I recently picked up a book by the late, great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, entitled Truth and Authority in Modernity. In the work, he tries to untangle the often confusing conversation concerning the issues of authority in worldview. I do not plan to unpack that argument here, but I did run across one particularly profound statement about the authority of the Bible in relation to the church.
Newbigin writes, [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“The book is the book of the community, and the community is the community of the story that the book tells. Neither can be understood without the other.”[/pullquote]
That may not sound like much at first, but let me unpack it.
It is so very common today to hear people speaking of Christianity in a way that divorces belief in Christ (or in this case the Bible) from involvement in the church. It is en vogue to say that you are a Christian but do not go to church. There are usually a number of reasons given to support such a view. “The church is full of hypocrites”, “It doesn’t meet my needs”, “I get more out of my alone time with God”, “I’m too busy doing real ministry to sit in a pew”, and the list continues.
Now, I am not going to try and argue against any of the above reasons. In some cases, I believe they may be true. However, none stand as a remotely legitimate reason to claim a churchless Christianity. To go further, as Newbigin does, any Christianity that claims to believe in the Bible but does not do so in connection to the community created by the gospel is no Christianity at all. He makes a good point.
To read the Bible on its own terms, as one who truly believes it should, is to discover both the story of the great God in its pages and also the community that this God gathers together through the redemption he provides. The gospel tells the story not simply of individual salvation from sins but of a gracious gathering of peoples into a community, an assembly, the church.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There is no universal church then apart from the local church now.[/pullquote] Yes, this church has a universal dimension, and some claim this is the church to which they belong. The church in that beautiful Revelation 7:9 vision of John includes a multitude from all nations, all languages, and all times in history. It is the glorious bride of Christ in her white robes of splendor. However, there is no universal church then apart from the local church now. Right now, around the world, little assemblies gather in houses, huts, and cathedrals to proclaim the excellencies of this God, awaiting a day when they all sing praises together… to his face.
The Bible says a Christian is part of both. Your connection to a local congregation serves as the demonstration of your membership in the universal one. The idea of a Christian not being part a local church is foreign to the Bible. This is why Newbigin can make such a matter of fact claim about the importance of the church in understanding the Bible. If you say you believe the Bible, and yet you attempt to do so apart from the community of its story, then you are not getting its message.
And before I get comments about that one believer living alone in a village in the Middle East, I am not saying that being a church member is what saves you. I am simply making a point that the gospel clearly creates a community, and, except in the most extreme of circumstances, if you are a Christian you have no excuse to avoid that community.
The best way to understand the Bible is to study it in community with a local church under the direction of the Holy Spirit. After all, the church is “the community of the story that the book tells.” And the best way to understand the church, and why you need it whether you know it or not, is to find its importance in the pages of God’s word.