"What Should I Look for in a Church and When Should I Leave One?"

"What Should I Look for in a Church and When Should I Leave One?"
By Scott Wakefield, Lead Pastor

Updated Jul 9, 2022:
  • Intro/Preliminary Orienting Points are now all consolidated in a more succinct "Intro to GQA" (fccgreene.org/introtoGQA).
  • 2/3 of this entire post is new or strengthened words/ideas—including an entirely new title that incorporates what I originally intended to be a separate GQA re leaving a church—but much is still unfinished, as you will notice toward the end where I have some 'notes to self.'
  • "Essential Mark" #2—Expository Preaching—is entirely new. (And much of #1 is new, better nuanced, etc.) 
“What Should I Look for in a Church and When Should I Leave One?"

Essential? Conviction? Opinion?
As covered in the Intro to GQA, under “Not All Questions Carry Equal Weight: The ‘Essentials–Convictions–Opinions Chart’”, how much importance to give to one’s answer to the title question is complex because it necessarily involves a whole host of doctrinal matters beyond a narrow definition of ecclesiology.1 So, simply by virtue of this one point–that the church we choose has massively important ramifications for almost everything about one’s understanding of salvation in Christ, the basics of Christian belief, and how to live the Christian life–I’d say it’s definitely an “essential.”

Now, what I do not mean to say is that different models for church governance, per se, (single-elder-led congregational, plural-elder-led congregational, democratic congregational, presbyterian, episcopal, denominational, nondenominational, one-service, one-site-multiple-services, multiple-sites-and-services, etc.) are “essentials,” as if one cannot become or grow as a Christian in some other form of church structure, governance, or polity.2 In other words, because God’s grace is the actual operative means of salvation and the Holy Spirit is the worker of heart change, one can become a Christian and learn many wonderful truths about Christ and His work under teaching or church structure that are in some measure errant, as literally every Christian does in our fallen world. However–and this is a significant caveat–this shouldn’t encourage us to eschew the search for a biblical church model and faithful Bible-centered teaching! That the Holy Spirit can change hearts despite errant human teaching isn’t a good argument for being unwise! So, since so much rides on what local church one chooses, I’m sticking with today’s GQA holding “essential” importance until shown differently.

What Church are we Talking About?
There is an important distinction to notice embedded in this GQA’s title question that narrows its scope—“What Should I Look for in a Church?” We are not talking here about the “universal” church, which is the group of all true Christians throughout all time who are known only to God, but “a” particular church—a “local” church—which is a group of believers who are also known to each other and who build and share Christian community. In the New Testament, of the 115 occurrences of the word “church,” (Greek ekklesia, an “assembly” of those "called out" from the world), at least 93, and perhaps at least a few more, explicitly refer to the gathering of believers rather than to an ungathered or unknown-to-us universal church-at-large or even to individual believers.3 The Scriptures do not have a category for “member-at-large of the universal church” who is not also a member of a local church. Here’s a good summary of the distinction and relationship between the universal and local church:

Each local church is a tangible expression of the universal church. The concept of the universal church is biblical and important, but the reality of church life can only be experienced on the local level. The blessings, ministries, ordinances, and discipline of a church are only realized, appropriated, and practiced tangibly in a local congregation.4

This is worth more than passing mention because the unprecedented levels of modern luxury, technology, and personal control snooker many into the illusion that being a member-at-large in the universal church is a viable option without also being part of a local church, as if being known to God but not other Christians qualifies as being part of the body of Christ. Sorry, but that’s not Bible in any meaningful sense that can be called faithful to its intent. At that point, you might as well just rip out half of the New Testament and start your own cult. Just don’t call it biblical Christianity. Rather, it is a selfish and consumeristic standpoint epistemology that tailors personal spiritual experience according to your comfort more than God's design for your holiness and His glory. The church, like anything that is actually helpful for one’s growth, isn’t there to serve and cater to you. It’s there to train and equip you for fruitful mission. And you can’t do that anonymously, from afar, without meaningful participation, and with little investment.

So if you consider yourself a member of the universal church but not a particular church with the “Essential Marks” which follow, the Bible has some questions to ask you: To what persons are you meaningfully accountable for your Christian growth, doctrinal fidelity, service that fits your gifts, generosity, and learning to submit your heart and mind more faithfully to God by being regularly engaged in worship? Who are your Elders? Who are those responsible to discipline you? Who are those responsible to feed you from God’s Word? Where are you learning to be more fruitfully part of God’s Kingdom mission by hearing the regular feedback of other believers? Who are those in the body into whom you are pouring your life for the sake of their growth? And can you do all those things and more (i.e., the “Essential Marks” below) by yourself, without a formal, public, and clear commitment to an actual group of believers who likewise understand their commitment to you and submission to Elders who lead by the Word of God? In case it’s not clear, the answer is: “No. It is… Literally. Impossible.”

So by "church," we are not referring here to a mish-mash of this celebrity preacher you watch, that church's music you enjoy, this Bible Study you like, and that youth group in which your kids feel most accepted, but to “a” (i.e., “one”) particular local church where the many parts of the body of Christ are working and visible, including yours.

(Click here to go to “H3: Connect in a small group.” and read more about how we define “meaningful participation” at FCC. Also, see this previous GQA re “Is Church Membership Biblical?”)

The Church Defined: A Called Out People Always Rediscovering its Purpose as Redeemed Witnesses to the Kingdom of God
So, what is a local church and what are its defining characteristics? Here’s a one-pregnant-sentence answer from the Bible: From eternity past, God the Father’s wise plans (Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:10; Acts 1:7: Romans 16:25-27; 2 Timothy 1:9) were to glorify His Son (John 17:1, 5, 22, 24; 1 Corinthians 1:19-25) in history by constituting a people for Himself (Ephesians 2:10; Deuteronomy 7:6-8; 32:5), calling them out5 (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1) of the world and their sin by the gospel of grace (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 2:4-9) and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5, 8), that they would witness to His Kingdom, power, and glory as the sanctified body of Christ (Acts 1:8; 14:21-22; Romans 1:16-17; 12:1-5; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Ephesians 1; 2:10; 13-16; 19-22; 4:1-5:21; Hebrew 9:14-15).

Because the church is God’s idea—initiated by Him as revealed in His Word—from generation to generation it has sought to align its practice accordingly such that its rediscovery of purpose is not discovering something previously hidden but learning to embody a faithful witness to God’s glory. This nuance isn’t semantics—it is the difference between human innovation that builds on sand and submitting ourselves to God’s wisdom for building on His Word!

As early as the first chapter of Acts, after Jesus told His disciples to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the Father to send the promised Holy Spirit, this concern was why they asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6)? Sure, it turned out to be the wrong question. Indeed, they could hardly have been more wrong in their hope that Jesus the long-awaited Messiah would return Israel to its former religious glory and sociopolitical power. But perhaps most glaring was their unawareness that new life in Christ meant they themselves would carry on the work, as those who were learning to embody a faithful witness to God’s glory. Notice Jesus’ response in Acts 1:7-8 to their question from verse 6: 7 “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority,” i.e., ‘Don’t worry about when and what will come at the end times when the Father brings a new heavens and earth,’ 8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Jesus is telling them that following Him meant getting to work. Then, immediately, as if to highlight the point, Jesus ascended to be with the Father: ‘It’s your turn, y’all. Carry on the work.’ Ever since, gathered Christians have continually endeavored to clearly understand and faithfully articulate who they are and what they are to do in light of God’s character and work in Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. (For more teaching on Acts 1:6-11, see the first half of this sermon, “What is a Multisite Church and Why Are We One?”)

Even in our own more immediate history as Protestants, because the Reformation of the early 1500s was at center a reformation of the authority of the Scriptures (“sola scriptura,” the “formal principle,”6 over against the unbiblical papal authority of the Roman Catholic Church,) there was a great deal of discussion among the Reformers about what constitutes a “true church.” John Calvin said, and Martin Luther agreed: “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”7 Though their application of sola scriptura resulted in other characteristics of the church like the priesthood of all believers, leadership of pastors, elders, and deacons, and church discipline, the Reformers held that correct teaching of God’s Word and proper administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as gospel-centered signs of entrance into Christ, were such centrally defining characteristics of a true church that they believed it worth dividing if not present.

So what are the “essentials” that must be present?

(First Draft of) The Essential Marks of a Biblical Church
Note: As of July 2022, this section is still slowly emerging from the often tortuous process of stealing, borrowing, and adapting, (from the Bible, various commentaries (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary (Comm) on the New/Old Testament (NT/OT), Baker Exegetical Comm NT, ESV Exegetical Comm, New Int'l Comm NT/OT, New Int'l Greek Testament Comm, Pillar NT Comm, to name a few favorites), quite a few different Systematic Theologies (mostly Grudem, Culver, and Berkhof, at this point), 9Marks.org, gotquestions.org, etc.) to being genuinely ‘from me’ (though I hold that human ideas are never truly genuine because “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) and if they are true, they are true because they derive from God’s character and nature.) Also, as mentioned in the Intro to GQA, the following is more deductive argumentation, from general to specifics, and will assume I’ve done my homework without being able to show you all of it.
(1) Grace-Empowered Gospel
Theoretically, every church believes that the gospel ("good news") is based on grace that is a free and unmerited gift (Deuteronomy 7:6-8; John 4:10; 6:29; Romans 3:24; 4:3-12, 16; 5:15-17; 2 Corinthians 3:5; Ephesians 2:8-10; 2 Timothy 1:9). But when you gather a bunch of sinners who are all struggling toward hope in a painful world of thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:17-19), it’s tempting—even for Christians—to abandon God’s promise of saving grace and to depend on self-founded systems of trust rooted in extrabiblical demands that create a culture of self-righteousness, manipulation, and idol worship. It’s sadly easy to operate with one another based on anything but grace. And when the gospel isn’t operative for a church’s people, in relational terms, it’s because their "gospel" is rooted in conditional here-and-now sociocultural feel-goods disguised as spiritual purity and not in the unconditional power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18, 24).

This temptation toward conditional relationships that Messiacize each other is one of many such human-empowered perversions of God’s created order that show why it is essential to ensure that our faith in Christ is entirely and exclusively founded upon and sustained by the power of God’s actually-saving-grace. The gospel is empowered by grace when it is initiated by God’s lovingkindness (Deuteronomy 7:6-8, 12-13; Ephesians 1:3-14), rooted in the historical reality (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) of the transfer of Christ’s perfect righteousness—earned under the law and imputed to undeserving sinners (Genesis 3:15; Romans 1:16-17; 4:4-17; 5:15-17; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 3:8-11)—and applied by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26-27; 37:9, 14; John 1:12-13; 3:3, 5-8 (cf. Ecclesiastes 11:5); 6:63; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3, 23).

If a church you’re looking at doesn’t clearly teach and strive to embody a costly Christ-purchased and grace-empowered gospel—where righteousness needn't be manipulated from or maintained by sinners—it is definitionally not a church. It’s a human-empowered morality club that looks and sounds like people are finding freedom from sin, but in reality, they are further enslaving one another.
(2) Expository Preaching
You may hear from some Christian traditions that the church created the Bible. (Roman Catholics, for example, hold to this conviction as warrant for their claim to be the one true apostolic church that is authoritative over against the Scriptures and orthodox interpretation thereof.)8 But that is a myopic misunderstanding of the essential character of the Bible as divinely preserved and inspired revelation (2 Peter 1:19-21; 2 Timothy 3:14-16). The truth is exactly the opposite—the Word of God is the power that created and sustains the church. In fact, we see the power of God’s Word from the very beginning in that He:
  • created the world (Genesis 1:1-3; 2:1; Psalm 33:6, 9; 147:15, 18; 148:5; Hebrews 11:3; 2 Peter 3:5),
  • promised a Savior to redeem Adam and Eve’s sinful neglect in its sufficiency (Genesis 3:1-3, 8-13, 15),
  • called Abram to faith in His promise (Genesis 12:1-3; Galatians 3:2, 5-6, 8, 18; Hebrews 6:13-14),
  • spoke, wrote down, and gave the Law (Genesis 1:28; 2:16-17; Exodus 20:1; 24:12; 31:18; 32:15-16; Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:22; 9:10-11; Psalm 147:19; cf. 2 Corinthians 3:3), verbally directed its codification (Exodus 20:1; 24:4; Nehemiah 9:13-14), and breathed out the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:20-21),
  • constituted, blessed, guided, and judged the nation of Israel, (Leviticus 26:3, 11-12; Deuteronomy 1:6-8; 2:31; 4:1; Psalm 147:19-20, which is a very small representative sample of tons of fitting passages),
  • prophesied through Ezekiel and Jeremiah a new covenant of spiritual regeneration (Ezekiel 37:1-14; Jeremiah 30:1-3; 1:31-34),
  • spoke new life into the hearts of His children (Matthew 13:23; Romans 10:8-11, 17; James 1:18, 21; 1 Peter 1:23),
  • gathered for Himself a faith-filled people who worship and witness to His glory (Nehemiah 8:1-8; Psalm 107:32; 149:1; John 11:51-52; 17:8; 20:21; Romans 10:9-10; Ephesians 1:13; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2, 7; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 1 Peter 2:9-10, cf. 1 Peter 2:8), and
  • sanctified His people (John 17:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; James 1:22-25; 1 Peter 1:22).

The church is no more a human-initiated entity than is a Christian (John 3:3, 5-8). It is God’s Word that does the work of calling us to Himself, individually and corporately.

If it is the truth of God’s Word in various forms (see Brown Bags & Bibles episodes #61 and #62) that does His work, then preaching is faithful and in continuity with God’s purposes when it involves opening, reading, explaining, and applying the Scriptures as God has revealed them to us. This expository approach is fundamental because it ensures God’s Spirit—and not human wisdom—is the operative change agent in hearers’ hearts.9 Numerous important principles follow.10
  • The biblical-theological redemptive flow of the Scriptures directs the sermon and should be its primary content (Nehemiah 8:8; 2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Peter 1:20-21). This assumes:
    • There is one correct intended interpretation of each word, idea, phrase, or passage, and it precedes and regulates what can be multiple applications (2 Peter 1:20-21; Hebrews 1:1-2).11
    • The Scriptures are the intended teacher in preaching (Nehemiah 8:2 Timothy 4:2-4) such that extrabiblical illustrative material should be used sparingly relative to scriptural illustrations and only when serving Scriptures’ ends.
    • The proclamation of the gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ is the central message of every sermon (Acts 2:14, 22-41; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; 2 Timothy 2:8, 14).
  • Preaching is faithful when God’s people are:
    • learning how to handle God’s Word for themselves (Nehemiah 8:7b-8; Matthew 11:28-30; 28:20; John 5:24; 2 Timothy 2:15),
    • developing an ear for doctrinal orthodoxy (Ephesians 4:11-14; 2 Peter 1:19-21),
    • responding to God’s saving grace12 (Matthew 11:15; 13:23; Luke 8:15; 11:28) and confessing Christ as Lord (Acts 2:37-41, 46-47; 13:44, 48; John 6:68-69),
    • growing toward Christlikeness (Exodus 18:19-20; Deuteronomy 8:3; 17:18-20; 2 Chronicles 34:30; Psalm 1:1-3; 119:105; Nehemiah 8:8; Luke 4:4; John 17:17; Ephesians 4:11-16; 5:25-26; Colossians 1:6; James 1:18, 21-27), and
    • becoming gospel conversant preachers of good news (Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8; 13:47; Colossians 1:24-29; 4:2-6; 2 Timothy 2:8-10, 24-26).

Expository preaching is trusting that God’s purposes in giving His people His Word include how He intends to lead and guide them.
Coming Soon(ish)...

(3) Christ-Centered Worship

(4) Disciple-Making Strategy

(5) Regenerate Membership

(6) Sacrificial Community

(7) Gospel Proclamation

(8) Community Engagement

(9) Other Things Worth Noticing & Questions to Ask
  • education/life/family/marriage of pastor/preacher
  • penal substitutionary atonement
  • complementarianism/egalitarian
  • cessationist/continuationist
  • definition of marriage
  • views on sexuality and LGBT issues
  • approach to social justice

(Scott, (a) don’t forget to temper demand for essentials with deference over non-essentials. Parse out those emphases here in #9. (b) End with some thoughts re when to leave a church, based on aforementioned "Essential Marks" and what it looks like to stick it out long enough to pursue health in community, not give up, not make the mistake of greener grass elsewhere, etc., unless there are patterns of abuse, leadership failure, etc.)
Footnotes:
*Footnote Note: The numbered link that got you here only gets you here. I.e., you may have to scroll down to find the note you're looking for and you'll definitely have to scroll all the way back up to get back to where you came from. Also, our blog site doesn't yet format correctly, so some things like bullets, numbers, line spacing, and superscripts may be wonky.
1 Ecclesiology roughly means ”church study,“ and is used to refer to one’s framework, or theology, of the church.

2 ”Polity” refers to the method of governance, especially how power is distributed among leaders to care for those under their charge.

3 Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, (Geanies House, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus), 914. Because the “universal” church is truly known only to God and New Testament usage almost exclusively refers to “local” churches, some theological traditions believe that the New Testament never truly speaks to the “universal” church but only of it and only by implication of human reason and not by explicit didactic revelation. I think they’re more right than most realize.

4 R. Stanton Norman, The Baptist Way: Distinctives of a Baptist Church, (Nashville: B&H), 114.

5 The ekklesia, predominantly translated as our modern word for the local “church,” is the assembly of those “called out” from the world.

6 For more about sola scriptura, watch this Brown Bags & Bibles episode. For a really helpful explanation of what is meant by the “formal principle” (and likewise, the “material principle”), read this brief article: “Why Do We Call Them the ‘Formal’ and ‘Material’ Principles of the Reformation?” For the record, though the material principle of justification by grace (sola gratia) through faith (sola fide) was also a motivating factor for the Reformers’ claim to have rediscovered the “true church,” for our purposes, sola scriptura is more germane as the Bible is where we find the church’s definition and purpose.

7 Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.9. Re Luther’s agreement, Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession, a Lutheran statement of faith, says, “the congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered.” Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof summarizes it thus: “The Reformation was a reaction against the externalism of Rome in general, and in particular, also against its external conception of the Church. It brought the truth to the foreground once more that the essence of the Church is not found in the external organization of the Church, but in the Church as the communio sanctorum. For both Luther and Calvin the Church was simply the community of the saints, that is, the community of those who believe and are sanctified in Christ, and who are joined to Him as their Head.” https://ref.ly/o/stberkhof/1646928?length=520

https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/catholics-and-the-bible

9 While I think a verse-by-verse pattern of preaching through a book of the Bible is best and helps ensure we are submitting to the Scriptures as God revealed them to us rather than a more topical format where cherry-picking verses more easily runs the risk of allowing man-centered felt needs to direct interpretation, because the preaching form is not explicitly commanded and valid arguments can be made to the contrary, I would characterize these as “convictional” issues and not “essential.” (See fccgreene.org/introtogqa#ecochart for more.)

10 This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all possibly important principles, but a representative list of some particularly important factors to consider when looking for a biblically-centered church or determining church health.

11 Meaning is primarily determined by using normal grammatico-historical and redemptive-historical methods that prioritize plain sense exegesis deriving from and tested against Scripture’s interpretation of itself. [By aforementioned "redemptive-historical methods," we mean those a là Geerhardus Vos’ biblical-theological and covenantal “History of Special Revelation,” as distinct from the older “redemptive-historical” heilsgeschichte (“salvation history”) and heilsgeschichtlich (“salvation-historical”) methods, which are a subset of the "historical-critical" (or "higher critical") models, which are to be, on the whole rejected, though they can provide ancillary and comparative insight. See “What is historical criticism?” for more. [For more, see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, especially Articles III-VI, VIII, XIII, XV, XVII-XIX, and “Skepticism and Criticism” (top of p 10.)] If all the above sounds like gobbly-gook to you, see “What is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis?” for a brief overview of the basic interpretive issues involved.

12 I’ve chosen “saving grace” to distinguish it from cheap, intellectual, or human-initiated grace, and as a mediating term that establishes that we’re talking—at least generically and in terms with which all Christians agree—about true repentant faith that results in spiritual fruit and that also allows for “1689ers” (holding to the 1689 2nd London Baptist Confession, the1689confession.com) and Reformed/Covenantal folks like me to hold to “effectual grace/calling” as part of the so-called “doctrines of grace” (see Episode #36 of BB&B on “Call” for more).