Here’s the absolute baseline for any church planter: We had better be able to clearly answer the question, “What is a church?” Not to others—but to ourselves! For example, recently I saw this post on a blog: “The Apostle Paul was never a member of one church and one church only.” Other people who posted comments quickly agreed with the statement. Both the author and those who agreed had it exactly wrong.
I know: “Wrong” is an offensive word these days; it is a word used only by misguided traditionalists. It is the bane of Spiritual Progressives. But if I am headed in the wrong direction—toward danger—the most progressive thing I can do is turn around and head back until I find the right path again.
Here’s a cultural truth: We bring to our reading of scripture whatever values we currently hold. Our eyes and hearts are sensitized to recognize the things we already agree with, and to ignore those things which run counter to our convictions.
When God graciously saves us he also has a plan to plant and nurture us. The Father isn’t in favor of theoretical family, he creates actual families of faith. Part of the yoke Jesus offers is our continued association with other believers. This association is more than friendship—it is a calling to become part of the people of God. Let’s allow Paul and his life speak to us today. Here are at least four lessons we should learn from him:
(1) Antioch – Paul’s Church Home
The first three verses of Acts chapter 13 are clear beyond any cultural leanings—Paul and Barnabas were fully invested in the body of believers at Antioch. The church in Antioch was a remarkable multi-ethnic community that embodied the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Paul and Barnabas were a part of a leadership team who heard the voice of the Spirit together and—even after hearing—prayed and fasted together before ordaining two of their own to mission the “mission field.” Then, to drive the point home, the Scripture reports that at the end of this journey Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church and gave a report of what God had done (Acts 14: 26-28).
(2) The local church is the wellspring of ministry
In the 15 years I was a pastor I would occasionally meet a new guy at church. “I need a ‘covering’ for my ministry,” he would say: “Will your church be my covering?” My response was usually something like, “Yes! We’re all about releasing people into their calling and ministry. Why don’t you hang out with us for six months or so and we’ll consider laying our hands on you and affirming God’s call on your life.” It would usually only take about two weeks, and that guy would leave!
Is six months too long to get to know someone and—together—to affirm God’s calling on someone? How about 10 to 14 years? Depending on how you read Galatians, Paul indicates that he was a part of his local church for a considerable length of time. Take just a moment and compare Acts 11:19-26 with Galatians 1:11-2:5. These two passages show a man possessed by the sovereign call of God, who displayed radical obedience to the voice of the Spirit, and still respected the local church. God’s call, God’s gifting, even obedience to our destiny in God are all worked out in the local church.
(3) The Gospel wasn’t enough: Paul planted churches
It’s true that the Apostle Paul had a unique and powerful ministry on the road. It is also true that he did more than “preach the gospel.” The record of the book of Acts and the epistles is that he planted churches. Everywhere he went, he shared the good news of Jesus—and established bodies of believers to provide a context for living out the gospel. Each of his letters testifies to this second fact—establishing churches. Even the letters to Timothy and Titus are about corporate church life. That leaves only the letter to Philemon, which was likely read out loud in front of Philemon’s home church.
(4) Paul had a high view of the church—the LOCAL church. That’s why we must answer, “What is a church?”
Paul felt the weight of every church he started. He knew he would give an account to God for his work. He never gave up on the church—even when there was plenty of reason to do so. The passages in his letters are too many and too varied to list here (and I have no interest in proof-texting), but the weight of evidence is overwhelming: Paul knew that the local church was God’s plan for every community in which he preached the gospel. He entrusted churches to Timothy and Titus; he pleaded with the Corinthians to come to their senses; he agonized over the health of the church in Thessalonica; he knew that the path to individual maturity was found in community. Structured, organized, accountable, loving, Spirit-breathed, grace-filled community. Paul presented many a picture of a glorious, eternal church. He also poured every ounce of his ministry into non-glorious, sinful, people-filled, local churches. There was no separating the two.
If we have lost this connection to the role local church, we have lost our way.
Part of Spirit-led Bible study is to ask for the grace to open our hearts to His value system, not ours. And in North America we should be on guard against biblical interpretations that simply affirm our biases. It is deeply ingrained in our culture: “be yourself.” Isn’t it shocking that we cannot become ourselves apart from the family of God?