I recently read an article by a respected journalist in the religious section of the local newspaper. Unfortunately, I accidentally discarded the article and can’t even recall his name, but I remember the gist of his argument. After criticizing the value of organized religion and church attendance, some of which criticism is justified, he ended his article by praising the value of independent, individual faith without any connection with a specific church.
Such an approach to Christian faith appears to be a trend today, not unlike the trendy ring of “the man without the plan” that appealed to a segment of American society back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. But separating individualistic faith from participation in the church ignores the teaching of Christ in the Gospels and its implementation in the New Testament Church.
In the first place, Jesus’ earthly mission of redeeming fallen humanity included establishing his church. He made this clear when he told the twelve Apostles, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt. 16:18, NIV). The English word “church” here replaces the Greek word “ecclesia,” which originally meant a gathering of free citizens. Luke used the word this way in Acts 19:32 and 39 to mean an assembly of people. Based on the passage in Matthew 16, it seems inconceivable to have Christ without his church.
In addition, the images or metaphors used throughout the New Testament emphasize the corporate nature of Christ’s church. Examples such as body, bride, temple, flock, family, and foundation portray individual parts connected inseparably to a head, husband, high priest, shepherd, father, and cornerstone (or capstone), respectively. To be in Christ is to be in his church, and vice-versa. Hebrews 10:25 makes clear the importance of meeting together with fellow members of Christ’s church.
Of particular importance in this context is the New Testament’s emphasis on the concept of koinonia, which comes from the Greek word koine, meaning common. According to Everett Ferguson, in his comprehensive study, The Church of Christ, some of the English words used to convey this concept are “joint participation, communion, mutuality, and sharing.”
Ferguson further applies the term koinonia to fellowship and shows how it applies to fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), but also with fellow Christians in contexts such as faith (Philemon 5); the Lord’s Supper, or communion (1 Cor. 10:16-22); contributing to the needs of others (Heb. 13:16); evangelism (1 Cor. 9:23, Phil. 1:5); and even sharing in suffering for Christ (1 Pet. 4:13).
For those of us who take the divine authority and inspiration of the New Testament seriously, it is impossible to separate faith in Christ from participation in his family for those who are physically able to do so. This doesn’t exclude diversity and individuality–even disagreement–within the church family. The Christian church is not concerned with lockstep uniformity but with unity and fellowship among the members of Christ’s family.