Why bother going to church? After all, many churches are led by manipulative pastors, who care more about building their kingdoms than extending God’s. Churches are also filled with backbiting hypocrites – and many are designed more to entertain than to actually form people into the image of Christ.
That’s the sentiment of many Christians today and why many are dispensing with church. According to the Barna Group, only 36% of Americans now go to church, down from 43% in 2004. And, I get it. I’ve had my share of frustrations with churches. So, when Steven called my radio program, Up for Debate, on Saturday and said he’s decided to make radio and TV his church, I understood his feelings. “I get the same spiritual fulfillment (from listening to broadcast preachers) than those who go to church,” he said. By bypassing church, though, “you don’t have to deal with the scrutiny of the church membership and the gossip… because in a lot of places, that goes on – every church. And, that’s the thing that I cannot stand about churches today.”
A number of folks expressed similar sentiments last week on the Up For Debate Facebook page. Anne McGowan wrote, “I have experienced many church models in many countries and in every place, without exception, the need for the leaders to control the assembly, whether from misplaced concern or from plain old manipulation, is evident.” Similarly, Michael Miller wrote, “I have found greater presence of God’s Spirit and communion with my Savior Jesus Christ as I worship at home. I do not miss the gathering at a building. I am free from dealing with ‘personality’ problems of folks.”
Scott Andrews echoed the sentiments of Christian author and conference speaker Donald Miller, which I aired on Up For Debate on Saturday and you can hear in the clip below. “Donald Miller took the words right out of my mouth,” Andrews said. “I don’t get anything out of Sunday morning singing and lecture period.”
But, are Christians really free to disassociate themselves from other believers – and define and practice church however they please? Obviously, the organized church has its problems. But, what are the problems with the individualized or disorganized church?
My guest Saturday, Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks (a group that exists to equip local churches) noted one problem – authority. Today, that’s sort of a dirty word. Authority has been so misused that few believe it can actually be exercised properly. But, as Jonathan explained, authority isn’t man’s idea; it’s God’s. In 1 Timothy 3, Scripture clearly outlines that churches are to be led by overseers and deacons and outlines the qualifications for both. Also, Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Now, I know some of you may be wondering: since authority is so often misused why would God do that?
I thought Jonathan gave an excellent argument for this. In the clip below, you can hear him interact with Steven on this topic.
Essentially Jonathan explained that actual local churches, by baptizing and conferring membership on other believers, affirm to the world that a person is a follower of Christ. It’s true that each one of us knows our adoption into God’s family by the deposit of the Holy Spirit in us. But, this may not be apparent to many young believers and especially unbelievers. So, the church’s affirmation through membership and the sacraments helps identify Christians to others.
But, Jonathan noted another benefit. A properly functioning church can, and truly must, exercise church discipline. For those concerned about hypocrisy, this is the biblical solution. My church, for example, has withheld communion from people involved in sexual immorality. Jonathan’s church has actually excommunicated people for flagrantly violating God’s law. That may sound harsh, but this is how God defends His name. It’s also how He lovingly chastens those who are headed toward destruction. If you doubt me, read 1 Cor. 5, where Paul instructs the church to hand over to Satan a man who’s sleeping with his mother “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” If we are called by God’s name, they must act accordingly.
Authoritative leadership also affirms true doctrine. I mentioned this towards the end of the program on Saturday. Anyone who’s studied church history knows that one of the main functions of the church, especially in the first few centuries, was to reject heresy and establish right doctrine. Thanks to several authoritative councils, for example, the church embraced the doctrine of the Trinity and the understanding of Jesus as fully human and also fully divine. Author Wayne Jacobsen of Lifestream Ministries challenged that this function of the church in establishing doctrine is actually helpful. He pointed to doctrine as something that divides the church today. Yet, separation is not all bad. I want to separate from those like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the divinity of Christ – or Mormons, who teach that Jesus and Satan are spirit brothers. With so much false teaching today, the role of the church in affirming true doctrine is essential.
Of course, there are many other reasons to attend a tangible local church that have nothing to do with authority. Only in community with other believers can we fulfill the “one another” commands of Scripture: confess sins to one another (James 5:16); serve one another (Gal. 5:13); encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11); challenge one another (Hebrews 10:24); etc… Sure, listening to radio and TV preachers may edify you. But, by involving yourself in the church, you edify others.
The church also organizes and mobilizes Christians for mission. Imagine an army trying to fight a war without any organization or training! That’s essentially what trying to engage in God’s mission as lone rangers is like.
The local church also provides weekly teaching, worship and fellowship. God created us to need this kind of regular input. That’s why he instructed us to “not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.” (Hebrews 10:25)
Like I said earlier, though, I understand peoples’ frustration with church. I have served under leaders who belittled and slandered me. I have sat through services that reduced the gospel to a Hollywood performance. And, I have witnessed donations being used inappropriately. This side of heaven, the church will continue to be filled with saints who sin. Truth be told, I am a saint who sins. But, that’s not a valid reason to give up on church, which quite frankly is not an impersonal institution. It’s comprised of your brothers and sisters who desire to fellowship with you. Will you be willing to fellowship with them?