It was a fine summer day in 1627 and I was strolling through Plimoth Plantation when deacon Samuel Fuller fell in step beside me. “The church officials back in England are saying that we have no business calling ourselves a church here in Massachusetts, because we have no minister,” he said. “But a church is made up of Christian people. They don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?”
Well, OK, the year was actually 1990, the man beside me was an actor playing the role of Samuel Fuller and we were in a recreated Plimoth Plantation, meticulously designed to look and feel like 1627. But I have no doubt that the real Samuel Fuller actually spoke those words.
Later that day, at a family reunion supper, I asked a young lady (a distant cousin) who also worked at Plimoth Plantation, if the modern Samuel Fuller really believed what he was saying. She hesitated a moment, then said “I think he has it in his head, but not in his heart.”
There you have the essential requirement of a church: Christian people. Not people motivated by tradition, emotion, social connection or intellect, but genuine, from the heart, born again Christians.
How can we do that? The short answer is we can’t. Jesus said He would build His church, The real question is how can we discern if a church is being built by Jesus or by people?
The New Testament speaks of believers meeting for worship, but there are no instructions as to what the meeting place should look like. Being as I live in Saskatchewan and it is bitterly cold outside right now, I am thankful for a warm building to use when we meet to worship. But I am wary when buildings become large and elaborate and are regarded with more reverence than the meeting going on inside.
The New Testament speaks of preaching, but never hints that the preacher needs special training, or that he should be paid a salary. The word minister means servant, yet a minister also has a responsibility to watch over the spiritual welfare of his congregation. But if he begins to think of himself as a lord over the congregation, he has crossed a line according to 1 Peter 5:3.
The New Testament speaks of singing, but never hints at the use of musical instruments. Entertainment is not an enhancement of worship, but rather a distraction.
The New Testament also shows that a close relationship between churches or congregations in different places and different countries. One of the warning signs that a congregation is not being built by Jesus is when it is totally independent of any other group.
I have known people who do church at home or who belong to small independent congregations. They appear to have good convictions but they are alone in their faith, there is no one else with whom they can have fellowship. And I have seen what happens to children from these tiny, self-isolated groups. They rebel. Some forsake Christian faith altogether, some find a home in a much more liberal church. They all blame their parents for their strict, legalistic attitude.
But they are missing something. A church does not become more spiritual, closer to Jesus, by ignoring most of His teachings, saying they were for a different era. The real problem was that their parents trusted no one but themselves. That is perhaps the greatest deception of all, to believe that I, and only I, am walking with the Lord.
This brings us back to the beginning. The Church built by Jesus Christ is a church made up of genuine, from the heart, born again Christians. A church where “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). Part of being a genuine Christian is the grace to see Christ in others, in spite of our outward differences.