When is a church not a church?

I was involved in the following (brief) discussion on Twitter yesterday:

As it happened, and I apologise to Liam as I’m not specifically dunking on him, we have a podcast on this coming out in a couple of weeks too. But it is a conversation I have had before, in various ways, with lots of Anglican folks. I think a lot of it is driven by our divergent views of the church and our understanding of who belongs to it.

There is, so far as I can see, an Anglican presumption that those going along to their churches – even those that are steeped in liberal theology or Anglo-Catholicism – are probably believers. That is not to say there aren’t issues there, or that live problems are glossed over, but an inherent belief that most of those attending are genuine believers.

As an Independent Baptist, I would tend to a more sceptical view. I would reckon that if the majority of your church are happily remaining in a place where the gospel is clearly being bastardised, if they are even affirming such, then they cannot credibly be called believers. It seems fairly basic to me that if your gospel, and your doctrine, are not that of Jesus Christ, then a Christian you cannot be.

If that is the case in your church, I would go further and say you have no business calling it a church at all. If I (for some reason) was appointed as the leader of a Unitarian Congregation as a believer in Christ and the triune God, it doesn’t really matter what I believe or how much I call it a church, it is no such thing. It is a room full of unbelievers who may be led by a Christian, and may do some things that look like the kind of things a Christian church would do, but it is not – to all intents and purposes – a church.

Why not? Because a church, by definition, is a gathering of believers. it is a group of people who belong to Jesus Christ, meeting together for the right teaching of the Word and right administration of the ordinances. It is a group of people who trust in Jesus Christ, by faith, for their salvation and are now meeting to hear his Word preached, to share in communion and to welcome others in through baptism. That is the sine qua non of a church. Anything less than that and you are just a group of people meeting together.

In my view, this is what makes the Anglican understanding of revitalisation a bit of a problem. Because they go into a non-church, call it a church and make an overly charitable assumption about the spiritual state of the people in the room. In my view, that is not a church, it is at best a mission scenario. You are not going there to equip the saints for works of ministry, you are going to convert a bunch of pagans who are playing at being a church.

Now, I don’t want to get into the value or otherwise of that as a mission-strategy here, you will have to tune into the podcast to hear a bit more discussion about it. But what I do want to highlight here is that we can’t call a group of unbelievers a church. Even if there are – by God’s grace – one or two believers somehow clinging on within the congregation, if the teaching and the overwhelming majority of the people propagate a false gospel, it is a church no longer (if it ever was to begin with).

Why does it matter? There are lots of reasons (again, stay tuned for the podcast) but there is one that I think stands out above all the others. In believing we are going in to revitalise a church, what we actually end up doing is comforting people in their false gospel all the way to Hell. If at some point, very early on in going there, we do not draw a line around the believers and the gospel the believe and differentiate them from the unbelievers and the false gospel they have imbibed, we are allowing most of the church we are seeking to turn around to believe that what they call ‘Christian’ and what they consider a ‘church’ are just that. We are suggesting, if we do not excommunicate them and make clear they are not part of the church of Jesus Christ (at least, not yet), that they are, in fact, fine as they are. if they, believing they are okay and welcome as full members of the church believing the false gospel that they do, we have not been kind in allowing them to stay, we have merely affirmed them in their damnable heresy.

All of that is to say, far from being revitalisation, we are doing the very opposite of what we are called to do in mission. Namely, condemning people to Hell by telling them that the false gospel to which they are wedded is perfectly acceptable to Christ (for, if it wasn’t, we would have put them outside of his church). It is for this reason that the church is on mission, but it is not the mission itself. The church is about the business of evangelistic mission, it is not the evangelistic mission itself. To view it as such is not only to mistake what makes a church a church, it is counterproductive and will in the end, instead of leading to revitalisation, merely condemn with comfort those whose deepest need is to realise that they do not yet belong to Christ and are not part of his church.

In the end, in my view, we are far better to serve the believers in such errant places by planting gospel-preaching, bible-believing churches to which they can go and be fed and nourished through the right teaching of the Word. It also serves those who choose to stay in those places and feed on the poison being fed to them week by week, by drawing a line between those who would belong to Christ by believing in him and his gospel, and those who evidently do not. It does what any church should do – makes the gospel clear, makes people aware when they have not believed it and holds it out to them so that they too might repent and trust in Christ.