The Necessity of the Concept of the Church
It is necessary to include the concept of the church of God in an outline of the gospel. After all, it is an outline of the gospel, and the doctrine of the church of God is included in this gospel just as much as the doctrines of creation, sin, redemption and repentance. In this regard, we have to be careful that we do not hold to eleven articles of the Christian faith instead of twelve!1
It is also necessary to include the concept of the church of God in an outline of the gospel because the society we live in today is a very individualistic society. It would, therefore, not be surprising that the person you are witnessing to would consider it to be sufficient to just believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and not join the church of God! If that is the case, you have to show him from the Scriptures that God requires him to join his church. You could do that, for instance, by pointing him to John 10:1-18, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4:12 and 16. Show that believing includes being grafted into the church which is the body of Christ. Explain that Christians, as members of the body of Christ, are to serve one another for the common good. When we do not do that, we are not only shortchanging ourselves, but also our fellow Christians. State that the church, as the mother of believers, is the place where we are nourished and refreshed in our Christian faith. A Christian needs this just as much as sheep need green pastures and still waters for food and refreshment. Stress that not joining the church of God is being disobedient to the voice of the Good Shepherd. State that a Christian on his own endangers himself just as much as a sheep endangers itself when it strays from the shepherd and the rest of the herd of sheep.
Is the Church a Denomination?
A misunderstanding about the significance of the church not only comes from the side of the society we live in. It also comes from the ecclesiastical climate we experience. And that climate is predominately an evangelical climate.
With regard to the doctrine of the church, many evangelicals hold to the concept of denominationalism. A denomination is actually a derivative, something that is derived from a source or original. It is also a certain type of a larger category. For instance, money can come in different denominations, such as, pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and so forth, yet all these denominations are part of the larger category of money. Likewise, churches come in different denominations, yet they are all part of the larger category church.
When a church is viewed as a denomination, a derivative, part of a larger whole, this often means that the derivative or part is of secondary importance to the original or whole. In practice, the denomination really is only the entrance or gateway to the original or whole. For above each denomination is the larger category of the invisible church. Each denomination is an entrance or gateway into this invisible church which is considered to be of primary importance compared to the denomination. The implication of this is that it does not really matter all that much which denomination you belong to. After all, the denomination is only a derivative, something that is derived from the original, but is not the same as the original! In this light, it is understandable that evangelicalism considers itself to be transdenominational!2
In trying to shed some biblical light on this denominational view of the church, it will be good to take your starting point in exposing the dualistic way of thinking that undergirds it. If the denomination is really only an entrance into the invisible church and, as such, of secondary importance to it, then you are in actual fact considering the spiritual to be of more importance than the material or you are considering the inner (what lives in your heart, your personal relationship with Jesus Christ) to be of more importance than the outer (the denomination you attend). This is clearly a false dilemma. 3 For the Bible clearly teaches that there is a close connection between the Spirit and the material (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 104:30). When the Spirit does his work in this world, He does not bypass the material nor consider it to be of secondary importance, but He renews the material so that his work becomes very concrete and tangible in the material. You can clearly illustrate this with what He does in lives of sinful human beings, including yourself. You can also illustrate this with what He does to the structures in society, including the church of God.
After having exposed the dualistic way of thinking that undergirds the concept of denominationalism, you should point the person you are witnessing to, to the pattern you see in the Scriptures. Point him, for instance, to Acts 2:41. The roughly 3,000 people who were converted by the grace of God through Peter's sermon did not form their own denomination, but joined the church of about 120 that already existed! You see the same picture when you read about the continuing growth of the church. Not denominations continued to increase, but the existing church of God (Acts 9:31; 16:5)! That is where the work of the Spirit became very concrete and tangible - not as a reality of secondary importance, but of primary importance!
In dealing with the concept of the church, you will have to do more than point out the dangers of individualism and denominationalism. You will also have to say something about consumerism. The person you are witnessing to could very well be influenced by this. An unbeliever is used to looking after himself. His life is basically very self-centered. Even someone who has (just) received the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour and Lord, will still be bothered by this.
Much of today's Christianity caters to this self-centeredness. People are looking for a church that will make them feel good about themselves, so many churches design programs that will do just that. This results in what some people have called the "revolving door syndrome." As soon as personal needs are no longer met, people will leave and look for another church. 4 Others have called it the "McChurch" mentality.
Today it might be McDonald's for a Big Mac; tomorrow it's Wendy's salad bar; or perhaps the wonderful chicken sandwiches at Chick Fil-A. Thus, the church becomes just another retail outlet, faith just another commodity. People change congregations and preachers and even denominations as readily as they change banks or grocery stores.5
In dealing with this consumer approach to Christianity in general and the church in particular, you will do well to highlight a very central text in the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, namely, Matthew 16:25:
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
Explain that at the heart of the Christian message lies the central idea that a Christian is called to lose his life and not save it. Among other things, this means that we are to deny our self-centered needs. We are to find our true selves not in self-indulgently pursuing all sorts of things that will make us feel good about ourselves, but in selflessly giving ourselves to God and all those He places on our paths. True Christianity is other-centered, not self-centered.
Having said this, you can also explain how this other-centered approach to life translates into loyalty to the church to which you belong. Not loyalty at the cost of the truth, of course, but loyalty as long as the truth is not at stake. You can illustrate this with the institute of marriage. In a marriage, a husband and wife commit themselves to be loyal and faithful to each other in good times and bad times, in riches and poverty, in health and sickness as long as they both shall live. In like manner, when Christians become a member of a church, they are making a commitment to this church in good times and bad times, in riches and poverty, in health and sickness. Point out that while a commitment to a church is not a marriage, the similarities are very close. Because this is the case, a Christian should not mirror the short term disposable, non-committal relationships that move from marriage to marriage by moving from church to church, but remain loyal and faithful to the community of believers he has made a commitment to.6
The Address of the Church
It speaks for itself that when you are witnessing to someone, the topic of the address of the church will come up. If it does not, you will have to raise the topic yourself.
What should be your guiding principles in speaking about the address of the church? Well, in speaking about the dangers of individualism, denominationalism and consumerism, you have by implication already said something about the address of the church. I suggest you now bring this to a close somewhat in the following manner. Take your starting point in John 10:1-18. State that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who is busy gathering his sheep together in one flock. Point out that He does that through is Word and Spirit. Go to Matthew 7:15 and state that a Christian has to watch out for false prophets who come to the flock in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ferocious wolves. Then point out that in order for a Christian to distinguish the true prophets from the false ones, he has to listen very closely to the voice of the Good Shepherd as that comes to him in the Bible. In the Bible, the Good Shepherd clearly gives us a number of criteria or marks which we can use to find out which church God wants us to join. Then show from 2 Timothy 2:15 and Titus 2:1 that one mark of this church is the pure preaching of the gospel. Show from Matthew 28:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:28-30 that another mark of this church is the pure administration of the sacraments. Finally show from Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5:11, 13 that the third mark of this church is the exercise of church discipline. This is the church where God wants to be worshipped, for this is the church that is true or faithful to the Word of God.