For a whole variety of reasons, our society in the West is becoming increasingly fragmentized, individualized and relationally dysfunctional. More people are spending more time behind either a computer screen, phone screen or the T.V. screen, and thus less time building relationships with God and with people. The skills and attitudes and convictions that are necessary for building healthy family relationships and for working effectively alongside others in the marketplace and in our communities are becoming more and more rare. Even believers are getting sucked into this lifestyle – justifying their lack of connectedness with claims like: “I can worship God alone on the beach with my Ipod. I don’t need to belong to a church to do that.”
None of this catches our God by surprise. He knew when He created humanity in His image (which among other things means He has built in us the capacity for harmonious relationship and community that the godhead has walked in for all of eternity) (see Gen. 1:26,27) – God knew that sin and Satan and the world system that Satan controls would come after this capacity and need for relationship with a vengeance. God’s solution was to create a people (see Gen. 12:1-3) among whom He would dwell – a people that would demonstrate the vibrancy of life that comes from being in intimate relationship with Him and with one another.
Contrary to what the doomsayers (whether in the church or outside it) say – Jesus Christ is passionately and successfully fulfilling His purposes for the nations in these last days before He returns. His primary instrument is His lovingly united, faith and hope filled church. He WILL complete what He has begun in us (Phil. 1:6). The sad thing is – especially here in the West – there are believers in every city – who are on the sidelines, and not in the thick and the midst of what He is doing. Are you one of those? Do you want to make sure you do not become one of those? Do you want to help others not become one of those? Then please read on.
As one who was raised in the church from babyhood, and who has never not been a part of a local congregation in these 57 years, and who has been an active member of 12 different congregations (charismatic, non charismatic, mainline denominational, independent) in 3 different nations and 4 different states, and who thus has seen many wonderful highs in church life and many awful lows – – I’ve had many a reason to bail on this imperfect people called the church. The primary reason I’m more committed to this people than ever before is because of the following truths and principles that run throughout the new testament.
First of all, I find it instructive how Jesus Christ spent so much time with His twelve disciples during His short earthly life and ministry – seeking to prepare them to lead His church forward – once He ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father. While it is true that one of the things He sought to instill in them was certain ministry skills like how to win the lost, heal the sick, cast out demons, pray, teach and preach truth, etc. (Matt. 9:35, 10:1,8), He also took every opportunity to teach them how to love people and build relationally. For while He was very concerned that the gospel of the kingdom spread to the ends of the earth (Matt. 24:14), He seemed even more concerned that a people would be formed/developed who would embody that message, and who would become a dwelling place wherein He was pleased to dwell (II Cor. 6:16) . For instance:
– in the gospels there are only two passages where Jesus refers to the church – using that specific word. The first one is Matthew16:18, the second one is Matthew 18:17. Because Jesus only speaks of it two times, it is extremely important that we see the progression and the context of both. In Matthew 16 – starting with vs. 13 we find Jesus in a discussion with His disciples – wherein He asks them who the folks in the region say He is. Then He asks them who they say He is, and Peter steps up and proclaims “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blesses and commends Peter in front of them all – – not because he came up with this on his own; but rather because He had ears to hear when the Father chose to reveal it to him. Then Jesus states three foundational truths about His church: First it will be built upon the rock or revelation of Jesus Himself. Second, Jesus will build it because it belongs to Him – it is His, “I will build My church”. And third He will use us in the process – giving us authority and resources sufficient to accomplish the task – “keys of the kingdom, binding/loosing”. In chapter 17 Jesus – seeking to further build this solid foundation – takes 3 of His key leaders up on a mountain, where God the Father and God the Holy Spirit transfigure Him before them so they can see His glory and majesty. Then in ch. 18 we come to this troubling passage for some wherein the second occurrence of the word “church” shows up. This is the passage starting in vs. 15 where Jesus tells us how we are to deal with a person in His church, who is living in sin or practicing a given sin. “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Now can I ask you what is your emotive response to this passage? Well for some it makes them feel like God is up in heaven with lightning bolts just waiting for one of us to blow it, and then giving license for the church leaders to pounce on the said violator. But is that really God’s heart? Is Jesus a control freak trying to make sure we all stay in lock step with His program and rules? Well… have you ever noticed what precedes this passage? Please look with me at vs. 12 where Jesus – speaking of the value of an individual in the kingdom of God – says, “What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.”
You see – when Jesus began to build His church – He knew that Satan and his demons would come after each member with a cruel intent to destroy them; He knew that the world system would be constantly seeking to draw them into its web of lies; He knew that sin and the flesh would be a constant threat to their spiritual health and vitality as it seeks to suck the life of Christ out of them. His heart is that every one of His sons and daughters would finish their race well, and have the joy of doing so. And unlike some of we pastors – who feel as long as we are getting our salary, and people are filling up the pews, and the church programs are going forward – big deal if we lose a person here and there – – Jesus never feels that way about any one of His sons and daughters. Each one is indelibly planted in His heart. No amount of success stories will make Him feel better about one of them getting picked off. So Jesus wants to make sure that each of us see we have a responsibility to work with Him to help our brothers and sisters who have lost their way to be restored to full relationship with Christ and His church. That’s why James ends his epistle this way, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19,20) Restoring believers to Christ and to His church is a wonderful and much needed ministry in our day.
While we are at it, can I point out one more truth from the context of this passage? In every city where Jesus plants and builds His church there are going to be lots of children. Each of them has a God created tender and moldable heart. They are usually quick to place their faith and trust in Christ. When adults who should be their models and protectors and teachers become stumbling blocks, hypocrites and predators, great damage is done to their spirits. That’s why Jesus said earlier in Matthew 18 vs. 6, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Jesus gives three solutions for we adults to keep that from happening. First in vs. 8,9 He tells us to not play around with sin in our lives, but to deal with it ruthlessly (e.g. if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off!). Second, He seeks to help us see how much He loves and values children so that we will do the same in vs. 1-6, vs. 10,11, and vs. 14. And third, He makes it crystal clear that we are to so love the Lord, and we are to so value holiness and godliness and righteousness, and so love our brothers and sisters, and so care for the children around us – – that we are willing to go to a wayward brother or sister and humbly plead with them to repent of their sin, both for their own sake, for the sake of the church, and especially for the sake of the children.
When Jesus birthed and began to build His church – His full expectation was that every one of His sons and daughters would be immersed in the life of His church – – intimately related to the specific people or congregation He has joined them to – and fighting together both in word and in prayer for those the enemy has temporarily been able to pick off.
– In Matthew 18:21-35 Jesus – in response to Peter’s sincere question about forgiving brothers who sin against us multiple times – clearly instructs that He expects us to forgive multiple times, which assumes we will stay in relationship to these brothers and sisters,…… which belonging to a local congregation provides the environment and structure to do so. Being on one’s own on the other hand, under no one’s leadership and oversight makes it far easier to just leave that relationship (wherein the offenses happened), and not have to work through developing mature forgiveness skills and attitudes. In my experience people who determine before God and man that He has called them to dig their heels into a given local congregation excel far better at becoming people who practice extending mercy and forgiveness to people – – over those who have the freedom (in their view) to leave when the going gets tough or just not join a specific people at all.
– In Matthew 20:20-28 Jesus had to deal with jealousy and resentment and ungodly ambition among His disciples. Many of us have encountered this somewhere along the line and were probably turned off by it – maybe we were guilty of it. Jesus used this as an opportunity to teach His disciples about attaining greatness in the kingdom through serving our brothers and sisters (instead of competing with them) and laying our lives down before them – instead of bailing on them – – pointing to His own example for such.
– In John chps. 13-17 Jesus repeatedly emphasized His expectation that His disciples would make their learning to relate to one another in love and unity a high priority. This long discussion with them was His swan song – His last parting words to help them successfully carry on His mission. Much of what He shared with them was to help them be the people or community of faith He had called them to be. In 13:4-17 Jesus illustrates by His own example the importance of humbly serving one another, and then exhorts them as to His expectation that they will commit to serving one another as well. In vs. 34,35 He calls them to love one another just as He had loved them – stating that this more than anything else will be proof of whether they are truly His disciples. In ch. 14 He twice (vs. 21,23) reminds them that intimacy with Him follows or results from obedience to His commands (two of which would be to serve and love one another). In ch. 15 He twice reminds them of His command to “love one another” (vs. 12, 17). Throughout chps. 14-16 there are many exhortations to prayer – the obedience to which was key to their being able to pull off this amazing mission He had given them – – all by the way given to His gathered disciples (as a group), not given to individual believers worshipping God on a beach somewhere alone (see 14:12-14; 15:7,8; 15:16; 16:23-27). Finally in ch. 17, Jesus’s passion for their unity together is clearly linked to His prayers to the Father for them (see vs. 11, 21, 23).
– Moving on to the book of Acts, the breathtaking advance of the early church cannot be divorced from the deep commitment these believers had to one another, and to how often they were together for prayer, worship, teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread/communion, etc. (1:6, 12-14; 2:1, 42, 44, 46; 4:32-35)
– In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, after devoting 11 chapters to the wonderful mercies and grace of God that are ours in Christ, he then began to help them see how their proper response to that was sold out devotion to Christ and His church (12:1,2) – spending much of the rest of the book – showing them how to properly relate to one another and exhorting them to (among other things) “be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor:” (12:10)
– In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, knowing how much dissension and strife there was among them, he quickly exhorted them: “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1:10) Throughout this long letter, Paul is striving to bring about a united, Christ centered, loving church or people, wherein to that point there was mostly strife and division (11:18,19). Our solution in the West to strife and dissension whether in our families or churches is often just to bail. Neither Jesus or Paul ever gives us that out. Instead the clear expectation is that we will learn by God’s grace and power to work through the conflicts and attain to the unity and community He called us to.
– In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he tried to help them see that they as a people are “a letter of Christ…known and read by all men” (3:2,3). When Christ’s church learns to walk in love and unity and community, the watching world must take notice. That’s why Paul later in ch. 6 exhorts the Corinthians to not “be bound together with unbelievers” (vs. 14). Instead they were to be bound together with one another so that God could fulfill His glorious intention, “I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.” (VS. 16). So many of God’s promises are dependent upon our life together, as is the case of 13:11, where Paul exhorts, “Finally brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” The promise or fruit at the end of the verse being dependent upon our obeying the commands in the beginning of the verse.
– In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he was very concerned that they learn to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh (5:16), so that the fruit borne from their community life together was that of the Spirit (vs. 22,23) instead of the flesh (vs. 19-21, 26).
– In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus he puts great emphasis on how Christ’s work on the cross has freed us from our independent isolated lifestyles (“strangers and aliens”), and instead has made us “fellow citizens with the saints, and ..of God’s household”, which speaks of the spiritual family He has now joined us to (3:19). All of chapter four is given to instructing them on how to practically walk out that new corporate identity in Christ – “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (vs. 3). This was to happen first at the congregational level and then throughout the church in the city of Ephesus.
– In Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi, he again was very concerned about their practical and tangible unity as can be seen in many exhortations such as: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). See also 2:2-4, 4:2.
Well there is no New Testament book wherein Christ’s concern for His church’s love and unity and relational building is not clearly seen. I want to conclude with some very practical advantages or blessings that come from regular participation and involvement in a local Christ centered, Kingdom focused congregation:
1. Spiritual brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, grandparents for our children to be impacted by. The nuclear family was never meant to be able to adequately raise godly and fruitful children on their own. The body of Christ was meant to be a huge resource for every child and young person. Anne and I will always be grateful for the role our congregation has played in our children’s lives – growing up here for the last 20 years.
2. Relational skills. One of the most coveted characteristics in the marketplace is employees who can effectively resolve conflicts, deal with difficult people, build with a team, etc. Being consistently and meaningfully involved in a local congregation over a period of time where Christ is honored and the Holy Spirit’s power and presence are pursued is one of the best sure fire ways of developing such skills.
3. Prayer covering. God delights in pouring out blessing and grace on His people as their brothers and sisters and leaders pray for them, which is why He so often exhorts us to pray for one another. The Holy Spirit led the apostle Paul to spell out the prayers He prayed for those under his care – night and day – for a reason. He expected the leaders/shepherds of the church to follow His example. We leaders are most apt to pray for those we know God has placed under our care.
4. Edification/strengthening that comes from being regularly sharpened by the diverse gifts of the body. Ideally the more diversely gifted people we can regularly relate to the more well rounded and full our growth in Christ will be. Surely this is part of Paul’s argument in his treatises re: the body of Christ and the gifts in Romans 12; I Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4; & I Peter 4.
5. Learning to follow so you can learn to lead. As believers learn to obey the commands re: their leaders in I Cor. 16:15,16; I Thess. 5:12, II Thess 3:4, 12, 14; Heb. 13:17 (“Obey your leaders and submit to them”); & I Peter 5:5 they also begin to learn what it is to lead. Good followers always make the best leaders. And God is always in the hunt for more good leaders. Which is one reason why Paul commanded Titus to “appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).
6. Oversight, guidance, counsel. The N.T. is very clear (starting with Jesus’s piercing discussion with Peter in John 21) that leaders are expected to shepherd the sheep under their care. The fact is – we are all sheep; sheep need shepherding; and shepherds best shepherd those sheep that they have built relationally with over time and thus know and have built trust with. Interesting that Paul’s reason for exhorting the elders in Ephesus to shepherd the sheep (Acts 20:28) was because of the grave danger of wolves attacking the sheep as seen in 20:29. In any herd of sheep, the ones separated from the flock are the ones most vulnerable to predators.
7. Love skills, attitudes, and mindsets stretched and holiness increased by having to love the difficult to love. Paul said to the church in I Thess. 3:12, 13“…may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for ALL people (my emphasis)…SO THAT (my emphasis) He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness…” When we dig our heels into building relationally with a diverse group of people over a significant period of time that God picks (not us) – not being partial to any, but striving to love each of them – – God is able to impart His holiness to us/make us more like Him – because that is the way He loves.
8. Group problem solving. Local congregations provide many opportunities for people to learn to solve problems together whether it be maintaining or paing off buildings, feeding the poor, ministering to widows and orphans, teaching and mentoring our children and youth, pulling off events like conferences, potlucks, seminars, supporting missionaries, etc.
My purpose in this paper is not to deal with questions of form like the old traditional church vs. house church debate. Both forms have their sets of challenges. My heart is that those of us who love Christ would clearly see that He has called us to be an integral part of a specific people in our city or region, and that we would dig our heels into seeing His church be what He has called it to be more than ever before – knowing that we can’t be who He has called us to be unless we are doing so.