Community. It’s something of a buzzword today, both inside and outside the church. Postmodernism, for all its promises of freedom from the shackles of authoritarian structures, has left our societies fragmented, lonely, and disillusioned. Because of this, everyone is looking for community. However, one of the chief ironies of post-Christian Western culture is that we simultaneously still prize the rugged individual while lamenting our lack of community.
Certainly, if church history has taught us anything, it has taught us that the church is not immune from the influence of the culture around her. So, it’s not surprising that the idea of doing theology corporately is seen as foreign, if not downright novel, in evangelical churches. But both the Bible and church history teach us that the Holy Spirit guides not just Christians individually (Rom. 8:4) but the church corporately.
Before we proceed, we need to lay the biblical groundwork that establishes our claim that the Holy Spirit works not just in individuals but in the church as a whole. From there, we’ll look at a test case for our thesis before closing with what I hope will be some practical takeaways from our study.
The overall teaching of the New Testament is that when people profess faith in Christ, they will join a local body of believers. In fact, I would argue that much of the New Testament would be unintelligible on any other reading. For example, Jesus gives the power of admitting or demitting people from the kingdom of God to the Apostles and those whom they would teach (Matt. 18:18). Moreover, Jesus commands us to baptize disciples and then teach them (28:20). Both of these instructions from the Lord of the church presuppose, well, a church to receive them.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of Paul’s letters are addressed to local churches (for example, Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:1). Likewise, even the Pastoral Epistles, though addressed to individual pastors are, in the main, instructions on how to minister in the local church. Paul commands that his letters be read in the churches (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27) and assumes that his numerous “one another” commands would be heard in the local church.
But let’s focus for just a moment on one passage that teaches explicitly that the Holy Spirit will be active in the church, guiding her along her pilgrim journey in the wilderness of this life. In John 14:15–31, Jesus reassures His beleaguered disciples that His death would not mean the end of His ministry. He and the Father would send the Holy Spirit to be with them forever (v. 16). The Holy Spirit would teach them and cause them to remember what Jesus said (v. 26). As Jesus goes on to explain, the Spirit would guide them into all truth (16:13).
Interestingly, the personal pronoun “you” is used almost thirty times in John 14:15–31 and not once is it in the singular form. It is always plural. Why? Because Jesus is promising the guidance of the Spirit not just to individuals but to His church. The Spirit led the Apostles and others, in accordance with Jesus’ promise here, to write down the materials that became the New Testament. The same Spirit speaks through those words today (along with the Old Testament, of course), but He speaks through the biblical text not just to individuals only, but also to His church. Put in Southern terms, “God does theology not just with you but with y’all!” Christian discipleship was never meant to be practiced in isolation but in submission, first to Christ and His Spirit-inspired Word, and second through those with whom the Lord has gifted His church to serve with gifts of teaching and preaching (see Eph. 4:11–12; Heb. 13:7).