Do Some Churches Make It Too Hard to Be a Christian?

Does your church encourage or threaten you?

We’ve written before about churches that make it too easy to feel you are a Christian, while overlooking the fundamental and essential element that all Christians must embrace – accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior.  See our articles “The Deceptive Lure of Comfortable Christianity” and “Are All Churches Equally Christian“.

Astonishingly, some churches have completely overlooked this essential element of Christianity.  The people who attend such churches, feel comfortably secure as Christians because they go to church regularly, and live “good Christian lives” and practice general charity.  But they may find their salvation has never been secured, because they don’t understand and didn’t accept the key requirement.  You can go to church every day of your life, but that doesn’t mean you’re a Christian, nor does it mean you’re saved.  You can lead an excellent life, but while that means you’re a good person, it too does not make you a saved Christian.

There are a number of reasons why some churches avoid discussing what should surely be the central part of their message and mission, or water it down to meaningless while uttering platitudes of positivism about other religions that are, in God’s eyes, totally wrong.  Indeed, it is easy to understand one reason for this type of church failing – where a “feel good” nature and desperate desire to grow a congregation has overtaken the sometimes uncomfortable and definitely unpopular truths of the Bible’s undiluted message, teaching and requirements.

But that’s all a discussion for another time.

Can a Church be Too Strict?

However, today we’re writing about the opposite problem – is it possible for a church to go too far in the other direction, and become too strict and too demanding of its members?  This would not be a church that is doctrinally weak, but one that has gone “above and beyond” the teachings in the New Testament, and imposes additional restrictions and rules and requirements on its members.

You might think, surely, there is no such thing as being “too good” a Christian?  We know the Bible exhorts us to pray constantly, for example.  Too much prayer?  No such thing, as long as one is sincere and reasonably private in one’s praying.  We know we are similarly called to love each other as we do ourselves, and to care for our brothers and to share our worldly goods with the needy among us, sacrificing much of life’s comforts in the process.

Some churches add more to what they require people to do if they are to be accepted as members and presumably by extension, to be saved and ‘truly Christian’ (whatever that means).  These churches may require you to do certain things (and not do certain other things).  Maybe you are expected to wear specific clothing – in church or even out of church.  To abstain from makeup.  Talking about abstaining, maybe you are not allowed to drink alcohol (or even coffee).  Maybe you are required to tithe, and maybe you are required to tithe even more than a one tenth share of your income.  Maybe you are told you can not use birth control.  Maybe you are required to strictly observe the Old Testament Sabbath, either on Sunday or on Saturday.  And so on, through various other processes and procedures.

At what point can a person safely draw a line and say “I’m doing these things, but I’m refusing to do those other things” and still be certain they are a good Christian and assured of salvation?  Is it possible and permissible not to do everything one’s church teaches and requires?

You might think the answer to that question is “Sort of, yes”, because for many people, if they don’t like a particular church’s teachings, they “church shop” until they find one they do like.  This is part of the reason why some churches have become too permissive – because they are keen to grow their congregation.

But, may we gently suggest that a church choice should not be all about you and your preferences.  It is all about the church that most positively teaches the aspects of how to become a born again Christian and lead a good Christian life, based on the teachings in the Bible.  And so, when deciding if a church requirement must be accepted or not, there’s a simple test to be applied to every teaching of any church.

The Most Important Test of a Church’s Teachings

This simple and important test is :  Where in the New Testament is this requirement clearly stated?

As we state in the third of our own “What We Believe” essential points, the Bible’s plain language is the key and ultimate source of all Christian understanding (Proverbs 30:5-6).  If it isn’t in the Bible, it doesn’t exist and doesn’t apply.

God is not trying to trick us by hiding what he expects of us.  Quite the opposite.  He spells it out very clearly, and in great detail.  The New Testament, in its 180,000 word glory, is the “Instruction Manual” for both Christians and the churches they meet within, and tells us all we need to know.

If something is omitted and not in the Bible, we suggest it is either because it is obvious and common-sense, or unimportant and unnecessary.  If something is unclear or vague, this suggests, at least to us, that the matter is again unimportant and unnecessary.  To suggest otherwise requires you to assert that God’s divine inspiration that went into the writing of the Bible was somehow flawed.

So, it is a fair question to ask of your church and your pastor.  “Where in the Bible does it tell us ……”.  If they answer “It is a tradition dating back to the early church” then point out that the earliest portions of the New Testament (the seven letters attributed to Paul) are believed to have been written in the decade of the 50s – twenty or more years after Christ’s death.  The rest of the New Testament was written probably in the next two or three decades, although some sources suggest that 2 Peter might date to as late as the mid second century.  So anything to do with the early church – ie, the first 50 – 100 years after the death of Christ –  and its presumed derivative authority direct from the Apostles and Christ himself could have and – if important to us and our worship – surely would have been written about, either in the four Gospels themselves, or in the other Books that follow.

More than that, tracing something back to the early Christian times is no guarantee of its correctness.  The devil has been urgently at work right from the very start of our faith, trying to subvert and pervert God’s Word and our Christian teachings.  The various Epistles are full of discussions about church management and operation and teachings, and calling out problems and errors and straight-out un/non Christian activities that were already creeping into various churches, mere decades after Jesus had been alive and personally teaching.

To point to something as relating to some other mysterious unrecorded time and to claim it has validity because of its antiquity is, we suggest, invalid.  If old traditions were valid, we’d still be burning people at the stake as witches (here’s an interesting article about the changing role of Christian churches in forbidding then encouraging burning “witches”.)

Beware of False Prophets

If your church leaders answer “This is because of God’s subsequent communication direct with (some other person)” then ask where in the Bible it tells us to expect new prophets to come and to receive new divine guidance.  There were times when prophets were commonplace and it was a way for God to share his wishes with the Jews.  But Jesus came to fulfill the prophecies and the earlier laws (Matthew 5:17-20) and replaced them with new laws.

In particular, nowhere in the Bible do we see any suggestion that additional prophets will come and add to or “clarify” the message within the New Testament.  Nowhere do we see any suggestion that mere men will assume essential roles as intermediaries between us and God, or to add new layers of behavior and requirements to those in the Bible.  Nowhere do we see any suggestion that the Bible is incomplete and needs to be added to by “traditions” that are claimed to have mysteriously appeared from nowhere in some unrecorded manner over some hundreds of years after both the death of Christ and the writing of the New Testament Books.

Instead, we are warned, repeatedly, about false prophets.  In Matthew 7:15 Jesus states it extremely clearly (AMP)

Beware of the false prophets, [teachers] who come to you dressed as sheep [appearing gentle and innocent], but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Another important restatement, again the words of Jesus, also in Matthew 24:4-5 (AMP)

4 Jesus answered, “Be careful that no one misleads you [deceiving you and leading you into error].
5 For many will come in My name [misusing it, and appropriating the strength of the name which belongs to Me], saying, ‘I am the Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed),’ and they will mislead many.

These two verses, by the way, are sometimes misunderstood.  Let’s look at another translation of verse 5, this time the KJV

For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.

Our understanding of this verse is not that people will come and say that they are Christ, but rather that they will come and acknowledge that Jesus is/was Christ, and then from that point, having seemingly “proved” they are Christians, proceed to deceive many.  This copies the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” concept in the previously cited verse.

The point that Jesus was warning us about, and which is made elsewhere too, for example by Paul (2 Timothy 4:3-4 and Acts 20:28-30) and John (1 John 4:1-3) and Peter (2 Peter 2:1), is that some people (well, actually, not just some – Jesus says, in both quotes, “many”) will cloak themselves in the mantle of Christianity but actually be teaching something totally unChristian.

Indeed, and surely with the help of the devil, some of these people will seemingly even perform miracles.  Jesus warns us in Matthew 24:24

For false Christs and false prophets will appear and they will provide great signs and wonders, so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect (God’s chosen ones).

Remember also Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15

13 For such men are counterfeit apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.
14 And no wonder, since Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.
15 So it is no great surprise if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness, but their end will correspond with their deeds.

These warnings can’t be clearer.  We have to be on our guard, and to test everyone and their teachings against the ultimate and only authority, the Bible, and in particular, the New Testament.

The Harm Caused by Needlessly “Strict” Churches

We posed the question, above – Can a church be too strict?  Yes, it can, and in being too strict, it can cause terrible harm and unhappiness.  By distorting the concept of Christianity into some type of burdensome complicated drudgery, rather than having it be the joyous positive experience it should be, many people are discouraged and give up and turn away from Christ and Christianity.

This is the incredibly cunning cleverness of the devil.  By seeming to be a very good Christian, and encouraging people to be “better” Christians, he is actually causing dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and forcing people out of the church, because they feel that being a Christian is impossibly hard and beyond them, while failing to see any logic for or sense of the artificial extra requirements now being demanded of them.

What sort of teachings do this?  How about telling teenage boys that masturbation is sin and risks them being sent to hell.  How about telling couples that they must not use contraception (both claims being based on the same misinterpreted passage from the Old not New Testament – see our article Can Christians Use Contraceptives for a discussion on this).

How about demanding 10% and often very much more of everyone’s income in tithes, causing average income families to struggle financially, while church leaders drive around in fancy new limousines and fly in private jets.

How about claiming the infallibility of a church’s leaders, but then having them exposed in public for all manner of sins of moral turpitude.  Or, less extremely, having the infallible leader contradict and change the ruling of a previous infallible leader, meaning that one (or possibly even both!) of the “infallible” leaders were actually fallible.

We could continue, but we don’t wish to insult and excoriate all the major so-called Christian churches.  You know your church, you know its policies and those which cause you angst and discomfort – but do you know the obvious clear New Testament basis for such policies and requirements?

Finding the Balance

Somewhere in the middle between the too permissive and the too restrictive church is the true church.  You’ll truly know it when you find it – you’ll experience a feeling of closeness with the Holy Trinity when you first attend a service there, and you’ll be taught from the Bible, not from other books or doctrine or traditions.

Being a Christian does indeed pose some obligations and duties on us.  If there was nothing expected of us in return for God’s love and his gift of eternal life, then wouldn’t everyone say “Yes, I’m a Christian” but continue in their sinful godless lives, unchanged.  So there are requirements placed on us, and sometimes tough ones.  Fortunately, God promises us that he’ll never demand more of us than we are capable of giving.

We are told, in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (AMP)

No temptation [regardless of its source] has overtaken or enticed you that is not common to human experience [nor is any temptation unusual or beyond human resistance]; but God is faithful [to His word—He is compassionate and trustworthy], and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability [to resist], but along with the temptation He [has in the past and is now and] will [always] provide the way out as well, so that you will be able to endure it [without yielding, and will overcome temptation with joy].

We discuss these issues in our article, Does the Bible “Get in the Way” of Enjoying a Christian Life?

A good church will encourage you to be the best Christian you can.  It won’t bully or threaten you, it will positively assist and help you.

That’s the church you want to join and stay with.  Avoid the ones with an “anything goes” policy, and also stay away from ones that layer the simple Christian message with unnecessary and unBiblical additional dogmas and doctrines.

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