“We Need New Churches,” SALT Magazine, Farewell Issue (2013) – by James McDermott
The church is supposed to be God’s people in this lost and wicked world, but it is more than that. It is supposed to be God’s people organized and trained for the monumental tasks of preaching the Gospel to every creature, making disciples of all nations, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. Evangelists are supposed to be spreading the Good News, people are supposed to be believing the message and sharing it with their friends and family, who will also believe. New believers are supposed to be built up in the faith so that their lives will reflect their born again hearts. And this process is to continue until the whole world has been told and taught.
Of course, the work is hard because our enemy, the devil, is the prince of this world. He opposes us at every turn. Though we speak truth, he convinces the masses that we speak nonsense. Though we preach love, he convinces the masses that we preach hate. Godly men and women are persecuted to death. Governments across the globe suppress the spoken and written word. That is why Bibles must be smuggled. That is why evangelists must have another occupation to live abroad. The Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news,” but the rulers of the earth don’t want the beautiful feet of those who bring good news in their countries. When Paul preached the Gospel, it seemed the normal response of unbelievers was to riot.
We are opposed from without, but we are also opposed from within. Whole denominations have exchanged the glorious Gospel and the Word of God for a less offensive liberal substitute. Many churches are trying to build numbers through fun activities instead of through preaching the Gospel. It’s all about programs. These churches have become little more than social clubs. Modern churches also withhold from their members the harder truths of God’s Word so as not to offend and divide people. Psychology and feminism are taught in opposition to Scripture. Tolerance for homosexuality is rising as well – since so many of us have come to believe that homosexuals are born homosexuals and can’t be expected to follow biblical standards of sexuality. Clear principles and commands of Scripture are dismissed as applying only to the less enlightened culture of Bible times. We are so wise in our own eyes!
Denominations that remain true to the Word are divided from each other over petty issues. Sex and money scandals continue to plague our leaders. But our children – as it was for us when we were young – are living scandalously impure lives of their own. A majority of our children grow up and drop out of the church. Our numbers and our influence in the culture continue to diminish over time. If we didn’t know through God’s Word that we will triumph in the end, we might believe our cause was lost.
Most established churches are mired in an extrabiblical way of doing things that makes reformation nearly impossible, for those who would have to change the status quo are the ones who are dependent on the status quo for a living. Churches go into debt to build bigger buildings (because if you build it they will come), fill those buildings with as many age and interest segregated “ministries” as possible (we Christians can only hang around people our own age and marital status who have similar interests), and install a seminary trained CEO (a pastor) to oversee the marketing and management of the operation.
Scripture does not require pastors to have a master’s degree in divinity, or any other college degree, for that matter. Nevertheless, denominational seminaries are not likely to admit that an expensive, time-consuming seminary education should be optional for pastors. By making seminary a requirement, seminaries become self-perpetuating. Seminary training is thought necessary to ensure that pastors know the truth and can defend it. Presumably, the rest of us are inadequate in our knowledge (after all, we don’t even know Greek or Hebrew) and insufficiently capable in defending the truth. And seminaries give the denomination a chance to test all candidates to make sure they are orthodox in their beliefs.
Isn’t it interesting, then, that seminaries have, with frightening regularity, been taken over by theological liberals who infect rather than protect their denominations? Apparently, all this “necessary” knowledge doesn’t prevent these learned men from rejecting the Word of God and teaching damnable heresies. Where is Harvard now? Where is Princeton? Where are the mainline Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists? (Mired in theological liberalism.) Haven’t the Southern Baptists been fighting the same problem? Seminaries are like any other human organization – they corrupt and decay over time. But when seminaries go bad they destroy entire denominations. For in time, every pastor in the denomination will be taught the lies of the corrupted seminary, and only those who profess to believe the lies can graduate and, thus, be qualified to pastor churches.
Seminaries also exalt the role of pastor so that only one seminary trained pastor can preach in a church. (Unless, of course, he is on vacation, which would require him to get the services of another seminary trained pastor from another church.) The seminary trained pastor, practically speaking, has exclusive rights to preach in his church, and he may also have exclusive rights to baptize and to administer the Lord’s supper. Not surprisingly, then, only seminary trained pastors can make a living from the Gospel.
But there is no Scripture that says only seminary trained pastors can preach. There is no Scripture that says only seminary trained pastors can baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper. But one would assume that since all elders must have the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3), all elders could be called upon to preach or teach. There isn’t even a Scriptural prohibition against non-elders preaching and teaching. However, with exclusive rights to preach, baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, and receive a salary, it is not likely seminary trained pastors would open the floodgates and allow even non-seminary trained elders to preach, teach, baptize, and administer the Lord’s Supper. The seminary is like an old fashioned professional guild that protects the interests of its members and limits competition. Paul writes, “If a man’s gift is … teaching, let him teach.” That sounds so simple, but our churches have made things a lot more complicated than that.
And just as the modern church assumes contrary to Scripture that all pastors should have a master’s degree in divinity from a seminary, it also assumes, contrary to Scripture, that every church should aspire to own property and a building. The Christians of our day may understand that a new church plant may have to rent a school building or a store front, but they believe that the success of their church is closely tied to the size of its church building. Although there is no biblical record of a New Testament church owning a building, they are skeptical of churches that don’t own their own buildings. And they are especially skeptical of churches that meet in homes, even though there is biblical precedence for house churches.
Churches believe building ownership is so important to the success of the church that most churches go deeply in debt to obtain it – Scriptural warnings against debt notwithstanding. But churches will mortgage the future for the space they need for all those extra-biblical programs. And since most churches are already committed financially for years into the future to pay for and maintain their buildings, they need a seminary trained CEO to fill the seats and utilize the space so the mortgage can be paid. A young, handsome, eloquent CEO is good for business! And if this pastor/CEO is really successful a bigger building will be built with an even greater amount of borrowed money.
Does this sound biblical to you? Can you imagine Paul going to work at a beautiful church building? Can you see him parking in the best parking space, which is reserved exclusively for him, the senior pastor? Can you see him walking into his office, where a woman, who happens to be his call screener, gatekeeper, and personal secretary, is already hard at work at the computer? Can you see him walking into his own comfortable private office with “Senior Pastor” written on the door?
Couldn’t it be that we’re doing it all wrong? But the church is stuck with an inefficient, expensive, inflexible, extra-biblical way of operating that is severely resistant to change.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that every seminary is evil or that every seminary trained pastor isn’t deserving of his salary. There are seminary professors and seminary trained pastors who are true to the Word of God. And not every church with a seminary trained pastor is beholden to its building and its programs.
But I do think the problem is so severe that there are large denominations that are beyond being saved. It is high time the believers in those denominations flee Sodom. There are other denominations that have maintained the old teaching and customs. These churches will continue to do good, though their extra-biblical traditions will probably always shackle them until these denominations, too, either fall into error or merely get old and fade away.
REACTION AND OVERREACTION:
Some among the Christian, Homeschooling, Quiverfull, Courtship (CHQC) crowd have observed all this and decided to leave the “institutional” church. Many had already experienced the suspicion or even the hostility of the institutional church to their biblically inspired lifestyle choices.
Some have rejected “organized religion” completely and have replaced it with informal Christian fellowship. Apparently, these believe a game of golf (or any other activity) amongst believers is all the writer of Hebrews meant when he said, “Don’t neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” (Heb. 10:25) But Paul gives detailed instructions in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 for what should be done when the church comes together. Paul says, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” Paul says, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” Paul says, “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” Paul says, “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” When Paul speaks about coming together as a church, then, he clearly does not have golf, coffee, or hiking in mind. To establish and maintain order requires a degree of structure and organization.
Which brings us to another group of Christians, who have not gone so far as to leave the church completely, but have gravitated towards house churches. There is nothing unbiblical about churches that meet in houses – as was said previously, there is biblical precedence for churches that meet in homes – but most house churches, contrary to Scripture, have no appointed elders or deacons. Paul appointed elders after starting new churches (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). There were elders in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:2, 6, 22, 23). Paul sent for the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20). Paul addressed the letter to the Philippians, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” Paul lists the biblical qualifications for elders or overseers and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The Word of God, then, clearly teaches that churches are to be structured and governed by qualified men.
Not only have most house churches shunned biblical structure, they have shunned biblical propriety as well. Meetings are often a conversational free for all, with men and women conversing freely in the meetings. The Scripture that says two or three prophets should speak in turn while the others weigh carefully what is said is ignored. The Scripture that says women should remain silent in the churches is ignored. Most house churches have replaced an extra-biblical tyranny with an anti-biblical anarchy.
Jesus said, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined.” Efforts to reform denominations whose extra-biblical traditions are centuries old are doomed to failure. Attempts to reform churches whose leaders are all fully vested and financially dependent on the status quo are not likely to succeed.
New churches are desperately needed.
Churches are needed that will cast aside the heavy chains of extra-biblical, man-made tradition. Seminary requirements should be jettisoned and overseers should be judged as qualified simply on the basis of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Imagine how slowly the Gospel would have progressed in the book of Acts if every church Paul started required him to bring in from the outside a pastor with seven years of higher education (specifically a master’s of divinity degree), and only this outsider would be allowed to preach, baptize, and administer the Lord’s Supper.
Churches are needed that don’t equate the establishment of a church with a church building. Smaller churches should prefer to meet in houses to eliminate unnecessary overhead. At the very least, churches should not feel it necessary to fund the Gospel with borrowed money. Believers do need a place to meet (and for a large church, a house may not be sufficient), but the purpose of the meeting is simply to prepare believers for ministry, which happens at home, at work, and in the marketplace. Ministry is something that happens as believers go about their lives; it shouldn’t be confined to a building. We need churches that will travel light, so the Gospel can be carried with a sense of urgency to a condemned world in desperate need of salvation.
Churches are needed that won’t staunchly protect tradition and culture when they hamper the Gospel. “The Divine Liturgy” isn’t mandated by Scripture. The order of service isn’t mandated by Scripture. Old hymns aren’t mandated by Scripture. Clerical collars, vestments, and choir robes aren’t mandated by Scripture. Pipe organs (or even pianos) aren’t mandated by Scripture. Of course, none of these things is prohibited either, but some of them may not be as edifying as they were to the people of centuries past and some may not be worth the expense. (According to the website Apoba.com, a pipe organ can range anywhere from $200,000 to $800,000 for a medium sized church or concert hall, and one needs to buy the building in which to install the organ.) Perhaps we could “Sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 96:1) with less expensive instruments! Maybe we could sing acapella.
Churches are needed that won’t divide the body of Christ over the issues that traditionally divide denominations. Paul writes, “Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters.” (Rom. 14:1) After 2000 years, men who love the Lord and His Word still disagree over baptism, the Lord’s Supper, tongues, the relationship between predestination and free will, head coverings, and the end times. Shouldn’t that qualify these issues as disputable matters? Granted, there are indisputable matters – issues over which we can and should divide – but churches have divided over the most inconsequential issues. If we are only willing to fellowship with people who agree with us on all issues, everyone will be a church unto himself. People need to have more grace for those who disagree with them over disputable matters and they need more wisdom to discern what is a disputable matter and what isn’t. I’m convinced that we need more accepting and less dividing. We are called to work together as a body to advance the kingdom of God, but we treat those who disagree with us on disputable matters as if they were foreign objects that should be expelled from the body. Our spiritual immune system has misfunctioned and attacked the body it was supposed to protect. The body of Christ is weakened as a result.
Churches are also needed that will stand strong against the anti-scriptural trends of our day.
Feminism is orthodoxy in the world, but the Word of God prohibits women pastors and teachers in the church. Feminism teaches that women and men are equal in authority, but the Word of God teaches that wives are to submit to their husbands in everything, as unto the Lord.
Psychology is the orthodoxy of the world, but the Word of God doesn’t excuse sin because our parents didn’t treat us sufficiently well. Psychology treats the cancer of sin with the Band-aid of anti-depressant drugs. Psychology says children who lack discipline should be drugged, and that biblical discipline is child abuse. But the Bible teaches that each man will die for his own sins, no matter what his parents were like. (Ez. 18) The Bible teaches that the solution to sin is repentance, faith, and the Holy Spirit, not mind-numbing drugs. The Word of God says that corporal punishment may be necessary for a child’s soul to be saved.
Atheistic public education is orthodoxy in the world. Public education teaches that the universe happened by accident, that life, too, was an accident, and that mankind and all animals are descended from single-cell creatures. Public education teaches that all children – the children of believers and unbelievers – should be socialized in the officially atheistic public school. But the Word of God says that a fool says in his heart there is no God. Scripture says, “Come out from them and be separate.” The Word of God says children should be raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And the Bible says God made the universe in six days, that God made all life, and that all men are descended from Adam and Eve, who were created by God.
Small families – one or two children – is the orthodoxy of the world. The world says less people is better. But the Word of God says children are a blessing, a reward, and an inheritance. The Bible says a man is blessed whose wife is like a fruitful vine and whose sons are like olive shoots around his table. The Scriptures say, “A large population is a king’s glory, but without subjects a prince is ruined.” (Prov. 14:28)
Sadly, the orthodoxy of the world is believed by most people who profess the name of Christ. And most churches will not tolerate critique of the world’s anti-biblical beliefs lest people be offended. Incredibly, this is even true in theologically conservative churches. Many of these churches have stood their ground against the theological errors of centuries past and remained true to the Word of God. But they are still fighting the same fight and protecting the same small piece of ground, even after the battle has moved on and is raging elsewhere. It’s as if the issues of the 16th and 17th centuries are the only issues that will ever really matter to these churches. Agreed, God’s Word is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but each man must apply the changeless principles found in the Word to his own life and his own times.
Yes, we need new churches! We need churches that will heed the call to take the Gospel to every man and every nation. We need churches that will heed the call to make disciples and teach them everything Christ commanded. We need churches that will stand firm on the Word of God against the errors of our age. And we need them now.