Doctrine of the Church

Commitment to the Local Church, Part 2

This post is a continuation of a prior post on commitment to the local church.

Commit to Serve in Your Local Church

The fourth commitment you should make when it comes to the local church is the commitment to serve the other members of your church. By serving one another we are simply following the example of Jesus himself who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This is why the apostle Paul commands his churches: “through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). Paul also tells us that it is for the purpose of empowering us to serve one another that God has given each Christian spiritual gifts: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). While it is true that we should be willing to serve anyone with whom we come into contact, in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is specifically writing to the local church in Corinth and the implication of verses 4-7 is that the spiritual gifts God had given the believers in that church were to be used to serve one another. In other words, while the local church is not the only place we should serve using our spiritual gifts, it is the primary place we should serve using our spiritual gifts. Every disciple should ask themselves, how am I contributing to the health and mission of my local church through serving?

Commit to Give through Your Local Church

A fifth commitment that every Christian should make to their local church is the commitment to give through their local church. Giving through your local church is really just another way of serving the family of disciples that you are most responsible for serving. In the Old Testament, believers were expected to tithe (literally “give a tenth”) of all of their finances to the temple. This money would then be used to support the worship practices that took place in the temple, to support the priests whose full time job was to minister in the temple, and to help meet the needs of the needy among the covenant community. These needs still exist in the new covenant community, and so it is no surprise that the New Testament also emphasizes the need for believers to give financially. Christians are expected to give for two main reasons: (1) to support the church’s ministry and mission, and (2) to support the church’s poor and needy.

The expectation to support the church’s ministry and mission can be seen, for example, in Paul’s statement that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). This means that pastors and missionaries should be supported financially, just like the priests in the Old Testament, so they can focus their time and energy on the ministry of the gospel. This is what Paul has in mind in 1 Timothy 5:17-18, when he says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” This means that a church should give financial support to its pastors, especially the pastors who do the majority of the preaching and teaching ministry. And since pastors are shepherds of particular local churches, the expectation is that the members of each local church should be the ones to support their pastors in this way. Beyond supporting the pastors, it is also important that each member give through their local church because of the practical needs that exist in a church if ministry is to take place (e.g., paying for a meeting place and its upkeep, providing supplies for various ministries, etc.).

The second expectation for giving (support for the church’s poor and needy) is seen in many places in the New Testament. For example, Acts 4:34-35 says that one of the reasons the members of the local church in Jerusalem gave was to take care of their own poor and needy church members: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” This is what Paul has in mind in his discussion of the widows list in 1 Timothy 5:3-16 as well. Godly widows with no other source of support, could be “enrolled” (v. 9), and from then on they would be financially supported by their local church. In order for a local church to support needy church members in this way, its members must give financially through their local church. Are you giving financially through your local church so that the ministry and mission of your church can be supported and so that the poor and needy of your church can be taken care of?

Commit to Being a Peacemaker in Your Local Church

The sixth commitment you should make to your local church is the commitment to being a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9). God desires for his people to live in unity with one another and to avoid factions and divisions (1 Corinthians 1:10). But being this kind of church is not easy. Peace doesn’t just happen in a local church, peace must be made. Being a peacemaker means that you support the church’s leadership (Hebrews 13:17), that you show grace and a willingness to be slow to anger to fellow church members (James 1:19-20), and that you live selflessly in the family of God, caring for other people’s needs more than your own (Philippians 2:3-4). People who refuse to be peacemakers in the church, and instead choose to be troublemakers in the church are destroying the temple of God (i.e., the church). And people who destroy the temple of God are setting themselves up for God’s discipline. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you [plural] are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17). Are you working to make peace in your church?

Application & Setting Goals

How can a Christian discover his or her spiritual gifts? Using our spiritual gifts can be done through official volunteer roles (e.g., nursery) as well as in unofficial life-on-life contexts. Discuss how we can use our gifts to serve one another in both of these ways.

While it’s great to give to parachurch ministries, why should giving through your local church have the priority? What hinders people from giving through their local church? If you don’t currently give through your church, we challenge you to start this Sunday.

How can we proactively contribute to the peace and unity of our church and avoid divisions? Have you seen positive and negative examples of this in past churches?

Commitment to the Local Church, Part 1

Commit to Membership in Your Local Church

The first commitment you need to make when it comes to the local church is the commitment to becoming an official member of your local church. Some say that “church membership” is not in the Bible. But while the exact words “church membership” are not in the Bible, the concept of church membership certainly is.

When we say “church membership,” what we are talking about is simply identifying with one particular local church. The New Testament assumes that every Christian will be part of a specific, identifiable, local group of Christians. There is no room in the New Testament for a Christian who floats around from church to church without ever being a meaningful part of one particular church. There are two main evidences for this in Scripture.

The first evidence for local church membership in the New Testament is the evidence from church discipline. There are passages of Scripture in which Christians are called to “discipline” or “hold people accountable” for sins they commit, and in those passages it is clear that it is one’s local church to which one is accountable. For example, in Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus tells his disciples what they are to do if their “brother” (i.e., fellow Christian) sins against them. First, they are to go to them in private and call on the sinning brother or sister to repent. If the person does not repent, then the second step is to take two or three witnesses with you and call on him or her to repent again. If they do not listen to the two or three witnesses and still refuse to repent, then the third step is to “take it to the church” (v. 17). What could that last phrase mean apart from an expectation that Jesus’ disciples would be a meaningful part of a particular local church? Doesn’t “take it to the church” imply that they are to take the issue at hand to their particular local church? And if that is the case, then doesn’t that imply that each disciple has in some meaningful way identified with a particular local church? They aren’t to take the issue to just any old church down the street. They are to take the issue to the particular local church to which they and the erring member belong. This same expectation is seen in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul deals with a specific case of church discipline and tells the local church in Corinth that they should “purge the evil person from among you” (v. 13). Purge him from among whom? Evidently Paul expected that this unrepentant brother was a “member” of the local church in Corinth and it was from that particular local church group that he was to be purged.

The second type of evidence for local church membership in the New Testament has to do with church leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” This verse means that pastors, as church leaders, will have to give an account one day in judgment for how they have watched over the souls of certain people. The question is how does a pastor know for whom he will have to give an account on the day of judgment? Will I (Pastor Grant) have to give an account for how I have watched over the souls of all the Christians in Jackson, TN? If not, then for which Christians am I responsible? The answer is I and the other pastors of Calvary are responsible for watching over the souls of those people who have committed to our local church’s membership. In other words, pastoral ministry as watching over the souls of fellow Christians and giving an account for them on the day of judgment only makes sense if every Christian is part of an identifiable group of Christians—a local church.

Commit to Corporate Worship in Your Local Church

The second commitment you need to make as a church member is the commitment to corporate worship with your local church. Corporate worship gatherings have been an important part of what it means to worship the God of the Bible ever since Israel took part in that first worship gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-20, when they assembled together to receive God’s Word and worship him. From then on, the people of Israel had regular corporate worship gatherings for the same purpose. This pattern continued in the New Testament. For example, the very first church in Jerusalem met “in the temple” for corporate worship, as well as “house to house” for fellowship (see Acts 2:46). Likewise, Paul refers to the “whole church” gathering together in Corinth in corporate worship (Acts 16:23; 1 Corinthians 11:18). It is not enough to fellowship with a subgroup of your local church. You should be committed to corporate worship with the whole church body as well.

Commit to Fellowship in Your Local Church

The third commitment you should make as a member of your local church is the commitment to fellowship. You should be committed to making deep and meaningful relationships with your fellow church members for the purpose of spurring them on in their spiritual growth. How else will you be able to carry out all the “one another” commands of Scripture (“love one another,” “pray for one another,” “encourage one another,” “admonish one another,” “rebuke one another,” etc.)? This is why the early church in Jerusalem, which numbered in the thousands, was committed to meeting in smaller groups than just the large corporate worship gathering in the temple. They met in various homes scattered throughout the city because those smaller groups were more conducive to fostering relationships, community, and fellowship. It was in this context that Christians could form the bonds required for doing the Christian life together. It’s what made it possible for them to “devote themselves to the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). This is what we try to accomplish through Sunday school classes at Calvary.

Questions for Reflection

Why is important to become an official member of a local church and not just hop around from church to church?

Why is it important to be a part of the large group corporate worship gathering of your local church and not just a small subgroup within the local church?

What does it take to have genuine, as opposed to surface-level, fellowship?

What Is the Local Church & Why Is It Important?

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What Is the Local Church?

A short definition of “the local church” is that it is a local assembly of disciples committed to obeying Jesus together. Let’s look at this definition in more detail.

The Local Church Is a Local Assembly of Disciples . . .

The local church is a local assembly of disciples. It is not enough to be a part of the universal church (all Christians throughout the world and throughout time). Every believer needs a healthy local expression of the church to which they can belong. This is why every Christian should join a church within a reasonable distance from where they live (i.e., local). In the New Testament, almost every time the word “church” is used, it is a reference to a local church. Many of the teachings from Jesus and the apostles would make no sense apart from an expectation that Christians would identify with and commit to a specific group of local believers (e.g., Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13).

The local church is a local assembly of disciples. It is also not enough to see yourself as part of the community of Christians within your city or county. A local church is by definition a group of Christian disciples who assemble together on a regular basis for worship and edification. The Greek word for “church” (ekklesia) can literally be translated “assembly.” This is what is in mind when the author of Hebrews says, “And 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).

The local church is a local assembly of disciples. The membership of a local church must be restricted to actual disciples (i.e., Christians). Of course, non-Christians are welcome to attend worship services, small group meetings, and various other ministries, but to be a part of God’s church is by definition to be one of Christ’s disciples. This is why when Peter confessed to believe that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus responded that it was on that confession that he would “build his church” (see Matthew 16:16-18). In order to be a part of the church Christ is building, you must be a “believer.”

. . . Committed to Obeying Jesus Together.

What is each local assembly of disciples supposed to do? Much could be said here, but the short answer is: obey Jesus together. Jesus said that once people are converted and baptized they are to be taught to obey all that Christ has commanded (Matthew 28:20). The New Testament teaches that the local church is the primary context in which disciples are taught how to obey Christ’s commands. This is why when the first local church was established, it says they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread [i.e., Lord’s Supper] and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Notice, the believers did not try to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching” alone; rather, they devoted themselves to God’s Word together with their fellow church members.

Why Is the Local Church Important?

There are at least three primary reasons for why the local church is important.

For the Edification of Believers

One of the main reasons the local church is important is because we need other Christians who will live out the Christian life alongside us. We need their encouragement (Hebrews 10:25), their accountability (Matthew 18:15-17), and the benefit of their spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Corinthians 12:4-31). If you are not a vital part of a local church, you will not grow as you should and you will not contribute to the growth of others as you should.

For the Advancement of the Gospel

Another reason the local church is important is because it is God’s plan “A” for the advancement of the gospel. The local church is responsible for reaching its community with the gospel, and it is responsible for raising up and sending out those who will take the gospel to communities around the world that need to hear the gospel (see Acts 13:1-3).

For the Glory of God

Finally, when a local church functions as it is supposed to function, it is a reflection of God’s glory in a dark world. Paul says that it is “through the church” that “the manifold wisdom of God is made known” (Ephesians 3:10). Notice, it is not through the Christian individual that God’s wisdom and glory are displayed; rather, it is through the church (a local assembly of disciples committed to obeying Jesus together) that the wisdom and glory of God are displayed.

So, what is the local church and why is it important? Answer: the local church is a local assembly of disciples committed to obeying Christ together, and it is important because through the local church believers are edified, the gospel is advanced, and God is glorified.

Assembly Is Essential Too: A Response to J. D. Greear

One of the major arguments used to support multi-site church structure (one church in multiple locations) is that the idea of covenant is what constitutes a group of people as a church, not the idea of assembly. In other words, as long as a group of believers have covenanted together it really doesn’t matter if they all assemble together or not, they can still consider themselves a church. Pastor J. D. Greear has made this argument. In a 2009 article for 9Marks, he wrote:

Some argue that since a local church is by definition an assembly, a multi-site strategy fundamentally skews the nature of a local church. The essence of a New Testament local church, however, is not “assembly” but “covenant body.” . . . “Assembly” is a much-needed function, but “covenant” is the essence.

He recently tweeted about it again, which prompted me to write this post. Let me explain what I consider to be the main problem with this argument.

The main problem with the argument that the essence of a church is “covenant body” and not “assembly” is that the biblical pattern reveals that covenant and assembly go hand in hand. More than that, the pattern is that a covenant is in fact established in the context of an assembly of the covenant partners. In other words, those entering into covenant with one another do so in the context of an assembly.*1*

To give an Old Testament example, when God established his covenant (the Mosaic Covenant) with Israel at Mt. Sinai, he did so in the context of an assembly of all the covenant partners. All Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the presence of God in a solemn assembly to receive the stipulations of the covenant (the Law). And it was in the context of this solemn assembly that the covenant was made. This gathering at Mt. Sinai was later referred to in Deuteronomy as “the day of the assembly” (Deut 9:10; 10:4; 18:16). It was on this day that the people of God were constituted as “the assembly of the Lord” (Num 16:3; Deut 23:1, 2, 3, 8; 1 Chr 28:8; Mic 2:5). The day the covenant was established was also the day the assembly was established—in fact, it was established in assembly. And this original covenant assembly of all Israel at Sinai became the basis for the other worship assemblies throughout the year when Israel would gather again in the Lord’s presence (Exod 23; Lev 23). Here’s the point of this example. The reason Israel could consider itself “the assembly of the Lord” was not only because it was a “covenant body,” but also because it was a group that was characterized by actually assembling together in one place—the assembly component was just as essential as the covenant component.

Brief Excursus
This would be a good place to respond to one of the key points in Greear’s argument against the church-as-assembly view. Greear believes that “if the local church is essentially an assembly, then it only exists when it assembles and only when all the members are present” (see the article mentioned above). This is simply not true. Israel is frequently referred to as “the assembly of the Lord” or “the congregation of the house of Israel” throughout the Old Testament whether they are actually in an assembled state or not. The reason for this is that the congregation or assembly of Israel is characterized by assembling together on a regular basis (first at Sinai, and then at other times every year). This is common sense, really. When we say Israel is the “assembly of the Lord” we mean that they are the group that is characterized by assembling together. In the same way, a New Testament “assembly” (church) is called an “assembly” (ekklesia) because it is a group that is characterized by assembling together.

Now this discussion of the Sinai assembly is not some random Old Testament example that has no bearing on the nature of the New Testament church. Without going into a lot of detail, let me simply say that the New Testament word for “church” (Greek: ekklesia, “assembly”) is based on the idea of Israel as the “assembly of the Lord” in the Old Testament. As Tom Schreiner puts it, “The term ‘church’ (ekklēsia) reaches back to the OT term qāhāl, denoting Israel as God’s assembly.”*2* In fact, I would argue that there is an entire biblical theology of the people of God as the “assembly of the Lord” that starts with Israel at Sinai and that is fulfilled in the “assembly” Jesus is building now (Matt 16:18), the New Testament “church.” This New Testament assembly, like it’s Old Testament counterpart, is an assembly of all the covenant partners (i.e., the new covenant). Spiritually, all of those new covenant partners are assembled right now in the heavenly places in Christ (Hebrews 12:18-24; note the comparison here to the Sinai assembly). Physically, that one heavenly assembly is manifested on earth in the form of multiple local assemblies or churches, each of which is a microcosm or manifestation of the one heavenly church.*3*

So, the old covenant assembly of the Lord was constituted as one assembly by virtue of the fact that the covenant partners were characterized by assembling together in one place—assembling together was essential. And the new covenant assembly of the Lord in its ultimate form (the universal church) is constituted as one assembly by virtue of the fact that the covenant partners are assembled right now in the heavenly places in Christ—the assembly is essential. So, the question is, why would we expect anything less from each local manifestation/microcosm of the new covenant assembly? It’s true for the Old Testament “assembly” (ekklesia in the Septuagint), and it’s true for the universal “assembly” (ekklesia) of the New Testament; so why when we see the New Testament authors referring to each local manifestation of this as an “assembly” (ekklesia throughout the New Testament) would we not assume that being characterized by all assembling together is essential if a group is to consider itself a local assembly? Yes, each local church is a “covenanted body” (a microcosm of the larger new covenant body), but each local church is also an “assembly” (a microcosm of the larger new covenant assembly).*4*

The pattern from Scripture is that for a group of people to be constituted as one assembly (or church) they must not only covenant together, but must also be characterized by assembling together as well. Covenant is essential, but assembly is too.

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1. Peter Gentry argues that “a formal and solemn ceremony,” which is what the Sinai assembly was, is what gives a covenant its “binding and quasi-legal status.” See Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, 152.

2. Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 694.

3. This is why, for instance, Paul can call the church in Corinth “the church in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2) and “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). As John Hammett states,“The local church is not regarded here [1 Cor 12:27] as merely a part of a larger body of Christ, but as the body of Christ in that place.” See John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 37. Hammett goes on to say, “This is another support for a proper understanding of the autonomy of the local church. No local church should be isolated, but no local church needs a larger body to complete it or enable it to function. It is the body of Christ, possessing full ecclesial status” (ibid.). Each local church is a local manifestation of the whole body of Christ and of the whole assembly of Christ. See chapter 4 of my dissertation on how the NT assembly is a fulfillment of the OT assembly, and see especially pages 76-90 on each local church being a manifestation in time and space of the ultimate heavenly church. The dissertation can be downloaded here.

4. I argue that local churches in the New Testament were in fact characterized by whole church gatherings in chapter 5 of my dissertation.

Review of Gregg Allison’s Book on the Doctrine of the Church

Sojourners and Strangers

Gregg R. Allison. Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Foundations of Evangelical Theology). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 496 pp. $40.00.

Gregg Allison’s new book is sure to be a standard work of ecclesiology for years to come. The title, Sojourners and Strangers, is taken from 1 Peter 2:11. With this title, Allison highlights the fact that the church lives within the tension of the already and not yet—the time between Christ’s first and second comings when our heavenly citizenship collides with our earthly experience.

Rather than provide a complete summary of this hefty volume, in this review I will first, give a brief sense of what the book does, and, second, offer two critiques of issues I find particularly important.

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Click here to read the rest of the review on The Gospel Coalition’s website.