Is Church Essential? If Yes, Why? If Not, Why?

Written by Ryun Chang
Disclaimer: My view expressed here does not necessarily represent the respective views of other AMI pastors.
I’ve been in public ministry since 1982, and as an evangelical Protestant, I often acknowledge when our movement makes mistakes, which happens too frequently. But when outsiders talk smack about our churches and expect me to acquiesce to them, they got another thing coming.

Actually, I do heed the critics in case valid observations are made. But even helpful comments are often impeded by selective citing of evidence and inexactness, historical or otherwise. 

Consider this example. In 2015, President Obama, amid Islamic terrorists committing unthinkable atrocities, said, “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the [Spanish] Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Not so subtly he reminded the Christians gathered at a prayer breakfast of great harm their faith had inflicted on Muslims. 

It was a timely reminder—albeit no mention was made of Muslims drawing first blood when they invaded Europe in the 8th century to forcibly convert it to Islam—of a shameful period in the history of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that sponsored the Crusades and the Inquisition. But is it necessary to specify the RCC here? 

Yes, unless clarified, those assuming that only Muslims fell prey to these horrific attacks will be shocked to learn that the Crusades also killed scores of Eastern Orthodox Christians; the Inquisition, as a tool of the Counter-Reformation, killed more Protestants than any other groups. This is why “in time the phrase Inquisition became a byword, particularly in Protestant areas, for cruelty” (Encarta 1995). 

My point is this: Throughout Church History, too many churches, beginning with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox and joined later by Protestant, were led by leaders who compromised God’s holiness by committing conducts unbecoming of Christ’s followers. Since “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), they failed as “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).

Here, a clear distinction must be made between churches visible to the human eye and the Church of Jesus Christ, of which the Lord is ‘the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20) and the Invisible Church, composed of true believers that reflect the light of Christ in the world. This isn’t to suggest that true believers are batting a thousand; rather, that the overarching motif of their lives is to “walk as Jesus did” (1 Jn. 2:6). But the moment visible churches behave in an unworthy manner of Christ, including destroying those who worship the same God (or even different gods), they no longer reflect the Church of Jesus Christ. Consequently, much like the salt that lost its saltiness, they are “no longer good for anything” (Matt. 5:13)—they become nonessential. 

Fortunately, whenever visible churches behave in an unholy manner, God always preserves “a remnant chosen by grace” that walks as Jesus did and bears their own cross (Lk. 14:27). This is the Invisible Church that, as the light to the world, emits life, hope, and truth. It is essential. And the size of this remnant may surprise us. To Elijah who thought he was the only faithful one left, God said, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Rom. 11:4-5). 

So, while we should be critical of visible churches whenever they veer off, we ought to speak firmly against those who belittle the Church of Jesus Christ and consider the ministry of the Invisible Church nonessential. Given this, what should we expect during this COVID season as civil authorities consider churches nonessential and impose their power on what churches can and cannot do? 

First, no one should be surprised by this. Ever since the turn of the 21st century, conservative churches have not held favor with society at-large. They have struck out on all major sociomoral issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and transgenderism, etc. Churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., had to apologize for being on the wrong side of slavery and segregation. And currently, many pastors have been depicted in the media as defiant and negligent, including the nationally renowned John MacArthur, who dared to reopen his church despite government threat in the name of public health and safety. Amid much of the public taking umbrage at that, you have a perfect storm for the devaluation of churches.

But before getting all worked up for being dissed by civil authorities, manned mostly by secular liberals who have little respect for conservative Christianity, recognize that many of us who worship comfort above all else, have done it to ourselves by placing church at the level of voluntary association. A little cough or drizzle, no church; when the Right or Left speaks, readily agreeing with one or the other without filtering it scripturally; choosing to not attend physical church services that require masks and distanced seating (but being okay to socialize in person). No wonder churches get no respect. 

Truth be told, even if all Christians are super committed to God, the state’s demeaning attitude toward churches will not abate and still try to cancel them. The Roman Empire certainly tried to do that; China and North Korea, of course, are masters at it now. 

What really matters, however, is why civil authorities would consider churches nonessential. If it’s because they perceive that churches are full of creatures of comfort who have no backbone—for the German Christians who backed Hitler, it was nationalism—then, it would mean that churches are facing existential threat. 

But if the state’s attempt to belittle and cancel churches is due to feeling threatened by the uncompromising allegiance of Christians to their Lord-- like how the church in Rome was a threat to the Empire before Constantine-- then that’s a cause to be celebrated even if we suffer for it (1 Pet. 2:20).

Actually, be wary when the state acts nice toward churches for all the wrong reasons. The fact is, emperor Constantine who made becoming a Christian easy and the clergy profitable, paved the way for the demise of cross-bearing and self-denying faith—numerical growth of so-called Christians notwithstanding (much like today’s Church Growth Movement). Heavily laying on his mind was political motives of keeping the vast empire united, and Christianity looked like the glue that could hold it together, with him as the de facto head of churches. 

That, however, isn’t our problem now since civil authorities are increasingly more hostile toward those upholding biblical faith and morality. This will inevitably result in the downsizing of visible churches since people who have no root, “when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, . . . quickly fall away” (Mk. 4:17). 

This is probably why when “someone asked [Jesus], ‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’ he said, ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to’” (Lk. 13:23-24). 

And that’s a good thing because it would narrow the gap between invisible churches and the Invisible Church that obeys Christ, not Cesar, and subsequently the world may clearly see the light of Christ and be drawn to him.

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