At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. (2 Timothy 4:16-17)
God has ordained that human beings are to form communities and to have fellowship with one another. Thus men and women gather to form families, various societies, and even nations. God calls out his chosen ones from these families and nations, so that they may have fellowship with himself and with Jesus Christ, and also with one another. The “church” is the society of believers in Jesus Christ, but the word can be used in several different ways. We can refer to all those who have been chosen for salvation through Jesus Christ, including all those who are on earth and those who are in heaven. Or, we can limit the term to only those who profess the Lord Jesus on the earth. When used in a still more narrow sense, the word refers to a local gathering of believers. That is, in this narrow sense, each local congregation is a church. God has ordained that there should be local communities where his people could worship, learn, and serve together.
There is no doubt that the local church is a God-ordained institution. Its importance deserves emphasis. That said, theologians and preachers often overstate the case with assertions that have no biblical support, or that are based on inferences that extend far beyond what the relevant biblical passages permit. They say things about the importance of human community and of the obligation of church membership and attendance that are foreign to the Bible, that cannot be validly inferred from it, and that are outright inventions. This does not produce a safer doctrine, but false doctrine. The result is not a strong community and faithful service to Jesus Christ, but a theology that is focused on man, an attitude that is dependent on human instrument, and pervasive weakness and unbelief in Christians.
For example, it is often asserted that a Christian can never develop his biblical knowledge better by reading books at home than by listening to sermons at church. However, there is no evidence, biblical or otherwise, for this view. In fact, it appears that the assertion is not necessarily true or even outright false, since there are good arguments for saying that a person can develop both the depth and breadth of his knowledge far more effectively by reading at home than by listening to sermons at church.
In some societies, almost anyone can access the writings of Augustine, Calvin, Turretin, and so on. In terms of knowledge and reliable doctrine, how likely is it that the pastor at any local church can preach sermons that can rival their writings? How likely is it that a local pastor can preach sermons that rival that of Spurgeon’s? The truth is that, in today’s climate, a person is more likely to go astray in doctrine by going to church than by staying at home and reading generally reliable authors like Calvin and Spurgeon.
The assertion that it is superior to listen to sermons at church is often accompanied by statements to the effect that “there is just something different” and that “there is just something about it” that is unavailable to a person who stays home and read. But unless this extra “something” is defined, and unless there is biblical evidence to support its presence at church and its absence at home, then the idea amounts to mere superstition. God’s word is powerful and effective in any situation, the Holy Spirit is with every believer, and knowledge is no less true and useful just because it is gained by private study.
Rather, we must admit that, if a person possesses at least average reading skills, and if he has the discipline to pursue private studies, then it is very likely that he will gain much, much, much, much more biblical knowledge by reading books at home instead of listening to sermons at church. Even if the church provides classes where Scripture is expounded in great detail, this still cannot compare to the depth and breadth that is attainable by a determined student who pursues a vigorous program of private studies. It is foolish and dishonest to say otherwise. It is true that many people do not possess adequate reading skills, and that many people do not have the discipline to pursue private studies. But then the problem is with these individuals, and it says nothing about whether or not it is better to read books or to listen to sermons. In fact, the same people may have even worse listening skills, and although they lack discipline, it may still be easier to pursue studies at home than going to church.
The correct approach is to admit the truth, that reading and private studies have their advantages, and so does listening to sermons at church. When it comes to growth in knowledge and understanding, reading books by reliable authors is likely to be far more effective than listening to sermons at church. This is especially probable given the condition of contemporary pastors and churches. However, Christians must then be reminded that to increase in knowledge is not the only reason for church membership and attendance.
Other reasons to attend church include corporate worship and service. Nevertheless, exaggerated statements are also made about them. In their zeal to encourage membership, attendance, and participation, Christian leaders must be careful to avoid making claims and threats that cannot be supported by Scripture. Many, if not most, statements about what Christians must do in these areas are overstated, and cannot be validly inferred from the Bible.
Sometimes they think that a mere mention of Hebrews 10:25 is sufficient: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” But it is not sufficient, because that verse has a particular context and refers to people who stopped gathering for a particular reason. If it is to be used in some different context and in reference to people with different motives and reasons, and if it is even to be used to derive rules and threats, then it is necessary to provide sound justification for it. Otherwise, the greatest danger to the church is no longer a lack of attendance, but these modern Pharisees that impose their own human traditions on the people of God and who threaten their souls for noncompliance.
As another example, it is sometimes said that a person cannot grow in holiness without a community of like-minded people to encourage and admonish him. Again, there is biblical support for saying that a community could help, but there is no biblical support for the assertion that one cannot succeed without the help of a community. It is said that a person who is held accountable by a community is more likely to conform to a pattern of holy living. However, we can reply, it is also possible that he will become a religious hypocrite, in that he will develop an outward show of holiness, sustained by pride and the desire for approval. It is said that God uses human instruments to save men from falling away. But it is unbiblical to assert or to imply that God will or must always use human instruments; in fact, it is clear from Scripture that he does not. It is not men who would keep us from falling, but God. Sometimes he uses human instruments; sometimes he does not. To assert the importance of community on the basis of an overstated view of human instruments leads to rules and threats that are without biblical warrant. And again, this kind of theology falls under Christ’s condemnation against the Pharisees and the Jews.
Then, there is the emphasis on “team ministry.” Again, the problem is not in teaching cooperation, but in overstating its importance and application. The Bible indeed teaches that Christians should work with one another and respect the different spiritual abilities that God has given to us.
For example, consider what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12. Using the human body as a metaphor, he writes that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you” (v. 21). Applying this to the spiritual gifts that he lists earlier in the chapter (v. 8-10), we understand him to mean that a person with a gift of prophecy cannot say to a person with the gift of healing, “I do not need you.” The “need” here is used in a specific sense. He writes, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts.” That is, his concern is for a healthy and complete church. And when this is in view, then there is a “need” for every member. One person cannot do it all. The person who has the gift of prophecy but not a gift of healing can prophesy, but he cannot heal the sick.
We must not overstate what this means for team ministry. Although the person who has the gift of prophecy cannot perform another person’s function, he can still perform the function that he has been enabled to do. That is, he cannot say to the one who has a gift of healing, “I do not need you,” if the context is the health of a complete church, but as an individual, the person who has the gift to prophesy can do so whether or not he is associated with the person who has the gift to heal, or for that matter, any other person. Likewise, the person who has the gift to preach, or to write, or to sing, has the ability to do so whether or not he is associated with any church or with any other person. Therefore, to broaden the idea of “need” beyond the restrictions of the biblical context may lead to an exaggerated teaching on team ministry.
The teaching is sometimes so exaggerated that it is as if a lone ministry is always wrong, even sinful, and even doomed to failure. Sometimes it is suggested that a minister or believer will always fall if he stands alone. However, this teaching cannot be derived from Scripture; instead, it is a manifestation of weakness and unbelief.
It is often said that we should look to Jesus as our model, and even he chose disciples to be around him. But this is a misleading view of his ministry, since it is easier to argue that they hindered him rather than helped him. Time after time, the Lord rebuked them for their lack of faith and understanding. Sometimes they were even used by the devil to tempt the Lord to sin, as when they asked permission to call down fire from heaven to consume those who rejected his ministry, and when Peter insisted that he would not be killed and raised from the dead.
Then, at a most crucial time, when Jesus asked the disciples to pray with him before his arrest, they fell asleep. And after his arrest, they fled and abandoned him. He knew all of this would happen, and said, “But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32). If we aspire to be like Jesus, then let us stop making excuses, and to stop codifying our weakness and unbelief into doctrine. Instead, let us be willing to work with others, but also aspire to be able to stand alone.
This is especially important for a Christian leader. He should not need a community of believers to hold him up in the faith. Rather, he should be able to single-handedly lift up a fearful and discouraged congregation. In fact, he should be able to remain faithful and fearless in the Lord even when the whole Christian and non-Christian community band together against him in order to oppose the Lord’s precepts and commands. Whether a minister of the gospel is able to attain this is one question, but there is no warrant to make it a matter of doctrine to say that it is impossible to attain.
Sometimes it is God’s will for a man to stand alone. This is undeniable. As Paul writes, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.” In light of this, it is a gross injustice to believers to overstate the doctrine of community and cooperation, because it might leave them confused and unprepared if they are ever left to stand alone. Instead, we must teach them that God has not given them a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind. A Christian can stand alone, even when all others have abandoned him, because the Lord stands with him, and he can do all things through Christ who gives him strength.