But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. (1 Corinthians 12.18-21)
One of the greatest problems reported in the life of local churches today is the lack of a deep sense of loyalty on the part of many members. Sometimes when believers decide where they would like to live, or where they will apply for new jobs, almost the last matter put into the reckoning is their commitment to their church. Pastors everywhere affirm that Christians are too often guided by material and personal considerations, and not by any sense of duty and loyalty to their fellowship.
Is it possible that our criteria for such decisions are out of line with the Lord’s? What if he wants our present church commitment to be a dominating priority, and we relegate it to a matter of small importance? Will this not make all ideas of guidance an empty delusion? Clearly, it is vital for us to know the ‘rating’ our existing church commitment should be given on our scale of priorities. This article will show that some of the other guidance factors are subservient to this.
The writer knows of a ‘pioneer’ church where some years ago nine or ten couples committed themselves together to establish a witness in a new town destitute of evangelical light. Within three years, all but two of the couples had moved off elsewhere. The reason? Most had moved to get higher status and more lucrative jobs within their professions. Apparently these moves were not all absolutely essential, but the free choice of people who felt no deep bond of loyalty to the local ‘body of Christ’ in which God had placed them. Even though it seemed inevitable that their leaving would press their fledgling church to the brink of disaster, these couples considered their careers and incomes their chief priority.
A ‘low’ or ‘high’ view of the church?
How have such believers come to regard their ties with their local church so lightly? Obviously they have not really understood the Bible’s teaching about the local church. Perhaps they have not realised what is meant by ‘the body of Christ’. They think that the church is like a supermarket chain, or a network of banks. No one would decide against moving from one town to another because they were rather attached to their supermarket or bank branch. Suitable facilities exist almost wherever they may go.
What is the local church in our estimation? Is it merely a company of Christians conveniently gathered together for worship and instruction, or is it something special in God’s sight? Has God chosen its members, organised the distribution of gifts and abilities, and called those individuals to be committed to each other to serve him and to live as a unique family? Does God require a special loyalty within the local church?
Liberty is the ‘in’ word today. For some believers, loyalty to any particular congregation smacks of restriction, legalism, and a mechanical interpretation of Christian duty. Loyalty is regarded as quenching the spirit of liberty. Yet the New Testament is clear in its portrayal of the local church as a company of believers very strongly related together in bonds of love and loyalty and service. The local church is much greater than a haphazard collection of believers. It is a spiritually integrated family vested with unique privileges and authority to carry out the commands of its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. A local church is the object of his delight, and he is especially protective towards it.
The local church is – as Paul says repeatedly in 1 Corinthians 12 – one body. In the eighteenth verse he says, ‘now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.’ In other words, God has designed each congregation. Paul goes on to say – ‘There should be no schism in the body.’ He then says that God has organised the distribution of capacities so that every member is of importance to the body. We therefore conclude that if any are removed, other than by the design and overruling of the Lord, some vital quality will be missing. The members care and feel for one another to the extent that when one suffers, all the others suffer also (verses 25-26). The congregation has a special place in the purposes of God.
Ephesians 4.16 describes the organic unity of the congregation using the most close-knit illustration available – that of the physical body. Under the direction of the Head – ‘the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.’
The idea of joints and limbs being freely interchangeable between different bodies is unthinkable. The notion that a knuckle or elbow could unilaterally migrate to another body is ludicrous. The illustration of the body shows how seriously God takes his sovereign right to place his people in particular churches, according to his overall plan. Our God insists that we see our lives and our service in the context of the particular church family to which he appoints us. Verses such as this place great emphasis on a group of people being edified together, so that they relate together in love, mutual care and dedicated service for the Lord, showing forth God’s power and grace.
In the light of the fact that the New Testament urges us to have a high view of the local church, how is it that so many evangelical believers have come to take such a low view? One possible reason is that they misunderstand our evangelical rejection of earthly church power. They notice that we repudiate human domination, such as church government by centralised councils or hierarchies, and that we shun human priesthood, emphasising instead the priesthood of all believers, and the direct access to the Saviour for all who seek him. However, they carry the liberty of individual believers too far, and come to think that the believer should not subordinate himselfin any way to a church. They see no obligation at all, regarding the congregation as nothing more than a practical arrangement to facilitate worship and instruction.
Obviously, if the local church is no more than this, then it has no more claim upon anyone’s allegiance than a school or university or supermarket or bank. As long as believers contribute towards the benefits they receive, they should not be inconvenienced or required to make sacrifices for their local church.
While it is true that the local church has no dominating authority over the lives of its members (other than to apply the standards clearly announced in the Bible), God insists that his people should feel obligated to their churches in a special way, striving to worship and serve as a co-ordinated unit, a society of people called to prove him in the closest harmony. And they are to be loyal to their church until God himself calls them elsewhere by unmistakable guidance.
All this is taught in the various biblical pictures or metaphors of the church, particularly those of the body, the Temple building, and the family unit. Church members are pictured as integral and irremovable parts performing vital functions. God’s special regard for the local church as a cohesive unit is to be seen in the warning of 1 Corinthians 3.16-17, where Paul writes to that congregation: ‘Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile [or destroy] the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.’
Should the believer move?
In the light of the special status and significance of a local church, the permanent move of a believer from one church to another should only take place as the result of the clear overruling guidance of God. Later in this article we shall consider when loyalty is wrong, but in normal circumstances the believer’s first thought must always be, ‘God has called me to be loyal to my present community. Can I therefore be sure that it is his will that I should move? Am I really being called somewhere else? Is there clear evidence of his leading, supported by circumstantial guidance and having taken account of the counsel of my brothers and sisters in the Lord?’
Often Christian people are closely attached to their church, making a valuable contribution, but then a practical problem arises which appears to make moving necessary. It may be that their firm is moving to another town, or that employment prospects are much better somewhere else, or that their present area is prohibitively expensive for housing, and prices are much lower in another region of the country. None of these problems should immediately lead us to feel that moving is the only solution. One of the great assurances of the Christian life is that although we are frequently tried and tested by problems, often seemingly insurmountable ones, when we turn to God in prayer, he intervenes and helps us. The history of grace is a story of wonderful, often astounding, provisions from the Lord. However, some believers, the moment a problem arises of the kind mentioned, assume that it can be resolved only by uprooting and moving. They panic, and see only radical solutions, and they do not seriously ask the Lord to provide for them so that they can remain loyal to their church work. All this is very sad, with churches receiving heavy blows because members do not attempt to prove their Lord.
Some pastors have felt this very keenly, especially those ministering in new towns or inner-city areas into which Christian people hardly ever seem to move, but out of which they move very readily. Many churches in these areas ‘generate’ converted souls for the churches of other places, while they themselves remain as struggling causes. Did the Lord design it that way? Did he intend that his people should be totally dominated by practical problems?
Obviously, we must not expound loyalty in such a way as to obstruct the ways of God. We recognise that the sovereign Lord may move his people from one church to another. He is our heavenly General who knows the whole battlefield and all his various outposts or churches along the front line. He may call people who are settled in one church to uproot and transfer to another, just as in the New Testament we see the Lord moving his servants from one place to another, sometimes by sweeping large numbers out of communities by persecution, and sometimes by other means.
As a general rule, when circumstances arise which could remove us from our church, our first hope should be that the Lord intends us to prove him where we are. It is only after we have sincerely sought a solution, and exhausted all reasonable possibilities, that we should become open to moving away. How can we expect to be led in the ‘right way’, if we have no respect for the Lord’s revealed priorities? The seeking of guidance must be rooted in a
biblical value system, and this includes the duty of loyalty and commitment to the congregation in which God has set us. If a church is going seriously wrong in honouring biblical essentials, believers may be compelled to leave (as we show from page 114).
Two concepts arising out of the expression ‘the body of Christ’ should help us to develop the supportive, devoted attitude which we ought to have for our local church. This magnificent term (used in 1 Corinthians 12.27 ) may refer in Scripture both to the entire, world-wide Church of Christ, and to an individual congregation. As we have seen, the term speaks of a harmonious, closely organised unit, with interdependent parts and limbs. But it also speaks of a person’s presence. Just as we are present in a place when our body is there, so Christ is seen in the world by his church. Every (spiritual) local church is his representative body in the world.
Surely, then, the local church, as his representative body, must be treated with the utmost respect and consideration. As members, we are the body of Christ! Whatever we do for his representative body, we do for him and to him. Whatever we fail to do for the church, we fail to do for him. If I am lazy or indifferent toward my church – the body of Christ – I am lazy and indifferent to him. If I am disloyal to his body, I am disloyal to him. How can I hurt the body of Christ, or abuse it? How can I lightly leave or forsake it?
To further stir our loyalty to the local church there is a second idea suggested by the term ‘body of Christ’. It is that of the sanctity of life. The word ‘body’ reminds us that the local church is a living thing. Supposing we see a person lying in the street, injured and bleeding; what do we do? Do we just pass by? If we do, we will afterwards feel sick and desperately ashamed, because there is within everyone a powerful respect for life, and we cannot betray that instinctual responsibility for the preserving of life without paying a price.
As Christians, we should possess a similar instinct for the health and well-being of the body of Christ, the local church. Viewed spiritually, it is a precious, living body, Christ being alive in its members, having bound them together to represent him in the world. How can we allow it to be hurt? How can we bear to see limbs torn out? The world allows and encourages abortion, which is an outrage against the sanctity of human life, but the indifference shown by some believers to the body of Christ is to some degree a similar outrage in the spiritual realm.
When church members uproot and move as though their place in the body of Christ is of no significance, it is because they have lost their sense of awe and respect for the local church as the body of Christ. What a precious and important thing the congregation is! It is far, far more than a ‘convenient arrangement’. It is something to which we owe special love, loyalty and service, so long as it remains a worthy church.
Wrong motives for leaving
When the next trial arises in our lives, will we have the right priorities? In Romans 16.10 Paul salutes Apelles, who was ‘approved in Christ’, which means that he had gained the victory in a great test or trial. He had come through that trial on the Lord’s side, proving his power in his situation. Many fall in the time of trial without even a struggle, and consequently they may suffer years of unhappiness without real spiritual usefulness. Some have gone into a spiritual wilderness because matters of career or location became the biggest influence in their lives, causing them to abandon their place in the service of the Lord.
In times of trial or decision, we need to search our hearts to see what desires are really influencing us. We know of people who have moved from the inner city because they did not care for built-up areas, and longed for green fields and beauty. The assumption of these friends was that other Christian city-dwellers adored the polluted air and grimy buildings. Clearly if all members of inner-city churches followed the natural desire to flee to more pleasant districts there would be no evangelical churches left in our most densely populated areas.
Countless Christians stand fast in other undesirable and unattractive locations, remaining for the sake of their local church and its testimony. Where in the Bible do we read that the first rule of guidance is that we are to seek the most congenial and attractive surroundings? It is the worldling who makes his own pleasure and enjoyment his first priority, but we are to stay or go wherever the Lord positions us, realising that trials and temptations await us in an ‘Eden’ just as much as in a ‘Babylon’.
There are other factors also which carry people away from their churches unnecessarily. Every pastor has experience of members who have moved away from their fellowship because they had some besetting weakness they would not control. Their spiritual lives suffered, they became unhappy, and eventually decided that the fault was not in them but in their church. They began to sulk and complain, and soon became convinced that they were not receiving spiritual food, help or fellowship. Eventually they left the church, but not because the Lord had led them on. A high and worthy view of the local church may have helped them not to turn against their church, but they did not have such a view, and the church soon became a punch-bag for the release of tensions and dissatisfaction.
C. H. Spurgeon may well have been describing this in Sermons in Candles. Alongside an engraving of a very odd-shaped candle, unable to fit into any holder or stand, he wrote:
‘I know persons who cannot get on anywhere; but, according to their own belief, the fault is not in themselves, but in their surroundings. I could sketch you a brother who is unable to do any good because all the churches are so faulty. He was once with us, but he came to know us too well, and grew disgusted with our dogmatism and want of taste. He went to the Independents who have so much more culture, breadth, and liberality. He grew weary of what he called ‘cold dignity’. He wanted more fire, and therefore favoured the Methodists with his patronage. Alas! he did not find them the flaming zealots he had supposed them to be: he very soon outgrew both them and their doctrines, and joined our most excellent friends, the Presbyterians.
These proved to be by far too high and dry for him, and he became rather sweet upon the Swedenborgians, and would have joined them had not his wife led him among the Episcopalians. Here he might have enjoyed the otium cum dignitate, have taken it easy with admirable propriety, and have even grown into a churchwarden; but he was not content; and before long I heard that he was an Exclusive Brother!
There I leave him, hoping that he may be better in his new line than he has ever been in the old ones. ‘The course of nature could no further go’: if he has not fallen among a loving united people now, where will he find them? Yet I expect that as Adam left Paradise so will he ultimately fall from his high estate.’
An unsettled member’s heart-searching must be ready to unearth unsavoury motives. Why would we want to leave our church? Sometimes people become disenchanted through thinking of themselves more highly than they ought to think, becoming very upset because their perceived talents are not sufficiently recognised, and they are not given early respect or office. They soon think they will be much better off in another (much ‘better’) church, and having lost their biblical loyalty, they may eventually make their move.
When loyalty is challenged
Although some people have failed in their loyalty to their church, countless others have proved the Lord in a marvellous way. The practice of loyalty to biblical priorities has brought them a series of wonderful provisions and blessings. Over the years we have heard often of accommodation being found, mortgages becoming unexpectedly available, employment needs being met, and a host of other provisions also. Sometimes it transpires that the Lord really is leading a believer to a new church ‘posting’, but often he provides so that they may stay where they are.
It may be that to remain in one’s church will entail a loss of employ-ment status, or some other cost, and we should ask ourselves, ‘Am I ready for this?’ We should remind ourselves that the history of the church is full of the loyal sacrifices of the Lord’s people. Years ago, in time of war, men left their families to go and fight for their country, and many in fear and trembling performed heroic deeds. Many were cut down in their youth for the defence of the realm. But what cause could be more vital or glorious than that of the Lord of hosts, and the battle for everlasting souls? Yet we hear of believers who say, ‘I would never put my career prospects at risk. I must do whatever my company demands, and go wherever promotion or advancement dictates.’ The mighty grace of God brings new values and emotions into the life of a true convert, and we must take care not to lose these values as we go on in the Christian life. We must be all for Christ, and for his cause and his church.
It is good for us to keep in mind the fact that all believers at some time are likely to be subjected to the devil’s attempts to shift them from the church fellowship where God has placed them. There will be many difficulties and trials for all, and the more they seek to serve the Lord, the more they will encounter them. We all need great tenacity, and a deep sense of belonging to our church. Most believers who have been especially used by God for the building up of their fellowship have at some time been subjected to intense pressures to uproot and relocate elsewhere. Perhaps these trials were given so that they might prove the Lord’s provisions for them, and be all the more certain of their ‘posting’. Satan is constantly trying to spoil churches by taking believers out of the ‘element’ in which God has placed them. He is constantly tempting God’s people to seek greener pastures elsewhere.
What about those new-town young couples referred to at the beginning of this article, who walked out on an infant church so easily? Were they people of loyalty, commitment, sacrifice and courage? One wonders where they are now. Are they enjoying high academic or commercial positions? Are they well established in beautiful homes with fine cars parked in their driveways?
In seeking guidance, let us recognise that when the Lord sets us in a sound church, it is a divine appointment, and we must honour and respect that with all our strength. We are not free agents, and should never be moved by whims. When it is God’s time to move us elsewhere, we must be fully and sincerely satisfied that he is really directing and overruling.
This article has said nothing about special cases, such as students, or even ministers of the Gospel. The existence of a sound church for Christian service is a key factor in choosing a college, but a study course in another city does not come within the scope of a permanent move. Ministers may be called by God from one sphere of ministry to another. We acknowledge that there are many legitimate reasons for Christians to be on the move, and the Lord is frequently the author of our moves, but the responsibility of honouring primary biblical loyalties has been too widely ignored in these days of high ‘mobility’, to the great hurt of churches and individuals.
When loyalty is wrong
Although loyalty to the local church is a biblical duty, there are circumstances in which loyalty is misplaced, and believers should leave. The painful irony is that some Christians show little loyalty to their church when God commands them to cleave to it, and amazing loyalty when God tells them to leave it. To know when loyalty is commanded, and when it is not, is a crucial aspect of divine guidance. Thousands of believers have remained trapped in apostate denominational churches where the Truth has long been derided and compromised, because they misunderstood loyalty and placed it before Truth.
The fact is that in his Word God constantly calls his people out of dead and unworthy churches, but numerous believers appear not to notice. They deprive themselves of sound ministry, strengthen the hands of false teachers (the Lord’s enemies), and lose years of fruitful service by remaining in unsound churches. The biblical command that we should stay clear of all false teaching and apostasy is not merely negative, but is a positive and constructive act of spiritual obedience, safeguarding the true Gospel message and protecting the doctrinal purity of the people of God. The work of the Gospel is seriously hampered by the fact that many of the Lord’s people are spread thinly around in compromised or completely dead and apostate churches. If they would only regroup to stand behind sound, Gospel-preaching churches, these would be vastly more effective. The biblical call to separate from error is God’s own call to his people, and to obey it is a response of love leading to positive blessing.
Consider the many texts in which we are told not to associate with churches and ministers who deny the fundamentals of the true faith, such as the infallibility of the Bible, and the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. In Romans 16.17 Paul commands that we ‘mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.’ Should we worship and work in churches with false teachers? Should we listen to and support ministers and clergy who do not wholeheartedly believe and teach the Gospel? The inspired apostle writes: ‘Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1.8). Apostate churches and preachers are (says Paul) ‘the enemies of the cross of Christ’ (Philippians 3.18). The apostle John (in 2 John 10-11) lays a solemn charge upon us, saying of ministers and clergy who reject true evangelical doctrine – ‘If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.’
Are we assisting non-evangelical teachers? Have we not realised that in God’s sight we are assisting his enemies? The scriptures quoted are God’s authoritative commands to us, telling us to leave wrong church connections. We should not say, ‘Well, I’ll think about it, and see if the Lord leads me.’ He has led us already.
In 1 Timothy 4.1 we are warned that ‘in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.’ False teaching will enter many churches, and take them over. How should true believers respond? Says Paul, ‘If any man…consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness… from such withdraw thyself’ (1 Timothy 6.3-5). We are to ‘shun’ false teaching (2 Timothy 2.16).
The command to believers to keep themselves completely apart from Bible-denying error is also expressed in 2 Corinthians 6.14-17 :
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.
The purpose of our reviewing these biblical passages is to show that God has already provided ample guidance on this issue. The matter is already settled for us in Scripture. If a church teaches or allows fundamental error, or associates supportively with those that do, we have a duty to appeal for repentance and correction, and if there is no response, to leave.
These scriptures apply not only to churches, but also to a Christian Union in our college or firm if that society has non-evangelical committee members and speakers. Nor should we support evangelistic crusades that have committee members and ministers on the platform who are opposed to evangelical Truth, and which refer their ‘converts’ to unsound churches. In all these matters we already have clear guidance in the Word. Other issues also call for withdrawal from churches and CUs, such as their use of contemporary worship styles, contrary to James 4.4, or the adoption of charismatic ways, following post-biblical visions. (The author covers these in Worship or Entertainment?, The Charismatic Phenomenon and The Healing Epidemic.)
When loyalty is wrong toward sound churches
Are there any circumstances in which believers ought to leave doctrinally sound churches? Sadly, there are church failings which are so serious that Christians have a duty to withdraw if the situation cannot be corrected. Even though a church may wholeheartedly believe the fundamental doctrines of the Bible, it may fall into such sin that it is no longer fit or qualified to function as a church, and no longer entitled to the loyalty of its members. We see this in the Book of Revelation where the church at Ephesus was told that if it did not repent of its sin it would have its ‘candlestick’ or ‘lampstand’ (its status as a true church) taken away. Here are three areas of church misconduct which involve such serious disobedience to God that dedicated Christians must withdraw – if the church refuses to address the situation:
1. First, if a church refuses to exercise discipline when serious offences are committed by members, then we have a duty to protest, and if the church refuses to obey God’s Word, to leave it. ‘Have no fellowship,’ says the Lord through Paul, ‘with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them’ (Ephesians 5.11). The New Testament insists that the purity of the church is taken seriously, and 1 Corinthians 5 shows the necessity of this.
2. Secondly, if a church shows no inclination to obey the great commission and engage in Gospel work, and nothing can be done to stir it up to obedience, believers may well have a duty to leave that church. A local church must proclaim the Gospel. If this primary function is ignored, then the church forfeits the loyalty of true-hearted members. How can they be expected to waste their lives in lazy, heartless or disobedient churches? Why should they be rendered fruitless because their church is not interested in the Saviour’s highest work?
3. Thirdly, if a church ignores the standards of God’s Word by allowing the use of worldly and carnal styles of worship and evangelism, then true believers are bound to experience a great crisis of conscience. How can they cleave to a church which corrupts holy things and makes its members participate in ungodly worship contrary to James 4.4 – ‘Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.’ Loyalty to the Lord and his commands in such areas certainly comes before loyalty to the local church.
All three examples mentioned here cancel out the duty of loyalty to a church, regardless of the fact that it may be sound in basic doctrine.
Where such problems do not exist, however, we must believe that God calls us to a church, and commands us to be loyal to it. We should regard ourselves as permanent limbs or parts of that body until he moves us, and have a readiness to be utterly faithful to any sound and active fellowship to which God shall call and ‘post’ us. The Christian life is not a life of selfish individualism, but a life to be spent as a fellow labourer and fellow soldier in that unit of believers where God intends us to be.
Lord, from whom all blessings flow,
Perfecting the church below,
Steadfast, may we cleave to thee,
Love the powerful union be;
Bind our willing spirits, join
Each to each, and all to thine,
Lead us into paths of peace,
Harmony and holiness.
Move and actuate and guide;
Various gifts to each divide;
Placed according to thy will
Let us all our work fulfil;
Never from our service move,
Needful to each other prove;
Use the grace on each bestowed
Fashioned by the hand of God.
1. Does the Lord Really Guide?
2. Six Biblical Steps for Guidance
3. Guidance in Courtship and Marriage
4. Guidance for Activities, Possessions and Leisure
5. Guidance on Wealth and Ambition
6. Imagining the Lord’s Interventions
7. Guidance and Loyalty to the Local Church
8. Guidance in Church Decisions
Appendix: Tests for Amusements and Recreations (Richard Baxter)