Perhaps one of the most difficult seasons in the life of a Christian is when they are in search of a local church where they can settle in as a covenant member. This is especially trying when you live in a culture where there’s a church on every proverbial corner, as is the case in the “Bible-belt” of the southern United States. How then should a Christian proceed in this process? What should be their guide in making such a critical and important decision?
To begin with, let me start with a negative: in choosing a church to join, a Christian should not let their own personal preferences play as the deciding factor. For many Christians, this is a standard default in their judgment as to what church they should join. They look for certain things they personally like or dislike. For example, what is the location of where the church meets? How many people are in attendance? Is the meeting place in a store front or a church building? If it is in a church building, then what is the look or age of the church building? How many differing age groups are there? And of course, what kind of programs does it have for certain people? When it comes to choosing a church, these examples tend to be the only kind of categories which determine the judgment believers will make for the right church. The problem with these categories is that they have nothing to do with what makes a church a church – in the biblical sense. They have to do with what a person prefers by their own personal standard as opposed to what the Word of God actually reveals as to the nature of a true church.
So, what then should be the guide for a Christian choosing a church to join? Our only guide should be the Word of God. First of all, since we’re talking about the church, then we’re not talking about anything which is of this world. Lest we forget, as Christians, we are not of this world though we live in this world (John 17:14; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Therefore, when Christians gather together as the church in sacred assembly there is something remarkably other-worldly about who we are and what we’re doing. And it is for this reason that we need God’s Word directing us as to what we should be looking for in a local church.
What then does God’s Word reveal about the church and thereby what we should find in a local church? In the first place, the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). A local church of Jesus Christ supremely functions as the foundation and support to the truth of God’s holy infallible Word. As John MacArthur explained it so well: “It is the solemn responsibility of every church to solidly, immovably, unshakably uphold the truth of God’s Word. The church does not invent the truth, and alters it only at the cost of judgment. It is to support and safeguard it…The church has the stewardship of Scripture, the duty to guard it as the most precious possession on earth. Churches that tamper with, misrepresent, depreciate, relegate to secondary place, or abandon biblical truth destroy their only reason for existing and experience impotence and judgment.”
In the second place, since the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, then God’s Word will regulate all that is done as it pertains to the functioning ministry of the church. This means that when the church gathers for worship there will be the reading, preaching, and hearing of God’s Word (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:2). There will be the congregational singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). There will be corporate prayer (Colossians 4:2; 1 Timothy 2:1-2, 8). Furthermore, there will be the practice of the church ordinances: such as taking the Lord’s Supper and the baptism of newly converted sinners to Christ (1 Corinthians 11:17-32; Matthew 28:19). Moreover, the very spirit in which God is worshiped will be “with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28), as opposed to the glib, flippant, and carnal atmosphere of a late night show or a pop concert. What’s so crucial to understand under this point, is that in choosing a church to join, you must discern by Scripture whether this church takes its cues for ministry by what the world wants or what God commands. A church ceases to be the pillar and buttress of the truth when it functions more as a Walmart – pandering to every whim and fancy of the general public just to fill a pew. In addition to this, where God’s Word is regulating the ministry of the church, there should be the presence of qualified church officers – namely, Christian men who serve as elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9). The one exception to this, is that in certain circumstances there may be providentially only one elder (a pastor-teacher, Ephesians 4:11), since the Lord has not yet raised up other men to serve in either of these offices (Acts 20:28).
In the third place, since the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, then there will be a clear, unashamed, unadulterated proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The person and work of Christ in the glory of His redeeming work by His life, death, and resurrection will never be truncated in any way, but preached fervently and unmistakably, calling sinners to close with Christ through faith and repentance (Acts 16:31; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2; 15:1-3). Furthermore, by proclaiming the gospel, a local church following Scripture will show compassion to the lost by striving to reach them for Christ via evangelism and the intercession and support of global missions (Matthew 28:18-20).
In the fourth place, since the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, there will be an evident doctrinal unity in a local church. Surprisingly and sadly, this is not a point which many Christians take into consideration. 1 Corinthians 1:10 speaks to this kind of unity when it says that we should be all agreed, with no divisions among us, united in the same mind and the same judgment. The context in which Paul wrote these words bear out the fact that it is doctrinal unity he is appealing to. This same unity is what Jude aims at when he exhorts his readers to contend earnestly for the faith once for all given to the saints (Jude 3). The “faith” is not our personal faith in Christ but the content of Christian doctrine as revealed in Holy Scripture. A local church, if it’s abiding by Scripture, will strive for a collective doctrinal unity – where all the members are confessing the same thing as to the truth. Historically, churches have sought to fulfill this scriptural mandate by writing confessions of faith. Thankfully, there are more churches in our day having returned to holding a confessional standard. Having such a document is especially helpful for a Christian whose searching for a church to join. They can question if this church has a confession of faith and secure a copy if the church answers in the affirmative. By such a document a person can see plainly what this church believes the Bible teaches and where that church takes its stand as to the truth of Scripture.
In the fifth place, since the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, then there will be the evident pursuit of a relational unity built on the spiritual unity all believers share in due to their union with Christ. This means that the mandate of Ephesians 4:1-3 will not be taken lightly, where, the church is to walk worthy of the calling by which they have been called by God in Christ – by relating to one another in all humility, meekness, patience, and forbearing love, as they spare no effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. If there is no evidence of these graces in a local church there will only be division, strife, resentment, envy, and arrogance. In short, if a local church is not practicing relational unity as mandated by Scripture, then flee that church with haste.
In the sixth place, since the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, then by the teaching and fellowship of the church members you should be stirred to grow in greater likeness to Christ. The supreme end of our sanctification is perfect conformity to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). No church therefore should do anything to impede such conformity. Rather, a congregation of fellow Christians should make all strides to help each other to stay the course and cross the finish line of their Christian race faithfully (Hebrews 3:12-14; 10:24-25; 12:1-2). A local church where this is sought after is worthy to join!
In the last place, since the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, then the pursuit and practice of corrective church discipline will be carried out to preserve the church’s purity and rescue erring church members. One of the greatest tragedies in multiple local churches is the total absence of church discipline. Passages of Scripture like Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, or 2 Thessalonians 3:6-16 are completely foreign to the general population of professing evangelical Christians. It is thus no wonder that so many churches are racked with corruption, discord, scandal, heresy and the like. A church however that practices church discipline after the clear pattern laid out in Scripture, will be a church far healthier due to the premium it sets on the holiness God mandates His people to keep.
In conclusion, I hope it is clear to see what one should be looking for in a local church when they’re on the search. Obviously, they’re not looking for the “perfect church.” Nor are they looking for a church made in their image – catering exclusively to their tastes, standards, preferences, etc. No, what they should be looking for is God’s Church which can only be identified by what God has revealed and commanded by His Word. But understand this: to look for a local church with all the above qualities and traits as laid out in Scripture, cannot be assessed by one or two visits. You have to settle on a church where you will camp out long enough to see these things clearly or not, and thereby be able to make a qualified and fair judgment directed by the light of God’s Word. There’s nothing therefore hasty in this kind of search and decision for any Christian.