In relation to what we had been discussing, Harry A. Ironside once related the following account:
"When Pliny was governor of Bithynia, he wrote a most interesting letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan, asking why Christians were being exterminated, and added: "I have been trying to get all the information I could regarding them. I have even hired spies to profess to be Christians and become baptized in order that they might get into the Christian services without suspicion.
Contrary to what I had supposed, I find that the Christians meet at dead of night or at early morn, that they sing a hymn to Christ as God, that they read from their own sacred writings and partake of a very simple meal consisting of bread and wine and water (the water added to the wine to dilute it in order that there might be enough for all).
This is all that I can find out, except that they exhort each other to be subject to the government and to pray for all men."
Even amidst persecution, true believers in the infant New Testament local churches would come together for worship, fellowship and the breaking of the bread. How many Christians today would eagerly gather to enjoy sweet communion and fellowship with each other "at dead of night?" But some might retort, "Times are different now. We live in the age of technology, and we do not live in caves. We have bills to pay, children to feed, work to do." Surely, the New Testament scholars ought to know that Paul lived in the stone-age, Titus and Timothy lived in caves, Aquila and Priscilla had no bills to pay, and recent research had shown that having children is a twentieth century phenomenon.
Most certainly, compared to New Testament believers, Christians today believe they have more important events to attend to. In fact, it may even be a matter of life and death, such as catching up with certain assignments, meeting deadlines at work, taking the children out because they have been busy all week at school, meeting Spiderman in the cinemas, or simply filling those poor starving abdomens with essential vitamins and minerals which cannot be done at other occasions. But whatever the reasons, Christians today are too busy for church commitments. They are living in the real world.
The truth is, it is quite impossible for the Christian to grow spiritually and to mature without the mutual exhortation and support from fellow believers. Furthermore, no matter how dire the circumstances are (these include the reasons we give for not joining a local church), pastoral oversight is paramount. Without proper accountability and church discipline, it is spiritually lethal for the Christian pilgrim to walk alone amidst fleshly temptations, worldly attractions, and false doctrines.
Sometimes we wonder, within the comfortable and peaceful setting of Singapore, coupled with governmental protection and freedom of worship, what grounds could there be for Christians to refuse formal church membership and commitment?
There are indeed numerous reasons that Christians refrain from church membership. From the more frivolous to the more weighty reasons, we can observe a few recurring factors for avoiding commitment as church members.
The More Frivolous Reasons
The church does not meet my felt needs.
The church is not accessible from my home.
The pastor cannot heal my sickness, or make me wealthy.
The preaching is boring.
The worship is too traditional and unprofessional.
The church members are too aloof and unfriendly.
The church is so small; I feel everybody is looking at me.
The pastor wants to interfere with my life; who does he think he is?
I want to live my own life. Who needs accountability?
The pastor does not listen to my opinions.
The More Weighty Reasons
I cannot agree with the major doctrines of the church.
I cannot join a church that does not exercise church discipline i.e. the pastor does not rebuke sin and worldliness within the congregation.
The Pastor is not faithful to the Word i.e. the pastor is purpose-driven, money-driven, but not God-driven.
The church does not adhere to the Regulative Principle of Worship.
The church teaches false doctrines.
The church is apostate.
The church is not Reformed, but claims to be.
Among the more well-read Christians, there is a growing tendency for what Mark Dever calls "lone-rangerism." Here, we find a professing Christian who has a certain level of biblical knowledge, and is more concerned with the simplicity of worshipping and serving God according to his own notions and understanding of Scripture. Sometimes, such a professing Christian may be a genuine believer who has become disenchanted with his previous church experience. He may have encountered pastors or church leaders who are not biblically qualified, or are abusive and unfaithful to Scripture. On the other hand, there are those who choose to be lone-rangers simply because of the ease and lack of accountability with which such a lifestyle would accord them.
But no matter how disenchanted we are with our previous churches, we must accept the fact that there is no perfect church. Every church has its weaknesses, and every pastor is a redeemed sinner just like us. But the Word of God requires us to be under the oversight of a plurality of elders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet.5:2), and exhorts us to have godly fellowship with other believers (Heb. 10:24-25). For these reasons alone, we ought to commit ourselves to a faithful, gospel preaching church as serving members.
In the meantime, these are some questions for the readers to consider:
Are you a member of a good, Reformed church? If not, why not?
What are the reasons you would accept as being legitimate for you to leave your existing local church?
In the next post, we shall discuss the importance of Christian fellowship within the context of a local church.