As mentioned in the previous blog, the local church is the ordinary and primary means in which God sanctifies and grows believers, which means that church membership is non-negotiable for Christians. However, the trends in church membership and church attendance have created a new category of Christians in social science research who “love Jesus but not the Church”. We know that there is significant pressure from the unbelieving world to reject the institutional church. However, the sad reality is that the most popular polemics against the institutional church comes from other Christians. There have been numerous blogs in which professing Christians air their disgust for institutional Christianity. This mentality appears to be pervasive within our culture, but it’s an attitude that is contrary to the core teachings of the New Testament.
I don’t speak about this topic from an air of aloofness or indifference. About 10 years ago, I was once part of the crowd of Christians who loved Jesus but was burned by multiple local churches. As a Christian, I’ve been a member of churches in which individuals have been found guilty of sexual molestation of minors; individuals have been involved in adulterous relationships; individuals have split churches due to gossip, slander, and tertiary doctrinal matters (such as head coverings); elders have been found guilty of financial exploitation of its members; and members have harbored resentment towards other members for years. Observing the faults of various local churches drove me away from the institutional church. However, it was the testimony of older saints (who have walked through worse issues within the local church) who reproved me of this attitude. The central passage worthy of consideration is the following
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:20-21
Let those words sink in. Nothing can be plainer: it is impossible to love God without loving your brother. Applying this to the church, to say that “I love Jesus but not the Church” means that you do not love Jesus. This may be a harsh statement to some, but it’s the direct teaching of the New Testament. How can you claim to love Christ yet you are unwilling to love those for whom Christ has died? How can you claim unending love for Christ, yet you are unwilling to stick through the difficulties of your local church? The Apostle John makes even more penetrating statements regarding the necessity of loving your brothers:
By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another… We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in Him. 1 John 3:10-11, 14-15
Let this passage sink in. The Apostle John connects our love for fellow brothers with our individual salvation. In other words, one is deceiving himself if he believes that he can truly know God apart from loving his brothers. The objection that usually follows is that it is possible to love fellow Christians without joining or committing to a local church. However, John continues his exhortation
By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 1 John 3:16-18
This was the passage that cut me to the core as a young Christian. Practically, how is it possible to lay down your life for your brothers apart from local church? It’s easy to love your select group of Christian friends, but you don’t have the authority to pick and choose who are the members of your local church. If you aren’t committed to the fellow members of the body in the local church, can you honestly say that your love is “in deed and in truth”? There are many who are willing to point out the sins and flaws of members within their local church, but they are unwilling to aid in their sanctification. Is this truly the heart of someone who genuinely loves their brother?
There are many who will use the hypocrisy of the institutional church as a reason to reject her, but they rarely ever see their own hypocrisy. It is hypocritical to decry radical individualism within American Christianity while, at the same time, rejecting the community that God has formed in your local church. It’s hypocritical to say that the Church has become nothing more than a social club while, at the same time, rejecting the diversity of gifts, viewpoints, and personalities that God has formed in your local church. This is the mentality of one who is “dating the church” and then criticizes her to strangers after the breakup. As our Savior has said, you must take the log out of your own eye so that you can see clearly how to the speck out of your brother’s eye (cf. Matthew 7:5). In other words, you are not in position to judge the sins and blemishes of the institutional church until you are committed and willing to lay your life down for the members of your local church.
This is a call for perseverance and patience towards the local church. If you have walked away from the local church, I implore you not to forsake the local assembly. If you are a member of local church, I implore you not to keep your brothers and sisters at a distance. For those who are committed to your local church, I pray that you will excel still the more. I’ll end this blog with a quote from Thabiti Anyabwile:
…The proper response to the church, the church of worship, the people of God when they look upon the church isn’t critique and evaluation. It isn’t to spot all the limitations… The proper response of a heart oriented toward God that loves God and loves all that God does is, ‘Oh my God! Oh how staggering! Oh how beautiful … He’s my God and we are His people. Oh my God, look at the church!’