‘I’d rather this church close down tomorrow than to see Christ not preached faithfully’. So stated our newly appointed elder, a former minister of Oldham Bethel Church, this Sunday. You can hear his full sermon here.
If scripture is not taught faithfully then no true church exists. John Calvin argued, ‘wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted a church of God exists’ [Institutes]. Luther similarly argued that a church was ‘a congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered’ [Augsburg Confession, 1530].
What this means is that if Christ is not purely preached, the gospel not rightly taught, then whatever is going on it is not a true church. You may have a group of people claiming to be Christians, they may appropriate the word to themselves, but they are nothing of the sort. They have, indeed, ceased to be a church at all (if they were ever a church to begin with).
The bottom line, then, is this. The one thing worse than the church closing it doors is a church becoming unfaithful yet retaining the epithet like some sort of pseudonym. Interestingly, the two are not mutually exclusive. Those churches that depart from the gospel of Jesus Christ may yet find themselves depleting to irrelevance (just ask the Unitarians, or the most theologically liberal of Anglican churches).
Just as Moses recognised in Exodus 33 that without the presence of God, the people of Israel were in no way distinct from any other nation, so without Christ and his gospel there is nothing unique, special or even credible about the church. Any so-called church that departs from the gospel of Jesus Christ is unworthy of the name because the only thing that makes them uniquely a church at all will no longer be there. The only thing that can guarantee the presence of God dwelling with his people will have gone.
Like my fellow elder, I would rather see our church close altogether than to see it depart from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Frankly, were it to go down such a line, those two things might not end up being altogether unconnected.