This week we begin with Question 48 of the New City Catechism, found in Part 3 (questions 36-52), which focuses on the Spirit, restoration, and growing in grace.
Question 48: What is the church?
Answer: God chooses and preserves for himself a community elected for eternal life and united by faith, who love, follow, learn from, and worship God together. God sends out this community to proclaim the gospel and prefigure Christ's kingdom by the quality of their life together and their love for one another.
Many Christians today tend to think of the local church as one provider of spiritual products among many that they have the option to patronize as spiritual customers in an open marketplace of Christian growth resources. Western people are highly individualistic, and thus we tend to assume that spiritual growth is a goal we each pursue on our own, drawing resources from books, conferences, websites, and the content produced by churches that we find helpful. In this model, a Christian may decide to attend worship on a given Sunday at any church he finds attractive to him, and then he may disappear for a long while before appearing again to get more of the product that he enjoyed the last time. The church is one resource among many that may, or may not, be helpful.
In this model of spiritual growth, there is no sense of accountability, authority, or covenant with other believers. There is no sense of family, no demand that one learn how to live with and love one's fellow believers, and no demand that one learn how to open up oneself to be truly known by others. Christians who seek to walk the individualist model easily become isolated consumers in a largely anonymous marketplace, and in doing so they miss the true dynamic of the Christian life as it is portrayed in the New Testament, which is a life of patient, growing love for one's brothers and sisters in Christ.
The church is not a producer in a marketplace of spiritual products. It is a covenant community of believers, a family of brothers and sisters, an ordered body that depends on the contributions of each individual member in order to function properly (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Christ did not die in order to save a vast host of individual Christians. He died for the sake of his bride, the church, the assembly of God's people who will be together forever with one another (Eph. 5:25-27). And if we are going to be together forever, we need to start learning how to share life together now.
"[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). Notice how many of these virtues cannot be practied in isolation. The preeminent manifestation of the Holy Spirit in us as believers is in the way we relate to other believers. For it is only in the sharing of life with other believers that we can truly demonstrate such fruit. And this is why the local church, with all its flaws and shortcomings, is essential to the Christian life.
Suggested passage for personal or family reading: Ephesians 4:1-16. What are all the things Paul mentions that unite the church? What are the diverse elements of the church? How does the church's diversity strengthen its unity? What vision for the Christian life does this passage provide?