A few weeks ago, I gave an online talk for the Colson Center. These were my opening comments.
Let me begin by playing a game theologians often play, the game of challenging the question.
The title of this series is, “The Essential Church: Why Christians (and the World) Still Need the Body of Christ.” I’ll leave the parenthetical phrase to the side. Initially, I want to focus on the question, “Why Christians need the body of Christ.”
Christians do need the body of Christ. We need the various gifts the church offers, gifts of the Word, friendship, mutual correction, table fellowship, common mission. We get things in the church we can’t get if we’re trying to be Christians in isolate.
We can read the Bible for ourselves, but a pastor will confront us with biblical teaching we’d like to avoid. As Augustine and Calvin said, God wants us to hear His Word from other human beings. This humbles us, and makes it more likely God’s word will come to us in inconvenient, surprising ways.
We can pray alone, but our prayer life is pretty weak unless we’re joining in prayer with other believers. We can sing alone, but we can’t join our voices in a chorus to offer a corporate sacrifice of praise.
We can’t have communion by ourselves. The Lord’s Supper is sharing bread and wine, a common table. We are one body because we partake of one loaf; we cannot be members of one body if we’re eating by ourselves.
We can pursue holiness individually, but we need accountability. We don’t know ourselves very well. We give ourselves a pass. We need other believers who won’t give us a pass, who will confront our sin and provoke repentance.
All that’s true, yet asking why Christians need the church ultimately gets things backwards. It turns the church into a means for my personal, individual salvation. God’s primary goal is to get me to heaven, and other believers, my pastor, the worship and ministries of the church are tools to help me achieve that goal.
This misunderstanding of the church takes Protestant and Catholic forms. Catholics sometimes attend Mass to get a kind of religious jolt to keep them on the way to glory. Many American Protestants don’t think the church is all that important, since they can get to heaven without being on the membership rolls of a church.
In whatever form, it’s wrong to think the church is an “external means” for my personal salvation. It cannot be right to reduce the whole church to a means for my personal fulfillment.
Besides, if other believers are “means” to help me achieve my salvation, then I must also be a means to help them achieve their salvation. So my goal in being a church member isn’t just to get myself saved. I join the church to assist others.
At the very least, the church must therefore be about mutual assistance. This is one reason why we need the church: We need help from others, but we also need to help others if we’re going to live faithfully.
That’s better. But even that doesn’t dispel the distortions. Because the church isn’t just a group of individuals helping each other get to heaven. God’s goal is not the salvation of individual believers.
The goal is the salvation of the people of God. The church isn’t a means for achieving my personal salvation. We won’t get the church right until we recognize it’s the end, the ultimate aim and purpose and goal of creation and redemption.
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