You can find the sermon audio (titled “The Church” on 6/5/16) here.
Does a Christian have to be part of a church? Can you be a Christian and not be a part of a church at all? Perhaps for some of you that answer seems obvious, and maybe others are wrestling with that. Maybe some of you are thinking, “Of course you can be a Christian without being a part of a church – we aren’t saved by a church, but by faith in Christ’s work on the cross.” And to that I reply, “Yes, and Amen.” One of the reasons the Protestant Reformation happened was because the Reformers rejected the Catholic teaching that salvation was only found through the church, not through faith alone. It has become a somewhat popular teaching in Evangelical circles today to point to the fact that the “Church” is not a building, but is instead the people of God, and thus attending a service in a building has no bearing on whether or not you truly are one of the people of God (the true Church). Or, as the famous pop-singer, and apparent theologian of sorts, Justin Bieber, in an interview about his own faith tells us, “Like I said, you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.”
Fair enough. Although, one could say that if you go to Taco Bell enough, you might start to look like some of their burritos. So, there’s one hole in his logic.
This is a good snapshot of the sentiment of many young people today. Church on Sunday morning is like exercise or flossing, it’s an important thing to do if you can find the time, but you can live without it. If you wake up on a Sunday morning and just aren’t feeling it, then you can just pass. Or maybe you only attend on a Sunday morning, but that’s as far as your involvement goes. I know exactly what this feels like because this was once my own belief, “My faith is mostly about my personal relationship with Jesus anyways, I don’t really need the church…”
What is being put forth with the sentiment, “you don’t need to go the church to be a Christian” is a false dichotomy. What’s a false dichotomy? A false dichotomy is where you are given two options and only two options, as if they were the only ones available. For example, a false dichotomy looks like, “You can either love college football, or professional football, but you can’t love both.” It forces you to make a choice that you don’t have to make, or eliminates a viable third-option. This is how the majority of false teaching has come into creation throughout the history of the church, “Jesus is either fully man, or fully God…God is either in control of everything, or I have free will…We are either saved by grace, or we are expected to obey God’s law…we have a personal relationship with God, or we must be a part of a church.”
The problem with the thought of, “you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian,” isn’t that it is wrong, but that it makes it appear that being a part of a local church is simply unnecessary, maybe even detrimental to your faith. Our culture has so emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus that we have forgotten the communal relationship and responsibility we have to one another. When you read the New Testament, there simply isn’t a category for someone who is a Christian and isn’t a part of a local church. Are we saved by becoming members of a church? No – of course not! We are saved by Christ and Christ alone, but when we are saved, we are saved into the Body of Christ! To be united to Christ is to be united to others who are also united to Christ and gather with them in visible expressions of the Body of Christ, the local church.
To say that a Christian doesn’t need to go to church is like saying a Christian doesn’t need to tell the truth, or need to be patient. Does honesty or patience save us? Of course not. Does that mean that as Christians we are not bound to strive to be patient, honest people? Of course we are! The Bible’s understanding of a Christian’s life is not less than, “a personal relationship with Jesus,” but it is more – namely, a deep, unified relationship with other believers in a local church.
In the text we are looking at today, Paul is exhorting us over and over again with this same truth – the need for unity in the Body of Christ.
The Unity of the Spirit
Paul begins by urging the Ephesian church to “walk in a manner worthy of their calling…maintaining the unity of the Spirit…,” (Eph. 4:1, 3), and then goes onto describe what he means by that, but he ends the section with explaining why it is so important, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” (Eph. 4:4-5).
Why is Paul so serious about the Ephesians being unified as one? Because God Himself is one, and when His people are not also one we malign His character. When Jesus prays in John 17, the night before He is to be crucified, He prays, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me,” (John 17:1-2). What does this mean?
Jesus is praying that His people would be as unified as He is with the Father, so that the world would believe the gospel. That’s a radical thought. In the same way our triune God is unified, the church is to be unified. Do you feel like that describes your relationship with the other people in this church? Probably not, but we strive for it. Our relationships within the Body of Christ are not to be limited on age, race, class, or similarities – but they are to be built on the fact that we share the most important thing in the world: faith in Christ. You have a more enduring relationship with a person in this church whom you may barely know than you do with your unbelieving family members or best friends. That is what makes the gospel look so compelling to a world that is increasingly divided and hostile to one another – our radical unity despite all of our differences.
In other words, our unity as the body of Christ really, really matters. This is why we cannot be content with cloistering together with a select few in the church similar to us, sporadically attending, hopping from church to church every few months, resisting the godly authority of the leadership of the church, murmuring, gossiping, or harboring a bitter resentment or unforgiveness towards one another. We throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the life of the church with our time, energy, money, and gifts. We weep when others weep, we rejoice when others rejoice, and struggle when others struggle, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Gal. 6:2).
But how do we reach such a high standard of unity? This is where Paul’s description of how we achieve the unity is helpful, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” (Eph. 4:1-3). One could notice that all of these characteristics are the kind of lubricant needed to make a community work well together – the opposite of all of these characteristics are what tear communities apart: pride, cruelty, impatience, self-centeredness, and a lack of trust.
John Calvin draws our attention to the fact that humility is listed first, and claims that none of the other characteristics are possible without true humility. Humility is being more concerned about God and others than ourselves; it is a turning out from ourselves to what the Lord and those around us. Humility is not a low view of yourself, but a high view of others. And unless you are humble, you can’t be gentle, you can’t be patient, and you can’t be loving – at least not truly.
If you try to be patient without humility, than that means that you are still the biggest center of your reality, so your “patience” is just a means to further your own agenda. You are patient, so long as you see it to be helpful or advantageous for you – that’s not true patience. If I am loving to you, but don’t have humility, than I am only loving you so that you will love me in return – that’s not true love. All true virtues grow in the garden of self-forgetfulness, the garden of humility. And until we become humble, other-centered people, we won’t be unified in Spirit.
And friends, it is worth noting, that unless the gospel has smacked you squarely across the nose with the reality of your sin, the holiness of God, and the beauty of grace, you will never find true humility. Only grace is so powerful that it can win the allegiance of our heart from our own prideful tendencies.
The Unity of Ministry
After expounding the deep unity of the body of Christ, Paul then draws out attention to the paradoxical diversity amidst that unity, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” (Eph. 4:7). It is worth asking ourselves why it is that God decided to gift us differently. Surely, God could have easily given us all the adequate gifts we needed to live a full, obedient life to Him. But instead, God has given me some measure of a gift, and you another, so that now the only way we can accomplish our mission is by leaning on one another.
Paul elsewhere explains it like this, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body… If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose,” (1 Cor. 12:14-15, 17-18).
Any coach of any kind of sport will tell you that the most important thing to being a winning team isn’t just getting that one star player on the roster, but is the ability to have a team work together. It doesn’t matter much how talented your quarterback is if nobody on the team likes or listens to him. A team that has the one mega-talented player but no cohesion of unity with the teammates will always lose to the team with less talented players who work together really well. Why? Because the unity of many will always exceed the talent of one.
Brothers and sisters, do you know what your gifts are and do you know how to use them for the good of the Body? In 1 Cor. 12 Paul explains that all spiritual gifts are given for the edification of the Church (1 Cor. 12:7). So, if you’re a Christian, you have been given both a gift and a responsibility. Are you beginning to see why the claim that you can be a Christian and not be a part of the local church isn’t very helpful? The Scripture’s expectation is that every Christian has been given a gift from God in order that the local church might benefit from it. How is that to happen if you are not a part of the church? In fact, when we use Paul’s metaphor of a body, then for us to be absent from the church means is tantamount to a limb being severed from a body. If your hand is cut off, the hand is going to begin to die, and the rest of your body is now severely limited in its capacity to function.
Maybe you are sitting here thinking, “Woah, woah, Marc – I understand that we need to get along with one another, but what’s the deal with all of this responsibility? I need to serve?…that sounds like a lot of work…” And we can begin to think like, “Isn’t church supposed to just be the place where I come, sit, and get stuff ?” I want to be balanced in my response to this, because the truth is that we do come to church to receive God’s Word, the gospel, proclaimed and receive the fellowship of other believers…but we also come to church to respond to the that gospel. In light of what Jesus has done we respond through singing, participating in communion and baptism, tithing, and serving – and that’s just on a Sunday morning (we practice the unity of the Church all week!).
Why am I making such a big point out of this? Whenever I sit down with a baptism candidate, one of the things I ask them is something like this, “Imagine I am a friend of yours who is not a Christian, but I am curious as to why you believe what you believe, so I ask you, ‘What’s the big deal about Christianity? Explain to me what’s so good about Jesus?’” And I ask them to explain to me the gospel. Now, this always makes the person I am talking with feel fairly uncomfortable, and I don’t blame them – that’s a large question for someone to answer on the spot, especially if they are new to the faith. But almost always the response I get sounds something like, “Well, I’d probably bring them here and have you tell them,” or, “I’d invite them to church.” I understand what they are saying, You’re better at explaining this than I am, but I never let them get away with that, mostly because I want to hear what they think the gospel actually is before I baptize them, but I also want to fight against the “hired-gun” mentality of ministry. You know what I mean, the “Isn’t this your job?” mentality.
Look at what Paul thinks of this, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” (Eph. 4:11-12). After Christ ascended to Heaven, He gifts His Church – this is what Paul is talking about here – but notice the specific gifts that Paul highlights – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers – all gifts of leadership in the church (though I think Paul’s use of apostles and prophets is referring to the foundation of the church he mentions back in Eph. 2:20 and 3:5, not to a present day gift, but they still involve leadership nonetheless).
So Paul is saying that Christ has gifted His Church with leaders, to do what? – to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Don’t be sidetracked by the word “saints” – that is just another term for Christians (see Eph. 1:1). Paul is telling us that God gives pastors, and preachers, and teachers to His Church to train and equip members of the church to do the work of the ministry. Did you catch that? This is shocking. Who is responsible for doing the ministry of the church? The pastor? The seminary educated, the director, the professional?
Nope. The regular, average, everyday Christian is the one who is called to the ministry of the church. If you are a Christian today, then you are a minister – did you know that? My role, and the rest of the leadership’s role in the church, is merely to equip you to do the work. We are the ones handing you the tools out of the tool-box so you can go accomplish the ministry. The greatest ministry of the church is not done by the people up on a stage, but is done by the Holy Spirit working through you. In Acts 8 after the persecution of Stephen, the church in Jerusalem is scattered across Judea and Samaria, but surprisingly all of the apostles stay behind (Acts 8:1). As the church is scattered we are told that they begin preaching the word of God and move forward in obedience to the great commission – all without the apostles! (Acts 8:4). Did you know that the three largest churches that are planted in the book of acts, Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, were not started by apostles? We don’t even have the names of the men who started these churches. You are the tip of the spear of the church’s ministry.
The Unity of Maturity
Something you will always hear around meetings that we have amidst the staff here is a request for a clarification, “What’s the win?” It’s a question that helps us put a fine point on goals so that we can be effective and know that we are being successful at it. Here, Paul clearly defines what “the win” of the ministry of the church is. If you are suddenly feeling the reality of the responsibility of ministry, the next question is, “Well, what does that look like?” Now, this certainly isn’t exhaustive, there are other goals of the church, but this certainly is a big one, “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,” (Eph. 4:13). What’s the purpose of church’s ministry? To grow Christian’s in maturity of faith and knowledge, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. In other words, our church is a mature church when we, as a unified whole, have a faith and knowledge that accurately reflect Christ.
He then gives us three further explanations of what exactly that looks like:
- Rejecting false teaching. “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes,” (Eph. 4:14). This assumes that our knowledge of good doctrine is robust that we can be anchored by truth, not susceptible to false teaching. This means that in our discipleship, we are not just looking for the bare minimum of Christian doctrine.
- Speaking truth to one another. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” ( 4:15). Now, I’m guessing when you hear that, you immediately think this is talking about the moment when you have to tell someone something they didn’t want to hear. That’s not what this is talking about – look at the first word of the sentence, “Rather…” The verse is contrasting itself with the previous one – avoiding false doctrine. Instead of being under the sway of bad teaching, we need to be speaking truth to one another! This means we need to be encouraging one another in God’s truth, and we always do it in a spirit of love. There are few things more powerful than having a brother or sister in Christ just speak God’s truth to you. Do you do that? Do you have people who can do that to you? And notice, this helps us grow up into Christ.
- Every part playing its part. “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love,” (Eph. 4:16). Growing in the unity of faith and knowledge finally includes each individual member of Christ fulfilling the role that it has been given, serving and helping the other parts, enabling the Body to be fully capable. But notice, the Body builds itself “in love” – what we also speak truth to each other in. The Christian church is to be marked in its teaching and its unity by love.
So now, let’s work Paul’s argument backwards:
The church is the place where Christians grow in the maturity of knowledge and faith
By the ministry of other Christians
Who have been equipped by the leaders
So that the Church may be unified in Spirit
So that God may be rightly portrayed here on earth
So that the gospel might be believed
And God be glorified.
Dear friend, do you see how important the church is? Do you see how vital this is? Are you serving somewhere in the church? Be encouraged – your service is leading to the glory of God being put on display here in North Platte. As you watch the toddlers, mow the lawn, lead a small group in Sola, run the soundboard – you are using your gifts so the ministry of the church might flourish, so that we can grow in the knowledge and faith of Christ and be unified as one so that the gospel might be believed and Christ by glorified!
So, does going to church make you a Christian? Does a child become a person when it spends time with its family? No – of course not. But, does a Christian need to be a part of a church? Does a child need to spend time with its family? Yes, absolutely yes.