Is the local church really that necessary for the Christian life? Is it truly central to God’s saving purposes? Aren’t there newer, better, more relevant ways to thrive spiritually as a Christian? Does God’s Word make that big of a deal about the nature and role of the church in the life of the believer? It is my experience that an increasing number of Christians are asking these sorts of questions.
Sadly, some who are asking these questions have been burned by unfaithful church leadership or wounded by a dreadful church split. Others are justifiably tired of the hype and superficiality of consumeristic mega-churches. “I can get more spiritual nourishment at home,” they surmise; and they slowly drift away from the visible church. Still others, due in large part to a serious deficiency of biblical knowledge, downplay or even reject the organization, authority, and ordinances of the local church. George Barna’s research testifies to these contemporary attitudes towards the organized church. He writes that evangelicals
"... are less interested in attending church than in being the church ... [and] we found that there is a significant distinction in the minds of many people between the local church - with a small ‘c’ - and the universal Church - with a capital ‘C’. [They] tend to be more focused on being the Church ... whether they participate in a [local] church or not."
Barna goes on to write:
"A common misconception ... is that they are disengaging from God when they leave a local church. We found that while some people leave the local church and fall away from God altogether, there is a much larger segment of Americans who are currently leaving churches precisely because they want more of God in their life but cannot get what they need from a local church. They have decided to get serious about their faith by piecing together a more robust faith experience. Instead of going to church, they have chosen to be the Church, in a way that harkens back to the Church detailed in the Book of Acts."
This would all sound very spiritual if it wasn’t so profoundly unbiblical. First, the church as organism and the church as organization must be distinguished but never separated. God ordained the church as organization for the gathering, protecting, and perfecting of the church as organism–– the body of Christ. Thus, being the church is never divorced from being committed to a church and receiving spiritual oversight and the divinely ordained means of grace from the hands of lawfully ordained ministers. Second, it is never true that Christians may get “more of God” outside the faithful ministry of the local church. The organized church is God’s idea (cf. I Cor. 1:2; 12:27-31; I Tim. 3:1-15; Titus 1:5-9; Eph. 5:25; Heb. 13:17). It’s central to His disciple-making strategy (Mt. 16:18; 28:18-20; Heb. 10:19-25). Indeed, the local or visible church plays a central role on almost every page of the New Testament. It is through –– not apart from–– the ministry of the church that Christ and His benefits are efficaciously communicated to the elect through faith (cf. Eph. 4:11-16; Col. 1:28-29; I Cor. 11:17-32). A serious faith does not “piece together a more robust faith experience” outside the church. Rather, true faith believes Christ’s promise to feed His sheep through the ordinary and faithful ministry of the local church (cf. John 21:15-19). Third, what is “detailed in the Book of Acts” is not an individualistic and piece-meal approach to spirituality, but rather a clear devotion to the life and ministry of the visible church (cf. Acts 2:42; 14:23; 20:28).
Christians are united to Christ by faith, and united to one another in Him (Cf. Eph. 2:4-6; 4:1-7). Baptism and the Lord’s Supper powerfully reinforce this spiritual reality. Not only is it God’s purpose for us to mature under the shepherding care and faithful ministry of the church, but also to build one another up as members of the body of Christ. In other words, we need the means of grace and we need each other. God tells us so (Cf. Rom. 12:3-8).
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