For a podcast discussion of this article and related themes, see “The Church, Salvation, and Assurance.”
Why Does the Church Matter?
In our modern smorgasbord of Christian gatherings, the local listing of churches reads like a restaurant menu. What are you hungry for? Traditional, contemporary, liturgical, or blended worship? There’s probably a local church that caters to your appetite. Do your Sunday plans only allow for an hour of worship? Do you prefer a well-lit sanctuary or a darkened one? Are there other amenities that matter such as the quality of the children’s programming, the availability of social gatherings, the quality of coffee, the size of the seats, and so on?
In North America we have the luxury of choosing our worship comforts and preferences. In the meantime, as pastors and church boards design their buildings and programs, they are susceptible to losing sight of the very purpose and design of the Church. Too few people choose a church for things that matter very much. Church, like a country club membership, is more like a luxury than a necessity, an option rather than a requirement. Whatever the Church is for, so people think, it’s not for my salvation. That is strictly a matter between me and Jesus.
As pastors and church boards design their buildings and programs, they are susceptible to losing sight of the very purpose and design of the Church.
The attitude just described is a far cry from the understanding the Apostles and early church fathers had. Ours is also a different world than Christians in persecuted countries experience today. The Apostles couldn’t imagine building a big-box church building based on the prospect that if this thing called “church” fails, we may need to have a marketable building to sell. The “box” to which the Apostles compared the Church was the ark of Noah. Yes, the Apostles understood the Church as the Ark of our salvation. The Apostle Peter writes, “God’s patience waiting in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…” (1 Peter 3:20-21). “Baptism” is the act of the Church in recognizing and welcoming new believers into the Ark. Apart from the Ark, Noah and his family would have been lost. Failure isn’t an option; the Church is the ark of our salvation.
Ignatius, Cyprian, Origen, and other apostolic fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries also used the imagery of Noah’s Ark to refer to the Church because they understood God’s purpose for the Church to be precisely the same as the purpose of Noah’s Ark. Let’s be clear: it was God who saved Noah and his family, and it is God through his Son who saves us. The Ark is merely the vessel, but an essential one in God’s plan of salvation. God has chosen the Church as the vessel in which we must be in order to be saved from the wrath to come.
God has chosen the Church as the vessel in which we must be in order to be saved from the wrath to come.
Origen wrote, “If someone from this people wants to be saved, let him come into this house so that he may be able to attain his salvation…. Let no one, then, be persuaded otherwise, nor let anyone deceive himself. Outside of this house, that is, outside the Church, no one is saved; for if anyone should go out of it, he is guilty of his own death” (Homily 3.5). Origen is echoing what the Apostle John said in 1 John 2:19, “They went from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out [left the Church], that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Ignatius, the spiritual grandson of the Apostle John, wrote in A.D. 110, “If anyone follows a divider out [of the Church], he does not inherit the kingdom of God” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3). In A.D. 251, Cyprian famously said, “He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 6). Augustine adds, “Whoever is separated from the Church, by this single sin of being separated from the unity of Christ…shall have no life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (Letter 141).
There is a consensus through Christian history that the Church is for our salvation. This consensus, however, has never been more at risk than it is today in the western world. Insofar as a local church, in form and in spirit, resembles a country club or a concert hall, it becomes merely one option in our smorgasbord of social activities.
Is Our Salvation More than a Personal Matter?
The fact that the Church is the “body of Jesus Christ, the fullness of him” (Eph. 1:22) means that our salvation is not merely a matter of a right relationship between me and Jesus. Of course, that matters. But that is not all that matters and it is not all that is essential to our salvation. The problem with making our relationship with Jesus merely a private, personal matter was directly addressed by our Savior in John 13:35, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jesus is linking the two great commandments—love God and love your neighbor—into an essential bond. Salvation is not about one or the other; it is about both.
We can tell when people love one another by the unions they form, whether in marriage or in congregations. Love visualized as a body of believers that sticks together in the good times and the bad is the kind of love that characterizes the Church of Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:26).
Love visualized as a body of believers that sticks together in the good times and the bad is the kind of love that characterizes the Church of Jesus Christ.
In 2016 the Barna Group undertook a study showing that an alarming increase of self-identified orthodox Christians “love Jesus but not the Church.” For this population, salvation is strictly a private matter. John Wesley’s comments in a sermon are relevant. Writing in a context in which moving from one congregation to another was usually over a primary or secondary doctrinal issue, he wrote some strong words. Today, many people move from one place to another at the slightest whim. Here’s what Wesley said:
To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength, nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Sermon LXXV, “On Schism”)
There are good reasons for leaving a particular local church and moving to another. Those reasons have to do with primary and secondary doctrines and practices. Wesley’s comments, I believe, apply to the way people treat the local church today, coming and going from church meetings much like they would from a restaurant, making their choice according to what the taste of the day is. Love for the Church is light at best. It’s more like lust—lust for entertainment, risk-free relationships, and convenient connections. Without a recovery of the truth about the Church’s role in our salvation, love for the Church will continue to wane.
What is the Church’s Role in My Salvation?
1. The Church is the Covenant Bride of Christ
Salvation is both personal and corporate. We enter into a personal relationship with Christ and are immediately betrothed with the Church as the Bride of Christ. According to Ephesians 5:26 and Revelation 21:9-10, the Church as the Bride of Christ will be saved. Scripture has no concept of a Bride-less or Church-less salvation.
The New Testament is filled with corporate language like this from Ephesians 2:19, “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” and 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…,” and this from John in Revelation 21:9-10, “‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out from heaven.” From these Scriptures and more, we can see that the Christians are considered as a whole—a nation of citizens, a household, and a city—which is the object of God’s salvation.
2. The Church is our Ark of Salvation
Second, since our salvation is corporate, the Church has the role of being a safety net. Continuing the image of the Ark, the Church provides a safety net in which believers who fall into sin may be saved. Nearly half of the commands in the New Testament descriptive of the life of the Church have to do with keeping from and restoring one another from sin. Both testaments contain measures that can and must be taken when someone within the covenant community sins (cf. Leviticus 6:1-7; Galatians 6:1). These passages show us that a person within the Body of Christ need not be lost though he has sinned when the covenant community extends the means of grace for recovery. There is corporate assurance.
Since our salvation is corporate, the Church provides a safety net in which believers who fall into sin may be saved.
A word should be said concerning 1 Corinthians 10:13. We often consider the way of escape from temptation through the eyes of individualism. We construe it to mean that I can handle every temptation to sin all by myself. But this reading overlooks the fact that this passage occurs in the middle of Paul’s instructions to the Church regarding their social life together. Very often our only means of escape is the Holy Spirit’s use of the Church, that is, by the help and accountability of other believers.
The question of what happens to a believer if he or she sins is one of the most controversial and frequently asked questions in my lifetime. If a believer sins and dies before the next public altar call, does he go to hell? I’m not able to address all of the complexities of this question, but the role of the Church needs to be mentioned. How one defines sin matters and many have focused on that issue. I suggest that no definition of sin is adequate to answer the question without understanding God’s intent for the Church’s role in our salvation. If a believer sins, insofar as that person avails themselves of the means of God’s grace, ordinarily administered by the Church, he remains a member of the covenant community of God (1 John 2:1, 19; James 5:19-20; Gal. 6:1) and is saved. The Church as God’s Ark of Salvation keeps us from a “one-and-done” ( or “in-and-out of the boat”) theology of sin and the believer. There are, of course, deeper complexities that warrant further attention, but I merely wish to raise awareness that God has provided the Church as a vessel of salvation.
3. The Church is a Guardian
In Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus gave guardianship of the Church to the apostles (Cf. Matt. 18:18; John 20:23). The Church, built on the apostles, is charged with handling the keys of the kingdom. The Church exercises the authority of the keys through binding and loosing, that is, by Christians holding one another accountable to right belief. This happens, first, by passing on what the Church received from the Apostles (Col. 2:6-7; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Thess. 2:15). The Holy Spirit is the guarantee of the Gospel (Eph. 1:14) and the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15) through which “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Eph. 3:10). This can be confusing because it seems like no two churches believe exactly the same way. But don’t be discouraged by all the differences; it is the similarities that are essential. Every Bible-believing, Christ-preaching church holds to the core tenets of the faith as given in Scripture and expounded, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed. Christians may disagree about many things, but we would die for the same truths. This is the truth we believe in our heart and confess with our mouth (Rom. 10:9). We also confess our happy participation in Christ’s death and happy anticipation of Christ’s return when we attend the Lord’s Table. Practicing regular communion is Christ’s ordained way of keeping the plain Gospel truth at the forefront of our minds—that Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3).
The second exercise of the keys is holding one another accountable to right behavior. In baptism we identify with Christ and signal His total authority in our life. Christ’s authority extends to Spirit-led authority in the Church. We testify to our continued fellowship with Christ and the Church by participating in holy communion. Communion is one of the ordinary means of grace practiced by the Church (Acts 2:42). When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we remind one another of the great supper that is yet to come (Mat. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18; 1 Cor. 11:26). This is why a church member who has fallen into sin and remains unrepentant must not be included at the Table. To do so would give the impression that he will be saved despite his lack of repentance. Admittance and exclusion from the Lord’s Table is how the Church shows forth the seriousness of sanctification and delineates between the saved and the unsaved (1 Cor. 11:26).
A church member who has fallen into sin and remains unrepentant must not be included at the Table. To do so would give the impression that he will be saved despite his lack of repentance.
We must consider Matthew 16:18-19, 18:15-20, John 20:23 and Galatians 6:1 at this point. What role does the Church have when a church member sins? Spirit-filled, spiritually-mature leaders in a local church are tasked with “binding and loosing” a sinning brother or sister. This means that the Church exercises the keys of the kingdom (Mat. 16:18-19; 18:18) by holding them accountable and offering restoration (Gal. 6:1; James 5:19-20). Restorers are people who come alongside a fallen brother or sister with gentleness (Gal. 6:1) and offer the intensive care needed to overcome sin, even habitual sin. This shepherding role should be exercised often but patiently. Sincere, biblical restoration gives no room for spiritual abuse.. The Apostles Paul and Peter are aware of this and address it head-on: “restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1) and “shepherd the flock…not domineering over those in your charge, but by being examples” (1 Pet. 5:2-3). We must emulate the Good Shepherd in our role as restorers. The Church is God’s flock, not ours (1 Pet. 5:2). God saves us, not the Church; but God does not save us without the Church.
In summary, the role of the Church is like a bride with whom God enters a marriage covenant. Those who are in the covenant people are saved. Second, the Church is like an ark of salvation, a means of grace from coming destruction. And, finally, the Church is our guardian, an instrument of the Holy Spirit, for our salvation.
Our doctrine of salvation is impoverished when we exclude the Church as the gift of Christ to us through the Spirit. Despite all of its flaws, learn to love the Church as “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).