On Submitting to the Local Church

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of Jonathan Leeman over the last few days, and I’m definitely benefiting from his skill in teaching. I’ve read him writing in a more academic tone, and loved it. Pleasant to find he can write equally well in a style that is more down-to-earth.

I’m almost done with Church Membership, in the 9Marks series, and I would definitely recommend it for every Christian. This is a quick and easy read to situate the believer as a citizen of a kingdom and a member of a body, striking at both the structural and the organic nature of the church in the life of a believer.

Chapter 6, “How Does a Christian Submit to a Church? (Being a Member)”, stands out powerfully. Beginning with yet another image, another metaphor, for the body of believers – stars in the night sky (see Philippians 2:12-16) – he moves on to eight practical ways to submit to the local church. I can hardly quote it all, but as just a taste, Leeman offers the following. Christians can submit to the local church:

  • Publicly – “…by which I mean formally or officially…Jesus publicly identified himself with his church. We should publicly identify with him and his people as well…” (p.95)
  • Physically/Geographically – “Now, let me raise the stakes a little. If you can, ‘consider others better than yourselves’ and ‘look to the interests of others’ by living geographically close to the church…it’s easier to invite people to one’s house for dinner, to watch one another’s children while running errands, to pick up bread or milk at the store for one another.” (p.96) Better yet, “Did Jesus submit himself physically and geographically for our good? He left heaven!” (p.97)
  • Socially – “Christian friends are surely valuable inside or outside the same local church. But friends within a local church will be formed by the same ministry of the Word, giving them the opportunity to extend that ministry more carefully into one another’s lives throughout the week.” (p.98)
  • Affectionately – “He commands us to rejoice with the brother who gets a big job promotion and all the money and prestige that comes with it. Can we? He commands the thirty-year-old single woman who longs for marriage to rejoice with the twenty-two-year-old woman when she marries. Can she? Can the poor man mourn with the rich man when he loses his job? Saying yes to these questions – rather than saying yes to ‘selfish ambition and vain conceit’ – requires something more than sentiment. It requires a heart to be altered by the gospel and the Spirit.” (p.99)
  • Financially – “This will look different from context to context. But however it’s done, Christians should look for ways to fulfil biblical commands like these…” (p.99)
  • Vocationally – “I know men and women in secular employment who, for the sake of serving in their local churches, have turned down promotions and more money, who have moved from larger, more reputable firms to smaller ones, who have refused to move to another city…because he or she knew that it would have hindered the ability to care for the church and family.” (p.100)
  • Ethically – “…Christians should look to the church for ethical instruction, counsel, accountability, and discipline in matters that are addressed in God’s Word.” (p.101)
  • Spiritually – “By this I mean three specific things: First, this community is where we should seek to exercise our spiritual gifts…Second, the local church is the community where Christians should build one another up in the faith through God’s Word…Third, it’s the people for whom we should intercede regularly in our prayers.” (p.102)

As you can hopefully see, Leeman offers spiritual wisdom that grounds the believer in reality. Being a Christian, and thus being a member of a local church, is more than just words, more than just “ideal”. It has real implications for how we live our lives together before a watching world. It calls us to consider how our actions impact one another, how our decisions represent Jesus and the gospel proclamation in our communities.

As a final quote, wrapping up the chapter:

Truth be told, people are not afraid to submit. They just want to submit to beauty, like the valiant hero who submits himself to rescuing the damsel in distress.

What’s unexpected about Christianity is that its hero doesn’t risk all for the damsel but for what the Bible likens to a harlot. Then he calls everyone that he saves to submit themselves to this same harlot – the bride still being made ready, the church.

Now submitting to ugliness does scare people. And that’s what submitting to the local church can be. Churches are filled with other sinners whose visions of glory contradict our own. But this is how Christ loved us: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34 ESV)

Christ’s love wonderfully transforms the ugly into the beautiful (see Eph. 5:22-31). Our love for one another should do the same thing – help the ugly become beautiful.

Who can love in this way? Only the ones whose eyes have been opened and whose hearts have been freed from the slavery of loving this world: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 ESV)

Church Membership, pp.102-3

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