Joining the Congregation of Your Choice
For decades, evangelical preachers such as Billy Graham have been telling their
hearers to "Receive Jesus as your personal Savior and join the church of your
choice." Those faithful to God's word have objected to such teaching on several
First, the phrase "receive Jesus as your personal Savior" falls far short of describing in Bible terms what one must do to be saved. It is certainly not what the apostles of Christ told men and women to do to be saved; they taught that belief, repentance and baptism are crucial steps in the process of salvation (see Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 22:16).
Second, the phrase "join the church of your choice" encourages division among believers in the form of denominationalism; it implies that each man-made church is equally accepted by God when the truth is that the Lord expects unity among His followers and condemns those who cause division (John 17:21; Ephesians 4:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Romans 16:17-18). The Lord only built ONE CHURCH (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 4:4; 1:21-22).
Third, the concept of believers having the right to join a church of their own choosing ignores the Lordship of Christ. If He is our Lord, shouldn't we want to be a part of the church of His choosing? He asks, "Why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do the things which I say? (Luke 6:46). We should join the church of God's choice!
While we appreciate the fact that we live in a country in which every person may freely determine their own religious beliefs and practices, we should not confuse our civic freedom with a God-given right to do whatever we want religiously.
As faulty as it is, something much like the "join-the-church-of-your-choice" mentality has infected churches of Christ in recent years. We might call it the join-the-congregation-of-your-choice movement. It has become the trend in nearly every township, city or county where there is more than one church of Christ for members to hop from one to another until they find one that suits them; if they don't find one that suits them, they will sometimes create a division and start a "new work" which they can mold to their own desires.
We understand that there are legitimate Bible reasons for changing congregations. For instance, when a member moves from one location to another for work or family reasons, they will naturally join themselves to saints near their new home; this was the case with Aquilla and Priscilla multiple times (Acts 18:18, 24-26; Romans 16:3). We also understand that when a local church becomes unfaithful to the extent that continuing to be a part of it would involve one in sin, it is time to move on (1 Timothy 5:22). And then there may be times when a person sincerely believes that they would be of more service to the Lord in another place. If so, they have a legitimate reason for pursuing that option. This kind of motivation appears to be behind most of the movements of the apostle Paul and his fellow workers in the New Testament (cf. Romans 1:11-13; 15:23-24).
Unfortunately, many of the reasons people have for moving from one congregation to another are not legitimate at all, but rather they are selfish, capricious or outright ungodly. Such reasons include the following:
Rejecting rebuke. When a person is engaged in something that is wrong and they hear preaching and teaching that condemns their practice, they will either repent and change their practice, or close their ears to the teaching and preaching, or find somewhere else to go to church. The proper attitude toward being rebuked is expressed by the Psalmist in Psalm 141:5: "Let the righteous strike me; It shall be a kindness. And let him rebuke me; It shall be as excellent oil . . ." Sadly, many do not have such an attitude. The Scriptures teach that "He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, but he who heeds rebuke gets understanding" (Proverbs 15:32). Changing churches doesn't change the fact that a person needs to repent.
Unwillingness to give or seek forgiveness. It is almost inevitable that people who work together in a group over a long period of time will sin against one another at least occasionally. Everything from unintended slights and idle gossip all the way to knock-down, drag-out fist fights have occurred among brethren. The question is not if we will sin against one another, but how to handle it when we do. Holding a grudge, refusing to discuss it, and running off to another congregation is not the method recommended in Scripture. Rather, "as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do (Colossians 3:12-13).
Disagreement in matters of judgment. The Lord allows a degree of human judgment in regard to how the church is to carry on its work as well as in regard to the personal choices of individuals (Romans 14). To leave a congregation because we do not choose the same things that others do in the exercise of personal liberties is to disobey Romans 14 which teaches us to "receive" one another in such matters. Where the work of the church is concerned, we are to be united in the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10), submitting to the direction of the leaders of the church rather than insisting that the church do it our way (Hebrews 13:17).
Unwillingness to work. Some go from one congregation to another in order to avoid being put to work. They do not really want to get involved in expending their energies in the cause of Christ. Their attitude is the opposite of the one Paul commends when he says that we are to be "zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14), and "not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord" (Romans 12:11).
Seeking similar socio-economic class. People in the world tend to gravitate to groups of similar background, social class, wealth and age. This tendency accounts for everything from street gangs to country clubs. Is it an illusion, or are we not seeing more and more of this tendency among churches? Are people actually placing membership in congregations based on similar social interests, economic status and education? "My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality" (James 2:1).
We would do well to examine our hearts long and hard before changing congregations. We might find that the change that is needed is actually within us.