“But I am the church!”—I would bet we’ve all heard this once or twice. It is the proud anthem of lone ranger Christians reveling in the “irreligiosity” and “freedoms” of their unchurched life. The solitary follower of Jesus often justifies his detachment from a local church by insisting that he, individually, is the church. He argues that because the presence of God dwells in human hearts and not in brick buildings or fancy-shmancy sanctuaries, he has all the “church” he needs inside of himself.
It is mind-bogglingly true that God has chosen to take up residence in the souls of individual Christians. But the New Testament does not describe individual believers as “the church”—it describes them as members of the church who possess a particular and necessary role in its life and ministry (1 Corinthians 12:27). Just as a human body can only function at full capacity if all its parts are present and working, the body of Christ can only function at full capacity if all its members are present and working. An individual follower of Christ cannot operate as “the body of Christ” because he is merely a single member of it. What good is an eye or an ear or a foot or a hand by itself?
“If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” – 1 Corinthians 12:17-20
I think it may be helpful to take a moment and consider the two senses in which the Bible speaks of the church. There is the invisible (or universal) church, which is the whole sum of God’s elect people spanning all generations and geographic regions. And there is the visible (or local) church—a visible, institutional manifestation of the invisible church in which Christians living in the same time and region frequently gather to participate in the teaching of the Word, the fellowship of the saints, and the administration of the sacraments. When a person is baptized into Christ by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), he is simultaneously united to the universal church. He then gives visible expression to this invisible reality by being baptized with water and received into a local church.
When Paul describes the body-like nature and function of the church in 1 Corinthians 12, he is thinking in terms of the visible, local church. At this point in redemptive history, as we await Christ’s return and the resurrection and glorification of his universal Body, the local church is the only context in which believers are able to express their faith by obeying Christ’s commands to love one another (John 13:34-35), serve one another (John 13:13-15), and disciple one another (Matthew 28:18-20). Don’t get me wrong; Christians can and do demonstrate their faith individually. Personal Bible reading, private prayer, and relational evangelism are all individual activities in which a person demonstrates his love for and trust in Christ. But a follower of Jesus cannot fully express his faith in Jesus unless he is connected to and participating in a local church. It is impossible to love, serve, and disciple other believers if you are not gathering and “doing life” with other believers.
The communal aspect of the Christian life is, according to Jesus and his apostles, indispensable. We cannot grow and persevere without it. God could have infused into each one of us all the gifts and graces necessary to reach “mature manhood” in Christ (Ephesians 4: 13). But he didn’t. Instead, he chose to endow each of us with particular gifts and graces (Romans 12:4) so that our spiritual maturation would occur as we exercise them in a communal context. When we gather together for the purposes of worship, fellowship, and discipleship, our individual, God-given roles and functions merge and work together to build up the whole body in the love and knowledge of Jesus.
“ . . . we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body . . . makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16
The Christian who lives in willful disconnection from a local church not only stunts his spiritual growth (and perhaps hinders the spiritual growth of the local church to which he should be connected) but also puts the very survival of his faith at risk. The author of Hebrews warns: “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). In the next verse, he provides the means by which we guard against the development of this deadly heart: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
Our perseverance in the gospel hinges on us speaking gospel truth to one another. If we are to overcome the doubts and despairs that would crush our faith in Jesus, we must ceaselessly remind one another of God’s unshakeable faithfulness toward us in Christ. If we are to mortify the fleshly lusts that seek to overpower our love for Jesus, we must continuously warn one another of sin’s deceitful nature and hardening effects. In a million and one ways, we need to relentlessly speak the faith-sustaining truths of the gospel into one another’s lives. And we can only effectively do this if we are connected and committed to one specific community of believers.
If you are a professing Christian and not a member of a local church, I can promise you three things: 1) you are living in disobedience to God, 2) you are missing out on a wealth of empowering grace, and 3) your soul is in imminent danger. For your own sake, seek out a biblically sound community of believers that adores Jesus, and throw yourself into the midst of it. Give your life over to the glorious purposes of God that are being fleshed out in the life and ministry of that church. Love selflessly. Serve tirelessly. Feast ravenously on the Word with others. You will only be the strong (in grace) and faithful (by grace) follower of Christ you were destined to be if you will gladly and voluntarily attach yourself to a local church.