In this wider series we’ve been exploring the nature of the Church and membership in it. This post seeks to answer the following question: if church membership visibly expresses my invisible membership in the universal church, should my membership be of a geographically local church?
*Note: I am writing this post in response to someone who lives in a community without an evangelical church about my views on being a part of a local church. This post comes from my heart. It in no way seeks to drive away our own members who travel nor compel members of other churches who are closer to our church than their own to switch their membership. It is, rather, an expression of an ideal which I believe has Biblical support and which I wish Christians near and far would seriously consider as their approach to membership for the bolstering of the local church’s witness.
Nowhere in the Bible is there a “thus saith the Lord” verse to command us to be members of a faithful Gospel church within our own local community. There are, however, many principles and practical considerations, which if taken collectively provide a compelling case to this end.
Historically, until modern modes of transport made this possible, worshippers were constrained by geography to worship locally. Whether that was in ancient times or the 19th Century, one could only go as far as their feet or horse would take them (though in exceptional circumstances the faithful would travel great distances to be with fellow believers and worship). If you lived between churches then you had to make an informed decision. This, and sometimes demographics or denominational affiliations, is why historically there were many more centres of Christian worship.
But was this or is this question purely practical? I believe the closest Bible verse to a command on this subject suggest, “no.” Acts 1:8 says, “And you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem [local], Judea and Samaria [regional and national] and to the ends of the earth [international].” Yes, this is a key structure in Acts regarding the outward spread of the Gospel. Yes, it is likewise a direct commission to the 11 disciples. However, indirectly it is still a command for missions which directs us to be involved in local missions, the chief vehicle of which is the local church.
Enter the automobile, which revolutionized so much in our culture, including the Church. Now if you were of this faith and order you didn’t need to worry about relying on another church or starting one in your community, you could just drive to the next. If you got in a fight with someone you didn’t need to be reconciled, you could just drive to the next town. If something didn’t suit you or you got bored at this church you could simply drive along to that church. Transportation enabled us to defy geography but with it we also succumbed to many temptations to put self ahead of the interests of the local church.
The American President JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” That quote may be changed to say, “Ask not what your church can do for you but what you can do for your church.” Churches are fundamentally not service providers but equipping centres for discipleship (and mission). I’ve even know some Christians to be so selfless they’ve collectively moved into a community with no church in order to reach it for the Gospel. We ought not to see the church as simply a service provider to meet our needs but to contribute to its spiritual vitality so it might bring a Gospel blessing to our community. Christians are inherently other focused just as Christ Himself was selfless. We honour the head of the body by doing what it best for the local manifestation of it.
Now, there are legitimate reasons to be part of a church outside of your local community: maybe there is no Gospel church; no church of your faith and order; maybe the local church is orthodox but dead (perhaps you could be the Lord is calling to fan its flame?); maybe your temporarily seeking to bolster another church; maybe language or ethnicity is an issue (perhaps you could learn the local language?). However, I know far too many Christians who travel past several Gospel churches to arrive at their church of choice, thus wasting time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere (it also means you cannot be as involved in your church in areas like fellowship, events, outreach, etc).
What might drive this? Well, rather than a principled commitment to the ideal of the local church what about the great ways of thinking that shape our society and which have sadly infiltrated the church: individualism, consumerism and materialism. The individualistic church seeker does what they want rather than what Christ is calling them to (Is there self-will, die to self; Is there conflict, seek to resolve it even if it may be difficult or uncomfortable). This feeds over into consumerism. The consumeristic seeker is driven by personal preference: that church doesn’t have good music (Is music all a church is about? Might you be called to use your gift of music to help that church?); they don’t have any children’s programming (Might your family be called to be the seed to help initiate a children’s ministry there?); It’s tradition, it’s my family church (While that’s wonderful, there are other ways to meaningfully support a church you have strong ties to); I’d have to leave my family or friends and make news ones (yes, what a joy—to meet new brothers and sisters in Christ that is!). The materialistic seeker likes to boast in how big or wealthy or physically beautiful or gifted their church is (Is this not pride knocking? May the Lord be calling you to devote your gifts and giftings to the support of some needy cause?).
Even though the Bible stands opposed to such “isms” in our culture, these alone are not the primary principle to illuminate this reflection. The foundational principle is Act 1:8 and how we can be part of Christ’s local mission if we’re not a part of His local body? I believe once a church has a sizable contingent coming from one community, we shouldn’t make our building bigger, but instead partner with other area Gospel churches to do a church plant (I dream of planting an evangelical church in Durham, Chatsworth, Flesherton (?) and Dundalk). If you don’t have a local church, ask your church about considering a church plant.
This is a vast subject and as such I cannot cover every consideration. It’s an area which may raise many questions and I hope will fuel further reflection.
If you feel led to relocate what should you do? First, tell both your Elders and the Elders of the prospective church about your considerations. Ask them to pray with you. It can be difficult to the present church in terms of tithes and offerings, rotas, responsibilities and friendships to simply up and move, so if a move is decided lay out a timeline that best serves your present church and enables you to transition to your local church. Slowly get involved in the local church; seek to maintain meaningful ties with the old. Let people know why you are doing what you are doing. Godly ideals are always laudable to follow so let’s love Christ by loving the local church.
In the midst of many other current matters of concern, we’ve witnessed the complex eruption of civil unrest across the USA this week. While one may value particulars within a culture that may be linked to ethnicity, the Bible condemns racism as all humans are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and as Christians, many tribes, tongues and nations of believers form the body of Christ and will spend eternity together (Rev 7:9). But what shall we make of civil unrest? Closer to home I have even heard of some churches planning a prayer protest to the Ontario Governments continued emergency order that does not allow meetings of faith groups to take place (when many businesses have been allowed this freedom). What should we make of all of these responses? In the 18th Century violence erupted in the French Revolution and in the following decades of the 19th Century there were revolutions across Europe; yet Britain was spared. Why? There were at least two reasons for this: a general, albeit minimal, care for the poor that did not exist in many country; but also the Evangelical Revival. Wesley, Whitefield and others, transformed nominal Britain into a much altered Christian nation. A Biblical belief lies at the heart of why Britain did not see violent upheavals for central to the Bible is the call for Christians to obey and to submit to the authorities (Ro 13; 1 Pe 2:13) in matters where they have not transgressed God’s laws (Mt 22:21). Submission to God appointed authority is a good thing, for God wills it. As we submit to Governments we submit to God. Like any other matter of faith, we cheerfully obey in faith. If we have questions or concerns, no matter how deep seated, we bring these forward peacefully and civilly. Why, for Peter goes on to say, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles [un-believers] honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
There has been a lot of praise of late, and rightly so, for our amazing health care professionals. Most of them have fearlessly embraced their calling to serve their communities, even at risk to their own health and that of their families. They deserve our praise.
However, even in the midst of thanks where thanks are due, there is something, which at best is misguided and worst, is disturbing. That is how our naturalistic, death fearing society, treats health workers as saviours. If this life is all there is to existence and death is the great enemy, then of course they would view doctors and nurses and paramedics in this light. They alone, in their eyes, are the only ones who can deliver us from Covid-19.
And so we see signs that say, “honk, heroes work here,” or in some communities like the UK there are pot banging parties each night at 8 p.m. in praise and support of these heroes.
Now again, such praise is not inherently wrong, but it is wrong if we praise them as saviours.
100 years ago, there would have been signs and calls for national days of prayer during a pandemic. In an increasingly godless culture, turning to the One who is Sovereign over disease and death has been replaced by faith in medical saviours. Where are such calls to prayer, certainly not on the lips of most citizens or politicians (and even many Christians). I am aware that some organized one such prayer day in Canada. Christian politicians, church and business leaders in Germany recently organized perhaps one of the more cohesive events, but on the whole, a seeking of God (and a proper worldview which understands disease and death as rooted in the Fall and resolved in the Gospel), is absent in our society. It is that, the salvific heartbeat behind the praise of our wonderful medical professionals that makes this all so disturbing.
Speaking to godless Israel, the prophet Amos said, “Seek me and live, but do not seek Bethel…” (Amos 5:4b–5a). Bethel, among other locations the prophet goes on to list, were among the high places, the centres of false worship, false security, false hope, false assurance. These all, “come to nothing.”
And so it is with worshipping the medical system and professionals, as grateful as we ought to be for them, to place our ultimate trust in them over against the Lord is idolatrous and idolatry brings us to nothing. Ultimately spiritual (and physical) life is to be found in the Lord alone.
So may we seek the Lord that “we may live, and so the LORD,… will be with you.”
 Whether by healing or through the Resurrection.
Someone recently told my wife how someone had said this to her. “I’ll see for coffee on Wednesday so long as something better doesn’t come along.” It warms your heart to know people value and are committed to you so much they’ll still keep their appointment with you so long as “something better” doesn’t come along!
Sadly, we are living in a “something better” culture, a culture wanting in commitment and a knowledge of those things that are truly excellent and valuable:
Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass. (Jos 21:45; c.f. 1 Ki 8:56).
God in His very being keeps His promises and is true to His word.
Thankfully that means His promise of salvation and forgiveness to our “something better” culture is certain and true (and praise the Lord that this is the case otherwise our falsehoods would utterly condemn us, leaving us with no hope). But not only do the Lord’s promises in the Gospel mean He will forgive the repentant who come to Jesus in faith, He will also transform them. In Lev 19 He says, “Be holy as I am holy.” In the vein of this blog’s subject He could have equally said, “Be faithful and true as I am faithful and true.” By God’s Spirit He transforms and enables and calls us to be vastly different from the “something better” culture we live in. He calls us to be faithful and true and share in His likeness.
My prayer is that as Christians are transformed by the renewing of their mind through the Word and Spirit and become less like culture and more like Christ that the world will take notice when we keep our appointments, place value on commitments and people and the Lord, His worship and ways, and that He will be glorified through us as we offer something better.
Author: Chris Crocker
Pastor, historian and beekeeper.
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