True Christians, says radio evangelist Harold Camping, should not go to church. They should drop their church memberships, leave their congregations, and just listen to the radio.
And many of his listeners are doing what he says. At a conference of some 100 Reformed pastors, each one reported losing members because of Mr. Camping's teachings.
The idea has its appeal to many Americans. Sleeping in on Sunday. No worship services. No meetings. No obligations, such as evangelism calls or service projects. No messy involvement in the lives of other Christians.
Mr. Camping, who operates the Family Radio network, bases his teaching on his idiosyncratic end-times theology. Despite his earlier mistakes-he once proclaimed that the world would end in 1994-he is undaunted in his millennialist certainty. According to his allegorical interpretation of Revelation, he maintains that Satan has now set up his throne in the church. This is reflected in the apostasy of churches, bringing judgment even against faithful congregations.
The bottom line is that "the Church Age" is over. What the Bible says about pastors, elders, congregations-that is for a previous dispensation. Now, Christians don't need any shepherds or church order to rule over them. It is fine to meet in each other's homes, but there is to be no worship, as such, no organization or officers.
Does Mr. Camping have a point? Apostasy does rage in many churches. Mainline Protestant denominations have long ago rejected the authority of Scripture and have made doctrines such as the deity of Christ and His resurrection optional, at best. Even many evangelical and conservative churches are adjusting their teachings and their practices to fit the dominant culture, downplaying doctrine, softening the Bible's moral demands, and teaching that the gospel is not necessary to salvation.
At the same time, the moral failures of so-called Christian leaders have become a worldwide scandal. Some Catholic priests are being exposed as homosexual abusers of young teenagers-with the church hierarchy covering up and enabling their crimes. But as WORLD has shown (March 30, 2002), some Protestant ministers too, including those from evangelical and conservative congregations, are guilty of the rankest sexual immorality, including the sexual abuse of those under their spiritual care.
Still, Mr. Camping's teachings are a slander against the multitudes of faithful pastors and congregations that have not bowed the knee to Baal. His tortured symbolic interpretations are shot down by clear statements of the Word of God.
Christians are told directly not to neglect meeting together -especially "as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:25). Christ Himself promises that He will build His church and that the "gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Saying that these and other texts about the church do not apply anymore is just another way to deny the authority of Scripture, making Mr. Camping just another liberal theologian.
American churches, though, have been complicit in this new and heretical anti-church movement. Many have become so indifferent to theology that their version of Christianity consists of little more than, to use the words of country singer Tom T. Hall, "me and Jesus." If Christianity is just about the private, inner, undefined relationship between an individual and Jesus, there is little need for God's Word, the sacraments, doctrine, pastors, or the church.
Many churches are working under the assumption that their sole reason for existing is evangelism, and they have been running away from their churchly identity.
First the vogue was for local churches to drop their denominational affiliation from their name. Then came the fad of dropping the word church. The Community Assembly of God Church became first "Community Church" and then "The Community Family Worship Center." Now, words that so much as connote religious activities are considered too negative for the unchurched, so we have congregations that go by names such as "The Center for Family Love."
Such churches are doing everything they can to eliminate anything that might make them seem like churches. Get rid of the hymns. Get rid of the Scripture readings. Get rid of the sermon. Make it all like a pop concert or a TV talk show. If this is all there is, no wonder more and more Christians think they might as well stay home.
Christ's church will have its conflicts and its moral and theological failures. Such problems existed even in the earliest New Testament churches, as is evident in Paul's epistles. The wheat will grow up with the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). Christ still promises to work in and through His church, which is none other than His body (Ephesians 1:23).
And Scripture, history, and experience all agree that revival and reformation begin with the church.