Why Should I Commit to the Local Church?

In a Western society where individual rights are exalted above all else and the pervasive assumption is that each person’s primary obligation is to him- or herself alone, one of the basic questions that the church has to be able to address is why the church is necessary in the first place. New believers who have spent most of their lives focusing exclusively on their personal needs may not immediately understand why their repentance of sin and faith in Christ carry with them a call to belong and commit to a body of fellow believers. But those who have walked with the Lord and participated in the local church for many years also need to regularly revisit the significance of the church. The stories of the world and the desires of our sinful hearts draw us back to an individualistic selfishness that makes consistent commitment to the church less appealing and more difficult. And when times are hard in the local church—whether due to personal sin or relational conflict or intense need—the temptation to withdraw and take care of ourselves only grows.

Here are nine reasons to commit to a local church that emerge from God’s word. This isn’t an exhaustive answer to the question, but I hope it’s a faithful and beneficial approach that not only clarifies what Scripture teaches but also demonstrates the beauty of life with the church of Christ.

1) God commands us to commit to the church

The most basic reason to commit to the local church is that God explicitly calls us to do so in his word. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” We often hear commands like this with the same reaction that children express when they hear a parent say, “Because I told you so,” but that’s not how we should receive this command.  

The Triune God redeemed us from our slavery to self, sin, and death and gives us his word so that we might know how to live into his purposes and flourish as his children. God’s command therefore isn’t intended to stifle or oppress us; it’s intended to direct us in the way of true freedom that is actually best for us. In the gospel, we see that God gave up his son so that we might be his adopted children and he might be our gracious Father, and that ensures us that any command he speaks is ultimately for our good. 

2) Our identity in Christ

The call to commit to the local church isn’t just an arbitrary command. It flows from the message of the gospel and our new identity as recipients of grace. Jesus lived, died, and rose again so that sinners might be reconciled to God. When the Holy Spirit sparks faith in the believer’s heart, he also unites us to Jesus so that we share in everything he accomplished. But when we are united to Christ by faith, we are also united to every other believer who belongs to Jesus. Our commitment to the local church is simply an expression of the spiritual unity we already share through the gospel.

Scripture consistently uses two metaphors to describe the unity and connectedness of believers in the church. First, the church is referred to as a body with many members that are knitted together as one under Christ the head. Second, Scripture calls the church a family in which God is our Heavenly Father, Jesus is our elder brother who shares his inheritance with us, and believers are our brothers and sisters. These metaphors help us understand that God didn’t redeem us so that we could merely have a personal relationship with him as individuals; he redeemed us into a body and a family where we are united to other believers and thus have obligations to care for them.

3) Love requires commitment

Bear one another’s burdens. Pray for one another. Confess your sins to one another. Encourage one another. Exercise hospitality. Meet one another’s needs. There are a whole host of commands that God gives his people as he directs us in the way of love. But these commands are only possible to obey if we are committed to other believers in the local church. In order to actually serve one another in these ways, we must be present with and devoted to the members of the body in intimate ways. The type of love commanded in the New Testament simply can’t happen when we refuse to submit our lives to one another in the local church.

It’s important for us to also notice that, while this sort of commitment will indeed be more demanding and more taxing than a life of care-free individualism, it’s also more beautiful. When our relationships are grounded in mutual exchange (what we can do for one another) and convenience (how easy it is to be around one another), then those relationships are necessarily fragile and unable to truly weather difficulty. But when we belong to a church family that is bound together by the gospel and committed to one another in love, there is a security, a stability, a resilience to our relationships that gives us confidence that, even when we sin, we can depend on our brothers and sisters to stand by us in grace.

4) Jesus gave pastors as gifts

In Ephesians 4:12, the Apostle Paul writes that upon ascending to the right hand of God the Father in heaven, Jesus gave pastors (also called elders, shepherds, and overseers) to help equip the saints for the work of ministry and build up the body of Christ into maturity. In our cultural context, we often chafe and recoil at any notion that we ought to submit to authority or oversight or instruction, but the Bible calls pastors a gift given by Christ for the good of his church. None of us would claim that we are completely self-sufficient, perfectly wise, or faultlessly knowledgeable on our own. That would sound blatantly arrogant. But when we refuse to submit our lives to the local church and the oversight and teaching of godly pastors, we’re essentially saying with our lives that we lack nothing and require no assistance from anyone to help us along in the Christian life. As sheep in Christ’s flock, we need to be shepherded by qualified elders who’ve been set apart to minister God’s word to us.

5) The church is a context for mutual edification

In the local church family, believers have a context for mutual edification. In other words, the church community is a place to be served by others while you serve them too. In the same way that we need pastors to help us toward maturity and conformity to Jesus, we need other believers to serve us through all the ins and outs of everyday life. We need them to pray for us, to help us see our sin, to apply the gospel to our hearts, to exhort us to holiness, to share wise counsel, to open up their homes, to generously meet our needs, and to be strong where we are weak. But the church community also provides us with a family that we can serve. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12 that every believer is equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve the church for the common good. So as other members are ministering to us, we are called to serve them as we depend upon the gospel and walk in the power of the Spirit. Only when there is a commitment to one another in the local church can this sort of mutual edification take place. 

6) The keys of the kingdom

The church is the community created by the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and the family of redeemed sinners who’ve been granted citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. Jesus gave his church the keys of the kingdom—the message of the gospel in word and sacrament—so that the covenant community, led by its elders, could distinguish who belongs to the kingdom of Christ and who does not. By preaching the gospel, the church declares the good news by which people enter the kingdom through faith. By administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table, the church visibly marks those who belong to Jesus.

The concept of the keys of the kingdom helps us understand just how foreign the idea of the solitary, individual Christian is to the Bible. Jesus gave his church the message of the gospel and the signs of the gospel so that the church could mark those who belong to Jesus and vouch for their confession of faith. The assumption is that entering the kingdom of God by grace through faith in Jesus means entering the local church through baptism and continuing in fellowship with the church through the Lord’s Table.

7) The discipline of the church

As recipients of the keys of the kingdom, the local church is charged with ensuring that its members are in fact walking with the Lord in faith and repentance by exercising church discipline when a professing believer’s unrepentant sin calls his or her confession of faith into question. To modern ears, discipline sounds frightening and threatening, but in God’s design for the church, discipline is in fact a precious blessing. Christians have a family of other believers who keep watch over our life and doctrine and regularly help us repent of sin and honor Christ. We are often blind to the presence and extent of sin that grips our hearts, so a community of grace that’s committed to our faith and holiness can help us discern what we might otherwise be ignorant of. This is a true gift.

Discipline happens all the time in informal interactions where fellow Christians recognize sin, call one another to repentance, and apply the gospel to one another’s lives. In the event that a church member indulges in unrepentant sin, discipline may take the form of excommunication, where the church withholds the Lord’s Table because the body can no longer affirm with confidence a person’s confession of faith. This kind of discipline protects the wider church, demonstrates to the world that such unrepentant sin is inconsistent with faith in the gospel and the Christian’s identity, and is intended to wake the unrepentant person up to the seriousness and danger of sin so that they might be restored to the church family. Though such discipline is admittedly painful for a time, God calls the church to exercise discipline for our good. Apart from the local church, we can all too easily rationalize away our sinful desires, practices, and patterns, but the body of Christ is able to care for us by exhorting us to put to death our sin and by encouraging us with the gracious and empowering message of the gospel. 

8) The life of the church forms us for discipleship 

We’re always being formed by the stories we hear, the practices we embody, the rhythms we inhabit, and the people with whom we participate in life. The message, practices, rhythms, and people that make up the life of the church in turn shape us for discipleship that trusts and obeys the Lord Jesus. Just consider corporate worship. The weekly practice of coming together with the family of God to hear God’s grace in the preached word, to receive the signs and seals of his covenant in the sacraments, to offer corporate prayers, to confess our sins to God and one another, and to sing songs of praise to the Triune God helps to form our expectations for the Christian life and to cultivate the habits of our hearts. We’re not only gaining information; we’re training our hearts together so that we know how to depend on and worship God through all of life. Our participation in the worship of the church and the life of the community exercises a remarkable formative power that serves to equip and prepare us to live faithfully in the world as God’s people.

9) Faithful witness

The natural impulse of the human heart is to celebrate, praise, and share with others the things that bring us the greatest joy. As Christians grow in our delight over the grace of the gospel and the fellowship we enjoy in communion with God, we also grow in our desire to exalt God, reflect his character, and make his gospel known to others. Individual Christians can certainly speak the truth of the gospel, but it takes a church community to truly engage in holistic, faithful witness to the world.

The church shows the world that the gospel creates a covenant community, a body, a family of grace. The church reflects the restoration that the gospel brings to relationships that would otherwise be characterized by hatred, conflict, and division. The church demonstrates the character of Christ’s kingdom through the love believers express for one another and the world. No individual Christian is able to witness in these ways; these components of faithful witness that display the renewed corporate life under the Lordship of Christ are only possible when believers are committed to one another in the community of the local church. If we desire to faithfully witness to the gospel and the kingdom of God, then we must do so together. Faithful witness can’t be accomplished alone. 

God crafted our redemption to be a salvation from sin into the covenant family of the church. While committing to the local church certainly brings its share of inconvenience and hardship, by the merciful design of God the church also provides us with abundant benefits and blessings. May God captivate us with his wisdom, humble us with his grace, and delight us with the prospect of living in community with his people.

The Hospitality Gap

Recently I gathered with a group of people for a night of cards and games. This group regularly meets together for this very purpose. It functions as its own little community and, like every community, gathers around a shared love and goal—in this case, games and having fun playing them. And like most communities, this group not only desires to meet together but also seeks to welcome new people in so that they too can experience the fun and fellowship of belonging to this community.

On one particular evening, two strangers walked into the home where game night was taking place, armed with a desire to enjoy games with likeminded folks and, more importantly, a tray of Chik-fil-A chicken nuggets to share.

Only ten minutes later, more established members of the group began to look around confusedly and ask aloud, “Where’d they go?” One person had seen them slipping quietly back out the door and to their car.

And they took their chicken nuggets with them.

Game night continued without much of a hitch, but every now and then conversation around the collapsable card tables would turn to how odd it was to have two new guests arrive only to leave in silence a few minutes later. No one could quite understand why this happened.

A bit more clarity was offered by means of an email comment to the group, apparently from the two mysterious strangers: “Unfortunate. You say you’re about meeting new people, yet you made us feel unwelcome. We were invisible.”

What did the community do that was so alienating?

Nothing.

And that’s precisely the point. Most of us assume that if we are open to the idea of bringing others into the community, if we invite new people in, and if we create space for them, then we are exercising an unmistakable hospitality that will make even the most timid of guests feel welcome. But this episode demonstrates that hospitable attitudes without hospitable actions is no hospitality at all. This gap between attitudes and actions destroys real, tangible hospitality.

The fact is, most people don’t enter a new context feeling like insiders until someone does something to alienate them. Most people enter a new community feeling like outsiders until someone does something to show them they belong. For a community to truly be characterized by hospitality, it’s not enough for all of the members to think to themselves, “I sure am glad a new person has joined us.” A hospitable community will take the more demanding, and sometimes more uncomfortable, steps of engaging that person in conversation, asking questions to learn more about them, filling them in on what the community is all about, expressing excitement at their presence, asking if they need help with anything, introducing them to others—in other words, showing them that they are welcome and that they belong. 

These are the visible expressions of hospitality that genuinely communicate hospitality to outsiders. It takes wisdom to know how to interact with strangers who have set foot in a new context for the first time. But a great place to start is Jesus’ words in Luke 6:31. “And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “What would it take to make me feel cared for, appreciated, acknowledged, and welcomed?” That simple question can give you an idea of how to love your new neighbor well.

The church, the community of the risen Lord, has to be willing to consistently evaluate if our community has a hospitality gap. When a guest visits a home group for dinner, are believers quick to warmly engage them in discussion? When a new faces arrive for corporate worship, are they left to sit alone or invited to worship with Christians who can answer their questions and be physically present with them? When the church celebrates the gospel, ministers to one another, prays, and talks about life in fellowship around the Lord’s Table, are there individuals left on the outside looking in, standing by themselves with no opportunity to speak or be spoken to?

The family of God has more reason than any other community in the world to not only embrace attitudes of hospitality but to perform the deeds of hospitality. Jesus shared meals with tax collectors and sinners and graciously welcomed all kinds of people to find life in him. At the cross, he was excluded from community with God so that sinners like us could be brought into that community by grace. And he promises to one day return and set a table for his people to feast in the presence of the Triune God in fullness of joy.

The gospel of Christ is good news of God’s hospitality toward sinners. And that gospel empowers the church to overcome our hospitality gap and to take the initiative in showing hospitality to strangers. God’s hospitality toward us pushes us to ensure that outsiders know they have a place to belong in this community of grace.

Sermon Discussion: 1 Timothy 3:1-16 - Shepherds and Servants of the Flock of God

This week, we started a four-week series where we’re looking at some important topics that are related to our examination of what it would mean to be a connected church. As we consider affiliating with Sovereign Grace Ministries, we want to make sure God’s word is shaping how we think and directing us as we seek to move forward in faith and wisdom. We began by looking at what Scripture has to say about the government of the local church. Here are some questions to talk through as we gather together in our home groups for fellowship, prayer, and discussion.

  1. What questions or insights did you have during or after the sermon?
  2. What was the main point of the sermon? How was it outlined?
  3. Do you think discussions about local church government are important? Why or why not?
  4. Who is the ultimate leader of the church? How does that help us understand the kind of authority elders have?
  5. What structure should elder leadership take? How does that structure benefit the body?
  6. What are some of the qualifications for elders? Which of these qualifications struck you as particularly important? Why?
  7. What responsibilities do shepherds have as they minister to the flock? What temptations do you think come along with that? How does the gospel shape the spirit of pastoral leadership?
  8. How does Scripture call the church body to respond to elders? Do you have a hard time with any of those?
  9. In the sermon, we spent some time considering how the congregation would be involved if we adopted an elder-led, presbyterian form of government. What role would the congregation play in selecting elders and church discipline? Did you have any other questions about this?
  10. What are the qualifications and responsibilities of deacons?
  11. How does your heart respond to what Scripture says about local church government? Take some time to discuss why both shepherds and sheep might have a hard time receiving God’s word on this topic. Are there ways we need to repent in this area? How can we encourage one another to faithfulness as we exercise and submit to authority?

Love, Rebuke, and Community

Here at Trinity, we are constantly learning what it looks like to grow as disciples together in community. By sharing our lives and doing everyday things together with gospel intentionality, we inevitably come face to face with the sin struggles of our fellow brothers and sisters. This is one of the reasons we believe discipleship must take place in deep community. A church that organizes fellowship and programs discipleship in ways that allow people to manage their identity and hide what is going on in their every day life is unlikely to make disciples since few people will be in a position to confront one another’s sin patterns. Discipleship requires that we share our lives deeply with the other Christians in our church, and at Trinity, we are learning to do this.

But this isn’t easy. Once we are faced with the sins of others, and once they begin to see ours, we have to learn not just how to “handle” each other but how to encourage one another and rebuke one another in wise ways that promote godly repentance, heart change, and renewed faith in the gospel. Here are a few passages that instruct us on how to do this well.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. – Galatians 6:1

The first thing necessary is humility and self-examination. We cannot confront and restore others in sin if we have not first examined ourselves to make sure we are both seeing the situation rightly and have a humble attitude toward them. As we live in community with others, we must ask ourselves several questions whenever we think someone else might be acting sinfully.

 

  • Why am I bothered by this person right now? Are they sinning or are they interfering with my own idolatry? Is this an issue of wisdom or is there a real problem here?
  • Am I guilty of this same thing in other situations? Am I guilty of something else more severe?
  • Do I feel the urge to confront them because I want to put them down and show my superiority? Do I really understand what is going one here?

 

We have to learn to keep watch on ourselves before we can be faithful to watch over one another.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. - 1 Peter 4:8

Once we have examined ourselves and sought to make sure we are seeing the situation rightly, we ought to think about the most loving response to the person’s sin. To love someone well we have to consider the effect of our action on them. There is a difference between being right and being wise. Love drives us to act wisely for the good of the other. So we need to ask ourselves more questions:

 

  • Is this sin a habit? Is this an example of a deep rooted and unidentified sin pattern or is this a rare instance of this sin?
  • Does the person already recognize their sin or has it gone unnoticed?
  • Is this the best time to confront them or should I wait until later?
  • Does this person need a rebuke or do they need to see me graciously overlook it and shower them with kindness?

 

Peter suggests that love covers a multitude of sins. This is a way of saying that we need to develop what Tim Chester calls “relational generosity.”[1] Some people call this social grace. The idea here isn’t that love minimizes wrongdoing or acts like it doesn’t matter. Sin always does some sort of damage. Love bears that damage and doesn’t exact payment. Sometimes when we confront sin, we are actually exacting vengeance by shaming the person socially or by subjecting them to an emotional outburst. Sometimes we don’t confront sin because we hide it away deep down and bear a grudge that impacts the way we treat them in the future. But love covers the sin by forgiving them and responding with kindness and a good example. This response itself can be a form of confrontation, one that invites them to turn from their sin and live to righteousness. So not every sin needs to be immediately pointed out and openly addressed since love covers many sins.

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. – Hebrews 3:13

Finally, sin does often need to be explicitly addressed. This may be one of the most difficult aspects of living in community and sharing life. It is much easier to ignore the sins of others or to avoid future interaction by moving on to other groups of people. This is the most common way churches deal with sin. When people start getting close and begin seeing each other’s sins, they move on to another bible study, fellowship, or ministry in the church so as to avoid dealing with one another. But growing as a disciple involves living with others such that our sins are being confronted and we are confronting others in love and humble self-examination.

The author of Hebrews tells us two things that demonstrate why Christians must live in deep community with their church. First, sin is deceiving us all. Sin blinds us. We don’t always see what we are doing wrong, but others can. Second, we should exhort one another every day. There is no possible way to obey this instruction unless we are sharing our lives deeply with Christians in our church. Discipleship happens in everyday life.

All three of these passages assume that Christians sin regularly. The church is a community of broken and sinful people. But the church is also a redeemed and forgiven community that through repentance and faith are being renewed in the power of the Spirit through the ministry of God’s word in every day life. Christians living in community are to examine themselves in humility, forgive one another, bear with one another, and finally, graciously confront one another. We can do this because we remember that we have been forgiven much and that our righteousness is not our own, so any boasting is excluded. It is the gospel that makes this sort of community possible.

 

[1] Tim Chester, Everyday Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 142.