One of the greatest areas of concern to me when it comes to the idea of the Church is the lone ranger mentality many have succumbed to in our day and age. In seminary I used to sit with a large pile of books at coffee shops to work on homework and research papers. More often than not during the day, some people would approach me and want to know what I was studying.
These conversations would typically go one of two ways. The first approach would be the person and I would have a great conversation about what I was studying and then would encourage me to continue to love Jesus and His Church. Sadly, more often than not the person would state they were a Christian but never went to Church. These conversations often ended quickly, not because I didn’t want to chat with them, but rather because I pointed out that the New Testament knows nothing of lone-ranger Christianity.
Many Christians today believe they can just go to a Bible study or meet with other Christians at a coffee shop and equate that as going to Church. Is the Church just a meeting at a coffee shop or hanging out in a building? In the words of the Apostle Paul, “May it never be!” The biblical definition of Church is when God’s people gather to hear His Word preached, to worship Him, and to participate in the sacraments and fellowship. While fellowship may occur at a coffee shop and it is certainly possible for God’s Word to be studied in such a location, such a gathering does not meet the biblical approach to church as the essential construct of gathering corporately as a body of believers if the aforementioned elements are not properly met.
For example, recently I met with a friend from Church. We regularly meet and talk for several hours about our lives and theology. Is that meeting Church? Neither one of us would say it can be defined as such. I’ve met some people though in coffee shops who state that would constitute Church for them. My first question to such people is “Have you been hurt by the Church?” Almost always if they answer honestly, the answer is yes they have.
My concern is that such people seem to struggle with the idea that loving Christ leads to loving the Church. When Paul spoke in Ephesians 5 about husbands loving their wives, he wasn’t giving a suggestion; rather he was giving a command. Christian men are to love their wives because they love Jesus. In the context of that passage, Paul speaks of the Church. Christ bled and died for His Church to present her blameless. This means that a love for Christ according to Paul leads to a love for the Church.
The Epistle of 1 John also has much to say about love. One of the most interesting statements it makes is found in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” The “they” here is clear as John is talking about those who belonged to Christ but left the Church and Christianity. John says such people “were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” The context of this verse is about the spirit of antichrist, specifically those whom John says are trying to deceive the people of God. Those who are truly saved will never abandon Christ for they will be kept by His grace (Jude 24). Furthermore, those who love Christ will love being part of the Body of Christ.
Jesus calls His people to love Himself and others for such love is a demonstration that we have passed from death to new life in Christ (1 John 3:14). Since loving Christ and loving His Church go together, this begs the question as to why so many Christians today hold to the lone-ranger view of the Christian life? Is it that they’ve discovered something new and therefore believe that they can legitimately live their entire Christian lives outside the scope and purview of the Christian Church?
As I’ve reflected on the above questions for quite some time, I’ve come to the settled conclusion that for many Christian past hurts or other matters have greatly impacted their understanding of what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ. The real or perceived issues far too often result in individuals rejecting the biblical command for fellowship in a local body resulting in their belief that they can live the Christian life outside the framework of the local Church. When challenged these people are likely to point out that they have a spiritual life and are growing in their personal relationship with Christ.
While I understand and can relate to being hurt by people in Church, the truth is that nowhere in the New Testament do we see Christians only living individual lives divorced from the community of God’s people gathering together in corporate worship. The gathered Church is a Church that assembles to hear, heed, and obey the Word of God through fellowship, the sacraments, preaching, and much more. Furthermore when one takes into account that almost all of the Pauline epistles were written to local churches and begin in some form with “the saints” at so and so place it is hard to reconcile the idea that one can live the Christian life outside of the Church.
Meeting at a coffee shop or other places to enjoy some fellowship with brothers or sisters in Christ is fabulous and I thoroughly enjoying doing so. But there is a difference between individual Christians meeting and the corporate gathering of God’s people. At the root of the lone ranger view of Christianity is an incomplete view of the Christian life. If the lone ranger view is right then there is no way to take seriously the fifty “one another” passages in the New Testament that instruct Christians on how they are to behave towards one another. Only in the context of the local Church do the “one another” passages make sense. While many well-intentioned Christians who hold to the lone-ranger view believe they can live their Christian lives however they want, such a view does not square with the clear teaching of the New Testament that emphasizes what we have been saved from (sin) and what we have been saved to, namely to a new life in Christ, one that is increasingly to reflect Jesus in community with other saints.
Loving Jesus leads to loving His people and others who don’t yet know Him. A love for Jesus will lead to a desire to bring others into community with Him in the context of the local Church. All of this means that as Christians, we should pray and exhort those who are like the gentleman I met at the coffee shop, specifically those who fail to grasp that we gather together in a local community of believers to hear God’s Word preached, worship Him, and love His people.