We're beginning a new C-group series at Karis, reading and discussing Mark Dever's new book What Is A Healthy Church? My plan is to blog a summary of each night's discussion, helping participants understand the lesson's point, as well as assisting those who for some reason or other had to miss the discussion. What is a Christian? Is it just someone who has a personal relationship with Jesus? Or does it go beyond that? Look at the storyline of the Bible and you never see a person alone worshipping God. You do briefly with Adam, and God says, "It's not good for man to be alone." And He makes Eve. The Lord has always dealt with communities. And this makes sense, of course, given the doctrine of the Trinity. God eternally dwells in community: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When we dwell in loving community, we image the Godhead.
We see this come through in Matthew 22:34-40. When Jesus is asked to summarize true religion, he emphasizes both a vertical dimension (loving God) and a horizontal dimension (loving others). Ephesians 2, after painting a beautiful picture of our redemption by grace through faith unto good works (vv. 1-10), places that relationship with Christ squarely in the context of community (vv. 11-22). So to the question, "Is Jesus all you need?" I give an intentionally provocative answer. In most cases, no! Sure, we can point to the example of being stranded on a deserted island. Yes, God would meet our every need there. But I don't know of anyone who is a castaway worshipper. Most of us were made to dwell in, and even need community.
So being a Christian isn't being simply united with Jesus. It's being made part of a community. The biblical metaphors of the household, the fellowship, and the body reinforce this idea. Becoming a Christian means being made a part of the church. The Bible gives no other option. Can you be a Christian and not be a part of Christian community? I say quite forcefully, "No!" At least not for very long.
Most Christians have heard of the theological distinction between the universal church (all Christians in all times and in all places) and the local church (some Christians in some time in some place). That distinction is helpful. However, the vast majority of uses of "church" in the Bible refer to a local gathering of believers who covenant together for worship and mission. Josh Harris, in Stop Dating the Church, uses the phrase, "Think globally; live locally." Yes, we should be "world Christians," but we can easily hide behind that idea, shying away from the commitment God desires for us on a local level. So, in a real sense, if the world is our church, then really no one is at the same time. God wants our lives linked up with real, alive, flesh and blood Christians that stink and get under our skin and frustrate us, while often giving us much joy, as well.
1 John 3:11-18 and 4:7-21 teaches that love is essential for a Christian. In fact, it says that if you don't love people, you're not a Christian. You're a liar. The passages teach what some call the Edwardian conversion paradigm (true conversion results in genuine affection for God and genuine affection, or heart-felt love, for the brethren). Don't love your brother? You really don't love God. That's what John is saying here. Now, I would argue that it's easy to love the universal church. What's hard is when you link your arms with those wretched, yet beautiful, people right there in your town-- people like me. People in Uganda don't easily make you mad. But Bob or Susie who shows up 30 minutes late for your appointments-- they are harder to love.
Let's take another angle. Think about how love looks like in the context of commitment versus when that commitment is lacking. My wife knows me, and knows me well. You think I'm a nice enough guy, but you don't see all the ugly sides she does. It's not as if I'm trying to be a hypocrite. I just don't bring out all the skeletons on Sunday morning for you to see. I was frustrating Rob the past couple of weeks, and I told him, "The closer you get to me, the more I'll frustrate you, and the more you'll see my sins." I know that applies to him, as well. See, with commitment comes vulnerability. With vulnerability comes the opportunity to truly love. In other words, if you love the Kevin Larson of your imagination, that might not be too hard. But to love the Kevin Larson-- that's another thing. All of us desperately want to be truly known for who we really are behind closed doors and then be truly loved despite all our our faults. But to get to that point, there must be commitment. When I dated my wife, she really didn't know me. I put on my best game face on date nights. I didn't want to lose her. But after marriage, she saw the bed head and bad attitudes. And she still loves me. And she can't go anywhere. That's love, friends!
At Karis, we will emphasize membership greatly. We will try to convince people that the commitment they are running from is exactly what their heart so desperately wants. True community will only come through commitment, because only through giving your lives to each other can you be known truly and loved completely. However, we have to understand that our society's individualism and consumerism leave people really isolated on one hand and unable to understand church membership on the other. So we'll have to be patient and kind, while holdly strongly to the idea that telling someone to stop dating the church is the most loving thing we can possibly do.