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Lesson 8: Looking For A Good Church? (Various Scriptures)

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June 4, 2017

Why would I want to preach a sermon on “looking for a good church?” Maybe some will hear it and decide, “I’m out of here!” Maybe it will expose a lot of problem areas with our church, leading to grumbling and discontent.

I’m preaching on this topic for several reasons. First, maybe someone here is in the process of looking for a good church, and you need to know what to look for. People pick churches for a lot of reasons, not all of them based on Scripture. Some like the “vibes” or feeling that they get when they go to a church. Or, they feel welcomed and loved. Some pick a church based on what their kids like. For others, it’s the music or they like the building. As we saw in the humorous video spoof about “Church Hunters,” some like a church because the pastor wears his shirt untucked! So we need to understand the biblical criteria for a good church.

Second, you may have friends who are looking for a good church, and you can offer them some specific help. Although it should be the first place to look, it may not occur to them to check out what the Bible says about what constitutes a good church.

And, third, I think we should use these qualities of a good church to evaluate ourselves so that we can try to improve where we need to. Also, before we look at these marks of a good church, we need to keep in mind that there are no perfect churches because churches are made up of imperfect people. As the old joke goes, “If you find a perfect church, don’t join it because you’d ruin it!” But, even though perfect churches don’t exist, there are good, solid, churches. We can strive to be one of those, for God’s glory.

I don’t recall ever preaching a sermon with ten points, so this may be a first. I don’t expect you to remember all ten without referring later to the printed notes, but I hope you will remember the first three or four, which are essential. I can only skim over these points in this message, but I will devote some of the remaining messages in this series to some of these points.

A good church is comprised of at least these ten qualities:

1. A good church is one that treasures and teaches God’s Word of truth accurately and practically to equip the saints for the work of service.

You may be thinking, “Well, of course, Steve would pick biblical preaching and teaching as first because that’s what he does!” But I argue that this must be foundational for everything else. If a church does not have solid teaching and preaching of God’s Word as the foundation, then it will drift into false teaching. It will conform to the culture. Many sad examples of this abound today.

But let’s allow the Bible to talk for itself. Here are a few Scriptures that emphasize the centrality of God’s Word in the church:

Acts 2:42 (speaking of the early church): “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Acts 20:20 (Paul reminding the Ephesian elders of his ministry there): “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house.”

Acts 20:27 (Paul, to the same Ephesian elders): “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.”

1 Timothy 3:15: “But in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” There is such a thing as spiritual truth and error. The church is the pillar and support of God’s Word of truth.

1 Timothy 5:17 (Paul, speaking of the need to support elders who preach and teach): “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”

2 Timothy 2:15 (Paul exhorts Timothy): “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (Paul, reminding Timothy of the importance and power of the Scriptures): “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

2 Timothy 4:1-5: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” My first sermon here 25 years ago was on this text, titled, “My Major Task and Yours.” My major task is to preach the Word. Your major task is to hear the word with a heart to obey.

Ephesians 4:11-12: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” He goes on to say that this equipping ministry of pastors and teachers will keep the church from being tossed here and there by various false doctrines.

My main aim each week is that you will be able to look at the biblical text and understand what it says in its context and how it applies to your life.

2. A good church is one where the gospel is proclaimed without compromise.

Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Since the gospel is necessary for salvation (rescuing people from God’s eternal judgment), Satan has worked overtime to promote false “gospels” that do not save. Usually, as with the Judaizers in Galatia, false gospels include some form of adding human works to Christ’s work on the cross. Or, false gospels divert attention away from human sinfulness and the need for God to save us. In this form, they promise that Jesus will give you a happy life (marriage, family, career, etc.) apart from repentance from your sin and faith in Jesus and His shed blood.

The true gospel is: We all have sinned and deserve God’s righteous judgment. No amount of good works can pay the penalty of our sins, which is eternal separation from God. God in love sent His eternal Son Jesus to take on human flesh and die in the place of sinners. He offers eternal life and forgiveness of all sins to everyone who turns from sin and trusts in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Salvation is not a reward for human works, but is God’s free gift to all who truly believe in Jesus (Mark 1:15; Luke 24:47; John 3:16; Acts 11:18; 20:21; 26:18; Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9).

3. A good church is one that emphasizes loving God and one another and worshiping God in spirit and in truth.

Jesus summarized all of God’s commandments with two (Matt. 22:37-39): “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Also, Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4:23-24), “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Healthy churches major on the majors: Loving God, loving one another, and worshiping God in spirit and truth. Love for God is not just a feeling, but includes obedience to His commandments (John 14:21, 23-24). Love for one another means seeking the other person’s highest good, which includes helping each other to grow in holiness. And, true worship is a matter of our hearts before God (“in spirit”), but also must be based on the truth of who God is as revealed in His Word (“in truth”).

4. A good church is one that emphasizes making obedient disciples who live by God’s grace in the power of the Spirit, apart from legalism.

Legalism—adding manmade rules over petty issues and judging others based on whether they keep those rules—is a plague on many churches. Jesus clashed with the Pharisees who had added hundreds of rules to the Old Testament, especially regarding the Sabbath. They prided themselves on outward conformity to their rules, but their hearts were far from God (Matt. 15:7-9).

But, sometimes when Christians throw off legalism, they swing to the other extreme of disregarding the need to obey God’s commandments. The Great Commission, which Jesus entrusted to us, is (Matt. 28:19-20), “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Disciples are followers of Jesus who keep His commandments. But they don’t do it outwardly to impress others, as the Pharisees did. They obey from the heart in response to God’s grace, walking in the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:11-14; Gal. 5:16; Col. 2:16-23). Paul puts it beautifully in Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”

5. A good church is one where loving fellowship among the saints is edifying and healthy.

As we saw (Acts 2:42), the early church not only devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, but also to “the fellowship.” A few verses later (Acts 2:46), Luke reports, “Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.” Or, as Paul describes the healthy church (Eph. 4:15-16), “but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” We also could put all of the “one anothers” in the New Testament under this heading (Rom. 12:5, 10; 15:5, 7, 14; Gal. 5:13; etc.).

6. A good church is one where the ordinances of baptism and communion are practiced regularly and biblically.

John Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], ed. by John McNeill, 4:1:9) listed the preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments as the marks of a true church. Other Reformers added a third mark, church discipline (ibid., p. 1023, footnote 18). Jesus mentioned baptism in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). In Acts 2:42, “the breaking of bread” referred to the observance of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:23-32).

Although many Christians (including Calvin) believe that baptism should be administered to infants as a sign of the covenant, I believe that Scripture is overwhelmingly clear that it should be administered to believers upon a credible confession of their faith in Christ for salvation. There is no commandment as to how often we should observe the Lord’s Supper, although it is likely that the early church observed it each Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7). I plan to devote a future message in this series to these ordinances.

7. A good church is one where prayer undergirds everything.

As we saw (Acts 2:42), the early church devoted itself not only to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and the breaking of bread, but also to prayer. Paul commanded (Rom. 12:12) us to be “devoted to prayer.” He repeated (Col. 4:2), “Devote yourselves to prayer.” He gave the seemingly impossible command (1 Thess. 5:17), “Pray without ceasing.” He did not mean, “Pray every waking second,” or even, “Always be in a spirit of prayer,” but rather, “Pray often and repeatedly.” The word was used of a hacking cough and of repeated military assaults. Both individual believers and the entire church should pray often and repeatedly about everything we’re doing. Prayer acknowledges that we’re dependent on God for His blessing, not on ourselves, our efforts, or our organization and planning.

Over forty years ago, I read a sermon from Watchman Nee, the Chinese church leader, that has greatly impacted my life and ministry. It’s called, “Expecting the Lord’s Blessing” (Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Bookroom], 2:48-64). Based mainly on Jesus miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, Nee makes the point (p. 48), “Everything in our service for the Lord is dependent on His blessing…. The meeting of the need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.”

He points out how the five loaves and two fish were woefully inadequate to feed the 5,000 men, plus women and children. Even the hypothetical 200 denarii which Philip thought might buy enough bread would have been insufficient. But when Jesus blessed that meager supply, everyone was satisfied and they picked up twelve baskets full afterward. He says (p. 59) that God’s blessing “is trusting Him to work out of all correspondence to what we might reasonably expect,” based on our abilities and efforts. So my prayer has repeatedly been that God’s blessing would rest on His church and on my woefully inadequate efforts to help build it.

8. A good church is one that emphasizes reaching the lost, both locally and globally.

The Great Commission is to “make disciples of all the nations,” or, “people groups.” We are to begin in our city, but extend the good news to the ends of the earth. In Luke 24:47, Jesus directed “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Just before His ascension, Jesus told His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” The apostle Paul made the astounding claim (1 Cor. 9:23), “I do all things for the sake of the gospel.”

While we have a strong emphasis on world missions, I feel that we are weak when it comes to evangelism in our city. We see very few coming to Christ in our “Jerusalem.” For decades I’ve been painfully aware of and have prayed about my own inadequacy in personal evangelism. I’ve read many books on how to do a better job, but I still struggle. But I keep praying and working at it, and I encourage you to do the same. Just this week, in view of where I sit to have my morning time with the Lord, my neighbor strung up some Buddhist prayer flags. I took it as a reminder to pray for their salvation! Let’s seek God for a harvest of souls in Flagstaff!

9. A good church is one whose leaders are mature, godly men of integrity.

I plan to devote a message in this series to church leadership. But for now, I’ll mention that a church cannot be healthy without godly leaders. In both places where Paul lists the qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), the emphasis is on godly character, not impressive spiritual gifts. It is summed up as being “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6), especially as seen in an exemplary home life. The only spiritual gift listed is, “able to teach.” The spiritual requirements for deacons (and deaconesses) also focuses on godliness (1 Tim. 3:8-13).

Apart from preaching and teaching God’s Word, the main job of elders is to shepherd God’s flock, the church. In Paul’s final charge to the Ephesian elders, he said (Acts 20:28), “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” In like manner, Peter exhorted the elders (1 Pet. 5:2-3), “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” Hebrews 13:17 exhorts the church, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

10. A good church is one that deals lovingly and biblically with sinning members.

Church discipline is not practiced very often in our day, but it is essential if a church wants to be holy and have a valid witness in the community. I plan to devote a message later in this series to this topic, also. Jesus taught it in Matthew 18:15-17, where He directs us first to go privately to a brother in sin, then with one or two others, and finally, if he is not repentant, to tell it to the church. The final step if there is still no repentance, is to treat the person as a Gentile and tax-gatherer, in other words, as an unbeliever. Paul directed the church in Corinth to expel a man who was openly immoral with his father’s wife, so that his sin would not infect the entire church (1 Cor. 5:1-13).

Conclusion

Two short, helpful books on finding a good church are Mark Dever, What is a Healthy Church? [Crossway] and Josh Harris, Stop Dating the Church [Multnomah], both of which have lists of what to look for in a good church. Dever also has a helpful, one-page summary (p. 57) of what to do if you’re thinking about leaving a church. Regarding “How to find a good church,” he lists some diagnostic questions to ask yourself (p. 79):

  • Would I want to find a spouse who has been brought up under this church’s teaching?
  • What picture of Christianity will my children see in this church—something distinct or something a lot like the world?
  • Would I be happy to invite non-Christians to this church? That is, would they clearly hear the gospel and see lives consistent with it?
  • Is this church a place where I can minister and serve?

He also advises (ibid.), “If you’re moving to a new area, try to locate a good church home before you buy a house.”

To recap: A good church is one …

  1. That treasures and teaches God’s Word of truth accurately and practically to equip the saints for the work of service.
  2. Where the gospel is proclaimed without compromise.
  3. That emphasizes loving God and one another and worshiping God in spirit and in truth.
  4. That emphasizes making obedient disciples who live by God’s grace in the power of the Spirit, apart from legalism.
  5. Where loving fellowship among the saints is edifying and healthy.
  6. Where the ordinances of baptism and communion are practiced regularly and biblically.
  7. Where prayer undergirds everything.
  8. That emphasizes reaching the lost, both locally and globally.
  9. Whose leaders are mature, godly men of integrity.
  10. That deals lovingly and biblically with sinning members.

While we’re far from perfect in these ten qualities, I’m not aware of any where we’re totally deficient. So I hope that none of you hear this message and say, “I’m out of here!” Rather, let’s commit ourselves to grow in every area for the glory of our Lord!

Application Questions

  1. Do you agree that God’s Word must be the major factor in choosing a church? Why don’t more Christians emphasize this?
  2. How much error should a Christian tolerate in a church before he/she leaves? What criteria apply?
  3. How can we see more people locally coming to saving faith?
  4. Why is church discipline an important factor for church health? Have you seen it practiced biblically? How?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)