In 1 Timothy 4:1, Apostle Paul warns: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (NKJV).This phenomenon is sadly being observed over the last several decades in America. Churches, ministries and Christian academic institutions are being constantly plagued with liberalism, relativism, occultism, humanism, nominalism, anti-Semitism and other worldly values. These trends are making a devastating impact on the faith and lives of many Christians.
Statistics tell the story. According to Gallup Poll, “As recently as 1999, 70 percent of Americans were on the rolls at a house of worship. Today, it’s barely half. There’s evidence that weekly attendance is falling even faster… In a new survey, LifeWay reports that a mind-boggling 65 percent of churchgoers agree with the statement, “I can walk with God without other believers.” Also, as stated by OneNewsNow.com, about 70% of Christian teens entering college walk away from their faith.”
Furthermore, the rise in self-seeking pastors who teach heretical doctrines and make mega-million-dollar profits in church business has significantly undermined people’s trust in church leadership and Christianity, in general. “A Gallup poll published this year found that Americans’ trust in clergy is at an all-time low. Doctors, teachers, police officers, and even funeral directors all ranked as more trustworthy than pastors.” As reflected in the 2016 LifeWay Research survey of 3,000 American Christians, some of the false beliefs rampantly growing in churches include the following: “Seventy percent of participants—who ranged across socioeconomic and racial backgrounds—agreed there’s only one true God. Yet sixty-four percent also thought this God accepts the worship of all religions, including those that believe in many gods… Seven in ten evangelicals—more than the population at large—said that Jesus was the first being God created. Fifty-six percent agreed that “the Holy Spirit is a divine force but not a personal being.”
Psalm 22:22 says: “I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise You” (NKJV). Assemblies of believers, congregations or church communities are both the cradle and the heart of biblical Christianity. They instruct on biblical values, help believers grow in their faith, wage spiritual war against the demonic forces, as well as represent the body of Jesus the Messiah here on earth. When church communities crumble, one’s faith and the faith of his or her children is severely affected. As The Federalist states: “Disengaging from the church — even with high hopes of maintaining that “relationship” with Jesus at home — is one of the surest methods of strangling your faith and the faith of your children. According to all the best evidence we have, do-it-yourself Christianity rapidly ceases to be Christian. That’s probably one of the reasons the Bible tells Christians to do the opposite.”
In this article, I would like to discuss some key aspects of a healthy Bible-believing congregation or a church. This is not an extensive list by any means but just a few characteristics I consider vital in order for the community of believers to be even classified as the body of Messiah, as opposed to a mere gathering of false worshippers that is destroying the faith of others (compare 1 Corinthians 12:27 with Revelation 2:9).
First, the congregation must have the right foundation of faith. A church can be compared to a human body. A body’s “foundation” is the vertebral column. It protects the spinal cord, holds the body together and enables it to function. When the vertebral column is damaged, the body loses the ability to perform its vital operations and can die. The same is true for the body of believers.
(1.1) The congregation of Jesus the Messiah must profess Him as fully God (YHWH) and fully man: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11). If the church does not acknowledge the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ, then it has not been ransomed by Jesus from the power of sin and death, and thus, does not belong to Him. Hebrews 10:5 says the following on the divinity of Jesus: “Therefore, when He [Jesus] came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me.” Jesus had to be fully God to redeem mankind because a descendant of Adam cannot atone for the sins of Adam’s progeny; neither does God accept human sacrifices. By the same token, Jesus had to be fully human in order to identify with mankind and suffer on its behalf in body, soul, and spirit (see Isaiah 53; 2 John 7).
(1.2) The assembly of believers must acknowledge the spiritual infallibility and inerrancy of Scriptures. Some Christians, both scholars and laymen, deny the inerrancy of Scriptures due to the textual variants found among manuscripts. They tend to associate the concept of biblical inerrancy with the perfection of the transmission process. However, as Dr. James White explains, inerrancy of Scripture does not refer so much to the lack of textual variation among manuscripts. Rather, “Inerrancy speaks to the trustworthiness of the supernatural process of inspiration [of Scriptures].” Paul affirms in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (NKJV). The Almighty Maker of the Universe has chosen in His sovereignty to reveal Himself in Scripture using humankind as the way of transmission. God could have surely provided a perfect Bible from Heaven written by His hand, yet He did not, because He chooses to employ flawed men as His vessels of truth. As Dr. White attests, the Bible is still inerrant or fully reliable and trustworthy because they perfectly communicate God’s intended message despite textual variants.
Thus, churches or individuals who question the inerrancy of Scriptures, either due to textual differences or because they cannot explain a passage with their limited human understanding, naturally doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible as a God-breathed message to mankind and the ultimate spiritual authority. They also demonstrate pride, disrespect for and judgement of its divine Author. The Bible says that YHWH resists the proud but dwells only with the ones of contrite and humble spirit (Isaiah 57:15; James 4:6). Hence, those proud individuals tend to struggle obeying and having a trusting relationship with the Lord but follow other gods – the ones that fit their own spiritual and intellectual preferences.
(1.3) The body of believers must genuinely strive to teach and live out God’s Word recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This point flows out of the one above. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16). The spiritual realm is replete with fallen demonic spirits who present themselves as YHWH or Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:14). Yet, as reminded by Paul, we are assured of the relationship with YHWH when we live out His Word and confess Jesus as Christ and Lord (Romans 10:9–10). Biased exegesis and heretical twisting of Scripture in churches leads individuals astray from the Creator into the worship of fallen deities.
Second, the assembly of Christ must strive for unity: In 1 Corinthians 1:10–13, Paul writes: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided?”
A church must have unity because it’s the body of the Messiah in whom there are no divisions and no strife. Also, the unity of the Godhead, which is comprised of God the Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, should be manifested in the unity of the local congregation (John 4:24, 10:30). Unity is essential because it is Jesus’ heart desire for His bride-church and it was one of the primary petitions He included in His high priestly prayer for the church (John 17:21–23).Furthermore, Paul pleads to the churches in Ephesus: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–4). What could Paul possibly mean by “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit”? Paul could be referring to the fact that in the same assembly, believers might not be filled with the same God’s Spirit but with other, fallen spirits. And, those spirits can disrupt, offend and extinguish God’s Spirit. Therefore, Paul warns: “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19). Quenching of the Spirit can happen when believers suppress the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7–11), conceal unrepented sins or false beliefs (Psalm 19:12, 52:2), cause divisions in the local congregation (Romans 16:17–18), or use bitter offensive jokes without genuinely apologizing (Mat 12:37).
Such practices extinguish the Holy Spirit in the church and give bad witness to the world. Of course, Scripture does not require Christians to be sinlessly perfect as we all inherited Adam’s sinful inclination. However, the Lord does expect His church to hate sin and genuinely grow in righteousness: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8, 2:3–6). Paul provides a marvelous teaching on interpersonal relationships in the body of believers when he states: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (Colossians 3:12–14). Furthermore, Christians are urged to carefully examine their inner person and critically evaluate their relationship with the Lord: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor 13:5).
Third, there must be accountability in the local church. In some churches, a pastor resembles a monarch. He has unprecedented authority and his teaching is unquestionably accepted whether it is right or wrong. Some pastors also think that they have “graduated” from the Bible and don’t need spiritual mentorship themselves. They know it all from the inside out and they should only teach others. However, Paul calls all believers to be watchful and sober lest they be lured into deceit and false philosophies (1 Thessalonians 5:6; Colossians 2:8). Paul also points out that one of the mechanisms that edifies the body of Christ and helps assure the church’s adherence to sound biblical doctrine is having a “team” of ministers lead the flock (Ephesians 4:11–14, NKJV). Similarly, to Timothy, the ministers are expected to preach the Word of truth, reprove, rebuke, and exhort in love and humility not only congregants but one another (2 Timothy 4:1–4, NKJV). The ministers should be willing to shepherd the flock of believers together, willingly receiving teaching and constructive criticism from one another, as well as being open in front of each other and the congregants about their struggles in their walk with God.
Finally, the congregation must have a clear vision. A vision is basically the way the church sees its ministry in the future. In some congregations, it is customary just to come to the service, sing some worship songs, and slumber in the pews, impatiently waiting for the service to be over. In such a scenario, the church tends not to care much about the future of its ministry. On the contrary, God is a great visionary. He planned the redemption of mankind before the creation of the world and carried it through (Ephesians 1:4). When Jesus came to Israel as YHWH incarnate, He commissioned His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, NKJV). God wants churches to have a clear vision of how they can advance His Kingdom in accordance with the unique gifts He gave them. A church’s ministry vision is obtained as its members set themselves apart for God and pray for the Lord’s will and guidance to be revealed.
At first, the vision might be fuzzy, but the Lord gradually shapes it as the church earnestly desires to be His vessel. The vision is then achieved through prayerful strategic planning by the church members. Any ministry goals that church sets should be in line with the vision of the church. A church without a vision is usually lukewarm and indifferent, and it easily withers like a plant without moisture (John 15:6). Revelation 3:1 calls such a congregation “dead” although it appears to be alive.
The primary responsibility of the church is to rescue individuals from spiritual deception, affirm them in God’s truth and foster their spiritual growth: “If I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, NKJV). However, apostasy in the church is unavoidable to allow for the emergence of the eschatological anti-Christ and to usher in the return of Jesus the Messiah (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3–12). Its manifestations are sadly becoming more evident in American Christianity. Some churches resemble social clubs where the public is entertained with music, pampered with superficial preaching and left unequipped to confront the demonic powers of this world. More and more American Christians are losing trust in church leadership, adopting false teaching and leaving church communities to maintain their faith at home, in the end suffering “shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19). It is God’s will for believers to serve Him in the local assembly, yet God does not endorse hyper-grace theology. The Scripture says that the judgment will begin with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). This means that individuals should use discernment when choosing their spiritual home, while church communities should re-evaluate their identity in Christ as His body in prayer and repentance (Revelation 2:5).