- John 13:35 ICV (Institutional Church Version)
What is it about ecclesiology that makes otherwise sound theologians go off the rails? Jonathan Parnell, writing for Desiring God, wrote a post called The Church on the Fringes that ratchets up the hyperbolic eisegesis to new levels, not even trying to make an argument from Scripture.
Gospel advance in distance and depth means the good news of Jesus penetrates every and all of — and this is central to who the church is. In fact, it is the church, , that has been given this mission from God and been molded for it by God. There are simply no substitutes. You will not experience the overcoming power of the gospel in your life without the local church. It will not happen.
According to another sketch from Paul, the church is being built up “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Which means, if we will be mature in Christ, . We are a body joined together, growing up together in love. For there is no other institution under heaven given among men by which we must be sanctified.
This commitment to maturity is the responsibility of the church corporately, and our responsibility to the church as individuals. Jonathan Leeman writes, “The local church is your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship in Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s present and promised nation” (, 25).Well there you go. In general I have been trying to stay away from "what is wrong with the institutional church" posts. I am more interested in finding ways to manifest what the church should look like in whatever the setting, using characteristics like we see in the book Simple Church: Unity within Diversity rather than on features like "meets in a home". However I find public submission like this to be troubling and even dangerous and therefore worth responding to. It serves as a shackle for those who are already entrenched in the membership system, discouraging them from asking inconvenient questions. For those who are outside of the organized religious system it is a slap in the face, proclaiming them to be "nominal Christians" without a shred of evidence and insisting that they are of little use or value to the church, disqualified from so much as proclaiming the Gospel. It is not uncommon to find these sort of sweeping, baseless generalizations when the underlying case is so weak.
The local church is who helps you grow in Christ, and who affirms your identity in Christ. Which means, if you say you are a Christian, but you are not a covenant member of a local church, there is no good way to know that you are legit. Saying you’re a Christian without being part of a local church is, by definition, to be nominal. It means you are claiming the name, but there’s nothing to vouch for it. Someone will say, “You have your local church and I have my personal Christianity.” Show me your personal Christianity apart from the local church; I will show you my personal Christianity — by the brothers and sisters who see my life up close and know how I’m really doing.
What is important to establish is that in sweeping generalizations like this definitions are important. When using the words the "local church", they don't really mean what we see in Scripture. What we see in Scripture is the church made up of all believers in a geographic location. When contemporary religious leaders and thinkers talk about the "local church" they mean a very specific cultural religious manifestation. The definition, roughly speaking, is an organized religious institution that is more or less autonomous, competes for religious influence with other religious institutions in the area and is centered around scheduled, clergy led religious events.
"In fact, it is the church, and only the church, that has been given this mission from God and been molded for it by God."
Well of course, God gave the church the calling to proclaim and preach the Gospel. He certainly doesn't expect unbelievers to do it! What is really being said here seems to be that only organized religion has the official mandate to do preaching and proclaiming. In fact it seems to be suggested that people who are not affiliated with and under the authoritative auspices of a "proper" local church ought not be out preaching the Good News. I have seen this before. That would have come as something of a shock to the apostles as they don't seem to have been church members as understood and practiced by contemporary religious folks. Let me be contrary on this point. If you are a Christian it is your right and your responsibility and your joyous calling to preach Christ and Him crucified and you don't need the permission of a cleric or religious organization to do so.
"You will not experience the overcoming power of the gospel in your life without the local church. It will not happen."
Well that sounds lovely and all but as I pointed out the modern manifestation of "local church" didn't exist in the first century. Did none of them experience the overcoming power of the gospel in their lives? I cannot say this strongly enough. Given how critical "covenant church membership" is to religious organizations it is revealing that this entire system is utterly absent from Scripture. It is not found in example, in command or in inference. Maybe that gives you a clue about how legitimate statements like these are?
"For there is no other institution under heaven given among men by which we must be sanctified."
That is sort of true but only because there are no institutions at all under heaven by which we are sanctified. The local church doesn't sanctify you. Being a member and showing up doesn't sanctify you. The Holy Spirit does.
"The local church is your highest authority on earth when it comes to your discipleship in Christ and your citizenship in Christ’s present and promised nation."
Now that one is dangerous and treads onto the territory of Protestant papist claptrap. Look at those words again instead of glancing over them. What is he saying here? He doesn't define it but the meaning seems clear. Protestant institutional churches and by proxy their clerical leadership are the gatekeepers of access to Christ. I thought we did away with that in the 16th century?
"The local church is who helps you grow in Christ, and who affirms your identity in Christ. "
Well yes and no. The local church should help you grow in Christ but that doesn't mean grow to be a better church member and more faithful attender and giver. It means equipping you for the work of ministry and that is not something the organized church does very well, if at all. As far as affirming my identity in Christ, that is a statement (like others here) that sounds almost Papist, conflating organized religion with Christ Himself. My identity and the identity of every Christian is found in our adoption into Christ and our redemption, not by membership in an organization. It is obvious but it needs to be said, being a "covenant member of a local church" does make you automatically in Christ and not being a "covenant member of a local church" does not exclude you from being in Christ.
"Which means, if you say you are a Christian, but you are not a covenant member of a local church, there is no good way to know that you are legit."
Well once again, let's get away from issues that led to the Reformation in the first place! My legitimacy in Christ has lots of measures in Scripture. None of them have a thing to do with having my name on a membership roll at a religious organization. There are no check-marks in the Lamb's Book of Life next to the names of those who are in "covenant membership in a local church".
"Saying you’re a Christian without being part of a local church is, by definition, to be nominal."
This is the most egregious false claim because it first consigns all Christians, and there are a lot of them, outside of the institutional system into a second-class citizenship in the church, the Western religious equivalent of the Dalit caste of untouchables in India.
Further, it is not a stretch to say that there are far more "nominal" Christians that are members of local churches than there are "nominal" Christians who are not. Taking that yet another a step, based on years of observing religious gatherings I can say without much hesitation that given the general apathy or even indifference I have observed when it comes to service and evangelism, one could say that most people "in church" on a Sunday would qualify as "nominal Christians" and telling them they aren't because they are "members" who show up, shut up and pay up is theological malpractice.
Please, please stop denigrating those who are not in the culturally acceptable model of "church". That is a personal plea. Here is one that I invoke in the name of Christ. Stop telling people that you and the system that pays your salary are the gatekeepers to Christ. You have no right and no authority to make those claims. Maybe you should instead be searching the Scriptures and seeing if what you are so eager to defend actually exists because in many respects it doesn't and never has.