steepleThere are few issues about which there is more confusion, disagreement, and lack of understanding than the issue of the exact nature, purpose, and authority of the modern church. How exactly does the modern church relate to the “ecclesia” of the Greek Scriptures? How should the modern church be run? And what authority does that church have? It is this last question that I will consider and attempt to answer in this message.

Does church government get its authority from God? That is indeed a very good question, and one that we all need to consider. And what exactly does it mean to have authority from God? If having such authority means very little, then anyone can claim to have it. But if it means much, if it truly means that a church is actually acting on behalf of God, then it truly is a deeply important thing, and has a deep and awesome impact.

Many people do assume some authority from God abides in a church, but only to a limited extent. The fact is that they are still more than willing to complain about a church, to malign its pastor and leaders, and to make sure that their opinions are heard and taken into account in every decision made. And then those decisions are supposed to have divine authority! Is this really reasonable?

When you think about it, if your church has authority from God over you, then why doesn’t every other church out there also have authority from God over you? Why can’t any church out there demand something of you? If God gives the church it’s authority, then that authority must apply to all. If some random church or other makes a demand of you, then that is the same thing as God making a demand of you. After all, someone who is truly given authority from God has authority over all, not just those who choose to place him over them. If our churches have God-given authority, then you must obey the mandates of a church, even if it is not the church you attend!

Yet if we admit that the church’s authority does not come from God, then the only other conclusion we can form is that the only authority our churches have is the authority that we as their members give them. I believe that this is reality, and this is true. Our entire church system and structure is totally a man-made phenomenon. The great Martin Luther was opposed to using the German word for church, kirk, to represent any sort of Biblical idea whatsoever. He believed that the word “church” did not belong in a Biblical believer’s Scriptural vocabulary, and did not properly translate any Greek word, including ecclesia. Unfortunately, tradition won out over him, and a Lutheran “church” exists today. But he was correct in his assessment…there is nothing in Scripture that can be pointed to as an example of the sort of organizations we have called “churches” today. The word usually translated “church,” ecclesia, has nothing to do with an organization such as we have it today. The sooner we admit this the better.

Yet if our churches are in fact only the organizations and authorities of men, then what kind of church government should a believer be willing to set up over himself? Perhaps we should think much less about setting up such authorities, and much more about becoming our own believer standing upon our own faith in the sight of God. I am becoming enamored with the concept of being a “Christian individualist.” This does not mean that I do not fellowship with other believers or build my faith up with them or learn from them. Nor does it mean that I am not accountable to my brothers and sisters in the Lord for my behavior. What it does mean is that I take responsibility for my own life and walk before God, particularly in the matter of learning and growing in a relationship with Him. I should not try to develop a relationship with God purely by learning about Him from others. I should develop a relationship with Him myself! Moreover, I should recognize that the ultimate responsibility for my walk before Him rests with me. It is an issue between my Lord and myself. I do not place the burden for shepherding my soul upon any church or organization of men. This is a position that I am becoming more and more excited about, and would encourage others to follow as well.

The logical question would be if a Christian individualist would go to any church whatsoever. As I explained, being a Christian individualist does not mean you must cut yourself off from other Christians. I have not stopped going to church, and I do not plan on doing so in the near future. The fact is that I enjoy the company of other believers very much, and have no desire to lessen my contact with them. The bottom line is that we get much of our Christian contacts through a church, whether that is good or not. The question of church attendance is a personal one. I do think it is time that we realized that one can be an active, growing Christian without attending a church, however. There are other formats that one can use for getting together with other believers and growing in the Word. However, I would never suggest such a course to someone who had no other outlet besides a church for believing fellowship, instruction, and companionship. We must not cut ourselves off from our brother and sister believers!

The sad fact is that, without church, many believers’ walks would not exist. This is not the way it should be, and this, more than the question of church attendance or no church attendance, is the real question for me. If I for a moment thought that my walk with Christ was based solely on my attendance of a church…well, I would simply feel that I was sorely neglecting the most important thing in life! You couldn’t marry someone and then never talk or fellowship with her, could you? And it would do you little good to go to some of her friends and talk with them about her and learn about her from them, would it? I mean, if I have married a woman, I will get to know her further by fellowshipping with her personally! And this must be the way we get to know God. I would not call upon anyone to cease attending church. I would call upon everyone, however, to build up a walk with God on his own. Your walk with your church is not what God is looking for! He wants to know YOU, not your church attendance record. For the sake of the One Who loves us so, stop making your social life at church synonymous with your walk with God! He wants to know you so much, and yet what relationship can grow between you when you won’t even give Him the time of day in any setting but a pew?

That said, let me return to the matter of placing church authority over ourselves. Churches are good for numerous things. I will list some.

1. They give us easy access to other believers for the purpose of fellowship, companionship, encouragement, accountability, and building each other up.

2. They allow the congregating of Christians of different levels of maturity so that those more knowledgeable both in the Word and in the experience of living the Christian life may help and tutor those who are less mature in the faith.

3. They allow the banding together of believers to accomplish various tasks, such as sending out missionaries and reaching out to extended communities, which would not be possible (or at least not easy) for individual believers to accomplish on their own.

There are some drawbacks to church attendance as well.

1. Churches give many the false impression that by attending a church they have achieved salvation.

2. They give many the false impression that they are experiencing a Christian walk when in reality they are not doing the first thing toward walking with God on their own.

3. They allow believers to take the easy road out in matters of doctrine and practice by merely accepting what their church teaches and not thinking or reasoning or studying these issues out on their own.

These, as least in a nutshell, are the pros and cons of church attendance. The issue of authority arises. The fact is, if your church has authority, then you are obligated to believe everything they teach and to practice everything that they practice. There can be no differing opinion when it comes to one with authority from God! My very salvation is based partially upon the fact that my great-grandmother did not listen to the “authority” of the church. She started reading her Bible and had some questions. She went to her minister to get some answers, and he told her, “Don’t worry about reading the Bible and interpreting it. We’ll read the Bible and interpret it for you.” She didn’t like that so much that she left the church, and later came to understand salvation by grace. This is the very reason that she became a believer, and, passing it on to her family, it became a major reason why I know our Lord today! How then could I say that her church had authority from God? If she had followed that “authority,” then I would most likely not know the truth of salvation now! I love the church I attend and have a great affection for the people there, but I will never give a church authority over me in spiritual matters. In organizational matters…in accomplishing things like sending out missionaries and so forth…these sorts of things I have no problem with letting such an organization take care of. In giving me opportunities to minister…for that I will be glad to look to my church. For encouragement, for accountability, even for rebuke if I leave the path I know I should be following…these I will gladly receive from my church. But when it comes to spiritual matters, the only authority I recognize is the Bible! The church might help me understand these things, but it is no authority over me. Only God’s Word is that!

In conclusion, I do not believe that churches have authority from God. I do believe that He can work through them to bring men to Himself and to build up believers. I believe that whether or not to attend church is a decision that must be based upon individual circumstances. However, I would never justify cutting off fellowship with other believers. I would also strongly condemn any philosophy that would make the church rather than the Word the center of a believer’s walk. Church can be a good thing if viewed in the right way and used for the right reasons. The ultimate question, though, is whether or not you have believed and placed your faith in Jesus Christ, not whether or not you attend a church. This is the question that can swing open the gates of eternity for you or swing them shut forever. It is a question that every true seeker of God should honestly ask himself. Who is Jesus Christ to me?