The Bible speaks of “the church” because, as Christians, we need to be together with other believers of like faith. This builds us up in our faith, and God’s Word encourages us to get together more as we see the day approaching. (Jude 1:20; Hebrews 10:25)
The question is: how do we find the right Church among so many? Literally thousands of churches, which run the gamut from the Catholic to the “holy roller” evangelical, and everything in between.
It is not easy.
A true Christian church
This is especially true because, of course, every church claims that they are built on a “Biblical pattern” or an “apostolic foundation.” They can all appear so good and there is no shortage of nice people in churches that are usually sufficiently Christian-like. Oftentimes a great work is going on, which can be a good thing, but do they truly follow the way that Jesus taught? I myself was in a church whose whole emphasis was to knock on doors and spread the gospel. This was obviously not wrong, but it took up all the oxygen; nothing else had any importance to this group. The same is true of another church I was in: they were feeding the poor, and what could be wrong with that? Well, nothing, but again it’s all they really had.
Jesus gave us the commission to make disciples of all the nations, and both Jesus and the apostles exhort us to show compassion and care for the needy, but all of this must come from living a personal, righteous life, and that is what the gospel is about. “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.” 1 Timothy 4:16. The apostles write overwhelmingly about coming to a godly life, and Jesus made a way for us to get there. Paul calls this the “dying of Jesus” that leads to life (2 Corinthians 4:10), and Peter speaks of “suffering in the flesh and ceasing from sin” (1 Peter 4:1), while John says, “these things I write to you, so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1), and Jude warns us about using grace as a cover to fulfill our lusts. .
A true Christian church is one that emphasizes an inner life of transformation, no matter what its name. And this transformation isn’t just patching up the outward so I am more pleasing to others, but a deep inner work, so I become a new man in Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15) Nothing else will do.
The danger in church-shopping
In some ways finding a church can even be dangerous. Dangerous? The thing is, the gate is so wide, even in Christendom itself, that you can find virtually anything that you desire. No matter what you happen to believe, whether right or wrong, Biblical or not, Apostolic or modern, there’s a Church out there in the great marketplace of Churches that will surely suit you. That is the danger: without the true doctrine of living the inner life and coming to transformation in Jesus’ image, the blind will follow the blind and both end up in a pit (Matthew 15:14), our “correct” doctrine notwithstanding.
Jesus’ own high-priestly prayer was that “they all may be one …” (John 17:20-23) In 1 John 1:7 it says clearly that those who walk in the light have fellowship with one another. The fact that there is such a vast number of churches and denominations clearly shows that “walking in the light” is not common practice, otherwise Jesus’ prayer would have become evident, so the world would believe. But what do these verses mean for us personally? It is highly unlikely that it is our task to single out any one group as erring from the true gospel, but we should rather single out ourselves as we embark on this quest, and ask: what do I really want for myself as a Christian and in my Christian life? Am I willing to put my personal beliefs on the line if they are not in accordance with God’s Word? Or am I happy having my conscience soothed with pleasant sounding words in an assembly without life behind the teaching, or one that promises forgiveness without preaching the life and obedience of the faith that follows? (2 Timothy 4:2-4)
In the “assembly of the dead” we may get many good feelings, but are not coming to a new life in Christ and perhaps are just “nice” pew sitters, with our fallen human nature intact. Some soul searching here is in order, and Paul exhorts the Corinthians to do just that: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” 2 Corinthians 13:5.
Thus, we have to be clear with ourselves that we sincerely only want what Jesus wants for us and nothing else, and we are willing to give up everything to purchase the pearl in the field. (Matthew 13:46) We have to be true and have no other side interests or hopes, and then Jesus can and will lead us to a place that is certainly best for us. He will.
Find the life of Christ
And above all, in this great quest for the right church, we have to be interested in the life of Christ rather than just looking for an assembly that agrees with our personal interpretation of the apostles’ doctrine. One great evangelist traveled the world and said he had been asked every question under the sun: Do you believe in the trinity, and what is your position on the role of women, and how/who do you baptize, and other such questions. They are all very good questions, to be sure. But he said no one ever in all his many travels asked one simple, pivotal question: “What type of life do you lead?” Do you get angry? How do you have it with your wife? Are you joyous – truly joyous – in all trials? What are the results of the gospel you preach in your own life? (1 Timothy 4:16)
John wrote about Jesus, that the life that was in Him was the light of men. (John 1:4) When we see the life – the life of Christ – then we know we have come home. This life, this light is what brings unity.
It must be mentioned that the Bible does not talk about a plethora of different and competing churches, but simply “the church” (Ephesians 3:10 and other verses), and we are baptized into “one body.” (Ephesians 4:4) That there were divisions in the church at Corinth was a sign that they had already been defeated, as Paul says, “… it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another …” 1 Corinthians 6:7. If there is true unity of the Spirit, you have found the true church. A hearty “good success” to all those who are sincerely seeking, for if you search, you will find, for it is written just so in Matthew 7:7!