Where in the New Testament do you see a Christian leaving the church he is part of to go and join another? Or where do you see a brother getting fed up with the shallow teaching he receives in the assembly and going off to “start” his own church just down the road?
Even in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, where the Lord gives a message to each of the seven churches, when do you ever see the Lord advising someone to leave his church and find a better one?
The principle of one city, one church is consistent throughout the opening chapters of Revelation. Here again we see nothing other than “the church… at such-and-such a place.” The Lord is speaking to all His followers who live in each town. And man, some of these churches had problems! The church at Ephesus had left her first love for the Lord; the church in Pergamum had some who held the “teaching of Balaam,” and the “teaching of the Nicolaitans”, leading God’s people astray from Christ; the church in Thyatira was tolerating the presence of false teachers who encouraged people toward a lifestyle of sexual immorality; the church in Sardis had digressed into a form of godliness which denied the real power and life of God-their life was largely one of outward formality lacking any true inward life; and the church in Laodicea was full of spiritual pride and complacency!
Strikingly absent in any of these cases, however, is the Lord telling anyone they should leave their church and find a better one. Nor does he say, “You who are overcomers, separate yourselves from such wicked doctrines and practices, and form a separate assembly so you can get it right!”
You see, in the first century, if you were a follower of the Lord Jesus and you lived in Thessalonica, you were part of the church in Thessalonica. You lived and gathered and fellowshipped with the other believers in town on a regular basis. To be “in Christ” and “in the church” were practically one and the same thing. The same goes for any other town. What about bigger cities with more people, you might ask? Well, if you were a believer in Jerusalem, for instance, where there was a larger number of disciples, perhaps you wouldn’t see all the saints regularly, or perhaps you wouldn’t know them all very well, simply by virtue of the fact that there were so many (and obviously there would be many different meeting places of the church throughout the city, mostly in the believers’ homes). But still the church was uniquely one. There were large gatherings for all to hear the apostles speak in Solomon’s Porch, and there was a wonderful inter-mingling between the saints for the breaking of bread and prayers in their varioius houses. The home gatherings were not along the lines of most “house churches” today, however (many of which are not built on the ground of the church and operate separately from other local believers). Rather, there was a consciousness of unity even though there were separate meeting places. And they were all just “the church” in their city. Nothing more, nothing less.
At least, this is the ideal which found expression for a while.
The point is, nowhere in the first century among any of the churches, whether large or small, do you find any example of Christians leaving one church to “go to” another. The whole thought is simply foreign to the New Testament. What a beautiful standard we have left to us by our early brothers and sisters!
No, things were not perfect. The more I study the New Testament the less I romanticize the experience of first century believers. There were parties, there were developing factions, and there were problems galore. Nowhere did it take long for the human element to creep in and spoil the show. But, overall, the expression of the church which we see in the pages of scripture is one of aspiring toward this ideal of the one Body of Christ in undivided local expression. The House of God built firmly on the ground of locality, with all believers living and meeting as one new man.
Could it ever be that way again, here in Christian America? I won’t dare to venture an answer to that question, though it seems unlikely to me. But well within the range of possibility, and even proven experience, is for a representative group of believers-like those Jews whose spirits were stirred by the proclamation of Cyrus to return to Jerusalem-to go back, reclaim the original ground, sift through the rubble until they find the foundation of their faith, and begin the task of rebuilding the House of God on its proper ground, which is the local church.
I realize that with all this talk about the church I’m running the risk of gross misunderstanding. I’m also well aware of how this stuff can be taken wrongly, misconstrued, or twisted. I’m not trying to present anything legalistic here. I’m not saying you should get a map, mark out the city lines, then set up some airtight organizational entity based upon geography. All I’m trying to do is present the Lord’s own view, as best as it can be discerned from the example of scripture, to which those who have the hunger may repair. This is such a wonderful, liberating thing. The reality of God’s people all being one in Christ! As much as He has made us one with Himself He’s also made us one with each other! That we can all hold to our personal convictions over things, allowing each other the same grace to differ over non-essential items of belief and practice, and yet still come together as brothers and sisters enjoying the same salvation and the same rich Lord!
In the first century, believers gathered upon this ground. Paul poured out his life to preserve this unity of the Spirit. The fact that we see no example in scripture of a Christian being advised to leave one church for another for whatever reason, but rather to hold the ground and minister Christ as an overcomer, is setting forth a very high standard for our own conduct. It may be possible to leave a denomination, a sect, or a “group” (and at certain points commendable), but it is not possible to leave the local church, not if you have really seen what the church is. Find some saints who are captured by this vision and gather upon this ground and you’ll have found a group of people who are in this thing together for the long haul. Such a testimony is rare, very rare, in our day, yet I say the world we’re living in is in dire need of it!