I mentioned on a panel yesterday “front-loading ecclesiology” in Utah. I worry that I was not clear or helpful in tone. Here is what I’d like to more carefully say:
All true Christians belong to the universal church. But meeting for small group or coffee over the Bible does not suffice to constitute a local church. A church regularly assembles around the word and the Lord’s Supper, has its own government, and is the chief community in which one practices the “one another” commands of the New Testament.
We have these beautiful commands in the New Testament to put up with, tolerate, love, be kind to, teach, sing with, and forgive one another. We can’t obey these without getting consistently close enough such that fallen sinners can relationally hurt us.
Even though ex-Mormon Christians in Utah (and in general, American evangelicals!) are cautious and sensitive about membership, committing, being accountable to a church community, we owe it to them to be up front about the reasonable Biblical expectation of making a conscious and community-affirmed decision to belong to a local church.
We are to have the kind of community where those unrepentant, yet who claim to be fellow Christians, can be “purged” from the community (1 Corinthians 5). There is an expectation that true believers “listen to the church” (Matthew 18), lest they be treated (even if courteously and graciously) as unbelievers. My point here isn’t about excommunication. It’s that such Biblical ecclesiology (doctrine and practice of the church) can’t even happen if believers don’t form into local churches and recognizably belong to them. This is at odds with endless wandering or church-hopping or merely watching YouTube sermons.
Church membership, which at least means knowing who is consciously committed and mutually affirmed in your local church as fellow believers in good standing, is a healthy and natural practice of this. The formalities are only important inasmuch as they help give expression to it.
We want to incubate, mentor, and disciple believers in the local church — not simply say hi to them every so often! We want believers to grow and become stable oak trees of influence, wisdom, and encouragement to the next generations. This growth doesn’t happen if one is detached from the local church.
So let’s be open about the doctrine and practice of the church early on. Even as we have to be meek, gentle, and patient for years with believers who don’t put both feet in. But let’s be clear about it. This will serve the church, help believers grow, and most importantly honor Christ.
This is the attitude I want to have in engaging issues like this:
“The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:16-17)
Addendum. Questions for professing believers who are not attached to a local church:
- Which local pastors do you submit to? (Hebrews 13:17)
- Which ones are accountable for overseeing you in the faith?
- Which body would first excommunicate you if you reached the end of the Matthew 18 process, or were identified (hypothetically) as an unrepentant adulterer (1 Corinthians 5)?
- Which such community affirms and gladly receives the credibility of the profession of your faith?
- With which primary body are you practicing the “one anothers” of the New Testament?
If none, then you need to find a church and explicitly let its members and leadership know that you are committed to them in this fashion.