When I was in seminary I sat under the preaching ministry of David Doran of Inter-City Baptist Church. He also served as my professor of pastoral theology in seminary. It was there that I first heard about the primacy of the local church. Now, I had always been in the local church since a young teen and new about its importance. Yet, I did not fully grasp how important it was. And I definitely did not think about the implications of its primacy in my life. And, in thinking through these things in seminary and hearing it preached, I decided most people in the pews and most pastors have not either! During the Reformation, many grand truths had been recovered pertaining to God, Christ, and Salvation. One area that was not and is still in neglect today is the doctrine of the church. In light of this, I decided to follow Dr. Doran’s example and preach and teach on the primacy of the local church. In my travels this year I have been preaching a 3-part series on it and a one message overview on it. It is amazing to see the looks in peoples faces when they hear it. It is like this is something completely new to them! And, since I decided the Lord was calling me to the route of the pulpit ministry again and not behind the lectern of a school, I decided I needed to focus on some of these issues on my blog as well. So, here is part 1 of my 3-part series on the Primacy of the Local Church. I cannot say that any of this is original to me. I heard it preached and taught so many times that this really is the message of Dr. Doran and not my own. But blame me for any issues you have with it!
The Primacy of the Local Church
When a monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, he began what we know of as the Protestant Reformation. And during this time, some grand truths about God and salvation were recovered from many years of neglect. Things like justification by faith alone, through Christ alone, to the Glory of God alone! Yet, there was one area of theology they overlooked. That was the area of the church! And to this day, we have had a weak view of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are going to look at different facets of the church and the relationship of the believer to the church. We often tend to tune out on things that we think we already know quite a lot about and that includes teaching on the church. We must not do that. There is a great danger when we do this. We all have presupposed ideas and experiences and opinions that we bring to the table. We come to the subject of the church with the idea that we know a lot of the church and that our thoughts must be right. We tend to impose our experiences upon the Word instead of allowing the Word to impose upon our experiences. We need to be asking ourselves the questions of why we do what we do with regards to the church.
There are enormous debates out there in regards to the life of the church. For interest sake, have you heard the questions about should choirs be in robes or should we use hymn books? We have these debates really with no knowledge of the Scriptures on the issues. I mean, these are just illustrative, but do we really think the church at Ephesus had choirs in robes? Do you think they used hymnals? We have conceptions about the way that we do things that we turn into sound doctrine. It controls us and everything we look at is evaluated at that. These are lighter illustrations, but our whole perspective and orientation of the local church is too much controlled by tradition and in fact, some of that tradition has been misguided as a reaction to the emphasis on the church found in Roman Catholicism.
What I mean is that Roman Catholicism teaches that the church is the one that grants salvation, and in fact when you come into the church that is salvation. This is a wrong concept. But, in reaction to that, much of contemporary Christianity moves to another wrong that says that all that matters in your life is your personal salvation, and church is okay and good but really it is on the outside. The thing that really matters is you and God; your salvation and your relationship to God. The church is okay but it is certainly not very important to that. And that is why in our culture church is simply part of our equation for life and for a lot of people, an optional part. They would not consider departing from church to the equivalent of turning their back on God because that sounds we are back over here in Roman Catholicism. The NT though considers forsaking the assembling together of ourselves as an enormously serious issue. Yet, there are people today who think they have just a tremendous relationship with God and yet are not connected at all with the local church. They have no relationship with any assembly. They may show up at a bunch of different ones. But they are not committed to the local church. And they think everything is okay with them spiritually!
And here I’ll illustrate this. Let’s look at a husband who neglects his children. We would think he is a horrible person. Yet, the same person could take perfect care of their children yet completely ignore the local church and we would not see anything wrong with that. We would think they were a good guy but not committed to church as they should be. That demonstrates our value system! Husband or father we say is something that is essential to our relationship to God, but church? Is it essential? Allow if you can, yourself to just hear what God says and if as much as can be done, dislocate yourself from contemporary North American culture and its understanding of church. I am going to try and drive home a simple point. The local church is in its importance in the New Testament, at the centre at what God is doing. It is not the side, not the back, but at the centre and fore front. Sometimes this is referred to as the primacy of the local church. We need to be reminded that the local church is first place in our lives. I want to look at this issue of the primacy of the local church from a few different angles.
“Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:14-15, NIV).
What does God call the church? This is the household of God, the church of the living God, and the pillar and foundation of truth. These are incredible statements! Think about this in relationship to your church. It is not the brick and mortar. We can talk about “going to the house of God” yet God does not dwell in temples made with hands. God does not live in this building but Christ lives in us. The household of God is thinking of the people who are the church. It is the assembly of the living God when the believers come together! This body of believers is the pillar and support of the truth!
“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
This is another description of the church but this time as the temple of God. The “you” here is the second person plural. Not “you” an individual but “you” a group. This is the local church, the church at Corinth. The foundation was laid and they are a building to God and are called a temple of God; a place where God dwells. Ephesians 2 would describe it that we are being made a dwelling place for God through the Spirit. We are a temple of God and that is holy. It is so holy and important that if someone tried to destroy it, God will destroy him. Don’t mess with His temple; the body of believers. This is serious stuff!
“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
These believers are God’s assembly; God’s church! Paul uses that description many places. It is not right when people talk about “my church.” I understand that sometimes it is the church to which they belong but often though it is the church which is mine. The church is not mine! The church is not yours! It is our church! If we are going to talk ownership it is God’s church! The church of God! When we have an attitude toward it, we should recognize it. When we think of it as purely a human institution it becomes easier to excuse our poor attitude toward it. If it is Allen Mickle’s church, it is easy to get upset at that! It is easy to get gossipy about that. But if it is God’s church it changes things doesn’t it? This is the assembly of God! This is God’s church! This is an incredible statement. Therefore, we should consider the descriptions that the church bears. Now though we can turn from the descriptions that God gives it to the benefits that the church enjoys.
“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.” (Acts 20:28).
What it is saying about the church is that God purchased the church with His own blood. The visible church is supposed to be a group of believers in Jesus Christ. I say supposedly because we don’t have a little soul detector at the door to truly tell us who is saved and who is not. This is a regenerate church membership. A local church is one made up of those who have been saved and baptized and offered a credible profession of salvation so that we can truly say that the church has been purchased by the blood of Christ. In fact, the church is congregated and assembled by the blood of Christ. This is not a social institution! We can go out and create some club, but we could not form one like Christ has purchased to be formed.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)
Let me suggest here that when you talk about the death of Christ you need to talk about it like the Bible does. It is right to talk about Christ dying for me. We don’t often talking about Christ dying for the church though. But look here. The death of Christ here is not targeted at an individual, but that He died for the church! He gave Himself up for the church so that He could present the church to Himself! It was for the church He died! He died for this group of people that will be his bride. He died for them in application individually but there was a collective focus. He gave himself for this group which is called His people. We never talk about that! We talk about it individually and isolated. He died to save sinners to become a body and bride for Him. Often in our day we would say, which is tended as an overreaction to Roman Catholicism, that salvation and the church are not wed. But we have gone over here on the other side and said that Christ came to put just a bunch of people in heaven. He just died so that individuals could get to heaven and there is nothing about the church in contemporary thinking. But Scripture says he came and died so that he could take this group and present it to himself and as a bride. He purchased it with his own blood. It is wrong to think that Christ came and died for you in isolation to what God is doing for everything else. He died for your sins so that you could be in his body and his bride. He gave Himself for the church. If Christ would shed his blood for the church, why would we ever think lightly of it? If he purchased the flock with his own blood how could we ever think casually of it; like it is an option! It is contradictory to that great price to treat it such a way. It should be treasured and valued. Not only can we see the priority of the local church through the benefits given to the church but we can see them in that God ha provided the church with gifts through the Spirit.
“But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:7, 11-12, 16).
Here is a set of gifts that Christ gave in v. 7. He gave men who could speak God’s truth! They were given to equip the saints so they could do the work of the church. Now, look at verse 16. Not only did Christ purchase the church with his blood, but when he arose from the dead, he gave gifts to the church. Some were the leadership kinds of gifts, but in the body, every part has been supplied with something so that it contributes to the body. This is laid out in 1 Corinthians 12 as the gifts that the Spirit gives. Each one is given a gift to serve in their capacity in the body of Christ. The body received these gifts to be benefited, to function. Now, look at chapter 4:16 which tells us that every part functions and works and we shouldn’t disconnect in our minds, that He saved us by grace and that we became his workmanship; saved in Christ Jesus unto good works. If you think of your salvation apart from the body of Christ then you do not get the New Testament! You were put into a body; you were placed there to do the will of the head of the body, Jesus Christ. In fact you were saved for that very purpose! He did not save you just to get you to heaven! He could have taken you there already. As soon as someone trusts Christ… poof they’re gone! He saved you so that you could glorify him through service as laid out in the context of the body of Christ. You are not to be out there as a lone ranger for Christianity. It is you in the body fulfilling the part that God gave you to do when he re-created you in Christ Jesus. If you do not look at it this way, you miss the scope of what God is doing. Not only is the church primary because of the gifts God has given to it, but because of the very eternal plan of God for the church!
“Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3:8-11).
Paul said in chapter 2 that the Gentiles were at one time aliens to God. They had no relationship to God as a people. But now, through the work of Christ you have been brought near, brought into his family. You can be a dwelling place for God. In fact, way back before God ever called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, or brought Israel out of Egypt, or before Adam and Eve even existed, God had already planned this to occur. We have the privilege of being in something that was planned before this world was ever made. He had planned that to constitute an assembly of people from all the nations to worship Him and carry out his purposes. This is so important. Before Jesus died he said “I will build my church!” It is the plan and program of God! I am not trying to be controversial here, but he did not say “I will build families; I will build companies and corporations; I will build colleges and camps and seminaries.” He did not say any of that. He said, “I will build my church” because the church was planned in the mind of God before the foundation of the world. It is vital to God. How can it even be close to less than that in our minds? It is something that taps into the whole flow of creation in its design and its culmination. God knew what he was going to do and we have the privilege to be a part of that; to be involved in that. That is an incredible thing! Finally, we can see the church’s priority through the actual working out of God’s plan occurs in the local church!
“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
We need to understand the role that the church plays not just in an eternal perspective as Ephesians 3 says, but in terms of the actual working out of what God does, it is through the local church that He does what He is doing. This is a passage that is sometimes mistakenly applied to evangelism. Verse 6 says that Paul planted and Apollos watered. We tend to take this as evangelism. This is not what is being said. Paul is saying that I planted the church, Apollos watered it, but it was God who caused the growth to take place. If it is evangelism, it means that Paul came to Corinth, evangelized but no one came to Christ but then Apollos came along and people responded and God gave the growth. This is clearly not what is being said here. This is why he says in v. 9. that they are the field and the building. He is not talking about individuals but the church. We tend to think that Paul’s great mission, because we are over here thinking on the individualistic side, was that he was to go to Corinth and get some people saved and if Paul goes there and gets people saved, hooray for Paul. That was not his mission. That was only a part of the mission. He was going there to plant a church! Obviously people had to be saved to do that. It didn’t stop there though. That did not complete the will of God. Jesus said I will build my church and he commissioned them in the Great Commission to plant churches. They were not just to make disciples but they were to teach them all that Christ had taught them. You do the work of God when you advance the cause of the local church. That is what God wants us to be done. Too often we do not have that in our perspective. This is a problem with something like the Campus Crusade for Christ. They have no interest in putting anybody in the local church. They evangelize and do Bible studies but when you ask them what they are doing to get people into local churches they just look at you funny and say “what? On Sunday’s we have a Bible study.” So they have an entire mission to reach people for Christ and disciple them and yet define fellowship as just getting together with other Christians but not being involved in the body of Christ; not using your gifts in the local assembly; not being under the gifts being given to the local assembly. Here then is a ministry which does not care about this necessary part of the believer’s life. I wish I could say it is an exception but people go out and evangelize without any concern for the local church! They are not doing what Paul is doing. God is interested in establishing local assemblies where He is worshipped and the Word is taught and people are carrying out their responsibilities in its midst.
Let me point out some implications. We really need to make certain that we understand that in one sense that the only thing that is legitimate is that which is connected to the local church. I know this sounds hard but God did not give us any scriptural indication to start colleges, camps, schools, or seminaries. They may all be legitimate expressions of a ministry of the local church and helps them to carry out their purpose but we should never think like there are churches and then there are…. When we think like that we are thinking antithetically to the scriptures. They know of nothing outside of the local church. There are no legitimate para-church that puts itself up alongside of the church. It must be subordinate to the church.
Therefore our loyalties should be first and foremost to our local churches. It is a shame that people are more loyal to things outside of their local church that they are to their church. People leave churches over colleges, schools, or children’s programs, or evangelistic associations. This really says that in the pecking order of their mind, that that thing is more important that the local assembly. Whether it is a school or what not it cannot nor should not take more loyalty from God’s people than the work of the local church. It is a crying shame that there are believers writing cheques to people all over the place doing all sorts of things. 1 Corinthians 16 says on the first day of the week to bring your gifts. Therefore the place where you are to give your support in the chief way is the local assembly. In our culture people come along with a million things in which you can give money to. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying you cannot give money to other places but I am saying it is wrong if it displaces what you give to your local assembly. It is not God’s intention to have your loyalty and support drawn away from the local church.
Therefore, the local church is independent and doesn’t come under control of things outside of itself. It is self-governing. There is no group outside of the church that controls the church. It is governed by itself. Not by any ecclesiastical authority. The church is the pillar and support of the church. Any time people have to appeal to a broad constituency, their doctrine gets more and more generic. When you have to have a lot of people support you to make it work, it means you reduce the truth to the lowest common denominator. There is therefore an incredible doctrinal blandness in contemporary Christianity because people are worried about having the broadest constituency possible and are willing to shave off the rough portions of the Scripture. They are unwilling to being the pillar and support of the truth. We can’t talk about that because someone will get mad, or this person that sends money will get mad about it. We need to level it out.
God knew what he was doing when he said in the local assembly you are to declare the whole counsel of God. We are not to just give a little bit so we can all get together but we are to give the whole thing! There is an enormous choking in peoples throats when you start to talk about things that are not what we all agree on. That is why it is great to be a pastor. You do not have to speak to a constituency. You can just teach the Bible. And Lord willing, we will see over the next 2 posts that if all of this is true, and I think it is, then that means that every Christian, every born again believer in Christ, must be committed to the local church. You cannot be obedient to God apart from it. You cannot grow apart from it. You cannot serve God for his eternal purposes without it. You cannot use your gifts that He has given you apart from it. It must be in your life, a central part. God did not give it to you to help you to be happy and successful to you apart from it. He did not give the church to you. He gave you to the church. He saved you and called you out of the world and into the body of Christ. It does not exist for you. We exist for Him! Therefore we exist to contribute our part to it for Him! And that is a radically different way to think about it in contrast to what North American Christianity thinks about it. It is not just an option in the path of life. It is why God saved you.