|LIFE IN JESUS-MINISTRIES
|THE BODY OF CHRIST
I AM REVEALED
Sep 29 2013
THE ROOM WAS PACKED FULL OF PEOPLE, and the preacher held the audience in the palm of his hand. “I would
like everyone to bow your heads and close your eyes,” he said, and we all followed suit.
He then declared, “Tonight, I want to call you to put your faith in God. Tonight, I am urging you to begin a personal
relationship with Jesus for the first time in your life. Let me be clear,” he said, “I’m not inviting you to join the church... I'm
just inviting you to come to Christ.” As the preacher passionately pleaded for personal decisions, scores of people
stood from their seats and walked down the aisles of the auditorium to make a commitment to Christ.
Yet there was a problem in all of this. These people had been deceived. They had been told that it is possible to make
a commitment to Christ apart from a commitment to the church. The reality, however, is that it’s biblically impossible to
follow Christ apart from joining his church. In fact, anyone who claims to be a Christian yet is not an active member of a
church may not actually be a follower of Christ at all.
To some, maybe many, this may sound heretical. “Are you saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian?”
You might ask. Absolutely not. Joining a church most certainly does not make someone a Christian.
At the same time, to identify your life with the person of Christ is to join your life with the people of Christ. To surrender
your life to his commands is to commit your life to his church. It is biblically, spiritually, and practically impossible to be a
disciple of Christ (and much less make disciples of Christ) apart from total devotion to a family of Christians.
But so many people think it is possible – and they try to live like it’s possible. It has even become a mark of spiritual
maturity today for some professing Christians to not be active in a church. “I’m in love with Jesus,” people will say, “but I
just can’t stand the church.”
Isn’t the church the bride of Christ? What if I said to you, “Man, I love you, but have I ever told you how much I can’t
stand your wife?” Would you take that as a compliment?
Similarly, isn’t the church the body of Christ? What if my wife said to me, “David, I love you, but I can’t stand your
body”? I can assure you that I wouldn’t take that as a compliment.
It’s impossible to follow Jesus fully without loving his bride selflessly, and it’s impossible to think that we can enjoy Christ
apart from his body. Jesus goes so far as to identify the church with himself when he asks Saul on the road to
Damascus, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul hadn’t persecuted Christ himself, but he had
persecuted Christians, so in essence Jesus was saying, “When you mess with them, you mess with me.”
To come to Christ is to become part of his church. Followers of Jesus have the privilege of being identified with his
family. As we die to ourselves, we live for others, and everything Christ does in us begins to affect everyone Christ puts
around us. Recognizing this reality and experiencing the relationships that God has designed for his people specifically
in the church are essential to being a disciple and making disciples of all nations.
WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
Unfortunately, as we have diluted what it means to be a Christian in our day, we have also skewed what it means to be a
church. The majority of people in America associate a church with a physical building.
“Where is your church?” people may ask, or “Where to you go to church?” It is common today for a pastor to spend
millions of dollars renovating and rebuilding his “church.” Construction teams of Christians travel overseas to
impoverished countries to build “churches.” Planting a “church” in our day has become almost synonymous with finding
or erecting a building.
We not only identify buildings as churches; we also classify churches according to the programs they offer. This church
has a creative children’s program, that church has a cool student ministry, these churches have great resources for
married couples, and those churches have helpful group meetings for people who are divorced. Churches often revolve
around programs for every age and stage of life.
Association and identification of the church with buildings and programs reflects an overtly consumer-driven, customer-
designed approach that we have devised for attracting people to the “church.” In order to have an effective, successful
“church,” we need an accessible building with nice grounds and convenient parking. Once people get to the building, we
need programs that are customized for people’s children, music that is attractive to people’s tastes, and sermons that
are aimed at people’s needs. When taken to the extreme, this means that when people come to “church,” they need a
nice parking space, a latte waiting for them when they walk through the door, a themed preschool ministry with a custom-
built slide, a state-of-the-art program that provides entertainment for teenagers, a top-notch band that plays great
music, and a feel-good presentation by an excellent preacher who wraps things up in a timely fashion at the end of the
But is all of this what God had in mind when he set up his church? Identification of churches with buildings may seem
common to us, but it’s foreign to the New Testament, where we never once see the church described as a physical
building. Similarly, the New Testament never once portrays the church as a conglomeration of customized programs.
So much of what we associate with the church today is extrabiblical at best (it adds to what God’s Word says) and
unbiblical at worst (it undercuts what God’s Word says).
When you turn through the pages of the New Testament, you see a very different picture of the church. Instead of a
building, you see a body made up of members and a family made up of brothers and sisters who together have died to
themselves and are living in Christ. Christians are joined together by Jesus’ death, his Spirit, his gospel, his sufferings,
and his life (See I Corinthians 10:16; II Corinthians 13-14; Philippians 1:5; 3:10; and I John 1:3-7, respectively).
Biblically, a church does not consist of people who simply park and participate in programs alongside one another.
Instead, the church is comprised of people who share the life of Christ with each other on a day-by-day, week-by-week
This is the pattern that was set between Jesus and his disciples from the beginning. Jesus loved these twelve men,
served them, taught them, encouraged them, corrected them, and journeyed through life with them. He spent more time
with these twelve disciples than he did with everyone else in his ministry put together. They walked together along lonely
roads; they visited together in crowded cities; they sailed and fished together on the Sea of Galilee; they prayed
together in the desert and on the mountains; and they worshiped together in the synagogues and at the Temple. During
all of this time together, Jesus taught them how to live and showed them how to love as he shared his life with them.
In the same way, the New Testament envisions followers of Jesus living alongside one another for the sake of one
another. The Bible portrays the church as a community of Christians who care for one another, love one another, host
one another, receive one another, honor one another, serve one another, instruct one another, forgive one another,
motivate one another, build up one another, encourage one another, comfort one another, pray for one another,
confess sin to one another, esteem one another, edify one another, teach one another, show kindness to one another,
give to one another, rejoice with one another, weep with one another, hurt with one another, and restore one another
(See: for caring, I Corinthians 12:25; loving, John 13:34-35; hosting, I Peter 4:9; receiving, Romans15:7; honoring,
Romans 12:10; serving, Galatians 5:13; instructing, Romans 15:14; forgiving, Colossians 3:13; motivating, Hebrews 10:
24; building up, I Thessalonians 5:13; encouraging, I Thessalonians 5:11; comforting, II Corinthians 1:3-7; praying for
and confessing sin to, James 5:16; esteeming, Philippians 2:3; edifying, Romans 14:19; teaching, Colossians 3:16;
showing kindness to, Ephesians 4:32; giving to, Acts 2:45 and II Corinthians 8-9; weeping with, Romans 12:15; rejoicing
with, I Corinthians 12:27; restoring, Galatians 6:1-5 and Matthew 18:15-20).
All of these “one anothers” combined together paint a picture not of people who come to a building filled with customized
programs but of people who have decided to lay down their lives to love one another. On behalf of Silas, Timothy, and
himself, Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, “We live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” (I Thessalonians 3:8,
ESV). Paul, Silas, and Timothy had given their lives to see these Christians stand firm in Christ. Similarly, he called the
Philippian Christians “brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown.” (Philippians 4:1, ESV). The church is a
community of Christians who love one another and long for each other to know and grow in Christ.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF COMMUNITY
This picture thus leads the church to approach community very differently from the rest of the world. Interestingly, in the
Gospels, Jesus only talks with his disciples specifically about the church on two occasions. The first time is in Matthew
16, when Peter confesses Christ as Lord and Jesus responds that the church will be built on that confession. Then, two
chapters later, Jesus’ only other instructions concerning the church pertain to church discipline and restoration.
According to Jesus, when a brother or sister is wandering into sin, caught in sin, or unrepentant in sin, then the church
should confront that person and pull him or her back to Christ. In Matthew 18, Jesus outlines a process for such
restoration that eventually leads to removing unrepentant sinners from the church altogether, if necessary (a process we
see enacted in places like I Corinthians 5).
Jesus’ teaching on church discipline and restoration should jump off the pages of the Bible in front of us. This is not
number 100 on a list of 101 things that Jesus says we should do as his people. This is at the top of the list, right after
the importance of confessing him as Lord. Church discipline is not optional; it is essential.
Yet we treat it like it’s optional. Images of holy police on the prowl looking for anyone who gets out of line convince us
that this is just not a good idea. So we easily create all kinds of reasons for ignoring discipline within the church.
It’s legalistic, we say. It contradicts God’s grace. Don’t you know Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you
too will be judged”? Who do you think you are to point out sin in someone else’s life when your own life is far from
perfect? And won’t people leave the church if we start disciplining disciples of Jesus? It’s probably not a
recommendation at the top of the church growth plans for a church to start advertising, “We’re a church that disciplines
I was eating lunch with a fellow pastor recently, talking about how we were trying to implement a process for church
discipline and restoration in the church I pastor, and he said to me, “I’d love to hear how that goes. Give me a call in a
few weeks if you’re still there.”
Well, by God’s grace, I’m still here, and though the church I pastor has a long way to go in fully implementing this
process, I’m more firmly convinced than ever that such discipline and restoration is essential for every disciple of Christ
and every church that claims his name. Sure, if it’s handled wrongly, it can become legalistic. But if handled biblically,
church discipline and restoration is one of the clearest expressions of the love of God on earth.
We live in a day when it’s easy, popular, and even preferred for people to sit back and say, “Well, what other people do
is between them and God. Their sin is their life, their decision, and their responsibility.” But aren’t you glad this isn’t how
God responds to us? Aren’t you glad that God pursues us despite our sin and pulls us away from that which destroys
us? And don’t we want people in our lives who will love us enough to look out for us when we begin to walk down a road
of sinful destruction?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing
can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Life Together [New York: Harper & Row, 1954], 107). In his classic book the Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer addresses
the easy believism that had run rampant in the church in his day, and he calls Christians back to what it really means to
follow Christ. He writes about the preciousness of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness for sinners, and he describes how
these realities mustn’t be cheapened by casual approaches to sin in the church. He says:
Church sins against its sacred trust and walks unworthily of the gospel. It is an unholy Church, squandering the
precious treasure of the Lord’s forgiveness. Nor is it enough simply to deplore in general terms that the sinfulness
of man infects even his good works. It is necessary to point out concrete sins, and to punish and condemn
them…It is essential for the Church to exercise [discipline], for the sake of holiness, for the sake of the sinner and
for its own sake. If the Church is to walk worthily of the gospel, part of its duty will be to maintain ecclesiastical
discipline. Sanctification means driving out the world from the Church as well as separating the Church from the
men [and women] who really live under the forgiving mercy of God. Discipline in a congregation is a servant of the
precious grace of God (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship [New York: Touchstone, 1959], 288).
God is a gracious Father who seeks after his wandering children, and we reflect his grace when we care for brothers
and sisters who are caught in sin.
People may reference Matthew 7:1, but we need to keep reading all the way down to Matthew 7:5. After warning his
disciples not to judge “the speck” of sin in someone else’s eye when that same sin is “a plank” in their own eyes, Jesus
then tells them, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your
brother’s eye.” Obviously, God alone has ultimate authority to judge. Yet in Matthew 7:5, Jesus tells his disciples to
remove sin in their own lives and then help others remove sin from their lives. The last thing we need to do when a
brother or sister is continually walking into sin is to say, “Well, it’s not my place to judge.”
I know I have blind spots in my life, and I know I am prone to sin, so I have told the people closest to me, “If you see me
walking into sin, caught in sin, or being pulled into sin, please don’t use super-spiritual jargon as an excuse for not
helping. Pull me back!”
In I Corinthians 5, we learn about a man in the church who was involved in unrepentant and gross sexual immorality (he
was sleeping with his mom). Paul told the church at Corinth that they needed to confront this man concerning his sin,
and if this man continued to be unrepentant, he needed to be removed from the church altogether. What’s particularly
interesting in this passage is the way in which God holds the members of the church accountable for that man’s sin.
Certainly, the members of the church were not accountable for committing the sexual immorality, but they were
accountable for not addressing it in their midst.
This clearly goes completely against the grain of the way we think. We take a much more individualistic approach to sin.
“That sin is that brother’s problem,” we say to ourselves and each other. But that’s exactly what the church at Corinth
was saying, and Paul rebuked them for it. This man’s sin was that church’s problem.
This reality is central to understanding the beauty of biblical, Christ-centered community. In the church, we belong to
one another and care for one another in such a way that we are responsible for one another. Being a member of a
church means so much more than standing next to someone else and singing some songs once a week. Being a
member of a church means realizing that we are responsible for helping the brothers and sisters around us to grow as
disciples of Jesus. In the same way, they‘re responsible for helping us. We desperately need each other in the daily
fight to follow Christ in a world that’s full of sin.
But won’t some people leave the church (or avoid the church altogether) if we start practicing discipline the way Jesus
talks about? Possibly, but we need to remember that the church is Christ’s body to grow, not ours. I can think of all
kinds of things to do that will draw a bigger crowd in the church I pastor. Soften the message. Play cool, secular music.
Pass out money. Do a series on sex (seems to be the new fad today). Do something innovative and catchy to draw
them in. We can spend our time and resources in the church trying to do what we think is best, or we can spend our
time and resources in the church trusting that God knows what is best.
I think about Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 and wonder why his initial instruction concerning the church wasn’t about
creating an environment where people feel warm and welcome, but instead about creating a community where sin is
confronted simply, openly, and severely.
Likewise, I wonder why, at the very beginning of the church in Jerusalem, God would actually execute a couple of church
members on the spot for their sin. Have you ever noticed Acts 5? In the early days of the church, when it was growing
like wildfire and thousands of people were coming to Christ, we learn about Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck
dead for their dishonesty. Talk about discipline! God dealt directly with sin in his church, and we can only imagine the
effects. You’re probably not going to draw a lot of new (or old) people to your church when people are dying during your
“How do you make the church grow?”
“Oh, you have God kill a couple of people during the offering. That will do it every time.”
When I read this story, I can’t help but think, What is God doing? Is he trying to prevent the church from growing?
But then I read Acts 5:13-14, and I am astounded by what it says. Right after Ananias and Sapphira died, Luke tells us,
“No one else dared join [the believers], even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and
more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” This is how God grows the church:
through holiness in Christians. God grows his church by creating disciples who are serious about reflecting the
righteousness of God and honoring the holiness of God.
We must not buy into the ludicrous ideas that we need to make it easy for people to join the church, hide a commitment
to holiness from members in the church, or dumb down talk about the seriousness of sin in the church. If we do these
things, we may draw a crowd, but we will miss the very point of the church. Anybody can draw a crowd, but the church is
All throughout history, God has purposed to raise up a people who by his grace are so holy and so pure and so
abandoned in their obedience to him that they dread the thought of disobedience. A people who are so serious about
sin that they help each other to avoid it at every turn because they know how dangerous and deadly it is. God has
determined to display his character through a distinct people who show a watching world that he is great, holy, powerful,
and pure (See especially Ezekiel 36:22-23; I Peter 2:9).
Some may ask, “Well, where is grace in all of this talk of discipline?” And the answer is clear: God’s grace is at the heart
of church discipline. As disciples of Jesus, we have died to indifference to sin in our own lives and in the lives of people
we love. We know that Christ has paid the ultimate price for our sins, and the last thing we want to do is to treat his
death as if it is not most precious to us. When we tolerate sin in our lives or in the church, we trample on the sacrifice of
Christ. We don’t just follow a Savior who pardons our sin; we follow a Savior who purifies us from sin. And we treasure
his death enough to treat sin seriously in his church.
For far too long, we have disregarded Christ’s commands in the name of church growth. We have ignored passages like
Matthew 18, Acts 5, and I Corinthians 5, pretending that our catchphrases and creative programs are more effective
means for drawing people to the church. As a result, the credit for growth in contemporary Christianity today most often
goes to the most pioneering pastor with the most innovative church and the most appealing worship service. It is high
time for this to change so that credit for growth in the church can only go to the great and holy God of the universe who
displays his glory by inexplicably drawing sinners to himself through the purity of people who’ve been bought by his
DATING THE CHURCH
The church is a community of Christians who care for one another enough to discipline one another in sin and restore
one another in Christ. But if we’re honest, we are extremely hesitant to share our lives like this. As a result, Christians
today are slow to make any commitment to meaningful membership in the church.
When I was a junior in high school, I hadn’t had much success on the relationship front. Truth be told, I hadn’t had any
success on the relationship front. Until this one girl came to a camp I attended. Word got around that she thought I was
cute, and I thought, Hmmm…there’s a girl who thinks I’m cute. What should I do? I started talking to her, and then I got
the nerve up to ask her to go out with me and some friends. By God’s grace, she said yes.
We started dating, which consisted of talking on the phone every day and spending time together in different settings,
and everything was going well until one night. I decided that I wasn’t up for talking on the phone every day anymore,
and I didn’t really want to work at this relationship. I had plenty of other things going on in my life, so I told this girl that
God, my family, and my schoolwork were more important to me than her. Yes, schoolwork. Needless to say, my lone
dating experience didn’t last very long.
That is, until this girl started dating a close friend of mine. Then I thought, What was I thinking? Thankfully, in the days
to come, I had the opportunity to get to know this girl all over again, to the point where we eventually became best
friends and decided to marry each other. Ever since that conversation one night many years ago, my bride has proved
very patient with me.
But what about the bride of Christ? There’s a trend that has developed known as “dating the church.” There’s even a
great book by Joshua Harris (who, by the way, has written some excellent things about dating in our culture) titled Stop
Dating the Church! This phrase “dating the church” is a reference to how in our consumer-driven church market we’ve
developed the practice of hopping from one church to the next, attending this church or that church based on how we
feel on that particular Sunday morning, or maybe just substituting other spiritual activities for the church in our lives.
After all, we’re Christians. We’re a part of the church around the world. Why would we need to commit to our local
We date the church for a variety of reasons. We’re independent, self-reliant, self-sufficient people, and the thought of
mutual submissions, accountability, and interdependence seems foreign, if not outright frightening. In addition, we’re
indecisive. We date different churches because we can’t decide on the one we really like. It’s a consumer mentality
applied to church shopping: looking for the best product with the best price on Sunday morning. We’re always looking
for the better deal, which often leads to a fairly critical attitude toward the church. We can find something wrong with
every church we visit, and even when we do settle down somewhere, we’re ever cognizant of the things we don’t like.
On the whole, we’re often indifferent. Is joining and committing to a local church really that big of a deal? Isn’t it just a
formality, and an unnecessary formality at that? Many professing Christians simply have no idea why dating the church
would be wrong and why devotion to the church would be necessary.
It seems like the church itself has contributed to this mentality, though it hasn’t always been this way. There have been
times in church history when membership in the church was extremely important for Christians. Today, however scores
of people would tell me that the last thing I need to be talking about in this book is church membership (assuming that I
want anyone to read this book). They would tell me that church membership just doesn’t mean much today. For
example, one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States boasts over forty-three thousand churches with
a total of sixteen million members. Yet the average weekly attendance in all of those churches together is approximately
six million people. That seems like a lot of people sick every Sunday. Clearly, church membership doesn’t mean that
In light of all these factors, a lot of people conclude that we should just do away with the whole church membership
thing. But according to the Bible, this would be a serious mistake.
MEMBERS OF A BODY
All over the New Testament, the church is described as a body in which Christians are parts, or members. In I
Corinthians 12 alone, Paul refers to Christians ten different times as members of a body: “Just as the body is one and
has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit
we were all baptized into one body.” He continues, “The body does not consist of one member but of many…God
arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose…As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” Then
he concludes, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Corinthians 12:12-27, ESV, emphasis
At this point, you might think, Well, of course, we’re all members of the body of Christ, meaning the universal body of
Christ. Everyone who believes in Christ is a part of the global body of Christ. And that’s true. Whenever we come to
faith in Christ, we join with followers of Christ all over the world and throughout all history. But is that all that Scripture
It doesn’t seem so. Yes, the Bible often talks about the universal church, referring to all Christians of all time. Take the
book of Ephesians, for example, where Paul includes nine separate references to the universal church. He writes, “Now
to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,
to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Clearly, Paul is praying that God would receive glory in all believers who are united together in the church throughout all
But references like this in Ephesians to the universal church are nowhere near as common in the bible as are references
to local churches. Out of the 114 times that we see the primary word for the church, ekklesia, in the New Testament, at
least ninety of them refer to specific local gatherings of Christians. For example, the book of Acts includes the phrase
“the church in Jerusalem,” I Corinthians references “the church of God in Corinth,” Galatians addresses “the churches in
Galatia,” and Paul writes two of his letters to “the church of the Thessalonians.” (See Acts 11:22; I Corinthians 1:2;
Galatians 1:2; and I Thessalonians 1:1 and II Thessalonians 1:1, respectively). Other times, the Bible even talks about
churches that meet in certain homes. (See Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 1:2). Paul writes in I Corinthians 16:
19, “The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so
does the church that meets at their house.”
These references to local churches who gather together in specific locations are especially interesting because the Bible
never refers to them as part of the universal church or a section of the global church. Paul never writes “to the part of
the church that meets in Corinth.” Instead, he writes “to the church of God in Corinth,” demonstrating to us throughout
the New Testament that believers are joined together in local bodies of Christ that are tangible, visible expressions of the
universal body of Christ.
The implication is clear. Believers in the Bible were joined together into local bodies. We never once see the New
Testament addressing followers of Christ who don’t belong to a local church. The letters that fill the New Testament are
addressed to particular people who have identified as a church in particular places. As a result, any disciple of Jesus
who honestly reads the New Testament finds him- or herself asking the question, To which local body of believers do I
belong? If Paul were writing a letter to me today, which church would I be associated with as a member?
COMMITTED TO A CHURCH
This association as a member of a local church is massively important for a Christian’s life. Listen to Jesus’ words from
Matthew 18, which we considered earlier:
have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may
be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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. (Matthew 18:15-17,
Notice Jesus’ reference to “the church.” Jesus certainly isn’t saying that if a believer continues unrepentant in sin, then
his sin should be told to the universal body of Christ around the world. Instead, Jesus is referring to a specific local body
of believers of which that brother is a part, or member.
Likewise, when Paul addresses the unrepentant brother we considered earlier from the church at Corinth, he says,
“Expel the wicked man from among you.” (I Corinthians 5:13). Paul is talking here about removing a brother from the
church, and the picture of membership is abundantly clear. A believer is either in the church at Corinth (as a member of
that church) or out of the church at Corinth, and to be out of the church at Corinth (not to be a member of that church)
was an extremely serious thing.
The importance of every Christian being a member of a church is also clear when the Bible talks about church
leadership. In Hebrews 13, Christians are commanded, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep
watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that
would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17). This verse illustrates the importance of church membership on two
For church leaders, this verse is a reminder that God has entrusted believers into their care in a local church. This
verse reminds me personally that I have an accountability before God for the Christians he has entrusted me to pastor.
So who does that include? Am I accountable to God for the care of every single follower of Christ in the universal body
of Christ? Surely not in the same way that I am accountable for every single follower of Christ in the local church that I
pastor. As a pastor of The Church at Brook Hill in Birmingham, I am humbled daily by the unique responsibility and
accountability that I have before God to watch over the souls of the brothers and sisters who are a part of this particular
Similarly, from a Christian’s perspective, Hebrews 13:17 is commanding followers of Christ to obey their leaders. Does
this mean that every Christian is accountable to follow the direction of every Christian leader in the universal body of
Christ? Surely not. This is a specific command for Christians to follow leadership in the local church of which they are a
That may make many Christians uncomfortable, though. Obey my leaders and submit to their authority? As soon as we
hear “obey” and “submit,” our minds wander toward images of authoritarian leaders who force their leadership upon
people or abusive leaders who misuse their positions to take advantage of those they lead. The church is certainly not
blameless on this level in light of seemingly countless stories of church leaders who have been caught stealing money,
committing sexual immorality, or indulging their own pride at the expense of God’s people. Unfortunately, it is likely that
you have been affected personally by such a story.
Further, the idea of submission implies inequality in many minds. People assume that someone who submits must be
inferior, and someone who leads must be superior. But this is not how Scripture views submission. The Bible talks
about how the Son submits to the Father and the Spirit is sent out by the Son, but God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
are all equal in value. Similarly, the Bible exhorts children to submit to their parents, but that doesn’t mean children have
less inherent worth than their moms and dads.
Instead of authoritarian abuse or gross inequality, the Bible gives us a picture of loving leaders who selflessly serve the
church. Jesus tells his disciples that “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:44). Authority in God’s
Kingdom is always a servant authority. (See Acts 20; I Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; I Peter 5:1-5).
According to Scripture, church leaders are servants of Christ, and they are responsible for teaching his truth, not their
own thoughts. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” Leaders in the church
only have authority to lead inasmuch as they are teaching God’s Word, and this is why the author of Hebrews says,
“Obey your leaders.” If leaders are teaching God’s Word, then it only makes sense for followers of Christ to obey
leaders in the church. In doing so, they will be obeying Christ. But as soon as church leaders begin to teach anything
other than God’s Word, they lose their authority to lead God’s people.
Such leaders don’t just teach God’s Word, though; they’re set up by God to show what his Word looks like in action.
The rest of Hebrews 13:7 says, “Consider the outcome of [your leaders’] way of life and imitate their faith.” So God has
given leaders to the church not only to communicate his Word, but also to convey what it looks like in practice so that
Christians have a model for what it means to follow Christ. This is why the qualifications for church leaders in I Timothy 3
and Titus I are so clear: a church leader is intended to be an example worthy of imitation by other Christians.
So is it a good thing for you and me to commit to a church under the leadership of pastors who are faithfully teaching
God’s Word and consistently modeling God’s character? Absolutely. According to Scripture, it’s necessary. This is
God’s good design for every disciple of Jesus.
We could continue to explore the importance of church membership in the New Testament, seeing how church members
are accountable for choosing and appointing leaders in a particular local church (Acts 6:2-6), for making sure the gospel
is preached in their local church (Galatians 1:6-9; II Timothy 4), and for sending out missionaries (Acts 13:1-3).
Hopefully, however, it’s clear enough at this point that the Bible is flying right in the face of American individualism and
church consumerism, bringing every single follower of Christ to ask the question, “Am I an active, accountable member
of a local church?”
The question is not simply, “Is my name in a church membership list somewhere?” or “Do I attend a church
somewhere?” The question is, “Am I committed to a local church where I am sharing life with other followers of Christ in
mutual accountability under biblical leadership for the glory of God?” And according to the New Testament, if I am
casually dating (or altogether ignoring) the local church, then I am living contrary to God’s design for my life as a
Christian. It is impossible to follow Christ apart from commitment to a local church.
LOCAL CHURCH, GLOBAL PURPOSE
And why would we want to live the Christian life apart from the church anyway? Sure, churches are not perfect and they
have all kinds of problems, but isn’t that because we’re in them? If you find a perfect church and join it, be assured that
it won’t be perfect anymore.
If you claim to be a follower of Christ, I encourage you to consider your present commitment to a local church. Are you
sharing your life with other believers in a New Testament kind of way: loving one another, serving one another, caring for
one another, and watching out for one another, even to the point of disciplining and restoring one another when
necessary? Are you serving Christ under the leadership of good, godly pastors who teach God’s Word clearly and
model God’s character faithfully?
I’m humbled and overwhelmed to even ask these questions, for as a pastor I sense the weight of Christ’s design for his
church. As men and women die to themselves and live in Christ, God brings them together as brothers and sisters in a
family of faith. This community of Christians worships with one another regularly, serves one another selflessly, guards
one another graciously, gives to one another generously, and cares for one another compassionately. In such
community, we find ourselves living to see each other stand firm in the Lord.
Further, as we lay down our lives for one another in the church, we express the love of Christ to people in the world.
Jesus told his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one
another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35). God has said
that the world will recognize disciples of Jesus by their distinct love for one another. When Jesus prayed for his followers
before he went to the cross, he said to the Father, “I pray…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me
and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21).
According to Scripture, when people in the world see the life of Christ in the church, they will believe the love of God for
the world. This is yet one more reason why every follower of Christ must be committed to the church: so that the glory of
God might be made known to the world. And even beyond the world. In the book of Ephesians, which focuses heavily
on unity in the church, Paul prays that “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the
ruler and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 3:10). God’s design is to show the greatness of his character
to angels and demons alike through the portrait of his church. His plan is to take men and women like you and me, who
were once objects of his wrath, and transform us into objects of his affection. God brings us to life, forgiven of sin and
filled with his Spirit, and he raises us up to reign with Christ as an eternal pronouncement to the hosts of heaven and the
devils of hell that he is all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful, and worthy of all praise from all people for all time.
This is the ultimate reason why every follower of Christ must be a member of a church: because every disciple of Jesus
desires the glory of God. You may be tempted to think, Well, can’t I live for God’s glory on my own? And there’s
certainly a sense in which we are intended to display the glory of God in everything we do. But the message of God’s
Word is that God’s glory is most majestically displayed not through you or through me, but through us. God raises up
the church and says to all creation in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, “This is the bride and body of my
Son, bought and purchased by his blood, to be my people and receive my power and enjoy my presence and declare
my praise forever and ever.”
It is a privilege to be a part of the church. To come to Christ is to become a member of his community. It is biblically,
spiritually, and practically impossible to be a disciple of Christ (much less make disciples of Christ) apart from total
devotion to a family of Christians. For as Christians lock their arms and lives together with one another in local
churches, nothing has the power to stop the global spread of God’s gospel to the ends of the earth.
FOLLOW ME: A CALL TO DIE. A CALL TO LIVE., by David Platt, Copyright 2013, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.