Are you the church?
The Church is the united body of Christ on the earth which exists for fellowship, edification, and for communicating the gospel to all nations by means of Christian life and witness. (Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 1:6–8, 2:41–42; 1 Corinthians 12:13.)
Which church—that is, which denomination of Christianity—is the “true church”? Which church is the one that God loves and cherishes and died for? Which church is His bride? The answer is that no visible church or denomination is the true church, because the bride of Christ is not an institution, but is instead a spiritual entity made up of those who have by grace through faith been brought into a close, intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). Those people, no matter which building, denomination, or country they happen to be in, constitute the true church.
In the Bible, we see that the local (or visible) church is nothing more than a gathering of professing believers. In Paul’s letters, the word church is used in two different ways. There are many examples of the word church being used to simply refer to a group of professing believers who meet together on a regular basis (1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 8:1; 11:28). We see Paul’s concern, in his letters, for the individual churches in various cities along his missionary journey. But he also refers to a church that is invisible—a spiritual entity that has close fellowship with Christ, as close as a bride to her husband (Ephesians 5:25, 32), and of which He is the spiritual head (Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 3:21). This church is made up of an unnamed, unspecified group of individuals (Philippians 3:6;1Timothy 3:5) that have Christ in common.
The word church is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia, meaning “a called–out assembly.” The word describes a group of people who have been called out of the world and set apart for the Lord, and it is always used, in its singular form, to describe a universal group of people who know Christ. The word ekklesia, when pluralized, is used to describe groups of believers who meet together. Interestingly enough, the word church is never used in the Bible to describe a building or organization.
It is easy to get ensnared by the idea that a particular denomination within Christianity is “the true church,” but this view is a misunderstanding of Scripture. When choosing a church to attend, it is important to remember that a gathering of believers should be a place where those who belong to the true church (the spiritual entity) feel at home. That is to say, a good local church will uphold the Word of God, honoring it and preaching faithfully, proclaim the gospel steadfastly, and feed and tend the sheep. A church that teaches heresy or engages in sin will eventually be very low on (or entirely bereft of) those people that belong to the true church—the sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd and follow Him (John 10:27).
Members of the true church always enjoy agreement in and fellowship around Jesus Christ, as He is plainly revealed in His Word. This is what is referred to as Christian unity. Another common mistake is to believe that Christian unity is just a matter of agreeing with one another. Simple agreement for the sake of agreement does not speak the truth in love or spur one another on to unity in Christ; rather, it encourages believers to refrain from speaking difficult truths. It sacrifices true understanding of God in favor of a false unity based on disingenuous love that is nothing more than selfish tolerance of sin in oneself and others.
The true church is the bride of Christ (Revelation 21:2, 9; 22:17) and the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 12:27). It cannot be contained, walled in, or defined by anything other than its love for Christ and its dedication to Him. The true church is, as C. S. Lewis put it, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”
Recommended Resource: Why Church Matters: Discovering Your Place in the Family of God by Joshua Harris
Are many practices and traditions in Christianity actually pagan in origin?
In their 2008 book Pagan Christianity, authors Frank Viola and George Barna present the surprising origins of many of the practices commonly found in churches today. The authors of Pagan Christianity claim that many common church practices / traditions actually have their roots in paganism (non-Christian religions), not in the Bible. But is it accurate to claim that the practices of modern Christianity are pagan? Is what typically occurs in a church supported by what the Bible teaches about the church?
Many Christians recognize that some pagan ideas and practices have infiltrated the Christian church. Sadly, much of what Jesus Christ abolished by His death and resurrection, the early Christians re-established. Jesus’ sacrifice fulfilled God’s requirements, ending the need for any further sacrifices (Hebrews 7:27; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18). The early church, due to pagan influences, warped the celebration of the Lord’s Supper into a re-sacrifice / re-offering of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice abolished the need of a formal priesthood (Hebrews 10:12-14), creating instead a “kingdom of priests” (Revelation 1:6; 5:10). The early church, again influenced by paganism, re-established a priesthood that added a barrier between the “ordinary” believer and God (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15). These are just two of many possible examples.
Most Christians wholeheartedly agree that beliefs / practices such as these need to be rejected and the biblical truth upheld. Following are the primary issues Pagan Christianity raises.
(1) The Church Building. The New Testament records the early Christians meeting in homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19). Neither Jesus nor the Apostles encourage Christians to build temples / church buildings. In John 4:21-24, Jesus declares that a time is coming where worship will not be tied to any particular location or building. For the first few hundred years of the Christian faith, church buildings were very rare. It was not until Constantine and his succeeding Roman Emperors made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire that Christians began to build temples. In some instances, Christians, with the aid of Roman soldiers, took over pagan temples and “Christianized” them into churches.
Christians building church buildings resulted in multiple problems. First, people began to think of a church building as “sacred space.” This resulted in a separation between what goes on inside a church building, and what takes place outside of a church building. Among some, blatant evil and immorality was tolerated outside of the church as long as behavior inside the church was proper. Second, some people lost the idea of God’s omnipresence. The biblical fact that fellowship with God could be had anywhere was lost, and replaced with the idea that a church building and/or the altar inside a church building was the only place one could connect with God. Third, some people lost sight of the fact that believers in Christ are the church, and instead began to think of the church as the building.
But is the idea of a church building pagan? Since the Bible does not instruct Christians to build church buildings, does that mean it is wrong to have a church building? The fact that the Bible does not command something does not mean the Bible is opposed to that something. The Bible neither encourages nor discourages the idea of Christians meeting in buildings that are specifically designed for corporate worship. The question of a church building is one where it is crucially important to recognize the difference between description and prescription. The New Testament describes the early Christians meeting in homes. The New Testament does not prescribe that Christians should only meet in homes. A church building in which the biblical truth about the church is declared is in no sense unbiblical. The building is not what is unbiblical. It is the beliefs that are often attached to the building that are unbiblical.
(2) The structure of the church. In many churches today, there is a “set in stone” structure for how a service will proceed. The structure changes somewhat from church to church, but the core items remain the same: announcements, corporate worship, meeting and greeting, prayer, the sermon, a closing song. In some churches, the order of service is absolutely unbendable. In other churches, there is some flexibility. Whatever the case, the idea of a church meeting having such a rigid structure is not presented in the New Testament. When a church has such a rigid structure, it can stifle, rather than promote, true worship and fellowship.
First Corinthians 14:40 teaches, “but everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” Order and structure are not unbiblical. Rigidity and legalism are unbiblical. While a church should ensure that its services are reasonably organized, it is unbiblical for a church service to be so structured that it prevents any participation, freedom, or moving of the Spirit.
(3) Church leadership. The Bible undeniably teaches that the church is to have godly leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-13; 5:17-20; Titus 1:6-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Sadly, the early church took the concept of church leadership, and due to pagan influences, molded it into a priesthood. While most Protestant and Evangelical churches do not refer to its leadership as priests, in some instances, the pastor/preacher serves in much the same role as a priest. Pastors are expected to do all, or nearly all, of the ministry work. In some churches, the re-introduction of the idea of a priest into Christianity resulted in the biblical identity of all believers being saints, ministers, and priests, being lost. In church leadership, the result can be burnt-out pastors or overly authoritative pastors. The result in the congregation can be passivity and inactivity.
The idea that a Christian can unenthusiastically sing a few songs, lackadaisically shake a few hands, inattentively listen to a sermon, and reluctantly give an offering – and thereby fulfill his/her role in the church – is completely unbiblical. The church is intended to be a place of healthy fellowship, active participation, and mutual edification. First Corinthians chapter 12 likens the church to a human body. All of the parts of the body must be functioning for the body to do what it is intended to do. In some churches today, only the “head” is functioning. And as physiology teaches us, a head cannot survive on its own.
(4) The sermon. The Bible clearly declares that God’s Word is to be taught (1 Timothy 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:2). There is undeniably a place for a godly man teaching other believers in a sermonic / oratory format. One problem is that many churches fall into the trap of one man being the sole teacher. Another problem is when churches, whether intentionally or unintentionally, convey the idea that passively listening to a sermon is all that God expects. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul encourages Timothy to entrust teaching to others who are gifted by the Holy Spirit for teaching. The presence of a non-participatory sermon is not the problem. The lack of opportunities for others to teach and/or the lack of willingness to teach can be a problem. One of the goals of the church is to make disciples, not pew-warmers. Many churches could do a much better job at recognizing the gift of teaching in others and training and encouraging them to use that gift. At the same time, no one should seek the position of teacher unless he really has been gifted by the Holy Spirit, a fact which can be verified by the testimony of others who can give witness to the presence of this gift. In fact, James 3:1 warns us, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
For other issues raised by Pagan Christianity, please read the following articles:
It is undeniable that pagan ideas and practices have crept their way into the Christian church. To varying degrees, every church has practices that are not completely based in Scripture, either in the practice itself or in the understanding of the practice. But again, this does not mean these practices are pagan or wrong. Churches would do well to continually re-evaluate their methods and motivations, to make sure they are biblically solid. While no church practice should contradict Scripture, a church practice does not have to be explicitly biblical to be a viable choice. Nor does a practice not being taught in the Bible make it pagan. A practice having a pagan origin does not necessarily make it unbiblical. The key to avoiding “pagan Christianity” is comparing every belief and practice with Scripture and removing anything that contradicts what the Bible prescribes for the church. For those issues on which the Bible is silent, the church leadership should prayerfully consider whether or not to continue them.
Is a home church a true biblical church?
Churches in the New Testament era were indeed small assemblies that met in homes (Acts 2:46; 20:20). So the practice is certainly biblically allowable. There also seem to be some good reasons to have house churches as opposed to large gatherings: greater intimacy, stronger relationships, more comfortable worship, single-mindedness, etc. The fact that large churches usually have their own small groups that meet in homes speaks to this fact. Several considerations should be made, however, concerning the reasons for creating and/or attending a house church.
First, the fact that first-century Christians did something does not establish it as a pattern for all generations to follow (unless there is also a clear command to do so elsewhere). Simply because Scripture records an event or practice does not, of itself, establish a command (nor, in some cases, even approval!). So, for example, the fact that early Christians often sold all they owned and shared the profits (Acts 2:44-45) among other believers does not mean that we must do so today (although it certainly would be acceptable). So we should not think that home churches are any more “biblical” in this sense.
Second, there was a perfectly practical reason for the early church to meet in homes. Where else would they meet? There were no church buildings, YMCA’s, grammar schools, or movie theaters that could hold large groups. Further, even if there was room somewhere, during this time of persecution by the Romans, a public gathering of hundreds or thousands of people would simply not be safe. Thus, it might not have been by design that the early church met in small groups. It is even possible that they would have preferred large meetings (as Jews would have been accustomed to), but they simply could not manage it. So we should also not think that home churches are any more “spiritual” than large churches.
Third, home churches that are started in an effort to counter “the institutional church” could be questionable. While often listing the above reasons to more closely align with the biblical model, the real reason often seems to be displeasure with large church movements. While these complaints are often valid, it can lead to an egalitarian, “us vs. them” mentality that should be avoided.
In addition to the above considerations regarding motive, one final caution concerns the issue of accountability. For Protestant churches, the Bible alone is the guide in matters of faith and practice. However, few people have the time to gain the skills and knowledge to accurately handle the word of God (2 Timothy 3:14-16). In classical education theology was taught last—for it builds on many other disciplines that cannot be learned from the Bible alone. Therefore, some degree of higher education was usually sought before one became a teacher of the word (James 3:1). The popular view today, however, is that the Holy Spirit teaches believers directly through the Bible. This idea might lead people to believe that whatever the group teaches is from God and is therefore safe from error. But the Bible does not teach that this is the case, and it is clear that most believers disagree on at least some issues, and most simply end up “interpreting” the Bible according to their churches’ teaching anyway.
The answer to the interpretation issue requires another article, but the problem it creates becomes more ominous when dealing with home churches. The New Testament is full of warnings against heresies coming from within the church. Since it was written in the first century, these would actually be warnings regarding house churches. While this problem is certainly not limited to house churches, there is clearly no guarantee of protection from false teaching simply because the church changes its meeting format. Further, because home churches function as independent small groups, they need have no accountability to anyone but themselves. This makes it much more difficult to judge their teachings (in fact, the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult began in exactly this manner). In contrast, larger congregations benefit from a plurality of elders, spiritually mature men (Titus 1:5-9) who are overseers of the flock, protecting them from false doctrine.
In conclusion, there is nothing unbiblical about Christians gathering together regularly in houses, or large buildings, or any other appropriate venue. The Bible does not, in fact, give any guidelines as to the proper gathering size or location. What it does do is explain what is to take place at those meetings (Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 16:2; 1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:2). So long as biblical teachings (orthodoxy) and practices (orthopraxy) are undertaken by those in assembly, it really does not matter what meeting format one chooses.
Recommended Resource: The Master’s Plan for the Church by John Macarthur