Why Christians Must Belong to a Local Church. Part 2
The first answer I gave as to why believers must belong to a local church is that the New Testament was written almost entirely to local churches, to provide instruction to believers in the context of the local church. The assumption in the New Testament is that believers will be part of a local church. This is why Paul plants local churches when he goes on his missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts. He doesn’t only preach the gospel to individuals and then leave them saved but in isolation from one another. Instead, he proclaims the gospel and then all those who are saved start gathering together as the church (Acts 14:21-23).
In fact, Paul understood the importance and primacy of the local church that even the (great) Apostle Paul submitted to the local church. The Lord called Paul through the local church to embark on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). Paul planted churches and appointed elders in those churches on his missionary journey (Acts 14). And when he completed his first missionary journey, Paul came back to the local church and reported to the local church all that the Lord had done (Acts 14:27-28). In many cases this is a far cry from what happens today with so many missionary organizations, and so called missionaries. However, I digress.
So, continuing on from the first reason I gave, the second reason why believers must belong to a local church is because believers already belong to the universal church. The local church refers to a group of believers duly constituted and gathering regularly for fellowship and worship at a certain locale (home or ‘church’ building). The universal church refers to all believers across the world. When a person hears the gospel of Jesus Christ and trust in Christ as Lord and Saviour, that person is born again (John 3:3-5, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 10:9-10)). Though salvation happens through faith alone by grace alone and not by taking up church membership, we cannot talk about a person being saved without talking about the church.
Salvation is more than deliverance from sin, the removal of guilt and the declaration of being justified. Salvation is also being united to Christ and sharing in all the benefits He earned for us through His death and resurrection. We are taught in the Bible that believers were baptized into Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:13) i.e. united to Christ and also to one another. Incidentally, the body of Christ is also known as the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). So then, when a person is saved they are joined to the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit and become a member of the church of the Lord Jesus, the body of Christ. In this sense, believers are the church and also gather as a church. Both are true!
Every believer is then therefore already a part of the church (universal) made up of all believers across the world. So, when the Bible speaks about Jesus’ relationship to church (e.g. build His church, died for the church, head of the church, loved His church, sanctifying His church) it refers in general to the universal church made up of all those who have come to believe on him. Therefore whether you belong to a local church or not –you are already part of the universal church of Jesus Christ and He is always adding to His church all those who come to believe on Him:
Acts 2:47 (NASB95)
47 . And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
So, the question of course now is, why belong to a local church if we are already part of the universal church? Why go to church if we are already the church? Well, the answer is simple: because this is the expectation, pattern and instruction of the New Testament.
I’ve already showed how the New Testament expects Christians to belong to a local church. The fact that most of the letters were written to local churches tells us that God’s ordinary means of instructing believers occur not only in private devotions but also importantly in the local church.
In addition to this, the instructions of the New Testament necessitates that Christians belong to a local church. We are taught that every believer has received a spiritual gift from God with which we serve one another (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12:1-11, 1 Peter 4:8-10). Since Christians have then been gifted by God, and ought to steward their gifts well, and use it for the edification of the body (1 Corinthians 12-14) the only place this could be done faithfully is in the context of a local church.
Furthermore, we are also taught throughout the New Testament that Christians ought to, “love one another” – John 13:34-35, “admonish another” – Romans 15:14, “consider one another” – Hebrews 10:24 , “comfort one another” – 1 Thess. 4;18, “encourage one another” – 1 Thess. 5:11, “edify one another” – 1 Thess. 5:11,, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” – James 5:16 . These biblical imperatives assume a close fellowship among believers and in order to be faithful in fulfilling these biblical imperatives it requires fellowship with a local body of believers.
We are also taught that Christians must submit to church leaders i.e. elders. This is so because Jesus has given leaders to the church as a gift (Ephesians 4:11) for the purpose of equipping the saints (Ephesians 4:12)) for the building up and maturity of the body (Ephesians 4:13-16). Believers are instructed to acknowledge spiritual leaders, love them and esteem them very highly – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. The writer of Hebrews makes this very clear when he writes, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you…” Hebrews 13:7. In the very same chapter he goes on to write, “ Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” – Hebrews 13:17. These instructions too, necessitate belonging to a local church and can only be faithfully followed when a believer accepts the New Testament pattern and priority of the local church.
In summary, believers are united to the body of Christ, the church, the moment they believe on Him as Lord and Saviour. They must then seek expression of this gloriously invisible reality in a visibly local church where they are instructed to serve one another, care for one another, and submit to the leaders Christ has appointed over them (i.e. elders).
When believers fail to commit and submit themselves to a local church they are disconnected from the pattern, instruction, and expectation of the New Testament. Moreover, they will find themselves struggling to heed many of the instructions intended to be fulfilled in a local church. Also, they inevitably do themselves a great disservice, as the Christian life was not intended to be lived in isolation of or in separation from the body of Christ.