Many years ago, a dear college friend of mine went off to be a missionary in Japan, a country where the majority of the people had hearts of stone. While Japan is not a closed country, the gospel has made very little progress over the centuries; my friend labored in this hard land for the better part of two decades.
He came to Waupun for a visit about 10 years ago, and over lunch and a long talk, I discovered he had made a significant theological change since our days at the University of Illinois: he had abandoned the local church. Not Jesus, mind you, just His bride.
This was quite a change for him. In college, he was a churchman of the highest order – faithful in his attendance, teaching Sunday school, encouraging others to come. Not so anymore. Now, he had come to think of the church as a hindrance. But you had to hand it to him, he was consistent. When I asked him about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the ordinances of the church, he thought these were unimportant. And in a case of extremely poor exegesis, he had determined that baptism in Matthew 28:19 (“Go and make disciples, baptizing them…”) was “Spirit” baptism, not water baptism (though it was certainly very hard to understand how Jesus could command his disciples to “Spirit”-baptize people).
Though he would claim otherwise, my friend had come to his theology by experience, not Scripture. You see, group identity in Japan is an incredibly powerful force, something we can’t even understand here. For instance, because children in the country identify so strongly with their schoolmates, a child moved from the school where she started attending in say, kindergarten, will almost never be accepted in new schools. Therefore, a Japanese man transferred within his company to another city often doesn’t move his family. He just sets up an apartment by himself in the new city. (I’m in danger here of telling you more than I know about Japanese culture, but this is my understanding). This strong group identity cuts both ways, and as a result, when doing evangelism, missionaries and Japanese Christians face an uphill task when seeking to bring people together in new groups (in this case, the church).
My friend has a bit of a problem however – the Word of God, which everywhere assumes that if someone is a Christian, he will be a part of the local church. And not just that, the Bible says that the church is actually the protector of the glorious gospel message…
I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:14-15 (ESV)
Here Paul is clearly writing to his protégé Timothy about the local church, not the “universal church” as he speaks about how someone ought to “behave” in this “assembly” (what the word “church” actually means in Greek). But notice what else he says about the local church – it is the “pillar and buttress of the truth.” This is powerful, and indicates that while there are other important Christian organizations (i.e. parachurch ministries like Focus on the Family, Cru, Inter-Varsity, etc.) it is the local church which is the protector and vanguard of the Gospel. And the Gospel, of course, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is at the very heart of Scripture…and thus, our faith. There is therefore good reason that Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicagoland area, has famously said,
“The local church is the hope of the world.”
Amen, and amen.
I’ve lost touch with my friend over the years. He had some health issues, and I think might have been moving back to the states. But I hope he has reconsidered his thinking through the years. He always had a deep love for the Lord Jesus, and so I hope he has reconsidered his waning affection for the bride of Christ.
For Monday, August 31st: 1 Timothy 4