Most Christians probably know that every person who claims to be a Christian is not necessarily a Christian. But what people don’t get is that every gathering that claims to be a church is not inevitably a church of Christ Jesus.
Just as there are many non-born-again people in the church, there are also many gatherings that are not churches of the Lord. These gatherings take the name of the Lord and perform so-called Christian activities, but the Lord does not endorse them as His church nor is he among them.
We understand, according to God’s Word, a person must be born-again to become a Christian. Likewise, for a church to be called a church of our Lord, there are certain biblical standards.
Admittedly, differences do exist between biblical churches. Not all these churches hold to the same beliefs and follow the exact pattern. But these differences are in minor doctrinal issues and diverse functionings of the church.
Coming to what makes a church the Lord’s church, biblically, there are certain cardinal issues we must consider seriously. Without these integral beliefs and practices, a church is not a church that belongs to the Lord.
So when is a church not a church?
The Scripture declares, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). And this Jesus Christ “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
Observe the Scripture; the Lord Jesus Christ didn’t die for our health, wealth, self-esteem, and comforts. The gospel of Christ is that He died for our sins, which separated us from God and made us worthy of eternal condemnation. He died “that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
According to God’s Word, a church is not a church when it is not built on the unadulterated gospel of Christ. Such churches are awash with unregenerate members. A gospel-less church is a Christ-less church.
The Reformers of the 16th century trumpeted the biblical fact that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. No one stands before God clothed in his own righteousness, for there is none righteous (Rom. 3:10).
A sinner is justified (i.e. declared righteous before God) by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross and has peace with God (Rom. 5:1). It is written, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Therefore, a church is not a church when its basis of salvation is legalistic rules, religious performance, and self-righteous works. It is not even a church when there is grace plus, faith plus, or Christ plus anything. A church that denies justification by faith alone stands alone—away from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Before His crucifixion, the Lord commanded His disciples to break bread and drink the cup (1 Cor. 11:23-26). This symbolic commemoration by the community of Christ proclaims the Lord’s death for His people until He returns (1 Cor. 11:26).
And before His ascension to heaven, the Lord commissioned to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). This water baptism is a symbolic act of one’s identity with the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-4).
The administration of baptism and the Lord’s Table are the two ordinances commissioned by Christ Himself, indicating His divine approval over His people. Although churches differ in how these ordinances are practiced, without these administrations, a church is not a church that belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is written in the Scripture, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
If the individuals who give themselves over to the above sinful practices do not inherit the kingdom of God, how can the churches that approve these evils belong to God?
Regrettably, many churches are corrupted by endorsing sexual immorality, homosexuality, and greediness and yet claim to be churches of Christ Jesus. Such churches do not belong to Christ but to Satan.
Holiness speaks about being separated unto God according to His standards. Although not perfect in its practical living, a biblical church believes and pursues conformity to God’s holiness. And when its members break these clear holy standards, it implements church discipline to preserve God’s holiness in the community.
Any church that officially endorses the obvious sinful practices condemned by God’s Word is not Christ’s church.
All the above-mentioned factors boil down to one thing, i.e. biblical authority. A church that belongs to Christ takes the Holy Scripture as its ultimate authority in all matters of belief and practice. It believes the Holy Bible is inspired by God, inerrant in its teachings, and bears absolute divine authority.
When the church distorts the authoritative teaching of the Holy Scripture under the depraved cultural pressure, it denies God’s Word as its final authority and becomes worldly. When the church distorts the authoritative teaching of the Holy Scripture under the abusive interpretations of a man, it denies God’s Word as its final authority and becomes a cult. When the church distorts the authoritative teaching of the Holy Scripture under the compulsive traditions of the society, it denies God’s Word as its final authority and succumbs to legalism.
A church is not a church when it doesn’t submit to God’s Word as its absolute and ultimate authority.
Dear Christian, if you find a gathering that claims to be a church but does not preach the biblical gospel, does not proclaim justification by faith, does not practice ordinances, does not pursue biblical holiness, and does not believe in the ultimate authority of the Holy Scripture, flee from that so-called church as Lot fled from Sodom and Gomorrah without turning back!
C. Stephen David serves as a pastor at Ekklesia Evangelical Fellowship, Hyderabad, Telangana. He is married to Chaitanya and they have two children.