Believing and belonging

Back in February I tried to push a few buttons by saying that Christians should go to a local church, and if you don’t consistently go to a local church, the question should be asked: are you really a Christian?

Let me press the issue even more firmly: attending isn’t enough, even attending regularly isn’t enough. You need to belong to a church – you need to be a member of your church.

Many people make the mistake of confusing their sociological experience of church with a theological understanding of church.

Think of it this way: it’s the difference between living together and being married. Experientially, sociologically, they are much the same; but theologically they are very different. A marriage can be understood organically as the dynamic relationship of love between a man and a woman and sharing a life together, but at the same time it needs to be understood institutionally as a formal covenant, with legal obligations and privileges. People who just live together want the organic without the institutional; but marriage is both, together, at the same time.

Church is both organic and institutional. Many people want the relationship dynamic without the formal commitment to the institution: they want to live with the church, but not be married to it. But that is to be travelling in the exact opposite direction of Jesus: he has prepared for himself the Church as his bride.

It’s not sufficient to reduce “church” (which means gathering or assembly) to a purely organic idea and boil down the discussion to any gathering or assembly of Christians. The Bible uses a variety of names and metaphors like: bride, body, building, temple, people of God, the Way, vine and branches etc. It isn’t satisfactory to take one of these images and use it to rule over the others, all of them are important. Some of those images are relational and organic in what they picture, but some of them are also structural and institutional in what they point to.

So, yes, church has organic, relational dimensions, but church in the New Testament is also an institution, an organisation, an entity: it had a structure with leadership and members (Acts 6, 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5); it had councils that made pronouncements (Acts 15); it had lists of widows (1 Timothy 5); it sent out missionaries and supported them (Acts 13, Philippians 4); it was authorised to bind and loose according to Jesus (Matthew 18).

I think it is hard to read the usage of the word “church” in these sample verses from Acts any other way than as an institution or organisation:

· "Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison." (Act 8:3)

· "they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles." (Act 14:27)

· “Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church." (Act 20:17)

In his new book Church Membership, Jonathan Leeman, proposes that Christians expand their thinking by not only assessing church organically, but also as an institution established by God, in the same way that God has established other institutions, for example governments (Romans 13:1-7):

“Just as the Bible establishes the government of your nation as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your citizenship in that nation, so the Bible establishes the local church as your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship to Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s present and promised nation.” (p. 25)

If we forget about being a member of a club called ‘church’, and instead start thinking about citizenship in the kingdom of God, then ‘belonging’ is something serious. That perspective correction means that “Christians don’t join churches; they submit to them” (p. 30).

Submission is a dirty word in our culture – but God calls his people to all sorts of submission: wives to husbands, church to Christ, children to parents, slaves to masters (Ephesians 5:21-6:9); citizens to governments (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1-7); church members to church leaders (Hebrews 13:7).

Readers of this blog will be associated with a great variety of churches with different organisational structures and diverse ways of formally belonging. How it works where you are will vary: a formal membership or you’re in the church telephone directory or you turn-up to the business meetings. Perhaps you might have to ask your leadership how it works where you are. I’m not arguing for a particular structure to church or a certain style of belonging. But I am arguing that you should “belong” to a local church.

Here is one test to see if you belong to your church:

Can the church put you out? If your Christian life went tragically off the rails and you publically disgraced Jesus, could your local church exclude you in some meaningful way as per Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; Titus 3:10?

If you can’t be excluded, as the Bible says you should be able to be excluded, can you really say that you belong, as the Bible says you ought to belong?