In her much fuller e mail, the lady who asked me this question told me quite a lot about her place of Christian attendance.
She told me that communion is sometimes administered by a curate who is a young lady - surely this is unbiblical?
She told that this lady curate also (very occasionally) gives the sermon - surely this cannot be right?
Indeed she mentioned a few other things too. The basic problem is that this lady has already moved where she attends 'church' quite a few times and she now really wants to settle down, but (she asks me),
"...Surely this is a matter of conscience? If "whatever is not of faith is sin" should I leave again if I see things which cannot be squared with the Bible and with my conscience?"
Okay, there are a few things we must clarify here:
1. There is no such thing as a 'perfect church' - if you ever expect to find a congregation which is absolutely perfect it is best to give up right now - it does not exist!! In every single congregation one might find questionable areas/practices which the individual might have a slight problem with.
2. When heresy is preached from the pulpit (the word-faith message, sometimes known as the 'prosperity gospel' is a good example of this), then a true believer must insist on separating himself/herself from such a congregation. This is a 'bottom line' for the true Christian believer - he or she must not support heretical teachings which pervert the Word of God. Consult 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Peter 2:1-3 and 2 John 7-11, but numerous other New Testament Scriptures could also be considered here.
The lady who e mailed me told me enough for me to believe that the preaching of heresy is not the problem in the particular case of the congregation which she fellowships with. There are what one might term 'lower-level' or peripheral issues which she cannot quite square with biblical teaching.
Let us consider some general guidelines about a 'good church' and then look at a few Scriptures which one might apply.
General guidelines about the consideration of a 'good church.'
Look for a truly Bible-believing evangelical church which is, however, not extremist in behaviour and practice. Generally, a congregation which insists on the use of the KJV Bible, for example, may well be legalistic and may be rigid towards matters such as tithing (which should certainly never be imposed!). The use of only older and more traditional hymns may also be a good indicator of this. At least here in the UK (it is hard for me to speak about what might be typical in north America), congregations which prefer the NIV Bible and which sing a mixture of hymns (some old, some modern), tend to be balanced evangelical congregations. If one is seeking such a place I would give the advice of attending a few times and chatting to some other regular attenders. I use the word 'evangelical' here in the fully Bible-believing sense. My advice would be to avoid charismatic, rampant "tongues-speaking" and excessively emotional congregations which focus on spiritual gifts, since doctrinal errors tend to run riot in such places. Also keen "prophetic ministry" pastors should be treated with extreme caution!! NEVER NEVER mistake a lot of noise and emotional heat for genuine spirituality.
Most - if not all - sermons should be Biblical Exposition; that is, the sermon should help attenders better understand the Holy Bible by expounding and explaining various Scriptures. Liberal congregations are pretty much disinterested in helping people better understand Holy Scripture. A Bible-believing church would tend to oppose abortion and be opposed to most of the trends of modern society. But liberal places seek compromise with modern society. To attend a liberal congregation would be to start down a 'slippery slope' of inviting more and more compromise into one's life until "Christianity" finally becomes a pretty much meaningless term only concerned with "being nice" and adopting a spirit of appeasement and compromise towards sin!
I don't know the quickest way to evaluate a pastor in the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, but here in the UK it is surprisingly simple. One simply has to ask him, 'Do you consider yourself a conservative evangelical?' To answer in the affirmative is a very good sign. But here are two very bad responses which sometimes occur:
a. "What's a 'conservative evangelical'??" (did the guy who once said this to me actually complete his theological studies?)
b. "No, I'm more of a liberal evangelical." (it means 'I am a liberal, but I will act evangelical if it will get more people in!').
It has to be (lamentably) admitted however that an increasing number are claiming to be "conservative evangelical" who really are not; this includes a growing number of heretical prosperity gospel merchants. So listen to any pastor's response to this question but then be wise and circumspect.
Oh, by the way, Lutheran congregations often seem to refer to themselves as "evangelical" but, in my experience, they simply mean 'Protestant' - this is the oldest definition of 'evangelical.'
In general, good evangelical places of worship will prefer the sermon to be delivered by a man simply because of taking Paul's New Testament comments seriously and through the concept that such ministry is based on the Elders of Israel who were, of course, the leading men in a home. However, there are some exceptions to this; some genuinely evangelical places do place women in a more prominent role, this is especially so if the congregation identifies itself with Methodism or Episcopalianism (Church of England and Church in Wales in the UK). My understanding is that few US-based Episcopalian congregations are ever evangelical and most are liberal. Here in the UK, however, things are not quite that bleak. My wife and I currently take communion with an evangelical Church in Wales congregation - the only evangelical congregation in the diocese. Do I generally support their whole approach? Yes, I do. Are there things which I have a slight problem with and which I might change if I were their pastor? Sure there are. Yet it is generally good and we take communion with them, plus a little fellowship, but we would not become members there. Sometimes a town or city has limited options.
Okay, my e mailer quoted the Scripture, 'whatever is not of faith is sin' - this comes from Romans 14 and it is important to carefully go through this chapter of Romans because it considers the fact that we should avoid judging/condemning Christians who may be of weaker faith or understanding. The chapter actually considers food but it can be applied to other areas too. Probably we should all be more prepared to accept Christians of other disciplines/levels of spiritual understanding than we sometimes are. But then Paul states the bottom line on this,
'Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.
But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.' (Romans 14: 22-23, NKJ).
Without question there is sometimes an occasion where to go ahead and do something- which our conscience rejects - amounts to sin because it is to reject the 'still, small voice' of the conscience which God has given to each of us. If we feel assured that a certain thing amounts to compromise with the Holy Word of God, we must step back. Yet for each of us this will vary. It is also true, and this is actually the subject of Romans 14, that we should not be too quick to judge fellow Christians! Paul also states,
'But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.' (Romans 14:10).
So probably most of us should be slower to judge fellow believers of, perhaps, weaker understanding. Of course, Paul is not discussing heresy here - we must flee heresy! - he is discussing more peripheral areas between fellow believers.
So I told this lady that she herself must decide this issue - I cannot decide it for her! I simply gave her the guidelines within this article. Since she attends a genuinely evangelical church which does not allow heresy to get in, it is all down to peripheral areas. Ladies may have a higher leadership profile within this congregation than some of us might feel comfortable with (although there is a male pastor), that means that about once every 6 weeks the sermon comes from a woman. However, the fact that the bread of communion is sometimes received from a woman is really no problem. I cannot see anything in the New Testament to tell me that this is wrong. But these are peripheral areas and also matters of individual conscience which the Lord expects us to consider with wise discernment and discretion.
So, to sum this up, I think I would make three overall points:
1. We must have no fellowship with heretical teachings which abuse the Holy Bible (liberal theology is one such heresy).
2. When among different true believers (from a different Christian tradition to our own, for instance), we should all be MUCH SLOWER to judge each other than we sometimes are.
3. If our conscience tells us that certain things are just not scriptural, we must listen to the voice of our conscience. But strive to listen to the voice of your conscience without offending one of (currently) 'weaker faith' or understanding.
Robin A. Brace, 2006.
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