Outgrowing the Church?

As mentioned in the previous blog(s), we are called and commanded to love the fellow members of our local church. You may now agree that God calls all Christians to join (i.e. to be committed to) a local church and that God calls you to love the family of God in your local church. However, I would like to raise the following questions: Do you really believe that you need the local members of your church? Or, do you feel as if you have “out-grown” your local church? These are not simple questions to answer, but they must be asked if we seriously want to love the members of our local church. The reality is that we all need the local church not just in an abstract way; we need the local church because we need each other.

Dealing With the Drama

Each one of us is a deeply flawed individual who lives in a fallen world and interacts with sinful individuals on a daily basis in our various vocations. Because of this, we have developed a plethora of sinful habits, along with emotional and spiritual baggage from our circumstances (before and after our conversion). When we join a local church, we are entering into a relationship with other deeply flawed individuals with a different set of sinful habits, and it is probable that some of them will probably push your pet peeves. As Ian Hamilton said recently, “Some individuals are quirky around the edges, and some individuals may be quirky at the center.” Although we are united to Christ, our sinfulness doesn’t just afflict us; it also afflicts fellow Christians. This is why many believers see parallels between marriage and church membership. The hardships we experience within both kinds of relationships are associated with our fallenness.

This is a reality that virtually all Christians encounter in every age (including the apostolic age), and yet we are called and commanded to love one another. Furthermore, the Apostle John tells us that this love is what should distinguish us from the unbelieving world (cf. John 13:35). Dear Christian, do you keep the members of your local church at arm’s length because you don’t want to deal with their issues and drama? Do you stay on the margins of church life because you hate the drama? While no one wants to deal with perpetual drama within the church, we should be honest with ourselves. In some way or fashion, we are all broken and dysfunctional people, and the truth is that we are blind to most of our dysfunctional issues! We are all a part of the drama that we hate within local churches. Furthermore, it is the height of folly to believe that you can see your full dysfunction clear enough without the assistance of your local church. Even the Apostle Paul states that he is not mature enough to “outgrow” the church. Consider his words in Romans:

First I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. Romans 1:8-12

It makes perfect sense that Paul would want to visit the church in Rome and strengthen them through his spiritual gifts. However, Paul clarifies by saying that what he genuinely wants is to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith”. Paul is longing to visit this church so that he could be encouraged by their faith. This demonstrates that the local church was never designed to have “super-Christians” who are always giving and “normal Christians” who are always receiving. The reason why is because there is no such thing as a “super-Christian”. Even the mightiest believer will wither and die apart from God’s grace, which is often experienced through the local church.

Spiritual Gifts

Another basic reason why you need the members of your local church is because the gifts of the local church are necessary for your edification. In other words, God has distributed His gifts within the church in such a way that the members may have the same need for one another (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:25). Oftentimes, when we think of spiritual gifts, we only think of the public or “flashy” gifts, such as preaching, teaching, evangelism, musical gifts, etc. However, based on scripture, many of the spiritual gifts are much more ordinary, such as service, exhortation, giving, mercy, administration/leadership, etc (cf. Romans 12:4-8). These are the non-controversial gifts that are given to the church, and they form the backbone of many local churches. These are the gifts that Christians no longer exercise or benefit from when they choose to neglect their local church. Consider the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

If you are united to Christ, you have received spiritual gifts for the purpose of serving to build up your local church (“the common good”). We have different gifts with different levels of ability for different objectives. However, the bottom line is that the local church needs the gifts that you bring to her, and you need the gifts of fellow members of your local church. Christians are not to be merely consumers of goods and services, but every member of a church is a distributor and laborer for the common good. Therefore, we need each other.

Why Church Membership

As mentioned in the previous blog, God visits and dwells with His people in a special way within your local church. However, our anti-institutional age has convinced us that we can piece together all of what we need from the local church through 21st century technological advances. Consider the number of ways in which technology can replace the elements of worship at any local church

  • If you want to sing as a form of worship to God, then you can listen to your favorite Christian artists on your phone. If you like traditional hymns and sacred music, you can listen to RefNet or Lutheran Public Radio or any number of other stations.

  • If you want to hear preaching, then you can click on SermonAudio.com, SermonIndex.net, or listen to any number of your favorite preachers on their ministry page.

  • If you want to have fellowship, you can join a local community group or join an online forum of likeminded individuals

  • If you want to hear pastoral prayer, you can read The Valley of Vision or read excerpts from The Book of Common Prayer

  • If you want to receive the sacraments, you can receive “drive-through communion” at certain locations.

If you are tech savvy enough, then you can, in essence, piece together your own liturgy. Moreover, these technological advantages give the impression that you can enjoy the benefits of church while ignoring its inevitable drama. While there are providential hindrances that may require some Christians to use these alternative resources outside the church temporarily, the reality is that much of this arise from a more sinister motive. In many cases, the “church-a-la-carte” mentality comes from a heart that rejects authority. Mark Dever has helpful words to address this mentality

It would seem that rejecting authority, as so many in our day do, is shortsighted and self-destructive. A world without authority is a world were desires have no restraints, cars have no controls, intersections have no traffic lights, games have no rules, lovers have no covenants, organizations have no purpose, homes have no parents, and people have no God. Such a world might last for a little while, but how quickly it would become pointless, then cruel, and finally tragic.

Regardless of how our culture views authority, the difference between what people call “community” and what the Scriptures calls the “church” comes down to the question of authority. In an attempt to escape this reality, many have simply walked away from the institutional local church. However, the New Testament clearly established that the governing authority of Christians belongs to the local church (cf. Matthew 16:13-20; 18:15-20; Hebrews 13:7,17; 1 Peter 5:1-5).

The local church is not just a fellowship of friends; in the local church, we are committed to another in a covenant/vow of membership. This is why participating in the life of your local church is mandatory. We are held accountable to each other through the vows that we take at membership and through the oversight of our elders. This is why gathering together with Christian friends does not provide the same level of genuine accountability as a true church. As a governing institution, the local church preaches the gospel, administers the sacraments, and exercises oversight and discipline to all of its members.

However, the cultural milieu in which we live provides Christians with a multitude of excuses for their lack of commitment to the local church. Some stay away from the local church because they are afraid of getting hurt (or being hurt again). While we must never minimize the pain that many have felt within local churches, a good dose of honesty is needed. Pain is never an excuse for disobedience to God’s Word. The local church was created for our sanctification and God’s glory, not for your convenience. Furthermore, if you are united to Christ, then He has given you spiritual gifts that are designed for the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Peter 4:10). Therefore, staying away from the local church means that you are burying the gifts that God has given you in the ground rather than using it for the sake of the local church (cf. Matthew 25:14-30).

Some stay away from the local church because they believe that most pastors are crooked. This is perhaps the most pervasive lie that our culture constantly promotes and it is the lie that most people believe about the church. First, we are told explicitly in Scripture that false teachers will arise (cf. Matthew 7:15-20; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 2 Peter 2:1-3) and therefore, we are told to be discerning. More importantly, the reality is that most pastors (within our country and around the world) labor with diligence and godly integrity in relative obscurity with congregations of less than 100 people. These pastors will never receive media spotlight because they are performing the basic task of the ministry. These are men who do not come with flattering speech, nor with a pretext for greed, nor by way of deceit, but these are men who have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:3-7). Dear Christian, have you believed Satan’s lie that there are only a few good pastors doing their job?

The local church is not just a group of believers at a park; it preaches the gospel and possesses the keys of the kingdom for binding and loosing through the ordinances (cf. Matthew 16:17-19). This means that it is the task of the local church who declares who does and does not belong to kingdom. This statement grinds against our modern sensibilities, but a question must be raised: if you refuse to be part of a local church, how do you know that you’re saved? If you have walked away from the local church, then who’s inspecting the fruit of your life? Gathering a few friends at the park and “doing life together” is no substitute for the objective evidence which is biblical church membership.

LBCF of 1677/1689 – Chapter Twenty-Seven, Of the Communion of the Saints

1. All saints that are united to Jesus Christ, their head, by his Spirit, and faith, although they are not made thereby one person with him, have fellowship in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory; and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each others gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, in an orderly way, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.
( 1 John 1:3; John 1:16; Philippians 3:10; Romans 6:5, 6; Ephesians 4:15, 16; 1 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Corinthians 3:21-23; 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 14; Romans 1:12; 1 John 3:17, 18; Galatians 6:10 )

2. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things according to their several abilities, and necessities; which communion, according to the rule of the gospel, though especially to be exercised by them, in the relation wherein they stand, whether in families, or churches, yet, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended to all the household of faith, even all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus; nevertheless their communion one with another as saints, doth not take away or infringe the title or propriety which each man hath in his goods and possessions.
( Hebrews 10:24, 25; Hebrews 3:12, 13; Acts 11:29, 30; Ephesians 6:4; 1 Corinthians 12:14-27; Acts 5:4; Ephesians 4:28 )