Someone once told me that when writing it’s best to start with your conclusion. So here it is: worshipping with a local church community is the logical outcome of believing the good news about Jesus.
I hear many gospel presentations. They are theologically robust and heartfelt. Yet in many cases, I’m offered a ‘churchless’ gospel. Believing the gospel is separated from involvement in the Church. The Church seems unnecessary. It might be a helpful, encouraging community, but that is hardly motivation enough to convince me to give up hours of my time throughout the week. I suggest that we need to capture a deeper, more compelling view of the Church; a view that has the gospel as its foundation.
Whenever we proclaim the gospel, it must ultimately be a call to believe and live within the context of a local community of disciples. This is the pattern of the New Testament and early Church. The Church was more than simply an encouraging community – vital though that is. The Church was a reflection of the gospel at work. God reconciling all people to Himself and in the process breaking down divisions between people.
A subtle shift in emphasis may help us here. More often than not I am temped to primarily understand Jesus’ death as something done for me, an indivdual. Yet in Ephesians 5, where Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives, we are given the example of Jesus and the church. Jesus gave up his life for a people, the church. I, as an individual, have been saved into a community.
The early Christians were drawn from all moral, political and social classes. A former zealot shared communion with a Roman-serving tax collector. Former prostitutes shared communion with Pharisees. Jew and Gentile, men and women, slave and free embraced one another as family. They were all bound together by the gospel. You only need to read the New Testament to know that this was not always easy. Division, arguments and factions were all too common. Yet the New Testament writers encouraged their hearers to persevere. As the writer of Hebrews says: “Let us not neglect meeting together as some have made a habit.”
I understand that many people may find this idea difficult – even problematic. There are Christians who prefer to remain unaffiliated with a local church community. In many ways, I can identify. The Church has hurt me. I have wept and come close to losing my faith because of it. At times I have known the appeal of leaving the church behind and following Jesus solo. Perhaps you do experience that same temptation. Stopping to hang out with a homeless guy can feel more faithful to the message of Jesus that purposefully spending time with Christians who make you feel uncomfortable, or worse.
Yet that makes my belonging all the more necessary. Every meal, Sunday worship service and small group meeting with our church family declares that we believe the gospel. When we love those whom we find difficult, when we are difficult and are loved in return, we declare the gospel to the watching world. When Saul was accosted on the road to Damascus, Jesus asked him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Persecuting the church was persecuting Jesus. I suggest that loving Jesus must therefore lead to loving the church. And we cannot love the church if we remain outside of it.
Jesus said to his disciples: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We cannot truly love one another if we are isolated from church community. The Church remains the primary expression of God’s redeeming love in the world. When I worship and serve with my church community, I’m embodying the reality of the gospel message. I am reconciled with God and He calls me to love and be reconciled with his followers, the Church.
A gospel without the Church is incomplete.