“I love Jesus, I’m just not in to the church” or “organized religion” or “institutional Christianity” or you fill in the blank.
Such attitudes of spiritual individualism are becoming the norm for more and more Westerners. Yet no one sees any contradiction with Scripture when speaking this way.
Perhaps the problem developed as Evangelicals began to emphasize one’s “personal relationship” with Jesus to the neglect of teaching new believers the critical importance of then planting themselves in the life of a local church. Some are surprised when they learn just how seriously the New Testament takes this. For example…
Without even citing the first passage, we can discover how important the local church is simply by virtue of the names of most New Testament books:
- Romans- written to the local church who gathered in Rome
- 1 and 2 Corinthians- written to believers in Corinth
- Galatians- written to the local church in Galatia
- Ephesians- written to local gatherings of churches in and around Ephesus
- Philippians- written to the local body of believers who gathered in Philippi
- Colossians- written to the church planted by Epaphras in Colosse
- 1 and 2 Thessalonians- you guessed it, written to the local church in Thessalonica
- 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus- also known as the pastoral epsitles, these are letters written to two of Paul’s closest ministry associates, Timothy and Titus. And they all deal with matters regarding the local church. Everything from how it should be governed, to the appropriate leadership structures and what they should do when they gather are all covered in these 3 letters (sounds kind of like organized religion, huh?).
Other books whose names aren’t so obvious still deal in large part with the local church:
- Acts- a history of the expansion of the gospel in the 1st century, resulting in the planting of numerous local churches
- Hebrews- The use of plural pronouns (you all, we, our) suggests that the author is writing to a group of believers (possibly in Rome); this is confirmed by the author’s exhortation for them not to give up meeting together corporately, as some were apparently in the habit of doing (… sound familiar?) (10:25). This is further confirmed when he also exhorts them to obey their leaders and to submit to their authority. He then says why in the next phrase, “They (elders) keep watch over your souls as those who must give an account.” (13:17). Here he assumes that this group is meeting corporately and has been placed under the care of recognized leaders.
- James- In 1:1 James tells us that he is writing to “the twelve tribes scattered abroad”. Many scholars think that he is writing to Jewish Christians who were forced out of Jerusalem (and from the Jerusalem church, over which James was a pastor) due to the persecution that took place after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 11:19). In 2:2, he teaches them how they should receive men of different social standing who come to their meeting. Here he assumes that these Christians are gathering corporately for worship. This is further confirmed by the fact that in chapter 3 he warns them that not all of them should become teachers; the implication here being that of those who were qualified to teach, the rest gathered to receive their teaching. Finally, James exhorts Christians who are sick to call on the “elders” of the church to come pray for them.
- 1 Peter- In his first epistle, Peter tells us he is writing to God’s elect scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. We might be tempted to think that these are just isolated believers he knew in these respective areas. But in 5:1 he turns his attention to the “elders among you all” (Greek is plural) and exhorts these pastoral leaders to “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care… not lording it over those entrusted to your care” (5:2,3). Here we notice that these believers are not only gathering locally, but have been given specific pastors who were charged with looking after their spiritual well-being
- 2 Peter- In this epistle Peter is mostly focused on false teaching and says in 3:1 “this is now my second letter to you all”. It seems reasonable that this is the second letter written to the same local churches mentioned in his previous epistle.
- 1 John- In speaking of those who rejected Christ’s humanity, John writes, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” (2:19). Here again is another implication of local church life. These false teachers left the recognized body of Christ. And John says they left the church, the community of faith, because they never really belonged to the community of faith in the first place. His reasoning seems to be that if they were truly members in the church, they would have continued in right teaching regarding Christ’s essential divinity and humanity.
- 2 John- John begins this epistle by referring to himself as “the elder”, referring to the pastoral office. In verse 13 he also sends greetings from “the children of your chosen sister”, probably referring to another local church who gathered in a different location.
- 3 John- In his final epistle, John is writing to some of the churches again to encourage them for the hospitality they’ve shown to Christian missionaries who were coming through their area. He refers to these missionaries as “brothers”.
- Jude- In verse 12 Jude mentions how some false teachers have been able to sneak their way in to the love feasts the Christians he’s addressing were having. Even though a specific church is never mentioned directly, it’s obvious in the way he writes that he has a particular congregation of believers in mind. He also uses plural pronouns such as “you all” and “our”, indicating that this is a group of Christians who were in intentional fellowship with one another.
- Revelation- This one should really speak for itself since Revelation 2-3 is spent in Jesus giving an address to specific local churches in Asia. In each one Jesus begins His address “And to the church in…” and then lists Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. It is painfully obvious that Jesus doesn’t just have the universal church in mind when He explicitly singles out different churches who met in different geographical areas!
Hopefully by now it is clear that the New Testament assumes that those who identify with Christ also identify with Christ’s people. Simply put, the New Testament does not know of a Christian who is not connected with a local body of believers. If anything, we’re given the opposite impression. Consider 1 Corinthians 5. The whole chapter deals with the Corinthian believers’ failure to discipline a man who claimed to be a believer, yet was unashamedly sleeping with his mother. It all culminates in verses 4-5 where Paul writes,
“In the name of the Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of the Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of of the Lord Jesus.”
Here Paul is speaking directly of excommunicating this person from the church. This is confirmed in verse 13 where he exhorts them to “remove the wicked man from among them”. To be (hopefully temporarily) excommunicated from the community of faith is to be placed back under the domain of Satan. Certainly not a place a believer wants to be! Now remember, Paul commands excommunication with an eye toward hoping that the straying believer will recognize the grievousness of his sin, repent, and be restored to the body. In his second epistle he encourages them to restore this man who had repented (2 Corinthians 2:6-11). By implication all of this shows us that being in Christ is closely tied to also being in the family of faith, the local church. The first century believers thought it to be a terrible thing to be removed from the church.
Now why in the world do I say all this? For two reasons: (1) If you are a person who has decided to do this Christian thing on your own without being connected to a local church, I want you to be aware of the spiritual damage you are doing to your soul. The Lord saves us individually, yes, but He also saves us to be a part of His people (1 Peter 2:9-10). Some of you have been hurt deeply by a church and I don’t want to minimize that. I’ve also experienced my share of hurts. Undoubtedly, it is a unique kind of wound when received by people who are supposedly redeemed by the Lord. But biblically speaking, your soul still needs the care of a local church. Don’t fall in to the trap of generalizing. In other words, because one church might be failing to live up to her calling (and sometimes deliberately!) doesn’t mean that all the others must be too. This year resolve to re-connect with the body of Christ. Find a church where the Word is faithfully and expositionally preached. Where the gospel is central. And where the believers are actively trying to love one another and proclaim the good news of Christ to the world. For help in finding a healthy local church click here.
(2) If you are already involved in the life of a biblical local church, when you encounter people who claim to follow Jesus but have ditched the church, don’t let them continue in this error without warning. To affirm someone in an incorrect belief or practice is not loving at all. Obviously, we can’t force anyone to do anything (nor should we try). But we can lovingly confront people with truth. The New Testament is clear, believers are to find a local church and intentionally integrate themselves with God’s people there (feel free to give them this article).
In light of all the bad press the “institutional” church seems to get these days, we want to encourage you that there is also a lot of good that comes with being connected with a local body of believers. So over the course of the next several weeks we’re going to begin a blog series entitled “What I Love About My Church” where each of our writers will describe one aspect about their real-life local church that they absolutely love. The purpose of this series is to renew your confidence in the body of Christ and to show you that for all the bad we hear about, there’s still a lot of spiritual good that comes to us through intentionally being involved in life with God’s people!