In my last post I distinguished between true churches and false churches. In this post I’ll go a step further and distinguish between less pure and more pure churches among true churches. I’ll also consider the unity of the church. For both I’ll be guided by Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), which my family and I are reading in our after-breakfast Bible reading.
The Purity of the Church
Grudem defines the purity of the church as “its degree of freedom from wrong doctrine and conduct, and its degree of conformity to God’s revealed will for the church” (page 874). He identifies some factors which make a church more pure, cites Biblical passages which command or encourage the factors, and considers how we should work towards the purity of the church.
The factors which Grudem identifies are:
1. Biblical doctrine
2. Proper use of the sacraments
3. Right use of church discipline
4. Genuine worship
5. Effective prayer
6. Effective witness
7. Effective fellowship
8. Biblical church government
9. Spiritual power in ministry
10. Personal holiness of life among members
11. Care for the poor
12. Love for Christ
If you’d like to know what passages he gives for any of the factors, ask me in a comment on this post and I’ll tell you in a reply to your comment.
Paul’s letters show that there were more pure and less pure churches in New Testament times. For example, there were no major doctrinal and moral problems in the churches to which Philippians and 1 Thessalonians were addressed, and there were serious doctrinal and moral problems in the churches to which 1 Corinthians and Galatians were addressed. Similarly there are more pure and less pure churches today and undoubtedly will be until Jesus returns. Thus Grudem suggests that Christians should “find a <i>true</i> church in which they can have effective ministry and in which they will experience Christian growth as well, and then should stay there and minister, continually working for the purity of that church” (page 875) rather than continually searching for a purer church to move on to.
The Unity of the Church
Grudem defines the unity of the church as “its degree of freedom from divisions among true Christians” (page 874). He cites New Testament passages emphasizing the unity of the church, surveys the history of organizational separation in the church, and discusses reasons for separation. In our family reading we omitted the history and thus I won’t share from it here.
Some New Testament passages emphasizing unity in the church or warning against those who cause division in the church are:
– “There will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).
– “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17).
– “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
– “[Be] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
– “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).
After identifying two wrong reasons for separation from a church (personal ambition and pride, and differences over minor doctrines or practices), Grudem discusses three reasons for separation which, depending on the circumstances, could be right reasons:
1. Doctrinal reasons — Christians should separate from a church when it deviates so much from Biblical teaching on major doctrines that it becomes a false church. Even before a church has become a false church, Christians may separate from it when serious doctrinal deviation occurs (or they may stay and pray and work for reformation).
2. Reasons of conscience — Christians should separate from a church when it becomes so dominated by unbelievers that believers don’t have freedom to act for God. Even when a believers still have freedom to act for God, they may separate from a church if staying implies approval of an unbiblical doctrine or practice (or they may stay and voice disapproval of the unbiblical doctrine or practice).
3. Practical considerations — Christians may separate from a church if it seems that staying in the church will likely result in more harm than good.