Which Comes First—Your Church or God?
MOST believers are concerned about the crisis presently experienced by the Catholic Church and also by the Protestant religions. Their reactions differ, however, according to the type of believer they happen to be. With some, God comes first and their church is merely a means used to worship him. With others, their church has become an end in itself, taking priority over God and his Word, the Bible. Where do you stand? In your own heart and mind, which comes first—your church or God?
Last July, one of France’s weekly news magazines, Le Nouvel Observateur, came out with a vivid purple cover showing a priest peering out of a church door, under a headline in bold white letters: “La mort de l’Eglise” (The Death of the Church). After excusing itself for using a title likely to shock many Catholics, but adding that “this expression is not ours: it was used by ecclesiastics,” the magazine went on to speak of three men that typify three categories of believers:
“The first man is the one who feels at ease within the traditional structures of the Church; the second would like to see some changes made in these structures; as for the ‘third man,’* he has left the Church, but quietly, without making a fuss. He still believes in the Gospel values, but he expects no more help from the Church. He has quit, and the Church’s problem has ceased to interest him, once and for all.”
QUESTIONS FOR THE “FIRST MAN”
The “first man” represents the believers who remain faithful to their church out of loyalty to the religion they were brought up to believe in. Their attitude is: Right or wrong, it is my religion! Is that the way you feel? If so, you are certainly a loyal person. But to whom do you owe the greater loyalty—to your church, or to God? With so much disbelief rife throughout the earth, you are to be commended for maintaining your faith, but where should your faith be placed—in a religious organization, or in God? Why do you go to church? Basically, is it not because you believe in God? Do atheists go to church? Is not the very purpose of churchgoing to worship God and gain his approval? So if it became clear that your church was not fulfilling its basic purpose, where would your first duty lie?
“But,” you may reply, “how can one tell if one’s church is fulfilling its purpose?” Well, is your church drawing more and more people to God and helping them to serve him? Or are its best and most sincere members disappointed, disillusioned and disheartened? What kind of people do you see around you in church on Sunday morning? Are they fine people who produce the fruits of the spirit, such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control”? Or are they people who, behind the scenes, indulge in “fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility; idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels; disagreements, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies and similar things”? Since “those who behave like this will not inherit the kingdom of God,” is it not obvious that a church whose clergy condone such behavior and whose members indulge in such practices cannot be pleasing to God and have his blessing?—Gal. 5:19-23, Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
Furthermore, to be pleasing to God, should not a church teach the truth? Did not Jesus Christ emphasize this to the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar? He told her: “Believe me, woman, . . . the hour will come—in fact it is here already—when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.”—John 4:21-24, JB.
Notice that worship in “truth” is a must! It is therefore impossible to worship God acceptably without a deep love of the truth. The true Christian religion must be founded on the truth, not on traditions, creeds, dogmas and articles of faith that are often hard to understand because they defy all the faculties of reasoning with which God created us. Now what is the Christian standard for measuring truth? Is it not the Bible? So if there should prove to be contradiction between the tenets of a church that claims to be Christian and the plain statement of truth found in the Holy Scriptures, which should come first in your worship—your church or God’s Word, the Bible? What will be your answer if you sincerely desire to be “the kind of worshipper the Father wants”?
That such a choice is necessary can well be illustrated by examining the mysterious doctrine of the “Trinity.” This is a basic dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, and all the two hundred and more churches belonging to the World Council of Churches are required to believe in the Trinitarian concept of “one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Yet nowhere in the Bible can the word “trinity” be found, and the only verse that contains a clear statement of this dogma (1 John 5:7 in the Catholic Douay Version and in the Protestant King James Version) is admittedly a spurious addition to the inspired text. The inserted wording does not appear in recent translations, such as the Protestant New English Bible or the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which states in a footnote: “The words in italics [the Father, the Word and the Spirit, and these three are one] (not in any of the early Greek MSS, or any of the early translations, or in the best MSS of the Vulg[ate] itself) are probably a gloss that has crept into the text.” Evidently these words were made to ‘creep into the text’ to fill a pressing need: lack of any clear proof for the “Trinity” doctrine elsewhere in the Bible.*
Interestingly, this dogma is coming in for criticism even within the churches of Christendom. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Catholic bishops have approved a catechism that raises doubts on fourteen important doctrinal points, one of which is the “Trinity.” Confirming that some Catholic bishops apparently have some doubts about the “Trinity” dogma, the French news magazine L’Express reported that a conservative member of the Congregation of Seminaries and Universities at the Vatican, “Monsignor” Romeo, considered the second Vatican Council to be a “sinister comedy of three thousand good-for-nothings, some of whom do not even believe in the Trinity or the Virgin.”—Issue of Nov. 30—Dec. 6, 1964, page 49.
As for Protestant doubts about the “Trinity,” Time magazine, in a long article on “Theology,” reported that an Episcopal bishop suggested that “the church should abandon the Trinity, on the ground that it really seems to be preaching three Gods instead of one. Christianity, in his view, should stop attributing specific actions to persons of the Trinity—creation to the Father, redemption to the Son, inspiration to the Holy Spirit—and just say that they were all the work of God.”—April 8, 1966, page 54.
The plain statement of Bible truth is that “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5, AV) As for the holy spirit, this is not a person but is God’s invisible active force with which he anointed his Son, and which was poured out upon Jesus’ apostles and disciples at Pentecost.—Acts 10:38; 2:4, 33.
Both the Protestant King James Version and the Catholic Douay Version speak of “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15) Hence any church that teaches error on such a fundamental point as the very person of God cannot be “the church of the living God.” If you belong to such a religion, which should you put first—your church or God? Surely your love for God and of the truth will move you to seek the religion that will allow you to “worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The purpose of this article is to help you find the true religion.*
REASONING THINGS OUT WITH THE “SECOND MAN”
The “second man” mentioned in the Nouvel Observateur represents those Catholics and Protestants who stay with their church because they do not know where else to go. They have been taught that their church represents God, and they do not want to turn away from him. They disapprove of many church practices or doctrines, but they hope to reform their church from within.
Typical of these are the 744 French Catholics who, in November 1968, sent a long open letter to the pope. In it they stated: “Today the Christian needs to live in a ‘true’ Church . . . Therefore all that is false, contrary to the Gospel and scandalous within the Church today wounds the Christian.” Then followed a long list of grievances against the Catholic Church and its current teachings and practices. Yet, toward the end, these Catholics expressed their unconditional adherence to their church by alluding to John 6:68 and stating: “Who could we go to? In her [the Roman Catholic Church] we find the One who has words of eternal life.”*
But can Christ dwell in a church where so much is admittedly “false, contrary to the Gospel and scandalous”? Did not the apostle Paul write: “What participation hath justice with injustice? Or what fellowship hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?” (2 Cor. 6:14, 15, Dy) In his recent book Etre vrai: l’avenir de l’Eglise (Being True: The Future of the Church), Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng admits that ‘a large part of the world has been turned away from Christ because of the Church.’
Such statements as these are being made not only with regard to the Roman Catholic Church but also in connection with the Protestant churches. French Protestant minister Louis Simon, vice-president of the General Commission for Evangelization in the Reformed Church of France, spoke recently of the “Silent Church” made up of people “who maintain their belief in Jesus of Nazareth, but who can no longer find him within the traditional Church.” In Geneva, Switzerland, twenty-two Protestant theology students refused ordination to the ministry because, as they put it, “we are looking for a style of Christian living that will serve the Gospel. But serving the Gospel these days results in challenging the work of the Church on several points.”—L’Express, Dec. 1968.
Thus, honest Catholics and Protestants are beginning to recognize the necessity of choosing between the church and Christ, the church and the Gospel. What about all you ‘second men,’ who hope to reform your church from within? Which comes first with you—your church or God? Indeed, what is the church of God? After the words quoted above, Paul wrote to sincere anointed Christians: “For you are the temple of the living God; as God saith: I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore, Go out from among them, and be ye separate.” (2 Cor. 6:16, 17, Dy) It is not without interest that A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture states that in this passage Paul shows “that the union of the faithful to God involves a separation from false religion [italics ours].” Precisely!
What example did Paul himself set? As a Pharisee and prominent member of the Jews’ religion, he had persecuted the true church of God. He wrote: “I persecuted the church of God . . . , being more abundantly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Gal. 1:13, 14, Dy) Did Paul remain within the traditional church, the Jews’ religion, and attempt to reform it from the inside? No! He considered that the only way to worship and serve God acceptably henceforth was to ‘go out from among’ the Pharisees and become a part of God’s true church which, at the time, was a small despised sect. Before Governor Felix, Paul later declared: “But this I confess to thee, that according to the way, which they call a heresy [JB: a sect], so do I serve the Father and my God.”—Acts 24:14, Dy.
Consequently, if your church teaches and does things that are contrary to the Bible and displeasing to God, your duty as a Christian is clear: Imitate Paul and ‘serve the Father and your God’ within the true religion which, not surprisingly, the churches often “call a heresy.”
REASSURING NEWS FOR THE “THIRD MAN”
This brings us to the “third man,” representing the disillusioned who have ceased practicing their religion altogether, yet still maintaining their relief in God. Although this article is not written primarily for them, since they have already chosen to abandon the church systems of Christendom, nevertheless we have some good news for them. To all these, and to the two other categories of believers we have been discussing, we say: Separate from false religion, yes! Forsake the churches, by all means! But don’t stop there. Seek the true religion outlined in the Bible. True Christianity is being practiced throughout the earth today by a group of sincere men and women, well over a million strong, known as Jehovah’s witnesses.
To help you learn what true religion is, as set out in God’s Word, Jehovah’s witnesses will be happy to study the Bible with you, free of charge, in your own home. Ask any of them to arrange this for you, or send your request to the publishers of this magazine. Of course, you are also welcome to attend the meetings of Jehovah’s witnesses at the nearest Kingdom Hall. So doing, you will have the opportunity of learning how to “worship the Father in spirit and truth.” For, remember, “that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants.”—John 4:23, JB.
A footnote in this magazine explained: “The expression ‘third man’ was coined in October 1966, by a French Jesuit named François Roustang, in the magazine ‘Christus.’ This expression was quickly adopted around the earth because it describes a world-wide phenomenon throughout the Catholic Church.”
For a fuller discussion of this subject, see the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, Chapter 3, “Who Is God?”
This subject is thoroughly discussed in the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, Chapter 14, “How to Identify the True Religion.”
The entire French text of this letter has been printed in booklet form by Editions de l’Epi, Paris, under the title “Si le Christ voyait cela.”