by Bob Wheeler
Many readers would undoubtedly agree with most of what we have said so far. But in the minds of many younger people there remains an important question. Granted the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ, why bother going to church? Cannot someone worship God and have a relationship with Christ without going to church?
For many people the question arises because of bad church experiences they have had in the past. Some pastors are domineering and tyrannical; some church members are judgmental and self-righteous. Some churches are too commercialized. There have been ugly church splits. There have been sex scandals and financial impropriety. And in all too many cases there is very little that is genuinely spiritual about the typical modern institutionalized church. It is understandable, therefore, that many would want Christ but not the church.
The biblical answer to this is found in Hebrews 10:24,25: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (NKJV). Why should we not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together”? So that we can “stir up love and good works” and “exhort one another.” And none of this can take place unless we have regular interaction with each other.
To understand what exactly this passage is getting at it is important to realize that the First Century church did not operate the way most modern churches do today. In the First Century there were few, if any, church buildings, nor was there a professionally trained clergy. Nor were there separate denominations. Rather, the entire Christian community in a given city was considered a single church, so that it was possible to speak of the “church at Ephesus” or the “church of the Thessalonians.” Each of these large metropolitan churches was governed by a board of elders (Acts 20:17) who were chosen from within the local church based on their spiritual gifts and maturity. There was no “senior pastor.” On certain occasions the entire, large, city-wide church would hold a meeting in some open, public place (Acts 5:12).
Within these large, city-wide churches there were smaller groups that met in private homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; Phln. 2). It was in these smaller house churches that the Lord’s Table would be observed. We have a description of one of these gatherings in Acts 20:6-12. The believers were meeting in an upper room on a Sunday evening and Paul preached long into the night, after which they broke bread. It would have been in these smaller gatherings that the believers would have had the opportunity to interact with each other.
In this context, then, it is easier to see how a church is supposed to function. It is assumed that all baptized church members have been genuinely born again and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. They are each given spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11) and they are to use these gifts to edify one another and build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13). We do this by exhorting one another (Heb. 3:13), confessing our sins to each other (Jas. 5:16) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). All of this necessitates some form of regular, small-group interaction, which is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. It is the means by which we “stir up to love and good works” and “exhort one another.”
The Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from other Christians. The basic ethical requirement of the Christian life is that we love one another, and that means that we must actually care for each other (I John 3:16-18). And that cannot be done unless we are an active part of a local church body. The question should not be, “what can the church do for me?”; but rather “what can I contribute to the church?”
The church has long since departed from the apostolic model. During the Middle Ages it developed into an elaborate hierarchy supported by the state. Worship became formal and ritualistic. During the Reformation improvements were made, but they mainly involved taking existing state-sponsored institutional churches and “reforming” them. The priest was replaced by the pastor whose chief function was to teach the congregation, but it was still largely a one-man ministry. During times of revival, however, when there were real spiritual awakenings, small group interactions would often reappear – Sunday afternoon conferences, prayer bands and class meetings. Where there is genuine spiritual life it must express itself, and express itself it did.
So what about today? Where can one find a church like that? – one that is genuinely spiritual? No church is perfect – we are all human and fall short of what God expects from us, and that includes churches as well as individuals. The truly amazing thing about church history is that a God who is infinite, holy, all-wise and all-powerful would choose to use clay vessels like ourselves to accomplish His purposes on earth. And so there is no such thing as a perfect church, but some are better than others. Is the pastor a godly man? Does he possess the biblical qualifications for an elder? Are his sermons biblically sound? Are they practical? Does prayer play an important part in the life of the congregation? Does the church exercise church discipline?
But more importantly, is there meaningful small group interaction? This can take several forms, including small home group Bible studies, an active midweek prayer meeting, or adult Sunday School classes.
But the question is, do the believers actively work to build each other up spiritually? Only then can the church accomplish what Christ intended for it.
“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with
All your heart.” (Jer. 29:13; cf. Dt. 4:29)