Question: Is it better that a person not go to church at all than to go where there is false teaching?
I would say yes. The problem is, we have become so desensitized to false doctrine that we actually do not believe that false teaching is harmful to the hearer (why else would Jesus say: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” As a result, it has become natural for us to comfort ourselves with words like, “At least he/she goes to *a* church. Better than not going to church at all.” Really? Are they better off going where God’s name is profaned and misrepresented, where lies pass for truth, than they are sitting at home reading a book? I really do not think so. We have to get to the bottom of what this statement means–it comes from the idea (knowingly or not) that what is important is just that people are “in church,” not that the Word of God is rightly taught or the Sacraments administered or even that a person has faith in what is taught. Does the Word benefit us at all just by hearing it? Do we receive the benefits of church just by being in church? The Lutheran answer is no, not unless we have faith in that Word and trust in it. I think we have this idea that God doesn’t mind it when His Word is profaned by false and fanatical teachings.
Having said this, I do believe that the Word accomplishes the thing for which it is sent. In some churches there is *enough* (for lack of a better word) of God’s truth taught and the Gospel is not so completely obscured that the Holy Spirit can work faith in the individual. But does that justify us saying: “At least they are going to *a* church” in order to comfort ourselves that perhaps the person might not end up in hell? I don’t think so. I think that statement, as well-intentioned as people are who use it, bears witness to the doctrinal indifference that is so prevalent in our culture.