Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Can you be a Christian without being part of Christ's Church?

Something to think about:
The Church isn't just a group of like-minded individuals; it is individual members who form a body. So, saying you are a Christian but not an official member of a Christian church is really like saying you are a dedicated baseball player but don't believe in organized team sports. You might be a great baseball player in terms of your skills and knowledge of the game, but if you aren't actually on a team, then in at least one very important sense, you aren't a baseball team at all. (Peter Speckhard, Connected to Christ: Why Membership Matters)
The Bible teaches that Christians are members of Christ's body in the same way that a thumb, an eyeball, or a heart are parts of our bodies. If those individual parts are severed from our bodies, either those individual parts or our whole bodies die.

Without participation in a local church, faith in Christ cannot and will not be sustained. Without being part of a local congregation, there will be no one to minister to us or to tell us that we've gone wrong or regularly pray with us or among whom we can be baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, or from whom we can receive the life and forgiveness Christ gives to believers in Holy Communion.

We all know that sometimes work, health issues, or being a caregiver can prevent people from fully participating in the life of a congregation. But these are exceptional situations.

Even under such situations, if we or someone who loves us will contact a local church and ask for visits or for the chance to participate in small groups or to receive the Sacraments, most churches will be willing to provide for our spiritual health in these ways.

One of the most interesting baptisms I ever shared was with a man who had been raised in the Church, but had allowed his connection with Christ to lapse. His wife called me and asked if I would visit him. I did so over a period of some months, sharing Christ and the Gospel with him as he endured the final stages of terminal cancer.

One day he asked me if he could be baptized and then receive Holy Communion. That happened. The day he was baptized in his home brought a moment of peace to that man and his family. So did his funeral, when we were able to celebrate his eternal connection with Christ, given to him through the ministry of Christ's Church.

Can people in local congregations be annoying? Are some congregations so infected by egotism or sin that they cease to function as churches? Yes, of course.

But, I'll bet that there's at least one annoying thing about you or that you too sometimes act from egotism, selfishness, or sinfulness. I know that I do.

The Church is God's hospital for recovering hypocrites and other sinners. And here's the good news: There's always room for one more hypocrite and sinner to join us, including you.

If you would claim eternal life with God, Christ's body, the Church, is indispensable.

Think about this. Pray about it. If you don't have a church home, commit yourself to finding one. It may take a few tries, but don't be discouraged and don't look for the "perfect congregation." The Church is comprised of recovering sinners, remember. So, every congregation to which you could be attached will be made up of imperfect people who, at the most, are only on the way to being all that God desires us to be.

In the end, I think, Article 7 of The Augsburg Confession, a statement of Lutheran Christians' understanding of the Christian faith, expresses better than I can what to look for in a congregation of which you can be a part and in which you can be challenged to grow into the maturity of faith and life that God has in mind for us. It says: "The Church is the congregation of saints [saints are forgiven sinners], in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments [Holy Baptism and Holy Communion] are rightly administered."

Notice this definition says nothing about the members of an individual congregation being morally perfect or flawless.

Nor does it say that churches are composed of people who rationalize their imperfection or sin away.

What it does say is that Christ's Church exists wherever the Gospel--the good news of new life for all who daily repent and surrender to the crucified and risen Jesus--and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are shared in accordance with Christ's Word and will.

Find a congregation of imperfect people whose communal life is built around proclaiming the Gospel  and administering the Sacraments rightly, and you will have found a church home.

Just a few thoughts. God bless you.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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