What is the connection between your Christian life and your church? This is an important question for each of us to consider. Pastor Mark Dever explains that he often opens talks with young people by saying, “If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.” Now there’s an attention-grabbing statement! You might object that you can be a Christian without being a church member, or that joining a church does not make anyone a Christian. That is certainly true, but if you understand what God’s word says about being a Christian, then you’ll see that your relationship to the church is an indicator of the genuineness of your relationship to Christ.
So what does it mean to be a Christian? Well, a Christian is someone who was an enemy of God and yet has been reconciled to God by believing in the finished work of Jesus Christ. What’s more, a Christian has also been reconciled to every other person who has been reconciled to God in Christ, so we might say that a Christian is someone who has become part of the family of God. Pastor Dever explains all of this in greater detail in his little book What Is a Healthy Church?, but one quotation summarizes his point well:
In short, it’s impossible to answer the question what is a Christian? without ending up in a conversation about the church; at least, in the Bible it is. Not only that, it’s hard to stick with just one metaphor for the church because the New Testament uses so many of them: a family and a fellowship, a body and a bride, a people and a temple, a lady and her children. And never does the New Testament conceive of the Christian existing on a prolonged basis outside the fellowship of the church. The church is not really a place. It’s a people – God’s people in Christ.
The church is God’s plan for his people in this age. In fact, it is impossible for us to say that we truly love God unless we are willing to actively love our brothers and sisters in Christ. The apostle John talks about this in 1 John 4 when he says, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” Why would anyone hate his Christian brother? The response of hatred would be justified, in the eyes of the world at least, if your brother has committed some grievous act of sin against you. This is the real test of love! Jesus said it this way in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies…For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” In other words, it’s easy to love those who are generous and kind and loving toward us, even unbelievers and thieves love their friends, but as God’s people we ought to love those who mistreat us and do good to them even as we pray for them.
And the church provides a perfect opportunity to put this principle into practice. Just think about it; if you’re a member of a local church for any length of time, someone is going to say or do something that is hurtful or offensive to you. They may not even know what they have done or realize that it is hurtful, but you will be hurt. On the other hand, it is also likely that someone will intentionally mistreat you, because we Christians are sinners, too, awaiting the day of our complete redemption when our sinful natures are done away with in glory. Whatever the motivation of your offender, you will have the opportunity to choose to respond in love and offer forgiveness and restoration. Would you have that same opportunity if you remained aloof and disconnected from a local church, attending only when it was convenient and never allowing yourself to get too close to anyone? I doubt it. And if you were faced with that opportunity without being personally connected with the other members of that local church, you would probably just walk away, maybe attending another church down the road or none at all.
But in that case, without a meaningful commitment to a local church, you would miss out on the opportunity to grow in love, and, as John said, how can you say that you love God if you do not love your brother? So it really is of vital importance that you, if you profess to be a Christian, commit yourself to a local church body as a vital member and seek to live out your faith in the context of that fellowship and family. But this leads us to ask another question, namely, how can we identify a healthy body with which we “may grow up in all things into Him who is the head–Christ” (Eph. 4:15)? We’ll turn to this question next and consider the 9 marks of a healthy church discussed in What Is a Healthy Church? by Mark Dever.