Years ago, another elder and I met with a couple in their home to talk about their church membership. They were members of our church but did not attend corporate worship with us. In fact, I don’t think they’d joined us for corporate worship in years. They were essentially strangers.
When meeting with this couple, the husband seemed disinterested in our church and church in general. I don’t think he believed he needed a local church, and he didn’t show any desire to be an active part of ours or any others. However, the wife felt differently. She strongly desired to continue to be a member of our church. Her desire was quite strange, though, considering she attended another church and didn’t plan on regularly worshiping with us. Why didn’t she just submit herself to her other church? Why would you want to be a member of a church from which you plan to be perpetually estranged? That’s very odd. It’s like insisting you’re on the football team while you doggedly refuse to ever practice with the team or show up to the games.
Someone close to me has two friends. You may know people like this. These two friends profess to be Christians, and yet, because they had painful experiences in local churches, they no longer attend corporate worship anywhere. They stopped joining with other believers to receive and respond to God’s means of grace every week. No preaching. No sacraments. No corporate prayer and praise. No hearing the Scriptures read. No declaration of pardon. No spiritual oversight of shepherds. No true fellowship and mutual accountability. Jesus told the Apostle Peter, “Feed my lambs . . . Tend my sheep . . . Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17). To be estranged from Christ’s means of grace in a local church is spiritual anorexia, and spiritual anorexia leads to spiritual malnutrition or worse spiritual starvation and death.
It is not unheard of that professing Christians refuse to feast on God’s means of grace by refusing to even come to the table. But, though this problem of estrangement is somewhat common, isn’t it peculiar that those who identify themselves with Christ turn away from Christ and his grace provided them in a local church? It’s strange to recoil from the presence of the one you claim to love. Christ is building his church through his ordained means of grace and for those who claim to love Christ to turn away from him and his provision of grace is puzzling and heartbreaking. Do they know deep down that they are getting weaker and weaker the more they keep themselves from the nourishment of their Lord?
I doubt this is as big a problem in countries where you can be killed for belonging to a local church. See, in those places, the cost of true discipleship is too high for the apathetic and nominal. Persecution has a way of weeding out the uncommitted. But in the United States and other western countries, identifying as a Christian provides certain social, cultural, psychological, relational, and even financial benefits. So, many people self-identify as Christians while openly and obviously refusing the grace, sustenance, and blessings of Christ provided only in a local church.
The problem that I’ve been describing exists because many people who confess Christ don’t understand the gospel and how the gospel shapes the church and their solidarity with the church, specifically a local church. They don’t understand that the gospel unites them to Christ and the catholic church which is expressed or seen in local churches around the world including in their towns.
I’m beginning a new series on what it means for you as a Christian to be part of a local church. How should you behave in the household of God? What specifically should you do as a church member? You confess Christ. Marvelous. Now what? As one who confesses Jesus as the Christ and Son of God, what should you do practically in or for or with your local church? I really want this series to be practical for you. I want this series to encourage you to be a more faithful and joyful and helpful member of your local church. I love the local church, and I love belonging to a local church. And more and more I’m coming to realize how my local church loves and benefits me, and how much I need it. I hope the same is true for you.
I said earlier that “the gospel unites [believers] to Christ and the catholic church which is expressed or seen in local churches around the world.” The word “catholic” flusters some Protestants, and I think it does so because many Protestants confuse the word “catholic” which means “universal” with Romanism or the Roman Catholic Church. As I argued in episode 76, if you are a Christian, you are a catholic Christian. This doesn’t mean you’re a Romanist; it means you truly belong to Christ and the church Christ has been gathering from the Garden of Eden.
Understand that in order to belong to the one true church of Jesus Christ, you must actually belong to Christ. You must be united to Christ by true faith. Before we ever get to how to act in a local church, we must think about belonging to Christ.
Heidelberg 1 is a great place to start. Your only comfort in life and death is that you are not your own. You belong with body and soul to Jesus Christ your faithful Savior. Why? How? Well, Jesus has fully paid for all your sins with his precious blood. He has set you free from all the power of the devil and your propensity to run from the church. He is, by his immense and divine power, preserving you in the salvation he gave you. He is working all things for your eternal good. He has given you his Holy Spirit to live in you, not only to assure you of your salvation but to compel you to live for him in all that he commands you.
So, to truly belong to Christ means that you are no longer your own. You now belong to Christ. Paul told the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Christians are not their own. Christians belong to Christ because Christ purchased them with his blood. Christians are now “slaves of Christ” (1 Cor. 7:22; Eph. 6:6; 1 Pet. 2:16). Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).
So, a believer shows their love for Christ and confirms that they belong to Christ by obeying the commands of Christ. Notice that in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, before Paul wrote “So glorify God in your body,” Paul first wrote, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” Before we glorify God in how we relate to a local church, we must know that we are slaves of Christ. The more we comprehend that because of Christ we belong to Christ, the more we will comprehend how we ought to obey Christ in the context of our local church.
I think many professing Christians are estranged from a local church and its myriad benefits because they simply don’t understand the gospel or what it means to belong to Christ. We’ll unpack much more in the coming weeks and months, but for now consider that before believers can understand how they ought to relate to a local church, they need to be firmly convinced that they belong to Christ. Belonging to Christ is paramount, and when you truly belong to Christ, you will come to realize more and more that you also belong to the body of Christ, the church, and that you are not only united to Christ, you are united to many other believers who are also united to Christ. These truths change everything when you begin to think about how to act in a local church. Till next time.
Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism and creeds are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism: True Comfort for Life & Death (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 395.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.