Loving the Local Church

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!’

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.

How Much Do You Need the Church?

leaving-arriving

To the reader of this blog, may I ask you some questions:

  • Do you love the church?
  • Do you believe that the church is still necessary or has the church become merely a convenience in your life?
  • Do you believe that church attendance is a necessary component of your sanctification?
  • Do you prize the local church or do you treat her like other commodities that you shop for?
  • Do you love your leaders or do you criticize them because they aren’t your favorite preachers?
  • Do you believe that you can gain more spiritual nourishment at home rather than at the local church?
  • Do you see the church as the bride of Christ purchased by His blood or is the church here merely to fit your agenda?
  • Does taking holiday vacations mean that you take vacations from the church?
  • Do you love the members of your local church or are they a burden to you?
  • Is corporate worship the high point of your week or do you treat it as part of your weekly to-do list?
  • Do you believe that sporadic church attendance harms your growth as a Christian?
  • Do you believe that you need pastors and elders who keep watch over your soul?
  • Have you blamed the church for the problems within our modern society?
  • Are you a “church shopper” because you are easily offended by the members of your local church?
  • Have you stopped praying for your local church and your elders?
  • Do you need a vacation from your local church in order to find God?
  • Do you love corporate worship on the Lord’s Day or is the gathered worship merely a “pick-me-up” for the week?
  • Have you stopped financially giving to the church because pastors are “crooked”?
  • Do you believe that you will eventually out-grow the need for the local church?
  • Do you merely endure the members of your local church so that you can get what you need from God on the Lord’s Day?
  • What is it about the church that you love?
  • Are you committed to the local church and its mission or are you seeking for a better deal?
  • Have you dismissed these questions because you believe that you aren’t the problem?

I’ve posed these questions not to bring shame, but to raise important heart issues. There have been wonderful books written that have expounded on the doctrine of the church and its importance in the life of the Christian. However, in spite of these works, many professing Christians continue to drift away from the local church and others reject the local church itself as a valid institution. 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.

This raises the question on whether one can actually love the universal church if they have ignored the local church. 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.

Barna’s opinion seems to fit the ethos of our day because we live in a deeply anti-institutional and anti-authoritarian world that honestly believes that we can “piece together a more robust faith experience” outside the church. The purpose of this blog series is to challenge our understanding and commitment to the local church. This series will not be a scholarly exposition of the doctrine of the Church (since there are many good works on this topic), but it will be a series in which we search out our motives and uncover our hidden presuppositions regarding our view of the local church. If we aren’t careful and discerning regarding the influences within the age we live in, then even confessional Christians will gradually drift away from the local church.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part III – Romans 12, 14-16

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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As we observed in our last two articles, Paul’s desire to preach the gospel to the church at Rome provided him the necessary motivation to write his letter to the Romans. In fact, Paul’s mention of his desire in Romans 1:15-17 functions as the thesis statement of the letter:

“So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith,’” (Romans 1:15-17; NASB).

In the first two articles on Romans, we considered four themes found in this thesis statement: the gospel preached to the church, the gospel as the power of God unto salvation, God’s salvation to all without distinction and, in this way, God will save all His chosen people. These four major themes help us to understand why Paul spends the first eight chapters of Romans explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ and the following three chapters describing the relationship between Israel and the church. Since the thesis statement of Romans 1:15-17 sets the framework for all that follows, we are in our present study using it as the lens through which we examine the rest of the book of Romans. In this offering, we will focus on principles found in these verses that help us to understand why Paul teaches what he teaches in chapters 12, and 14-16.

From Faith to Faith

The gospel results in a life lived in the light of a justification that comes by faith. Paul writes that, in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith (1:17). As we learn of God’s righteousness, that He is both just and the Justifier of sinful men (Rom. 3:26), we are freed from the shackles of sin to walk by faith in the justification we have received through Christ. We are saved by faith; we are also called to walk by faith. Paul spends the last five chapters of Romans explaining how it is that we who have been saved by gospel faith might also walk by that very gospel faith.

Some mistakenly believe that, because they have been justified by faith, they do not have a responsibility to live by faith. This false notion is contrary to the teachings of Romans. The late Jerry Bridges wrote of a time in his life when he had adopted this false notion:

“During a certain period in my Christian life, I thought that any effort on my part to live a holy life was ‘of the flesh’ and that ‘the flesh profits nothing.’ I thought God would not bless any effort on my part to live the Christian life, just as He would not bless any effort on my part to become a Christian by good works. Just as I received Christ by faith, so I was to seek a holy life only by faith. Any effort on my part was just getting in God’s way,” (Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness, pp. 78-79).

Well, Bridges was right about one thing during this time of his life: we can only accomplish what God has called us to do by faith. However, God precepts require that we walk according to faith, that we do according to faith, that we actively work according to faith. So, just as we are justified according to faith, we are called to live the Christian life according to faith. As we will see in this article and the next, this Christian life is one of relationships: relationships within the local church, within the church universal, and between us and governing authorities.

Body Life

In Romans 12, he urges by the mercies of God that the church of Rome be merciful toward one another in the local church. In this way, he first turns the church inward, drawing them to one another for strength and support for the road ahead. First, he tells them not to be conformed to the image of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of their minds (vs. 2). Paul does not tell his readers to remove themselves from the world, but rather to resist being conformed by it. Thus, they will escape two errors: conformity to the world and isolation from it. The task to which we are called requires much more faith and trust than merely seceding from the public square. Having been saved by faith, we are called to resist conformity to the world by faith while we sojourn in it. This imperative is necessary in our day, for one reason, because our conformity to the world can easily sap the strength of our Christian witness.

Notice that Paul’s first exhortation focuses on the mind of the believer. Prior to our initial repentance, we thought according to the precepts of this world, but when the Holy Spirit awakened us, our minds were changed. The mind is central because transformation comes from a renewed mind.

The first step in renewing one’s mind and resisting the influence of the world is that of recognizing the fact that we are each members of  the body of Christ. As members, we have each been granted a measure of faith, gifts of the Spirit. Now, there are myriad tests that have been developed to help people try to discern their spiritual gifts. All of these tests are flawed. The true test is found in living out one’s faith in the body of Christ.

Each local body of Christ has its own individual needs. As each Christian lives and serves among the body of Christ, certain needs naturally arise among that body. Not every Christian is meant to bear the full weight of every burden in the body but, as Christians seek to find ways to serve the body of Christ, they will naturally gravitate toward those needs that are most suitable to their unique giftings. It is through this process, not canned tests, that Christians throughout the ages have discerned their unique giftings in the body of Christ.

In chapter 13, Paul addresses the Christian’s unique relationship to the government. Given that this relationship is a paramount point in our discussion, we will devote an entire article to it separate from this discussion.

Christian Liberty

In Romans 14 and 15, Paul expounds on principles of Christian liberty urging concessions for and patience with weaker brothers and a godly practice of liberty in all things done in good faith. This too was meant to break down barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Many Jews, freed from the law, wished to practice their newfound liberty in eating meat. Believing Gentiles, having participated in pagan sacrifices and knowing those meats were likely sacrificed to idols, might not have known such liberty of conscience. Both were called to be mindful of their brothers in the faith for the sake of the gospel.

In our present day, there is an added dimension. Many Dispensationalists and New Covenanters, arguing from a subjective interpretation of the “Law of Love,” have become professional “weaker brothers.” They make much of their abstinence from things, when properly used, God has explicitly blessed in His word. They use passages like Romans 14 and 15 to argue that Christians’ love for one another means they can forbid their brothers from partaking in things God has blessed. This is not the spirit with which Paul is writing.

In Acts 10, Peter had a vision in which he was shown several animals whose consumption was forbidden in the Ceremonial Law of Israel. Peter was told to rise, kill, and eat the animals, and he begged God that he not be made to eat anything unclean. A voice came from heaven saying, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” (Acts 10:9-16; NASB). Were Paul in Romans 14 and 15 saying that weaker brothers could simply declare for themselves what is holy and unholy and impose their subjective standards of holy and unholy on their brothers, Peter’s vision would make no sense. Rather, Paul is recognizing that some of the novices in the church still considered certain things unholy that, used properly, were actually holy. Paul is calling for the more mature brethren to bear with these younger believers. He certainly was not giving license to Seminary professors and Seminary presidents to bind the consciences of mature believers on matters of consumption. If a believer partakes of food or drink to the glory of God, it is holy, and no one is to pass judgment.

On the other hand, we must be careful how we use liberty. In the hands of the immature, Christian liberty can be a very dangerous thing. Historically, the church has labored long to mine and consolidate from Scripture its teaching on Christian liberty. Apart from the teaching of the church on this matter throughout church history, one might take it merely to be a license to sin. Such is not the case. Consider the teaching of The Baptist Confession on the matter:

“The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel, consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the rigour and curse of the law, and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the fear and sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation: as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind,” (The Baptist Confession, 21.1). Keep reading…

We must understand that we live in a very reactionary culture. For decades, we have been inundated with notions of political correctness, and this inundation has led to an unholy push for political incorrectness. Rather than policing our tongues, many in Western culture have taken to purposefully setting out to offend others. This is a clear violation of the principles Paul is teaching in Romans 14 and 15. To be sure, we do not want to be ruled by the weaker brother. However, neither is the Christian called to purposefully offend him. We are called to bear with him, lovingly, in his immaturity.

If he has not arrived yet at the place where he understands that all things properly used are holy unto God, we must bear with him until he does understand these things. We should not entice him to partake in something he still perceives to be unholy because, at least in his mind, he would be doing it out of rebellion against God. We are to help him to avoid any such rebellious attitudes toward God while he matures in his understanding of Christian liberty.

The Universal Church

Having examined two major points on relationships in the local church, let us now focus in on a matter that is also of vital importance to Christians: the universal church. Paul ends his letter, in Romans 16, by commending brothers and sisters in the faith to the church in Rome. His commendations are not without significance to us today.

If you have been in the church for any amount of time, you may have wondered why it is that churches require letters of transfer from other churches commending new members to their fellowship. This is not a purely modern practice. In Romans and in Colossians, Paul establishes this practice. He encourages local churches to receive and greet specific saints and offers words of commendation on their behalf (Rom. 16:1-24; Col. 4:7-14).

The other side of this coin is where the apostles specifically warn against certain individuals who have caused major problems either for him or for the church as a whole (1Tim. 1:18-20; 2Tim. 2:16-18; 4:10). This information was of vital importance for local churches, and it still is today. One of the roles of elders in a local church is that of shepherd, and shepherds are tasked with the unenviable duty of warding off wolves who come in seeking to devour the flock (Acts 20:17, 29). In this age of consumerism, wolves easily move from church to church sowing division and dissention. Pastors must be careful to examine each new member of the flock and determine their ecclesiastical history in order to guard the sheep from potential wolves.

In our next article in this series, we will continue to examine what it means to live from “faith to faith.” Specifically, we will zero in on the faith needed to live according to Paul’s teachings regarding the relationship between Christians and governing authorities in Romans 13.