Every morning, in offices across Canada, folks check how their fantasy hockey team is faring in the office hockey pool. It starts in the fall with individuals picking an imaginary team from the list of active NHL players. The aggregate scoring statistics of those players then determines the winner of the hockey pool.
I have met people whose concept of the church resembles those imaginary hockey teams. They profess to believe in an invisible church, comprising all Christians from all the world. However, they do not want everyone on their team who calls himself a Christian. So the selection process begins. Most would not have wanted Fred Phelps on their team. Some would not accept anyone from the Roman Catholic Church, others would exclude most charismatics and the proponents of the prosperity gospel. Some would choose on the basis of doctrine, others on the basis of outward manifestations of the faith.
A person might well choose those whom he is willing to acknowledge as true Christians, but does this bear any resemblance to the church described in the Bible? The church is described in the Bible as a building or a body, with each member put in place by God Himself and able to function in a coordinated manner for the proclamation of the gospel, the nurturing of new believers, the revival of the weak and the maintenance of the purity of the church.
Not all people who call themselves Christians bear evidence of the work of God in their lives. Neither do all thse bodies calling themselves churches show evidence that God is at work in them as an organization. No doubt there are individuals in all of the churches who do show this evidence, but where is the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in the myriad organizations each proclaiming a flavour of the gospel that is different from that of all the others?
Many people have thrown up their hands and withdrawn from this situation. This leads to what I have called the hockey pool churches, and their appeal is not difficult to see. If I can select those people who are sincere Christians in my eyes and restrict my fellowship to this cirlce, it may seem that I have finally discovered true Christian fellowship.
In real life, however, it doesn’t seem to quite work out that way. These phantom churches tend to be in a continual state of tension and flux. Often, the only thing they really have in common is their disillusionment with other groups. In extreme cases, this leads to the situation of a man I knew in Ontario. In his younger years he had belonged to a church that had split off from a church that had split from the Old Order Mennonites many years earlier. Eventually he and his family left with a few other families and formed yet another church. That still didn’t satisfy this man. His wife and children remained with that church, but he went searching for something better. Finally, he told me that he had found three men with whom he could have full fellowship. One lived in Pennsylvania, another in Ohio and the third in Tennessee. How long would that fellowship have lasted if all four had been close neighbours?
The church, as depicted in the Bible, is much more than the sum of the individual members. It is the visible testimony and evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, not only in individual believers, but in the organized body of believers. The New Testament has a lot to say about our relationship with one another. The most important characteristic of the church is unfeigned brotherly love. Scriptural doctrine is important, proclamation of the gospel is important, avoiding the pollution of the world is important, but none of these things matter if there is not genuine brotherly love. Where there is no true love, forbearance and forgiveness, there is no church.