Why must a Christian be in Community in a Local Church?
Gina Welch is a graduate of Yale University, teaches English at George Washington University, and is the author of the book, In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (Metropolitan Books, 2010). Here is the description she provided of herself: “I am a secular Jew raised by a single mother in Berkeley, where we took a day off school in October for Indigenous Peoples, not for Christopher Columbus. I cuss, I drink, and I am not a virgin. I have never believed in God” (2). Continue reading . . .
Gina Welch is a graduate of Yale University, teaches English at George Washington University, and is the author of the book, In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (Metropolitan Books, 2010). Here is the description she provided of herself: “I am a secular Jew raised by a single mother in Berkeley, where we took a day off school in October for Indigenous Peoples, not for Christopher Columbus. I cuss, I drink, and I am not a virgin. I have never believed in God” (2).
Welch moved to Virginia and became a member of Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church, at the time a bastion of American fundamentalism. Yes, she lied about her identity. She lied about her reasons for being there. She lied about being a Christian. And in the end she betrayed a number of friends who thought she was someone she wasn’t. She explains it this way:
“It wasn’t that I had zero misgivings about going undercover – I did meditate on the wrongness of lying and the string of betrayals my project would likely leave behind – it was that I sort of managed to balance the whole messy moral equation on an unsteady ball bearing of cliché: You have to break some eggs to make an omelette” (9).
My purpose in mentioning Welch and her undercover endeavor isn’t to debate the ethics of what she did. It was, in my opinion, highly unethical. Rather, I bring her up to draw attention to what she experienced while at Falwell’s church. She found the politics repellent. The theology mystified her. And yet she said this about her experience of community:
“What I envied most about Christians was not the God thing – it was having a community gathering each week, a touchstone for people who share values, a safe place to be frank about your life struggles, a place to be reminded of your moral compass. Having a place to guard against loneliness, to feel there are others like you.”
It’s almost impossible to overestimate the importance of community. Knowing that others know you and won’t turn their backs in disgust; being accepted and loved and encouraged and held accountable to your own stated spiritual and moral convictions; these are powerful influences in a person’s life.
Even someone who only pretended to be a Christian, like Gina Welch, discovered the incredible healing and supportive power of community. But it isn’t because of something Gina Welch discovered during her two years at Thomas Road Baptist Church that I am talking about community in this article. She isn’t the reason “community” is one of our four primary values at Bridgeway Church here in Oklahoma City. Our beliefs on this matter are what they are because of what we read in Scripture. And there is no better place for us to look to find support for Christian community than in Hebrews 10:23-25.
“23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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.”
This passage not only describes the necessity of Christian community and what our responsibilities are to each other as followers of Jesus, but it also serves as a standing rebuke, albeit a loving rebuke, to the growing numbers of professing Christians who think it is entirely permissible for them to say they follow Christ while they consistently refuse to gather regularly with other Christians and to put themselves under the leadership of Elders and Pastors in a particular local church.
Back in 2005 George Barna wrote a book titled, Revolution. His thesis is that one can be a Christ-loving, Bible-believing, soul-winning, God-exalting Christian without any formal involvement in or connection with a local “church”. The absence of the latter, be it noted, is not because of circumstances beyond your control. It’s not that some people, because of geographic isolation or persecution or other factors, cannot find or plant or become involved in a local church. The Revolution is a movement of people who easily could but refuse to do so, believing that for them, at any rate, true spirituality and authentic obedience to God and a genuine, thriving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is possible only by forsaking membership in, support of, and allegiance to a local congregation of believers.
This text stands as a firm and unequivocal refutation of that horribly misguided and unbiblical notion. So I’m going to devote several articles to the unpacking and application of this passage. I hope you find it helpful.