Local Church: A Spiritual Resource
In my earlier post, I noted that I used to be clueless that the local church is essential. As a pastor I’ve met many Christians who are not connected to a local body. Meanwhile, churchless Christianity seems to be hip now in some circles. Even people involved in a local church don’t always recognize how vital the church is for their Christian lives.
Why the local church, though? Why not connect to a church via the internet? Why not receive spiritual nourishment through recorded sermons? We can discern how important the local church is through the lens of Jesus’ incarnation. God’s work comes to us as embodied people. In an analogous way, the relationships He has ordained among His people depend upon embodied interaction. Your internet pastor isn’t likely to do your funeral or visit you in the hospital.
Here are three reasons we should recover the local church as a vital spiritual resource.
You Need the Local Church
People sometimes object that the local church doesn’t seem important in the New Testament. I remind them about the New Testament epistles. To whom were they written? The apostles mostly wrote them to particular churches and pastors of those churches. If you were alive in Paul’s day, you would have received his letters in the local church. The church’s organization is thus significant. Only people who were a part of local churches accessed the epistles that eventually became inscripturated.
Similarly, every Christian needs the word of God rightly preached and taught. It is to the church that God gives gifted people to carry out the ministry of His word (Ephesians 4:1-16). In the local church, ordained ministers proclaim the word of God. Notwithstanding differences in church government, ordination means that the preacher is accountable to elders outside himself. The accountability recognizes that he doesn’t preach for personal advancement. He preaches to advance God’s kingdom.
If a pastor fails to preach or teach what accords with the Scriptures it is the job of these elders to correct him. If he refuses correction they must remove him from office. He’s accountable because He is under Christ’s authority. As Americans we’re prone to idolize lone rangers and independent charismatic personalities. But don’t we all need concrete accountability when it comes to something as vital as the word of God? We find it in the local church.
The Local Church Needs You
Paul addresses spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. Apparently some in the church at Corinth fell into the temptation to despise some spiritual gifts and exalt others. Paul corrects them. He reminds the church that, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ ” A plethora of forces condition us to think of the church mainly in terms of what it can do for us.
As I’ve already acknowledged, there is an important place for receiving ministry. It is one side of the coin. But there’s another side to the coin. Too often it remains outside our thinking. The local church needs each one of us. You don’t have liberty to pursue your own interests at the cost of the interests of your brothers and sisters. God does not call you to do your own thing to the detriment of your spiritual family. If you are absent from the local church, the church suffers by your absence!
The Local Church Is a Place Where Christians Work Out Their Problems
Glorification will take place when Jesus returns. In the meantime, even in the church, we have to deal with sin. Each believer has a biblical responsibility to repent of his or her own sin, and to pursue newness of life (e.g. Ephesians 4:17-32). We are responsible to one another as well. If someone offends you, you must seek to be reconciled (Matthew 18:15ff).
If you offend someone, you must seek forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24). Your enemy is called to forgive your sin, and you must also forgive your enemy. I’m only saying what most readers have heard countless times. The local church ought to be the context in this fallen world where Jesus’ words are lived out. Believers simply don’t have freedom to avoid or flee the church to try to escape resolving relational conflict.
Someone might object that it is sometimes impossible to work out differences. That is certainly true. It is why we have church discipline. Fear of conflict is no reason to avoid the church. A certain measure of suffering tends to come with intimate relationships. When close personal relationships expose my sin, it is often humiliating. When someone sins against me, it can be excruciating. Forgiveness is anything but easy.
To avoid the suffering that comes from relationships, however, is not a legitimate reason to stay disconnected from a local church. A person would have to cut ties with everyone to avoid such suffering. Is that beneficial? Even if it were, where are you going to go to flee from your own sin or from God Himself? To avoid the church out of fear of interpersonal conflict solves nothing. Meanwhile, it forfeits the benefits that believers receive from active participation in Christ’s body.
Is a Local Church a Missing Spiritual Resource For You?
To the church God gives His word, the privilege to minister, and to receive ministry. It is also a meaningful context for mutual accountability and encouragement as we live in this sin-infested world. God calls His people to be united in a community that takes visible shape in the world. That there are challenges to such a life doesn’t excuse any believer from participation. If you are a Christian and stay disconnected from Christ’s body you are AWOL.
Based on their study of Scripture, the Westminster divines went so far as to say that the church is, “the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3). How’s that for a strong statement of what’s at stake? Cutting yourself off from the local church is like cutting ties with your spiritual family. Within the context of American Christianity I fear that the church is missing this spiritual resource.
Many factors tempt us to view the church as something less than a necessary spiritual resource. God has organized the church in this world visibly under Jesus Christ. “Christian fellowship” through a few ad hoc Christian friendships cannot rise to what Christ provides. Such relationships are good and commendable as far as they go. But they aren’t the church Jesus establishes. God has promised the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.
In this post and my previous one, I’ve used the term, “spiritual resource.” In truth it is a woefully inadequate term. It fails to capture the essential nature of the visible local church. If you’re not participating in the life of a local church, you’re cut off from the visible body of Christ. You severed from a vital spiritual lifeline. It’s a lifeline that God graciously gives to His people. It is a lifeline that every believer needs.