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The Christian life was never meant to be lived alone. Though God regenerates us individually, the path of growth and maturity He has designed requires following Christ together with other believers in a church. Christian growth and maturity happen in the context of committed relationships that arise in local congregations. That is, it takes a church to raise a Christian.
No believer, no matter how experienced or well taught, can navigate the challenges of the Christian life on his own. The road is too long, the opposition too great, and our weaknesses too pernicious for any single believer to stay on the path of faithfulness without the Spirit-empowered assistance of brothers and sisters who are traveling to the Celestial City with us.
Jesus tells His followers that we are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matt. 5:13–16). Those metaphors illustrate ways that Christians are to relate to the unbelieving world. Both salt and light make an impact on their environments, retarding putrefaction and dispelling darkness, respectively. The Apostle Paul emphasizes this aspect of Christians’ calling when he describes believers as living in a “crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).
At the heart of this responsibility is our duty to live as faithful children of God who accurately commend His saving grace in Christ and reflect His character to the world. “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ ” (1 Peter 1:15–16). This is every individual Christian’s calling, and it is the calling of every church.
In fact, all the Scriptures cited above are in the plural. The call to holiness belongs not only to individual believers but also to local congregations. When a church fails to fulfill this calling, it undermines the very good news of salvation that it proclaims and dishonors the name of Jesus Christ.
The church in Corinth learned this the hard way when it allowed scandalous sin to go uncorrected in its membership. Its spiritual apathy about the Lord’s reputation brought an Apostolic rebuke:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1 Cor. 5:1–2)
The Corinthian believers undoubtedly thought they were being loving and nonjudgmental in the presence of this scandalous sin among their members. They were proud of their tolerance when they should have been grieved over the outbreak of such sin among them. In the rest of the chapter, Paul corrects their faulty thinking about sin, tolerance, and holiness.
When a church tolerates unrepentant sin within its membership, it demonstrates a lack of love for the one who is sinning, for the unconverted, and for God.
A church is the context in which individual Christians are taught, strengthened, and encouraged to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Brothers and sisters who know and love us help us overcome the inevitable idiosyncrasies that attend every believer, as well as resist the regular temptations that plague us all. They help us live in faith and repentance.
When this kind of mutual care and encouragement is commonplace in a church, the power of the gospel is put on display to unbelievers. The truth of our message is given credibility by the character of our lives, thus providing a powerful apologetic for the gospel.
Finally, and most importantly, when church members love each other enough to hold one another accountable to live holy lives, they demonstrate that they love God and His glory more than they love their own ease, their reputations, or other people. Such supreme love to God will compel a church to obey the Apostolic command to deliver unrepentant members to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5).
By loving God supremely and loving people sincerely, a church will maintain its distinctiveness from the world. Then it will be properly positioned to carry out the mission that the Lord has given to us. As a holy people, we can humbly call sinners to join us in being reconciled to the holy God through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Only by being separate from the world can a church live effectively in the world, for the world.