Imagine a church made up of cliques of folks who argued with one another about which church leader they should follow. Imagine that church having members who drank too much, who took advantage of poor people and who sometimes took one another to court. Imagine that same church having a sex scandal so egregious that even outsiders called it out for being wicked, yet the church members tried to sweep it under the rug, thinking no one would notice. Imagine attending that church’s main church service and finding it marked by disorder, chaos and self-centeredness. Sadly, for many, it is not too hard to imagine such a church, because there are churches today that are characterized by some (or all???) of these blemishes. According to the Bible, the existence of such churches is hardly a new thing.
In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we read of such a church in the city of Corinth. Corinth was a booming city in Greece that was known for its wealth as well as for its ungodliness. The city was a major port for commerce and was home to a temple of the Greek goddess Aphrodite that employed 1,000 temple prostitutes. The apostle Paul planted a church in Corinth during a three-yearlong visit to the city and at first that church flourished. It didn’t take long, however, before the church looked more like the city around it than a house of God. God had called the people of that church to be set apart for His name and for His kingdom, but they had begun to look like the world around them, blending in with an evil culture.
Worldliness within the church has always been a danger. Paul warned the church in his Second Letter to the Corinthians against being “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14). James warned the dispersed church that, “…friendship with the world is enmity with God. Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). John wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17). Going back further, before the dawn of the church age, God had commanded His children, the Israelites, to separate themselves from the pagan cultures around them. They were to eat different food, wear different clothing and worship a different God. Yes, God’s command for His church, which is made up of His children, has always been that it would stand out as different. The call for the church to “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) means, “Be set apart,” or, “Be different, just as I am different.” Different how? By living according to God’s standards, not the world’s.
Of course, I am not saying that all churches are worldly; many are not. Just as many churches in Paul’s day remained set apart for the work it was called to, so do many churches today. Many churches today strive to be welcoming communities where an outsider can feel loved and appreciated. Many churches today enjoy harmony and unity with one another, the people finding common ground in their faith in Jesus Christ alone. Many churches take seriously the call to avoid drunkenness and the call to abstain from harmful substances. Many churches work hard to feed and clothe the poor, giving considerable monies to organizations that bless the less fortunate all around the world. Many churches recognize God’s standard of marriage being that between one man and one woman for life and recognize any sexual expression outside of that as being sinful. Many churches exalt Jesus Christ Sunday after Sunday in services that are led by the Holy Spirit, but are orderly services that focus on God and His goodness instead of on man and his prosperity.
Perhaps the best thing we can do today is to call out those churches that fall outside of God’s will, but spend more time simply becoming part of a church that finds itself within it. Surely, to find a Bible-teaching, Gospel-preaching, people-reaching church is a blessed thing.