The Church's Place in the New Testament

The church can be a messy place - no one knows this better than a pastor. In our deeply individualistic age, it is common for us to treat the church as simply a service provided to us as individuals. It is about making us feel or grow in certain ways. As such, it becomes an entity easily dispensed with - if it isn't offering utility to our individual Christian walks, we feel like we can simply bail.

This is not the vision of Scripture. Instead, the church is seen as God's new humanity, God's kingdom breaking into this age. While Scripture is interested in our individual spiritual lives, it is equally concerned with our lives together. We can see this clearly portrayed in the New Testament.

The other day in conversation I made the statement that "there is no book in the New Testament that addresses us as individuals without also calling us to live as a part of the church." I wanted to take the time to spell this out. I'm going to skip the gospels, which are full of commands about life together, from how we treat our children (Matthew 18:1-6, 19:13-15) to church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20) to Jesus's prayer for our unity as an image of God's love for the Son (John 17). The book of Acts is all about the church, from its establishment at Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47) to its internal challenges and its international spread.

Taken from that point, here is an (incomplete) list of commands given specifically to churches as communities in the other books of the New Testament:

Romans: Fulfill the law through loving each other; don’t pass judgment on each other; don’t cause the weaker brother to stumble.
1 Corinthians: Don’t be divided; practice church discipline; love the weaker brother; use your gifts; have orderly and God-glorifying public worship.
2 Corinthians: Forgive and be reconciled to each other; support each other financially.
Galatians: Bear one another’s burdens.
Ephesians: Overcome racial divisions; build each other up in Christlikeness; have unity; walk in love.
Philippians: Be humble and put the needs of others above your own; also, Euodia and Syntyche need to work through the process of reconciliation.
Colossians: Bear with each other in the Lord; gather in worship with preaching, psalms and spiritual songs.
1 Thessalonians: Abound in love for one another; grow in brotherly love.
2 Thessalonians: Pray for the missions of the church; work to support yourselves and each other; practice church discipline.
1 Timothy: Appoint elders and deacons to lead the church; various instructions for church life.
2 Timothy: Preach truth and oppose false teaching in the church. (1 & 2 Timothy are particularly addressed to Timothy, a pastor and leader in the church)
Titus: Appoint elders; teach sound doctrine to the saints.
Philemon: Philemon should forgive and be reconciled to Onesimus as a brother in Christ.
Hebrews: Continue to meet together and encourage each other; seek peace with everyone; show brotherly love & hospitality; obey your leaders.
James: Don’t show partiality to the rich in the church; watch how you speak to each other; pray for each other and have the elders pray for the sick.
1 Peter: Show brotherly love; elders are to shepherd God’s flock.
2 Peter: Guard the church against false teaching.
1 John: You cannot hate your brother and love Jesus; love each other in deed and in truth.
2 John: Love one another; do not receive false teachers into the church.
3 John: Support missionaries; it is sin not to welcome brothers in Christ.
Jude: Don’t have fellowship with false teachers; have mercy on the doubting.
Revelation: Various instructions to the seven churches; the corporate theme of the people of God (every tribe and tongue and language; 144,000; New Jerusalem is the bride of Christ/church).

While the church is often messy, we cannot be following Christ without seeking to love and build it up. There is no vision for Christianity that doesn't involve our relationships and communal life with fellow Christians. It is impossible to obey a single book of the New Testament without being committed to and connected to each other. As the author of Hebrews reminds us: "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." (Hebrews 10:24-25)