In this final post for this series we’ll consider the local church. The local church consists of a group of born-again people who devote themselves to engaging in biblical community regularly. Local churches share gospel unity with the universal and regional church, but share a broader unity amongst congregants. They share what we’ll call wider doctrinal unity in things like the gifts of the Spirit or church government for example.
The existence of various local churches, which differ in wider areas of doctrine but, are unified in the core teachings of salvation, is biblical. This is important to point out in light of a couple common perspectives held today. On the one hand, there are the critics of Christianity. Groups like the Latter Day Saints will often say things like, “If evangelicals represent the true church, how come you’re all so divided on doctrinal issues?” Then you have born again Christians who don’t like the idea of emphasizing unity in anything that isn’t specifically connected to the simple gospel. They think denominations are man-made and outside of God’s will, and that there should only be one kind of Christian community that doesn’t pay attention to accuracy in secondary doctrinal matters.
Both the critics of Christianity, as well as Christians who are critics of the establishment of local churches that have wider-doctrinal unity, miss the Bible’s affirmation of the existence of groups of local churches that are part of the true church because of their commitment to the gospel, and yet distinct from one another in wider doctrinal or methodological areas.
A good example of this is seen in Romans fourteen. This chapter portrays different groups of Christians who are saved, and yet have some very different practices when it comes to how they worship God. Some taught that it was dishonoring to God to eat meat, while others taught that it honored God to eat all things in light of our liberty in Christ. Some taught that you had to worship congregationally on a particular day of the week, while others taught that worshipping the Lord everyday was what’s important. In spite of these differences, the Bible affirms that all of these groups were still in the Lord (Romans 14:1), received by God(Romans 14:3), and servants of the Lord (Romans 14:4). How could these groups differ so greatly on how they worshipped, or attempted to honor God, and yet all be considered genuine believers? The answer is that they didn’t hold their wider doctrinal and methodological practices as essential for salvation. These diverse groups shared total unity on the essential gospel. If they believed their other distinctives were part of how one gets saved Paul wouldn’t have called them brothers, but condemned proponents of a perverted gospel.
Being connected to a local church with which you share wider doctrinal unity is right. We shouldn’t be afraid of the words of the critics or of the misguided advocates of unity at the cost of wider doctrinal accuracy. And as we gather together in local congregations, we need to work extra hard to love one another. I think it’s easier to love Christians in the regional and universal church than it is to love those in my local church at times. When you live in close relational proximity to other sinners our imperfections surface quickly. Here are some ways we can promote love and unity within our local churches:
As you read passages such as first Corinthians twelve it becomes clear that every one of God’s people has a valuable part to play in the local church. God has designed us to be dependent on Him by being codependent upon what He’s doing through each other. If we all aren’t actively seeking to discover and use our spiritual gifts in our local church, we are robbing the body of Christ of needed edification and means of grace.
What I call lone-ranger Christianity is far too prevalent these days. Many who are saved refuse to consistently engage in biblical community. This is unbiblical and unhelpful. Jesus didn’t come to save disconnected individuals scattered about the earth. He came to save a people. He exhorts us to, “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some.” (Hebrews 10:24-25a NKJV)
Pursue Personal Holiness
There’s no such thing as sin that doesn’t affect anyone but us. Our sin is always against God (Psalm 51:4) and others around us. Gossip slays churches. I’ve seen problems that began between dating couples quickly become points of division and side-choosing amongst large social groups in churches. If we’re pursuing personal holiness before God, we’re really serving the church because we won’t become the type of people whose actions breed disunity and friction amongst relationships.
We need to love Jesus’ church; not just the local church, the regional church, or the universal church, but the whole church!