The Church Comes First
As we come to the end of the year and press into yet another new year, it is always beneficial for us to evaluate our commitments and priorities from the past year--noting the ways in which we have, by God's grace, grown in certain areas and the ways in which we desperately need to grow in other areas. When people make New Year’s resolutions, they tend to fixate on their own personal health and wellness—something for which there is much to be said. In the church, believers often commit to such things as “reading through the Bible in the year” or “starting a prayer journal.” While these—and similar resolutions—are honorable, there is one area of supreme importance where growth is always needed yet sadly neglected. It is the need for us to resolve to give our lives to Christ in the worship and service of the local church. In a very real sense, it is right for us to insist that the church should come first in the order of priorities of our lives.
In the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), believers take five membership vows when they join one of our churches. In one of these vows, those coming for membership promise God that they will “support the church in its worship and work to the best of their ability” (Book of Church Order 57-5). Sadly, if most believers were honest with themselves they would acknowledge that they often give the better part of their time, energy and money to all kinds of social activity, individuals and organizations rather than to the advancement of the Kingdom of God through the ministry of the local church. I can speculate as to reasons for this; however, I would rather seek to stir up your mind and heart to resolve to commit yourself more fully to the worship and service of the local church to which you have joined yourself.
Here are six reasons why all believers should give themselves to fulfilling their call to put the church first throughout the New Year ahead:
1. The Bible was written to the Church. In one very real sense we can say that Scripture was written for all men throughout all time. Additionally we can say that the Bible was written to the Church universal (i.e. to all true believers throughout the ages); but, nearly every book in the Bible was originally addressed to regionally-located churches. For instance, the letter to the Romans was written quite obviously to the church in Rome. The letter to the Ephesians was written to the church in Ephesus. While every letter is to be read in every church throughout all ages--as is clear from Paul's statement in Col. 4:16 and 1 Cor. 14:33—it was, nevertheless, originally addressed to specific local churches. The idea that all Scripture was originally given to geographically specific churches is also true of the Scriptures of the Old Testament--which were written to the Old Covenant Church within the geographical boundary of Israel.
Proper biblical interpretation is dependent, in part, on understanding that the Scriptures were written to the church. For instance, when Paul addresses believers as "saints...and faithful in Christ" (Eph. 1:1) we could not begin to think that he had every single person in the world in mind. He was clearly addressing those who have professed faith in Jesus Christ and who are living in accord with their profession in a local church. In the same way, recognizing who the books of the Bible were written to helps us understand God's requirements for the members of a local church. Those who reject the idea of local church membership have no other option than to gloss over the pastoral epistles. Additionally, they must ignore the two clear commands in Hebrews about the responsibility of Christians to submit to the oversight of the elders of a local church. Local church membership is assumed in the following two verses:
"Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct" (Heb. 13:7).
"Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17).
2. The applicatory sections of the New Testament letters start with the local Church. The Apostle Paul first addressed the church, rather than families and individuals, when he came to apply the Gospel truths that he had just set out. It is the general pattern of the Apostolic letters to bring the Gospel to bear, first and foremost, to the local church to which they were writing. This is seen most clearly in the letter to the Ephesians where Paul begins his applicatory section by addressing the local church (Eph. 4), then individuals (Eph. 5:1-21) and then families (Eph. 5:22-6:3). This is important for many reasons. If the Apostle had applied the Gospel to families or individuals first we might be left with the impression that our family life and our individual priorities takes precedence to our commitment to the church. Surely it is possible for someone to sinfully neglect his family or other personal responsibilities by giving undue time and service to the local church. However, the greater problem is to make an idol of our family (Matt. 10:37) and personal commitments (Luke 14:16-20). When we do so, we fail to fulfill our obligations to the Lord and the members of His church. If a man really loved his family the way that Christ wants him to, he would not isolate them from the life of the church (Proverbs 18:1 NKJV). Rather, a godly father would lead his wife and children to love the local church and to worship and serve in it above all else. He would have his family in morning and evening worship, and integrated in the outreach and fellowship aspects of the local church.
3. The "One Another" commands of the New Testament can only be fulfilled in the context of a local Church fellowship. The New Testament letters not only open with applications of the Gospel for the life of a local church--they are full of specific commands that can only be fulfilled in the context of the local church gathered. Believers can only fulfill the nearly 60 "one another" imperatives in the New Testament when they are together in corporate worship and community. It is impossible to obey the Lord's command to "exhort one another daily as it is called 'Today'" when we are "forsaking the assembly" on a regular basis (Heb. 10:24). The Lord insists that Christian love will be manifested to the unbelieving world when believers are gathered together in loving community in worship and fellowship (John 13:34-35).
4. The Church is dependent on the resources and service of its members. The communal aspect of the church on earth is absolutely dependent on the willingness of the people of God to give of their time, gifts, prayers and resources for the building up of the members of the local church. Both pastors and people alike are in need of the gifts and resources of the members of the local church. The Apostles make this abundantly clear through their illustrative references to “the body" (Rom. 12 and Eph. 4). Equally, they do so by the multitude of references to using gifts and giving generously. Building cost, utilities, outreach, worship supplies, office supplies, staffing, mercy ministry, missionary support, etc. require the generous giving of the time and money of the members of the body.
5. God has promised to bless the ministry of His means of grace in the local church. It is evident from the testimony of the New Testament that God has promised to bless the ministry of His word, prayer, sacraments, singing and discipline in His church. The church is the place of safety for believers precisely because it is the place where God has promised to put His name. God has promised to save and to sanctify His people when they gather to Him in worship. Lord's Day worship is the sacred time in which God has promised to carry His people onward to glory. The Westminster Confession of Faith makes the bold declaration that "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (WCF 25.2) outside of the visible church. The writers of the Confession then explain: "Unto...the visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto" (WCF 25.2).
6.The Church is Jesus' Bride. The greatest reason why the Scriptures teach that the church comes first is that the church is the everlasting bride of Christ. Jonathan Edwards once made the observation:
God created the world for his Son, that he might prepare a spouse or bride for him to bestow his love upon; so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the reason for the creation.1
There has been something of a pendulum swing in many churches over the last several decades to emphasize the need to nurture the family, after decades of neglecting godliness in the home. While we certainly want to embrace any teaching that calls us to be godly spouses and parents, many will sadly put their spouses and children before the Lord and His kingdom in the name of godly parenting. Jesus taught very clearly that in heaven believers will neither "marry nor be married" (Matt. 22:30). The point is simple, believers are united to the Savior and to one another in the church—which is His bride—of which our earthly marriages are merely to be a reflection.
As we move into 2016, may God give us the grace to see that “the church comes first.” In turn this will be evidenced by the way in which we structure our lives. God has spoken to the corporate church rather than simply to individuals. The love of the members of the church is to be exhibited in the context of the local assembly. In His wisdom, God has ordered the church to be a community of believers who are dependent upon one another for spiritual, physical and missional needs. However, the church, is preeminently the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ—the King and Head of the church.
The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; she is His new creation by water and the Word. From Heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought her and for her life He died.
1. Jonathan Edwards, (2002). The “Miscellanies”: (Entry Nos. a–z, aa–zz, 1–500). (T. A. Schafer & H. S. Stout, Eds.) (Corrected Edition, Vol. 13, p. 374). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.