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Note: This is Part 1 in a multi-part series. Here are the links to subsequent articles: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

What do you see on Sunday morning? Greeters? Worship bulletins? A few folks on a platform singing and preaching? Offering envelopes? Stained glass windows? All of those are certainly there every Sunday, but let me tell you what I see. I see a warm gathering of brothers and sisters who have been adopted into God's family through the finished work of Christ. I see the manifold wisdom of God in saving a people for Himself through a bloodied cross. I see a city that shines bright in the midst of a city enveloped in spiritual darkness. I see a royal priesthood lifting up their voices and together declaring the excellencies of Him who called us out of our sin and into the beams of His love. I see an embassy of heaven, holding out an eternal, unshakable hope to those still enslaved to the evil one. I see a new humanity in Christ who come together in hope and eager expectation of a coming new creation, guaranteed because of the resurrection of her Lord.

To put it plainly, I see beauty.

And I want you to see it too. I long for you to see it. And marvel at it. And be blown away by it. And have your heart filled with gratitude when you ponder it. And that's why, Five Points, I'm beginning this series of blog posts. Because I want you to see what I see when we gather together. Instead of going to church out of duty, I want us to gather with the church out of delight. And instead of wondering if we have to, I want our hearts to explode with joy that we get to.

But I think it's important to begin by establishing a biblical baseline. And so, in this first installment, I want to argue that the normative pattern in the Scriptures is that a believer who is not providentially hindered (1) will belong to and gather regularly with a local church. In other words, this is not a man-made suggestion to be accepted or rejected, but a command from God to be obeyed.

Now before I offer evidences from the Bible to make my case, let me clear the air of a few things. First, I am intentionally using the language of gathering with the church, because when we say go to church, we are usually referring to a building. But biblically speaking, a local church may or may not own their own building because a local church is a people made of flesh and blood, not a structure of brick and mortar. Second, belonging to and gathering regularly with a church is not what makes you a Christian, but it is one evidence that you already are a Christian. I hope to make that point in what follows below. Third, I believe that we are still the church when we're not gathered (i.e. Mon.-Sat.) in the same way that you're still a member of a baseball or softball team in between games. But a good question worth pondering here is that if you never come together with the team for those games, then are you really on the team? In other words, the church is given her clearest visible epxression when she is gathered all together. If the gathering is not a priority for us, it doesn't point to spiritual maturity, but to something spiritually amiss in our hearts. 

Okay, having said all of that, let me now restate what I want to argue for in this article: The normative pattern in the Scriptures is that a believer who is not providentially hindered will belong to and gather regularly with a local church (For a definition of "providentially hindered" see footnote 1 below). What follows below are the biblical evidences that I think will build my case.

Evidence #1: The Word "Church" Means "Assembly"

When the apostles were thinking of what word to use to describe the little gatherings of believers all around the Roman empire, the Holy Spirit inspired them to select the word "ekklēsia". That's the word in the Greek text underneath every occurrence of the word "church" in an English translation. The word itself was actually used throughout the Greco-Roman world to describe any type of public assembly, even secular ones. For example, the word occurs in Acts 19:32, 39-40. In context, Acts 19 is about a public assembly that came together for the purpose of accusing Paul after his preaching of the Gospel came with power to Ephesus and led to a downfall in the city's idolatry industry. The point I want to make here is that the word "church", at its core, means a public assembly. And this is the word the Spirit inspired the apostles to use when describing smaller gatherings of believers across the empire.

Evidence #2: The Nature Of The New Testament Implies Belonging To A Local Church

The majority of "books" in our New Testament were originally letters written to these public assemblies. Romans was a letter penned by Paul to a local church that gathered in Rome. 1 and 2 Corinthians were two letters written by Paul to a local church that gathered in Corinth. The same can be said for Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. These churches were known by the apostles. And the apsotles were able to send these letters of instruction because they knew that the members of the church would be gathered together so that they could hear the letters read. What this also means is that all of the famous "one another" commands in the New Testament -- love one another, forgive one another, encourage one another, warn one another, admonish one another -- were all addressed to actual local churches. The primary context in which these commands are to be obeyed is in the context of the local church. And by the way, 9 times out of 10 when you see the word "you" in these letters, in the Greek it is a plural (You all, ya'll, yous guys. I think you, Five Points, get the idea. This article is addressed to all of you too!). Here's my point: The very nature of the New Testament assumes that believers will be a part of a local church that gathers together regularly (and also cares for one another throughout the week). 

Evidence #3: God Intends For You To Be Shepherded By A Specific Group Of Pastor-Elders

According to the New Testament, pastors are elders and elders are pastors. And each local church is to have a pluraltiy of them so that believers in each local church are given sufficient shepherding. I don't have space here to exhaustively define and describe elder plurality (we will talk more about that later on in the year, Lord willing), but you can click here for a series of videos that provides a nice primer about it. For our purposes here, I want to focus on the function of pastor-elders.

In Acts 20, the apostle Paul was on his way back to Jerusalem following his third missionary journey. And while en route he decided to stop at Miletus where he called for the elders of the Ephesian church to come to him. Why? Because he knew he would likely die soon and he wanted to give a parting exhortation to these men. And he does so in verse 28: "Pay careful attention to yourselves and all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (literally, "shepherd/pastor") the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood." (Acts 20:28). 

Here's what I want you to see from this passage. These pastor-elders were to shepherd a particular local church (the one in Ephesus) by grounding their paricular flock in sound doctrine and protecting them from false teaching (see verses 26-27, 29). Why? Because believers need to be shepherded by pastors that they can know up close. Pastors who genuinely love them and long for their spiritual well-being. This is God's plan for every believer -- To belong to a local church where they can receive the shepherding their souls need. This pattern is firmly established elsewhere in the New Testament too. In Hebrews 13:17, believers are instructed to obey their leaders because those leaders "keep watch over your soul as those who will give an account." What leaders do we know to follow? And which believers are leaders going to give an account for? The answer to both is found in the local church. Again, God's design is for believers to belong to a particular local church with particular pastor-elders who care for their souls (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-3). 

Evidence #4: The Practice of Church Discipline Requires Church Membership

The practice of church discipline has fallen on hard times across the landscape of the 21st century American church, yet it is an utterly biblical practice. According to Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5, when a church member is engaged in outward, ongoing, unrepentant sin and there has been a long process of calling that person to repent, then the church has the authority (and responsibility) to put that person out of the church (i.e. out of membership). Again, this is a topic that I don't have space here to elaborate on. But here's the point I would like to make: If the New Testament commands churches to put people engaged in unrepentant sin out of the church, then at some point they must have been considerd in the church (i.e. brought into membership). Again, notice the pattern. God intends for believers to plant their lives in a local church where they can receive shepherding (see Evidence #3 above) and accountability. 

Evidence #5: Gathering With The Church Is A Command

Hebrews 10:24-25 says "And let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." There you have it. A straightforward command for believers to regularly meet together. And we know this is in reference to a local church because of the reference to their shepherd-leaders mentioned later on in 13:17. In other words, yes, meet with a small group of believers for coffee and Bible study or commit to regular Sunday School attendance. But do not allow that to replace your commitment to gather with our entire faith family for corporate worship. To do so is, in a sense, to forsake the other members we are in covenant with who may not be a part of our small group or Sunday School class. 

When all of these evidences are brought together, I think they argue persuasively that the normative pattern in the Scriptures is that a believer who is not providentially hindered will belong to and gather regularly with a local church. And I hope that by listing these evidences we have established a strong biblical baseline. In the remaining posts, I want to expand more on the beauty of the gathered church, with the hope that you'll not only see that you have to, but that you get to

Warmly,
Pastor Drew

(1) Providentially Hindered refers to a person who is unable to follow a biblical command because of a physical inability. Biblcial examples would be the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43) and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). The thief on the cross was not held accountable to belong to and gather with a church because the moment at which he came to faith he was literally nailed to a cross and was about to die. The Ethiopian Eunuch was likewise excused because he came to faith in a missionary context. That is, there was not yet a church in existence when he became a believer. Having said that, one would hope that he went on to help establish a church there himself! So today, if someone is homebound or lives in a place where there are no churches, then obviously God does not hold them accountable to do something that they are literally unable to do. For everyone who is not providentially hindered, however, they are held accountable to obey God in these areas.

 

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