Why Belong To The Church?
I read to you from the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, a passage where Paul sets before us a vision of the unity and the power of the church. “And His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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, so that we may no longer be children tossed to and fro, carried about by every wind and doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles, rather, speaking the truth in love. We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head into Christ from whom the whole body joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied. When each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and up builds itself in love.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Can one be a Christian and not belong to the church? That’s a serious question asked by a lot of serious people. And it deserves a serious answer. Many people think that the answer to the question is one does not have to belong to the church in order to be a Christian. I was in conversation with a man not long ago. He said, “I know all about the church. I know how the church has at times in its history spilled innocent blood. How it has more often created misery rather than alleviating it. I know that many of its ministers are nothing more than ecclesiastical politicians bending to every whim and caprice of any congregational big shot. I know that more often than not, the church honors those who should not be honored and those who should be honored are overlooked. And I know that the pews of the churches with those who must be called hypocrites. I know all about the church. I can work up a healthy respect for Jesus Christ, but as for the church,” he said, “well, frankly, I can serve the Lord better outside the church than inside it.”
Now, there are many people who have that feeling, and that’s why I believe that the question is worthy of our consideration. Can one be a Christian and not belong to the church? Right here at the beginning, let’s acknowledge the fact that in the New Testament, there was the church, and not just the church, but the organized institutional church. There were congregations, and those congregations were linked together by councils. There were debates. There were disputes. There were organized fund drives. There was a sense of mutual cooperation and support, in terms of extending the mission of the church. But that New Testament church was not perfect, far from it.
As a matter of fact, it was fraught through with squabbling and dissension and gossip and backbiting. It was frequently charged with failing to take adequate stands against the evils of the day. Not only that, but believe it or not, in the early church, there were people getting drunk on the communion wine. The New Testament church was not perfect, long way from it. And yet, even the most casual study of the New Testament reveals that no early Christian would ever have thought of saying, “I believe in Jesus, but I will not be a part of the church.” Every New Testament Christian belonged to the church, no matter how imperfect or how impure that church may happen to be. And my friends, if belonging to the church was fundamental to their faith, then what about us?
Yes. The question is in fact worth asking: Can one be a Christian and not belong to the church? Now, in order to come to grips with that larger question, I want to set before you three lesser questions.
First question, what is your debt to the church?
You know, We tend to forget that the church of Jesus Christ through the ages has been the sole guardian of the things we cherish most in life. May I remind you, for example, that the concepts of equality for all people and the right to freedom for all people and the inherent dignity of all people, those concepts were born out of the traditions of the church of Jesus Christ.
Have you ever been to a place in the world where the church was oppressed or even invisible? Have ever experienced the severity of life in those places, where women are treated like cattle, and where children are kicked about as tiny unimportant animals? Life is not very pleasant for some people in those places where the great cherished traditions of the church have not been passed down. Or may I remind you that the very foundation stones of our western civilization were laid by the church of Jesus Christ. Are you aware of the fact that it was in fact the mission effort of the church that brought the ancestors of many of us out of cannibalism? That’s right. In the Europe from which many of our forbearers came, in the Europe from which they came, cannibalism was practiced commonly. That’s written in all of the major history books of our time. And what was it that pulled those people out of that kind of barbarism? It was, in fact, the mission of the church, not just a few individuals going about here and there casually, no, but the great organized mission effort of the church sending out wave after wave after wave of mission servants. That is what brought our ancestors into the beginnings of the kind of life that we now know.
Or may I remind you of the fact that it is the church of Jesus Christ which has conveyed the knowledge of Jesus Christ to the world. Oh, I know you may be tempted to say at this point, “Well, if the church hadn’t done it, God would simply have found someone else to do it.” That’s quite true. But the fact is God didn’t have to find someone else to do it because the church has been spectacularly faithful in carrying the message and the knowledge of Jesus Christ to the world in which we live. This Bible was written by servants of the church inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. And this Bible has been translated and preserved and protected and made universally available by nothing other than the church of Jesus Christ.
So when I hear someone say, “I’m not a Methodist or a Baptist or a Presbyterian or a Roman Catholic; I’m not a part of any of those groups, I’m just a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ.” When I hear someone say that, I shudder at how they missed the point because you see, the point is not whether we are Lutherans or Episcopalians or Presbyterians or Assembly of God. All of these things are nothing more than varying forms of church government. That all they are. Nothing more than that. Now, the point is simply this. Are you a part of the body of Christ on the face of this earth? That’s the real question? Have you acknowledged your debt to the church of Jesus Christ, which introduced you to Christ, and which, for all these many centuries, have kept and preserved the things of Christ?
An elder I know in another church was asked on one occasion to write a stewardship letter to the congregation. The committee said to him, keep it light. You know, it’s stewardship time so keep it light. He didn’t listen. The letter contained two sentences. This is what it said. “Never take the church for granted. A lot of people beginning with Abraham broke their hearts and sacrificed their lives to give it to you.” That was it. But, I submit to you, what else could be said? Have you recognized your debt to the church?
Second question: What is your duty to the church?
Let’s face it. The church is inevitable. The church will never go away, never. It’s in every land and nation on the face of this earth. It’s in every state of the union. It’s in every city and town and country village. Are you aware of the fact that there are more than one billion people on the face of this earth who call themselves Christians, and who have aligned themselves with the organized institutional church, more than one billion? It is the largest, single group of people on the face of this earth.
The church is inevitable. People have been prophesying for years that it would die. Back in 1812, John Keats said it’s going out like an old lamp. And now all these years later, it’s still here. Not many years thereafter, Voltaire said, “It won’t last fifty years.” And you know something? Fifty years later, the house in which Voltaire had uttered those words was owned by the church and was being used as a distribution center for Bibles. Adolf Hitler said, “I will crush the church because it is rotten and hollow within.” And yet, are you aware of the fact that after the war, Albert Einstein, himself a Jew, said that the only institution in all of Nazi Germany which did not the knee to Adolf Hitler, the only one, was the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The church is inevitable. Nothing can stop it. Nothing can kill it. Many have tried. All have failed. Its march through human history continues, and it shall continue. It cannot be stopped. When are we going to face the fact that the church will not die because the church belongs to Jesus Christ? You see, that’s the way it started. The Lord Jesus Christ pulling to Himself a group of individuals and then taking the stream of those individual lives and beginning to channel them into one great mighty river of faith. Jesus Christ taking a group of very different individuals and so tying and welding them together in the power of His love and of His spirit that they could then stand in the face of the shock of the crucifixion and the agony of extended persecution and the failures of many of their own members and an unending series of discouragements. The church is not yours. The church is not mine. The church is not even ours. It’s His, and because it’s His, it will never die. Its triumphant march through human history will continue until the day when Jesus comes again. You can count on that.
And in light of that fact, I ask you is it not our duty to attempt to redeem the church from its mistakes rather than to condemn the church for its mistakes? What is your duty to the church? To condemn or to redeem?
Third question: What is your dream for the church?
I think I know because we share it. It is to win the whole world for Jesus Christ. But I ask you, don’t you think we can better accomplish that working together as part of the body of Christ rather than as isolated individuals in the world. Harry Emerson Fosdick tells of riding on the bus one day in the city of New Your, and the fellow in the seat next to him where they were conversing briefly as they drove. And suddenly, they passed, along the way, a church that was being in the process of being torn down. Two of the walls were already knocked flat. And at that point, the fellow in the seat next to Fosdick said, “Look at that, will you? That’s the first time I’ve seen the inside of a church in twenty-five years.” I’d love to have been riding next to that fellow because you see, I’d love to tell him about the things he’s missed.
I learned a long time ago that my mind is just not wise enough to comprehend the vast ocean of God’s grace. That my heart is just not big enough to encompass the vast expanse of God’s love. I need other people. I need God’s people. I need to be surrounded by God’s people. I need those people who’ve had dramatic conversion experiences to tell me about them, so that I can begin to share a sense of their power. I need those who have spent all of their lives in the loving arms of the Lord to tell me about it, so that I can begin to find my own way in the faith. I need those who are social activists to say, “What about that, Christian? Why aren’t you doing something there?” And I need those who are mystics to lift me up to their very Heavens on the wings of their prayers. I need those who are young, those who are children to love me in the Lord and to grant me the privilege of loving them in return. I need those who are older. Those who have summered and wintered with Jesus across many years. Those who have lived longer and suffered more to teach me something about the meaning of life and the meaning of faith in the face of death. I need people who have my hand in their one hand and the hand of God in their other. I need those kinds of people. And where do I find them? Where else, but in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You know, we hear it said so many times these days that many of our churches are half filled because people have stopped believing in God. I think exactly the opposite is true. I think because people have stopped going to church, they’ve begun to lose their faith. For you see, it’s when we are in a magnificent place like this, built to the glory of God, surrounded by the brooding presence of the Spirit of God, it is here in the church where the filaments of love begin to reach out, and we begin to lock our hands and our hearts and our lives to one another and to the God who redeems us. It is when we are with God’s people that we begin to understand who we are under God.
Now, let me come at it like this. Do you ever stop to think why it is that dictators hit out so forcefully against the church? Other institutions and organizations, they can tolerate, not the church. Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they, the dictators, seek to enslave people. The church, from the very beginning, has been in the business of setting people free. Dictators seek to bend people, to manipulate people to their own way and their own will. The church, right from the very beginning, has been in the business of making people stand straight and tall. Dictators want to be all over the world, and they can’t stand the spectacle of the church which is already all over the world. They not only scorn the church, they fear it. They fear it.
I think of here of words spoken by Theodore Beza, one of the reformers, addressed to the king of France. Beza said, “Sire, it is given to the church to receive blows rather than to give them. But I would remind you that a good anvil wears out many hammers.” That’s true.
So for me, it all comes down to that basic question. Can one be a Christian and not belong to the church? You know the answer? Yes. You know the answer. Salvation does not come from the church. Salvation comes from Jesus Christ alone. That is the answer to the question. But you see, that’s not the right question. No. Here’s the right question. Can one be all the Christian God intends that person to be without belonging to the church? I have to tell you, in all of my years of ministry, I have never yet met that person who could answer the question, yes, and then prove it with his or her life. Because you see, that would be like – that would be like being a student without a school, a soldier without an army, a tuba player without an orchestra, an explorer without a base camp, a bird without a nest, a child without a family.
Once, there were some Corinthians hitting out against the church. Paul wrote them some words. He said, “Do you despise the church of God? What shall I say to this? Shall I commend you? No. No. I will not do it.” That’s what Paul said. This is what I say. “My friends in Christ Jesus, the church for you doth wait. In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up, rise up and make her great.” Amen.
Let us pray. Almighty and most gracious God, enable us to be gripped by the power of the spirit of the Spirit of Jesus Christ and then absorbed into the sustaining power of your Church. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.