I have heard and read recently of Christians who feel they have been hurt or hindered by a church, or who are troubled that others in their circle have been wronged in that manner. My heart goes out to them, not even knowing their situations in most cases, but knowing this, that differences in personal conviction and spiritual exercise too often give rise to emotional hurt and spiritual hindrance. God never intended it to be so in the church.
There are many such who try to make the best of the difficult situations and hurts they experience in their native or adopted churches by seeking a closer personal walk with the Lord Jesus, and that is without doubt a path of individual enjoyment and blessing. But how often do these difficulties bring about an exercise in the believer’s conscience with regard to the religious system he or she is associated with? Might not the Lord be allowing these “church problems”, the offenses that must come¹, in order to teach Christians that these offenses usually come because worldly and fleshly principles have been adopted in the church of God?
Here are a few examples of principles and practices in churches that are sure to cause offenses to saints, and even more seriously, dishonor to Christ the Head of the body, His church.
- When ecclesiastical authority is vested in one or a few individuals in a clerical system that distinguishes between ministers or bishops in one class and the laity in another class, a worldly Nicolaitan² principle is at work, and it will soon become a source of stumbling when lay members do not fully accept the rulings of the ministerial class (Luke 22:24-26; Revelation 2:6 and 15).
- When an extra-biblical document is adopted and enforced upon the members of a local church or a denomination and serves as either a basis for communion (fellowship), or determines one’s inclusion in or exclusion from the religious community, it may offend Christian converts whose consciences are not bound by legal or traditional restrictions.
- When the church of God is viewed as an organization that one chooses to become a member of, Christians lose sight of the truth that the Scriptures teach no membership but in the body of Christ, which has the character of a living organism. Organizations can offend, hurt, and hinder persons because they are structured and organized on human principles, but the properly functioning body of Christ, with every member contributing according to the gift he has received, hurts or hinders no one, but only builds up (Ephesians 4:1-16; I Corinthians 12).
- The bane of post-Reformation sectarian Christianity is the idea that if you are frustrated with your local group, into which you were probably born, you can just decide to join another group with better leadership or less rigid rules, or for any other preference you may have. As long as such a mode of operating is seen as legitimate and is perpetuated by sectarian local church models, there will be offenses, including frustration with what purports to be the church, and earnest Christians will become disenchanted within these sectarian groups.
God has graciously provided for His church, His assembly of called-out ones. Should earnest seekers for truth as to the church come to see by faith the failure of the Christian testimony generally³, and the folly of men’s efforts to go about setting up churches on worldly or Judaistic principles, there is ample direction in the Scriptures for meeting together for worship, prayer, and doctrine. Binding authority is found only with the Lord Jesus in the midst of His own (Matthew 18:18-20), not in a human appointee or hierarchy. The Bible alone, interpreted by the Holy Spirit (the anointing of the Holy One*), provides guidance as to whom we should have fellowship with, and whom should be avoided. And the regrettably common practice of church-shopping to match your preferences is as far removed from New Testament doctrine and practice as a megachurch is from an upper room.
People sometimes offend or hurt each other by their words and actions. Even godly Christians do that from time to time, sadly, and James writes that we all often offend (James 3). But if you feel hurt, misunderstood, or frustrated by “your church”, go to the word of God in prayer for answers. It may be that the Spirit has much to show you about how He would gather you “in assembly”^ with others of like precious faith. The Spirit of God, who formed the body of Christ and dwells in the house of God, will never disappoint a seeker for truth.
¹ Matthew 18:7 – “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come . . . ”
² Nicolaitan has the meaning of “ruling the people”, and the term “laity” is from the same Greek root.
³ Revelation 3:14-22. Laodicea is an apt picture of the state of the Christian testimony (witness) in these last days, so far short of reflecting Christ, “the faithful and true witness.”
* I John 2:20-27
^ I Corinthians 11:18 and 14:35 (Darby translation)