Does It Matter What Church We Attend?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 12:43pm
QUESTION: Is it a sin to attend a church that is not a Restoration Movement church? E.g., Baptist, Presbyterian, inter-denominational?
ANSWER: A couple of years ago (September 2009) I wrote a note explaining the difference between the visible church and the invisible church (just published in the August 2011 Restoration Herald). The invisible church is the universal body of Christ, the total number of those who have obeyed the gospel and are thus in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. All who belong to the body of Christ are justified, i.e., free from the guilt and penalty of their sins. No one who is part of the invisible church is completely free from sin itself, though, i.e., completely sanctified (holy). We still live imperfect lives in this imperfect world, and are striving to become more and more holy every day.
Part of becoming more and more holy is identifying and being a member of the true visible church. The visible church is the church whose form and practices can be observed by us human beings. In its ideal form it is the church as described in the New Testament and as God wants it to be—in reference to such things as its organization, doctrine, membership, and worship.
There are many different versions of what the “true” visible church is supposed to look like, and these varied versions are often quite different in significant ways. E.g., some believe that multiple congregations are under the rule or authority of a single church official (such as a bishop—as in Methodism; or a Pope—as in Catholicism), or under an over-arching governing group (such as a presbytery—as in Presbyterianism). On the other hand, some believe that each local congregation is autonomous, i.e., it governs its own affairs and oversees its own members via its local eldership (such as Christian churches and/or churches of Christ).
Also, some believe that the true visible church should serve the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day, while others believe it can be served less often (e.g., once a month, or once a quarter). For another example, some believe that baptism should be applied to infants as a mark of their membership in the local church body, while others believe that the church’s membership should be composed only of older individuals who are able to make a conscious, believing commitment to Christ. In this latter group, some believe that water baptism, even by immersion, is nothing more than a sign of membership in the local congregation, while others believe it is the moment when God acts to bestow salvation upon the repentant believer and adds him or her to the invisible church.
How one approaches and resolves such issues as these determines what one considers to be the nature of the visible church. The question here is this: does it really matter what conclusions we reach on these issues? Does it really matter what form the visible church takes, and what practices it follows and what doctrines it teaches? Is one church as good as another—in God’s sight? How we answer these questions depends on whether we believe the Bible speaks to the various issues mentioned above. Are matters such as church government, frequency of the Lord’s Supper, the subjects of baptism, and the purpose of baptism addressed in Scripture? Does God speak on these issues?
I believe the answer is a clear YES! The Bible speaks on these and other such issues, whether we all agree or not on the answers it gives. What we believe about these aspects of the visible church is derived, rightly or wrongly, from the teaching of Scripture. And if this is so, then it absolutely DOES matter what answers we give to these questions. It means that the proper form and character of the visible church is a matter of God’s will. If we do not correctly understand and implement the teaching so Scripture on church government, or on the practice of the Lord’s Supper, then we are in violation of God’s will—i.e., we are guilty of sin. It is a sin to teach and follow false doctrine about anything Scripture teaches, including what it teaches about the visible church.
This means that every faithful Bible-believer must judge whether a particular denomination or local congregation is following Scripture in these matters or not. Some say, “Thou shalt not judge! (Matt. 7:1).” They do not understand that this is a prohibition against judging the eternal fate of individuals; it has nothing to do with judging the truth or falsehood of specific teachings. Titus 1:9, speaking specifically of elders, requires them to judge and teach what is sound doctrine and to warn against its opposite. This is true on all matters about which Scripture speaks, including what it says about the nature and practices of the visible church.
When compared to Scripture, then, we must conclude that some church groups and congregations are NOT the true visible church, because they have the wrong understanding of various Biblical teachings in this area. It is my judgment that the churches of the Restoration Movement (in general) are closer to the New Testament ideal for the visible church than any that can be found today. It is also my judgment that we are thus morally obligated to be a part of that particular fellowship of churches.
This brings us back to the question at hand. Is it a sin to attend a church that is not a part of the Restoration Movement fellowship? Let me clarify one thing: many local congregations today have historical roots in the Restoration Movement and still fellowship with other Restoration churches, but cannot be considered true visible churches because they have in reality abandoned some of the crucial beliefs and practices that are delineated in Scripture. Nevertheless, a church with Restoration roots will be most likely to be a true visible church.
But what about the “denominational” (Baptist, Methodist, etc.) and inter-denominational churches, as mentioned by the questioner? In my judgment, neither the Catholic church nor any Protestant denomination, as well as most inter-denominational churches, can be considered a part of the true visible church because they have significant deviations from the New Testament pattern for what God wants the church to look like. And yes, it is a sin to be a part of any group that is structured contrary to the will of God, and to support its false teachings and practices with one’s influence and offerings. We should remember, though, that one can still be saved (justified) without being completely sanctified or holy. Those who are a part of a false visible church fall short (Rom. 3:23) in the sanctification aspect of their salvation, even if they are by God’s grace justified.
I would make a distinction, though, between simply attending such a church (to use the language of the questioner), and being an active member thereof. I have attended—even preached for—worship services from many different denominations, for various reasons. But if I have a Biblical alternative, I will never become a member of, e.g., a Baptist church, or a Presbyterian church, or a Methodist church. To do so means, that I will miss the Lord’s Supper on most Sundays, and that my offerings will be used to support false teachings, e.g., about church government and baptism.
What can one do if he or she moves into an area where there are no true (Restoration) visible church congregations? One might choose the denominational church that is closest to the New Testament pattern, which may often be a Baptist or inter-denominational church. (This would be better than no church life at all—the lesser of two evils, so to speak.) Or one might consider driving a longer distance than usual to find a true visible church. (The complaint, “But there’s no church of Christ within twenty miles of where we live!” is not a good excuse!) Or, one might consider starting or helping to start a local congregation that will faithfully conform to the New Testament teaching about what the visible church ought to be.