During a recent trip, I bumped into a friend whom I last saw over twenty years ago. As we chatted about life, our families and our present passions, I mentioned my involvement in ministry. He immediately became cynical and asked if I had made my fortunes yet. My efforts to tell him that I was not of that stock fell on deaf ears for a while. Finally I was able to convince him that I am part of the company of believers who strive to live and conduct ministry according to the standards laid out in Scripture. My friend went on to express his frustration about the materialism and corruption in the churches he knew. Unfortunately, I could not defend those churches because I knew that what he said was true. I, however, pointed Him to God and affirmed that there are still believers who worship Him in truth.
Paul, in Scripture, described the church as the “pillar and ground of truth” (1 Timothy 3:14–15). In other words, she is the ground upon which truth is planted and the prop from which it is displayed to the world. The Gentile churches to whom Paul ministered had come out of pagan cultures, cultures that stood in stark contrast to God’s ways. They were young congregations, new plants that needed to grow spiritually and numerically in order to transform the cultures from which they had been drawn. Although Paul desired to see them grow, he did not lower God’s standards to facilitate or accommodate such growth. On the contrary, he insisted that the church, wherever she was found, needed to be the custodian and model of God’s truth. She needed to model righteousness, holiness, wisdom, love, and more.
Today, a “gospel” contrary to what Paul preached has taken root in Christendom. While some — thank God — still hold the view that the gatherings of God’s people should not be morally compromised for the sake of church expansion, many make the excuse that churches should be morally accommodating because they attract and comprise imperfect people.
Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. Yes, He reaches for us in our filth and draws us to Himself. But He never leaves us the way we are. In fact, the purpose of coming to Him is to be transformed into His likeness. When we come into relationship with Him, He cleanses us by His blood and progressively changes our character. Our gatherings become increasingly pure because of His cleansing work in our individual lives, as is expressed in 1 John 1:6–7:
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
People who join the church should get to see both the love and righteous standards of God lived out in our midst and realize that to be a part of His kingdom, they, too, must learn His ways. This is what the Lord instructed when He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you . . . ” (Matthew 28:19–20; emphasis added).
The ideology that everything is permissible in church because we’re sinners saved by grace is unscriptural. The Bible acknowledges that we do fall into sin but instructs us to own up to our sins, confess them, and allow the cleansing work of Christ to be done in our lives (1 John 1:8–10). The church of the living God should not be a breeding ground for iniquity — not among children, teens, young adults, or adults. Rather, as God has declared throughout Scripture right from the days of the nation of Israel to the days of the seven churches in Asia Minor, the church should be a model of holiness and truth.
The True Church
In the world today, there are a myriad churches going by different names and descriptions. But in Scripture, only one church is recognized and it is called “the church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven” (Hebrews 12:22–24). Membership in this church is handled by the Holy Spirit, and He registers only those whom He has translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light (John 3:5–6) — so there can no faking one’s way in. Remaining in this church is contingent on holding fast to the tenets of the faith and living uprightly.
There are no big names in this church (James 2:1–4); those recognized as leaders are actually servants, and they are known by their simplicity and humility (Luke 22:25–27). These messengers never take God’s glory for themselves; they do not claim ownership of His church, for they know that although they’ve been given oversight of His flock, they do not own them. They love the people of God but never point them to themselves; they remember that the One who died for them is their Husband and must remain their first love (Revelation 2:4–5). In fact, they refuse to be idolized by God’s people (Revelation 22:8–9). Their greatest desire in service is to see God’s children in strong and intimate relationship with their Father, and as such they refuse to get in the way. They teach these believers to approach and relate to God rather than position themselves as the go-betweens. These persons live simple lives so that they don’t have to plunder God’s people financially. They do not live large off the labours of God’s flock. When they can, they support them with their own resources (Acts 20:33–35). And last but not least, they live pure and holy lives (Ephesians 5:1–7). They are aware that their lifestyles, not just their messages, need to be exemplary (Philippians 3:17), so they live according to God’s commands in Scripture.
The true church is a body of believers, and it is the temple where God will set His glory in these last days. Many speak of His glory in this endtime, but before we lay claim to that, let’s remember that He only sets His glory in pure vessels:
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully. (Psalm 24:3–4)
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:7).
So if we want to be enlisted in the company described as the true church, which is the pillar and ground of truth, we must set our houses in order, both in terms of our individual lives and our assemblies.
Satan is working hard to infest the true church with sin. Like Herod who killed all the young boys in Israel to get at Jesus, the devil attacks every Christian assembly in the hopes of destroying the ones whose hearts are set right before God. Unfortunately, many assemblies have fallen prey, which is why we hear of so many scandals. Rather than be safe places for those who join them, these churches have become places where children are defiled, homes are destroyed, and persons who have a sincere desire to serve God are polluted.
But the Scripture says that “the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His . . . ” (2 Timothy 2:19). The Lord has reserved for Himself people whose hearts bow to Him and Him alone. And He leads them to gather in simplicity and purity, according to His due order. In their midst, Christ rules as Lord and the Holy Spirit’s leading is sought and held supreme.
As with the seven churches in Asia Minor, the Lord will test all Christian congregations that lay claim to His name in these last days, and those whose claims are false will be shown for what they truly are. More scandals will be heard, sadly. The Lord will not place His covering over groups who insist on rebelling against Him and bringing His name into disrepute. As He took His protective covering off Israel and Jerusalem, giving them up to Assyrian and Babylonian captivity respectively, He will withdraw His covering from rebellious churches:
Then I was given a reed like a measuring rod. And the angel stood, saying, “Rise and measure the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there. But leave out the court which is outside the temple, and do not measure it, for it has been given to the Gentiles. And they will tread the holy city underfoot for forty-two months. (Revelation 11:1–2)
The call to true believers whose hearts yearn for a sincere relationship with God and a transformed life, therefore, is to deliver themselves from places where Christ is not permitted to rule in truth. This is no time to make excuses for one’s church, nor stand for the lowering of God’s standards. This is a time to deliver one’s soul from defilement and from the firm hand of God’s discipline that will be brought upon those who continue to take His name in vain. This is a time to ask the Lord to lead one to a place of worship where His name is honoured; it is a time to actively insist on righteous standards and submission to the Holy Spirit in those God-honouring places of worship.
I pray that the Lord will speak to your heart as you read these words, enable you to evaluate your life in light of them, and lead you according to His will.