Local churches are the visible expression of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ on earth. King Jesus reigns over, rules, governs, cares for, and provides for his people in and through these churches. This is the visible church. Belonging to a local church is essential for you and me. It is a non-negotiable if you truly love Christ, because to love Christ is to love the church of Christ, and this next part is really important to think about because God uses means inside local churches to save His people from their sins and misery.
Church. Think about that word. Church. What is it? What does it mean? Does it refer to a building where people meet to worship God? Does it signify the public worship of God? Does it mean the one organized and global body of believers prior to the Reformation? Does it represent the elders or leadership of a particular body of believers? Is it a verb describing the process of teaching and discipling unbelievers? I think it’s safe to say the word church means different things in different contexts. Would you agree?
With this in mind, we need to think very carefully about the word church in the Bible and in the world today. And I hope these simple thoughts help you think rightly about Christ’s church and belonging to it. If we think rightly about Christ’s church, we can find great comfort in belonging to Christ and his beloved church.
How would you think about the difference between a true Christian worshiping God from the heart in a local church and a self-righteous hypocrite who is unregenerate, doesn’t truly believe, and is simply going through religious motions in the same church? Think about Judas. Take a look at John 13:21-30. You’ll notice that none of the disciples suspected Judas would betray Jesus or that he was the “son of destruction” (Jn. 17:12). Eleven of the disciples were truly united to Christ by faith, learning from him, and following him. One was covert fraud. And from the outside, no one could tell the difference, at least initially. So, in one sense, Judas was a disciple, and in another sense, Judas was not a disciple.
The same is true of the church. There is an external or visible and internal and invisible way to think about church. You can see a local church. In that local church are people who confess Christ together. Among those people confessing Christ are people who are truly united to Christ by faith alone. Yet, alongside them are self-righteous hypocrites who have only the appearance of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5).
Consider from Matthew 7:15 that there are false prophets in the church that look like sheep but are actually ravenous wolves. Consider that according to Matthew 7:21-23, people will confess the Lord and do works in his name but will perish on Judgment Day because they didn’t truly know Christ and were workers of lawlessness. Consider the parable of the sower and its explanation in Matthew 13. Some people receive God’s Word with joy but only endure for a little while because they have no root. Consider the parable of the weeds and its explanation in Matthew 13. The sons of the kingdom and sons of the devil coexist in the world and the church. Consider 1 John 2:19 which explains that some in the church don’t endure in the faith. Consider 1 John 4:20 which explains that some will confess “I love God” but hate their brethren thus proving their confession a lie.
It is true and sobering that there will be self-righteous hypocrites among those who confess Christ. They are part of the community of faith, part of the church, but do not actually trust in or love Christ and cannot always be identified.
So, in one sense self-righteous hypocrites belong to the church.