The Beauty of the Local Church

When considering the role of the church in our lives, it’s always important to consider the age in which we live. As discussed in the previous blog, I believe that it is self-evident that we live in a deeply anti-authoritarian age. Outside the church, this is often observed within national politics where disrespect and irreverence towards government officials has become commonplace. Within the church, this anti-authoritarianism rears its head in our skepticism for the church. In other words, the anti-authoritarian culture outside of the church has produced an anti-institutional and anti-polity culture within the church.

There are a large number of trends which have conspired together to produce this culture. Mark Dever provides a useful list

  • Since the dawn of the seventeenth-century Enlightenment, the Western mind has been trained to doubt all external authorities.

  • Since the middle of the nineteenth century, scholars in theology departments of elite European universities have assumed that the churches of the New Testament were in a state of flux, their polities were inconsistent, and they offer no normative model for today. And when biblical norms vanish, pragmatism steps into the void.

  • Church leaders in the twentieth century, therefore, found themselves enticed and eventually intoxicated by the methods of the booming American marketplace.

  • Beginning in the 1950s, the so-called neoevangelicals separated themselves from their separatist and fundamentalist parents by establishing their own seminaries, magazines, evangelism organizations, publishing houses, and other parachurch institutions.

We can also add other modern influences such as the Internet, social media, and MP3 sermons-on-demand, but the net result is that we have inherited a significant amount of historical baggage that has trained us to view the institutional church with a matter of indifference. It’s tempting to start this series by blaming crooked prosperity preachers, CEO-style megapreachers, and fundamentalism for the trends that we see, but that would be nothing more than blame shifting. It’s best to look at ourselves in the mirror first.

Lord’s Day Worship

The Lord called me to Himself about 16 years ago in an old-fashioned tent revival when I was in high-school. I was born and raised in a Pentecostal background in which my individual religious experience (which was called the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”) was prized above all others so it should not be surprising that this was the essential lens in which I viewed Christianity during my younger days. All of my spiritual disciplines were geared towards obtaining this experience, including corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. In those days, I didn’t consider myself as a member of the covenant community that gathered together to worship our Triune God; rather, I saw Lord’s Day worship as the best time to have my personal experience with Jesus.

Over the course of my young life, I’ve realized that although very few individuals would assent to the core tents of Pentecostalism, I’ve learned that many Christians have adopted this basic idea of seeking their “personal Jesus”. This has led to two polarizing and unbiblical responses to Lord’s Day worship: the first is to neglect public worship since you can “meet Jesus” at home and the second is to use public worship to “get what you need for Jesus”. The writer to the Hebrews give us a beautiful picture of what goes on in public worship.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

Dear Christian, is this how you view the church? The church is called Mount Zion because it is beloved of God, chosen by Him, and is the place of His habitation. It is within the church that His word and ordinances are administered. It is within the church where He communes with His covenant people – not in a “personal Jesus” manner. Do you see the church as “the perfection of beauty and the joy of the whole earth”? The church is the city of the living God, which is built on Christ. As John Gill describes, the church is

… pleasantly situated by the river of God’s love, and by the still waters of Gospel ordinances; it is governed by wholesome laws, of Christ’s enacting, and is under proper officers, of his appointing; and is well guarded by watchmen, which he has set upon the walls of it; and it is endowed with many privileges, as access to God, freedom from condemnation, adoption, and a right to the heavenly inheritance.

The church is His building because He dwells, protects, and defends her. Hence, we are not just speaking about the church as an organism, but we are speaking of her as an institution.

Now, it’s important to understand what the writer to the Hebrews is specifically referring to. These words can be applied to the universal church, but his context is the local church. Yes… it is your local church that is place of His habitation; it is your local church in which we partake of ordinances and enjoy communion with Him. I must emphasize this because we have romanticized the universal church, while neglecting the local church. We have warm feelings in our heart concerning the church triumphant as seen throughout the book of Revelation, but that same raptured joy is not expressed towards our own local church today. Do you realize that your local church is the dwelling place of the Prince of Peace and is being encamped about by “myriads of angels”? When you gather with your local church, you are gathering also with “the spirits of the righteous” made perfect and at the table, you are communing with the risen Lord Jesus.

This is what actually occurs in the gathered worship of the local church, but our culturally-trained anti-institutional skepticism blinds us from seeing the glory of God’s local church. Until we love the local church and see her as she truly is, we will continue to drift away from her.

LBCF of 1677/1689 – Chapter Twenty-Six, Of the Church

1. The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
( Hebrews 12:23; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23; Ephesians 5:23, 27, 32 )

2. All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.
( 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 11:26; Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:20-22 )

3. The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.
( 1 Corinthians 5; Revelation 2; Revelation 3; Revelation 18:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12; Matthew 16:18; Psalms 72:17; Psalm 102:28; Revelation 12:17 )

4. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, in whom, by the appointment of the Father, all power for the calling, institution, order or government of the church, is invested in a supreme and sovereign manner; neither can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof, but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.
( Colossians 1:18; Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 4:11, 12; 2 Thessalonians 2:2-9 )

5. In the execution of this power wherewith he is so intrusted, the Lord Jesus calleth out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father, that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribeth to them in his word. Those thus called, he commandeth to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requireth of them in the world.
( John 10:16; John 12:32; Matthew 28:20; Matthew 18:15-20 )

6. The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ; and do willingly consent to walk together, according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another, by the will of God, in professed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel.
( Romans. 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 2:41, 42; Acts 5:13, 14; 2 Corinthians 9:13 )

7. To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is in any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe; with commands and rules for the due and right exerting, and executing of that power.
( Matthew 18:17, 18; 1 Corinthians 5:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 )

8. A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons.
( Acts 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1 )

9. The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands.
( Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; Acts 6:3, 5, 6 )

10. The work of pastors being constantly to attend the service of Christ, in his churches, in the ministry of the word and prayer, with watching for their souls, as they that must give an account to Him; it is incumbent on the churches to whom they minister, not only to give them all due respect, but also to communicate to them of all their good things according to their ability, so as they may have a comfortable supply, without being themselves entangled in secular affairs; and may also be capable of exercising hospitality towards others; and this is required by the law of nature, and by the express order of our Lord Jesus, who hath ordained that they that preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel.
( Acts 6:4; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Timothy 5:17, 18; Galatians 6:6, 7; 2 Timothy 2:4; 1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Corinthians 9:6-14 )

11. Although it be incumbent on the bishops or pastors of the churches, to be instant in preaching the word, by way of office, yet the work of preaching the word is not so peculiarly confined to them but that others also gifted and fitted by the Holy Spirit for it, and approved and called by the church, may and ought to perform it.
( Acts 11:19-21; 1 Peter 4:10, 11 )

12. As all believers are bound to join themselves to particular churches, when and where they have opportunity so to do; so all that are admitted unto the privileges of a church, are also under the censures and government thereof, according to the rule of Christ.
( 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14, 15 )

13. No church members, upon any offence taken by them, having performed their duty required of them towards the person they are offended at, ought to disturb any church-order, or absent themselves from the assemblies of the church, or administration of any ordinances, upon the account of such offence at any of their fellow members, but to wait upon Christ, in the further proceeding of the church.
( Matthew 18:15-17; Ephesians 4:2, 3 )

14. As each church, and all the members of it, are bound to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all the churches of Christ, in all places, and upon all occasions to further every one within the bounds of their places and callings, in the exercise of their gifts and graces, so the churches, when planted by the providence of God, so as they may enjoy opportunity and advantage for it, ought to hold communion among themselves, for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification.
( Ephesians 6:18; Psalms 122:6; Romans 16:1, 2; 3 John 8-10 )

15. In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled, are not intrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers.
( Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 25; 2 Corinthians 1:24; 1 John 4:1 )