“I don’t need organized religion. I can worship God my own way in the privacy of my own home.”
“I do not belong to a local church, but I belong to the universal church made up of all who believe in Jesus.”
“Can’t I just think of my little home Bible study group as my church? Why do I have to join a formal organization to please God?”
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard these kinds of statements from professing Christians. Many religious people today seem to have little regard for the “traditional” local church, for what is often called “organized religion.” There are perhaps many reasons for this. For one thing, churches do not always care for their members as they should. Hurting, spiritually-needy people sometimes fall through the cracks and are neglected by the church leaders and other members. Little wonder then that people who have been “burned” by churches would want nothing to do with “organized religion.” For another thing, people in our relativistic, self-centered culture simply do not want the accountability that comes from membership in a local church. Add to this the fact that churches have done a poor job in recent generations of educating their members on the nature and importance of the local church–even denying at times that the Bible teaches formal church membership–and people outside the church have all the excuse they need to stay away.
Yet the Bible speaks much about the church. It tells us that Christ established and is in the process of building the church (Matthew 16:18); that He loves the church and died for her (Ephesians 5:25). It is Christ’s very Body on earth (Ephesians 4:15-16; 1 Corinthians 12:27), and His beloved bride (Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 21:2). The church is also described as the temple of God built with “living stones” (1 Peter 2:5). And, as the Apostle Paul aptly put it, the church is the Household of God (1 Timothy 3:15). A “household” is a family understood as an organized unit with structure, lines of authority, and particular functions. And because the church, as God’s household, is also the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), Paul goes to great pains to instruct Timothy (and us) concerning “how to conduct ourselves.”
As we will see, the Bible does teach that Christians should join themselves to God’s household, to organized, local churches. For this reason, it is crucial that those who name the name of Jesus understand what the church is and what our relationship to the church should be. In this article, we will outline the nature of the church under five theses and explain why you should care about being a part of a local church.
Thesis One: The Church Is a Gathered Community
Though the Bible does speak of a universal church that is composed of all Christian believers everywhere, and which is invisible (see Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 5:23-32; Hebrews 12:22-23), the Bible is very clear that this universal church is to have concrete expression in particular places by Christians gathering together to form local churches, local communities of believers. This is proven, first of all, simply from the word “church” itself. This term comes from the Greek ekklesia, which means “assembly” or “congregation.” So, a church is an assembly or gathering together of people.
But, we can say more. In Acts 2, after Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon, we are told that 3000 people converted to faith in Christ. In verse 42, we learn that these new converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Notice that one of the several activities that these early disciples is said to have devoted themselves was “fellowship.” This term comes from the Greek koinonia, which has to do with people joining together for mutual benefit; having a shared life together as we see later in Acts 4 and 5.
So a church is more than simply a meeting; more than a loose and casual gathering as when people get together for a party or at City Hall to vote on business. No, a church is a congregation of people who have a shared life together, a fellowship. The church is a community.
One of the most wonderful images of the church in the New Testament is the image of the “Body of Christ.” This image makes it plain that the church is an intimate fellowship that exists for the mutual benefit of all church members. The Apostle Paul describes the church in 1 Corinthians 12:4-27 using the image of the Body of Christ.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
Among other things, this passage clearly teaches at least three important truths about the members of the Body of Christ:
(1) Each Christian is given spiritual gifts for the mutual benefit of the whole church (v.7).
(2) The church needs each gifted member (vv.15-18).
(3) Each gifted member needs the whole church (v. 21).
What may we conclude from this? For one thing, we must say that the Body of Christ is healthy in so far as each member contributes his spiritual gifts for the good of all the other members. For another, since the church is a gathered community, there is the clear implication that each member of the church ought to have a commitment to the church. If a person exists in this kind of intimate fellowship in which he faithfully shares his gifts with the others, and they share with him, then that must involve a mutual commitment of each member to all the other members. We call this kind of commitment a covenant. For the church to be a gathered community, functioning as a healthy Body of Christ, requires that those who are gathered together enter into covenant with one another.
Thesis Two: The Church Is Comprised of Baptized Believers
After His glorious resurrection, the Lord Jesus issued His Great Commission to His disciples with these words:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).
This text tells us that the church is supposed to do four things:
(2) Make disciples
(3) Baptize those disciples
(4) Teach those disciples
For our purposes in this chapter, we will focus on item (3), baptism.
We are told by the Lord Jesus that the church is to make disciples and that the church is to baptize those disciples. As most Christians know, baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It also serves as the believer’s “pledge of allegiance” to Jesus. It is the way in which a person makes his profession of faith public and formally commits himself to being a disciple of Jesus. As such, baptism is often called the Christian’s “first (public) act of obedience.”
Because of this, it should go without saying that membership in a local church requires baptism. Only Christians can be members of local churches. The church is a gathered community of those who have become disciples of Jesus. But, one cannot be a true disciple if one refuses to obey Christ’s commands, and one of His commands is baptism. And this is why we see in the New Testament that every time someone believes in Jesus, he is baptized before his entrance into the visible, local church.
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:40-41).
Notice the sequence here. First, the people received the word. That is, they believed the gospel and were saved. Second, they were baptized. Then, thirdly, they were added to the church. So, the church consists of baptized believers.
Thesis Three: The Church Is Overseen by Elders Appointed by the Holy Spirit
The church, as we have seen, is not just an informal meeting. Nor is it disorganized and haphazard in the way it conducts its work. The Lord has established a way for the church to be organized and properly managed. This God-given organization is outlined in the Book of Acts at the end of Paul’s First Missionary Journey.
They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust (Acts 14:21-23).
Notice that before the apostles left these churches in God’s hands, they appointed elders in each church. We learn more about biblical elders from Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. In verse 28, Paul says to them, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” There are several things we learn about elders from this text and the earlier one in Acts 14. First of all, each church had a plurality of elders. That is, there was more than one elder appointed in each church.
Second, we have a job description of the elders. The elders are said to be both overseers and shepherds. An overseer is a leader, a supervisor. A shepherd is one who cares for the flock, feeding them, comforting them, and guiding them. As shepherd of God’s flock, a pastor is one who teaches, warns, corrects, and encourages the members of the church. The elders/pastors, then, are the spiritual leaders of the local church. It is their responsibility to provide direction to the ministry of the church, and to guide the spiritual growth of each church member.
Third, notice that Paul says that it is the Holy Spirit who put the elders in their leadership positions. Though the church is involved in appointing elders, ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who puts them in office. And this means that the elders are ultimately responsible to God, not the church. It also means that church members have solemn duties to their pastors. Paul outlines some of these duties in his first letter to the Thessalonians:
Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13a).
There are two duties required of Christians in this text:
(1) Christians are to acknowledge their pastors’ right to lead. The NIV translates the Greek as “respect.” Other translations say “appreciate” or “know” your pastors. But, the Greek carries more the idea of “acknowledge” or “recognize.” The idea here is that church members are to acknowledge that their pastors are indeed their pastors! They are to consciously submit to the elders’ leadership.
(2) Christians are to esteem their pastors. The NIV says it well when it tells Christians to hold their pastors in “the highest regard.” Pastors deserve to be respected, not so much because they are anything special in themselves, but because of the noble work they have been called to do. The author of Hebrews echoes Paul’s instructions, writing,
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).
This verse commands Christians to obey their pastors. Why? Because the pastors have the difficult task of watching out for the souls of God’s flock, and Christians are called to make their job joyful and not burdensome. This requires obedience on the part of the congregation.
Thesis Four: The Church Is Distinguished by Three Marks
There are three marks or indications by which we can tell a true church from a false church; three marks by which we can tell if a church is a church in God’s eyes.
(1) A true church preaches the gospel. In Acts 2:42, a text we saw earlier, we are told that the early church devoted itself to the apostles’ “doctrine.” Primarily this refers to the message about the Person and Work of Christ; the gospel message which is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). This message includes as well any and all doctrines that flow out of the gospel message. A true church teaches the gospel and clings to the Word of God. A church which fails in this is not really a Christian church. Notice the seriousness with which Paul addresses this issue:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-9).
Paul pronounces a curse on those who preach a false gospel, such as the Judaizers who taught that one must follow the ceremonial law of Moses if one was truly to be saved. We may presume that any church which preaches a false gospel, or fails to teach the true gospel of justification by faith alone, would receive the same curse.
(2) A true church faithfully administers the ordinances in accordance with God’s Word. The ordinances, of course, are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have already addressed the meaning and importance of baptism, but the New Testament equally stresses the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Looking at Acts 2:42 once again, we note that another thing the early church devoted itself to was “the breaking of bread.” This is most likely a reference to the Lord’s Supper. This ordinance symbolizes the sacrificial death of Christ, the bread representing His broken body, and the cup representing His shed blood. Paul speaks of our solemn obligation with regard to this rite:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself
(1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
A true church observes both the ordinance of baptism and the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, and it does so with reverence, guided by the teaching of the New Testament.
(3) A true church practices church discipline. The Lord Jesus commands the church to hold members accountable to holy living. We find an allusion to this in His Great Commission:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20a).
Jesus tells the church to teach Christian disciples to obey all of His commands. He also gives us specific instruction on what to do if a church member fails in this regard:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).
Jesus expects the church to confront sinful church members with their sin, and He lays out the procedures to follow in doing so. But, if a church fails to carry out biblical church discipline, allowing sin to flourish in the church unchallenged, then Jesus has very harsh words for that church:
“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds’” (Revelation 2:18-23).
A church that fails to discipline wayward members is under God’s judgment, and ceases to be a true church. J. L. Dagg, the famous Baptist theologian, once said, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”
Thesis Five: The Church Has Three Ministries That the Lord Has Given it to Perform
We conclude our study on the nature of the church by discussing her mission. The mission God has given the church is that she fulfill three vital ministries–a ministry to God, a ministry to believers, and a ministry to the world.
(1) Ministry to God: Worship. The first and foremost purpose of the church is to worship God. The Bible has a lot to say about worship. The place to start is with Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman: “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). To worship in spirit means to worship God with a sincere heart, a heart that loves Him and desires to please Him. Only believers can worship God in spirit. To worship in truth means to worship in accordance with God’s Word; to worship only as God instructs us to worship.
(2) Ministry to Believers: Edification. The church has been given the responsibility to build up believers in their faith (See Matthew 28:19-20; Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15). Helping others grow in Christ is not just the duty of pastors. All Christians are commanded to encourage each other, warn each other, comfort each other, and uphold each other. There is no such thing as a “Lone Ranger Christian.” Without the help of other believers, a Christian will wither up and die! This is why the Book of Hebrews says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Here we are reminded of the importance of helping each other grow in Christ. But notice that this duty is connected with the command to not neglect assembling together. The saints cannot be edified if the saints don’t meet!
(3) Ministry to the World: Benevolence and Missions. We are to reach out to the unbelieving world with benevolent concern; to work for justice in the world and to care for the sick and poor in his name (Matthew 25:31-40). Even more importantly, we are to minister to the world through missions, by taking the gospel message to our families, our neighbors, and to the ends of the earth. We seek to evangelize the world and bring into God’s kingdom people from every tribe and nation. As Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
We have seen that the church is: (1) A gathered community whose members have entered into a solemn covenant with each other; (2) comprised of baptized believers in Christ who have entered into a life of discipleship; (3) led by gifted pastors who have been called and ordained by the Holy Spirit; (4) shows its true allegiance to Jesus by three marks: preaching the gospel, administering the ordinances, and practicing church discipline; and (5) has the mission of worshipping God, edifying believers, and reaching the world with the gospel.
There are a lot of practical applications that we could pursue in light of these truths. Yet, the one basic application that comes out of this study is the obligation of every Christian to be a member of a local church. Notice again what we have seen in the course of this study. Christ has created the local church for the express purpose of helping Christians grow in Christ. Apart from the ministry of a local church you cannot grow into a healthy, mature Christian. Christ has given to each believer the church, which has gifted teachers to help you learn the doctrines you are supposed to believe and the lifestyle you are supposed to live. Christ has given you other believers to hold you accountable and to encourage you. It is Christ’s desire that Christians congregate publicly to worship Him together, and He desires that His disciples work together to evangelize the world.
For Christ’s purposes for the church to be fulfilled, for His purposes for you to be fulfilled, you have to make a covenant commitment to a local church, to submit to its pastors, and to put your spiritual gifts to use for the sake of others. This is what the early Christians did. Notice what Luke tells us in Acts:
The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people (Acts 5:12-13).
After Ananias and Sapphira were struck down by the Holy Spirit for their terrible sin, we read that “none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly.” This text tells us that many unbelievers in Jerusalem had great respect for the new church, but kept their distance because they were afraid of the serious–even “deadly”–consequences of joining the church. What we need to note here is that the church was seen as something that could be joined, and this tells us that the church had a clearly defined membership. It was known who was in and who was out. But we can go further than this by looking more closely at the word “join” that Luke uses in this text. The Greek word used here is kollao and it means “to glue” or “cement together.” Don Whitney comments that in the context of Acts 5:13, the word kollao
doesn’t refer to an informal, merely assumed sort of relationship, but one where you choose to “glue” or “join” yourself firmly to the others
The same “glue word” is used in the New Testament to describe being joined together in a sexual relationship (1 Corinthians 6:16) and being joined to the Lord in one spirit in salvation (1 Corinthians 6:17) Clearly this kind of language doesn’t refer to a casual, superficial, or informal relationship.
So when it says in Acts 5:13 that no insincere believer dared joined them for a while, the glue word used there speaks of such a cohesive, bonding relationship that it must be referring to a recognized church membership.
The early Christians understood their duty to be committed members of a local church, the household of God. It is important that Christians today understand this, too. To shun this duty is to shun Christ’s gift to you. To neglect church membership is to neglect your obedience to Christ. If you love Jesus, you love what he loves; and Jesus loves the church. If you are a Christian, but not a member of a local church, you should make this your first priority.
 J. L. Dagg, Manuel of Church Order (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1990), 274.
 The content of this section is adapted from Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 867-868.
 Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1996), 46.