The local church in practice
In previous articles I have argued that the local church is to be a reflection of the bride of Christ that she will become in glory. She is to be full of life, righteous, evangelistic, and above all Christ-centred.
But I want to end this short series on the local church by drawing out some practical consequences of all that we have considered. Let me do this under three headings – the central importance of the local church; the pastor of the local church; and the meetings of the local church.
The central importance of the local church
If God’s people in the Scriptures are consistently portrayed as a community, and pictured as the bride of Christ and the new Jerusalem, why is it that many Christians rank the local church so low in their Christian experience?
We live in an individualistic age, of course. I believe also that an overemphasis on the conversion of the individual, coupled with a suspicion of formal organised religion, has led many Christians to limit their exposure to a local church to one visit or less per week.
Let me say then, loud and clear, that in New Testament terms, you have no right to call yourself a Christian if you are not a functioning part of a living local church. The body has no part-time members. We are certainly saved as individuals, but not to be individualistic. We are saved to be an active part of God’s community where we live. God’s plan is to save a people for himself.
Not a preaching station
Equally, the New Testament knows nothing of a local church that is merely a preaching-station. Preaching is central but it is not everything. If you think that the sole purpose of belonging to a church is to hear preaching, you are sadly mistaken.
Nor is it true that any gathering of Christians is a church. No, a local church is a community of Christians who have committed themselves to one another to serve together in the gospel and to glorify their Lord and Saviour in this world.
The true members of a local church are the people who have undertaken to serve together in a locality – to learn together, to worship together and to witness together. They encourage one another, uphold one another, pray for one another and, at times, rebuke one another. They share one another’s joys and sorrows.
Together they support their pastor, financially and spiritually, submitting to him and his fellow-elders and working with them to further the cause of the kingdom of Christ in their locality. That is a New Testament church. Are you part of one?
And if so, do you give yourself to service within it? Do you see in your local congregation, despite all its faults and weaknesses, a real foreshadowing of the glory to come?
Do you see in the local church the bride of Christ, being prepared for the marriage-supper of the Lamb? Do you recognise in the local church the holy people of God being made ready for the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness?
Do you see it in the Sunday services, in the prayer meeting, in the Bible studies, in the works of outreach, in the lives of individual church members as they go about their daily work? Let us learn to look on our local churches in that way – it will transform them.
Secondly, I want to say a word about pastors. We tend to go to one extreme or the other in our thinking about pastors, either exalting them as mini-popes or insisting that they are no different from any other church member. Both extremes are wrong, of course, and completely unbiblical.
The pastor is, like the rest of us, a sinner saved by grace. But he is also a man called of God to an office of leadership and authority in the church. Our society doesn’t particularly like the idea of authority and submission to it, but it is quite clearly there in Scripture.
The pastor is an under-shepherd in the local church and every church is to have her under-shepherd(s) – appointed by Christ to teach and guide her, to watch over her, to keep out false doctrine and to uphold godly living.
To a large degree, the ability of a local church to live out the things we have considered in these articles depends on the pastoral ministry it receives. Not entirely, I grant, but the pastor is a significant factor.
He has the responsibility to minister the Word of God – to teach and inculcate the principles of doctrine and life by which the church must live. He and his fellow-elders must lead the church in its major decisions, in its discipline and in its good order. If a church has real life, godliness, an outward-looking ministry and, above all, is centred on the Lord Jesus Christ, this is likely to be the result of its pastor’s faithful ministry.
The church’s meetings
Finally, let me close with a word about meetings in our local churches – whether Sunday, mid-week or occasional. It has often been said that the primary purpose of meetings is to teach and to edify, and that is certainly a vital part of our gathering together.
We need to hear from God’s Word, I suggest, whenever we meet as his people. It would be odd for Christ’s people to come together and not want to hear what he has to say to them. However, if we view our meetings solely as teaching occasions, then our churches become no more than educational institutions – and that is not what they are.
First and foremost, the church of Jesus Christ is a worshipping community. In heaven, in the new Jerusalem, we see God’s people constantly at worship. The theme of heaven is not so much teaching as praise and adoration. At the centre of the throne-room of heaven stands, not a pulpit, but the very presence of God himself – manifested through the person of his Son Jesus Christ.
Now let me quickly say, lest I be misunderstood, that I firmly believe that the pulpit should be at the centre of our churches, and that preaching should be the focus of church life. But it is not an end in itself. We do not come to church simply to have our minds filled with truth.
Our teaching and preaching has a goal, namely, to bring us to Jesus Christ himself. It is not without reason that among Evangelicals preaching has historically been known as a ‘means’ of grace. It is a means to an end, and that end is the worship, adoration and glory of the triune God made known to us in Jesus Christ.
The church at worship
If our local churches are to be what they should be – if we are to have biblical churches full of life, abounding in righteousness and godliness, active in evangelism and truly centred upon Jesus Christ – then we must all determine that when we come together we do so to meet with and worship Jesus Christ.
It is true that the whole of life is worship, but there is a particular and special sense in which worship takes place when the community of God’s people gather together in the local church. Such worship is unique because it anticipates the glorious, eternal worship of God’s redeemed people in the new Jerusalem.
We come to sing praise to our God, to seek him in prayer, to hear his word read and expounded. We come to be stirred up by the Holy Spirit through the Word – to faith in Jesus Christ, repentance towards God and love for one another.
We come to learn about our Saviour and how we may live for him in this world. We come to meditate on all he has done for us and to rejoice in his salvation.
We come to remind ourselves that the sufferings of this world are not for ever and, indeed, are but light and momentary afflictions when compared with the glory that is to come.
Above all, we come to him, who is the source of life, goodness, truth, salvation and blessing. What a day of rejoicing it should be, when Sunday comes round again – when it is time to go up to join with the people of God, to whom we are committed in the local church. When it is time to meet together with our Saviour to worship and to adore him.
What a day it should be also, when during the week we gather for a special evening spent with the saints before the throne of grace. When we present our worship and praise, our petitions and supplications to the King of Kings, in the knowledge that he hears us and will answer us.
The local church: a little heaven on earth? Yes, most assuredly, it is.
An edited extract from the author’s inaugural lecture as Principal of London Theological Seminary.