September 11, 2014.
There are many people today that simply don’t like church. That place you have to go every Sunday morning, sing in a group where others can hear you, listen to some guy give some boring speech about something you don’t really care about. It’s that place where you get judged and told not to have any fun. Aren’t they a bunch of hypocrites anyway? They tell me not to do something, but there they are, going and doing something else they shouldn’t. Many people would agree with the Dalai Lama in his recent statement “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” People employ a mass of different reasons, some for good reason that should not happen, to dislike the church.
There is even a growing number of Christians who would rather work on their personal relationship with Jesus rather than do the whole “organized religion” thing. They don’t like going to church and think they can improve their holiness apart from the church. Maybe you fit into one of these two categories, and if you do, I ask you to please read on. I am not here to judge you or talk down to you in any way, but I am here to make a biblical case for why the church is so important and why your spiritual lives will certainly suffer apart from her. Take a few moments and consider these thoughts.
What Is the church?
I suppose the first place to start is defining what (or who) the church is. I’m sure many of you have heard the greek term for the church, ekklesia, which refers to a gathering or an assembly. The ancient Greek term referred to being “called out.” The church can be considered a local assembly of Christians or the greater Christian body as a whole. Thus, in a broad sense, if you are a Christian but don’t like the church, you are in some way referring to yourself as well; but I know you don’t mean it like that, just something to consider. The church is the “called out” by God, those who obey him in truth and spirit and are sealed with the Holy Spirit as the guarantee, or down payment, of our salvation (ref. Eph. 1:13). Whereas the church can indeed reference a particular group of Christians meeting in a particular place (the way it is most commonly used today) biblically, we must not forget that we are the church, the body of Christ, even when we walk outside our Church building.
With this grasp of the church in hand, we can move on to the major characteristic of the church: community. The point of the church is to have fellowship and togetherness.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the worldmay believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
Unity is a major, major theme that runs through the New Testament. I have written about it several times, once about the obstacles we face in obtaining unity, and it runs throughout my series on Ephesians. Unity is something the church has lost over the years, and this pains me. But this community didn’t originate with the church. Togetherness has always been in God’s plan.
I think part of our problem is living in the society of individualism we live in today. We are taught from a young age to focus on the individual as opposed to the family. This is different from eastern cultures, as they have a high focus on the family. Here’s what is interesting though: the church was established in an eastern culture! Even further, the children of Israel, God’s chosen people, were an eastern culture. You could even make the argument that this culture was established by God in the beginning. We tend to be very arrogant in defending our culture of individualism, but when it comes to God’s plan, it fits so much better in an Eastern context. We should read the bible from this viewpoint as that was the view when it was written. Let’s look at some examples.
Biblical examples of togetherness.
I guess we should start from the beginning, as our very existence points to God’s love of community. Why are we here? Because God wanted to have a relationship with mankind. At least that’s one of the reasons. I don’t claim to know the mind of God. In the creation, you can read how God made each part of the earth, each time calling it “good.” The first time he differs from this pattern is in verse 18 of Genesis one:
“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
This is a big deal. Everything that God created was good. When God created man, it was good. In this sense, “good” is not just above mediocre as we use the term today. It is spectacular (perhaps you should use a better adjective as this one sounds more kiddish than I mean). So on the flip side of that, when God says it is not good, that would mean it is really, really not good (again, too kiddish, so I will ask you to supply your own). From the beginning, we were not created to be alone. “No man is an island,” as the quote goes. God never intended us to live in solitude.
But the story continues with “be fruitful and multiply,” and that is precisely what they did after the fall. The family unit was built and prevailed throughout the people of God. When God called Abraham out of his homeland and gave him that great promise that though him all nations would be blessed, he took his wife and nephew with him. When God sent Moses to bring his people out of Egyptian bondage, it was all or nothing (Pharaoh tried to just let Moses take a group of the people to worship). When God made his people a nation, it was in 12 tribes. Judges ruled the people, prophets spoke to the people and kings ruled over the people. The point I’m making is that it was always the people, not just one individual. Even when the leaders were singled out, such as Moses, Joshua and David, it was always in reference to helping the people as a whole. God loved his people. Even when they rejected him and he promised destruction, he reserved that a remnant would be saved. A remnant, not just one person.
Let’s look to the words of the wise man and the words of the Psalms.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
The wise man gives a general truth on life here. There is power in numbers. There is safety in numbers. There is comfort in numbers. Two really is better than one, and three more so. This logic continues on until you see that the community as a whole is better than the individual.
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!”
Psalm 22 is a Messianic prophecy that speaks of the coming Christ. What would he come in context? His brothers, in the midst of the congregation. Community. Even when the prophet Elijah thought he was indeed alone, the only one left who would stand for the Lord, God informed him otherwise.
“And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said,“I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” […] Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
(I Kings 19:13-14, 18)
What about when the Christ did come? Remember the story of the young boy who stayed back at the temple when his parents left for home?
“And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him.”
We usually focus on where they found Jesus in this story, but I just want to point out the community that was involved here. His parents trusted and relied so much on the community of people with them that they didn’t notice that Jesus wasn’t there. It was just expected that he was with the group. I think this is hard for us to wrap our Western minds around. But I could go on and on with examples of community before the church was established, but I will let these be sufficient for now. Let’s move on to the church itself.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lordadded to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
This is the church just after it was established. Read that passage a few times and imagine what it was like. Is it comparable to our churches today? Is it what we strive to be? Is this level of community even what we want? In the first century, being a Christian was a big deal. If you through off your Jewish faith (not even through it off, just claimed Jesus as the Messiah), they would have no dealings with you. Actually, they would get to the point where they would persecute or even kill you. If you lived in a time a little later than this and further from Jerusalem, Jewish persecution might be less of a worry, but Roman persecution was on the rise. Christians were attacks from all sides, so they had to cling to one another. This sense of community must have been phenomenal! You knew who was on your side to the end, and you could put your trust in your fellow brothers and sisters. What a relief that must have been. Today, it really isn’t as hard to be a “Christian” in the sense of being able to claim Christ as Lord without fear of harm. But I think this actually makes the Christian walk harder in some ways, especially when it comes to the Christian community that seems to be dwindling. We aren’t as connected to one another, and we don’t have as much drive to meet together as an assembly. I think this is detrimental to our souls.
Further, the church is the bride of Christ.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
Perhaps what gets to me the most when I hear someone downplaying the church is the fact that Jesus died for the church. He didn’t die for you. He didn’t die for me. “Woah! What did he just say?!” Now that I have your attention, let me explain. Jesus came to this earth to offer himself as a sacrifice of reconciliation for all mankind, granting to us the opportunity of salvation, all who will choose to join Him. So yes, he died for both you and me, but not us individually. He died and rose again for all. Once for all, that we all might have the opportunity to be with Him forever. Does that make sense? Jesus didn’t offer a sacrifice for just Walter Harrington who would live in the early 2,000s, but for Walter Harrington and everyone else in the world. I suppose you could make the argument that if only one person accepted his salvation then in essence he died for one person, but that is not what happened in practice, so the point is mute. Jesus died for the church, because he loved the church.
It’s kind of hard to love Jesus, but not love what He loved.
I say all this to make one simple point. The church is important. Much more important than I think we can even grasp. It is important to have fellowship among the brethren. It is important to be part of the community. The point of gathering together and worshiping together is just that: togetherness. That’s the church. The church for which Jesus died. His church. To speak bad of the church is to speak bad of the bride of Christ. To be part of the church is to be one with Christ. The church is vital to our spiritual lives.
Suggested Daily Reading: Acts 1-2, Romans 16, I Corinthians 16.
Grace and peace.