By Richard Montgomery
“One faith or church is as good as another” and “join the church of your choice” are two well worn phrases among religionists who have less than an accurate concept and understanding of basic New Testament teaching. This kind of thinking stems from the idea that service to God is regulated by human preference and is to some degree optional.
First, the Bible denies that one faith is as good as another through positive affirmations that there is but one faith. In Ephesians 4:5, regarding the unity that characterizes disciples’ relationship with God, Paul said there is but “one faith”. This truth is reinforced in numerous passages that allude to “the faith” (metonomy for the whole system or gospel in which one exercises faith in order to become a Christian). For example, Jude wrote of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” “The faith” is to be preached and obeyed (Rom. 16:26). This system of doctrine is not to be amended by man (2 John 9, Gal. 1:7-9). Thus, though there are many faiths extant in today’s religious “scenario,” there is only “one faith” wherein God’s power unto salvation resides. Faith is not a matter of human preference.
Similarly, the New Testament, in effect, confutes the human claim that “one church is as good as another.” When a person obeys the gospel of Christ, he enters a reconciled relationship with God in common with all others who have been redeemed. The Hebrew writer describes this as coming “to the general assembly and church of the firstborn (p. 1 – literally, firstborn ones – RM) who are enrolled in heaven . . .” (Hebrews 12:22,23). Paul describes this collectivity under the figure of “one body” (Eph. 4:4) which is the church (Col. 1:18). Affiliation with such is not a matter of preference, rather, God adds those such as should be saved (Acts 2:47). There is only one body or church in the aggregate or universal sense, and it is simply all people who are “in Christ.”
There is, however, an area where human preference could be exercised justifiably, providing scriptural criterion is employed – the local church. Whereas there is only one church in the universal sense, there have been, are, and can be many local churches. Paul wrote to many churches in the Roman province of Galatia (Gal. 1:2); there were several churches in Asia (Rev. 1-3); etc., etc. That a degree of human preference is involved in these situations is evidenced by the fact that people of Christ join themselves together in local churches of Christ (Acts 9:26-28). A local church is different from the universal church in that it is comprised of some of the redeemed as opposed to all the redeemed., A local church has Organization (elders and deacons, Phil. 1:1). It is a situation in which people of Christ have banded together in (1) agreement, (2) pooling of resources and (3) under oversight and supervision to do the things Christ has authorized as the work of the local church. This arrangement is not optional; the Lord wills that a part of our overall service as Christians entails working and worshiping with other Christians (Heb. 10:24,25). However, many times opportunity presents brethren with choices regarding which local church of many to join or place membership.
Things To Consider When Exercising Preference Regarding A Local Church
1. Choose A Church That Is “Of Christ. ” Since the word “church” is used as a collective noun in the New Testament and simply suggests “Christians (people belonging to Christ) together, ” it is readily transparent that one local church is not as good as another.’For example, a local Methodist church is simply composed of “Methodists together.” But the Methodist Discipline does not comport with New Testament teaching regarding man’s obedience unto salvation. Therefore, Methodist are neither “in Christ” nor “of Christ.” They are not Christians in the Bible sense of the word. And a collectivity of Methodists is not a collectivity (church) of (belonging to) Christ. Remember, people compose churches, and one factor that distinguishes churches is people – people either belonging to and faithful to Christ or people who are not. The former is obviously eminently preferable.
2. Choose A Church That Demands Bible Teaching. Paul warned of brethren who would cease to endure sound doctrine and would appropriate teachers who would suit their fancy (2 Tim. 4:3). Conversely, Paul’s inspired prescription for churches in Crete was a hearty, consistent program of sound doctrine (Tit. 1:5,9; 2:1). Why? Because it is the truth that makes us free (John 8:32) and keeps us free (Gal. 3:1; 5:14). Brethren, weak preaching and teaching makes weak Christians and, consequently, weak churches! The true church is the “pillar and ground ,of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and local churches are to demand Bible teaching and preaching and provide for the propagation of the gospel (Phil. 2:15,16).
3. Choose A Church That Abides In Sound Doctrine. Theory is one thing; practice is another, and is vitally important as well. Some churches are sound in theory, but slothful (yea, dead!) in practice (Rev. 2:1,2; 3:1). Often churches have become infused with the leaven of perverted doctrine, modernism and unauthorized practices (Rev. 2:14,15). Neither of these situations is for the Christian who aspires to remain faithful and in fellowship with God. Remember, in both cases cited from the Revelation, the Lord called upon all to hear and repent, or else! The fact is, there comes a time when the faithful must take a stand for truth and “come out from among them” (2 Cor. 6:17). Fellowship with God is contingent upon “walking in the light as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7). This is true of individual saint relationships with God, and is true in principle of our “together activities” in the local church. Christians “individually’ or Christians “together” who cease to abide in sound doctrine and practice (light), have no fellowship with God! So, in a manner of speaking, “one so-called church of Christ is not as good as another”.
Friends let us be characterized by the kind of wisdom that “cometh from above” (Jas. 3:17) in exercising our “preferences” in religion. We must recognize that some things are not matters of preference. Yet, in those areas where we have latitude, we must be regulated by scriptural principles. How foolish it is to allow our decisions regarding a local church to be ruled by its size, meeting house or location. Instead of being prejudiced against large or small congregations, shouldn’t we be more concerned with reaching as many lost souls and edifying as many saints as we can? Rather than being hung-up on architecture and style of church buildings, shouldn’t we be satisfied with well equipped and well-maintained places in which to study and worship? And, though brethren ought to choose locations in which optimum service might be rendered and even be willing to re-locate if the cause would be advanced, shouldn’t we be willing to drive past a dozen (or more) more conveniently located so-called churches of Christ in order to work and worship with a church composed of brethren who are sound in the faith?
Preference can be a rich faculty if properly motivated and acquitted. It can be devastating if not used wisely.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 10, pp. 297-298
May 17, 1984