So far in this Christianity 101 series, our topics have been mainly centered on an individual’s relationship with God. Not only must individual Christians learn to love God, we must learn to love other people and we must also learn to be loved by other Christians.
While Christianity must always be personal, it must be lived out within a Christianity community, specifically within a local church. So what is the church? Why is the church so important for our personal transformation? And how can we love other Christians and be loved by them in the context of a local church?
What Is the Church?
Life is a journey not meant to be traveled alone. Before time even existed, God has lived within the community of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God did not need to create humans, but he chose to make because of his love and desire to share his life with others. Therefore, since we are made in God’s image, it should be no surprise to learn that humans were made to have meaningful relationships not only with God but also with other humans.
When God created Adam, the two of them had a perfect relationship with each other that was unblemished by sin. But even then God knew Adam needed another human to share life with, “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Genesis 2:28). God not only created Adam and Eve, he also gave them the ability to reproduce and populate the earth with more humans.
It was God’s intention for people to love and live with other people in healthy communities. Sin, however, ruined all this. Cain and Able, sons of Adam and Eve, are examples of what has continued to happen in human relationships because of the sin within the human heart. Cain grew jealous of Able, there was conflict between them, and eventually Cain killed Able (Genesis 4).
Since sin has been introduced into human relationships, there has been a lot of problems between people, races, and countries. Conflict is the norm now. This is why God has created a new, chosen people who are unified through Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26-29).
The gospel certainly affects individuals. To become a Christian is a personal decision between you and God. While transformation and our relationship with God must be personal, Christianity must not be private. As soon as you are converted, God transfers you into his family full of his other sons and daughters. God calls his family the church.
The church is described in many ways throughout the Bible. It is called the Bride, the family of God, Jesus’ flock of sheep, God’s holy nation, a kingdom of priests, and the body of Christ. The “body of Christ” is an especially helpful metaphor because it highlights the importance of each church member and what they individually contribute to the whole. Everyone is different. Everyone has different skills. And this is good. God uses this diversity to advance his kingdom for his glory:
Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, 5 so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.
6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. (Romans 12:4-8)
As a Christian, God has called you to live within a community of other believers. They are supposed to help you through life as you seek to live for God’s glory, and you are supposed to help them as they seek to do the same. Every Christian does not have a choice to be a part of God’s Universal Church. If you are a Christian, you are a part of his body, the church. However, the Universal Church is expressed in a local contexts. This is where each Christian must actively pursue participation within a local church.
Being a part of a local church is not an option for a Christian since it is a command by God. God has commanded each Christian to be a part of a specific church, not just the Universal Church (Hebrews 10:25, Colossians 3:16, John 17:20-21). God’s commands are always for our good. God commands us to be a part of local church because he knows how impossible it will be for us to live life without the support of pastors, other believers, and a community of diverse Christians.
There are many qualities to look for in a good church. However, if you were to look for the most basic markers of a biblical church, there are two specific things to look for: 1. A true church will meet regularly to preach the word of God to a group of believers. 2. A true church will regularly perform the two biblical sacraments of communion and baptism. Mark Dever explains:
How do you know if what calls itself a church is indeed a church? Christians in the past thought about this. They developed the idea of “the marks of the church,” that is, the characteristics that distinguish truly Christian churches. The Protestant Reformers concluded that there are two of these: the right preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”
There are many other things a healthy church must do to effectively lead and love its members. Churches vary widely on how they operate practically and in ministry. But to be a biblical Christian church, they must at least do these two things.
Why Is the Church So Important for Your Personal Transformation?
If you’ve ever played sports or competed in any type of competition, you know that the “home field advantage” is a big help. For example: In the NBA Finals when two teams are playing in a decisive winner-take-all game seven, the home team is 15-4. When comparing a country’s medal counts between the Olympics before hosting compared to the year they did host the Olympics, the host country’s medal count increased on average by twenty, with gold medal wins increasing on average by ten.
The same is true in life. God designed us to need other people and to be needed by other people. Both helping other Christians and being helped by other Christians are crucial for a healthy walk with God. We all know we function better when we have people supporting us, rooting for us, and helping us when we get bogged down.
Proverbs 13:20 says, “Walk with the wise and become wise; associate with fools and get in trouble.” 1 Corinthians 15:33 (NIV) explains, “Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character.” As one popular phrase puts it, “Show me your friends and I will show you your future.”
Walking through life with other Christians is key for transformation. As we have discussed throughout this study, justification happens in a moment, but sanctification takes a lifetime. There will be many ups and downs on this journey of sanctification. To live a full life for God, you need people to celebrate the highs with you and support you through the lows.
Additionally, to live a full life, you must also be there for other people. As Paul said in Acts 20:35, “And I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
When we sin, other Christians should be there to help us through it and you should be there for others in their times of need as well. James 5:16, 19-20 states:
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.
. . . My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, 20 you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.
Without the support of others and being a support to others, the lure of sin is that much more tempting to us. 2 Timothy 2:22 also gives us great advice:
Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts.”
As we can see, the health of our relationships with other people who are also pursuing the Lord directly affects our own walk with God. We need other people, and other people need us.
Lastly, a local church is so important for your personal growth because we must remember what we are seeking to grow towards. The aim of our lives as Christians is now to glorify God. To glorify God we must reflect him. And to reflect God, we must live in a community of other believers because God is a relational God. In John 17:20-21, Jesus prayed on our behalf to the Father:
I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. 21 I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”
To be transformed means to bear the image of God. And to bear the image of God, we must show unity with other believers. When we show unity as Christians, this helps the world around us see God. When others see God reflected in our lives, God is glorified and others are benefited. Therefore, being a part of local church is vital for our mission to glorify God and to be transformed into his image.
How to Love and Be Loved By a Local Church?
The phrase “church membership” is not found in the Bible; however, it is a principle found in Scripture. Much like other theological words like “Trinity” that are not found in Scripture but describe a truth seen in the Bible, “church membership” is a truth seen in a variety of passages. For example, Hebrews 13:7, 17 says:
Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith. . . . 17 Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit.
Notice the words “your leaders.” This means there are leaders in one church that are different leaders from another church. God expects us to be committed to a specific local church with specific pastors and church members. As a member of a local church, you have obligations to “your” leaders and other church members in a different way than you do towards the pastors and church members from the local church down the street.
So the first way to be a part of local church is to commit to a specific group of Christians and leaders. You don’t have to use the words “church membership” and your local church may change sometimes for varying reasons. But in general, you should have a specific church who is committed to your well-being and you are committed to their well-being.
Being a part of a local church is a relationship. To have successful relationships, there must be mutual respect, give-and-take, and common bonds that keep you together. All the principles that apply to having a healthy relationship with a person apply to having a healthy relationship with your church. One of the best places for advice on having a healthy relationship with other Christians and a local church is found in Romans 12:1-18. It reads:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. 2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
3Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. 4 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, 5 so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.
6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.
9 Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!
17 Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
Romans 12:1-2 starts with personal transformation. To love others well and to be in healthy relationships, it all starts with our personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We must be filled with God’s love before we haven any love to give. This transformation process is something every Christian should be doing together, “And so, dear brothers and sisters. . .” (Romans 12:1).
Romans 12:3 talks about the need for humility and a lack of comparing yourself to others. We must not think too highly of ourselves if we want to have good relationships with others.
Romans 12:4-8 highlights the need for mutual respect and using our gifts to serve others. God has blessed us with unique talents and gifts not to exalt ourselves but to love other people. Offering your service to other Christians is very important if you want to be a part of a healthy local church.
Romans 12:9-13 explains the importance of love in the local church. We all know when love is not genuine. We can’t control what others do, but we can seek to offer genuine love to others through the power God gives us through his Spirit. Be ready to help others. If you go to church with an attitude of service and generosity, you will always get more in return than you give out.
Romans 12:14-18 is all about dealing with conflict. To have a long and healthy relationship with anyone, including with a local church, we must learn to be peacemakers when conflict arises. No matter how good your church is, no matter how stable its foundation, and no matter how well intentioned the people involved, conflict always happens. We must be prepared to meet conflict head-on with love, biblical wisdom, and a heart seeking reconciliation whenever possible.
In summary, being a part of a local church will be one of the hardest things you do but also one of the best. If we want to live the Christian life well and be transformed for the glory of God, being a part of a local church is vitally important.