It has been said, correctly I think, that “baptism is the starting gun of the Christian race.”
This statement implies two things. First, we have not yet fully obeyed Christ until we have publicly professed Him in baptism and publicly claimed Him as our Lord and Savior. The New Testament knows nothing of a believer in Christ who has not been baptized at the soonest opportunity. Doubtless, the only reason that the thief on the cross was not baptized was because he was nailed to the wood, next to Jesus. Dear Christian, search through the book of Acts and see the obligation that clearly exists for everyone who believes in Jesus Christ to be baptized in His name.
Baptism is not the end of our struggle, but the beginning of it. Too often, we become lost soon after leaving the starting line. Where are we supposed to go, once we come up out of the baptismal pool? What is the Christian life supposed to look like? Although there are many spiritual disciplines that we could mention that help the Christian to grow in his or her walk with God—Bible saturation, prayer, fasting, stewardship—one of the foundational principles of the New Testament (and one that is often overlooked, even in books about spiritual disciplines) is the importance of the local church in the life of a Christian.
Church Is Important
A popular “seeker-sensitive” group in the Cincinnati area recently began advertising themselves with billboards along the highway that read: “If you hate church, you’ll love us.” While not everyone is quite so openly condescending toward the role of the church in the plan of God, the church does often slip through the cracks of our many man-made religious inventions.
Although being actively engaged in the accountability, service, and worship of a local church often takes a back seat to other priorities and emphases among Christians today, the New Testament makes it clear that God reveals Himself and presides especially in the church of Jesus Christ, like nowhere else on earth: “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:21).
The clear exhortation is given to the Hebrews not to think of themselves as individual, unaccountable Christians, but rather to commit themselves to the oversight and encouragement of a body of believers, “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” (Hebrews 10:25). Paul even instructs young Timothy, a minister himself, not just to avoid temptations to sin, but to pursue the sanctifying fellowship of other like-minded believers: “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).
No other activity in the name of Christ can take the place of regular involvement in, and commitment to, a local church. No student organization, seminary, online discussion forum, or small group Bible study can substitute for that organism which God designed and implemented Himself—the local church. While many good evangelistic and philanthropic efforts are undertaken by various Christian organizations, they cannot—and should not aim to—be a substitute for church. The local church has a unique purpose and position in the plan of God.
The Purpose of Church
While we dare not presume to know all of God’s purposes in designing and establishing the New Testament church, He has revealed to us several very relevant and practical ways that the church of Jesus Christ is a benefit to believers. Here are five:
Public worship. No matter what we may think, we cannot worship God on a mountaintop, on the golf course, or at the lakefront like we can in the house of God on Sunday. Why? Because part of worshiping God is proclaiming and exalting His name before others. David says, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (Psalm 22:22). In the New Testament, in the context of the local church, this Psalm is again quoted for the benefit of the Hebrews, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation, I will sing your praise” (Hebrews 2:12).
Discipleship. No matter how mature we may think ourselves to be spiritually, no matter how many Bible lessons we may have under our belt, there is always a need for continued growth and learning in the life of any Christian. This is why it is essential to be actively committed to a church that is consistently and faithfully preaching and teaching the Word of God, and not just seeking to entertain or “tickle the ears” of its congregants.
Every preacher should be able to say, like Paul at the conclusion of his labors in Ephesus, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house (Acts 20:20). And every Sunday school teacher, small group leader, and mentor in the church should mimic the ministerial goal Paul set before Timothy: “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
Accountability. This is perhaps one of the most critical functions of the church of Jesus Christ. Yet it is, sadly, one of the most neglected principles in the churches of the West today. Because of the deceptiveness of our own hearts, the many subtle realities of sin, and the constant warfare that is waged by the world against the sanctified heart, we need the accountability and oversight of faithful saints and overseers. Paul wrote, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom…” (Colossians 3:16).
And, as much as it smarts against every ingrained sensibility of modern America, it is vital that Christians not only enjoy the fellowship, admonition, and encouragement of other saints but also submit to the oversight and instruction and authority of God-called elders. God’s Word explains this crucial concept in no uncertain terms: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17). Obviously, this does not give pastors the right to “lord it over” congregations in a domineering way (1 Peter 5:3), but it does point to the vital role of under-shepherds in the sanctification of each believer.
Encouragement. As hard as it may be for us to comprehend or imagine, even Paul the apostle needed encouragement as he labored and sacrificed himself in the service of God. He often spoke of the refreshment, the strengthening that he received from fellow believers. And so it is no surprise that we find the writer to the Hebrews admonishing them to “stir up” (provoke, incite) one another to love and good works. We need the stimulating words and motivating examples of fellow Christians along our spiritual journey.
Every “Christian” is blessed by the fellowship of every “Faithful” as he makes a pilgrim’s progress toward the Celestial City.
Counsel. Just as early Christians were guilty of going to secular judges to settle their legal disputes, many modern Christians have made the mistake of pursuing secular solutions to their emotional and social struggles. We have somehow been convinced that secular psychology, or self-help groups, have the answers to our spiritual problems. It is in the church that Jesus Christ has planted the authority and support network that will help us face our spiritual battles. Paul wrote to everyday, average Christian believers saying, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). As Jay Adams has famously contended, every godly and well-versed Christian is “competent to counsel.”
Our Purpose In the Church
All of this encouragement, building-up, and sanctifying in the church of Jesus Christ is ultimately, however, not just for our own benefit. The Christian life is never mature until it is reaching out to help and serve others for the glory of Christ. We are given the worship, learning, accountability, encouragement, and counsel of the church so that we might help others to worship, learn, be accountable and encouraged and counseled in the body of Christ themselves. Christian disciples make and mature more disciples, through the church.
The almost unanimous question of church-seekers today is “what do they have for my family and me in the way of activities or entertainment.” But—if I might paraphrase a past president—we should not only be asking “what can my church do for me?” but also “what can I do for my church?” In other words, the purpose of edification in the church is usefulness in the church. As Peter so well put it, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
What about you? Have you been a good steward of God’s grace to you, by turning to others and ministering to them from your gifts? As Christian author Joshua Harris observes, many of us need to “stop dating the church” and to make a firm and lasting commitment to learning from, be admonished by, and contribute toward the sanctifying influence of the church of Jesus Christ.