Individualism is rampant—at least in the West. This cultural force shapes many Christians’ views of the Christian life: just me and Jesus. On the other hand, nominalism has always plagued the church. In cultures shaped by Christianity, it is almost instinctive to identify as a Christian without actually knowing Christ. But we cannot claim to know Christ, let alone love him, while ignoring the people he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28). This blood creates unity, bringing people together (Ephesians 2:13-14). I do not think it is an overstatement to say that when we make the gospel about my private relationship with God we misunderstand God’s grace.
One blogger wrote, “I just want you to feel free to live in such a way that daily you find yourself being pulled into an embrace by God, that you find yourself so close to him surgeons would have a hard time cutting you apart.” It is an appealing sentiment. But it only tells part of the story. Paul warns us against using our freedom to serve ourselves, contrast with loving service of others (Galatians 5:13, 1). Thus he wrote, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, especially those who are of the household of God” (Galatians 6:10). It is a grave mistake to detach individual salvation from God’s work in the church. We cannot reduce our faith to something individualistic, rendering church unimportant.
We cannot claim to know Christ, let alone love him, while ignoring the people he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28)
Yet more and more Christians are treating the local church as an optional extra for the Christian life. I fear for Christians belonging to the subculture that labels itself ‘post-church’. This shift reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel and God’s purposes in the world today. The church is a display of God’s wisdom (Ephesians 3:10), to bring him glory (Ephesians 3:21). But this can only happen when people are united by the gospel to each other. For the church is created by God as place where believers meet regularly in order to encourage and exhort one another (Hebrews 10:23-25).
1. God saves us to belong to a local church
In What is a Healthy Church?, Mark Dever writes, “Never does the New Testament conceive of the Christian existing on a prolonged basis outside the fellowship of the church.” Dever adds, drawing on Ephesians 2:11-22, that being committed to a local body is the most natural outcome of being a Christian. Belonging confirms what Christ has done. Committing to the lives of other Christians is also indicative of how Christ has treated us. When we look at the New Testament it is almost impossible to answer the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ without a conversation about the church.
When we look at the New Testament it is almost impossible to answer the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ without a conversation about the church
The New Testament epistles are written to churches, teaching them how to live out their faith in community. Even those letters addressed to individual leaders address how Christians are to conduct themselves in their local churches (see 1 Timothy 3:15; Titus 2:1-10). The pattern reflected in Scripture is one of God drawing people to himself and in doing so establishing new and unlooked for relationships. This result is not arbitrary, but purposed by God so that we will minister to each other and receive the ministry of others (Ephesians 4:11-16).
2. Christians need the church
In his short must-read book The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller writes, “Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.” He admits that churches can be unpleasant – indeed essential to his book is the critique of judgmental, inhospitable, and self-righteous Christians, or “elder brothers.” But Keller firmly states, “There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place…Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.”
Not only is the Christian life incomplete without the community of a local church, it is also dangerously lacking in accountability and loving correction
Not only is the Christian life incomplete without the community of a local church, it is also dangerously lacking in accountability and loving correction. In addition to this, it is good for us to be joined to those who are different to us, challenging our prejudices and personal preferences. I am sure that Gentile Christians were tempted to quit the predominantly Jewish churches of the 1st century, yet Paul wrote, ‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, a holy temple’ (Ephesians 2:19-21). Whichever analogy from the New Testament you favour regarding the church – from body to family – God unequivocally states that we are joined together as local churches. Our growth and faith will be stunted outside of the church
3. The church needs Christians
Someone once said to me, ‘If everyone came forward with their gifts in local church, we would have all we need.’ In Ephesians 4:11-12, we read that God gifts the local church with speaking and teaching offices so that the whole church is equipped for ministry. When I have decided that I can no longer be part of a local church for fear of not fitting in or further hurt I make the conscious decision to withhold my gifts, ministry and service from other Christians. Essentially, I am putting my comfort ahead of others. This seems contrary to the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5).
We cannot forsake the local gathering of believers, as many professing Christians do. Christians exist for the benefit of other Christians and the growth of the local church
David Peterson writes in Engaging God, “There is an emphasis on gathering for the benefit of the believing community…The giving and receiving of exhortation is undoubtedly a key factor…of the Christian assembly.” Therefore we cannot forsake the local gathering of believers, as many professing Christians do. Christians exist for the benefit of other Christians and the growth of the local church. Peterson concludes, “Christians ought to gather together regularly to give in ministry, and not simply to receive.” Those cruising as comfortable passengers within the church along with those who have already jumped ship need to be reminded that the church needs them and their service if it is to make headway. As John Calvin wrote in his Institutes, “Whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church.”
Christians must give themselves in service of a local church, the people Christ purchased with his own blood. Our decision to belong to a church cannot be dependent on what it does for us or how safe we feel. We must model our lives on Christ who made himself nothing and became a servant (Philippians 2:6-8). Self-preservation over the wellbeing of the local church is not how Jesus lived, therefore it is not something I imagine he would endorse.