|Volume 24 Number 1 January 2022
When Does the Church
Cease to Be the Church?
T. Pierce Brown
In the last year or so we have found an increasing number of persons who have decided that the church as a whole is no longer (if it ever was) the Church of Christ, but it is either a “big, sick denomination” or something equally reprehensible. This is different from the position that the churches “listed in the yellow pages” do not necessarily contain all Christians. The first position is that the churches “listed in the yellow pages” are not churches of Christ at all, but they may have a few Christians in them. We have no doubt that there are denominational tendencies in the church, and they have been from the beginning. We have no doubt that there are churches of Christ and individual Christians in the world who know nothing about the churches in America, and may not even know that there are “yellow pages.” We have no doubt that there are cultish tendencies and worldly tendencies in the church, but that does not prove that the church of the Lord is a denomination, a cult or the same as the world.
We are sympathetic toward those who hold the view we are now denying. For when we look at the average congregation and find such a contrast between what is and what should be, we are saddened. We may give a Bible examination to a group of teachers (the cream of the crop!) and find them woefully ignorant of even simple Bible facts. Few give more than lip-service, if even that, to soul winning. Some surveys indicate that up to 40%, including some elders, do not know why we do not use instrumental music in worship. An elder actually asked me why! Not being as gentle and kind as my wife would like, I replied, “I really do not know why you do not. Probably because you are too stingy to buy an organ!” Is it any wonder some ask, “Do you really claim this is the church about which you read in the Bible?”
It is not hard for me to sympathize with those who advocate “Lordship baptism” when I find large numbers who are connected, more or less loosely, with the Lord’s church who apparently know little more about the real import of baptism than a hog does about a side saddle. Yet, the ones who claim that such “churches of Christ” (and the ones with whom I have talked mean all of them) are not really churches of Christ are making some assumptions that may create “cures” worse than the disease, or no cure at all.
One of the assumptions is: A church must be functioning properly in every aspect according to the pattern authorized in the New Testament in order to be the Lord’s church. If anyone knows of any congregation that now exists or ever existed that always functioned just exactly as it should in all areas of shepherding, discipline, teaching, personal evangelism, giving and all other activities, we would like to hear from you! However, apparently, we must function to the degree that meets their standards of perfection or we have ceased to be the church of Christ. Or, to be more technically accurate, we must apply God’s standard of perfection in a way that satisfies them or they can no longer have fellowship with us.
This is not an effort to excuse, apologize for or condone sinful, indifferent or otherwise inept action in any of the above-mentioned areas. Yet, that a man ceases to be a Christian simply because he fails to function as he should in some area or that the church ceases to be the church simply because it fails to function as it should in one or more areas of church responsibility is untrue and scripturally indefensible!
Many things are wrong with the assumption that we shall not have space to discuss. First, though, if a congregation must function at all times according to the perfect pattern authorized in the New Testament, there never was a church of Christ! Neither Jerusalem, Corinth, Ephesus nor Laodicea did! And when and if our beloved brethren start one in their own homes, it will cease being one before its next convert! When we speak of the New Testament pattern, we should be talking of God’s perfect plan, not of the congregations of the Lord’s church that imperfectly practiced it – not even Jerusalem.
It is sad to hear brethren make fun of the principles of the Restoration Movement, raising such questions as, “Which church of the New Testament are we trying to go back to or restore its pattern? Is it the Corinthian church?” For any person who claims to be a Gospel preacher who must ask that kind of question is amazing. We are not trying to restore any one congregation or all of them to any pattern or practice of any other failing, erring church – which all of them were. We are trying to restore the pattern and the practice ordained and approved of God.
Second, although a lawn mower may have a dull blade and not be able to cut grass properly, it does not thereby cease to be a lawn mower. Even if one uses it as a golf cart, it does not thereby cease to be a lawn mower. So, a congregation of God’s people may have a large number of goats instead of sheep, dead branches instead of fruit bearing ones, tares instead of wheat and the Lord will gather out of His kingdom those that offend, but it did not thereby cease to be His kingdom.
If a person ever sinks so low on the scale of human depravity or climbs so high on the ladder of spiritual growth that he can neither get good from nor do good for these pitiful human creatures called “saints of God” at a given place, he will no doubt naturally withdraw into his little shell of selfish ungodliness, in the first case, or his little shell of self-righteousness, in the second case, and in both cases refuse any meaningful fellowship with the rest of us. However, he should be able to see that although we fail to practice perfectly what we preach about the value of “total commitment,” it does not necessarily mean we are hypocrites. It may mean that we need help to “discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NKJV). Although Paul said, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), and we do not practice it perfectly, we do not therefore cease to be Christians or members of Christ’s church.
The church will not be saved en masse. God saves us individually. When several of those individuals meet together, they constitute a local congregation – a church of Christ. The church may be organized, unorganized or disorganized. Such a church may get to the place where God will “vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:16), but it will not be simply because it fails to function at peak capacity in all areas.
There is no doubt in my mind that a very large number of those baptized have not properly understood the implications of Acts 2:36 but have rushed on to Acts 2:38 for their fire insurance. Yet, who has the great wisdom and the spiritual insight to know exactly how much “perfect love which casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and how much “terror of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:11) caused any person to respond? I teach that a person who becomes a Christian primarily through fear may lose that Christianity when he loses his fear. Yet, I do not have a right to say, “You are not a part of the church of Christ because fear was a part of your motive when you were baptized.” Although it is true that “By their fruits you shall know them,” it is not true that I have the right to assume that the fruit I see is the only fruit by which God judges His church. It is not true that I have a right to say to an eldership, “Because you do not demonstrate concern for your flock as you should, and thus neither you nor your flock bear fruit as you should, both you and they are unrepentant sinners, and therefore cease to be the church of Christ.”
I think I have a little more spiritual insight than I did more than 50 years ago when I obeyed the Gospel. However, that gives me no right to assume that other less fortunate persons than I who have not yet arrived at that blessed state cease to be a part of the church of our Lord! Nor does it give me any right to teach that I was not a Christian when I was still a babe in Christ almost 60 years ago.
One becomes a part of the Lord’s church when he, in obedient faith, upon accepting Christ as His Lord [through obedience culminating in baptism, Mark 16:16], is added to it by the Lord. As long as that group of persons who are thus added to the body of Christ meet together and (1) engage in teaching the true gospel, the obedience of which brings salvation (Romans 1:16) and (2) engage in practicing pure and undefiled religion (James 1:27), which includes acts of worship and service authorized of God, that is the church of the Lord, even though it fails to function as well as it should.
The Corinthians were probably worse than any group you know, but they were still the church of God for two reasons. First, they were willing to try to make the corrections God demanded. A group unwilling to do that will someday be spewed out of His mouth! Yet, we need to understand that, things being as they are, by the time they got one thing corrected, another would crop up! They still do! Second, they were still the church of God because a man could attend there, hear and obey the Gospel, be added to the Lord’s Church, worship in accordance to the pattern God revealed and do every Christian act God wants done, even if surrounded and outnumbered by carnal, ungodly, uncommitted men!
When a church teaches false doctrine, the belief and practice of which would prevent a man from becoming a Christian or prevent a man from worshiping and serving God properly simply because he is a part of that church, then the church would not be the Lord’s. However, must I cease to try to win a soul to Christ because 90% of those who claim membership in the same congregation do not seem to care? Can I take the Lord’s Supper properly, even if there are on both sides of me those who are chewing bubble gum, cleaning their fingernails, or shaking keys at the baby in front of them? One man suggested that since he saw no one’s chin quiver, nor tears flow down as the cup was passed, there was no spirituality, and thus that group was evidently not the Lord’s church! Therefore, he withdrew and started one of his own, presumably in which the cardinal rule was that each person must let his chin quiver as he took the Lord’s Supper!
I suggest that the preacher may be proud, covetous, factious or even ungodly and hypocritical; many members may be callused and indifferent; some may even be so spiritually arrogant that they consider it a waste of their time to associate with the common herd, but as long as one can become a Christian by obeying their teaching and continue in fellowship without participating or condoning their sins, continuing to practice his Christian duties toward God and his fellowman, it is a church of Christ.
[Editor’s Note: While all true children of God (baptized believers, Mark 16:16) ought to strive always toward biblical perfection, none of us will ever achieve true perfection (1 John 1:8, 10). Nevertheless, faithful Christians continue to strive toward biblical perfection – trying and trying again. That amounts to walking in the light as Jesus is in the light (1 John 1:7) or obedience to Jesus Christ and His Gospel (Hebrews 5:9; Romans 6:17). By this we are saved from our past sins (Romans 3:25) as well as have fellowship with other forgiven sinners and with God (1 John 1:3). Unfortunately, though, some Christians are still immature and growing (Hebrews 5:12-14) while others stray and need to be recovered (James 5:19-20). That’s the average congregation comprised of fallible humankind. Other churches of Christ may be troubled with overbearing personalities who demand their own way (Titus 3:10; 3 John 9-10). As bad and detrimental to a congregation, of course, are false teachers, who need to be identified and marginalized to protect other Christians (Romans 16:17-18). Imperfect congregations of the Lord’s church have within them faithful Christians (Revelation 3:4). Though we need to discern fruit to distinguish between truth and error (Matthew 7:15-20), final judgment belongs to Jesus Christ alone (James 4:12). If there was hope for the Corinthian church, there is hope for any congregation that is willing to turn to Scripture and honestly apply it to itself. Some congregations voluntarily leave our fellowship and their fellowship with God, but others are not altogether gone yet, and some of them may right themselves. ~ Louis Rushmore, Editor]