What is a Church?
We're surrounded by buildings with steeples that claim to be Churches or to house them. It always astonishes me how the possession of a building with a sign out front grants legitimacy to a Church. For many this is the mark of the Church. For many the building is the Church.
The question must be wrestled with...what is a Church? Just because a bunch of people get together and call themselves a Church does not make it so. I've talked about this before and will do so again. But for now, I'll simply say a group that does not faithfully preach and adhere to the Bible with some understanding of what the Bible is cannot be called a Church.
That's pretty broad and for years I've wrestled with the question...maybe a nearby group is indeed a Church but they hold to many doctrines I find anti-Scriptural and therefore odious. Practically speaking because they belong to a faction which elevates these doctrines, or because their meeting-time (worship service) is so corrupted I find it hard to attend there.
But what if there's no other place to go? Some would argue we're duty bound to attend as long as it is indeed a 'church'. If you don't like it you may have to travel to get to something more palatable. But one way or another you need to be in Church every Sunday.
Normative versus Real life
I've come to the point where basically I would say a local congregation may in some sense be a 'Church' but because of their errors I cannot be a part of them. Or I might say, it's not a Church, but there are many Christians present within the group.
There's a problem with the idea that there are Christians 'outside' the Church, or Christians participating in a body that isn't a Church. Because again the normative model for the New Testament is that Christians are part of a body, assembling there and participating in its life and symbols. If they're not present, or present someplace that is not faithfully engaged in the Gospel preached and symbols that come with it...then what's their status?
But just like in Old Testament times, there are periods of exception where it's just not possible to fully comply. There were times when the faithful Old Testament saint could not attend the local synagogue or go up to the Temple. They had to absent themselves from the forms God provided. Heresy and idolatry, or sometimes geopolitics kept them away.
Rejecting Means: A reductionistic understanding of the Church
That's different from saying...I'm part of the Universal Church and that's all that matters. I don't need to go to Church. It's nice but I don't need to go. I don't agree with this view at all. Local congregating is expected. Ongoing participation in the fellowship and symbols provided at the local level is presupposed. Sometimes you can't do it, but it should grieve you.
Remnant and the Visible/Invisible distinction
For myself, I believe we live in a time of apostasy. In fact I believe most of Church history has been about a Remnant. I think it's a key Scriptural theme many have missed. I don't subscribe to the idea that we should look for a small faithful group functioning within a larger nominal or moderate or sometimes apostate body, an ecclesiola in ecclesia. No I think it's wrong to think in those terms whether they're applied to a denomination or to a culture.
This argument presupposes the concepts of Denomination and/or Christendom...both fallacious constructs. These are abuses of the Biblical doctrine of the Visible Church and consequently and sadly many in reaction have jettisoned the whole concept of the Visible/Invisible distinction which is explicitly Biblical. Romans 9.6 is a good place to start.
They've allowed the error to lead them into a doctrinal pendulum swing and they've missed out on a large part of what the Bible says about the functioning of the Church before the end of this age.
My frustration with Reformed Presbyterianism
I desperately want to be part of a local congregation. Many of the groups that once held to more Scriptural notions have apostatized over the last century or so. Small groups still meet in buildings but the Gospel is lost and talking with the people it's often sadly clear there probably aren't any Christians even there.
I'm not a Presbyterian in any way. Some might label what I hold to as a sort of Independent Presbyterianism...a local congregation ruled by elders, but this misses point of what is the essence of Presbyterianism...it rests on their creation of a mid-level form or denomination that bridges the supposed divide between the local congregation and the universal church.
Again local Congregations should meet together and maintain contact and fellowship. The congregation in Arlington could meet with the groups from Bethesda and Alexandria. They could discuss a doctrinal issue, a troublesome man who circulates among them, and many similar things. They could even produce a joint letter, but this meeting has no authority. The men from Alexandria cannot dictate to Arlington what to do even if it's done in the name of the temporary regional body. Only the Apostles had that authority and the Scriptures do not provide any model or form beyond the congregation for the post-Apostolic age. If the authority rests in the regional body then what we have is a hierarchy, a form of clericalism.
This is why the famous Independent John Milton wrote that Presbyterianism is nothing more 'priest writ large'. It's really just Episcopacy with a plural hierarchy rather than one comprised of individuals. It's just a recasting of Episcopalianism, instead of priest, we use the longer word....presbyter.
The problem is Presbyterianism claims to be Scriptural. This is why in some ways I am more hostile to their claims than that of the Episcopalian or Anglican.
Since we have a problem finding sound churches, and since in the past I've identified with the larger body of Reformed thought, we've attended Presbyterian Churches. In the past I've been a 'member' both in the OPC and PCA, and even briefly attended a seminary considering entering their faction. After extricating myself from these groups I all but swore I would never have anything to do with them again.
But we've found ourselves once again in a situation where we have nowhere to go to Church. For years we drove over 90mins. to a PCA. Gas prices, over 200,000 miles on our vehicle and a growing apprehension and dissatisfaction with the teaching caused us to finally give up on that.
After knocking about for a few years trying various but dubious options, we found out about a closer PCA church plant. I don't like bouncing between congregations, but we're not doing it because we're church shopping or looking for better programmes for our kids. We're trying to find something we can sit through. If after four weeks I'm dreading Sunday morning, then something is wrong. Usually in most Churches we're gritting our teeth through the carnival they call worship waiting for the sermon and hoping it will be something substantive. More often than not we're disappointed. When our children were young or when I was single I could put up with much more. I would just read my Bible during the 'entertainment' portions of the meeting and try and ignore much of what was happening.
But now I find I'm having to spend an hour de-briefing my kids after each meeting. In addition, having almost nothing to talk about with the people afterward also is a disappointment. We're not Republicans (or Democrats), we're not into sports, and I'm not interested in talking about my work, insurance (or lack thereof) or retirement plan (or lack thereof). The one thing I want to talk about is things related to the Kingdom of God. Only in Reformed congregations have I been able to find others who are also keen to engage along these lines.
So why are we there? To fellowship? There isn't really any to speak of. I also have to be careful. Though I hope to influence others in a good way, by gently bringing up things, or gently and humbly disagreeing...the reality is, I don't have authority there and I can't come in with the object of taking over. If I'm in direct contradiction with the doctrine the leadership holds to, then I probably ought not to be there. I'm talking about Dispensationalism, the doctrine of Salvation, the Sovereignty of God, America, Politics, and all those issues. I can bring things up and carefully discuss them, but I have no right to come in and undermine other leaders. If I'm speaking the truth, then fine, speak it, but that's from without the congregation. Maybe I hope people there will leave and go elsewhere...that's a legitimate desire. But I shouldn't try to stir the pot within.
So if we're not fellowshipping, we're not worshipping, we're not being fed from Scripture....why are we there? We end up asking that and eventually in some cases we leave.
After being frustrated for awhile we heard about this local PCA start up. Not the PCA again! But what are we to do? Stay home? We've tried Bible studies in the past and people are very interested but most are unwilling to leave their local bodies. They're involved there in the programmes and music and so forth. Meeting in a living room, fire hall, or hotel seems depressing and un-churchlike to them. I pray as things get worse more people will awaken to some of these issues and begin to feel comfortable rejecting these institutional and cultural forms which have been imposed on the Church. We should feel equally comfortable meeting in a barn or the woods and frankly the Church often has throughout the ages. The New Testament Church doesn't need (or want) buildings, sound systems, crosses, organs, pianos, pews, stages, pulpits, or any of it. These things are just examples of what I'm often calling Judaizing and Paganizing. Going back to Old Testament forms already fulfilled or borrowing from the culture.
I'm not saying you can't sit down or that the speaker can't stand at a podium. But the notions of Church architecture, worship music, and using 'gifts' for performance are based on serious theological flaws. Much of what happens today is rooted in entertainment with the people in the pew being the audience instead of God Himself. The Puritans with all their flaws understood the Church was the body and the building was simply the meeting house. The reason it was bare inside was not because they were stodgy and anti-culture. Far from it. It was rooted in a theology that understood far better than today why we are meeting and what it is we're doing there. They understood the only props, the only helps, the only symbols we need are the one's God has given to us...the Bible, water, bread, and wine.
We've been attending the PCA. It's nice to be able to sit through a meeting and not grit your teeth. We don't agree with their denomination or denominationalism. I hardly see eye to eye with the people on much of anything...but at least they're keen to talk and think. It's refreshing.