One of my hobbies is to listen to a particular talk radio program called Stand to Reason. This isn’t your typical talking head show all about politics; the host, Greg Koukl, deals only with questions on the subjects of “ethics, values and religion”. Most of the callers are people who want to be apologists and call in to get help with some specific argument they are having with an unbelieving friend. The other majority of callers are atheists or “skeptics” who call in to prove that everything Greg believes is wrong. However, on a few occasions over the past couple of years I have heard one particular fellow call in to the show to get some help that really shouldn’t come from a talk radio host.
This fellow, I honestly don’t remember his name so let’s call him Bob, was pretty pathetic in a truly non-derogatory sense. He told Greg that he was disabled later in life so he could not work or even leave his mother’s house without assistance. Though he was a Christian, his mother was not and she refused to take him to church. So, over the course of many years in this position – despite the fact that he reads and listens to sermons – Bob had come to doubt his position as a Christian. The first time I heard him call in, his question was a simple one: how do I know I am saved?
Greg did his best to answer his question and, from what I can remember, gave Bob some hope. But over the years I have heard Bob call back with further despair and further doubt. Greg gave Bob all of the correct theological answers to the questions he was raising – what more did he want?
Though the answer had been brought up during every call, Greg was too busy attempting to deal with the theological issues that Bob was raising to realize and emphasize what the real problem was. Finally, after what may have been the third or fourth call from Bob over the course of a couple years, Greg sternly admonished Bob to find someone to take him to church. The real problem was that Bob was separated from the Body of Christ.
The solution for Bob – and for anyone in a similar position – was to become a member of a church. As I listened to Bob, I despaired that he couldn’t get the help and care he really needed because of his position.
While I admit that membership in a church doesn’t solve every problem, and that membership is not a guarantee of salvation in and of itself, it does have its benefits. First of all, in the process of joining a church you develop and establish a pastoral relationship. Second, by regular participation in worship services you receive the means of grace. And third, when elders faithfully exercise church discipline, you have a better chance of truly knowing your position. Allow me to explain each benefit in further detail.
When you are outside the church, you have no shepherd to take care of you. God has ordered the covenantal institution of the Church to provide men to watch over the souls of His sheep. If Bob had been a member of a church, he would have developed a relationship with an elder who could not only answer abstract theological questions, but deal with the personal issues behind them. A sheep without a shepherd can all too easily wander off and into pastures of sin or doubt.
To continue the sheep/shepherd analogy, when you are outside the church, you do not have access to the pastures where you receive spiritual nourishment: the means of grace. There is much more to the Christian life than listening to sermons on an iPod and reading your Bible by yourself. These activities are beneficial, the latter is certainly necessary, but they are insufficient. Hearing the Word faithfully preached, participating in good teaching, and taking communion all give the believer the spiritual nourishment necessary to face the trials and tribulations of life. Or, as the reformers classically put it: they convey grace; grace that, without which, you will become spiritually malnourished.
Lastly, when you are outside of the church by choice, there are no means by which you can be put out of the church as a result of discipline. The faithful exercise of church discipline is a mark of every true church because it is necessary for the body as a whole and for individual believers. Though you may never see it today, discipline is the means by which peace is ensured within the church. In most cases, this would look like correction within the body so that the sheep stay in the right pasture. In some cases, for the purity of the church, sheep must be put out of the flock entirely. If you are outside of the church by your own choice, you have put yourself in that most extreme position. Without discipline, it is nearly impossible to rightly know your position and, when you have de facto excommunicated yourself, it is almost guaranteed that you will doubt and despair over your salvation.
The problem for Bob, like so many others who call themselves Christians today, is that they are outside of the institution that should be taking care of them. While Greg can provide good theological answers, he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with the same way an elder should. And Greg can’t do what is nearly as important as providing the right answers: follow up and make sure that Bob gets better. Even though Greg and other podcasters may make theologically sound arguments or preach sound doctrine, grace is not conveyed through an iPod – it is only conveyed through the church. Without this food, I have no doubt that Bob was spiritually skin and bones and am not surprised he was at the point of despair. Lastly, Bob excommunicated himself by separating himself from the body of Christ. Because of this there were no elders available to examine him and tell him where he really belongs – whether that is inside the church being brought back to spiritual health or outside of the church and knowing for certain that he is not saved. Bob had put himself in a position where doubt is not only probable, it is necessary.
So, if you are that one person that is reading this post and not a member of TRBC, and you happen to be doubting your salvation: flee to the bride of Christ. It is only within the body that you can know and “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.” (Heb 13:17) It is only at church that you can be nourished with the bread of life who promised that He has “come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” (Jhn 6:38-9) And it is only within the church that you have the opportunity to receive judicial statements from the Lord’s under-shepherds so that you may know where you belong; for only the elders have been told “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matt 18:18)