In his recent blog posts, prominent Christian writer Donald Miller said he has graduated out of the local church, and that he rarely attends church anymore. He says he actually feels more closeness to God when he’s innovating and starting new initiatives during the week than he does in church on any given Sunday. One of his hang-ups is corporate worship. Miller wrote in a blog post, “I have a confession. I don’t connect with God by singing to him. Not at all. I know I’m nearly alone in this, but it’s true. I was finally able to admit this recently when I attended a church service that had, perhaps, the most talented worship team I’ve ever heard. I loved the music. But I loved it more for the music than the worship. As far as connecting with God goes, I wasn’t feeling much of anything.” But clearly, it’s more than just the music, and it’s clear he represents more than himself.
For many evangelicals — both young and old — the local church simply doesn’t work any longer as a place of worship, and besides, no local church looks like the churches in Acts anyway, so why pretend that modern churches are of equal value to those in the first century? Those are some of the entangled questions on the table. So Pastor John, what would you say to any evangelical Christian who believes they have graduated from — or spiritually outgrown — the local church, or who believes corporate gatherings on Sunday simply don’t fit their personality type and worship preferences?
Okay. Well, there are a lot of issues here that I am hearing in between the lines. There is a worship issue, and how it is done. There is a personal singing issue. There is a biblical authority issue: Do you submit to your own preferences or to God’s word? There is a definition of church issue: What is it? There is a cultural issue: Where is this kind of unencumbered autonomy coming from that presumes that I have the right to dictate my own way of life? And so it seems to me there is a pride issue that elevates personal preference over biblical norms. So just a huge batch of issues here.
Belonging to the Body
It seems to me that I should just tackle one of these and that is, Is there a biblical warrant, a biblical requirement, for belonging to a local church — belonging, really having a sense of membership and accountability? And here is the way I am defining a church: a group of Christians who are covenanted together to gather regularly for corporate worship, celebration of the ordinances, and ministry of the word of God under the leadership of biblically qualified elders, and who are submissive to the discipline of the body on mission for Christ and the world. That is a church. And it can have all kinds of big or little expressions culturally across the world.
But there are at least five biblical pointers that everybody needs to consider if they want to be biblical — if they want to be submitted to God’s word regarding belonging to a church.
Four Biblical Reasons to Belong to a Church
1. Jesus expects it.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17)
So it seems to me that Jesus assumes that his disciples will belong to a church. He assumes that when a disciple is out of step with his brother, that there is a church that can love him and pursue him and, if necessary, discipline him.
2. Paul assumes that people are inside or outside the church.
What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person among you. (1 Corinthians 5:12–13)
So, from that it seems like there are at least two implications. One is that there is an in the church and there is an outside the church. And the other implication is that a person can be removed from being in the church. And that informal removal would be impossible if every Christian could just go around saying, “Well, I don’t need the church anyway, so in or out doesn’t really matter to me.” Then Paul’s whole teaching falls to the ground.
3. Christ appoints church leaders to whom believers should submit.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are watching over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Hebrews 13:17)
Or, the same thing with 1 Thessalonians 5:12:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord.
So church membership is implied, it seems to me, in the biblical requirement that Christians be submitted to a group of church leaders or elders who are qualified to oversee a flock.
4. Pastors are responsible for particular flocks.
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God. (Acts 20:28)
So elders have the responsibility to a particular flock, and they should know their flock and watch over their flock. They are responsible to their flock. How can they be responsible to their flock if the members of the flock consider it optional whether they stay or go, or whether they are accountable or not accountable? The whole structure of Peter’s understanding of how eldership and church works presumes that people have belonging — serious belonging — to a flock.
Finally, I mean, sometimes people don’t like singing. They don’t think it is important. It didn’t connect with them emotionally. But Paul says in Ephesians 5:18–19, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”
So the Holy Spirit fills us, and one of his overflows is singing to one another, not just alone and certainly not not singing. If we are not inclined to sing — and there are lots of people who are not inclined to sing, they are not wired to sing — I think we should do the best we can as the Spirit enables us to sing, and we should look forward to the day when our musical brokenness is healed.
Instead of, you know, boasting and saying, “Well, that is just not me. I don’t think music is part of my life, and I don’t connect with God by singing,” say, “Okay, we are broken. We are all broken.” And you humble yourself under the hand of God and you say, “God, I will make a joyful noise to the Lord, and I will look for the day when you tune this instrument to sing your praise as never before.”
No Lone Rangers
So my conclusion, Tony, is that the New Testament doesn’t know any Christians who are not accountable members of local churches. There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians in the New Testament. It is a contradiction because to become a Christian means to be united to Christ, and union with Christ expresses itself in union with his body. They are inseparable. To be a hand in the body of Christ, you cannot say to the eye, “I have no need of you” (see 1 Corinthians 12:21).
So this gift of belonging to the church is a gift ten thousand times more than it is a duty. It is so sad when people think, “Do I have to do church?” And Paul, I think, would throw up his hands and say, “Have to?” Like, “Have to?! This is one of the most precious gifts in the world!”
My heart aches for people who have not found that kind of fellowship, but I think they need to grow up into Christ and be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem by abandoning the body.