"What Church Should I Join?"
An Address To Young Believers by John Ritchie - public domain
Many of you here tonight have recently been converted to God. A few weeks ago you were asking the all-important question -- "What must I do to be saved?" And this you had answered, by the Word of God telling you, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31). You have believed, and you are saved, for God was as good as His Word. As young believers, other inquiries now rise among you, and among these, as some of you have expressed it, is the question -
What Church should I join? Or where, and with whom, can I have Christian fellowship?
This is a very important question, and I am glad to know that many of you are deeply exercised before God about it. Next to your soul's salvation and your individual walk with Him, nothing can be of more importance than to be guided aright in the matter of "Church Fellowship." Your decision in this will have an abiding effect on your after-life, either for good or evil. Many seem to think it does not matter much where they go, or with whom they have fellowship, provided they get on smoothly; and consequently they make it a matter of their own choice, "what Church they join," or, as it happens very often, they just drop in where they have been in the "habit" of going, and where, perhaps, their parents are "Members." Now this would be alright, if God had left it an "open question" - "What Church should I join?" I would impress upon my own soul and yours, the absolute necessity of being guided wholly and solely by the Word of God. Men's ideas and advices are of no use here; not even the counsel of a pious parent. The Word of God, and that alone, must answer the question. And this makes it at once simple and easy; for if God has told me in His Word where, and with whom I am to have Church Fellowship, it ceases to be a question of what I think or what my friends think, or what any man says, and becomes a question of "What saith the Lord?" Where does He say I am to be, and where does He forbid me to go? That's the point to get settled first of all, and then, no matter how much opposition may arise to hinder you, or how much failure there may be around you, you'll have the consciousness that you stand where God has commanded you, and have in your soul the testimony that you are pleasing Him. And what can be put into the balance against that? Nothing, no, nothing! For if you have the witness that you are pleasing God, and that He is on your side, it will make you as bold as a lion, even if earth and hell be engaged against you.
We will open the Book then - the precious Book - the "lamp to our feet" - the "light to our path" - and see what God says about the Church, and who they are that compose it. When once we get to know this, there will not be so much difficulty left about the "joining."
First of all then - the word "Church" is never used in the Scriptures as the name of a building used for religious purposes, as many of us from our childhood have been accustomed to use it. It is always used in connection with persons, and signifies "called out" ones. Turn to Acts 20:28. There we read of "the Church of God, which He hath purchased with his own blood"; and again, "Christ...loved the Church and gave Himself for it" (Eph. 5:25).
Here we see whose the Church is, and at what a cost it was purchased. It is the "Church of God" -- not the Church of a nation, a country, a creed, or a person, but "of God"; purchased by the precious blood of Christ, and the object of His everlasting love. Like the merchantman seeking goodly pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, sold all to buy it - the Lord Jesus gave Himself to obtain the Church for His Bride, to be the sharer of His glory forever. It is spoken of in the New Testament (and not found in the Old at all, save in type) under the figures of a Body, a Temple, a House, a Bride, and a City. It is called the Body of Christ, the Temple of God, the House of God, the Bride of the Lamb, and the Holy City, new Jerusalem (see Eph. 2:22, 23; 1 Cor. 3:16; 1 Tim. 3:15; Rev. 21:2-9).
Of His Body, Christ risen and glorified is the one and only Head; for God hath made "him to be the Head over all things to the Church which is His Body" (Eph. 1:22-23); and, "he is before all things, and by Him all things consist, and He is the Head of the body the Church" (Col. 1:17, 18). To Him the Church is called to be in subjection, as the wife is to her husband (Eph. 5:23, 24), and to Him alone.
No Pope or Archbishop, no Council, or Assembly, has any divine warrant to legislate for the Church of God; they have never been called to issue bulls, frame canons, or devise laws outside the Word of God, for her obedience. Her Head yet lives, seated at the right hand of God, to nourish, sustain, and rule His Body; the Spirit of God dwells within each member, uniting them to the Living Head; and the Word of God containing all his counsel, is in our hands. What more need we?
As there is but one Head, so also is there but one Body (Eph. 4:4). It is composed of many members, differing in rank and attainment, even as in our natural bodies we have the eye, the hand, the foot; but though many members, yet only one Body (1 Cor. 12:20), "for by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12, 13). Each member has a place and sphere assigned to him by God. The unity is God-made, and God-sustained. Man never formed it, and he can never break it, because its keeping is in the hands of God - it is divine. By forming many and varied sects, man may ignore or deny this unity; but that in no way annuls it. The Church, viewed as the Body of Christ, is one in spite of all man's failure and schism; it embraces every child of God, north, south, east, and west, by whatever name they may be known among men. They are all redeemed by the same precious blood, sealed and indwelt by the same Spirit, encircled and enlocked by the same Almighty Arms of Love, and to be in the same glorious home throughout eternity. These are everlasting links between saint and saint -- they shall know no decay, though, sad to say, they are oftentimes disowned here, while others of man's making take their place.
Dear young believer, this is the Church as spoken of in the Scriptures; begun on the day of Pentecost by the descent of the Holy Ghost - at present being gathered out from the nations of the earth through the preaching of the Gospel, having no earthly inheritance or potentate - separate alike from Jew and Gentile - One New Man - One Holy Church - the Bride of Christ, to be completed and presented to Him when He comes.
Of this Body (the only one mentioned in the Scriptures) you are already a "member" you have already been "joined" to it. Nothing on your part can make you any more a member than you at present are, and you cannot "unchurch" yourself. By the act of God you became a member of the Church, which is Christ's body, on the day of your conversion, and you'll continue so for all eternity. Hallelujah!
Part of the members of this Church are now absent from the body, and "present with the Lord"; others are for the present living in the world among men, and must needs live in some city, town, or country. It is not the will of God that they should remain isolated one from another, for His Word has said -- "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is" (Heb. 10:25). The Christ-life within each of them also craves for fellowship with other members in whom the same life dwells, for "we are members one of another." Their association must therefore be one of life, and not mere outward uniformity; and the dead - that is the unconverted - cannot have any share in it, for what fellowship has life with death, or light with darkness? Clearly none whatever. Therefore it is impossible that anything like true fellowship can exist in those Churches where the living and the dead - the children of God and the children of the Devil - are massed together God distinctly forbids that such should be, in the words - "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?… Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord" (2 Cor. 6:14-17). The tares and the wheat are to grow side by side in the world - (and "the field is the world" remember, and not the Church, see Matt. 13:38) until the end; but in the Church of the living God the unsaved should have no place: they ought to be "without" (see 1 Thess. 4:12; Col 4:5).
It was so at the beginning. We find in the New Testament there were local Churches, such as the Church at Jerusalem (Acts. 8:1), the Church at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:12), the Churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:20, and the Church in the house of Nymphas (Col. 4:15). These Churches consisted of believers, and believers only. They were gathered into a divinity constituted fellowship, in subjection to Christ as Lord, the pattern of which remains for us to follow. They received all *whom the Lord had received, even those who were "weak" and required "support" (see Rom. 14:1; 1 Thess. 5:14); and to have been narrower than this they would have become a sect. In their assemblies they worshipped God, guided by the Spirit (1 Cor. 14); they observed the Lord's Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7); but we hear no word of any "presiding minister" or "elder" at the head of the table. They owned and received the gifts of the risen Christ - evangelists, pastors and teachers; but they did not choose, elect, or ordain their own minister; nor was there any such person known in these Churches as the modern "minister," who is chosen by the congregation to do all the preaching, teaching, and shepherding of the flock. At Antioch there were five teachers (Acts 13:1), and at Philippi several Bishops (Phil. 1:1) in one church. How would that do now-a-days? What would become of "the minister"? These Churches owned and obeyed those whom God had fitted to rule (Heb. 13:7, 17); they exercised godly discipline towards the erring; and if any one among them became guilty of holding and teaching evil doctrine (Rev. 2:17, 20), or of immoral practice (1 Cor. 5:11), they put away the offender.
*The only warrant for the refection or exclusion of any believer from Church-fellowship is, that he be guilty of any of those sins specified in Scripture for which God excludes him (see 1 Cor. 5:11-13; Rom. 16:17; Titus 3:10).
Such are a few of the characteristic features of the Churches mentioned in Scripture, and they are the patterns of what Churches ought to be till the Lord come. I have no more right to devise a new order of fellowship in the Church of God, than I have to make a new way of salvation. God has given both in his Word, and it endureth forever.
When any one was converted he did not require to ask, "What Church should I join?" for there was only one Church in each place, and he there and then became identified with it.
For example, in Jerusalem there were one hundred and twenty disciples on the day of Pentecost in an upper room. Three thousand more were converted; and we read, "the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls,.and all that believed were together" (Acts 2:41, 44). And this was not only on the "special occasion" of that "great Revival," but "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers" (Acts 2:43), "and of the rest durst no man join himself unto them" (Acts 5:13).
There were no unconverted "young communicants," no "dead members" in that Church; they "durst not join themselves to them." The ungodly Jews carried on their religion in the temple, headed by the high priest and his "colleagues," who condemned the Son of God; even as the unconverted religious people do now in their churches and chapels; but the young converts could have had no fellowship with such persons, and I'm sure neither would you. Like Saul of Tarsus, you would have gone to the disciples, and been received to their fellowship as he was (see Acts 9:26-28). You see your path would have been plain then. It is very different now. Numerous sects are spread over the face of the earth; the church and the world are mixed up together; and when new-born babes open their eyes, it is not to look upon the Church as it was in the beginning, but sect after sect named after their founder, their creed, or their country, and all contending for the mastery - who'll be the greatest.
What is to be done? That's the point: and we must fairly face it. Here in --- you have most of the leading sects represented, and you wish to know which of them you ought to join. Well, the simplest answer to your question is, "Which of them is according to the Word of God? Which of them answers to the pattern given in the Book?"
Let us test them and see. The leading churches are far from the mark. They allow the unconverted to sit at the Lord's Table - there can be no doubt about that. If you question this, just go up to some of them and ask the plain and legitimate question, "Is your soul saved?" and you'll see. They choose their own ministers, some of which are unconverted beyond all doubt. They have one man set up, who acts as evangelist, pastor, and teacher, and for this he receives a stated salary - in short, is "hired" to do the people's religion. He says all the prayers, gives out all the hymns, and does all the preaching. No matter who else may be called of God to speak or pry while they are at "public worship," they dare not do it, else they would be turned out. The Holy Ghost must act through "the minister," or not at all; and all this honor is conferred upon him, because he is an "ordained man" - that is, because the hands of some other of his fellow-ministers were once laid upon his head, in imitation of the apostles - which most honest men now see to be a sham. These are serious obstacles to any one whose desire is to please God and obey His Word, "joining" or having church fellowship in such places. Are they not?
Then there are others who make "water baptism" the door of admission into the church, and have no room for the Spirit's guidance in worship, or the exercise of all God's gifts in ministry. This is sectarian, and apart from the Word of God. Others gather on "the ground of the one body," and exclude many of God's people who are walking in the truth. This is highly sectarian, and strongly condemned in the Word of God (see 3 John 10). What then is to be done? Where can we go? Must we out of many evils "choose the least"? Certainly not. We must have the right thing - the God-appointed church fellowship and order, or none. Surely nothing less will satisfy a true hearted saint who wants to do the will of God in this matter.
Well, then, find out if there are any believers gathering in the name of the Lord Jesus, and having Him in their midst, according to Matt. 18:20; who have left all sects and parties, with their names, creeds, and traditions, because contrary to Scripture, and who have returned to the first principles of the Church of God; who have no name but that of Christ; who are gathered according to the divine pattern, who have room for the exercise of all his gifts, liberty for all the operations of His Spirit, and have His Word alone for their creed. This is what is commanded in the Book - this is what we see was practiced in the early churches - and this is your place. Shrink not from taking it, and, when you have taken it, "continue steadfastly" in it - hold it fast. Those so gathering may be but a "little flock," poor and despised, compared with the crowd of religious professors around them; but Jesus says - "Where two or three are gathered together in My name there am I in the midst"; and surely it is better to be where He is, than in the crowd without Him.
Let those who thus gather make no pretensions to be "the people of God," for this they are not, so long as there are saints in the sects around them, who nevertheless are dear to God, and will be in the same heaven for all eternity. Let us love such as brethren, who are one with us in Christ, although the systems they are mixed up in we must ignore. And having gained the right position in Church fellowship, let us live in the right condition in fellowship with God, and so walk among men as to commend the truth to every man's conscience in the sight of God. May He help us individually so to do. Amen.