Does It Matter What Church We Attend?

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.

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Comments

Does It Matter What Church We Attend? — 9 Comments

  1. Mr. Cottrell
    I am 15 years old and only about a year ago I began to believe in baptism for salvation. My parents do not believe this. I asked them if I could attend a different church. One that believes in baptism for salvation. They do not want me to go to a different church because they are afraid it would tear the family apart. What are some resources I can use, such as this site, to get sound doctrine since I cannot attend a church of Christ church? Any suggestions?

    • Joe, I am so sad that your parents do not have the same view of baptism that you have come to. I applaud you for your Biblical understanding, and I am happy that you want to follow the Word. Here are a couple of other websites that you can explore for solid teaching. One is called the Apologetics Press (www.apologeticspress.org); it is a churches of Christ group. Also, there is the Christian Restoration Association (www.thecra.org), which is likewise Church of Christ. Also, keep digging around here in my website!

  2. I am discouraged by and find it hard to understand the number of people who have grown up in Christian Churches/Churches of Christ who attend and become members of denominational churches citing reasons such as: people in _____ church are so much more loving; _____church has more for my children; The preaching at _____ church is so much better; etc. etc. While I can sympathize with those feelings and have at times been discouraged with the level of preaching, love shown, good classes for children, etc., in the Christian Church, I could never bring myself to attend, become a member of, or financially support a non-restoration church–most of which teach unbiblical doctrines and send money to headquarters that teach unbiblical doctrines. It’s just difficult for me to understand unless the teaching at their particular congregation(s) was so poor that they don’t really know biblical doctrines in many areas.

  3. I agree with this article and printed out a copy for each one in our Wednesday night Bible study. One of the elders shared it with the other elders at a recent elders meeting. Some of them disagreed with parts of the lesson and one of them approached me about it. Following is an email from him about the “Does It Matter What Church We Attend?” lesson. Any comments on the response. I don’t see the attitude that he accuses you of having in this lesson.

    Hi Jim,

    I’ll see if I can adequately answer what made me uncomfortable about the article that Jack Cottrell wrote. I am familiar with Mr. Cottrell and some of his work, and realize that he is a well-respected leader in the Restoration Movement. I have his book “The Faith Once For All”, and while I have not read it cover to cover, I have referenced topics in it on many occasions when questions come up during my own studies.

    I also agree with what sets us apart as a church. I feel the Restoration Churches are the closest to the New Testament Church, and it’s why I’ve stayed within them since I became a baptized believer in 1997. One attitude has always bugged me, though, when serving in those churches, and that’s the pride I’ve seen in many who feel that they and they alone got it right and are therefore going to Heaven. This article promotes that idea, and therefore rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve come across many individuals who see it as black and white, that Church of Christ/Christian Churches got it right, and everyone else has gotten it wrong. As a result, they cut themselves off from those others, and don’t act in Christian love. They, in fact, see people like Baptists as our adversaries. I see it more as a continuum…some congregations are closer to the ideal, others are further from it. One thing that I’ve always appreciated about the Restoration Movement is that they seek to be Christians only, but not the only Christians…they are seeking to be as close to the New Testament ideal as possible, but that doesn’t mean other groups that aren’t part of the Restoration Movement have not also come to similar conclusions. I’m sure there are gatherings in Africa and China and even the US that have shed the doctrines of men and seek to follow the Bible as closely as possible, even if they don’t realize they are part of the Restoration Movement.

    I agree with Mr. Cottrell that we need to judge for ourselves if a congregation is following those ideals, and agree that there are several that call themselves Restoration Movement that have moved away from that. I think it is dangerous to say that by being a member of any non-Restoration church is a sin, though. Mr. Cottrell said “It is my judgment that the churches of the Restoration Movement in general are closer to the New Testament ideal…”. He suggests Restoration Movement isn’t all the way there either (which I agree with!). If it’s a sin to be in a church that is missing aspects, wouldn’t that make it a sin to be part of a Restoration Church? I sure don’t think so! Where does one draw the line when deciding it’s a sin to join ‘Church A’ but not ‘Church B’? Instead of saying “they’re in and they’re out” shouldn’t we be more concerned with moving people in the right direction…more towards a Christ-centered life supported by appropriate Bible knowledge? It’s a constant journey, and we all start from different spots. Instead of excluding ourselves from Baptists, Methodists, etc, shouldn’t we interact with them and educate them on how we’re different, and do so in a loving way?

    I know Mr. Cottrell is speaking of bigger picture issues…baptism, communion, etc. Again, I agree with the Restoration Movement on those, and feel the other groups are majorly misinterpreting scripture. I liked that Mr. Cottrell said that while it is a sin to be part of a group that is structured contrary to the will of God they can still be justified by God’s grace. That’s the key. I’m not a Bible scholar, I do what I can with the knowledge I have. I know I miss things. The more I learn, the more depth and perfection I see in the Bible…things I never considered before. God is loving, merciful, and with His help will keep me moving in the right direction. I think that’s true for all believers.

    • The elder’s letter makes this comment: “I see it more as a continuum…some congregations are closer to the ideal, others are further from it.” This is close to what I am saying also. My point, though, is that in this case we have a moral obligation to be a part of the one that is closest to the ideal. E.g., if we have two congregations that are teaching the same thing except one baptizes believers and the other “baptizes” infants, we are morally obligated to be a part of the former.

  4. what about attending other churches for the purpose of observing effective strategies such as management to different ministries that could be so useful ?

    • I would have no problem with this as long as this is not a substitute for membership in a New Testament church and would not interfere with submission to one’s eldership and participation in the Lord’s Supper. It would be something done in addition to regular attendance where Acts 2:42 is practiced.

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