Russ Moore on the Primacy of the Local Church

October 17, 2008

Readers of this blog (see here), and hearers of my preaching (see here), will know how the primacy of the local church is extremely important to me. There is nothing that comes above, or even along side of, the local chuch in importance to the life of the believer. Russ Moore, Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has recently wrote a brief article titled, “Jesus Didn’t Die for a Campus Ministry: The Spiritual Danger of Unchurched Spirituality” for the Carl F. H. Henry Institute For Evangelical Engagement of which he is Executive Director. While brief, it is extremely helpful. Dr. Moore is sharp and astute and everything he says and writes is worth reading. I had the privilege of picking him up and dropping him off at the Toronto airport when he came to speak at the 2007 TBS graduation. He is a good man!

On that note, check out his recent chapel message at SBTS on which Justin Taylor calls, “one of the most prophetic pro-life messages I have ever heard.” Listen to “Joseph of Nazareth is a Single-Issue Evangelical: The Father of Jesus, the Cries of the Helpless, and Change You Can Believe in” (Matt 2:13:23).

The Church is Bigger than you Think

July 9, 2008

One of the most frequently asked questions by unbeliever and believer alike is “why are there so many denominations.” There are simplistic and overly complicated answers to this question. One could take people on a biblical study of the purity of the truth to a historical study of schism and separation. But, can we get so focused on our differences that we do miss the call to be a unified body of Christ?

Many of us, whether we say it or not, often believe that our particular group is the only one that God is using in this age. Coming out of a Fundamentalist background, while I appreciate the focus on the purity of the truth, there is a tendency to have sort of the Elijah complex (1 Kings 19:10) who believe they are the only group still truly faithful to the Gospel. There is a tendency to therefore separate over non-fundamental issues. I would now consider myself more or less part of the Reformed camp (although a solid dispensationalist!). We, in our over zealous state, try to encourage people to embrace the doctrines of grace so fervently, that we often believe that the idea of an Arminian believer is an oxymoron! How quickly do we allow ourselves to become fixated on ourselves or on one particular theological idea that we neglect what unites us together, specifically, the cross work of Christ!

The church is bigger than you think. It is not just Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Methodists, or Pentecostals or such. In fact there would be people in each group that could hardly be called Christians! There are members of the body of Christ in the Anglican church and I would dare say it, some even in the Roman Catholic church. Not all have bowed the knee to Baal.

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one (John 17:21-23)

Jesus’ high priestly prayer was for the unity of the body of Christ. People would know we are followers of Christ by our love for one another. Yet, we divide over petty issues, issues that while important, do not have bearing on the essential core message of the Christian faith. Frankly, I can have fellowship with my brother the covenant theologian, my sister the paedobaptist and not feel like I have compromised the faith. I can have fellowship with one who believes tongues still operate today or who do not believe in unconditional election. These aspects are not fundamental core aspects of the faith.

What then are the core doctrines of the faith? What should be that which we divide over to maintain the purity of the Gospel? Historically there were five major fundamentals of the faith (these have been sub-divided into larger groups, but this should suffice).

(1) The literal inerrancy of the Scriptures.

(2) The virgin birth and deity of Christ.

(3) The substitutionary view of the atonement.

(4) The bodily resurrection of Christ.

(5) The literal return of Christ.

Now, if a brother and sister holds to these core truths, have embraced Jesus Christ as saviour, then we can be united in fellowship together around these core doctrines of the faith. Now, does that mean we can fellowship on the same level in each instance? No. For instance I would not have a paedobaptist come into my church and do a baptismal service! But, I would have him come in and preach in a regular service perhaps. This thinking about levels of fellowship is important as we seek to apply practically our theology to those of different positions yet together in faith.

So, my point? The church is bigger than you think. Just as Elijah thought he was the only one, the Lord reminded him there were 7000 that did not bow the knee to Baal. There are many of our brothers and sisters in the faith around the world that we can rejoice with in our shared salvation. We should not back ourselves in little corners thinking we are the only bastions of the faith, but should embrace those who too are not bowing the knee to Baal! They will know we are Christians by our love! Do you love the brethren in all its forms?

See Bob Hayton’s “Minimizing the Gospel through Excessive Separation” for a helpful discussion of the problem of excessive separation.



DNA of a New Testament Church

July 8, 2008

Our director at SGA, Allan Vincent, shared with me an illustration regarding the state of the church today. A farmer in St. Jacobs, ON once told him that not all potatoes labeled Yukon Gold are actually Yukon Gold. You see, with all the genetic changes being made to food, there are a number of things that are labeled one thing, but in reality are something different. A bag of Yukon Gold potatoes that you pick up at the grocery store may in fact not be Yukon Gold! Scary stuff indeed.

Now what does this have to do with the church? In reality, much of what is called “church” nowadays is really in fact not church. What we see today with our consumer, marketing, program driven approach to church is really, a genetically altered form of the church. It was designed to “sell” the church even though it was no longer the church. We see a watered down form of the church. Most believers today are really looking at churches with a consumeristic attitude (does this church meet my needs, does it have what my kids need, will I get what I want out of it). The attitude of “you get what you put in” is foreign to most church goers today. And the churches have changed their genetic make-up in order to appeal to these church goers today.

What then does the mapping of the DNA of a New Testament Church look like? Well, in reality the Word of God gives us a clear understanding of what the local church did in New Testament times. Acts 4:42-47 reads,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

There are some very key points here which can show what the focus of the church was. Essentially, the focus of the church was 1) preaching and teaching the Word, 2) prayer, 3) fellowship of the saints, and 4) partaking in ordinances of the church.

Clearly, one important aspect of their time was devoted to the Apostle’s teachings. They yearned to hear the Word of God preached and taught and applied to their lives. They knew that a Word saturated ministry is a life changing ministry. Only through the power of the Word which revealed the Word, that is Christ, could they hope to attain the promise of life eternal. The Word changed hearts and brought people to Christ, and it changed lives as people were becoming more like Christ.

The second item was prayer. They devoted themselves to prayer. Prayer is that divine work where we communicate with the Sovereign God of the universe. We have the privilege of being agents of His divine will through prayer. God accomplishes His will through our prayers. We are the ordained means to the end. Plus, we grow in our relationship and fellowship with the Triune God through prayer. It is our lifeline to our life giver! Without prayer, we will wither and die!

A third thing the church was committed to was fellowship. While we might not embrace the communal living they did, we can appreciate the close relationships these beleivers had with each other. We live in a segregated world where we know of nor care about our neighbours let alone our church family. These people though faithfully met together and cared and loved for each other in such a way that they met each other’s needs. Imagine what churches would look like today with this kind of level of fellowship!

Finally, they devoted themselves to the ordinances of the Lord. There is debate here, but I believe at least a part of what is being referred to here is the Lord’s Supper. The church regularly “broke bread” together as they celebrated the finished work of Christ that united them together and looked forward to the glorious return of Christ when they would celebrate the meal with Him! They also of course took part in the other ordinace of baptism which served as the initiatory placement of the person into the community of faith. Therefore, when the church came together, they added those to their number through baptism, and they fellowshipped around the Lord’s Table.

This is the DNA of a New Testament Church. This is how the churched looked then, this is how it should look now. How far have we gotten off the beaten path through our programs and our marketing and everything else. The church was simple. United around the preaching and teaching of the Word, prayer, fellowship, and the ordinances. If more of our churches today focused on these aspects and less on “meeting needs” we would live in a world of greater conformity to Christ in our churches. We would be a close knit family united around Christ.

What a privilege it is to be a part of the body of Christ. May we pray for our churches to better reflect the New Testament picture of the church. Let’s remove the genetic engineering that has happened to the church and get back to the simplicity of it all!

“Listening to the Past – Lessons from Andrew Fuller” 17

November 11, 2007


Fuller rightly responds to people who want to be part of a broad religious group without a commitment to their local church. It seems the problems we face today existed in Fuller’s day just the same. The following entry comes from The Works of Andrew Fuller, III:797.

“There appears to be a mistaken idea, to commonly prevailing in the religious world at present, respecting what is called a party spirit. Many professors, while they endeavour to promote the interests of religion in general, too often neglect to pay that attention which id due to the interest and welfare of that class or denomination of Christians in particular with which they are or have been connected. It is not uncommon to see one of these “candid” Christian professors keep at a distance from his own denomination, or party, where that denomination stands most in need of his countenance and support; while he associates with another pat, which is sanctioned by numbers and worldly influence. And when the inconsistency of his conduct is hinted at, he will excuse himself by saying, in the cant phrase of the day, That it is his wish to promote the interests of religion in general, and not to serve a party. I wish some of your correspondents would expose the conduct of such fawning professors i its true colours; and endeavour to convince them that in vain are all pretensions to Christian candour where consistency and integrity are wanting.”

The Primacy of the Local Church – Part 3

September 5, 2007


We have been looking at the church and our relationship to it. Two posts ago we looked at what God is doing in this age and how the church is primary in God’s plan. Last post we looked at the natural conclusion that it should be first place in the life of a believer because every believer should be part of the church. In this post there is something we need to look at which is a step further. We may agree that people cannot walk with God apart from the local church. You may agree with me on that part. This doesn’t necessarily come to the conclusion where we need to go. This is what I would like to do and I am going to do it in a thesis. You may not agree at first, but I will try to prove it in the rest of this lesson. I think we need to come to this next step.

Your service to God in the local assembly is your primary obligation in life. Unless we look right at this directly and wrestle with it, we do not get to the point. Let me suggest to you why I think this is true.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Here is the simple statement as a proof. God saved us so we would serve Him. We were created in Christ Jesus unto good works. He planned beforehand that we would engage in them. The purpose of our salvation is to serve God.

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).

Lets tie all this together. Here is the proof. God saved and gifted you for the purpose of good works and this is expressed through the local church. God saved us and gifted us for good works and to serve Him. This is not some free floating thing. We didn’t do good works wherever we are or use our gifts wherever we are. The place where God designed us to do this is the local assembly of believers. We are to use what He has given us to His glory to build up the body of Christ. It is designed for purposes in the local church. Therefore, your service to God in the local church is primary in your life because this is why God saved you! He didn’t save you to be a good employee, or good family member. Those are extensions of you being saved. But the text says He saved you for you to engage in His eternal purposes in His church. I am not trying to soft pedal this. We can easily nod our heads to this but we don’t really live this way.

Now lets look at the second proof. A proper relationship to the local assembly is essential to fulfilling all of your other God given responsibilities.

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)

Let’s start with the one that gets the most tension with us. Let’s look at the family. Is being a parent a God given responsibility? Yes. Here is the point. How can you raise them up in the Lord apart from the local assembly? You can’t! God’s chief work in this age is the local church and we are to be part of the local church therefore you cannot help your children to grow apart from the local church. They are to be under the teaching of God’s Word, to worship and serve God, etc. This is supposed to be done in the local church! Apart from the local church you cannot do what you are supposed to do. You must teach them to serve in the local church as part of our mandate from God to raise our children. If the church is a sidelight as you are bringing up your children, then you are working against your responsibility to train them in the fear and admonition of the Lord. You serve as a bad example. Your family responsibility as great as they are before God cannot be fulfilled apart from the local church. The church therefore must have its proper place in your life.

Your work must be subservient to your walk with God. You have no requirement to work so hard that your relationship with God personally would suffer. Your work should not undermine your witness for Christ. Your walk and witness for Christ must take priority over your work. How can your work with God then be what it should be apart from the local church? You do not have the walk you should have if you are not functioning in the life of the assembly. If your work starts to work against your time in the local assembly it is damaging your walk with God and your witness for Christ. Our jobs are not over the local assembly and cannot compete with our commitment to the local assembly. We need to recognize this.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Here’s another angle. Let me summarize this. Your marriage is designed by God to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church. The wife submits to the husband as we submit to Christ, the husband loves the wife as Christ loves the church. Let’s take it deeper though. Paul quotes here from Genesis 2 regarding husbands and wives. Before God created marriage he had intended a picture that marriage was to represent. Paul is saying Genesis 2:24 is speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Before God instituted marriage there was something that He wanted to portray through marriage. Which is greater then? The picture or the reality? The reality! If marriage is instituted to picture Christ and the church, therefore the great thing is the reality of Christ’s relationship to the church. Our marriages are not an end to themselves. The goal of marriage was not marriage but to portray the picture of Christ and the church. Therefore your marriage is subject to the great truth of Christ and the church. When we lift our marriage above the reality we miss the point. We are making the means to the goal the goal. It is the means by which we declare Christ’s love of the church.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26).

The call to Christian discipleship clearly places following Christ above all human relationships. This is the reality of it. We know this. We confess this. If we talk about it in its most basic issue. If someone says if they trust Christ someone will be upset with them, we would say you need to turn to Christ. Your parents, your wife, your husband, your children, no one should mean more to you than Jesus Christ. You must in comparison to Christ you consider all others that you would set aside for Christ. This means that our commitment to Christ supersedes all other human relationships. Acts 5:29 says that we must obey God rather than men. Our obedience to Christ must supersede even our obedience to civil government. Someone might say though that this has to do only with our salvation.

“And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27).

He is not just talking about a momentary decision. It is the life of the Christian He is talking about. We have one Lord of our life and it is Christ. He takes precedence and priority over all other relationships. It doesn’t mean we abandon them but that we subordinate them. You cannot be a husband that defies Christ to meet the needs of your wife. You must put your commitment to Christ above all others. It means we have a commission and responsibility from Christ. If we are to follow Christ we have taken from His hands an obligation, i.e. unto good works, therefore we must follow His Great Commission. That cannot be done apart from the local church. If I am a follower of Christ and this is what Christ is doing then I cannot be following Christ faithfully and do my thing over here. He is building His church and we are to be part of that. We are to go and make disciples of all nations. The local church is the pillar and support of the truth! If we are going to follow Christ we cannot do that walking away from where He is going! We must bring all of our human relationships into subservience to that. They must take their proper place below what the will of God is.

“What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none” (1 Corinthians 7:29).

Do not mistake the reason why I look at this text. The principle here is that the primary obligation of any believer is undistracted devotion to the Lord. We are to live for and serve God. That is why we were created and saved. As we pick up responsibilities in life they are legitimate concerns (Paul is not against marriage) but they are responsibilities submitted to our chief and primary purpose. We live in the world but do not make full use of the world. If we are married as believers and can have a marriage that enjoys all the things of the world that unbelievers in the world can enjoy then there is something out of wack! There should be a measurable difference between how our families and marriages operate because we have a higher purpose than those who live for this world! If we know Christ we live for something else! So sure we do things the world does, i.e. we play sports, we enjoy recreation, we remodel the house, but if our whole life becomes preoccupied with these things as if we were an unbeliever then something is wrong! We have lost sight of the fact that we are different! We are not to have a fragmented devotion to God. We are not to fit Him in around our schedule! If we commit more to our families or to our work than to Christ and His church then we are demonstrating we are much more worldly than we realize! Christ and the church is our first commitment.

Let’s clarify some things here. Do not conclude from what I have said that serving God in the local church is never justification for neglecting your other responsibilities. I am not saying do not do well at work. What I am saying is work cannot draw you away from your primary responsibility. You are here to serve Christ and not to work. This is the same about the home. A husbands responsibility is to reflect Christ. A parent’s responsibility to their children is to raise them in the Lord and cannot be done outside of the church. Do not neglect those things. They are brought into focus when we see God’s purpose for us. The purpose of marriage is not to end with a great marriage. Its focus is to portray Christ. The point of raising children is not to raise well adjusted adults but to raise servants of Christ. The point of working is not to make money but it is to carry out God’s purposes in this world. I am not creating a pecking order by throwing out one or the other. We are to do all God gives us to do! When we use family or work or whatever, hobbies, sports, whatever, that stands in the way of us serving God in the local church then we are off course. You have to navigate it! I am not going to tell you how many hours to work or how much sports your kids are to be doing. That’s not my job. What I am telling you though is that if you are out of balance you are making an eternal mistake. You are accepting a small payback now that cuts into eternity. Long after this life is over, what you have done for Christ is what matters. You may be tapping into things which are good and fine and fun now which someday will amount to nothing. And therefore I am not doing you any good service as a shepherd to warn you of this. Your title in your job won’t matter. What size house won’t matter. How many trophies won’t matter. Only what you have done for Christ to carry out His purposes is what will matter. That is why it must be at the centre of our lives.



The Primacy of the Local Church – Part 2

August 21, 2007


In our last post we saw the primacy of the local church in God’s program. This is all important when we look at the world today. The pattern today that people relate to the church is unlike anything the Scripture presents as the pattern! There is little to no loyalty or attachment to the church or church participation. It is done as something convenient or a benefit to me, not done as obedience as God. Church selection is selected that people shop for cars! People though are called out of the world and into the body of Christ. The idea of someone apart from the local assembly would have been foreign to the local church. A believer has come out of the world and has come into the body of believers. Following Christ means coming into the body of Christ and to join with other believers. Our relationship to the church is what matters. For instance, people do not feel baptism is important today. Yet, it is a big deal to live in obedience in the local church! To be part of the church is to identify oneself with Christ through baptism. It is a great test to determine someone’s loyalty to Christ and His church! For churches to accommodate people apart from baptism means that we grow apart from spiritual growth! The Lord’s Table also often gets pushed off to the side because it may distract from our big gatherings! Yet, it was central to the worship of the early church!

In our day, when we say ministry, this doesn’t mean today that we are going to serve in the local church and this is a problem. We think ministry is anything we do for God. You just sort of go minister and it is all okay. It has eliminated what the NT talks about, in that it is done in the local church! The local church is the heart of NT ministry. If you are not serving in the context of the local church you may be surprised at the judgment seat of Christ! At the heart and soul of the NT God wants every believer to be doing His work in the local church. It doesn’t mean other things are illegitimate. They are illegitimate if they are over and above the local church.

Let me try to make a case then this about your own personal responsibility to be an active part in the local assembly. Even if you are a member do not park your brain! You can be a member and not serving! I want to convince you that there is nothing more important in terms of your service and walk with God than serving in the local church.

and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Acts 11:26).

When Barnabas and Saul are busy serving God they are doing it in the church. Acts 13:1 confirms this! In the church that was in Antioch people served in ministry there. This is the pattern here. Believers assembled with believers. This is where they ministered to each other and the Lord. They did it in the church and the assembly! It is not enough to say you got together with some Christians. The concept is more than just Christians getting together; we are talking about the church! The church has truth regarding how it functions and it is organized. It is not enough for you to sit in front of a TV and listen to a sermon. You didn’t just do church! It is not bad for you to listen to good sermons, but this cannot be a substitute for the church! It is not enough just to do something spiritual. We are supposed to be joined to an assembly of believers!

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41). “praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47)

The number of believers were known. New converts were referred to as being added to the church. Lets look at 4:4. This is not just a record of who were saved. The definition of a genuine Christian then is that they were added to the church. In 2:41 they were saved, baptized, and added. They did not consider people who were not baptized and added to the church to be genuine converts! To not want to identify with Christ through baptism nor to want to be joined to a body of believers was not to be considered a genuine Christian! Receive the Word, be baptized, and be added to the church. This is the way it worked. There was a group then that was “the number” and people were added to it. There was an existing group here then.

‘Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.” (Acts 6:3-5)

The selection of leaders was done from among the assembly and done by the assembly. There was a group of people here that the apostles could say “look for people from amongst yourselves.” There was a self-consciousness that these people were a congregation; an assembly of people. They weren’t just an assembly of believers doing their own things. This was an organized body of believers. There was a self-identity of being a congregation.

When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.” (Acts 18:27)

This text illustrates that the practice in the NT times of writing letters to commend a believer to another congregation presupposes some important truth. First, that they were one of their number. The people in Corinth are going to encourage Apollos when he goes. This process is mentioned as well in 1 Corinthians 16:3 and in 2 Corinthians 3:1 and in Colossians 4:10. This is what happens today. If you were to leave to go to another church that church should contact this church and ask for a letter of recommendation. The reality of the sad condition of our thoughts of the local church is that people don’t even think of these things today. It is a sad state to the care given to the local church. In one local church they would not want to admit to their membership people who were not credible in their faith! We think it is more important what we think of the church and not what the church thinks of us! A credible standing in the local church is something important for us!

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).

See this? For all the flock! The pastoral obligations are established on the basis of a recognizable group of believers. The assembly has a definite recognizable existence! There is no ability for someone to be an overseer of a flock if there is no definite assembly! The leaders will give an account for their role in their group. How can a pastor obey that if there is no recognizable local assembly? There are no TV preachers watching for your soul. They don’t hold you accountable. Only the pastor of your local church is doing that! Every believer is to be in a church relationship in which there are spiritual leaders functioning in the ways of feeding and leading you! This is what the NT is designed to communicate to us! When we throw away this idea of a definite flock of believers, when we refuse to be part of a local assembly, we are failing to obey the NT!

I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:29)

This is why this is so important! They will come from outside the flock inside the flock. From outside the assembly and into the assembly. V. 31 tells us the same thing. They will come from within the assembly as well!

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband.” (1 Timothy 5:9).

There were special lists and rolls of people for special purposes. The church had a recognizable list, in this case, of widows, and therefore that it was a widow from among their number. They know who are people who are a part of the assembly. There is a recording then of widows from this group. 1 Corinthian 5 teaches the same thing. Church discipline presupposes a formal assembly from which someone can be expelled. They were to remove him. Which means there was something from which he could be expelled! Look now here. The very concept of a Christian assembly of being in the church or alternatively being outside of the church. Colossians 4:5. Those who are believers are insiders and those who are not are outsiders. 1 Thess 4:12 and 1 Timothy 3:7 say the same thing. There were those who are part of the church and those who were not a part of it.

All of these reasons shows that it is God’s will for every believer to be part of a local assembly of believers. Let me talk a little bit about application.

First, this is an obedience issue. It is obedience to God to be part of the church. To be outside of the church is to be disobedient to God. There are too many commands in the NT for you to be part of the church for any Christian to say “my walk is okay even though I am not part of the church.” You cannot defy all that God has said about life in the local church and be okay. It is an obedience issue. The whole parallel which we are talking about is that when people are saved they are spirit baptized into the universal church and the local church is parallel to that. Therefore when one is saved and not baptized or part of the local church it obliterates the picture! The whole point of being called out of the world is to be called into the fellowship with God’s people! There is nobody free from accountability as a believer apart from the local church because none of us can be trusted on our own! We need to be part of the assembly! It is a matter of your commitment to God’s work! The place in which you were created unto good works for you to exhibit them was in the church! We have to fight against the consumerism of today! Most churches have in their evening service 50% of their morning services! Only half of people come back in the evening! This means half of the people who would call this church their church make other choices on Sunday nights! The thought that goes through their head is, “I’m tired… maybe I should watch the rest of the game… maybe its time to hang out with the family… I’m not ready to go back to church.” Instead, we ought to be asking ourselves, “I wonder if there is a brother or sister at church who may need a word of encouragement! I wonder if when I gather together with the brethren in my songs that I admonish through hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. Maybe people just need to be cared for! Maybe somebody is there who needs to be in the midst of people praising God because their hearts are not full of joy and they need to see people who are!” How often do we think we go to church to do something for others and God instead of what the church can do for us! We should not be takers, we should be givers! Ask not what your church can do for you but what you can do for your church! Instead of asking what the church has for us to meet our needs, we should be asking how we can meet the churches needs!

You should not serve in the church unless you are a member. We are to serve in the body. It doesn’t make sense to have those outside of the body serve in the body. Our hearts are not outside of our bodies pumping blood for others. It just doesn’t make any sense. That is why being part of a local assembly where we can serve is of utmost importance to our spiritual walk with God! You hear people say, “I’ve been singing in the choir for 13 years, I guess I better become a member.” That is why most people are not members! This is out of step with the NT! If you are not a part of the body then you cannot be using your gifts properly. If you are not part of the body you cannot effectively fulfill the Great Commission? How can you teach all what the Lord has commanded apart from the local church? If you are not part of the local church you cannot use your gifts.

The power and radiance of our witness of Christ is affected by our participation in the local church. If we think we can get by without it then we are out of step with what God wants us to do!

The Primacy of the Local Church – Part 1

August 14, 2007


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.