During the pandemic and quarantine, there has been a lot of discussion about the nature of church, where and how it should be held, and if online services are consistent with scriptural commandments. While these discussions have been useful in evaluating our obedience to the command in Hebrews 10:24-25 not to forsake the assembly, there have been far fewer conversations recently about American evangelicalism’s long-standing neglect of participation in the local church. As the country begins to reopen and churches begin physical services again, we need a reminder of the biblical importance of assembling as the Body of Christ.
First, we need to make a distinction between the visible and invisible church. The invisible church is comprised of those for whom Christ died and have been united to Him by faith. The visible church is the outward expression of this spiritual truth. It is where we commune with God through His Word, receive the sacraments of communion and baptism, offer prayer together and for each other, edify one another through psalms, hymns, and songs, and meet one another’s needs through the spiritual and physical gifts God has provided us, among other functions (Acts 2:42-57; Eph. 4:11-12, 5:19).
Make no mistake; there is nothing mystical that happens in gathering by the light of stained glass. 1 Timothy 3:15 teaches us that the church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” Don’t confuse this with brick and mortar. The visible church is more about assembly than building, community rather than concrete. It involves the active (i.e., not invisible) participation of Christians assembled under the God-ordained authority of elders within a scripturally defined organizational structure. Ultimately, the visible church is how disciples are made, how the spiritual roll of the invisible church is increased in fulfillment of the Great Commission in Matthew 28.
George Barna has written that many evangelicals “are less interested in attending church than in being the church.” This is clear in how American evangelicals have devalued the necessity of the local church as God’s primary means for the sanctification of believers. It’s evident in demonstrations of priority, in placing our plans ahead of participation in corporate worship. It’s easier to sit at home and watch a sermon than have to sacrifice our schedules or be bothered with other people. How dare God ask us to give up a part of our weekend, let alone time throughout the week?
Compare that mindset with what we find in Scripture. In general, the epistles are either written directly to local churches or, when addressing individuals, discuss how the church and its members should behave and function. For example, consider how Paul tells the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 5:5 to expel the incestuous man from their fellowship, delivering him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Removal from the church is considered the most severe disciplinary measure, yet so many of today’s professing Christians are content to excommunicate themselves in practice.
The thinking is that one can be a member of the invisible church while eschewing the outward, visible demonstration of that membership. The deadliness of this line of thought is that you are treating yourself as an unbeliever when you cut yourself off from the visible representation of the church. Not only that, you are demonstrating to the world where your priorities lie. In doing so, you are veiling the glory of the Bride of Christ.
He cannot have God for his father who does not have the church for his mother.Augustine of Hippo
I’d wager that this apathy (or even outright antagonism) toward the local church also arises, in part, from a rebellion against authority, particularly in this post-Enlightenment era where individualism is valued above all other ideals. We’ve all been guilty of making little gods of ourselves, determining what is right in our own eyes without any regard for the gracious means of sanctification God has provided to us. It doesn’t help that the popular American church model is one without accountability or any semblance of church discipline. Members, if such rolls are even kept, can slink in and out of service with nothing more than a few nods and a wave, as if a checkmark of attendance alone fulfills their duty to the church. They never need know their elders nor do their elders have any functional authority in their lives. In many churches, the position of elder is nothing but an honorary title of respect anyway. (The irony is that men want this respect without fulfilling the duties of the position.)
By contrast, the Bible calls us to submit to church leaders as they are to keep watch over our souls (Hebrews 13:17). The leader of a parachurch organization or a pastor whom you’ve never met preaching an online sermon cannot biblically or practically fulfill that role in your life. Our motivation in submitting to church leadership is ultimately our desire to obey God in the context of the structure He has constructed. This divine-ordained structure is essential for both the unity and purity of the church. Though it’s difficult for our flesh, we should rejoice in discipline and accountability as these are tools by which we are being conformed to the image of Christ.
If no society or even a moderate family can be kept in a right state without discipline, much more necessary is it in the church whose state ought to be the best order possible. Hence as the saving doctrine of Christ is the life of the church so discipline is as it were its sinews; for to it is owing that the members of the body adhere together each in its own place. Wherefore all who either wish that discipline were abolished or who impede the restoration of it, whether they do this of design or thoughtlessness, certainly aim at the complete devastation of the church.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
The refusal to involve yourself in the affairs of the local church is nothing short of selfish. It’s the misguided belief that worship involves only you and God, but to disregard the pattern for worship God has laid out is to be disobedient in the very act of “worship,” making it solely about your personal spiritual fulfillment and thus idolatry of the self. We have been given gifts, both spiritual and physical, that we are meant to use for the edification of the Body not for our own glorification (Eph. 4:11-12). Galatians 6:2 tells us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” How is that possible apart from the assembly of believers? How can you meet the spiritual and physical needs of other Christians if you’ve distanced yourself from them, if you don’t even know who they are? And, since this blog is primarily for women, remember the roles we’ve been called to fulfill, those of teaching and ministering to younger women and children (1 Tim. 5:9-10; Titus 2:3-5). As Mack and Swavely write in Life in the Father’s House (pg. 114):
“Since there are more women and children in the world than men, what a mission field women have! Some women complain, “I don’t have anything to do for Christ.” But the women who say that usually are looking for an excuse because they do not really want to serve Christ sacrificially. Women can never legitimately say that they have nothing to do for Christ until they have taught every needy child and every needy woman in the church and in their community everything they know about the Word of God.”
In Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney writes that, “Modern man worships his work, works at his play, and plays at his worship.” This is the sad reality of evangelicalism in the West. So what is our response? Do we prioritize our own plans over participation in the local church? Do we ignore the structure laid out in Scripture? Do we treat The Lord’s Supper as optional, never mourning our lack of participation? Do we ignore or defy the shepherds placed over us? This is the most important question we must ask ourselves: Do we take our role as members of the Body seriously or do we have “better” things to do? (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 5:25-30)
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.James 1:22, ESV
Recommended Reading: Life in the Father’s House: A Member’s Guide to the Local Church by Wayne A. Mack and Dave Swavely