination and its champions, being right is more important than gaining and growing in truth. They would rather defend their denomination (the home team) than confess any error in its doctrine. If they discovered that their Baptist or Lutheran church was in error, they might feel the necessity to leave. They might have to admit to themselves that they’ve been wrong and denominationalism is not scriptural. (I Corinthians 1:11-13) It's not! In the text below, substitute the names Luther, Wesley and Williams for Paul, Apollos and Cephas and hear how it sounds.
1 Corinthians 1:11-13
For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them [which are of the house] of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?
Once again, denominations consist of a plural number of church assemblies over which they exert administrative influence. Parachurch organizations consist of a plural number of Christian assemblies over which they have administrative influence. Is there a difference between an assembly of Christians gathered to worship and study God's word in a parachurch and Christians gathered in their church where they have assembled to worship and study God's word? Both the denominational church and the parachurch proclaim their frozen doctrinal excellence. One has a formal membership, the other has an informal membership. One proclaims itself to be a church, the other a body of believers. One usually meets in a formal setting and the other may or may not meet formally. Each has a professional leadership at both the local and corporate level. Let us not forget what a denomination is. A denomination is two or more Christian assemblies which meet regularly and which are joined together under any common (shared), man-contrived leadership. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck, it's most likely a duck. This applies to denominations also. Once any organization, parachurch or institution gathers Christians into separate groups, administrating each and teaching frozen doctrine, make no mistake, it's a denomination. Doctrine should never be served frozen. Doctrine must always bow to truth (John 17:17). Doctrine that bends to compromise is at best lukewarm.
A certain man together with his wife invited a respected friend to have dinner with them at their home. Desiring to honor their special guest, they excused themselves to visit the local market where they had planned to purchase an expensive cut of meat which they intended to share with their guest at dinner. Before leaving, they instructed their guest to make himself comfortable. A short time later, when they returned, they found their friend had rearranged their kitchen, because he felt his arrangement to be more efficient. To their shock and dismay, they also discovered he had removed a newly built closed in rear porch because he felt the house to be more attractive without it. He assured his hosts he had made these changes with the best of intentions. If you were the host, how would you feel? What would you say to your guest? Haven't we taken the same unauthorized liberties with Christ's church? Haven't we made changes in his house that he never gave us permission to make? What do you think Christ will say when he returns, when he sees what we've added, what we've taken away and what we've changed? Do you think he'll be pleased with our good intentions?
One of the greatest tragedies in the church today is the failure of Christians to realize that the church doesn't belong to them. The church belongs to Christ and was purchased with his sinless blood. We don't have the right blood type (sinless) to buy it back. It is not ours to change. Christ gave us a finished blueprint of the church, and the apostles left behind a complete working model built exactly to Christ's specifications though, even back then, many of its members had ideas on how to improve it.
How can anyone improve on Christ's design? Why do we think we have the right morally or legally to change his church? It doesn't belong to us! It is not ours to change! Where did Christ approve division under the heading of denominations? What Baptist's need to fear is that the Baptist church becomes the Baptist's church instead of Christ's church. If the church becomes Baptist, Catholic or any other brand name then it ceases to be the Lords. He's only coming back after one church - His - and it better not be attached to anyone or anything else. When it comes to his church Christ has exclusive ownership and shares it with no man or man made denomination. Remember the simple, sincere, loving church that Jesus purchased with His own precious blood was still a struggling infant when it was already under pressure to divide under various teachers (1 Corinthians 1:11-13).
Chloe reported to Paul from Corinth that groups had already begun to form around the teachings of some of Christianity's more notable teachers, men like Apollos, Peter and Paul. Some had even used the teachings of Christ as a reason to divide and denomonationalize. The very teachings that were given for our edification and growth; teachings meant to bring us together and give us greater understanding of God's purpose for our lives, had become an instrument of segregation and separation.
The church is often referred to as the body of Christ, and each of us in it are considered members. (I Corinthians 12) Can any member detached from the body survive? Can a hand severed from the arm remain alive? Can an eye, plucked out of the head continue to see? Can any member, mouth, or foot, serve the body once it has been cut off from its fellow members? Do we as disciples of Christ, have the right to divide the body of Christ as a butcher divides a side of beef? Can we label this part shoulder and another flank or loin? Why do we continue to repeat the same mistakes? Why do we continue to tear the body of Christ apart, calling this part Lutheran and another Wesleyan or Mennonite? When will we finally grow up together into one spiritual house, a house not bound together by the clever devices of men but by the bonds of unity and the love of God? When will we burn the articles of incorporation, statements of faith and legislated contracts which only make a mockery of real unity and instead, reach out in prideless, selfless love to one another and reveal to this lost, hell-bound world, what love and unity really are? This is how the church that Jesus built is held together; it's different, much different than the church of man. The unity of man is carnal. The unity of Christ is spiritual. The unity of man is temporal; the unity of Christ is eternal.
We must first see the pit if we are to keep from falling in. We must clarify in our own hearts and minds what a denomination is if we are to avoid becoming one. The key to understanding church structure is first to agree on whose church it is. Who truly leads it? The word of God (Colossians 1:18) says Christ is the head of the church. We must also consider the previous verse very carefully, "By Him all things consist" (Colossians 1:17); literally that means by him all things are held together. If Christ alone holds all things together then all assemblies must meet in, and through, him. He is the touch point of all who meet in his name. He is the sole, undisputed leader of all; he is preeminent. If this is so, then each assembly called a church must be independent of the world with all its carnal devices, no matter how well meaning. Jesus alone through the power of the Holy Spirit must be the sole conductor, sole authority and sole administrator. It's His church; it is now, and it always has been. Consider the obvious implication of Acts 2:47.
Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
It wasn't the leaders who added to the church, it was the Lord. He does not need our help to build his church but he does allow us to enter into his labors. Pray the Lord of the harvest will send laborers into his harvest. He delights in working together with us. We must never attempt to control, dominate or regulate the growth or shape of his kingdom, especially as it applies to his church. Christ is the only architect, the only master builder, and God alone determines who will enter the harvest. As servants of Christ we must wait to be called. We must pray to be sent to the harvest. God alone has the authority to send us and we dare not assume a commission we have not been given. Many have answered a call they never were given. Others have answered the wrong call and others have arbitrarily taken it upon themselves to widen the borders of their call, seizing authority without his permission.
Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.
One of the functions of the church is that of equipping the saints. A church can best equip saints when it has itself been fully equipped. When a church has been equipped with the leaders and gifts God deems necessary to sustain it then it moves and functions independent of carnal reason or carnal authority. Once the church has been planted, it's now free to look only to Christ for direction. It needs no Apostle to oversee the overseers, nor a board of directors nor signed contacts nor statements of faith. Like each individual Christian that makes up its body, it must be free to serve God or man, to walk righteously or in apostasy, obey the word of God and love one another or disobey.
The tendency of the natural man is to build and organize carnal empires as monuments to his achievements. In the institutional churches, the success of a leader is often measured by the number of followers he can gather into one building or how successful he was in the completion of a church building project. The weakness of the spiritual man allows the desires of the natural man to influence his reason. He forgets that his mission is to please God, and he compromises his service to God by trying to please men at the same time. He begins to reason that pleasing his church leaders, by building greater numbers or raising more funds, is automatically pleasing to God.
For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.
I fear that the house church movement of today will also fall victim to these same carnal appetites. Some of its leaders have already begun the process of creating a denomination. This happens when we, as Christians, fail to see and understand what a denomination is. For the record, a denomination is:
Two or more church assemblies meeting under any shared earthly leadership.
Once a church has begun to function according to the word of God, the instrument God used to plant it (the apostle or planter) must allow it to stand or fall on its own. He may continue to advise, consult and pray for it, but he must not attempt to oversee its overseers. All churches fall under one leadership, the leadership of Christ. After all, there is only one Lord one faith and one true baptism, and we will all meet our Lord at one time when he returns for his church. If churches are to experience unity, then it must be on a different level. It must not come about because they have been organized together under the common leadership of men but rather come as a result of a God-given hunger to know and love each other as saints, the chosen of God. Small independent groups who now meet in homes soon find a deep longing to reach out to others who meet in Jesus' name. They yearn optimistically for others in the family of God, hoping to find fertile ground for their relationships to grow. Those who are under empire builders are discouraged from having outside contact. They are taught to approach other Christian groups with fear and apprehension. Christians are not wimps if they're well taught. They won't fall with every passing wind of false doctrine. We need to seek out and build relationships with other brethren if we are to love them.
Some of today's house church leaders have become recognized by writing books on the practices of the early church. Over all, this has been a good thing and the material written has done much to stimulate the thinking of many institutionalized Christians. It has set many of them free from the confines of a dead and binding religious system. The problem that is now making its way into the house church movement is the same as the one that crept into the fledgling church at Corinth, only worse. At Corinth the brethren were separating under the teachings of Paul, Apollos and Peter but not with their approval. Paul, Apollos and Peter were not orchestrating such division or in any way encouraging it. Unlike the first-century leaders, some of today's well-known authors and leaders have begun to encourage such division. Some house church planters seek to advance their own vain ambitions by controlling clusters of small house church assemblies, assemblies who openly identify with the teachings of these leaders as they did in Corinth. (I Corinthians 1:11-13)
Many of those now gathering in house churches have discovered the value of a plural leadership. There is wisdom in the council of elders. As individual disciples become ready to assume positions of responsibility they should be recognized. They should be given opportunity to exercise the gifts they've been given, along with the discipline they've been taught. Plural leadership is healthy within a given assembly, so each church should have its own God appointed and gifted leadership, with all its elders fully accountable to the chief shepherd for the care and feeding of his flock. Remember the middle line of Hebrews 13:17, "As those that must give an account." Indeed each church leader will one day give an account when the chief shepherd returns.
1 Peter 5:2-4
Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.
So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
When any leader teaches, by word or example, that he has a special, privileged, relationship with God that allows him to judge other flocks or exercise authority as a mediator between God and man, he exceeds whatever call from God he may have had. When any man or group of men assume lordship (leadership) over more than one assembly (church) they put themselves in competition with Christ. There is no intermediate position between Christ and any church assembly. He is the only mediator between God, man, and his church.
I Timothy 2:5
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;
While the church is in the process of being spiritually built, and the living stones are being gathered, it cannot be considered a church. It is however a work in progress. Apostles (church planters) are sent to the work and have authority over it until such time as qualified elders have been identified and placed in positions of service. Once this has been accomplished the missionaries (apostles) must stand down. They may advise, encourage, plead with or pray for these churches, but they must not interfere. Church planters are sent to the work, not the church. The Apostle is sent out, not in. He is called to develop new church assemblies, not preside over existing ones. Jesus already has that job. (Colossians 1:18) Christ must be the true and only center of power and authority within the church, just as each cell of the human body has its own single nucleus. Each cell of the human body is both independent and co-dependent. Independent inasmuch as it is complete but co-dependent on those around it who bring life to it. We, as small independent house churches, are as the cells of the body, complete but dependent on other churches for our continued good health. We are the church, and as individual assemblies we must join ourselves to all assemblies who together make up the body of Christ.
We think that a successful church is one that meets on a regular basis and has a strong relationship with God and with its membership, but the cycle of growth in any true New Testament church is not complete and mature until it has developed strong relationships among other churches. Such relationships validate the credibility and health of each church. We can't consider ourselves whole without them. If these relationships form because a group of churches have unified under the teachings or leadership of an individual or ruling eldership, then they fail. There is no testimony for the church or glory for the Lord in such situations. The only way to please and honor our Lord Jesus is to obey him, love the brethren, think of others as better than ourselves, and be patient and kind with all who dwell in the household of God. Unity between church assemblies must be accomplished as a choice, a free choice. As a church we must choose to dwell together in unity through selfless, prideless love and for no other reason. In short we must have unity because we want it with all our hearts, and not because we've been legislated together by some charismatic leader, council, contract or designing legalist.
One of the best means to keep us from becoming little islands to ourselves has been the rise of house church conferences. These conferences promote relationships among the house churches by providing the opportunity to get to know each other, exchange ideas, share teachings and encourage visits back and forth among the various church assemblies. There are a number of these going on today and like everything else some who sponsor them have an empire-building agenda, while the concern of others is to build God's kingdom. May God grant us the wisdom to see and identify the difference. We, as Christians, must encourage the good and discourage the bad.
In the future, when Satan focuses his attention on these conferences, we'll see conference leaders validating those churches who support it and speaking evil against those who don't. We must fight against such wickedness. We must not allow our conferences to become a religious political party crushing all who dare oppose it while seeking to be another mediator between God and man. In the Old Testament a pilgrimage was made to the Temple once a year. These were happy occasions with great opportunities for fellowship and learning. Let's pray that today's conferences will likewise be opportunities to grow together in love. We are a family and Christ as Father is the family leader. In any natural, earthly family there is conflict. We see it in the pages of the New Testament among the members of the early church. True, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, but they were also living in the flesh. In each Christian this war rages. The Spirit and the flesh are contrary to each other and each seeks control.
In our natural earthly family we accept the fact that there may be younger less experienced brethren. Often these brethren think they have all the answers and this may frustrate both older siblings and parents. Should we, when this occurs, throw these prideful brothers or sisters out of the family? Do we cease to acknowledge them as siblings? Many of us have older brothers or sisters that we frustrated as much as the younger ones frustrated us. Were our older brothers and sisters always right? No, of course not. Are we? In all fairness, I think we'd have to admit in most cases the older ones were most likely to be right. There are Christian brothers and sisters that are younger and less experienced than we. There are those who are more experienced than we, and often there are those who we think are behind us in their spiritual development that we discover later to be more mature then we are. Maybe this is why wisdom and God's word suggest that we think of others as being better than ourselves. It may be more profitable for us to remember that we have one mouth and two ears. Perhaps we should learn to use them proportionately. Finding truth is always more profitable than being right. We didn't disown our natural family members when we differed from each other and likewise we shouldn't cast aside any of the brethren in our Spiritual household. May God grant us the grace to be patient with each other, which in turn will demonstrate the level of our own spiritual maturity.
Most of the brethren who now attend denominational churches know nothing of any return to first-century worship or the house church movement. They're not aware that denominationalism is contrary to God's word, or that many around the world today are seeking to find their way back to the early church of the Apostles, that simple, home-spun, loving church of the New testament. Many of us came from these ranks; lets be as patient with them as our families were with us when we thought we had all the answers.
One Closing Thought:
There is only one mediator between God and man and it's not a man-made organization, and there is only one sent by God to guide us into all truth, and he's not a denomination (I Timothy 2:5) (John 16:13). The one you obey is your master. Who should we obey? Whose church is it?