How Can I Tell A Good Church from A Bad One?|
Posted: October 10, 2005
Looking for a church can be a daunting task. Should I pick Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, Nondenominational, or something else? Should I go to the "fastest growing church in town," the "friendliest church around," or the "church on the move." Do I want contemporary, traditional, casual, structured, or unstructured services? Would I feel more spiritual worshiping at that historic downtown building or be more comfortable in the new architectural marvel out by the interstate? What's the difference anyway-aren't all churches essentially the same? How can I tell a good church from a bad one?
Now, there are a variety of ways to find a church. You could simply drive around until you find one. Or, you could pick up the telephone book or scan the local newspaper to see what is available. Another way is to ask around. But still the question remains, how can I tell a good church from a bad one?
John writes in John 7:24: "Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment." In other words, if we want to tell the difference between a good church and a bad one, we need to use God's criteria instead of ours. To do so, we need to compare the makeup, message, and mission of a church with the New Testament description of a church. If a church does not line up with the Bible in these areas, then it is not-no matter what its sign or society says-a good church.
The first way to tell a good church from a bad one is to determine its makeup. For instance, we often call a building a church. We might refer to a denomination as a church. We may think of a group that meets every Sunday as a church. We may even refer to a television or radio audience as a church. I've even had people wave their arms in a great sweeping circle and say, "NATURE is my church!" But are those really scriptural churches?
In 1 Corinthians 16:19 Paul writes "The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house." The Greek word translated as church is ekklesia. It refers to an assembly of people called together by a magistrate or other authority for a specific purpose.
Now Paul was not referring to a building in 1 Corinthians 16:19. As nice or impressive as a building may be it is not an ekklesia. If you believe that it is, try substituting "building" for "church" in 1 Corinthians 16:19: "The [buildings] of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the [building] that is in their house." Doesn't make much sense, does it?
The church was meeting in the HOUSE of Aquilla and Priscilla, just like other churches that met in the HOUSES of Nymphas (Colossians:15) and Philemon (Philemon 1:1-2). And it was the assembly-not the building-that received greetings from other local assemblies scattered throughout Asia. A building might house a church but it is not the church.
Paul was not referring a denomination or a television audience either. He was speaking in 1 Corinthians 16:19 of a specific group of people who were assembling together in a specific place: Aquila and Priscilla's house.
But it was not just any assembly. It was an assembly of born-again, baptized Believers. You can see this clearly in Acts 2:41,47: "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. …And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." These newly saved people were baptized and then added to a group of previously saved and baptized Believers. No matter what an assembly of unsaved people or unbaptized Believers might call themselves, they are not a church in the New Testament sense.
If we are not talking about a local assembly of born-again, baptized Believers then we are not talking about a good church.
The next thing to consider in picking a good church is its message. Does the church have a Bible-based message? A surprising number of organizations that call themselves churches do not. However, all true New Testament churches do.
One way to determine if the message is Bible-based is to find out how the pastors, teachers, and church members view the Bible. Do they believe it is a unique book "…given by inspiration of God (2 Timothy 3:16);" and that "…the prophecy [Scripture] came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21)"? Or do they view the Bible as a collection of the religious thoughts and views of the Jews and early Christians?
Do they believe Psalms 12:6-7 ("The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.")? Or do they believe that the pure words of the Lord have been lost and corrupted through the generations?
Also, do they believe that "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)?" Or, do they deny its fundamental doctrines and instructions which teach us that Jesus is God (John 1:1; 1 John 5:7); that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary (Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1:26-31); that Jesus shed His blood and died on the cross to pay for our sins (I Peter 1:21-24); that Jesus rose from the grave in a bodily resurrection (Luke 24:36-43); that Jesus ascended into heaven and promised to return (Acts 1:9-11; John 14:3); that everyone is guilty of sin (Romans 3:23; 5:12); that Hell and the lake of fire await all those who die in their sin (Revelation 20:14-15; 21:8); or that Jesus is the only way of salvation (John 14:6)?
If a church does not accept either the inspiration or preservation of the Bible or does not base its message fully on Bible it is not a good church. Jesus would condemn such a church by saying that they "transgress the commandment of God," making "the commandment of God of none effect" by their "traditions" and that they "draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men (Matthew 15:3-9)."
The third thing to consider in picking a good church is its mission. What does the church see as its mission or purpose in the world? Does it have a scriptural mission or just a social mission?
After His resurrection Jesus gave the church its marching orders. He said in Matthew 28:19-20, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen." This commission is echoed in Mark 16:15 ("And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.") and Acts 1:8 ("But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.")
Feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for the sick, and sheltering the homeless are great, but they are not the main mission of the church. A church is to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. The gospel being "…how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)" and that "…whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Romans 10:13)." A church is not supposed to rest at ease in Zion, so to speak, but to reach out with the gospel message through local evangelism and worldwide missions efforts.
Matthew 28:19-20 also tells us that a church baptizes those who heed the gospel message and trust Jesus Christ as their Savior. Baptism, in the Bible, requires two things found in Acts 8:36-37: water and faith. "And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."
Water is required as a symbol of the grave that Jesus Christ went down into and came up out of in His death, burial, and resurrection. In fact, the Greek word for baptize is baptizo. Baptizo and its derivations (baptismos, baptisma, and Baptistes) always mean to immerse or submerge. They never mean to pour or sprinkle. After all, Jesus was fully immersed in the grave. He did not merely have a little dirt dribbled on His head.
Notice, too, that Philip did not baptize the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 until after he had preached the gospel to him and was sure that the eunuch had accepted Christ as his Savior. We see that pattern repeated by both Peter at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-48) and Paul in the home of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:26-34). No one-especially not an infant-was ever baptized in the Bible in prior to salvation or in order to be saved.
In addition to preaching the gospel, we find that a church should teach Believers "to observe all things" that Jesus has commanded. That means teaching its members to observe the Lord's Supper correctly with unleavened bread and unfermented grape juice (Matthew 26:17,29), as a simple memorial of Christ (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25) who "was once offered to bear the sins of many (Hebrews 9:28)." And it means to "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables (2 Timothy 4:2-4)."
If a church substitutes a social mission for a scriptural mission, if they do not baptize new Christians scripturally or observe the Lord's supper symbolically, or if it substitutes fable for the truth, then it is not a good church, not matter how nice or well meaning it is.
Picking a good church is not easy, but it can be done. Pray and ask the Lord to direct you and compare the makeup, message, and mission of the church with God's Word. If it measures up then you've found a good church.