Most of us, I'm sure, have heard the adage, "The church is the only human institution that continues into the new heavens and the new earth."1 It's the sort of adage with which no Christian can thoughtfully disagree, even though it is spectacularly fuzzy. Does "church" in that old adage refer to the universal church? If so, is the universal church rightly thought of as a "human institution"? It is certainly made up of humans, but it was not designed by humans. Is the universal church usefully thought of as an institution? Organism, company, body, assembly, yes-but institution? We all agree, I imagine, that Christians continue into the new heavens and the new earth, but if that's all we mean, why mention the church? The body of Christians continues into the new heavens and the new earth, the assembly of Christians continues into the new heavens and the new earth, but is it coherent to assert that the institution of all Christians everywhere continues into the new heavens and the new earth?
Suppose, instead, that "church" in the adage "The church is the only human institution that continues into the new heavens and the new earth" refers to the local church. But does the local church continue into the new heavens and the new earth? The answer to that question is going to depend pretty heavily on how we define "local church." Suppose, for argument's sake, that we adopt the three marks of the church defended by much Reformed thought: the church is the assembly where the gospel is faithfully preached, the sacraments are rightly observed, and faithful discipline is carried out. Will such a church continue into the new heaven and the new earth? Will the sacraments-or, if you prefer, the ordinances-then be practiced? If baptism is tied to conversion, surely no one will be eligible for baptism if no one is getting converted. If the Lord's Supper points forward "until he comes," what evidence is there that it will still be celebrated after he has come?
In short, the old adage with which I began this address is so beset with terminological challenges that its sole benefit lies in the domain of sentimental reassurance rather than in the domain of clear-headed theological reflection. In exactly the same way, the slightly cheeky affirmation advanced by the title of this address easily becomes indefensible unless some terminological clarifications are introduced right away.
The title speaks of the relative importance of the local church, not the universal church: "Why the local church is more important than TGC [and all the rest]." No Christian would dispute the importance of the universal church. But two factors weigh against the practical ecclesiastical significance of such an avowal. First, there are surprisingly few references to the universal church in the NT. The overwhelming majority of the occurrences of the word "church" refer to local churches. Second, many Christians think of the universal church as the conglomerate collection of believers drawn from every age who ultimately gather around the throne of God; but, as wonderful as this notion is, such a definition provides little scope to assess the relative importance of the local church and of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) since both the local church and ETS, we hope, are made up of such believers. To derive lessons on the importance of the local church from the relatively few passages that refer to the universal church presupposes that one has sorted out the relationships between the two at a deeper level. That is an important subject worth exploring, but, at least at the popular level, it is not one that is well understood.
For instance, although the set of contrasts built into the relevant passage in Heb 12 is immensely evocative, precisely how do they help us think through our subject?
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire: to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain it must be stoned to death." The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear." But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:18-24)2
The driving contrast in these verses is between, on the one hand, the Mosaic covenant, and, more broadly, the approach of the people of God in OT times going all the way back to Abel, and, on the other, the privileges of "the church of the firstborn," who gather not at Sinai, nor in the temple in Jerusalem, but in the presence of God, in the presence of Jesus the mediator of a new covenant. The identification with him is so strong that the language is reminiscent of Ephesians: just as he is at the right hand of the Majesty on high, so those who are in union with him are seated in the heavenlies. The focus, in other words, is on the universal church. There are, I contend, connections between the local church and such passages in Ephesians and Hebrews, but they are not widely recognized, so it is difficult to appeal to them in support of the title of this paper. Perhaps we may return to that in a few moments.
At the other end of the scale lies a different definition of the church that will equally lead us astray in our considerations. Instead of focusing on the universal church, some circles argue that the (local) church is the "assembly" of any Christians gathered together in Jesus's name. For example, two Christian businessmen meet on the platform of the Libertyville Metra station to commute to work in downtown Chicago. On the train they enjoy a quiet Bible study together. Here, surely, is the church. Did not Jesus say that where two or three are gathered together in his name, he himself is present in their midst?
Under such a definition of church, of course, it is impossible to argue that what we refer to as "the local church" is any more important than the assembly of Christians meeting on a university campus under the Cru banner, or the assembly of Christian doctors and nurses at a meeting of the Christian Medical Fellowship, or the assembly of Christians at the 2014 ETS conference. They are all "the church." In practice, this view of the definition of the church, intelligently held by relatively few but unthinkingly adopted by many, serves to reinforce Western individualism. We may rejoice in the presence of Christ when two or more Christians get together for Christian purposes, but it has little bearing on the church, or on the importance of the church as a body, as an institution.
Methodologically, this approach depends on creating a definition of "church" that relies on too narrow a selection of biblical texts, notably passages that speak of the presence of Christ where two or three are gathered together.
Suppose, however, we attempt a definition of church that is far more integrative-that depends on cautious and careful inferences drawn from the wide range of the use of ἐκκλησία in the Greek Bible, and from other passages that contribute to the theme of the church even where the word ἐκκλησία is not found. How would our two businessmen on the Metra train look then?
For example, in Matt 18 Jesus insists that where there is some sort of fault between two of his disciples, the way to deal with it ascends from personal discussion to the use of others who serve as witnesses, to the final appeal, "tell it to the church" (Matt 18:17). This church then has the authority to excommunicate the guilty party. In the concrete case of discipline portrayed in 1 Cor 5, the crucial step is taken "when you are assembled" (1 Cor 5:4). "Tell it to the church" does not mean "Tell it to two Christian blokes on the Metra train."
Or again, from the pages of the NT it is reasonably transparent that there are offices in the church denoted by such labels as elder, pastor, overseer, and deacon. We may disagree on exactly how these offices are configured, but certainly the Pastoral Epistles, to go no farther, outline their roles and characteristics in the local church-something that the "assembly" of our two blokes on the Metra train seem to be missing. If someone were to point out that on the first Pauline missionary journey recorded in Acts, the apostle and Barnabas plant churches in a number of cities, and get around to appointing elders in those churches only on the return leg through the same cities (Acts 14:23), and therefore infer that one can have churches without the well-known designated officers, it's a bit like trying to list the characteristics of human beings by referring only to babies. We want to insist that babies are human beings, but we don't think that the characteristics of babies constitute an adequate definition of the characteristics of human beings. In other words, to sustain the thesis in the title of this address, we need to avoid definitions of church that are indefensibly reductionistic.
That leads me, then, to offer four further considerations on the nature of the church:
(1) We must say at least a little about what are traditionally called the marks of the church. In the Reformed heritage, borrowed nowadays by many others, there are three: the church is the assembly where the Word is rightly taught, where the sacraments (some would say "ordinances") are rightly celebrated, and where discipline is practiced. These three were, of course, shaped in part by the experiences of the Reformers in the sixteenth century. On any "thick" reading of them, however, they presuppose synthetic argumentation. For example, the right teaching of the Word of God, for the Reformers, not only questions the magisterial authority of the Pope, but presupposes the careful and controlling exegesis of Scripture, and the importance of the teaching office in the local church. This does not mean there is no sense in which lay Christians admonish one another, nor does it belittle the ways in which Christians edify one another even in the singing "to one another" of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (all part of what is today called Word-based ministry), still less the importance of teaching the Word of God, whether by catechism or other means, within the family, but it does recognize a distinctive role for pastors/elders/overseers who have been tested and set aside as those who rule over the church by means of the Word.
(2) The third mark, the discipline of the church, presupposes the urgency of preserving the church in faithfulness to God in both doctrine and life. One's understanding of how such discipline should be carried out will vary, depending not least on whether one is convinced by what is today called "the believers' church tradition" or by the typically Presbyterian view that holds the local church is made up of the new covenant community that is somewhat larger than the assembly of the elect and regenerate. Regardless of which view you take, discipline is nevertheless needed so that the church is not destroyed by the admission of purely nominal converts, false doctrine, and rampant immorality.
(3) Whatever the debates among us, not only over the relative suitability of the words "sacraments" and "ordinances" but also over the precise significance of both baptism and the Lord's Supper, it is very important to our discussion to bring together three things which, in much current evangelical practice, are frequently separated-viz., conversion, baptism, and church membership. A word about each might be helpful. I am using "conversion" not in a purely sociological or phenomenological sense, in which one may convert to, say, Islam or Buddhism or Christianity with exactly the same semantic force, but in a theological sense in which Christian conversion is distinctive and frankly miraculous and works out in allegiance to Jesus Christ. One may convert to Islam by a simple act of will, without any pretension of, say, Spirit-enacted regeneration. But in Christian conversion there is a decisive act of God in which an individual is regenerated and justified, and this works out in a change of allegiance and a change of direction. That can take place at any age; it may or may not be experienced as a remembered decisive moment. Nevertheless we insist that a person either is or is not justified, either is or is not regenerated, even if we cannot always tell when this change occurs. In much evangelical life today, however, this conversion, regardless of when it takes place, is separated from Christian baptism. Ostensible converts declare they are not yet "ready" for baptism. The chronological gap between conversion and baptism may arise out of faulty understanding of both conversion and baptism, but also, as in the case of converts from Islam who live in Islamic cultures, out of the far more portentous and decisive significance of baptism in such cultures. But what is quite clear is that in the NT, all believers this side of Pentecost were baptized, and, so far as it was possible for the church to discern, only believers were baptized. For the sake of simplifying the argument, I shall not here wrestle with the baptism of infants born into new-covenant families, but shall focus on the conversion of those with little or no connection with Christians or the church, for here both credobaptists and paedobaptists alike agree on the connection between conversion and baptism: from the pages of the NT it is difficult to warrant a substantial temporal disjunction between the two.
An example I frequently use with my students is drawn from the life of Billy Sunday. Sunday was a foul-mouthed but popular baseball player who was soundly converted in the 1880s. Soon he was crisscrossing the country preaching a potent mixture of evangelistic gospel and prohibition (eventually passed in 1919) under the shade of a huge tent. Experience soon taught him that if he pitched his tent on dry ground, when hundreds of people came forward at the end of his meetings enough dust was kicked up that some people started coughing and sneezing and thereby spoiling the decorum. Alternatively, if he pitched his tent when the ground was wet, the advancing hundreds could churn the walkways to mud, and it was not unknown for some would-be converts to slip and fall. So it became the practice to put sawdust down in all the aisles, making them both dust-proof and slip-proof. Out of this expedient arose the expression "to hit the sawdust trail." If you professed faith at a Billy Sunday meeting, your experience could be labeled "hitting the sawdust trail." So ubiquitous did that expression become that even secular journals sometimes referred to born-again types as those who had hit the sawdust trail. Ask a person when he or she was converted, and they might reply, "I hit the sawdust trail in Cincinnati in 1913"-even though that person had never attended a Billy Sunday meeting. In other words, to hit the sawdust trail stood, by metonymy, for conversion.
Although baptism in the NT has far more resonances with conversion than does hitting the sawdust trail in the ministry of Billy Sunday, it can stand by metonymy for conversion. "[F]or all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Gal 3:27), Paul writes, and this does not speak to the efficacy of baptism but to its closest association with conversion. Ask someone in the first century when they were converted, and they might well reply, "Oh, I was baptized in Corinth in 57" (though that would not have been their calendar). Paul can of course distinguish preaching the gospel from baptism (1 Cor 1:17), which of course shows that in Paul's thought baptism does not have the same logical status as, say, faith. (It is impossible to imagine Paul saying that he did not come to urge faith but to preach the gospel.) Nevertheless, such biblical texts show that baptism and conversion are co-extensive in their referents: those who (so far as can be ascertained) are converted are also baptized. Baptism can stand by metonymy for conversion.
I should venture an aside before pressing on with the argument. The close connection between turning to Christ and being baptized in the NT does not require that those who make profession of faith be baptized within ten minutes of their profession, or upon walking forward at an evangelistic meeting, or the like. The close theological connection between conversion and baptism forbids an open-ended delay, and it also forbids a kind of two-step mentality, with baptism associated with a second step in grace or maturity, but it does not forbid a delay until the next baptismal service, or until some elementary Bible teaching has taken place as part of the change of life that attends conversion. The point is that baptism in the NT is associated with conversion; it is not perceived as an optional extra.
In exactly the same way, this side of Pentecost everyone who is converted also becomes a member of the local church. It is impossible to find anyone saying, in effect, "Yes, I believe in Christ Jesus, I have been regenerated, and I may decide to get baptized as well, but there is no way I'm going to join a church. I've been burned by previous religious experiences. You should have seen what a fiasco I faced in connection with the temple of Asklepios. This organized religion stuff is not for me. Perhaps some day I'll find a really good church, and then I may join, but for the moment I rather like my independence. Besides, isn't that extra ecclesiam nulla salus stuff ["outside the church, no salvation"] the detritus of medieval Catholicism?" One cannot find such voices in the NT. In other words, in the pages of the NT, to be converted, to be baptized, and to join the local community of believers are all part of the same thing.
If we had more time and space, we could examine afresh the distribution of the singular and plural forms of ἐκκλησία, from which Presbyterians and Baptists draw slightly different inferences, to say nothing of other groups. In both heritages of interpretation, however, the point of interest to this address is that when first-century folk were converted, they were not joining only the universal church. They were joining the empirical church, the local church. Anything less was simply unthinkable.
(4) In what follows, then, the assertion that the local church is more important than TGC, White Horse Inn, 9 Marks, and maybe even ETS, depends on a faithful NT understanding of what the church is, not what we sometimes assume the church to be, based on some contemporary practices. To put this another way, if the thesis of my title is valid, it becomes a call to reform our churches in line with NT patterns.
So Why Is the Church More Important?
The following points are not listed in any order of intrinsic importance.
(1) The first answer to the question surely falls out of the terminological discussion in which we have been engaged. The local church is sublimely important because it is the only body made up of all the converted, the only body characterized by certain NT-sanctioned identifying "marks" that reflect its essential constitution. Faithful seminaries and ETS may, like churches, undertake commitment to teaching, and be made up of Christians, but they do not embrace all the local believers, nor do they typically practice baptism and the Lord's Supper. Both ETS and confessional seminaries have been known to exercise discipline, but also to exclude many people who rightly belong to local churches (e.g., those without the requisite theological training). One might reasonably ask the question, "Isn't it as true that members of ETS [and even, dare I say it, of The Gospel Coalition] are as converted as the members of the local church?" Yes, but the exclusions are quite different. In short, our terminological discussion marks out the locus of the local church, and implicitly points to its importance.
(2) The local church, understood along the lines already laid out, is repeatedly shown to be the fulfillment of many trajectories drawn from antecedent revelation. The church is the community of the Messiah ("I will build my church," Jesus says, not simply "I will save a lot of individuals"), calling to mind the assembly in the wilderness (cf. Acts 7:38). This church, in the usage of Peter and of the Apocalypse, is the ultimate kingdom of priests, language ultimately drawn from Exod 19. In its passion to bring Jews and Gentiles together to constitute one new humanity (Eph 2)-and, in principle, men and women from every tongue and people and tribe-it is drawing to fulfillment trajectories set by the promise to Eve, by the Abrahamic covenant, by prophetic voices like that in Isa 19:23-25 and Ps 86:9, by surprising patterns of election already established in OT times to be independent of human merit, and much more.
(3) When the apostle repeatedly speaks of the diversity of gifts in the body (1 Cor 12; cf. Rom 12), the body to which he is referring is the local church (whether in Rome or Corinth), not the universal church. Thus Christians who want to be independent of the local church are (to extend Paul's metaphor) declaring that they are sufficient to themselves, when in fact they are nothing but an eyeball, or an ear, or a big toe. They know little of how the body works together, as each part does its work. In explaining the difference between OT priests and NT pastors, I have often tried to show that the role of the pastor-teacher in the NT is not that of a special-class mediator, but something akin to the role of a stomach within the body: the stomach takes in a lot of food and distributes it to the rest of the body. I lose all my dignity (and, better, any pomposity) when I am seen, not as a priest, but as a stomach. And in this light, ETS is made up of a significant collection of stomachs-but that does not make it a church. And that's one of the reasons why the local church is more important than ETS: it is the body of Christ.
In a similar way, we ought to be alarmed when churches set out to be made up of one race, or one age demographic, or one group of people with an exclusive style of worship, or one economic demographic. The challenge of diversity, already experienced in the early chapters of Acts and in such epistles as Galatians and 1 Corinthians, did not lead the apostles to establish a Jewish church and a Gentile church, but to oppose such trends tooth and nail with an integrating theology. This is much more difficult than establishing a group of Christians made up of some updated version of the homogeneous unit principle much loved a generation ago, but at the end of the day we have to return to what the church is.
(4) So many of our sins are fundamentally relational. To go no farther than the "acts of the flesh" listed in Gal 5, the listed sins are grouped: three might be dubbed sexual (sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery), some are tied to paganism (idolatry and witchcraft), two are tied to excess (drunkenness and orgies), and all the rest reflect social dysfunction (hatred discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy). Sanctification that mortifies such sins simply cannot take place in splendid isolation, nor even with a group of socially acceptable peers. It takes place in the church, made up of people some of whom are unlike us and with whom we would have little in common, people who would certainly not be our friends, much less our brothers and sisters, were it not for the grace of God in the gospel.
(5) A properly functioning church, precisely because it is concerned for the whole church, is concerned for each member of the church. That includes not only discipline in the ultimate sense, but mutual admonition, the instructions of the church-recognized pastors, the kinds of correction, mutual encouragement, instruction in righteousness, and rebuke that equips the servant of God for every good work. Inevitably, this means more than a sermon a week. It means, to pick up language from Acts, studying and teaching from house to house, and examining the Scriptures to see if these things are so.
Indeed, it means a full-orbed teaching ministry, a teaching and living out of the whole counsel of God. Specialist parachurch ministries may have their place-I'll come to that in a moment-but they tend to focus on one or a few areas of biblical truth, sometimes to the exclusion of complementary biblical truths. To take an interesting example, the recent and challenging essay by Andrew Heard, "A Dangerous Passion for Growth," makes a telling point.3 Our passion to evangelize and grow may become dangerous if it becomes so driven by pragmatics that, in the name of winning more people, we start to trim or domesticate the gospel (after all, we don't want to offend anyone, so we'll stop talking about hell), or prove unconcerned about putting the flesh to death, or about sanctification and the building up of the body. But it is the local church that is much more likely to preserve this balance. A parachurch ministry whose goal is outreach is far less likely to perceive the dangers because it does not see itself as responsible for building the entire local church.
(6) Perhaps it should be said that this vision of the local church becomes progressively more important as our culture loses whatever Judeo-Christian moorings it held in the past. It was not that long ago that the Ten Commandments were widely viewed as healthy societal norms. Marriage between one man and one woman, with a vow to preserve it "as long as we both shall live," were seen as good things, and the laws of the state tended to back such ideals. But just as Dorothy is no longer in Kansas, we are no longer in the 1950s. Even then, we needed more biblical teaching than we sometimes thought we did, but now the urgency is even more pressing. We need to build a Christian counter-culture, local churches that, however much they preserve lines of civility, courtesy, and communication with the larger world, nevertheless live differently, radically differently. And it takes teaching, lots of it, to shape a faithful, fruitful, gospel-centered, Bible-shaped counter-culture. To take but one small example: R. R. Reno has recently written an essay, "A Time to Rend," in which he argues, "In the past the state recognized marriage, giving it legal forms to reinforce its historic norms. Now the courts have redefined rather than recognized marriage, making it an institution entirely under the state's control. That's why it's now time to stop talking of civil marriage and instead talk about government marriage-calling it what it is."4 He then teases out some of the implications. But none of this will prove convincing to millions of ordinary Christians unless the local church builds mental structures that are shaped by what the Word says about men and women, marriage, and the like. Many Christians are being sucked into exegetically irresponsible views on many topics-money, the purpose of life, suffering, prosperity, sex, joy, and much more-for lack of teaching. It is the local church that constitutes the body of the counter-culture. Or, to put the matter another way, the church is the body that is not only getting ready for the new heavens and the new earth, but, owing to the drumbeat of inaugurated eschatology in the Scripture, it is the outpost of the new heavens and the new earth. That demands a much more holistic and organic view of Christian life and thought than we have sometimes imagined. But that is the view of the church that courses its way through the NT.
(7) If we hold that the sacraments/ordinances are a mark of the church, we must stop treating them as optional extras. And similarly, we should avoid treating them as the prerogatives of individuals. A friend of mine likes to tell the story of how a Christian in his purview led someone to Christ on a beach in California. She promptly took her friend out into the sea and baptized her. Her zeal was wholly admirable, but if Philip in Samaria is happy to see the arrival of Peter and John tie together his new converts with the mother church, perhaps we ought to reflect a little more on how sacraments/ordinances function ecclesiologically. Much more needs to be said on that theme, but I rush forward for want of space.
(8) The Bible asserts that "Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her" (Eph 5:25). The context of Ephesians strongly suggests that Paul has both the universal church and the local church in mind-or, better put, the assembly of the local church is a kind of outcropping in history of the assembly of the church of the living God already gathered in solemn assembly before the throne in union with Christ. This is true of several passages that presuppose a porous interface between the universal church and the local church. For example, in Matt 16, Jesus says, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it," while two chapters later disputants are to tell it to the church, which can scarcely be the universal church. The local church is the historical manifestation, under the new covenant, of this massive, blood-bought assembly. It is characterized by certain marks and order, yet behind it all lies the love of God, the love and sacrifice of the Son, and the life-giving and transforming power of the Spirit. It is important to see the place of individual conversion in the NT, and that might be particularly important to emphasize in cultures that think in terms of people movements, tribal movements (as, for example, in northern India). But always, and not least in the individualistic West, it is important to underscore the corporate vision of the church, embodied in the local church, that repeatedly surfaces in the Scriptures.
None of what I have said should be taken as a plea to abolish TGC, 9Marks, White Horse Inn, or even ETS. Were we to do so, we would also have to abolish Westminster Theological Seminary, SIM, Christian schools, Tyndale House, Feed the Children, Crossway, and a host of other parachurch organizations. Arguably, some of these organizations God has raised up to strengthen the church. Many of those who work in such organizations put in more hours each week in these organizations than they do in their local church-as I do in connection with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and The Gospel Coalition, though I am a member of a local church in the town where I live. But I believe with every fiber of my being that such organizations must serve the church, not the reverse, or they lose their raison d'être. What is especially to be deplored are those specialist, focused parachurch ministries that operate with the arrogance that condescendingly tells the church to follow the lead of the parachurch organization. What is to be pursued is the interest and glory of Christ and his gospel, which is irrefragably tied up with his blood-bought church, the church he is resolved to build until the consummation, when current tensions between the universal church and the local church will be no more.