In a previous article under this title the importance of church membership was established. The church as an organization is the mother of God’s people. This is true from the viewpoint that through her ministry God brings His people to salvation in Jesus Christ and sustains them in that salvation. The ministries that God has given to the church are essentially three: the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. These three labors of the church are indispensable for our faith and salvation. Hence, there is the necessity of church membership.
If this is clear to us, then we will also understand the importance of belonging to a church which is faithful to her ministry. The principle here is that to the degree that a church fails in her calling to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline, to that degree she fails to be a useful tool in the hand of God to bring salvation to her members.
This is easily demonstrated for example with the preaching, which is the chief means of grace to the salvation of God’s people. In Galatians 1 the Apostle Paul speaks of those who were preaching a gospel which was no gospel. This was a gospel which was a perversion of the gospel of Christ brought to the Galatian churches by the Apostle. It was a gospel filled with false doctrine, which misrepresented God and His work of salvation in Jesus Christ. It was therefore a gospel which set forth not the truth but a lie. There is that kind of preaching. That kind of preaching was to be found not only in the Apostle’s day but also today. To the degree that this characterizes the preaching, to that degree it is not used by God to work faith and salvation in the hearts of His people. This only stands to reason. Do you expect the living God to work salvation through a gospel that misrepresents Him, that speaks a lie about Him? God uses only the preaching of the truth to work His salvation.
The same principle applies equally to the sacraments. The sacraments are subordinate to and directly connected with the preaching. The salvation of God proclaimed in the preaching is visibly represented in the sacraments. Consequently, when false doctrine finds its way into the preaching, this usually results in a corruption of the sacraments. And again, to the degree that the sacraments are corrupted, to that degree they are ineffective to strengthen the faith of God’s people. If the church teaches a wrong conception of the sacraments, if the sacraments are administered indiscriminately or in some other way than the way God intended, they are then rendered ineffectual as a means of grace. The sacraments are powerful to strengthen the faith of God’s people only when properly administered.
Finally, the same principle holds true for the exercise of Christian discipline. God uses the exercise of Christian discipline by the elders or rulers of the church to keep His people faithful to His Word with respect to both their confession and walk of life. But should the church be lax in Christian discipline, allowing her members to confess and live in a way contrary to God’s Word, then the people of God suffer. God’s people need that faithful discipline of the rulers of the church. And when that discipline is wanting, the sheep of God are prone to wander and stray to their own hurt.
Hence, it is of utmost importance that we belong to a church which is faithful to her calling before God as church. The spiritual wellbeing of us and our children depend on membership in a church which preaches the gospel of salvation in purity, which administers the sacraments properly, and which exercises Christian discipline faithfully.
Many churches today are not faithful to the calling God has given them. We must not be blind to this. The tendency today among Christians is to accept without criticism and scrutiny anything that goes under the name “Christian” or “church.” To do this is to fail to reckon with reality and the Word of God.
The Word of God tells us to expect unfaithfulness in the church of the New Dispensation. Thus, for example, inMatthew 24:5, 6 where Christ tells His disciples of the signs of His coming and what they may expect in the future we read, “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in My name, saying I am Christ; and shall deceive many.” And again in verse 24 we read, “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” Thus, according to the word of Christ, we must expect to find today false Christs and false prophets who proclaim not the gospel of God but the false gospel of these false Christs. They will also be deceptive in their work. They will try to mask their false gospel to make it appear as the gospel of truth. We must not ignore this prophecy of Christ. We must not hide our heads in the sand and pretend that all that goes by the name “Christian” today is good and acceptable. According to Christ’s prophecy there are many false prophets today preaching the doctrine of Satan and hell, masking it as the gospel of light.
And where do we find these false prophets? We find them in the church. This is made plain for us in II Peter 2:1, 2, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies. . .and many shall follow their pernicious ways.” Notice, even as there were false prophets among the people of Israel in the Old Dispensation (cf. the preceding chapter), so also shall there be false teachers among “you.” That “you” refers to the church of the New Dispensation which is addressed in this epistle. Hence, you will find these false prophets in the church. Into the church they will bring their damnable heresies. From the pulpits they will proclaim these heresies. And many shall follow their pernicious ways. To ignore this prophecy and blindly follow the teachings of anyone who appears on the pulpit proclaiming “Lord, Lord,” is to invite disaster.
In harmony with the appearance of false prophets in the church of the New Dispensation is what may be called the rise of the false church. As a result of these false prophets who bring their damnable heresies into the church, many churches will drift further and further away from the truth. At first these departures may not seem so significant. This is in harmony with the deceitful way in which the false prophet operates. Should the first departure from the truth be too noticeable, it would be cast out by the faithful. Hence,the false teacher starts small with a view to greater things to come. And these great departures do come. For the truth is one; and an “insignificant” departure soon works as a leaven so that soon the whole truth of God’s Word is corrupted and overthrown. As a result of these false teachers therefore, a church once having departed will drift further and further away from the truth of God’s Word until finally it has absolutely no gospel left and becomes a false and apostate church.
And, according to the Scriptures, this apostasy will characterize the vast majority of the church world in the last days before the coming of Christ. This is evident for example from II Thessalonians 2. Here Paul speaks of the man of sin, the son of perdition that will be revealed in the last days (II Thess. 2:3). This man of sin is the Antichrist, the false Christ of which our Lord spoke inMatthew 24. For according to II Thessalonians 2 his “coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders” (II Thess. 2:9). He furthermore “opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped” (II Thess. 2:4). And where will this Antichrist be found? He will be found, according to verse 4, in the temple of God, in the church. He will set himself up as God in the church, which certainly indicates that he will dominate and control the church. This is God’s Word. This is what we may expect in the last days. Before Christ comes again the church as a whole will fall away and become false and apostate.
We see this sort of thing happening right before our eyes, if we have our eyes open. There are many churches today which have completely apostatized. These are churches which historically stood foursquare upon the Word of God. But now the Word of God is gone. In these churches the Bible is viewed as being merely a human book, no more reliable than any other historical writing. The theology propounded is the theology of the social gospel. Jesus Christ is not the Son of God come in the flesh. He was merely a man, a good and worthy example for us to follow. The reconciliation He accomplished at the cross is not the reconciliation between God and man, but between man and man. The goal of these churches is to make this world a better place in which to live, a heaven on earth. In effect, they have taken the Christ of the gospel and excommunicated Him.
Other churches there are that are at various stages of apostasy. They have not completely lost the gospel of Christ but are drifting further and further away. The preaching is to one degree or another adulterated with false doctrine. Neither is Christian discipline faithfully exercised. These churches are on the way down. If they do not and will not turn from their apostatizing ways it is only a matter of time before they too will become completely false. Such is the ecclesiastical situation today.
What then is our calling as God’s people? Should we find ourselves in an apostate or apostatizing church (and there are many who recognize their church as such) our calling is to call our church to repentance in the proper ecclesiastical way. And, this failing, it is our calling to separate from that institution and join ourselves to a church where the Word of God is honored and preached and maintained in Christian discipline. This is not easy; yet it is necessary and important. To continue with an apostatizing church is injurious to our spiritual health. We will suffer spiritually as we are fed stones for bread. And our children, and future generations, should we stay with such a church, will die with that church. Leave your children on a sinking ship and they will sink with it.
Should we however find ourselves in a church faithful to her calling, our calling as God’s people is to stay with that church. Certainly we may not leave her to join ourselves to a church which is departing. Our calling is to continue in such a church and as members seek to keep her faithful to God’s Word that we and our children may continue to enjoy the riches of God’s blessing and salvation.