How My Mind Has Changed: The Centrality of the Congregation
Ever since becoming a Christian in high school, the role of the local congregation has been important to me. I remember spending some (okay, many) hours the first summer I was a Christian in my church’s library, compiling statistics about the growing membership of our church and tabulating that in comparison with our shrinking attendance. The accompanying pre-computer-era graphic I made from my research was simply a poster board with carefully drawn lines for membership and attendance, diverging markedly somewhere in the 1940’s or 1950’s.
Though I did spend hours and hours on that poster—and the figures behind it—it had only the most limited of engagements on a prominent wall in our church. I put it up without authorization (I hadn’t considered that). Duly and quickly authorized, however, was its taking down.
As I grew as a Christian and my understanding of God’s grace expanded during my undergraduate and seminary years, my concern about nominalism in the church also grew. Many reported “conversions” came to seem obviously false to me. And I grew suspicious of the evangelism that had generated these inflated figures and, more importantly, these people both so assured and so inactive.
During my doctoral studies, however, about ten years ago, my mind began to focus even more on the topic of the church, and especially on the centrality of the local congregation. I remember having a jarring conversation one day with a friend who worked with a parachurch ministry. He and I attended the same church. I had joined when we had first moved to the city; he, a couple of years later, had chosen merely to attend. And even in his attendance, he would come only for the morning service, and then only half-way through when it was time for the sermon. So one day, I decided to ask him about this.
He responded with his typical honesty and transparency. “I don’t really get anything out of the rest of the service,” he said. “Have you ever thought of joining the church?” I asked. Genuinely surprised, with an innocent chuckle he responded, “Join the church? I honestly don’t know why I would do that. I know what I’m here for, and those people would just slow me down.”
Those words sound cold when I read them, but they were uttered with the typical, genuine, humble warmth of a gifted evangelist wanting not to waste one hour of the Lord’s time. He wanted to put his time to the best use possible, and all the concerns and attendant bothers about officially joining a church seemed utterly irrelevant.
“Slow me down”—the words reverberated in my mind. “Slow me down.” My mind raced with various thoughts, but all I said was a simple question—”But did you ever think that if you link arms with those people, yes, they may slow you down, but you may help to speed them up? Have you thought that might be a part of God’s plan for them, and for you?”
The conversation went on, but the crucial, crystallizing portion of it for my own thinking was done. God intends to use us in each other’s lives—even at what would sometimes appear to be a spiritual cost to us.
At the same time, my studies in Puritanism were affording me the opportunity to read the developing theological debates about church polity in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. The Grand Debate at the Westminster Assembly was particularly interesting to me. I was attracted to the contention of some of the “Independents” or “Congregationalists” that, essentially, pastoral authority be tied to pastoral relationship. Their arguments that the local congregation was also the final judicatory in matters of discipline and doctrine seemed biblically persuasive (see Matt. 18:17; I Cor. 5; II Cor. 2; Gal.; II Tim. 4). The role of both the pastor and the congregation seemed to be taking on a new importance in my mind for how the average Christian is to live out the Christian life.
Then, in 1994, I became a senior pastor. While I had always respected the office of elder and had already served in two churches as an elder, taking on the role of the only recognized elder in a congregation caused me to reflect further (and closer to home) on the importance of the office. Texts such as James 3:1 (“judged more strictly”) and Hebrews 13:17 (“must give an account”) loomed larger in my mind.
Circumstances conspired to emphasize to me the importance with which God regards the local church. I remember reading a quote by John Brown, who, in a letter of paternal counsels to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation, wrote, “I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.” As I looked out over the congregation I had charge of, I felt the weightiness of such an accounting to God.
This lesson continued to be brought home to me through my regular weekly work. In preaching through the gospels, and then the epistles, I had occasion again and again to refine notions of Christian love, pointing out that while some texts do teach that we Christians are to love everyone (e.g., I Thess. 3:12), many of the texts classically used to teach this really have to do with our loving one another. I remember preaching from Matthew 26, pointing out that the instructions about giving cups of cold water were for “the least of these brothers of mine,” and having one person come up afterwards and tell me that I had ruined her “life verse”!
To me, however, all the “each other” and “one another” passages began to come alive and to enflesh the theological truths that I had known about God caring for his church. As I’ve preached through Ephesians 2-3, it’s become clear to me that the church is the center of God’s plan to display his wisdom to the heavenly beings. When Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders, he referred to the church as something that “God bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). And, of course, on the road to Damascus earlier when Saul was interrupted on his course of persecuting Christians, the risen Christ did not ask Saul why he persecuted these Christians, or even the church; rather, Christ so identified with his church that the accusing question he put to Saul was “why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). The church was clearly central in God’s eternal plan, in his sacrifice, and in his continuing concern.
Perhaps all this may seem like more of an explanation for the centrality of ecclesiology than for a local church, but as I’ve preached through the Bible from week to week, what is undeniable to me is that Tyndale’s decision to translate ecclesia as “congregation” was a good one! The importance of the network of relationships that make up a local church is the venue in which our discipleship is lived out.
Love is largely local. And the local congregation, then, is the place which claims to display this love for all the world to see. So Jesus taught his disciples in John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.”
I have seen friends and family alienated from Christ because they perceive this or that local church to have been such a terrible place. And I have seen friends and family come to Christ because they have seen exactly this love that Jesus taught and lived—the love for one another, the kind of selfless love that he showed—and they’ve felt the natural human attraction to it. So the congregation—the congregation as the sounding board of the Word—has become more central to my understanding of evangelism, and of how we should pray and plan to evangelize.
The congregation has also become more central to my understanding of how it is that we are to discern true conversion in others, and how we are to have assurance of it ourselves. I remember being struck by I John 4:20-21 when preparing to preach on it: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. . . . Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” James 1 and 2 carry the same message. This love doesn’t seem to be optional.
More recently, this consideration of the centrality of the congregation has brought about in my thinking a new respect for the local congregation’s discipline—formative and corrective. It’s clear that if we are to depend upon each other in our congregations, there must be discipline as a part of discipleship. And if there is to be the kind of discipline that we see in the New Testament, we must know others, be committed to them, and let them know us.
We must also have some trust of authority. All the practicalities of trusting authority in marriage, home, and church are hammered out on the local level. Misunderstanding this, and coming to dislike and resent authority, seems very near to what the Fall was all about. Consequently, understanding this seems very near the heart of God’s gracious work of reestablishing his relationship with us—a relationship of authority and love together.
All in all, I can see why Christians in the past treated non-attendance as so important a matter. And I think I can see what damage began to be done on so many levels when we began watching those membership and attendance lines diverge. Shifting decisions about church attendance from being matters of concern for the entire congregation to being simply matters of private decisions—not our business—have wrought havoc in our congregations, and in the lives of many people who once attended them.
Now I’ve got more questions tumbling around in my mind, questions about seminaries and “Christian leaders” who are someplace different every weekend, and pastors who don’t understand the importance of the congregation, and the poor sheep who wander like so many frustrated consumers from one congregation to another. Lord willing, the decade to come should be as interesting as the one just passed.
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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb ’02 issue of Modern Reformation and has been revised and reprinted here with permission. Modern Reformation can be found online at www.modernreformation.org.