Too often, people try to accomplish the task of discipleship apart from the local church. I believe this is impossible because God’s work of personal transformation is intended to take place within the community of God’s people. Discipleship doesn’t happen apart from the context of the local church because God has chosen the local church as His instrument to fulfill the Great Commission. There is no such thing as a solo discipleship.
In the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul says that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). Jesus established the apostles (Eph. 2:20) to be the foundation of the church and built it with prophets, teachers, pastors, and ordained men (1 Tim. 3:1–7) so there will be a structure of local churches in the body of Christ that is called the church.
I sense a grave danger of confusion in regard to the doctrine of the church, especially in the nature and function of the church. I will come boldly and say that apart from the body of Christ, discipleship is impossible. This is the way God designed the Christian life—a local church where a group of people, covenanted together, gather regularly for corporate worship (Col. 3:16), the celebration of the ordinances (Luke 22:19), ministering of the word of God (Col. 1:24–29), the leadership of qualified leaders (1 Tim. 3:1–7), and submission to the body on the mission for Christ and the world (Eph. 3:14–21). It is a community that promotes authentic spiritual growth among God’s people in ways that are grace-based and gospel-centered, relationally and theologically driven, grounded in the local church.
As Albert Mohler said in light of the local church, “One of the lessons we can learn from the evangelical movement is that its central weakness was not epistemological. Its central weakness was not its commitment to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Its central weakness was ecclesiological—an undervaluing of the local church in particular.”
Biblical church membership is a declaration of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom
What role does the local church play in personal transformation? Can a person grow apart from the local church? A misunderstanding of formal church membership has crippled the effectiveness of the local church in our context.
The church is where the people of God unite for the gospel mission under the biblically prescribed offices that God has ordained. They devote themselves to the apostles’ teachings. They share fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. They call themselves believers and share everything in common, including their possessions and goods as people have a need (Acts 2:44–45).
You might be saying, “Well, Jonathan, what about those who have loved Jesus for 30 years but don’t like the church and don’t attend?” Of the 114 times the church is mentioned in the New Testament, at least 90 of them refer to specific local gatherings of believers who have banded together for fellowship and mission. So statements like these are lies: “I love Jesus, but I don’t like the church.” “I will never leave Jesus, but I’m done with the church.” In a sense, they are saying, “I love Jesus, but I don’t submit to his word.” The Scripture says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
It is impossible to read this passage of scripture and come away with the idea that Christianity is a just-me-and-Jesus sort of religion. Salvation is something that connects us to God and his people. Just a personal and private commitment is an impossibility. Part of the problem is that we live with this kind of an individualistic idea: “This is how I will spend my time—the way I want it, and you have no say in that.” That has tremendously affected how we understand the church in Western civilization.
The biblical recognition of the system God has put in place is always evident in local churches. The life and authority of the local church shape the lives of its members. What we see in scripture is that God forms us in pretty profound ways when we gather to worship. We may not really feel it, but the formation is usually occurring through the ordinary means of gathering together, such as singing together, hearing the word of God together, and breaking bread in communion.
The church is not a meeting you attend or a place you enter. It’s an identity that is yours in Christ, an identity that shapes your whole life, so life and mission become everything within you.