Our goal as a Christian is to be a disciple of Christ. One thing becomes crystal clear while reading the New Testament is that being a disciple of Christ does not make much sense while living a life not connected to other believers. The Christian life is not autonomous. Can you be a Christian that is not connecting and covenanting with other believers? Yes. Covenanting with a local body of believers does not make you a Christian. It is not something required for salvation. It is also not a sign that you have finally arrived. Like all of a sudden you are in the next level of Christianity. There are not different levels to Christianity.
It doesn’t make you a better Christian, and it doesn’t make you a worse Christian. What it does do, is help you live the Christian life. Mainly because it is how God has designed things to be. In much the same way, can you move to a different country or someone can move to this country and affirm everything it means to be a citizen of this country, adopt all of our traits, believe all of our beliefs, align with all of our ways of thinking, wholeheartedly affirm the Constitution, even be willing to fight and protect this great nation if it came under threat, but if that person never officially became a citizen of the United States would they be an American? Well. Yes and No. In their heart they would be. But not officially.
But being a Christian is a little different. Because it actually happens the moment we repent of our sin and put our faith in Christ. Yet, at the same time being connected to other believers is not optional. Just like it is hard to be an American without actually being a citizen, it is also hard to be a Christian without being part of a Church.
For instance, how are we supposed to actually be a christian if we are not part of a local church. I think of the often used illustration where the bible professor ask the class if they thought it was possible to be a christian on a desert island. Now without getting into all the theological ramifications of that question. The professors answer was a resounding, ‘No!’. And I have to agree with him. Mark Dever, in his book "What is a healthy Church" says, it's impossible to answer the question what is a Christian? without ending up in a conversation about the church; at least in the Bible it is. "When a person becomes a Christian, he doesn't just join a local church because it's a good habit for growing in spiritual maturity. He joins a local church because it's the expression of what Christ has made him a member of the body of Christ." I mean, how are we supposed to carry out, and live out, what the New Testament talks about being a christian without being part of a local church. Take just the phrase ‘one another’. Now this phrase is found at least 59 times in a command style exhortation in the New Testament. “…Be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:50) “…Love one another…” (John 13:34) “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love…” (Romans 12:10) “Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16) …Instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
And on and on the ‘one anothers’ go. So how are we supposed to do these ‘one anothers’ without a serious intimate week in week out commitment with other brothers and sisters in Christ? Is the command to live like this with ‘one another’ to be lived out with the world? Well, yes, but that is not the primary audience in the mind of these NT authors.1 John says they will know us by our love. Who will know us? The world. Who is us. Disciples. So the world will know us (disciples) by our love. The New Testament is written to believers. Yes, it speaks to unbelievers, and it is through this word that unbelievers become believers. But it’s main audience is believers. Almost half of the NT is letters written to churches. The most important relationships we should have in our lives is with other believers. Yes, we should have relationships with unbelievers but is that who you really want knowing everything about you? Which leads me to another question. How are we supposed to train believers in righteousness and right doctrine? What vehicle is supposed to be used for works of service; like taking care of the poor, the sick, the needy, and the disadvantaged? Is it not the local churches responsibility to do these things?
Who are we supposed to give to? Are we supposed to just give our tithes and offerings to the universal church? And if so what bills does the universal church have? What missionaries does the universal church support? How does the universal churches Pastors receive their wages? How is the universal church organized? Who are its Pastors and Deacons? How are you supposed to submit to your elders who are going to given an account for you, if you have no elders who are going to give an account for you (Hebrews 13:7)? How are Pastors supposed to shepherd God’s flock who are under their care, if they don’t have a flock or know specifically who their flock is (1 Peter 5:2)? And if the Holy Spirit makes them overseers of certain people, should’t they know who those certain people are (Acts 20:28)? Not only that but if you are a Pastor and you are going to give an account for those who are part of your flock, wouldn’t you like to know who your flock is and who the people who make up your flock is, so that you could at least try to shepherd them, and pray for them, and teach them, and lead them well. How are we as Christians supposed to approach another brother or sister in a Matthew 18 type way if we have no church to bring them in front of? Is it just any church we bring an offending brother or sister in front of? Or is it our church? And how do we know which church is our church? Is it just whatever church we say is ours? Is it really just an arbitrary option? Or should the church and it’s people know whose it’s people are?
There is actually much more that could be said, but all these things and more lead us to the idea of a local church. In fact much of the Bible doesn't make sense apart from a local church. This also leads us to another point. The church is not a club, and it is not a service provider. It is a much more serious and joy filled reality than that.
Clubs begin with a point of common interest. Service providers begin with a common need or desire. Healthy local churches have all this, but they also has something way more: a king who requires the obedience of his people. If you use the idea that going to church doesn’t make you a christian as an excuse not to be committed to one, or even worse yet, not to go to church at all, you are either a false convert, a disobedient christian, or you do not understand what the christian life is meant to look like. It is absolutely impossible to be an obedient christian without at least a desire to be part of a local church. It is God’s chosen means for equipping the saints, reaching the lost, teaching sound doctrine and persevering in the faith. His plan is not to have lone ranger evangelist scattered all over the world. What did the Apostle Paul do? He planted churches. What did Titus, and Timothy, and John, and Peter and all the rest do? They planted, watched over, and cared for local churches. The difference between what people often call the “church” and what the Bible calls the “church” comes down to the question of locality and authority. First, the church must be local. As I have already pointed out, the idea of a universal church just doesn’t make sense. Who are it’s Pastors? The universal church has one Chief Shepherd, that is Jesus Christ, with many under shepherds, that shepherd local churches. So again, in order to do, many things the NT calls us to do, we must be under the authority of a local church. Jesus actually has given authority to the local assembly called a church (Matt 16:13–20; 18:15–20; Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Pet 5:1–5). This assembly is not just a fellowship of the friendship, familial sort, but also a fellowship of accountability . It’s not just a group of believers at the park; it preaches the gospel and possesses the keys of the kingdom. It’s meaningful. It’s deep. It’s hard work. It’s joy filled, and it’s worth it. It’s God’s plan. So by all means take what God takes seriously, seriously. That is, take the local church seriously. One final question, for those who downplay the local church. How can you say, you can’t wait for the marriage supper of the lamb. That is the first time gathering of the church universal, all the christians throughout the world, and throughout time, if you have not heart, no strength, no desire to meet with a gathered church now? You point out all the flaws. You don’t think Jesus knew he was dying for people with flaws, including Pastors? And what do you think it will be like when the universal church gathers for the first time? Don’t you think it will be filled with 10 billion times the amount of flawed individuals, represented by multitudes of flawed churches. We don’t need and we should not expect perfect or even close to perfect churches. What we need is healthy churches. And healthy churches are those churches filled with flawed sinners following and worshipping a great savior with all the power that great savior supplies. What is a healthy church? “A healthy church is not a church that’s perfect and without sin. It has not figured everything out. Rather, it’s a church that continually strives to take God’s side in the battle against the ungodly desires and deceits of the world, our flesh, and the devil. It’s a church that continually seeks to conform itself to God’s Word.” Get over your feelings of what you think you want to do. If what you want to do does not align with God’s word, it is wrong. Do not be deceived. To be a Christian, the local assembly of the saints, gathered and structured with authority, is of an utmost importance. And to the world, healthy churches are it’s only hope. Jesus died for the church. Jesus is our only hope. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)