There is a strange and interesting conversation going on among many professing Christians in America today. Some people claim that “Christianity” may be separated from the “Local Church.” Whatever Christianity is, I would like to argue, it is inseparable from the local church.
The non-churched Christian is an animal you simply will not find in the Bible, and I’d like to add that such an animal (encountered in our day) is usually awkward and disfigured.
I believe our consideration of this topic will be encouraged by first defining what a church is, then addressing what a church does. After that, we will hear a dissenting voice, and then we will try to come to some thoughtful conclusions.
First, the local church is a gathering of holy people who are justified in Christ Jesus.
The local church is the visible expression Jesus Christ’s bride, adorned with His own righteousness and set apart for His intimate affection and care.
Martin Luther is credited with the profound statement, “the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls.” Justification is the legal declaration of God, by which the sinner is declared righteous because Jesus was declared guilty on the sinner’s behalf. Not that the sinner works his/her own righteousness, but that he/she puts on the righteousness of Christ.
This truth is the comfort of all who understand themselves to be graciously included in the household of God. Horatius Bonar wrote,
“In another’s righteousness we stand; and by another’s righteousness are we justified.” This truth, he went on to say, makes plain that “all accusations against us, founded upon our right unrighteousness, [may be] answered by pointing to the perfection of the righteousness which covers us from head to foot… as well as shields us from wrath.”
Justification happens in an instant. It is the doing of God Himself when the sinner is made alive in Christ Jesus and counted good, holy, and righteous in God’s sight (Eph 2:4-9; Titus 3:7; Rom 5:9).
Furthermore, sanctification is also an instantaneous declaration and positional reality for all who are in the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:11). Union with Christ includes a significant change in relation to sin, particularly that the Christian is now dead to or released from the power of sin (Col 2:20-3:14; Gal 2:20; Rom 6:1-14).
Second, the local church is a community of justified people who are growing in holiness.
If, as Martin Luther said, the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, then sanctification may be the doctrine which provides her (the Church) the appropriate clothing to stand admirably.
Christ does not merely call His prostituting adulterous bride to wear new labels (such as justified and sanctified); He also calls her to live accordingly (Eph 4:1; 1 Thess 2:12).
Living in light of her new status, the Church of Jesus Christ is declared to be holy, and Christ is making her holy by the washing of His word “so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor” (Eph 5:25-27). This loving reconciliation and renewal is challenged by the fact that the visible Church is made up of believers who are still desirous of sin.
Herein lies the difficulty of understanding just how the visible Church may be clothed with righteousness as she stands justified before the watching world. However, a visible Church, full of sanctified believers, arrayed in magnificence and clothed in righteousness for all the world to see is exactly what God has intended the Church do be.
The doing of good works by every believer is commanded and enabled by God (Titus 2:7; Heb 10:24; Matt 5:16; 1 Pet 2:12; Eph 2:10). Not only thus, but Scripture informs us that good works will provide some evidence of genuine faith and discipleship (James 2:14-26; Jn 8:31). Good works, or righteous living, do not produce justification or sanctification, but it is clear that good works necessarily and always follow such things. Kevin DeYoung describes the relationship, borrowing from biblical imagery, in terms of botany.
“It’s not that good works are in the root of the tree; they’re not the thing that makes the tree what it is. They’re not the ground or the basis of our standing with God. But if we truly are redeemed through the blood of Christ, if the Holy Spirit truly dwells in us, then we will be people who bear fruit in good works. Our lives will be marked by what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23). And if those fruits are not present in us, Jesus says, we have reason to question whether the tree was ever really healthy at all.”
God has not only promised to work within Christians to bring about the mutually desired end of complete sanctification, but he has also instituted local communities through which Christians are to engage in diligent efforts towards sanctification together. The Second London Baptist Confession says,
“[T]he Lord Jesus Christ calls out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father (John 10:16; John 12:32), that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his word (Matt. 28:20). Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world (Matt. 18:15-20).”
Therefore, these societies or communities of faith are designed for mutual improvement, building up, or sanctification (Eph 2:19-20). Paragraph 12 of the Second London Confession (in the section on The Church) goes on to explain that there are privileges, censures, and authoritative instruments that the Christian may enjoy in the life of a Gospel-centered community.
Rather than these communities being an end in themselves or even a rule unto themselves, they are local and communal expressions of mutual submission to the Christ who reigns over all. Andrew Purvis expounds this view by saying,
“The ministry of the church is, by the Holy Spirit, a sharing in God’s ministry to and for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ. The task at hand, then, is to focus on the profound interrelationship that must obtain between… those truths and realities about God that the church brings to expression through Christian doctrine… and pastoral care.”
Pastoral care, the shepherding of God’s sheep and caring for Christ’s bride, is the task of “sharing in God’s ministry to and for” Christians. The church is meant to be a local expression of “truths and realities about God,” which we find clearly revealed in the Scriptures and understand as Christian doctrine.
In less lofty terms, but just as potent, Mark Dever says that a local church is “a community of believers who have become part of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and, as a result, have covenanted together to help each other run the Christian race with integrity, godliness, and grace.”
Church membership, then, is a collective affirmation that Christians in local proximity to one another are attempting to live out in practical ways the reality of their positional possession – holiness. They are saints by calling, and they are seeking to live in obedience to Christ by “giving themselves” to one another in mutual submission and love.
A Dissenting Voice
While any reasonable understanding of what a church is and what a church does, as described here, would assume that this must be done in community with other believers, it is helpful to allow a dissenting voice to speak in order to demonstrate greater clarity.
In her book, How to be a Christian Without Going to Church, Kelly Bean takes aim at average local church experiences over the last generation or so. She rightly points out that many local churches are active but not very effective (her measurements of effectiveness are demonstrably unbiblical, but her assessment may still be true when measured in biblical terms). Her solution is to opt out of church attendance or involvement altogether, something she calls non-going.
She sees some problems that arise with such a lone ranger mentality, and she suggests, “A collective narrative is important for all.” The collective narrative she is looking for is exactly what is provided by the Gospel message and the mutually stimulated sanctification that occurs in Gospel-centered communities, through the proclamation of biblical truth and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Yet, this is not something she seems to believe may be found in any communal expression of local Christians.
Bean seems to be unaware that she is describing the creation of a church, albeit an ‘alternative’ one, when she admits, “In many ways, the art of non-going and facilitating alternative Christian communities that offer the support we might need, is still in the works.” Reinventing Christian communities to offer ‘non-goers’ support so that they may maintain their non-going status sounds about like offering a fish an aquarium so that he may refer to himself as a fish out of water.
Christians are necessarily beneficiaries of the communal and covenantal relationship that is only available in a local church. It is simply inconceivable that a Christian would find sanctification to be something that he/she should pursue outside of a community of believers. Dever says,
“While our individual walks are crucial, we are impoverished in our personal pursuit of God if we do not avail ourselves of the help that is available through mutually edifying relationships in our covenant Church family” (Heb 10:24-25).
The message is clear. All those whom God has justified He has also sanctified, and He continually sanctifies them by the power of His Spirit. Additionally, God has instituted the Church as the Spirit-empowered community of faith in which sinning Christians may walk in progressively greater degrees of freedom from their sin. Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the
Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the mortal Christian life. The believer who tends towards self-righteousness may be humbled; the Christian who tends towards despair may be encouraged; the convert who struggles to break free from remaining inclinations towards sin may be restrained by accountability; the unregenerate pretender may be lovingly exposed and evangelized appropriately; the malevolent wolf may be discovered and expelled; and all of this may and should take place in the average daily life of the local church.
So, do Christians need the local church?
Like a child needs a father and mother, Christians need a church family to instruct and train. Like a city needs emergency responders, Christians need a church family to come to their aid. Like a hospital needs a nursing and surgical staff, Christians need a church family to tend to their wounds and illnesses. Like a police officer needs a badge, Christians need a church family to affirm their inclusion under the authority of Christ.
YES! Christians need the local church! Biblically, you don’t ever have one without the other.
 Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 179
 DeYoung, The Mission of the Church, 227
 The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 5
 Purvis, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, 4
 Dever, The Deliberate Church, 110
 Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70
 Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70
 Dever, The Deliberate Church, 111
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Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.
DeYoung, Kevin, and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.
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“The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.” The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.1689.com/confession.html.