John Donne, the seventeenth century preacher and poet, famously wrote: ‘No man is an island entire of himself’.
In a culture that prizes the rights of the individual over responsibility to the community, Donne’s words need to be heard once more. Christians are not immune to the individualistic spirit of the age that sees ourselves as consumers rather than servants.
As such, we can be more interested in what we get out of church life than what we contribute by serving the Lord among his people.
This attitude encourages a loose connection to the local church, or perhaps no meaningful connection at all. We have forgotten that the church of the New Testament was a connected church.
Connected to God
By far the church’s most important connection is union with God in Christ. Individuals need to be united to Christ and receive all the blessings of salvation in him. And on being personally united to Christ, we become members of his body, the church of which he is head.
Coming to him we become living stones in the temple in which God dwells by his Spirit. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name and gathers them into his flock. Apart from being connected to him, we can do nothing (John 10:11-27; 15:1-8).
God unites us to Christ by his Spirit in order to bring believers into fellowship and communion with the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in divine being and glory. The three Persons dwell within each other in loving communicative action. God’s triune life is the model and dynamic for church life (John 17:20-22).
Connected to each other in the local church
We do not lose our personal identity when we are united to Christ and his people, but our identity as Christians is best realised in the context of church life. Living stones find their niche in the temple; body parts belong in a body, sheep in a flock.
All true Christians are joined to the invisible and universal church the moment they believe. But Jesus has ordained that the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ should find expression in the gatherings of believers in particular localities (1 Corinthians 1:2; Philippians 1:1). Those converted and baptised on the Day of Pentecost were added to the church at Jerusalem (Acts 2:41).
By and large, the New Testament letters are not addressed to individuals but churches. They were written to be read to the gathered church (1 Thessalonians 5:27; Colossians 4:16).
Paul had a deep and abiding concern for local congregations. He wrote to establish churches in the gospel and warn against false teaching. He wanted the people of God to be united in their love for one another and their witness to the world.
The means of grace are deployed in the context of the local church. The Word is preached and read; corporate prayer is offered to God; hymns and psalms are sung in praise of the Lord’s name; baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered.
God has ordained all these things to enable his people to grow in grace and equip them for his service. With the wonders of modern technology people can stay at home and listen to sermons on the internet rather than go to church. But to take the Lord’s Supper, you have to meet with the gathered people of God to eat bread and drink wine together, as Jesus commanded.
It is an expression of our connectedness in the body of Christ, that ‘we though many are one bread and one body’ (1 Corinthians 10:17). You can’t download the Lord’s Supper!
Connected to other local churches
With the publication of Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones (edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones; IVP/Apollos, 2001), fresh attention is being given to ‘the Doctor’s’ call for evangelical unity in 1966.
Most people tend to focus on that preacher’s controversial call for evangelicals to come out of their theologically mixed denominations, but the burden of his 1966 address was not ‘come out’, but ‘come together’!
He wanted evangelicals to ‘stand together as churches, constantly together, working together, doing everything together, bearing our witness together’ (Knowing the times, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth, 1989, p. 256).
Many have heeded the call to separate, but have we realised Lloyd-Jones’ vision of local church-based evangelical unity?
Many readers of this newspaper will belong to fellowships that are not in Churches Together. Rightly so, since the gospel must define the extent and limits of inter-church fellowship. But that doesn’t mean that we instead subscribe to an isolationist ‘Churches Not Together’ mentality.
On biblical grounds, I believe in the independency of each local church. But I don’t think that independency, properly understood, precludes some interdependency and connectedness (Romans 16; Colossians 4:12-13).
The Westminster Confession of Faith has a Presbyterian connexion-based model of church life, while the Savoy Declaration of the Independents and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith have sections on the communion of the saints beyond the confines of the local church.
A church may belong, say, to the Grace Baptist fellowship of churches, the FIEC, an Evangelical Presbyterian grouping, or Affinity. That’s all well and good. But unless we work hard at fostering links between gospel churches in our locality, belonging to one or more of these groups will mean little more than a snazzy motif on our church notice boards.
In West Wiltshire a number of FIEC and Grace Baptist churches have been working together in holding open air preaching meetings in town centres. Within our larger FIEC area we have created three small clusters of churches to facilitate deeper fellowship between local congregations.
It is still early days, but we have already seen some encouraging developments. We want to stand, pray and work together for the advance of the gospel in our locality.
Connected to the community
Jesus has charged each local congregation to play its part in fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). We cannot make disciples by keeping ourselves at a safe distance from non-Christians.
We must go to where the people are and proclaim the Word of life to them. Through literature distribution, door-to-door work, open air witness, children’s meetings, Christianity Explored courses, and in other ways too, let us endeavour to reach the lost with the good news of Jesus.
Beyond the organised activities of the church, every Christian is to be a witness to Christ in their daily lives. Believers can get involved by visiting residential homes for older folks, becoming school governors, or simply offering a helping hand to those in need.
When non-Christians come along to our meetings, let us make sure that their spiritual blindness is the only barrier to them understanding the gospel.
We have been called to be the church in the 21st century. That fact should be reflected in the way we use the Bible, the prayers we offer, sermons we preach and hymns we sing.
Connected to the nation
The New Testament teaches that church and state are separate spheres with distinct roles and goals. That is one reason why the Free Churches do not believe in a national established church such as the Church of England. But that does not mean that Free Churches should have no connection to the nation or concern for the wellbeing of society.
The church is not to meddle in party politics, but part of making disciples is teaching Christians to be good citizens (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-4). Believers like William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury and Elizabeth Fry had a powerful impact on our national life. The clear stand of Christians on the issue of ‘gay marriage’ has made some government ministers openly question whether changing the law should be a priority.
Connected to the world
John Wesley famously said, ‘I look upon all the world as my parish’. The vision of the local church is to be wider than the neighbourhood, or even the nation. Our God-given task is to reach all peoples for Christ (Genesis 12:3; Luke 24:46-47).
No single fellowship is large enough to do that all on its own. But our churches should have a lively, prayerful and financially generous interest in the cause of world mission.
Mission societies don’t exist to do mission for the churches, but they enable local churches to pool their resources for the evangelisation of the world. Concern for mission can be fostered by praying on a regular basis, for example at the midweek prayer meeting, for the worldwide spread of the gospel.
Let us pray, give, send and go, that God’s salvation may be known among all nations.
The New Testament church was a connected church. In the words of E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, ‘Only connect! Live in fragments no longer’. How connected are you?