(This is part three of a series entitled, “What God Requires of the Church.” The posts in this series include: 1. Individualism vs. Christ, 2. The Ordinary Means of Grace. 3. Participation. 4. Evangelism and Missions.)
Today, it’s possible to listen to sermons on the internet from whichever preachers we prefer. We can choose to study and learn from whichever Bible teachers suit our preferences. We can choose to “fellowship” with whichever Christian friends we get along with the most. We can also distance ourselves from them, if those relationships become difficult. We could even practice the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper with our closest Christian friends. Because of the ease of transportation and communication in our day, it’s possible for us to build “little churches” around ourselves based on our own individual personal preferences. We might even tell ourselves that we’re being faithful to Christ in doing these things. We could say that we’re participating in the life of the “invisible church,” or “the true church,” and that’s all God really requires of us.
We’re certainly free to listen to preachers on the internet with discernment, read whatever Christian writers we find edifying, and have fellowship with Christians who aren’t all members of our own local church. The early Christians had faithful fellowship with believers who weren’t all a part of the same local church (Acts 15; Gal 1:18-2:10). The Bible teaches it’s important for us to dwell in unity with all believers in Christ (Eph 4:4-6). Christians and local churches ought to be partnering and networking with those from other local churches to accomplish larger kingdom purposes (2 Cor 8:1-7; 9:1-5).
That having been said, however, there is no replacement for the faithful practice of the “ordinary means of grace” within the context of a local church, covenanted together according to God’s revealed will. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some.” In the previous post of this series, we saw that Acts 2:42 tells us what the early church did when they met together: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Here, my aim is to show that biblically, there is no substitute for practicing these “ordinary means of grace” within a local church.
1. The “apostles’ teaching.” It’s not possible for an internet preacher or teacher to know us, and it’s not really possible for us to know him or his life. Lack of mutual personal knowledge between teachers and God’s people greatly truncates the power of this means of grace. Biblically, we’re to receive the “apostles’ teaching” in the context of relationships in the local church. There are deeply personal tones in all of Paul’s teaching, showing that he knew and loved those he taught, and they knew him too. “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil . . . For you know how like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thess 2:9-12). See also Acts 20:20, 36-38; Rom 1:11-12; 1 Cor 11:1; Gal 4:12-15; 1 Thess 2:7.
2. “Fellowship.” The deepest kinds of biblical fellowship require that we’re covenantally committed to one another in the context of the local church. It’s impossible to obey the Bible’s “one another” commands, unless we’re bound to one another by an oath (church covenant), by mutual knowledge, and by the whole biblically defined structure of the local church. Consider what Paul wrote to the local church in Colossae:
“Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in work or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:12-17). See also Rom 12:10, 16; 13:8; 14:3, 19; 15:7, 14; Eph 4:32; 5:21; Col 3:13, etc.
There is no way we could do all of these things outside the context of a local church. Paul expected the local church at Colossae to live this way toward one another within their local church covenant.
Church fellowship means we remain committed to one another in the local church, even in the face of personal offense and difficulty. It means that we work through our sins together in love. It means that we don’t leave our covenant commitment when things get difficult, unless there is heresy, or gross, hardened and unrepentant sin, which isn’t being handled biblically in a local church. True Christian fellowship means we don’t personally choose the individual Christians with whom we have fellowship. We join ourselves to a local church in which we fellowship with people who are like us and unlike us, with those who are more sanctified and those who are less sanctified.
3. “The breaking of bread.” The Lord’s supper is a new covenant ordinance to be practiced only in the context of a local church. We should never take the Lord’s supper individually, in our homes, or in small groups of Christians. Paul spoke of the church at Corinth observing the Lord’s supper, “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor 11:18; cf. 11:17; 11:20; 11:33). We only take the Lord’s supper when we come together as a church because it’s a symbol of our union and communion with Christ and with one another in the local church covenant as an expression of the bride of Christ (1 Cor 11:17-22). The Lord’s supper is a means of our corporate fellowship with Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17). It’s also one aspect of local church discipline, since the church should not take the Lord’s supper with those who are persisting unrepentantly in gross and open sin (1 Cor 5:8, 11). So, it’s not possible to obey Christ’s command to take the Lord’s supper (Lk 22:19-20) outside of the local church.
4. “The prayers.” The Bible represents corporate prayer meetings as kingdom-oriented prayers (Acts 1:14; 2:42; 4:24; 12:5, 12). The Lord’s prayer is a “corporate prayer,” and it is concerned with kingdom matters, about which Christ instructed His disciples to pray together:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt 6:9-14).
Notice that Christ is teaching His disciples to pray corporately, using words like “our,” “us,” and “we.” Jesus taught His disciples to pray together about the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth. He taught the disciples to pray that God would provide for their basic needs, and that they would dwell together in love, forgiveness, and perseverance in holiness. All of this anticipates the corporate prayers of local churches. In the book of Acts, it’s clear that the local church is the outpost of God’s kingdom on earth, since throughout Acts, the kingdom advances by the preached Word and the establishment of local churches (Acts 5:11; 8:1, 3; 9:31; 11:22, 26; 12:1; 13:1; 14:23, 27; 15:3, 4, 22; 18:22; 20:17; 20:28). Paul asked the churches to pray for his preaching of the Word of God as he sought to establish local churches (Rom 15:30-32; 2 Cor 1:11; Eph 6:18-20; col 4:3-4; 2 Thess 3:1). Therefore, it’s not possible to pray corporately, in a biblical sense, without praying for the local church, for her growth, and for the planting of new local churches for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on earth. See also “Why have a Corporate Prayer Time?”
Some may ask, “What about those who are homebound or otherwise unable to participate in the life of the local church?” This is a sad circumstance, and certainly the Lord will sustain them by His grace, but faithful Christians who are separated from the local church will tell you that they long to be with God’s people. They feel the loss of communion with God’s people, and they know that their souls suffer as a result. Thus, God certainly keeps His own apart from the “ordinary means of grace,” but Christian health suffers as a result of being separated from the richness of the means of grace experienced in the life of the local church.
In conclusion, God requires Christians to participate in the whole life of the local church, observing the “ordinary means of grace” together. There is no substitute for participating in the elements of local church life. Let us, therefore, resolve to commit ourselves to faithful participation with the bride of Christ as expressed in our local church.