What’s so important about your local church? In a time when there is more Bible teaching than you could ever consume available through radio, television, and the Internet, why should it matter how or where you’re taking in God’s truth? What’s wrong with virtual, Web-based congregations for the digital-age church? Why can’t you worship from the sanctuary of your smartphone?
The answer is simple: That is not the means God designed and decreed for His people to worship Him. We have not been called to an individualistic religion, shaped and defined by personal interests and tastes.
The Lord has a much loftier design for His church.
The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes the importance of local assemblies. In fact, it was the pattern of Paul’s ministry to establish local congregations in the cities where he preached the gospel. Hebrews 10:24–25 commands every believer to be part of such a local body, and reveals why this is necessary.
And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)
The level of intimacy that is required for stimulating fellow believers “to love and good deeds” can only be cultivated in a gathered, local body. And it is only in this setting that we can carry out the fullness of the “one-anothers” commanded in Scripture.
The New Testament also teaches that every believer is to be under the protection and nurture of the leadership of a local church. These godly men can shepherd the believer by encouraging, admonishing, and teaching. Hebrews 13:7 and 17 help us understand that God has graciously granted accountability to us through godly leadership.
Furthermore, when Paul gave Timothy special instructions about the public meetings, he said, “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Part of the emphasis in public worship includes these three things: hearing the Word, being called to obedience through exhortation, and teaching. It is only in the context of the local assembly that these things can most effectively take place.
Acts 2:42 shows us what the early church did when they met together: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” They learned God’s Word and the implications of it in their lives, they joined to carry out acts of love and service to one another, they commemorated the Lord’s death and resurrection through the breaking of bread, and they prayed. Of course, we can do some of those things individually, but God has called us into His body and we should gladly minister and be ministered to among God’s people.
Active involvement in your local church is imperative to living a life without compromise. It is only through the ministry of the local church that a believer can receive the kind of teaching, accountability, and encouragement that is necessary for him to stand firm in his convictions. God has ordained that the church provide the kind of environment where an uncompromising life can thrive and His people can grow spiritually.
In these pages, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the fundamental institutions and functions of the church, and how they have a direct impact on your spiritual growth and your usefulness to the Lord. We’ll also look at God’s design for the church, and how that design is part of the foundation for your spiritual life.
We frequently hear from conscientious, faithful believers struggling to find solid, Bible-teaching churches in their area. My hope is that this little book will help you know what to look for in a local church and discover how you can be most useful within your congregation.
The House That God Built
God’s people need to remember that coming to Christ means coming to His church. As far back as the New Testament, salvation brought you into union with the visible, gathered Body of Christ (cf. Acts 2:47). Becoming a Christian means entering into fellowship with other Christians.
Tragically, that conviction has been lost in recent years. Contemporary evangelicalism emphasizes the believer’s personal relationship with Christ. Individual faith is the pervasive theme, and rarely is there any discussion of how believers are supposed to fit and function in the church.
When was the last time you read a tract or heard a gospel presentation that ends with a discussion of the believer’s relationship to the church? At best, there is a very low emphasis on church involvement, church membership, and being a part of the family of God in the visible, gathered household of saints.
And in the massive effort to make salvation personal, the church has been overlooked to the detriment of many souls. Too many people today tend to be ecclesiastical consumers. They’re only interested in what they can get out of their church, and they bounce from congregation to congregation as their whims and interests change. They don’t have any particular commitment or loyalty to a specific body of believers.
In fact, they have little to no attachment to the church at all. They are under no obligation for regular attendance—if they make it, they make it; if not, it’s no big deal.
For people like that, faith is solely defined by the personal relationship with Christ—they have no corporate commitment or responsibility to the people of God. It’s a skewed, imbalanced, and unbiblical pseudo-Christianity that exists completely outside of and apart from the Body of Christ.
The idea of believers’ living independently of the church is totally foreign to the New Testament. The Holy Spirit addressed almost every epistle to a local church, and other books like 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon were addressed to key leaders in local churches. Even the book of James—which was written to believers scattered by persecution—assumes the recipients are still meeting together and deals heavily with life in the context of the church.
Throughout the New Testament the assumption is always the same: that the people of God are faithfully gathering together in a local assembly where the Word of God is taught. That unified gathering—not just the invisible worldwide church, but the local, visible congregation—is at the heart of true Christianity. The church is the only institution that Jesus personally established and promised to bless.
Why would anyone who claims to love the Lord want to keep His people at arm’s length?
Church Membership in the New Testament
It’s obvious that the leaders of the early church knew their flock well. In Acts 20, Paul exhorted the elders of the Ephesian church to faithfully watch over and shepherd their people. But it’s very difficult to shepherd if you don’t know who your flock is. And sheep don’t survive well just roaming around on their own.
Even though the New Testament never speaks of church membership in today’s terms, the principles of life in the early church lay the foundation for faithfully submitting and belonging to a local congregation. While the original membership process might differ from today’s patterns, there’s no doubt that New Testament Christians were lovingly united and bound to their local body of believers.
Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost was a flashpoint in the explosive growth of the early church. Acts 2:41 says, “So then, those who had received his words were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.” Added to what? Added to the others. Acts 1:15 says that about 120 people were already gathered together in the upper room—the three thousand people saved on the day of Pentecost would have been in addition to the core that already existed after Christ’s Ascension.
It’s possible their names were even physically added to a list by a secretary or someone keeping track, but that’s not what is most important. The moment these men and women were saved, they were baptized as a visible testimony of their transformed lives and as a way to identify with the other believers. They were immediately welcomed into the church.
Just a few verses later, Acts 2:47 says, “And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The influx of new members didn’t stop at Pentecost. The church met daily, and every day the Lord was drawing new men and women to Himself and into fellowship with His people.
And that growth wasn’t merely short-term. A few chapters later, in Acts 5:14, the church was still growing exponentially: “And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number.” The implication is that someone was keeping track of the ever-expanding size of the flock.
Of course, in the earliest days of the church, everyone met together. After Stephen’s murder (Acts 7:54–60), believers were scattered by persecution. A church started in Antioch, and then others began through the ministry of Paul. Eventually the church extended in all directions through the apostles’ missionary endeavors. What began with one massive congregation was now reproducing itself from city to city as the teaching of the gospel spread and new men and women were saved.
But no matter where they were being saved, the implication is always that they were immediately welcomed into a local gathering of believers. In fact, any time someone moved or relocated, they brought with them or were preceded by letters of recommendation to their new congregation. Acts 18:27 describes how Apollos was commended to the church at Achaia by the disciples. It would have been typical to notify the church receiving him that he came with the blessing of his previous congregation.
Paul followed the same pattern. In Romans 16:1–2 he wrote,
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well.
Phoebe’s journey to Rome was no accident—it’s likely she was the one who delivered Paul’s letter to the church there. So at the end of his passionate epistle, Paul paused to make sure she was looked after and cared for by the believers in Rome. He was eager to keep track of his sheep, letting the other congregation know her faith was genuine. It was a pattern he repeated in other epistles as well. And with good reason—the early church was very concerned to maintain its purity and to keep the tares out. There were many factious, heretical, sinful people who posed an immediate threat to the church. As genuine believers moved from place to place, authenticating their faith and their character helped protect the church from error, division, and corruption.
That protective attitude is appropriate. The Lord loves His church—He shed His blood and died for His church. We are His body in this world as He works through us to accomplish His will. And we are His bride in eternity, the object of His affection and love. And Christ demands a chaste and pure bride.
One of the key ways the church can guard itself from error and maintain its purity is to confirm the faith of its people and keep them accountable. The early church didn’t have a name for that—they didn’t need one. Today we call it church membership.
Membership Is Fellowship
The genuine spiritual unity of saved souls is evident throughout the New Testament. And back then, just as today, that unity was manifest in the local gathering of believers.
Christians inherently bond together in shared spiritual life with those of like precious faith. Through the new birth of salvation, we have entered into a fellowship with other believers—a fellowship that’s so wonderful, unique, and precious that Paul sternly warned the Corinthians to make sure there were no divisions among them that could threaten it (1 Corinthians 1:9–10).
The Greek word we translate as fellowship (koinōnia) essentially means partnership. Paul describes that partnership in Galatians 2:9: “And recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship.” He and Barnabas were affirmed and welcomed into common participation in eternal life, as it is manifest through the visible life of the church.
That’s exactly what happens in church membership—the individual believer is publically identified with the local body of believers and enters into an ongoing spiritual partnership with that congregation. It’s a public affirmation of our unity in Christ, our care for each other, and our shared desire to grow together in the love and knowledge of God’s Word.
That’s why the modern trend of believers floating freely between congregations and never firmly planting in one place is a foreign concept to Scripture. What we have today is a model built on a consumer mentality—people go to church wherever their felt needs are addressed, only to unplug and move on when those needs change or are better met somewhere else. That pattern is completely contrary to the one we find in God’s Word.
In fact, it’s expressly forbidden by Scripture. Hebrews 10:23–25 is unequivocal about the necessity of fellowship.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
How can the people of God “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” if they aren’t regularly meeting together? It can’t happen. Forsaking the consistent fellowship of other believers cuts you off from a key, God-ordained source of biblical instruction, refining accountability, and spiritual growth (cf. Proverbs 27:17).
And the need for fellowship is even greater as we draw nearer to the return of Christ. The shepherdless flock won’t thrive; it’ll scatter. And lone sheep are easy prey for wolves. Faithful fellowship helps insulate you from the influences of a world that’s sprinting to hell. Why wouldn’t a Christian take advantage of that?
Instead, too many believers today approach church like a duty or a task—one that’s quickly pushed aside and forgotten as soon as it’s been accomplished.
I can’t understand that attitude. I want to be with the people of God every opportunity I get. I want to share together in our common love for the Lord and His truth. I want to build and deepen friendships, bear each other’s burdens, and extend comfort and encouragement to those who need it. I want to come together with a collective choir of believers to sing praises to the Lord. I want to pray and worship with people who love God’s Word, and I want to see firsthand what His Word is accomplishing in their lives.
All of that is meant to happen in the church—not in spite of it.
Membership Is Submission
As a pastor, I know I will have to give an account for the people under my leadership (Hebrews 13:17). Every pastor faces the same burden for the men and women under his care. But what good is a shepherd if the sheep won’t submit to his authority? In an age of unprecedented ecclesiastical consumerism, how can a pastor lead, serve, or even know a flock that is inconsistent and fluctuating?
Active involvement in and submission to a local church body is crucial if we’re going to live up to God’s plan and pattern for the church. As we’ve already seen, the idea of Christians floating free between multiple congregations and never committing to one church body is completely foreign to the New Testament. That kind of untethered independence cuts you off from the authority the Lord established through His church.
But just what that authority looks like is the cause of much controversy in the church today. Some pastors exercise illegitimate authority over their churches, with a level of involvement in their members’ lives that borders on abusive or dictatorial. It’s not the pastor’s role to tell his people where they should live, where they should work, whom they should marry, or to exert that kind of control in other areas of their lives.
The only biblical authority a pastor has comes from the Word of God and the Holy Spirit working through his teaching in the lives of his flock. In effect, he’s not a source of authority himself, but a conduit from the Lord to His people. That’s the authority God’s people need to submit to—the work of the Spirit through the faithful, consistent teaching of God’s Word.
And how should believers respond to that kind of authority? The writer of Hebrews gives us the answer. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).
It’s a tremendous grief to try to shepherd a rebellious flock. Watching over the people of God is no easy task to begin with. Pastors are called to train, disciple, support, and serve the church. We’re also called to exhort, warn, admonish, reprove, rebuke, and discipline in the application of God’s Word in believers’ lives—all for the sake of their spiritual growth.
That’s hard enough with believers who are eager and engaged in the process. It’s virtually impossible with people who won’t be faithful to the flock and who want nothing to do with your leadership.
If you have a faithful pastor or church leader who exemplifies the qualities of a shepherd, let him know how much you appreciate his labor on your behalf (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). It will be a great encouragement to him to know he’s making a spiritual difference in your life.
And if you’re a believer who’s been rejecting the biblical authority of the local church and won’t submit to your pastor or church leaders, you need to do a careful, thorough examination of your heart. What’s behind your rebellious spirit? What sins are you harboring that are keeping you from submitting to God-given authority? Are you sure you belong to Christ?
The true authority of the church isn’t harsh or oppressive. It’s parental, building you up and working for your benefit (1 Thessalonians 2:7–12). Don’t be foolish enough to reject that kind of biblical influence and authority in your life. Seek it out and submit to it in church membership.
Membership Is Identity
Our society is suffering from an identity crisis. Collectively and individually, people today don’t have a strong sense of who they are or what they should pursue. They drift anchorless through life, following the whims and fads of the world instead of accepting responsibility and growing in maturity.
Christians don’t need to struggle with that kind of identity crisis. We’ve been redeemed and claimed by Christ, brought into His family, and are being transformed into His likeness. To some degree, it should be difficult to tell where He stops and where you start, so to speak. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
That glorious truth describes the spiritual state of every believer. We are no longer isolated and alone—the Lord bought us with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20) and grafted us into His family (Romans 11:17). We bear His name, and our transformed lives are a testimony to His love and power. Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf establishes our new identity for eternity—we are His church, His body, and His bride.
But if individually we are identified with Christ, why then do so many Christians refuse to identify with the church—a collection of others likewise identified with the Savior? Why do they refuse church membership and eschew fellowship with a local congregation? If the Lord has made us all one family in eternity, why do so many believers spend so much time here on earth avoiding one another?
Paul sternly warned Timothy to not be ashamed of the testimony of the Lord (2 Timothy 1:8). In his case, Timothy had real reasons to be afraid of publicly proclaiming his faith and identifying with the church—he faced the constant threat of physical persecution, imprisonment, and even death.
The majority of believers today may never face that kind of pressure. Instead, the resistance to identifying with the church is born out of the fear of man. In our perpetually shallow and increasingly atheistic culture, there’s nothing cool about the church. So rather than being saddled with the stigma of stodgy religion, some believers try to discreetly live out their faith through loose affiliation with one—and sometimes more than one—congregation. Others just avoid the church altogether, ashamed that anyone might think they belong.
The idea of giving in to that kind of meager pressure would be laughable if so many Christians weren’t doing it every day. But rather than proudly and publicly uniting with other believers, they chase fickle popularity. Others avoid biding themselves to a local congregation in an attempt to fly under the radar, fearing identification with God’s people would be too costly. Maybe you’ve been tempted at times to do the same.
What you do in the face of that temptation says a lot about the true state of your heart. The best indication of your priorities is how and where you spend your time and energy. Perhaps you’re part of a political movement, a school board, a neighborhood committee, a fan club, or some other pursuit.
Of all the organizations you could belong to, the church is by far the most important. Your commitment to and identification with your local congregation speaks volumes about who you are and what matters most to you. In fact, your participation in your church is so much more than a once- or twice-a-week activity—it’s a gathering of people who are no longer citizens of this world; a fellowship of men and women who have been transformed into new creatures and united in faith. The church is a foretaste of the glories that await us in eternity.
So if you claim to love the Lord but refuse to identify with His people, it raises understandable questions about the veracity of your love. At the same time, if your reputation with the unsaved world means enough to keep you away from the church, you have cause for serious concerns about whether you’ve truly repented and believed in the first place.
One other thing to consider when it comes to reputations: It’s true that yours could suffer in some circles if you publicly identify with your local church. It might even prove humiliating for you.
But that’s nothing compared to the humiliations Christ willingly and sacrificially suffered on our behalf. And if the Lord is willing to associate Himself with weak, sinful people like us, we can’t keep Him or His church at arm’s length. If He’s not ashamed to call us His, we cannot be ashamed to call Him—and His—ours.
Membership Is Loyalty
By now it should be clear that church membership is not optional. Admittedly, there is no verse in the Bible that specifically commands us to sign on the dotted line and join a church. But the clear teaching of Scripture is that we are to be members in the local fellowship of believers, in every sense of the word.
The apostle Paul had that unified fellowship in mind when he wrote Ephesians 2:19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.” In essence, we’re now part of a family—God’s family.
And unity within God’s heavenly household requires loyalty, both to Him and to His people. The consumerist attitude that’s taken hold in the church today isn’t interested in loyalty. It leads people to see fellowship as a means to selfish ends—they will meet with other believers, but only when it suits their needs and pleases their interests.
When you come to church, the question shouldn’t be, What can I get out of my church? but, How can God use me to serve others here? Will there be other believers in the congregation who need you, whether it’s for help, support, or encouragement?
The obvious answer is yes. There is no shortage of spiritual, physical, and emotional needs in your church. You won’t have to look hard to find a multitude of ways you can be useful to your congregation. It’s the same attitude you’d hope to cultivate within your own family—what are the needs around you, and how can you be useful in meeting those needs? Bring that loyal, Christlike attitude with you to church—you’re not there primarily to be served, but to serve.
By God’s grace and perfect design, He has equipped each of us with a variety of spiritual gifts for use in the church (Ephesians 4:11–12). The Lord has fitted each of us with specific talents and abilities that tie into His purposes for our lives.
Every believer has a role within the Body of Christ, and that body cannot function unless every part is working together (1 Corinthians 12:12–31). Hands can’t suddenly become ears; eyes can’t replace feet. And you’ll never find a stray finger or tongue that functions better on its own than it does with the rest of the body. The Lord didn’t save us to be solo acts—we’re meant to work in concert and in harmony as one great choir.
How is that possible apart from involvement in the local church? You may have other believers scattered throughout your life, whether at home, at work, or elsewhere. But God’s design is for you to be an active, useful member of your local church body, working side by side with other useful, self-sacrificing believers to accomplish His will in your lives and in your community. That starts with being a loyal member of your local church.
I’m a Member—Now What?
Faithful participation in a local body of believers is a vital part of the Christian life. It brings us into fellowship with other believers, submits us to the authority of the Lord through His church, makes us useful to God and His people, and shapes our identity in Christ and our testimony to the outside world.
Of course, church membership is not just a personal matter. Clearly, the issues are corporate as well. The ordinances given to the local church—baptism, communion—lose their significance outside the group setting. As believers pull away from participating in local, corporate worship, they miss out on profound blessings that can be experienced only in that community.
There are many people today who would call themselves Christians who have never been baptized; many others have little to no interest in celebrating the Lord’s Table. And for the countless professing believers who have adopted the consumer mindset regarding church, it’s likely that neither baptism nor communion will ever be a priority for them.
It’s become such a problem that many churches have deprioritized the biblical ordinances, relegating them to unpopular midweek services or ignoring them altogether. They would rather reject the clear commands of Scripture than risk offending an unbeliever or making anyone uncomfortable with unfamiliar church practices.
That’s tragic. Baptism is perhaps the clearest symbol of the life-changing power of Christ. And communion unites the church in celebration of the sacrifice He made on our behalf. They’re not optional rituals—they’re vivid pictures of the power and work of the Lord, ordained and instituted by God for the growth, unity, and testimony of His church.
And even in churches where baptism and communion are administered, they’re often directed as expressions of personal faith rather than corporate identity. They don’t celebrate the commonality of the church—redeemed sinners united into one body and gathered at the foot of the cross to share in Christ’s sacrifice. They’re erroneously observed as individual acts, with individual significance and individual results.
Just as believers need to fight against the temptation to withdraw from the church, we also need to fight the tendency to isolate ourselves within the congregation. We can’t reject our corporate identity in Christ—we’re united in love, faith, and purpose. Baptism and communion are public expressions of that unity.
Navigating the Waters of Baptism
Many unbaptized Christians are simply ignorant when it comes to baptism. They’ve never been taught about baptism—what it signifies and why it matters. And what little teaching there is on the subject usually just further confuses the issue.
For example, some believers today have been taught that if they were baptized or christened as a baby, that is sufficient to fulfill Scripture’s command. Think about the confusing message that sends—that a passive act as a newborn has something in common with the public profession of faith and identification with the risen Christ and His church. Many Christians today could rightly claim ignorance when it comes to baptism, but that doesn’t excuse them from being obedient.
Other believers might be avoiding baptism out of pride. Many have allowed a long period of time to elapse since their conversion. They repented and believed long ago, and they are faithfully involved with the church, active in ministry, and submissive to the authority of God’s Word, but they have never been baptized.
It’s understandably a little embarrassing to acknowledge that kind of failure—that you’ve been disobedient on something so fundamental for so long. But better to humble yourself than to further extend that disobedience by remaining unbaptized.
Indifference is another reason professing believers might not be baptized. There are plenty of people in the church today who simply can’t be bothered. It doesn’t fit into their busy schedule and they’re not willing to sacrifice something else—their work, their ministry, their leisure time, or whatever it is—and make the command of the Lord a priority for their life. Obedience simply isn’t that important to them. They’re apathetic. They might want to do it; they might even plan to do it. But until obedience is their first priority, they’ll never finally get around to being baptized.
For others it goes a step further into defiance. Some people in the church haven’t been baptized because they are just rebellious. They brazenly refuse to obey. Usually people like that are living in active patterns of sin, and any public confession of their faith in Christ would only elevate their hypocrisy. They won’t surrender their sin, so they charge further into rebellion against the Lord.
In addition to ignorance, pride, indifference, and defiance, there is one other reason people in the church aren’t baptized—they’re unregenerate. They’re simply not saved. They have no desire to publicly identify with Christ because they know in their hearts they don’t truly belong to Him. They might be familiar with the Bible and the church—they might even attend regularly, hanging on at the fringes without ever fully committing. But they won’t—they can’t—take a public stand with Christ because they’ve never truly submitted their lives to Him in the first place.
The New Testament has no concept of an unbaptized Christian. When people repented and believed in Christ, they were baptized—often immediately—as a public profession of their faith and identification with the body of believers. The two were inextricably linked throughout the early church (cf. Matthew 28:19–20; Acts 2:38).
Likewise, the New Testament has nothing to say about many of the modern methods of baptism. Sprinkling, pouring, or dabbing people with water makes no biblical sense. Only immersion paints an accurate, biblical picture of the transformation that takes place in salvation.
The believer’s baptism by submersion in water is consistent with the metaphor the apostle Paul used in Romans 6:3–7.
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.
Paul wasn’t referring to the ordinance of baptism, but the spiritual reality of union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Water baptism is the outward symbol of that unity—your physical baptism signifies the spiritual baptism that’s already taken place. It’s the public, ceremonial depiction of your death to sin and your new life in Christ.
However, that rich truth isn’t celebrated or even taught in many churches. And because the theology and practice of baptism are so muddled, today we likely have more unbaptized believers than at any other time in the history of the church.
If you’re a professing believer who hasn’t been baptized, you fall into one of those categories—your disobedience is the result of ignorance, pride, indifference, defiance, or it’s an indication that you’re not truly saved. It’s critical that you carefully and biblically examine your life and determine what’s keeping you from publicly identifying with Christ in His resurrection and with the local gathering of believers. You don’t want to live in open disobedience to the clear command of Scripture, regardless of the excuses you might be clinging to—you need to repent and be baptized.
Why Do We Celebrate the Lord’s Death?
At the time of Christ’s death, Passover was a long-established Jewish festival. In fact, it was the oldest of all celebrations of the Lord’s covenant with Moses and Israel. Established before the priesthood, the Tabernacle, and even before the law, Passover was ordained by God while Israel was still enslaved in Egypt, and it had been celebrated by His people for more than 1,500 years.
Why does that matter in a discussion about communion? Because in the intimacy of the upper room, with His closest followers by His side, Christ celebrated the last legitimate Passover, transformed its meaning, and replaced it with a new ordinance for the people of God.
For centuries, the Passover celebration was the Israelites’ commemoration of their deliverance from four hundred years of bondage to Egypt. It was their national memorial of God’s faithful provision and protection for His people.
The principal lesson of the Passover was that deliverance from judgment requires bloodshed, and that the shed blood could come from a substitute—in the case of the Passover, the substitute was an unblemished lamb. From that point on in Israel’s history, its entire sacrificial system reinforced the substitutionary nature of judgment and deliverance. The sacrifices themselves didn’t accomplish anything (cf. Psalm 40:6, Mark 12:33)—they prefigured God’s ultimate provision.
Sitting in the upper room, Jesus was only hours away from fulfilling those centuries of foreshadowing. He was prepared to be the sacrificial lamb that Israel had waited so long for. And in His final, private moments with those closest to Him, He established a new memorial to God’s provision and protection—not from temporary judgment in Egypt, but from eternal judgment in hell.
The space here doesn’t allow for a detailed discussion of the significance of the last Passover and the first communion. What’s pertinent to this discussion is the collective nature of those two celebrations. Passover was no small event in the lives of the Israelites. It was a symbol of their national unity. They were a people bound together under the special protection and provision of the Lord.
In a similar way, observing communion, or the Lord’s Table, is a collective reminder of God’s provision through Jesus’ death. It unites the church as those who have been rescued, transformed, and grafted into God’s family—all made possible through the sacrifice of Christ.
It doesn’t have some deeper spiritual significance—celebrating the Lord’s Table doesn’t reoffer Christ as a sacrifice. His death was God’s once-for-all provision for our sin, and any desire for another sacrifice is an implicit rejection of Christ’s death. Also, Christ does not inhabit the elements in some mystical way—they’re simply reminders of the body and blood He sacrificed to secure our salvation.
For our sakes, the Lord instituted a new memorial—one that points us back to His life and death, unites us in love for our common Savior, gives profound testimony to His sacrifice to the unsaved world, and builds in us an anticipation of His return (1 Corinthians 11:26). If you’re a Christian, these reminders should spur you to greater love for the Savior and the church He died to redeem.
Communion also helps guard the church against the presence of unchecked sin. The apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthians to thoroughly examine themselves before they celebrated the Lord’s Table to be sure they weren’t inviting punishment or even death (1 Corinthians 11:27–30). Along with church discipline, communion works to guard the purity of Christ’s bride until His return. Regularly celebrating our Savior’s sacrifice on our behalf provides positive reinforcement to confess and repent; it causes us to consistently weed out and destroy our sin.
If that’s not happening—if sin is allowed to fester and take root in our lives—the Lord has a plan for dealing with it through church discipline.
The Disciplined Church
What is the single greatest contributor to the impact, growth, success, and stability of a church? Some people might tell you it’s having a gifted pastor—someone who can rightly divide the Word of God, and do it in an engaging and enlightening way. Other people might tell you the most important thing is the music—you’ve got to stimulate people’s emotions through song and sound to keep them coming back for more.
Or maybe the key is to have friendly greeters and hospitable church staff to make people feel welcome. Or perhaps the success of your church depends on the quality of your Sunday school classes, your children’s ministries, or the in-home Bible studies. Some people might even tell you it comes down to the quality of the coffee you serve.
While every one of those aspects can figure into the popularity of your church, none of them guarantees biblical success like church discipline. You read that correctly—when it comes to growing a godly, biblical church, purity must be the first priority.
Purity was Christ’s first priority with the disciples, as He laid the foundations of the church in His teaching. Matthew 18 is loaded with instructions and warnings about personal purity and how to keep sin out of the midst of God’s people, starting in verse 6, where Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to a have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
That vivid, horrific imagery wasn’t lost on His disciples—it was a clear message that sin was not to be trifled with or tolerated. Paul was just as clear with his exhortations to the church at Corinth, warning them that he would deal firmly with their sin and “not spare anyone” (2 Corinthians 13:2).
The Lord takes the purity of His people seriously, and we need to reflect His priority in our local congregations. When I first began preaching at Grace Community Church, we didn’t practice church discipline—in fact, I’d never been to a church that did. It was a totally foreign concept to me, but Christ’s instructions in Matthew 18:15–17 are clear.
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
I hadn’t seen it done before, but I became convinced it wasn’t optional—that we were compelled to be obedient to Christ’s model for church discipline.
At first, people told me it would kill the church—people wouldn’t put up with that level of scrutiny in their lives, and they’d find somewhere less invasive to worship. In fact, the opposite has happened. Grace Church has thrived because God’s people take sin seriously and don’t tolerate it in their local congregation.
That’s because the purpose of church discipline isn’t to embarrass people by exposing their sin. On those occasions when the sinning man or woman refuses to repent and the elders need to bring the matter before the church, we don’t take any delight in that. We’re grieved it’s gone that far, and we want to see the person repent before he or she has to be put out of the church altogether. We don’t do it because it’s fun—we do it because it’s the only way to keep sin from festering, taking root, and growing in our church.
We do it because it’s vital to the spiritual health and the testimony of the church. Ignoring church discipline is the most visible and disastrous failure of the church in our time, because it conveys to the world that we’re not really serious about sin.
The problem with the church today is not that it’s out of step with the culture or it’s too old fashioned. The problem is that it has lost its interest in holiness. It’s not nearly concerned enough with maintaining its purity. Churches today have become content to be fellowships of independent members with minimal accountability to God and even less to each other. We have generations of pastors and church members today who have never experienced church discipline—they don’t know anything about it.
And yet God’s first priority for His people is that they be pure. If we’re going to be useful to Him—as individuals and as local church bodies—we need to be united in our commitment to dealing directly and biblically with sin.
What Does It Mean to Make Disciples?
In describing the purpose statement of the church, many people point to Christ’s instruction in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
But depending on whom you ask, you might find a wide variety of interpretations regarding what it actually means to “make disciples.” Most churches today understand it as a command to evangelize the world—to lead people to faith and repentance in every corner of the globe and spread the gospel as far as possible.
And while there is certainly an evangelistic aspect to Christ’s command, His instructions go beyond just spreading the gospel. The Greek verb translated “make disciples” (mathēteuō) is beautifully complex, carrying more meaning than simply accumulating converts. It communicates the idea of a learning believer—someone who is growing in his faith and his love for the Lord.
Jesus’ words emphasize not the moment of salvation but the lifetime of sanctification that follows. He made the same point in John 8:31 when He said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine.” It’s the difference between a one-time profession of faith and a lifetime of spiritual growth and increasing godliness—between counterfeit and genuine conversion.
But if the mission of the church is to make growing, learning believers in all nations, why do many congregations limit their efforts to filling seats—often by meeting felt needs with worldly gimmicks? That strategy might attract nonbelievers, but how does it promote the spiritual growth of the believers already in their midst? How can you stress the vital importance of sanctification when you’re aggressively chasing the trends and interests of a spiritually bankrupt world?
Too many popular preachers and churches today claim they’re not interested in reaching believers—that their sermons and services are intended solely for unsaved seekers. They even actively discourage believers who want to dig deeper into the riches of Scripture—who hunger for more than just the most basic elements of the gospel, if they’re even getting that much.
But those churches have little hope of ever prompting people past the moment of salvation into a life of sanctification. In fact, they’re far more likely to lead men and women to shallow faith, stunted spiritual growth, and, sadly, false conversion.
As defined by Christ’s command to His disciples, the purpose of the church is to make believers who are learners—men and women whose lives reflect a deep commitment to and love for the Lord, His Word, and His people. Are you actively helping your congregation grow in this clear and critical purpose for the church?
The Abundance of Giving
When you think about coming to church, what aspect do you look forward to the most?
For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume your answer is something spiritually noble—nothing vain or selfish like wanting people to see you dressed in your finest clothes, showing off a new car, or trying to sell goods or services to friends. Let’s assume the best—that whatever it is you look forward to most is somehow related to ministry. Some people might say that the teaching keeps them coming back each week. Others would say it’s the God-exalting music. For some, it might be the fellowship—deep relationships with other Christians that they can’t cultivate elsewhere. Others might just appreciate the temporary relief from the pressures of life, work, and the world.
But let me suggest something to you: If we really understand Scripture—particularly some specific promises from Jesus—the thing you should look forward to the most is the offering.
God’s Word clearly teaches that there is a correlation between our giving and His blessings in our lives. In fact, two simple statements from the Lord ought to make every Christian eager and thrilled for opportunities to give generously, abundantly, and sacrificially.
The first of those promises is found in Luke 6:38, where Jesus told His followers, “Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.”
If we want to receive from the Lord, we need to be willing to sacrifice. Paul echoes the same sentiments in 2 Corinthians 9:6, where he writes, “Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” It’s a simple principle but one that we too often ignore: God is going to measure out His blessings to you in accord with what you’ve measured out in your giving.
The imagery Christ used in Luke—the idea of pouring blessing into our laps—comes from the ancient Middle Eastern grain market. People would go into the grain market to purchase, literally, a lap-full of grain. The loose material of their garments extended all the way to the ground and was belted at the waist with a sash. When they went into the grain market, they would simply pull up some of that garment, looping it through the sash to create a huge pocket. The grain would be dumped into the makeshift pouch, literally filling their laps (cf. Ruth 3:15).
This would have been an everyday experience for the crowd listening to Jesus in Luke 6, and they would have immediately understood the meaning of the illustration. The Lord wants to overflow your life with His blessings, and those blessings correspond to your own sacrificial giving. In fact, there is a comforting reassurance in Christ’s illustration. Regardless of how much you give, you can’t outgive the Lord. You give, and He is always faithful to give back more.
That gracious promise alone should drive us to be cheerful, generous givers, but Christ had more to say. In Acts 20:35, Luke attributes these words to Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
As abundant as God’s blessings are in our lives, what we give away results in even greater blessing. This concept is counterintuitive in our society—we’re encouraged to accumulate and save as much as we can. But God’s Word is clear that believers are to avoid the love of money (Matthew 6:24, Hebrews 13:5), and this promise from Christ is consistent with those exhortations.
Greedily storing up wealth and resources limits their usefulness to your own selfish purposes. It’s far better to surrender them to the purposes of God and reap the tremendous blessings of being part of what He’s accomplishing in the lives of His people.
Faithful, sacrificial giving also knits you into the life of your church. In one simple act you’re helping support your pastor and the rest of your church’s staff, care for missionaries supported by your church, provide for the maintenance of your church building and other facilities, meet physical and financial needs within your congregation, and much more.
That doesn’t mean we should recklessly give away everything—God’s Word clearly advocates wise management of your money (cf. Matthew 25:14–30). But if we’re going to store up treasure, we ought to store it “in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys” (Luke 12:33). Give generously, and count on the Lord to be generous with you.
In the last several years, the proliferation of specialized ministries and parachurch organizations has been astounding. Today there seems to be a separate ministry for every biblical viewpoint, theological perspective, or practical interest, not to mention all the pseudo-Christian groups focused on social and political activism. It’s likely that if you have a particular spiritual itch, you can find a ministry that will scratch it, or you can find someone eager to launch a new organization to appeal to like-minded people.
The problem with the plethora of parachurch organizations is that so many of them exist outside the authority and influence of the local church. The term parachurch ought to indicate a cooperative relationship, but often that’s not the case. Some pay lip service to the church; others are openly indifferent to it. Few of them—perhaps very few—are actually accountable to the church, adhere to biblical guidelines for leadership, and have a strong commitment to biblical doctrine and theology.
That’s particularly dangerous as these organizations and ministries pull believers’ attention, loyalty, and financial support away from their local congregations. Rather than devote their time, energy, and support to life and ministry in their local body, believers are segmented off from the rest of the church, focused only on the issues and concerns that appeal to them. Too often, the parachurch organization becomes the central spiritual focus, while the church is pushed further and further to the sidelines. That defies the Lord’s design for His church and cripples the Body of Christ, which can’t properly function if its members are all headed in different directions, pursuing different priorities.
You see a similar trend on Christian college campuses, where many young men and women are preparing for lives of ministry without a strong connection to the church. If left unaddressed, that disconnect only deepens with time.
These days, much of the full-time ministry work going on around the world—whether in charity groups, missionary endeavors, Christian education, or some other parachurch activity—happens outside of and apart from the church. And while plenty of those parachurch organizations are doing valuable, necessary work, the trend away from the church—the only institution the Lord established and promised to bless—is still a serious cause for concern.
The solution is to be thoughtful about the ministries you’re supporting, and aware of their influence in your life and on your participation in your local congregation. One of the key points we consistently stress at Grace to You is that we cannot replace the church in the lives of our listeners and readers, nor do we want to. We cannot possibly fulfill your spiritual needs for worship, fellowship, accountability, and discipleship. We’re a complement to your local church—not a substitute.
The same should go for every other ministry or parachurch organization, and you should be wary of the ones that are comfortable being disconnected from and unaccountable to the church. Instead, look for ministries that prompt you toward greater involvement and service in your congregation—that prompt you to be more committed and connected to what the Lord is accomplishing in your church.
Cultivating a Love for the Church
I love the church. It’s the center of my life and has been since childhood. My father was the pastor of a church when I was born—I grew up in the church. It’s the place where I was led to the knowledge of God, where I learned about the person and work of Christ, and where I gained the knowledge of saving and sanctifying truth. It’s where I learned how to pray, how to sing, how to worship, how to love, and how to serve. And it was in the church that I experienced the leading of the Spirit of God, directing me to a life of ministry.
I met my wife in the church. We raised our children in the church, and our grandchildren are being raised there too. It’s where I’ve made lifelong friends and partners in ministry. The church touches every part of my life. In fact, you could say it is my life.
People sometimes ask me why I write so much about issues in the church—why I can’t just be quiet and enjoy my ministry. The answer is, I love the church so much that I can’t stand by and watch it struggle. I want to help it be all God intended it to be. I love the church too much to do anything else.
My hope is that this booklet stimulates a similar affection for the church in your heart. That it encourages you to pour yourself into your local congregation with fresh energy and a deepened commitment to serving in and with the Body of Christ. And that, in spite of the church’s flaws and difficulties (we’re imperfect people, after all), you come away with a renewed understanding of God’s design for His church, and a vigorous, motivating love for the role He has set aside for you in it.
© 2019 by John MacArthur. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations, unless noted otherwise, taken from the New American Standard Bible ®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.