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Can we have Jesus without the Church?

Hermon celebrated our 34th Anniversary on 10 Jul at Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel. It was wonderful to come together and praise God for his goodness and grace. The worship of God at service and the fellowship over lunch was edifying for me and I pray that it was for you too. May we all be eager to praise God together in person when we are able to at Henderson.

There has always been a constant tension for believers with regards to whether our faith is both personal and private. We know that God does not have any grandchildren, but Scripture says, when we have a personal relationship with God, it also means a relationship with His body – the church. So, our faith is personal but should not be private. This tension has, over the past two pandemic years, been further tested and challenged. With churches going online, is there still a need to be part of a local body when we can be plugged in to the global faith community?

Brett McCracken has written an article that I pray will be insightful for us as we contemplate the new realities we are facing in this COVID-endemic world. He asked the question, ‘Can we have Jesus without the Church?’ and his short answer is, ‘Do not cut yourself off from the Body of Christ’.

Ephesians 5 is often looked to as an instructive passage for marriage, and it is. But I think it is also an instructive passage about the church, especially in an age where many evangelicals have a take-it-or-leave-it ecclesiology somewhere between “I love Jesus but not the church” and “I’ll go to church but only as long as it meets my needs.”

When Paul says, “Christ is the head of the church, his body,” it is a statement of union, of one-flesh connectedness. A head is necessarily connected to a body. The head directs the body and has authority over the body but also needs a fully functioning body for effective movement in the world. In a profoundly mysterious way, Christ has humbly attached himself to an imperfect body (those who believe in him) and loved this body, filling it with his sanctifying Spirit so that it will be perfected for that future moment of “without spot or wrinkle” glory. In the meantime the church is still imperfect.

If we are in union with Christ, the head, then we are necessarily also connected to his body, the church.

Sadly, the still-imperfect nature of the church proves too challenging for some. They prefer to be “spiritual but not religious.” They embrace Jesus but ditch the church, oblivious to the fact that in so doing they are creepily embracing a decapitated head. Or those who do recognise the importance of the biblical idea of church simply redefine “church” on their terms. These are the people who love saying, “You don’t go to church. You are the church.” This is Donald Miller, who says he connects with God more outside of church and says “the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.” This is Rob Bell, who now believes church is simply doing life in a beach community with one’s “little tribe of friends” (“We’re churching all the time”).

But how much can we really grow when we define church on our terms, within the framework of our preferences and proclivities and with a “tribe” of people who “connect with God” most by surfing and enjoying craft beer together? As R. C. Sproul says, “It is both foolish and wicked to suppose that we will make much progress in sanctification if we isolate ourselves from the visible church.”

Or listen to Spurgeon, who is (God bless him) characteristically blunt about the matter:

I believe that every Christian ought to be joined to some visible Church — that is his plain duty according to the Scriptures. God’s people are not dogs, otherwise they might go about one by one. They are sheep and, therefore, they should be in flocks.Uncomfortable makes a compelling case that following Jesus calls us to embrace the more difficult aspects of Christianity in the context of the local church.

Can one “have Jesus but not the church?” Not really. If we are in union with Christ, the head, then we are necessarily also connected to his body, the church. “Christ utterly identifies with his people,” says Sam Allberry. “Neglecting the church is neglecting Jesus.”

Our real choice is this: Do we want to be plugged into the life-blood and energy of the body, or do we want to cut ourselves off from this body, lying inert somewhere as a severed finger or amputated leg? The upside of being a severed finger is you don’t have to bother with cooperating with the other fingers, annoying as they are. The downside is you can’t really do anything, and you have no biological connection to the neuron signals coming from the head.

Though this was written in a pre-COVID time, may I submit that it still holds true in a post-Covid situation. Our faith is personal but not private. When we accept Christ as our head, we are then enjoined to His body. And to the question of whether online church can be sustained, may I submit that the recent surge in travelling worldwide has proven that nothing beats being there, for no amount of virtual tours can satisfy. God has made us to relate to one another in His family as embodied beings.

- Ps Daniel Tan

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