Sadly, many places that claim to be Christian churches aren’t. I suspect that sounds harsh, but it’s probably quite an important thing to be honest about, because although the word church originally just meant assembly, most people see something called a church and associate it with Christianity. Unfortunately, we need to be more discerning than that if we want to recognise somewhere that is truly a Christian church. It’s also important to us as we start a new church – we want to be a genuine Christian church. So what does it take to be a genuine church? A good place to start with an answer to that in 1 Thessalonians 1.
Paul can write of the Thessalonian church:
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you(1 Thessalonians 1:4)
Let me mention 3 things in the passage all related to the gospel message (the good news about Jesus) that inspire Paul’s confidence that the church in Thessalonica is genuine – chosen by God. I’ll do them in the order they appear in the passage, although presumably the chronological order in the church went point 2, point 3, point 1!
1. A Genuine Transformation by the Gospel
A genuine church has been genuinely transformed by the gospel. This was the case in Thessalonica where Paul remembers in prayer their faith, love and hope, which are so commonly the results of the gospel in people’s lives for Paul (1 Thessalonians 1:3). In particular, we see that faith leads to work, love to labour and hope to steadfastness. Put in other words, having trusted in the gospel of Jesus, we live for him, loving God and neighbour and knowing our eternity is secure in Jesus.
We see that this led the church to imitate Paul and Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:6), which should remind us that we look to Jesus and the apostles to see what we should believe and how that should affect how we live. There’s no opportunity to just pick and choose the bits we want and reject the bits we don’t like (usually the sin we don’t want to give up!).
So one test of whether a church is genuine is to see if the message of the gospel has resulted in a church that lives out the truth of the gospel with faith, love and hope, imitating the apostles and Jesus.
2. A Genuine Gospel Foundation
A genuine church is built on the genuine gospel. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 about how the message of the gospel came as the foundation for all that happened at Thessalonica. He talks about how it was a word, i.e. the message the apostles preached about Jesus whose source is ultimately God (see 1 Thessalonians 2:13), but that word was accompanied by power, the work of the Holy Spirit and conviction. In other words the work of God and the preacher (Paul) came together to present a genuine foundation in the gospel to the Thessalonians.
Too often churches are hazy about the word they are built on, or worse they have rejected much that is the message of Jesus found in the Bible, but it is only that gospel that can act as a powerful, conviction and Spirit-filled foundation for a church.
3. A Genuine Response to the Gospel
Finally, a genuine church is filled with people who have genuinely responded to the gospel. We see that the Thessalonians received the message with joy even though following Jesus made life tough for them (1 Thessalonians 1:6). In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 Paul describes how the Thessalonians received or responed to the gospel in powerful terms.
- The turned from their sin, i.e. they “turned…from idols.” An idol is anything that replaces God as the authority in our life and all sin is the result of trying to replace God with something else.
- They trusted in the gospel as they “turned to God.”
- The gospel they trusted focused on Jesus who “delivers us from the wrath to come.” This is short hand for saying his death paid the price for our sins so we no longer face God’s anger and judgement and his resurrection has ensured heaven rather than hell.
- So they now “wait” for the return of Jesus, living as his followers.
A genuine church requires not people with vague conversion experiences, or people who like to come for a bit of spirituality in their lives, but people whose lives have been entirely turned around by the gospel, rejecting their former idols, trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection as their only hope with God and now living under God’s authority.
For too many people and, sad to say, too many “churches”, they don’t want such a radical change as this.
At Rochdale Evangelical Church, we want to be a genuine Christian church. That’s more than a name and more than a bit of a spiritual community. It is hearing the genuine gospel, being turned around by it in response and living transformed lives as the people of God.