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March 01, 2016

Why the Local Church Must Go Together


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A friend recently (and innocently) asked me, “Who are you discipling?”

In unpacking this question, I came to learn that what he meant was, “Who are you meeting with one-on-one to help them become more like Jesus?”

This friend had no agenda other than to get to know me, but his question reveals a common thought—that discipleship is simply a one-on-one event, distinct and separate from the life and worship of the local church.

Now one-on-one discipleship is undoubtedly important and helpful in becoming more Christ-like, but the Bible presents a vision for discipleship that is bigger than simply one-on-one meetings.  

So let’s think through the story of the Bible for a moment:

A Biblical Theology of the Local Church

Old Testament

In Genesis, God brings all of creation into existence, including human beings. Then, through  Abraham, God promises to gather a people for himself, making them as numerous as the stars.

In Exodus, God delivers the Israelites from Egypt so they can gather to worship him in the desert (Exodus 3:12, 18; 5:3). After God’s people are delivered to worship him, God directs and assigns to Moses the construction of the tabernacle, so the people have a place to gather for worship in the wilderness.

Then we see David – in the Psalms – authoring song after song for God’s people to sing when they gather to worship him. And we see God directing and assigning to Solomon the construction of the temple, so the people can gather to worship him, having left the wilderness to establish themselves in the land.

Finally, in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day, after God’s people had been exiled to foreign nations, the temple is rebuilt so God’s people can gather to worship him in Jerusalem once again. The goal of the return from exile was a rebuilt temple, a place where his people would gather once again to worship him!

It is clear from the Old Testament that being labeled an Israelite was not sufficient; God wanted his chosen people to gather to worship him. Note how massively this theme runs through the Old Testament; it is not a small theme but a major one!

New Testament

This brings us to the New Testament. First, through Jesus Christ, the people of God is expanded to include the nations, as the Gentiles are grafted into God’s family.

Then, in Acts, the disciples establish local churches, where God’s people gather to worship him. Through the Epistles, the Apostles edify and strengthen local churches. In his pastoral letters, Paul shows concern for the leadership and organization of local churches. (Note especially Titus 1, where Titus’ work wasn’t done until local churches on Crete had leaders and organization.)

Finally, in  Revelation we see the gathering of God’s people is perfect, consummated, and complete, as all God’s people are now together in heaven to worship him. The Bride of Christ – the Church – is now full, and the wedding feast of the Lamb begins!

What do we see when we consider the story of the Bible? The Bible is about Jesus Christ from start to finish, and the Bible is the story of God gathering a people for himself – the Bride of Christ – from start to finish.  

Two Truths About Discipleship and the Local Church

Now what does this have to do with discipleship?

First, the gathering of God’s people matters to God.

Too often, Christians have excused themselves from involvement in a local church because they are part of the “universal church.” This is where we need to see the Bible story – God wants us not just to increase in maturity, but to gather.

Whether in the Old Testament or the New, gathering is emphasized, that geographical togetherness of the local body of believers, called church. How much clearer could the Bible be on this than to call the church Christ’s “body” and Christ’s “Bride”?

The gathering of God’s people matters to God. And so if we are truly disciples and growing in discipleship, how could we say that the local church doesn’t matter, when it so clearly matters to God?

Not only that, Christ died for the church and his Bride is the church, so how could anyone grow in Christ-likeness when we don’t love what Jesus loves?

Second, the disciples’ discipleship plan was the local church.

Think back on where Matthew 28:18-20 falls in the Bible story:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

It comes in the middle of the gathering of God’s people.

And how did the disciples respond to the call to make disciples? They establish churches in Acts. They edify churches in the Epistles. They organize and appoint leaders for local churches in the pastoral letters. So the disciples’ discipleship plan was clearly the local church.

The Gathering of the Local Church Produces Christ-likeness

But you may still be asking, “Is the local church really this important to discipleship?”

There are many Scriptures we could point to on this issue – but consider just two:

Colossians 3:16

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

The word of Christ dwelling in us richly! What an important discipleship goal! And the Apostle Paul says this happens through the teaching and singing when the Colossians gather together to worship.  

Remember, Paul is writing to a local church here, and he’s saying that maturity increases when they gather to worship.

Hebrews 10:24-25

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Love and good works! What an important discipleship goal! And the author of Hebrews says this happens by gathering together; he’s not referring to small groups there or coffee with your mentor. “Not neglecting to meet together” refers to gathering as a local church for worship.

Remember, the book of Hebrews is written to a local church, and God’s Word is saying that maturity increases when his people gather to worship.

A Full View of Discipleship and the Local Church

It’s important to emphasize this: One-on-one discipleship is wonderful!  

Yet, I hope you can see that isolating discipleship, as a one-on-one event that happens apart from the local church, is more American individualism than biblical Christianity!

To make disciples, we need to have a full view of discipleship – and that, according to the Bible, includes the gathering of the local church. Let’s not shrink and stifle people’s view of discipleship by limiting it to a one-on-one event.

If the story of the Bible shows us that God’s great mission is to glorify his name in this world through gathering people to worship him, how could we truly follow Jesus – be disciples – while ignoring that mission? How can we regard discipleship as an individual experience when the Bible so clearly displays the importance of gathering together as a body?

Wherever you are at today, whether you’re committed to a local church or trying to get your mind around returning to one, I encourage you to see how the Bible pictures the church, how Jesus loves the church, and how every believer – yourself included – is part of a greater, eternal mission, to glorify God through the gathered worship of his people.

Jesus Christ secured salvation for his people – his Body, his Bride, his Church – so that you could be gathered to himself for all eternity and begin practicing such wonderful worship right now in the company of the redeemed.

Where are you at with the local church? Which of these truths is most striking to you?

Tom Olson

Tom Olson is the campus pastor at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Barrington, Ill. He and his wife Kari have three children—Kettie, Tovie, and Tommy.
Tom Olson is the campus pastor at The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Barrington, Ill. He and his wife Kari have three children—Kettie, Tovie, and Tommy.