Trevin Wax wrote a recent piece about the proper place of church in the story of the Gospel. This certainly touches on a broader issue that we see a lot of places from George Barna all the way down to the person we see in worship once in a blue moon: the sad issue of defining the Gospel and Gospel living without the inclusion of the local church.
I recently looked through a study some of my church members completed in the past about Gospel-centered living. One man told me, “I really like that study.” After looking through it I replied, “I don’t.” That’s not to say there wasn’t good substance in it. It lamented our tendency to shrink the cross and think our works somehow earn favor/righteousness before God. And it did well with defining repentance as an aspect of true faith, and seeking to show how we should live in repentance. As I perused the study, however, I could only find one mention of church and that was a passing reference to an event in the early church.
It was a nine-week study about how to live out the Gospel without hardly a reference to the Gospel community. Ironically, it shrunk the cross in a different way. This is a church-less Gospel, and therefore, if I may be so bold: a false gospel.
When we minimize, indeed, even eliminate the local church from Christian living and following Jesus we have missed the Gospel.
Part of this stems, in my opinion, from our over-focus on a “personal relationship with Jesus.” And while undoubtedly the Christian life is very much about a relationship with Jesus (John 17:3), we must remember what the church is in regards to Jesus: his body, the temple of his Holy Spirit, his bride, his flock, and his household.
Several times over, the Bible calls Jesus the head of the church which is his body—and we are the members. A church-less gospel is like the thumb trying to be in a relationship with the head while maintaining no connection to the hand, the wrist, the arm, the shoulder, the torso, etc. A severed thumb really has no relationship to the body at all, let alone the head.
The Gospel is more about Jesus saving a people (Titus 2:14) than a particular individual. Yes, God saves his people by saving individuals but then he takes them and makes them part of something bigger than themselves—part of a flock, a body…a church.
The Gospel produces the church. And no individual Christian can live a Gospel-centered life apart from belonging to and involvement as a member in a local church. After all, let’s consider what the Bible says about the church in just one of Paul’s letters, Ephesians:
The church, as his body, is the fullness of Jesus who fills all in all (1:15-23). These are no mere words—God has immeasurable power, in which we are included, as we see in the resurrection of Jesus. When God raised Jesus he seated him far above all other powers and dominions and put all things under his feet, so that Jesus is over all. But to the church, he gave Jesus specially as the head therefore making the church his body—and this body is the very fullness of the One who fills everything. The church, universal, of course is the full and complete body; but each local church faithful to Jesus is its own particular reflection of the complete body. Without church we do not see or experience the fullness of Christ.
The church is God’s household and holy temple, built together as a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (2:11-22). When Solomon built and dedicated the temple of God, he stated that God truly does not live in a house built by human hands. The church is not a house built by human hands, instead Jesus said, “I will build my church.” He builds the church and each member serves as an individual brick. It is true that an individual believer is also himself a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6), but how much more, then, a church consisting of a plurality of members and bricks? How much more complete is the whole than the part? Without church we do not experience the full indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit.
The church manifests the manifold wisdom of God to heavenly rulers and authorities (3:7-13). The fullness of God’s plan to bring salvation through the crucifixion and exaltation of Jesus was a mystery in ages past, hidden even from the sight of heavenly powers. Now that he has revealed Christ, the truth behind such mystery is proclaimed in the preaching of the Gospel as made known through the church. The existence and life of the church declares God’s wisdom in a way that nothing else does. Without church we do not fully declare the great wisdom of God.
The church is the body of Christ through which comes unity and maturity (4:1-16). After reminding his readers of the unity they have in Christ, Paul tells the church at Ephesus God gave them particular leaders to equip them for the work of ministry. This ministry is the building up and maturation of the body of Christ. In our physical bodies, the parts are meant to mature together. If an arm grows but the body does not, or if the body grows but an arm does not then there is something wrong. And certainly any part cut off from the body can no longer grow, in fact it dies. A Christian’s individual maturity in Jesus is intrinsically linked to the maturity of the body/church to which they belong. No Christian will reach full and proper maturity without their life engaged in a church and no church will reach full and proper maturity without the work of its many and diverse parts.
The church is the bride of Christ, whom he loved enough to die for (5:22-33). Here Paul talks about Jesus’ great love for the church—he gave himself up for her and cleanses and cares for her. Does/did Jesus do the same for individuals? Yes. But as 5:29-30 shows, the way he cares for individuals is through the nourishing care of the body of which we are members. Not only this, but the Bible nowhere references an individual Christian as the wife/bride of Christ. Yes, Jesus loves his individual followers and greatly so, but he has greater love for the collective body he calls his bride. Think of your own body—if your hand was trapped and you faced the choice of cutting it off or losing your life, you (most likely) would cut it off. Certainly you love your hand but you love the life of your body as a whole more. So Jesus loves his whole bride more than any individual member of his bride. Without the church we do not experience the fullness of the love of Christ seen in his sacrifice, cleansing, and nourishment.