The local church is the manifestation of the invisible, catholic (universal), world-wide Church. In effect, claiming to be a Bible believing Christian, while separating oneself from the local body of believers, is akin to a solitary sheep heading off into the wilderness literally "in search of greener pastures". Allow me to draw this illustration out just a bit further: the "flock" is, by definition*, to be a "flock" and led by a shepherd. Jesus uses the imagery of sheep and a shepherd often, drawing a parallel to His leading and protecting those that the Father has given to Him. He speaks of the shepherd going after one stray sheep, leaving the rest of the flock safe on the mountains (Matthew 18:12). And He showed compassion for those that were "like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36).
The human reasoning behind this "congregation-of-one movement" is really just alluding to a kind of self-delusion (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25) in that, "I'm not denouncing Christianity", and "I'll still be a part of the universal body of believers". They are just neglecting to meet for public worship services. This is all to similar to the excuses ("I can be a good Christian at home" or "It's a personal relationship - it's none of your business") that I used to give before God regenerated me; before He replaced my heart of stone with a heart of flesh.
It's right about here that God's Word sheds some light on this age-old subject:
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. (Heb 10:24-25)So, maybe there's a loop-hole here: we can just meet with some brothers and sisters at the local Panera for brunch on Sunday mornings! I'm not sure that's what the Holy Spirit had in mind in this passage. If it had been the intent for believers to substitute "small groups" for the public assemblage for purposes of worship, then it would seem that the Apostle Paul went above and beyond in expending so much energy on building solid congregations on his many journeys; not to mention that most of the Epistles were written to congregations or in reference to a particular church body. You see, from the above passage, it's in the "meeting together" that we "stir up one another to love and good works".
It should also be noted that the New Testament, in many passages, instructs believers in the context of an "assembly". In Hebrews 13, believers are exhorted to obey, or submit to, "them that have rule over you". Adam Clarke expounds on this passage:
"[In Hebrews 13:7], the apostle exhorts them to remember those who had been their leaders, and to imitate their faith; in this he exhorts them to obey the leaders they now had, and to submit to their authority in all matters of doctrine and discipline, on the ground that they watched for their souls, and should have to give an account of their conduct to God. If this conduct were improper, they must give in their report before the great tribunal with grief; but in it must be given: if holy and pure, they would give it in with joy."-Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible, Adam Clarke, LL.D., F.S.A., (1715-1832)
I believe without a doubt that the New Testament teaches that all believers are to be part of a local church. This is modeled throughout the Acts of The Apostles and when Paul writes to Timothy, he is giving encouragement for a pastor over a local body of believers. He tells him to "give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13) and these activities should occur most readily in the context of a local assembly of believers. The assumption is that we will be gathered together to hear the public reading of the Word, and in this assembling together, we will come under the "exhortation and teaching" of our leaders.
I want to share this little nugget that I discovered in studying this issue. In Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible, I was reading the notes on a passage I mentioned previously, specifically on Hebrews 10:25, "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is", and was intrigued to discover that this contemporary fad is anything but contemporary. Mr. Barnes comments on the phrase, "as the manner of some is":
Why those here referred to neglected public worship, is not specified. It may have been from such causes as the following:
- some may have been deterred by the fear of persecution, as those who were thus assembled would be more exposed to danger than others.
- some may have neglected the duty because they felt no interest in it - as professing Christians now sometimes do.
- it is possible that some may have had doubts about the necessity and propriety of this duty, and on that account may have neglected it.
- or it may perhaps have been, though we can hardly suppose that this reason existed, that some may have neglected it from a cause which now sometimes operates - from dissatisfaction with a preacher, or with some member or members of the church, or with some measure in the church.
Did you catch that? "As professing Christians now sometimes do"? Here is a gentleman speaking from the historical context of the early to mid 19th-century, and that comment could have been pulled from the pages of a modern "evangelical" publication (well, maybe not - as it seems to be a little too "judgmental" in its tone for our delicate sensibilities today).
- Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible, Albert Barnes (1798-1870)
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)
If you're reading this post, do you have any thoughts on this? Have you spoken with anyone that has expressed these sentiments? Or have you thought along these lines? I'd love to hear any comments or feedback.
*FLOCK, n. [L. floccus.] - A company or collection; applied to sheep and other small animals. A flock of sheep answers to a herd of larger cattle. But the word may sometimes perhaps be applied to larger beasts, and in the plural, flocks may include all kinds of domesticated animals.
(Noah Webster's 1828 Dictionary of American English)