One of the most frequently asked questions of Modern Reformation and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals relates to finding a good local church. Several years ago, the hosts of the White Horse Inn discussed this very topic in their nationally syndicated radio program. The participants include Michael Horton (professor at Westminster Seminary California and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine), Kim Riddlebarger (senior minister of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California), Rod Rosenbladt (professor of theology at Concordia University in Irvine, California), and Ken Jones (senior minister of Greater Union Baptist Church in Compton, California, and a member of the Alliance Council).
Michael Horton: Becoming revolutionized by biblical theology changes a lot more than theory. It's one of the greatest upheavals in Christian practice for anybody. One of those big practical issues is how to find a church. It's probably that question that I hear on the streets more than anything else. People are longing to discover churches where their faith can be strengthened rather than threatened.
Before we can answer that question, however, we need to know what the basic issues are. First, what is a true church? That's a very practical question, isn't it? But we don't have to reinvent the wheel here. Both Lutheran and Reformed traditions have always said that a true church is where the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered. But what does it mean that the Word is rightly preached? Does that mean that you agree with everything that is said from the pulpit? Does that mean that when you hear a bad sermon you consider voting with your feet? No, really, what it has always meant is that the gospel is present. You might not agree with everything and it might not be a perfect church. No church is perfect, but is the law preached there so that people will flee to Christ and be bereft of hope in themselves? Is the gospel preached there clearly enough for people to cling to Christ and not to themselves or to anything else?
Another question that should be answered is, How bad does it have to get before I leave? When do I know that enough is enough? Should I try to change things? Should I take up a Bible class? Should I try to approach the pastor or the session or the council or the elders and try to change things? Or, should I pick up with my family and leave? If I leave, how should I do it? Should I try as much as possible to get up a group and cause some kind of division in the church or should I leave quietly? This is, really, where the rubber meets the road in practical terms, is it not? Theology really does matter and the upheavals in one's personal life show that.
Rod Rosenbladt: What you just said is very unusual. Picking a church does matter in a theological sense. The evangelical pretty much follows the adage, "Where I and my family are fed." I don't know what that means exactly, but it is a very common line. But the decision is not made theologically very often.
MH: Why don't evangelicals have any loyalty to a particular tradition? Why can they be raised in one church and then choose to attend a number of different churches during the course of their adult lives?
Kim Riddlebarger: Well, there are two reasons why people do that. One is the consumer mentality where people are looking for, as Rod mentioned, the diet of the day. They are looking to be fed. This week the issue in their family is finances so they are over here because so and so is doing a free seminar. Then their kids change into this so they're over here because they have a program for their kids. A lot of people pick churches just based upon convenience, current issues in their lives, and their felt needs. Churches are all to eager and willing to pander to that. Then there is another group of people that I think, Michael, you and I fall into. We were raised in one tradition and spent ten years in process leaving that tradition, which was independent Bible church Fundamentalism, working through all the issues related to the Reformation.
Ken Jones: I agree with Kim up to a point But, I think there is a new category of people who have grown up in one tradition and by whatever process they have been brought to ponder for the first time certain theological issues.
KR: And it is not easy.
KJ: No, no, because we are not talking about people who just joined the church yesterday, we are talking about people who are going against perhaps two generations of bad doctrine and bad theology.
KR: Seven in my family.
KJ: Yes, exactly. So that puts you at a different point and from a different perspective when looking for a different church because now you are looking back at a whole heritage that is pretty much wasted and, you know, you really try to evaluate it because obviously God was at work in it, but the choice that you make in terms of where you go will be determined largely by, number one, what awakens you in the tradition you are coming out of.
RR: I think the number of letters that I have read from listeners, White Horse Inn listeners, where the theme was this almost killed us. You know, "We have embraced the doctrine of the Reformation, but it has really been tough on our family."
KR: It is especially tough on those who do not live where there are good Reformed and Lutheran churches. And they are in a community where they do not have a Reformation church. Those are the folks that have to really struggle.
MH: Or where people live in South Holland, or Grand Rapids, or St. Louis, and actually do have to wrestle with a lot of Lutherans and Calvinists who do not want to be Lutherans and Calvinists. George Barna tells us the issue is brand loyalty. Just as in marketing these days people have to swallow the fact that people no longer buy Kenmores because their parents had Kenmores. So too, they are not going to remain in a particular denomination or even in a particular tradition because that is what they were raised in. In one sense, that's good because you do not want people to have just, sort of, implicit faith in the church. The joke is, I believe whatever the church believes. Well, what does the church believe? Well, the church believes what I believe. But, why do you and the church believe? At some point, you have to step out of that. What we are seeing is, on one hand, a criticism of brand loyalty, which means hop from church to church and use it like a mall where you get one thing from this store and another thing from this store and if you get tired of that you move on. And yet, there is a whole group of people who are not looking around for the same reason but are looking to settle. They are looking for a church where they can hear the Word rightly preached and have the Sacraments rightly administered and raise their children there and their children's children.
KJ: I think they have an advantage. That second group that you have mentioned, those who have been awakened in their tradition to a new level of theology. They have an advantage because now at least they have an idea of what they are looking for. They know what they are turning from so they are at least looking for a semblance of the gospel message or an understanding of the law. They have that to their credit whereas others who are changing churches for different reasons don't even have an idea. You know, I had a lady proudly display to me the fact that she had found a new church home because they have a good youth program. And her daughter who happens to be six years old likes it. Now what she is exposing that six-year-old daughter to, in terms of doctrine and theology she had no idea, but the child likes it.
RR: You know this can sound often pointy-headed, but it really isn't. As you were saying in your introduction, this is a sort of thing in which a whole family hears the law of God preached and the gospel of Christ preached clearly and if that isn't done regularly, it can squander the whole family.
MH: You can lose the whole family.
RR: You can lose the whole thing. This is not pointy-headed intellectualism, it's will you tell me before the sermon is over if there is any hope for me and on what basis there is.
MH: Not one Sunday, not occasionally, but regularly.
KR: And that's the one thing the minister of the gospel can do that no therapist, support group or any other group that you can imagine.
MH: Ok, now let's get down to the brass tacks of the questions then. What is a true church? Most people out there listening to us right now will say, "Well, a true church is a group of truly born-again folks." So, that means you can say, "Well I go to such and such a church, but the action that really happens in my spiritual life takes place at the Bible study fellowship meeting or at the small group.
RR: What used to be called conventicles in the Scandinavian counties.
MH: Right. Now, when we say: What is a true church? When we even ask that question we have to start from scratch and ask what do we mean by church? First of all, isn't that arrogant to say that there is, are we saying one denomination is a true church?
KR: No, we are taking Christ at his word when he says the gates of hell will not prevail against my church. Jesus has guaranteed to us that there will be a true church of Christ on the earth. And it is not, necessarily, any one denomination. It is his body where believers gather around the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the Sacrament. And that's what Christ has promised.
MH: So it not just a place where a bunch of Christians get together. It is the place organized under the authority of the Word of God by the command and promise of God that where two or more are gathered, by the way that does not mean in small groups, it is in the context of Matthew 18, which is a context of church discipline, which means that it's the context of an actual visible church.
KJ: You touched on two very important principles. That is one: it's an organization. It is organized; it's not just random. It's not just people going according to what we think or feel.
MH: We don't like to hear that as Americans. Another institution.
KJ: I know. It is an institution, but secondly it's an institution that is governed by the authority of Scripture. So what we will have are different denominations based upon our understanding of Scriptures in particular areas, but whatever that basis is, it is still based upon the authority of Scripture.
RR: There is another point I think we should throw in here. We talk about a church being a place where the gospel is preached. And I found out by teaching at an evangelical college for several years, that meant to many evangelicals that you have many evangelistic campaigns.
MH: And an altar call at the end.
RR: That's right. And in a Reformation understanding what we are talking about is where you can depend on the pastor placarding Christ in his saving office before us every Sunday. Though we are believers that he will placard Christ before us as having died for us and that the death of Christ can even save a Christian.
MH: The Heidelberg Catechism asks the question, "If we are justified by faith alone where does this faith originate?" And the answer is, "The Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments." VanBergen, obviously not an Irishmen, is a theologian in the Netherlands who wrote a marvelous commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. He pointed out that there is a very good reason why the authors of the catechism did not say, "He creates faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Word, because there are two parts to the word."
RR: Right and the law does not create faith.
MH: The law kills.
MH: "The gospel makes alive."
RR: Boy you guys do get some things right. [laughing]
MH: That's important for people to understand, this is how he creates faith in people's hearts. The praise band, the choir, all that stuff can go the way of the dodo bird. As long as there is a minister of Christ standing in his stead holding out forgiveness of sins to the people, there is a true church.
KR: And Christians must hear that.
MH: Now how bad does it have to get before I actually leave a church?
KR: That's a real tough question, because everybody's situation is different. If you are not hearing the gospel, if you are not hearing that Christ died for your sins and his death is sufficient, chances are that it is time to be looking somewhere else.
RR: Yeah, not in the last sign-off of the sermon, the last twenty seconds, where it's sort of, oh, remember Jesus died for you, too.
KJ: It's not tacking on at the end of your sermon the story of the crucifixion, but it's as you have mentioned earlier, Rod, the clear presentation of the law as the law. And a clear presentation of the gospel as the gospel.
KR: That's the first thing. Then you have to deal with individual situations. All right, do I live in a town where there is such a place where the gospel is preached? There are many people listening to this show that live in communities where it's difficult to find a place where the gospel is preached. So, it really is a difficult situation and it is almost case by case.
KJ: But for a moment, Mike, just to go back to what you mentioned earlier to tie it together. This is why it is so important. You are talking about the preaching of the law and the preaching of the gospel by the preachers taking place in the church, but this is why that as preachers we do this. Because not only for the people who are in our congregation, but those who are coming from other congregations, because how many times do we get letters and phone calls from people who said, "Well, you know I listen to your program, I listen to Dr. Sproul, and I realized I am not receiving the gospel in my church. So I go and I visit this 'Reformed' church and I don't hear the gospel. It's the same thing I am hearing in the church that I came from."
KR: And nothing is worse than a Reformed church imitating an evangelical church, because the reformed cannot do it as well as the evangelical churches.
RR: We are right in there, too. You try to get a Lutheran church in the Missouri Synod guide to imitate well a Calvary Chapel. It's not in us; we did not get the genes for it.
KR: Well, especially here in our neck of the woods in Southern California, where we have had Reformed churches attempt to go that direction and the genuine article is right down the street. Who is going to visit the little corner community church with Fred and the guitar trying his best to do praise and worship when you got the genuine thing down the street?
KJ: But, that is why I agree with Kim. The first place you begin, when do I need to look for another church is when I am no longer hearing Christ crucified, when I am no longer directed to the cross of Christ for my justification and sanctification rather than looking within.
MH: Robert Godfrey, a friend of all of ours, has made the point, you don't have to leave a church when it's no longer a true church. A lot of people have interpreted the confession or the remarks of Calvin or Luther or others as suggesting that you can never leave a church that is still a true church. And Godfrey made the point, and I think he is absolutely right here. First of all this is in a historical context of one church and what he means is that you cannot leave the visible church. In other words, you can't stay home and decide to have your own religion.
MH: We shouldn't spend a lot of time trying to reform a church, I think. If it looks like we talked to the pastor we get a sense that this is just all he's got in his bag, this is what he is going to do. I don't think we should spend a lot of time mucking around with it. We should find another church and not do so with a lot of fanfare, but find another church.
RR: If it is possible to do.
MH: Let's take a question from a caller.
Caller: Basically I have two questions. Number one, it sounds to me that you're really choosing a pastor rather than a church. And if you could comment on that, and secondly, if I am going to a new church, what do you think would be the minimal requirement to become a member? What kind of membership requirement should I expect to join a new church?
MH: Good question.
KR: That is a real good question and you could easily put that take on it that we are asking people to choose a church based upon the pastor, but unfortunately you cannot go by denominational labels anymore. You really are forced to pick an individual who is faithful to the biblical text. So you are not picking the pastor because you like him and are going to go to the church because you think he is a good guy and friendly and all that. You are going to this particular church because that particular pastor preaches Christ from the Scriptures.
MH: And aren't you going because it has a confession and he says that he follows it?
RR: Yeah. And even though we don't exercise that and if the layman doesn't exercise that in principle, he would have the right to say to a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod what you are doing Sundays and through the week doesn't match what our Book of Concord says. And they would have the right to do that.
KJ: You bring up an important issue with the confession, that's one of the things that you will discover as you are awakened in an old tradition confession for the first time. So now that is a good guide in terms of looking for a good church. What is the confession of that particular church?
KR: But the question gets to the point that not all pastors are faithful to their confessions and preach the way they ought. You are not picking the pastors as a personality, you are picking the pastor who is faithful to what he is charged to do.
KR: explanation of what is expected and what you can expect from the church. And that ought to involve some type of membership class. So that there are very clear expectations. If you join this congregation this is what is expected of you and this is the faith to which you must hold, and then you can expect this from us.
MH: And if they would discipline you if they have Lutheran or Baptist leanings? [laughing]
RR: I wanted to comment on what you just said, Kim. When you say a brief catechesis, what confessional churches mean by that is not two happy Saturday morning meetings with coffee. And sometimes this is shocking to an American. But if you look back to the early church, catechesis was a very high calling-to teach the doctrine to those looking into the Christian faith.
MH: It took a long time, too.
RR: It took a long time and those of the Reformation are probably the strongest adherents of this: it is not two happy Saturday mornings.
KJ: Yeah, that's something. As a matter of fact, a person from a Reformed church-a Christian Reformed Church-brought to my attention that in the Bible what we see is people received into the church immediately. Unfortunately we are not in those days and we must take the time to make clear what the church teaches because this is the message and the confession that you are taking a stand on.
Guest: I would like to give you a hypothetical question. I am moving to an area where my church choices will be very limited and I will have a choice between a liberal Reformed or Lutheran church that has forsaken its confessions and is no longer practicing law and gospel and administers the Sacraments infrequently or an Independent Bible church with legalistic and Pentecostal leanings or a liturgical Catholic Church. Which would you feel most comfortable with?
KR: Oh, I know families in towns like that. That is a really good but very, very difficult question. You have to go where you hear the gospel.
MH: But remember you are not joining a local church. If you are talking about one on the Presbyterian or Reformed side-here you guys might disagree, you might have a completely different answer for this we would say covenantally you are participating in a visible church that is not just on Fifth and Main.
KR: That it has an organic connection to other churches.
MH: That's right. And if you have a church like the Roman Catholic Church that officially anathematizes the gospel, then even if you go to mass where you could hear more of the gospel in the liturgy there than you could hear at many of the evangelical churches, you're still joining and giving your children to an institution that denies the gospel.
KR: The other thing you have to factor into that whole question would be do any of these historically Protestant churches, even if they are liberal, still have the historical liturgies? If you were to go to a local Episcopal church where you had the Book of Common Prayer, even the modern additions, you would still get the gospel, even if the preacher did not believe anything.
MH: Don't send them to legalistic Bible churches though, because then they will become atheists.
RR: The children will end up in unbelief, and the odds are very high on that. I think, Kim, you have raised a very good point. I have sometimes said to people bring a cassette with a good law-gospel Lutheran sermon on it, but just go where the liturgy is and where he sticks to the text of the liturgy. It will proclaim the gospel to you well and accurately. Then when he gets up into the pulpit, nontheist that he might be, turn your Walkman on and listen to something of value. Then when he descends from the pulpit, turn your Walkman off and if he sticks to the script of the liturgy the way he should in the Lord's Supper then the gospel will be delivered to you there.
KR: It is clearly the lesser-of-evils choice in that case.
Guest: My question is this: What place do ministries have in today's Christian world and how should they relate to the church?
RR: Ministries . . .
MH: What exactly do you mean by ministries? I think that we would all say that there is only one ministry. The ministry of Word and Sacrament and the ministry of service, which is deaconal and both are ministries of the church.
Caller: I would say such things as R. C. Sproul and his ministries.
MH: Or this radio program?
Caller: Yes, or this radio program.
MH: We would not call these ministries.
KJ: He is talking about parachurch.
KR: That raises the whole question of parachurch organizations and again, there are certain things that parachurch organizations like, what's the world hunger one?
MH: World Vision.
KR: World Vision. Or like Wyclif Bible translators, that can do things that individual churches or individual denominations can't do. But they are the exception rather than the rule. The local church's biblical mandate is to preach Christ, administer the Sacraments, exercise discipline, and whatever the local consistory deems fitting and proper to the marks of the church should be things that are done in the church.
RR: In many cases through the centuries, the existence of parachurch ministries is really a condemnation of the church. That it is not doing what it ought to have done so it produces these things.
MH: And this gives us a good chance to say, this is not one of those. We are a bunch of guys who get on the radio and talk about Reformation theology. This is not designed to channel people in to any particular business. We are just a bunch of guys talking on the radio. Don't take this as an alternative to going to church.
KJ: The parachurch really gained prominence as a result of Revivalism, but I think that it presents a very real challenge to those of us who participate with any parachurch organization that we recognize that we are not a church and therefore we should not attempt to pastor people as if we were because we can make the work of the local pastor very difficult by trying to pontificate and act as if we have some kind of authority. In actuality, we don't.
KR: And nothing would make us any happier than to hear that you have joined a church as a result of thinking through the things you have heard on the White Horse Inn.
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Issue: "A Good Church is Hard to Find" May/June 2004 Vol. 13 No. 3 Page number(s): 24-30
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