Yesterday on the Lord’s Day, I delivered a sermon entitled “A Survey of Biblical Church Membership.” (You can listen to it here, although about a quarter of it was lost due to technical difficulties). I tried to present a case for church membership out of 1 Corinthians 12, showing how the local church is defined by a composition of diverse members who are called to a specific location in the body. I then gave several identifying marks of church membership as conveyed in the New Testament. These were commitment, submission, and a visible representation of Christ to the surrounding community.
And yet, there are so many more of these identifying attributes that help us see God’s vision for the Christian in belonging to a local church. Among these evidences are corporate prayer, corporate worship, and even church discipline. But there is one I have in mind that I believe to be so crucial in our Christian lives: the grace of discipleship.
Discipleship is a lifelong process for the Christian. It is the way that a believer becomes more like Christ. It is the way we pursue our growth in sanctification. And discipleship may just be the most overlooked, yet most important, identifying mark of biblical church membership.
In my sermon yesterday, I used the term “Christian nomads.” This is a term having a similar meaning to “church hopper” that I used in my last post. A Christian nomad is self-declared believer who is more of a separatist – one who is content to be separated from a local fellowship of believers. They may indeed visit various churches, but are more content to live out their life alone. But is this God’s will for a true believer? More specifically, can a believer in Jesus Christ be shaped into Christlikeness and holiness if he or she rejects a commitment to a local church? For this answer, we turn to the Word of God.
We begin by looking at Peter’s second epistle to his fellow believers abroad. At the conclusion of the letter, Peter says:
14 Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things [the new heaven and the new earth], be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; 15 and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:14-16)
17 You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; 18 but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen. (2 Peter 3:17-18)
What is the apostle saying to these Christians?
- Firstly, Peter reminds them that because the Day of the Lord is imminent, and that the heavens, the earth, and the elements will be burned up, we ought to be a people that strive for holy and godly conduct (v 10-15).
- Secondly, “untaught and unstable people” will appear in the world and “twist” the truth of the Scripture. Paul, John, and Jude also warned of these false teachers that would come (2 Corinthians 11:33ff; Galatians 1:6-9; Titus 1:10ff; 1 John 2:18ff; Jude; et al) – even into the church “to deceive, if possible… the elect” (Matthew 24:24).
- Thirdly, since they “know this beforehand,” these Christians are to “beware” that they don’t fall away from their own “steadfastness” (“stability,” ESV; v 17); and
- Fourthly, that they rather “grow in the grace and knowledge” of Christ (v 18).
Strive for holiness as we await Christ’s return, know that false teachers will try to deceive Christians by twisting the Scriptures (which point to Christ); therefore, be on guard so we do not get tricked by their deception, but rather, grow in both the grace and knowledge of Jesus.
If this Christ-denying deception is a reality in the world today (and John says it is, see 1 John 4:3), then how can we resist falling into deception? I mean, the reason why deception is so deceptive is because it sounds true. Further, how can we best experience Christian growth to maturity? To answer this, I am reminded of the letter to the Hebrews. I mentioned these verses yesterday in church, but I would like to add an extra verse or two. Hebrews 10:19-20; 23-25:
19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus,20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh… 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
Okay so, the writer of the Hebrews has just finished a beautiful dissertation on the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice in order to bring the people of God to Himself. Jesus made the way for the people of God to enter into the presence of God through His substitutionary death and glorious resurrection. Therefore, says Hebrews, “let us hold fast” our confession of Christ “without wavering,” because Christ is faithful to finish what He has begun in us (v 23). And yet, immediately after this, the writer tells us something very similar to what Peter said in 2 Peter 3: the Day of Christ is drawing near.
Therefore, taking verse 23 and pulling it together with verse 24 and 25, what is the means by which we are to be on guard against the deception in the world that would work to destroy our faith in Christ? Further, how can we experience the grace of God in our lives and develop into Christlike Christians? Hebrews tells us: “consider one another” (v 24) in order to spur on in each other a greater love for Jesus, His bride, and this world; and encourage each other to pursue the works which accompany this love. Where is this growth – this discipleship best experienced? Verse 25 tells us: in the fellowship of the assembly of Christ-followers.
Where does this assembling actually occur? In the local church. It is there in the local church that God has chosen for us to become like His Son. This happens in a number of ways, though I am thinking mainly of three reasons why it happens most successfully as we are in relationship with a group of believers.
Reason #1: Differing personalities stimulate our sanctification.
The local church is filled with people of diverse and sometimes drastically different personalities, though we are all unified under the banner of Christ’s love.
As more Christians commit to a local body with such a diversity of people, our assemblies will be colored by various personality types. As a result, conflict can and will occur in the local church. (Avoiding conflict is a reason is why many “Christian nomads” keep to themselves.) And yet, it is with conflict that the Christian grows in maturity. Someone once said, “Where there is no pressure, there is no diamonds.” God has composed His body with many diverse parts in order for each part to help strengthen the other. Because we are unified by Christ’s love in the local church, this strengthening often happens through encouragement and care for each other. However, there are times when God allows conflict to occur in order to strengthen His body. To use a practical analogy, our physicals bodies will become weak if we do not subject them to the discipline of exercise. Exercise, though painful, strengthens our muscles and develops endurance. If we ignore exercising so we can stay comfortable, we will grow increasingly unhealthy.
Likewise, we Christians cannot flee the first sign of interpersonal conflict just so we can be happy. In fact, we will become unhealthy if we always keep to ourselves and deny ourselves the blessing of corporate relationship where conflict can arise. This conflict, when embraced and resolved with humility will produce Christlikeness. Jesus Himself modeled for us this example of humility when He totally submitted to those who hated Him. As we face our own hardships (with people or life in general), we can find comfort in knowing that the joy of the end result will far outweigh the struggle. Diamonds are produced when pressure is present:
“…Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God…consider Him…lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls..” (Hebrews 12:2-3)
Therefore, neglect not the assembling our yourselves together, for it is there that conflict produces Christlikeness.
Reason #2: The shared benefit of the same pulpit ministry.
Because Christians in the local church sit together under the same pulpit ministry, they have a common bond under the Word of God.
As members of the local church hear the sermon each week and engage in small group Bible study, each member can encourage the other primarily through the Scriptures. Again, the makeup of a local church is composed of diverse personalities, those from differing social statuses, and those with differing maturity levels. These believers then, because they are all impacted by the same Word of God, can use the Scriptures to encourage and sharpen one another. One more mature believer may be able to take his or her insight from the verses preached during the Sunday sermon and minister to a less mature believer. The result is deeper relationship between the members, greater mutual excitement over the Word, and a more steadfast walk of faith as they endure life both independently and together during the week.
Reason #3: An environment of mutual care.
The local church provides an environment where each member can be involved in the mutual care of the other.
I gave this Scripture yesterday, 1 Corinthians 12:26:
And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
Perhaps this is the greatest benefit to our Christian growth in maturity: having relationship with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who will help us to endure through both the good and bad times in life. The Christian nomad and the church hopper do not experience this mutual care as fully as the church member. This is because God has designed His Church to be the place (physically and spiritually) where each member can find comfort and strength when they need it most. Sure, the nomad or hopper may find this comfort from a fellow believer independent of the church. More than likely, however, the nomad and hopper will fulfill his or her need for comfort from someone in the world. For the church member, though, it is in the gathering of at least 2 or 3 where Christ is present most fully (Matthew 18:20). Here, the comfort of love and encouragement abounds because each member displays a dependence on the other that is centered on the living Christ.
Consider when Peter and John were arrested for preaching Jesus (Acts 4). When they were released from the court of the Jewish leaders, they immediately returned “to their friends” (v 23, ESV), or their local fellowship of believers, and “reported” their experience. Then what happened? The church raised their voices to God and prayed that He would strengthen, embolden, and encourage His “servants” to continue to preach Christ (v 24ff). At the conclusion of their prayer, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (v 31). The nomad and the hopper simply cannot find this care, encouragement, and spiritual support independent of the local church.
So, let us embrace the local body of Christ. I said this yesterday and I’ll say it again: Christ died so that His body would be unified under Himself, who is the Head. It is here in this assembly of unity that we become like Jesus, ever growing into His image.
Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. The Day is fast approaching, and we need the local church to help us get there, to the glory and praise of God.