You Can’t Love Jesus Without Loving His Church
Have you ever heard someone say, “I am into Jesus, but not the church”?
My first encounter with “Jesus, yes; church, no” theology came as a newly-minted pastor. My wife and I were hosting an open house in the church parsonage. About half-a-dozen young families attended, and all was going as planned until I began to talk about church membership. One gentleman in attendance pressed me on the topic, arguing the concept was unbiblical. I squirmed and tried to answer. Undaunted, he continued to press his case.
The conversation caught me a bit flat- footed, and forced me into an on-the-spot apologetic for the local church. For a moment, I felt uncertain and embarrassed by my lack of a clear answer.
And yet, what I intuitively knew then, and have come to understand more fully, is that Christianity is inextricably linked to the local church. In fact, the local church is the New Testament’s expression of Christianity. The New Testament depicts the Christian and the local church together, like hand in glove.
As I serve the church now more broadly as a seminary president, I consistently bump into two unhealthy extremes—both of which misestimate the role of the church.
First, and most common, is spiritual individualism.
This extreme so prioritizes a personal relationship with Christ that it forgets the role of the church altogether. To many evangelicals, conversion is a personal encounter with Christ and growth in Christ is, too. One is nourished spiritually through books, conferences, podcasts, para-church ministries, and Bible studies.
The other extreme is an overly institutional approach to Christianity.
In its most unhealthy form, this is seen in traditional Roman Catholicism that holds “no salvation outside the church,” and necessitates receiving the sacraments for salvation.
But some evangelicals operate just one tick away. This institutional error equates salvation with church membership and Christian growth with church activity.
Both of these extremes misunderstand the Christian life. Conversion is an individual experience that’s intended to become a congregational reality. It’s simply impossible to conceptualize New Testament Christianity apart from the local church.
THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL, THE CHURCH LOCAL
Another common misconception concerns the church universal and the church local. The church universal refers to all the redeemed in the history of the world. The church universal is often called the “invisible church” because we ultimately aren’t able to know who or how many comprise it.
And yet, almost every reference of “church” in the New Testament is about the local church. By local church, I mean a group of Christians who have covenanted together to gather regularly for worship and ministry.
Again, many today argue that church membership isn’t in the Bible. But the early church did keep a roll, at least in some form. We see the early church mentioning the number of additions and baptisms. We see them talking about both inclusion in and exclusion from the church. How could the New Testament authors report on these matters without some kind of a membership roll?
THE NEW TESTAMENT & THE CHURCH
More broadly, when you survey the New Testament, you see it’s all about the church. In Matthew 16, Jesus declared, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18). Jesus fulfilled this promise through his own death, having shed his blood for the church (see Acts 20:28).
The book of Acts begins with the birth of the church through Peter’s preaching at Pentecost. The book continues as the church spreads throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond through the apostles’ preaching and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, the New Testament epistles were all written to or about churches. In them, the authors explain what churches are to believe and teach, and how they ought to minister and organize themselves. At the end of the New Testament—the book of Revelation—the apostle John records Jesus’ seven letters to seven churches and punctuates the Bible’s conclusion with Jesus’ dramatic return for his bride, the church.
On the road to Damascus, Jesus likens the church to himself. Remember what he said to Saul? “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
Simply put, how one views, engages, and treats Jesus’ church reflects how one views, engages, and treats Jesus himself.
SUM IS GREATER THAN ITS PARTS
When local churches gather, the sum is greater than the parts—especially as it pertains to their collective worship, collective ministry, and collective witness.
In the New Testament, we see that local churches gathered in homes to sit under the teaching of the Word and to break bread together. As the church developed, we see the primacy of gathering for worship on the first day of the week—the day of Christ’s resurrection.
In fact, those who neglected gathering with God’s people received a stern warning. The author of Hebrews exhorted believers not to “neglect to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25).
Believers today would be wise to heed this advice and to join a church body for all the benefits of collective worship, as well as encouraging others to do the same.
When you became a believer, God granted you spiritual gifts for the edification of the local church. Reflect on the following passage:
And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. (Eph. 4:11–13)
Let me encourage you to dust off your spiritual gifts and employ them with great joy to edify fellow believers in the church, and to reach the lost for Christ.
C.H. Spurgeon once said, “If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all; and the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.”1
It’s vital to understand that there is no perfect church. That’s because every local church is comprised of sinners—redeemed sinners. So don’t be a perennial church shopper. As my seminary professor, Chip Stam, often reminded the class, “The maturing believer is easily edified.”
God uses each of his children’s gifts in a unique way to fulfill the mission he has for the church as a whole. Make sure that you’re upholding your end of the bargain. After all, a lone-ranger Christian doesn’t make a good witness for Christ. Ultimately, Jesus has redeemed you to be a creature in community—a Christian living out the gospel in covenant with other Christians in a local church.
1 C. H. Spurgeon and Tom Carter, Spurgeon at His Best: Over 2200 Striking Quotations from the World’s Most Exhaustive and Widely-Read Sermon Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988).
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Editor’s note: This article has been adapted with permission from Being a Christian: How Jesus Redeems All of Life by Jason K. Allen. Copyright 2018, B&H Publishing Group.