Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are always looking for a new church to join. Some are leaving other religious sects because of disillusionment or dissatisfaction. What church should a Christian join or attend? How do some people go about finding such a church?
Some are looking for something of a social club with good music and youth programs. Others are looking more for company and new friends. Some want to find good business contacts. Some just think it is the proper thing to do to be accepted in their communities. Some are looking for Biblical truth or a program for Biblical study. Others just want a pastor they like because they did not like the last one. Others have hidden agendas.
At the outset let us say that there is a difference between “joining” a church, and “attending” one. One may attend any number of churches to “audit” or examine them without ever joining such. Many persons do this, and in the process go through several churches until they find one they are comfortable with.
Many of us were raised in the churches or religions of our parents. So a child raised as a Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or one of the other ten thousand sects, may feel comfortable with that background. Some may feel uncomfortable in changing their spiritual environment. For example, a Christian used to a rather quiet and staid church program, may feel uncomfortable in a church where there is loud preaching, loud singing, dancing up and down and other characteristics of that sect.
But, before we answer the question of what church one ought to join, perhaps we could ask, “Is there a church or organization I should not ‘join’?” If we were to ask the founder of Christianity, Jesus the Nazarene, what might be his answer?
The beloved Messiah-type David asked his God to test or examine him regarding his integrity. In Psalm 26 the godly shepherd states:
“I have never sat down with deceitful persons, nor have I ever joined pretenders. I have hated the church of harmful persons, and I would never sit with lawless persons.” [Psalm 26:4, 5 Hebrew Scriptures 2001]
David shows his caution regarding the people he associates with. He tells Yehowah that he has never sat down with deceitful people. (Or, dwelt with [PBV], sat with [ASV], consort with [RSV], mix with [HAR], not associated with [BER]) David has shunned certain types of people. “Sat down” is poetically paralleled with “joined” or “fellowship.” So David has certain boundaries regarding what kind of people he will associate or fellowship with. David has learned who these are because they have given evidence of such deceitfulness. These existed within the Christian Church also and disciples of the Nazarene are warned against such persons. [2 Corinthians 11:13, 14]
David says he would not join “pretenders.” David does not associate or fellowship with certain types of persons. Paul warned of the same thing within the Christian Church. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18] David calls these “pretenders.” That is, dissemblers [KJV], deceitful [PBV], hypocrites [HAR]. David has learned to recognize the two-faced hypocrite. The Hebrew is ‘ALAM [Strong's Exhaustive Concordance # 5956] and infers a person who conceals or hides what they truly are. [James 3:17]
This is so even with a “church” (Or, congregation [KJV], company [HAR], convocation [RHM]) The Hebrew is QAHAL [Strong's Exhaustive Concordance #6951] and suggests an assembly for religious purposes, or an organized body. The Greek [LXX] is ECCLESIAN [ecclesia]. Even in a religious or worshipful environment David exercises caution and refuses to associate and fellowship with deceitful hypocrites. These persons are also “harmful persons.” That is, evildoers [KJV], criminals HAR], sinners [TAY]. Evil or wickedness is almost always harmful or hurtful of others. Certainly the height of such is murder or manslaughter. Such persons “have no everlasting life remaining in them,” John warns, and according to him this can involve just hate. [1 John 3:15] David says he will not “sit with” (Or, go in with [KJV], fellowship [PBV], consort with [RSV], associate with [HAR], fellowship with [HAR]) “lawless persons.”
Like David, Jesus also forewarned his own personal disciples about deceptive counterfeits who would claim his authority and yet preach the wrong thing. For example, he cautioned his own apostles,
“You disciples be careful you are not deceived. For many will show up claiming my authority, saying, … ‘The time is at hand!’ You should never follow them!” [Luke 21:8 NCMM]
The Nazarene tells his intimate apostles to “take heed that ye be not deceived.” [KJV] Throughout the Gospel Age men and women acting as prophets have misled millions of Christians by the twisting and false application of what Jesus goes on to teach in this same chapter. Jesus says some will claim his authority as though they were the only “channel” God was using. These are Christian deceivers who prey upon people’s hopes and expectations.
Our Lord identifies a particular message that ought to set off alarms, “The time is at hand!” He says, “You should never follow them.” Or as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, “Do not join them.” Unfortunately millions have been misled by such claims that ‘the time is at hand’ and these have donated billions of dollars to such movements throughout the history of the Church. Jesus’ counsel is simple and straightforward - DO NOT JOIN THEM. So, Christ gives at least one reason not to join a particular group or church.
The apostle Paul also gives warnings about spiritual association with certain types of people. After mentioning to the evangelist Timothy that in God’s Household there are two kinds of “vessels” - and one should be avoided - he continues to describe some of the attitudes and actions to be found among those people to be avoided. We read of this in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 -
But, realize this, [Timothy,] that in the last days there will a fierce season. 2 Because humans will be filled with self-love, lovers of money, arrogant, egotistical, blasphemers, disobedient to their parents, without gratitude, irreverent, 3 lacking natural affection, disagreeable, slanderers, undisciplined, fierce, unkind, 4 disloyal, headstrong, puffed up with pride, more fond of pleasures than any fondness for God, 5 with an outward appearance of reverence but resisting its influence. Avoid such people!” [NCMM]
Paul cautions Timothy to “avoid such people” who have an “outward appearance of reverence but [keep] resisting its influence.”
So, David, Jesus and Paul all warn about not joining certain groups of people. Surely this presents special problems for sincere Bible students who long for Christian association.
As mentioned above, there is a big difference between ‘attending’ a church, and ‘joining’ a church. Most people are church-attenders and not church-joiners. In other words, most people who go to church are “parishioners” who essentially enjoy the services, donate their money, and then leave. A person who actually “joins” a church is likely to become more involved in the inner workings of the group.
If such church-joiners get very involved they will be exposed more and more the heart of the organization. In some sects men will, as it were, work their way up the corporate ladder. First, they are asked to be ushers or attendants. Then, they will be encouraged to become deacons, and after several years - elders. This “joining” carries with it some problems for some people. As in any group of humans there are bound to be weak, confrontational and ambitious persons. This always creates a divisive atmosphere as groups polarize around a person or group or idea. Paul addresses all of this in his first epistle to the Corinthian congregation. [1 Corinthians chapter 1]
So, if a person merely wants to “attend” a local church, there is generally something of a buffet to select from in the community. Such persons are seldom exposed to the inner conflicts within the congregation. They may never become embroiled in jealousies or schisms. They may never become the brunt of slander and envy. However, such persons - warm and comfortable in their church - may be very limited in what they can do with the Master’s “mina” or “talent.”
True, they can still do much good, but in some cases they will be limited in what they can say. For example, in one church they might find a degree of Christian liberty in expressing their own thoughts. But, in another they only land in trouble with threats if they do not walk the perfect “party line.” It is reported, for example, that among some Churches of Christ or Pentecostals some are allowed a degree of freedom in expressing themselves. This is also true among smaller churches such as the Berean Bible Students. So, even though the official church line might include the Trinity doctrine, no censor befalls those who no longer believe in a triune God. To some extent this is even true in the Roman Catholic Church.
Most churches hold Bible Study Classes and many find these more open and free. Usually these follow subject material or a weekly Bible reading. Expressions from others who are finding it difficult to locate with a church that holds their same beliefs, state that they have enjoyed such Bible Study Classes.
If a Christian, for their own conscientious reasons or circumstances, cannot find a church or congregation where they feel comfortable, they can always start their own Bible Reading Group. This is being done all over the world. Families and neighbors and friends meet regularly to read the Bible and discuss among themselves the truths they discover. Whether a person wishes to use a particular Bible version, or a commentary on such, is a personal matter. Some may find it helpful to follow the Weekly Bible Reading program published each Sunday on the Friends of the Nazarene eGroup talk list. For example, currently the Acts of the Apostles is being followed. Each week a chapter is posted that includes the footnotes from Nazarene Commentary 2000©. Also, each day a particular verse is discussed from that week’s chapter.
Each group throughout the world is free to choose their own format and bear their own responsibility before God. If seed is planted well and with the blessing of God this little Bible Reading Group may find themselves joined with more and more interested persons. May our God bless all such like-minded people who seek spiritual and moral Christian association.
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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