“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”
If one is to judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:16), then the fruit of idolatry in a culture is unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, evil, envy, murder, strife, deceit, meanness, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, pride, boasting, inventing evil, disobeying of parents, lacking understanding, covenant breaking, lacking affections, lacking mercy, and approving of these things in others. As to our culture: guilty as charged. As to much of the church in America: guilty as charged. The fruit of our culture is bad enough but when the fruit of the church reflects the fruit of the culture we have a major problem that needs to be rectified. And, while at times, reform can be brought from within, there is also a point in time when one must “come out of her lest you take part in her sins” (Revelation 18:4, alluding to Isaiah 48:20).
The Belgic confession drives this point home in Article 28, where it reads: “It is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church and to join themselves to this congregation [namely the True Church], wheresoever God has established it.” The True Church, in principle, is referred to in this article as “the assembly of those who are saved.” How can light have fellowship with darkness, Truth with error, righteousness with evil? For the wellbeing of our souls, we must align ourselves with Christ’s church and not with the parodies of it that are so prevalent in society.
Remaining in such a place is at best to content oneself with spiritual mediocrity for the same of what? Tradition? A fancy building to which you are partial? Habit? Safety? Friendships? Fancy dinners? Personalities? All of these are likely answers that would have been given by the people of Laodicea. Yet, when the years of accumulated dust of the false church is finally kicked off the feet, one will discover just how encumbered we were while wearing those old muddy boots. In doing so, one can leave behind the stench of the rotten food described above and taste (maybe for the first time!) fruit that is healthy, good, ripe, and in season for the church. And, while it is true that even the True Church has to face its problems when sin raises its ugly head; when said sin is pointed out, it will be confessed, repented of, and put away; such is not the case of the False Church.
So, as Peter says, judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Start with self-judgment so that you may not be judged (1 Corinthians 11:31) and separate yourself from the fruit of idolatry that is so prevalent in the pseudo-church all around us.
“Remember that you were formerly gentiles in the flesh — called the uncircumcision by those called the circumcision in the flesh by hands — that you were at that time without Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and a stranger to the covenant and the promise, being without hope and an atheist in the world.”
One more note before we move to verse 13…what is this language about the citizenship of Israel? Is this a reference to becoming part of national Israel as some would suppose? What is Paul referring to here?
First of all, no. In Romans 9, Paul has already distinguished between national Israel and True Israel, the latter being the children of the promise who are the spiritual children of Israel (Romans 9:6-9). This, in context, is a reference to those God elected to save (Romans 9:10-13). In Galatians 3:29, Paul refers to all of those who are in Christ as the ones who are Abraham’s offspring and thus heirs according to the promise (a.k.a… Children of Promise spoken of in Romans 9). And thus, all of the promises of God to Israel find their fulfillment in Christ and are directed toward the Christian church (2 Corinthians 1:20-22).
So, in the absolute sense, this is not just saying to the gentiles in the church in Ephesus that they were apart from the Jewish nation of Israel; this is saying that they were outside of True Israel and hence they lived amongst the sons of disobedience.
This raises an important point as to the significance of the church. Christians are not called to be “Lone Rangers” as it were; they were called to be part of a unified body with Christ as the head. Any time we are outside of that context, we find ourselves in a place of separation from the covenant and promises of God. Within it, those promises are meaningful and true, belonging to us.
Yet, in the west, we have embraced the notion of rugged individualism. And while that is an admirable thing in secular culture, it is an idea that is alien to Christian living. We have also embraced a form of commercial mentality when it comes to our church attendance. We go here for a while so long as the preaching pleases us and then we go there. That does not mean there is not a right time to leave a church, but leaving should not be predicated by whether you enjoy the preaching or the activities of the larger body. Leaving should be based on the question of whether the church which you are attending is a true church. If it is a true church, remain. If it is not a true church, flee to a true church.
What constitutes the true church? What distinguishes the gathering of the Children of Promise? There are three things found in the Scriptures and laid out for us in the Belgic Confession (Article 29): the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached, the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and church discipline is exercised for the chastening of sin. If the whole council of God is not preached or if the doctrines of men are preached instead of the doctrine of God, then it is a false church. If sacraments are treated casually and not with prayerful introspection and commitment, then it is a false church. If church discipline either is ignored or if it is practiced to create a legalistic caste system in the church, then it is a false church. If the church leadership are confronted with their failure in one or more of these areas and they refuse to repent, then you are in a false church from which you must flee.
They may have good intentions in that false body, but of what value are good intentions when the Apostle Paul condemns that church body as “accursed”? If you graft a healthy body part into a body where the whole of the body is diseased and gangrenous, of what benefit is the healthy part? Will it not too become diseased and gangrenous? If you cling to the doctrines of men, will they save you? Of what hope can they bring?
While it is true that no church is perfect according to the standards of God, the question is, for what are they striving? Will they repent if their error is shown to them or are they committed and bound to human traditions? What is preached? What is taught? What is sung? What is their foundation? Shall it not be God’s word in all of these areas? Shall we set aside Divine Writ in favor for the ways of men? Is this honoring to God? I would say, “no,” and I would say that such an approach betrays the fact that you are committed to being outside of the citizenship of True Israel.
If you are tempted to doubt the concept of True and False churches. Maybe you just see me as a grumpy theologian who prefers to sit in his own corner and grump (sometimes I feel like that anyway), then I ask you to look at what has been held by the church fathers through the ages. You will find that they would speak very much like I have spoken. You will find that this notion of rugged individualism is an anomaly when it comes to the history of the church. Look to the confessions, look to the creeds, look to the ancient councils of the church. Over and again you will find that they proclaim the same message, that in salvation we are bound to a body and that there are things that define a true Christian church body, separating it from the false ones. Sometimes it is a matter of doctrine and sometimes it is a matter of practice. But, believe whatever you want to believe “just so long as you love Jesus,” is a notion alien to the church in history and it ought to be anathematized today.