The idea of the professing Christian living in isolation from the local church is quite foreign to the New Testament. It’s surprising that so many people can read the New Testament and miss this. The necessity of active participation in the local church by all true believers is everywhere and is made crystal clear by the metaphors, commands, and plural pronouns used in Scripture.
First, let’s consider three metaphors. The local church is referred to as a building in Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Peter 2:5. A building is a structure made up of distinct material. If you separate the material from the building itself, that material is no longer part of the one structure known as the building. This metaphor shows us that Scripture assumes believers will be joined to a local church in such a way that they are regularly involved. It is not possible to have a building if the distinct material that makes up the building is not present.
A second metaphor for the local church is a body. Paul talks about church members being parts of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Any part of the body that is separated from the body is, by definition, no longer part of the body. Therefore, this metaphor assumes that believers will be active parts of the body of Christ in the local church.
A final metaphor is that of a bride. Paul gives an analogy of a husband and wife to Christ and the church in Ephesians 5. We want to be careful not to overstretch this metaphor to imply that Christ is polygamous, having many “wives” represented by each local church. Rather, we should understand all saints of all time as the Bride, and that the Bride is currently represented by visible, local New Testament Churches. The point is, being “part of the Bride” and willfully outside the local expression of that Bride in a local church, is impossible. Some will want to list exceptions here. I grant that we may come up with various scenarios wherein someone can be a true believer, but outside the local church. But my point here is that this is the exception, not the norm. In fact, it’s quite the rare exception if we believe the New Testament.
Next, we have many commands in the New Testament that are impossible to obey outside a local, visible church. For example, the many “one anothers” in Scripture cannot be fulfilled in isolation. You may take certain commands like “love one another” and try to apply that individually, but when taken within the context of all the other one anothers in the New Testament, we see it’s quite impossible, inconceivable, that these commands can be fulfilled anywhere but the context of life in the local church. Take 1 Corinthians 11:33 for instance: “When you come together to eat, wait for one another.” This cannot be fulfilled anywhere except within the local church.
Other examples of “one another” commands are abounding. Exhortations to “bear with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2), “carry one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24), and “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16) cannot rightly be understood as being properly obeyed outside of the local church. It’s true that there are applications of these commands for all Christians, but trying to make them all apply only to the “universal” church essentially makes them meaningless. How can I realistically carry the burdens of all Christians everywhere? I cannot. Instead, I can pick and choose which ones I want to mess with. But that’s not the spirit of the command. I am to carry the burdens of those in my local church in such a way that I actually have to have humility, gentleness, and patience. If I try to make this command about all believers, I either don’t actually fulfill it or I put undue burden on myself, and still don’t actually fulfill it.
These commands, and many others, are in Scripture because active participation in a local church is the expectation of all believers. To “be the church” is to participate regularly in the gatherings of the local church in order to fulfill these commands. I’m not suggesting that there is not more to “being the church.” There certainly is! But there is not less.
Finally, the plural pronouns of the New Testament show that our personal relationship with Jesus is not a private relationship with Jesus. This relationship is to be lived out in the context of the local church. Let me give some examples of the “let us” motif in the book of Hebrews:
- 4:14 - “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”
- 4:16 - “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
- 6:1 - “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,”
- 10:24 - “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works...”
- 12:1 - “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us...”
- 13:15 - “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.”
The author of Hebrews shows us explicitly that there is no such thing as lone ranger Christianity. And we know that these exhortations are to be fulfilled in part in the context of the local church because in 10:25, he tells us not to give up meeting together.
Hebrews isn’t the only book with plural pronouns. They are so common in the New Testament that you may have missed them. For example, Philippians 1:6 reads, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Perhaps if it were not italicized you would have missed it! The “you” in that verse is plural. Paul’s address isn’t to individual Christians, but to the local church at Phillipi. If you take off the lenses of American Christianity, you will begin to see plural pronouns everywhere. We cannot understand Christianity in the New Testament apart from the local church.
Jesus is not a politician running for office. He doesn’t toss us a candy coated promise so that we will vote for Him. Rather, His promise is ironclad and irrevocable. It can be trusted. It is coming to pass even now. He is building His church. And the reason we know this is true is because we see visible, local churches continue to carry His banner across the globe. The local church is a necessary part of the Christian life.
The local church still matters.