The recent Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders have certainly tested our doctrine of the church. Specifically, these restrictions have challenged our convictions about the necessity of the church. Do I really need the local church in my Christian life, or can I sustain my walk with Christ through an assortment of virtual platforms and minimal physical proximity with other believers?
While we can be grateful to God that he has provided us with alternative means through which we can hear the Word of God, join in worship, and have some form of fellowship with our brothers and sisters during a global pandemic, we must also deal honestly with the New Testament’s teaching on the of the local church and what it states explicitly and assumes implicitly about the necessity of physical proximity to other believers in a local assembly. In God’s good design, the local church is essential for your spiritual growth, your faithfulness to Christ, your perseverance in the faith, and to knowing who you really are. Let’s consider each of these elements of your Christian life.
(1) You Need the Local Church to Grow in Spiritual Maturity
The primary means by which we grow spiritually is through the steady intake of the Word of God. Regular Bible reading and study is vital to our spiritual health (Ps 1:1-4), but God has ordained preaching to have a unique role in our growth as believers. The local church setting is the place where you hear the Word of God preached, and you need this preaching to survive and thrive spiritually just like we need food to survive and thrive physically. “Man does not live on bread alone,” Jesus reminds us, “but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:7). Paul makes a direct connection between spiritual maturity and biblical teaching when he writes, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
But it isn’t obvious to everyone that our spiritual growth would occur through the ministry of the local church and not apart from it. In an age when anyone with internet access can listen to or watch sermons from pastors outside of their local congregations, the notion that our spiritual health depends largely on the local church has been all but forgotten. It is simply assumed that our growth in maturity can happen through any spiritual means and that the church is ancillary to our growth in Christlikeness.
Surely we can praise God for providing us with countless online platforms with which to hear the Word of God from gifted preachers and teachers. I am regularly tuning in to sermons from pastors and theologians outside my congregation. But there is no substitute for teaching that comes to you within your local church setting. How can I say this? Because this preaching and teaching is intentionally tailored for the needs of your specific setting.
You may really like John Piper. I do. But he isn’t your pastor if your not a member of his local church. You may really like John MacArthur. I do. But he isn’t your pastor, either. Neither is Alistair Begg or Mark Dever. These men are excellent teachers of God’s Word, but they don’t know you; they don’t shepherd you; they don’t think about and pray for you by name and by face; they don’t spend time with you in long meetings in your home or on the phone. They are not accountable for your soul like a local shepherd is (Heb 13:17). These men preach to their congregations and you are able to listen in through a smartphone app or your web browser. That’s great, and God is worthy of praise for such good gifts. But it is your local church where you are going to hear sermons each week that are crafted for you by pastors who are thinking about and praying for you by name.
But Christlike maturity also comes through engaging spiritually with men and women in your local congregation. Preaching is essential, but our growth will be stunted without regularly rubbing shoulders and being in close relationship with folks in our church. This is another reason why a diet of online preaching can only get you so far in your walk with Christ: without relationships with your brothers and sisters in Christ, you will be disabled from using your spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:1-31) and cut off from vital rebuke, correction, accountability, and encouragement (Matt 18:15-20; Heb 3:12-15; 10:24-25), both of which are crucial to your spiritual growth.
(2) You Need the Local Church to Walk Faithfully with Christ
I don’t not want to separate spiritual maturity and faithfulness to Christ: if we are growing spiritually we will be walking in faithfulness to Christ. But I want to distinguish these two aspects of the Christian life in order to focus on a passage that draws this nuance out in a powerful way.
One of the reasons why Scripture commands the church to not neglect regular corporate gatherings is because it is in being together that we have the opportunity to motivate one another to serve Christ through love and good works. The author of Hebrews is especially concerned that his readers understand this connection between faithfulness and the church’s regular gathering.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And 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, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.Hebrews 10:19-25
The word for “consider” here carries the idea elsewhere in the New Testament of “notice,” “perceive” and occasionally “reckon” (see Matt 7:3; Luke 6:41; Luke 12:24; 27; 20:23; Acts 7:31; 11:6; 27:39; Rom 4:19). The idea in the context of Hebrews is that, in order to think about the ways we might motivate each other to walk in faithfulness to Jesus, we must first have the opportunity to get to know each other. The less I know you, the less I am able to spur you on to love in good works in specific, concrete ways. But as we are in proximity to one another, I can get to know you and observe how you exercise your gifts, talents, and interests. I can begin to understand your background, your place in life, and what opportunities God has afforded you. When I have this kind of information about who you are, I can offer encouragement and admonishment that is tailor-made for you and likely to be far more effective than the generic sentiments given by someone who barely knows you.
Certainly, this is not to imply that you cannot exhort another Christian you just met to love and good works. But it does mean that our effectiveness will grow in correspondence with how well we get to know the other person.
The word for “spur” is a strong word. Negatively, it is used to describe Paul’s sharp disagreement with Barnabas (Acts 15:39). Here it is being used positively but with the same force. We are to consider specific ways to provoke the members of our church body to love and good works, not just merely suggest what they might or might not do in service to Christ and others.
When your brothers and sisters get to know you, they begin to recognize the ways that they can motivate you to greater faithfulness. Your spiritual siblings start to observe your gifts and interests in relation to where God has placed you so that they can encourage you to serve Christ with greater vigor and consistency. But they can also start to learn where you are timid, hesitant, or unwilling to exercise your gifts. As they get to know you, they can apply the needed motivation so you will walk in greater faithfulness to Christ. But again, this can only happen if we see each other on a regular basis and get to know each other. In other words, without physical proximity to our brothers and sisters in Christ, our faithfulness to Christ is in jeopardy.
It’s for this reason that the author of Hebrews follows the statement to “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (v. 24) with the exhortation “not neglecting to meet together” (v. 25). In order to get to know each other in ways that facilitate mutual encouragement, we can’t neglect meeting together, which had apparently become a habit among his original listeners.
But why does the author offer this admonishment? Because it is our natural tendency to drift away from the community of believers. It becomes easy to justify not gathering together with our local church when we are beset with busyness, fatigue, and, at this particular moment, fears of catching or spreading Covid-19. How easy it could become after a few months of shelter in place to settle into the habit of corporate neglect.
But such habits have a direct and negative impact on our walk with the Lord Jesus and can actually endanger our perseverance in the faith.
(3) You Need the Local Church to Persevere in the Faith
Before we turn to another passage in Hebrews, I want to observe the context of the passage we just examined above. Immediately prior to vv. 24-25, the author of Hebrews exhorts his listeners to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…” (Heb 10:22) and then, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (10:23). The instruction to keep drawing near to God and holding fast our confession are exhortations to keep believing in Jesus; they are exhortations to keep the faith.
The commands to not neglect meeting together and stirring up each other to love and good works, therefore, are vitally connected with remaining in the faith, and the instruction to “let us consider how to stir up one another,” (v. 24) is an essential component of the author’s entreaty to these believers to keep believing. Stirring up one another to love and good works isn’t merely about fruitfulness; it’s also about perseverance. We stir up each other to love and good works so that we don’t become spiritually apathetic, complacent, and in danger of drifting away from Christ.
This interpretation is bolstered by the author’s next point in the following verse:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.Hebrews 10:26-27
Why such a severe warning after an exhortation to not neglect meeting together? Because it is the regular meeting together and the constant spurring each other on to love and good works that keeps us persevering in the faith and guards us from turning away from Jesus. Everything the author said in vv. 19-25, including the exhortation to not neglect the meeting together is linked to the following statements in v. 26. The thought is this: you need the local body of believers in order to keep you from turning away from Jesus and sinning deliberately in unbelief.
We see a similar exhortation earlier in the book.
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”Hebrews 3:12-15
Some Bible readers stumble over this passage because the author is speaking to believers (“brothers”) while also warning them to not let anyone within their local assembly start to display signs of an “evil, unbelieving heart” (3:12). “How can believers be susceptible to an evil, unbelieving heart?” you might wonder. “I thought salvation was secure?”
The solution to this interpretational difficulty is not to suggest that a genuine believer can lose their salvation, because such an idea would contradict other clear biblical teaching on the security of salvation (e.g., John 10:27-30; Rom 8:32-39). Nor is the answer to say that the author is addressing “almost Christians” who have yet to truly believe. Rather, by asking a few questions about the nature of salvation, we can start to unlock the meaning and function of this passage.
First question: Is salvation in Christ secure?
Answer: Yes (John 10:27-30; Rom 8:32-39).
Second question: How did you come into a secure salvation?
Answer: By faith in Christ alone (Rom 3:19-26; 4:5; 5:1).
Third question: How, therefore, does God keep your salvation secure?
Answer: By keeping your faith in Christ secure (1 Pet 1:5).
Fourth question: How does God keep your faith in Christ secure?
Answer: Through the local church and our mutual exhortations to keep repenting from sin and to keep believing in Christ.
In other words, the function of these warnings is to enable believers to keep on believing. It is our responsibility to care for our spiritual siblings in such a way that when we see them stray from the fold and show signs of spiritual apathy and neglect, we get involved and exhort them back to faith. Ultimately, we can’t see into each other’s hearts. Therefore, the only evidence that I have that you are a believer is if you keep believing. And it is my responsibility to exhort and encourage you to keep on believing.
And we need each other’s exhortations because sin is deceitful. By its very nature, sin entices you to think that it isn’t so deadly, or that it isn’t even really a present threat. In her book, Amity and Prosperity, Eliza Griswold tells the story of a family in Pennsylvania during the fracking boom of the last decade who started to become gravely ill due to a nearby drill waste pond. It took some time for this family and other neighboring families to conclude that their health problems were related to the drill site just a few hundred feet from their homes. By the time the legal process started, however, many animals had died, and several residents were seriously sick.
Similarly, sin doesn’t parade around as an obvious lethal threat; rather, it poisons the water just a bit so that you don’t die immediately, but only after a build up of toxins over a long period of time. Sin is deceitful so it finds creative ways to remain unnoticed or to appear benign.
Here is one of the most important truths we can learn about ourselves and the fight against sin: we are unable to recognize all our sin or all the crafty wiles of Satan by ourselves. It is not possible, no matter how thorough we are in self-examination and practical measures to avoid temptation (2 Cor 13:5; Rom 13:14), to notice, on our own, every temptation, sinful proclivity, and dangerous circumstance that threatens our spiritual health. We all have blind spots, and a blind spot by definition is something that hinders us from seeing a clear and present danger. According to the logic of this passage and the passage in Hebrews 10:19-26ff, isolation from the body of Christ is spiritually deadly. But notice the author’s last point in v. 15: “For we have come to share in Christ if indeed we hold our original confidence firm until the end.”
What does this mean? Is our salvation dependent upon our perseverance? Not ultimately. The one whom God justifies, he also glorifies (Rom 8:28-30). But God has so designed salvation that his promise of keeping us secure works in correspondence with our responsibility to keep believing and repenting. Therefore, we can’t comfort ourselves that we are in a spiritually secure state if we are drifting away from Christ. Nor can we comfort ourselves that another professing believer is a Christian if they are showing signs of serious unbelief. Assurance is found in actively turning away from evil and believing in Christ, and our repentance and faith is fed and enabled by the regular exhortations from our brothers and sisters in Christ. “Take care, brothers, lest there be any among you with an evil, unbelieving heart.”
The argument of this passage is that each of us should be deeply concerned about every other member of our local church and make it our business to be regularly exhorting each other to not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. The New Testament’s answer to Cain’s cynical question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a resounding “Yes!” Cain asked that question in anger and unbelief which is why his brother ended up dead. Similarly, if we scoff at the necessity of the local church for our perseverance in the faith, we put ourselves and our brothers and sisters in eternal danger.
(4) You Need the Local Church to Find Out Who You Really Are
Given our cultural setting, this may be one of the most controversial points I make in this article. If there is one pursuit that characterizes the people of our society, it is the search for identity. Who am I? What am I all about? Who am I supposed to be? Where do I find my purpose?
People are seeking answers to these questions in a myriad of places. People attempt to establish their identity in their personal interests. Who am I? I’m a craft coffee-loving, mountain-biking enthusiast and avid reader of political history. Or, people may seek to establish their identity in their work: Who am I? I am a CEO of a multinational biotech company. I’m an electrician. I am a doctor. I am a teacher. Many ground their identity in various social causes.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with seeking to establish your identity and to know who you really are. Paul knew who he was: “By the grace of God I am who I am” (1 Cor 15:10). Paul had a sense of identity and of self-knowledge. But he didn’t ground that sense of identity in himself. He grounded it in the grace of God and in the church. Notice how Paul locates our identity squarely in the church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members are of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews and Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.1 Corinthians 12:12-13
Just like the human body has many members (arms, eyes, feet), so Christ’s body has many members, but it is all one body. This body metaphor is essential for understanding our identity.
Consider our own bodies. An appendage of the body cannot ground its identity detached from the body. If the hand decides to disconnect itself from the rest of the body, it will not find greater usefulness or greater beauty in such a state. In fact, it will lose its usefulness and beauty when it disconnects itself from the body and attempts to locate its identity in itself and its own autonomy.
Rather, the appendage of the hand, though distinct from other members, only finds its identity in being connected to the rest of the body. When it comes to the ways we might ground our identity—nationality, social status (Jew or Greek, slave or free)—Paul says that we have all been baptized into one body. Yes, we are distinct from each other, but in terms of our identity, that distinction cannot find meaning apart from the greater body of Christ. We locate our identity in the church, and specifically, among the local body of believers.
The implication is that you don’t “find yourself” by taking a thirty-day trek alone in the wilderness, but by giving yourself to Christ’s church. We don’t discover who we are in insolation from the body of Christ because “we are members of one another” (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 12:21). In other words, you can’t know who you really are without loving and serving your brothers and sisters in Christ, you can’t fulfill your purpose for living without the local church, and you can’t serve Christ without the local church.
I remember when I was serving as a youth pastor at another church in the Bay Area when I learned that one of our other pastors was working with a young man who was struggling spiritually. This young man said he needed to take a month-long excursion by himself into the mountains in order to really find himself. Even before that incident I remember a young man in college who was telling me that the cure to his spiritual struggles was a long-term trek into the wilderness.
While these may sound like good ideas, and the conventional wisdom we read and hear today might affirm them, such attempts at grounding our identity are, biblically speaking, foolish at best, deadly at worst. When we seek to ground our identity in ourselves, we will only become more confused, self-centered, depressed, and narcissistic. It may seem counter-intuitive, but God made us to find ourselves by looking away from ourselves and serving others. God made us to know ourselves as we are in relation to other people. We draw interests and gifts and love and opportunities for ministry out of each other that would otherwise remain dormant and undiscovered apart from the local body of believers. We only endanger ourselves spiritually when we attempt to locate our identity outside of Christ and his church. “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov 18:1).
Yet, sadly, I encounter Christians on a regular basis whose isolation has wreaked havoc on their spiritual lives, and usually in a way that is mostly unbeknownst to them. The more a person or a couple isolates themselves from the local church, the more warped their thinking becomes, the more strange and unbiblical thoughts have a tendency to wedge themselves into their minds, the more selfish and self-focused they become, and the less spiritually beautiful and useful they become.
Do you need the local church? The New Testament answer is an unambiguous “yes!” The local body of believers is essential for your spiritual growth, your faithfulness to Christ, your perseverance in the faith, and for knowing who you really are. Let us embrace this good gift from God and give ourselves wholly to his people, for his glory and our good.