The Importance of Congregational Life
The Biblical concept of congregational life – the shared life of a group of disciples in a local body – is a concept that is foreign to many American Christians. A believer may attend meetings, seminars, and conferences for years, and yet never know anything of genuine corporate, congregational life, either by experience or in theory. There are several Christian groups who do have a good grip on the importance of community life (close-knit groups such as the Amish, e.g.), but these are the rare exceptions rather than the rule.
By and large, real community life is missing from most churches in America. This is due in part to the strong emphasis that our American culture puts on the individual: individual rights are carefully guarded; individual self-expression and self-esteem are encouraged; the individual is told to be proud of the things that make him unique. And the ideal American is the “rugged individual” who pulls himself out of the mud by his bootstraps. As a result, American Christianity puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of the individual’s having a personal relationship with God, but very little emphasis on the importance of the individual’s having a personal relationship with the members of the congregation to which he belongs. There are hundreds of tracts and sermons on the importance of having “a personal relationship with God.” How many tracts and sermons are there on the importance of having a personal relationship with other disciples?
The “personal relationship with God” is viewed as the all-important issue. Being an active part of a congregation, then, is regarded by many as an option which one can either choose or refuse. Years ago country singer Tom T. Hall had a hit song called Me and Jesus. The song began, “Me and Jesus, we got our own thing goin’. Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out. Me and Jesus, we got our own thing goin’. We don’t need nobody to tell us what it’s all about!” The singer then went on to brag about the fact that he did not need anyone else to be a part of his spiritual life: no preachers, no teachers, no church congregation. His religion was solely and strictly a private matter, and he intended to keep it that way.
Tom T. Hall’s version of Christianity may appeal to many Americans, but it is not the faith of the Bible. The idea of the independent, “do your own thing,” Lone Ranger Christian, unattached to any local congregation, is foreign to the New Testament. The Bible speaks of individual believers as members joined to other members in a body, with Messiah as the Head of that body.
A believer who is not attached to a local congregation is like a hand which is not attached to a body. A hand that is not attached to a living body is a real hand, but it will never serve the purpose for which it was designed if it is not attached to a body. It may be a lovely hand, but it will be nonfunctional and useless. And if it remains detached from a body for too long, it will eventually just wither away and rot. I have seen this happen to more than a few believers who refused to join themselves to a local congregation.
The so-called “Lord’s Prayer” shows how important it is to the Lord that we pray and think with a corporate mentality rather than with a “personal relationship” mentality: “Our Father [not ‘my Father’]… Give us this day our daily bread… forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation… deliver us from evil.” All the pronouns are in the plural, not the singular. To pray as Yeshua taught requires that we be part of a body. This is a far cry from the “Me and Jesus” mentality of our Western culture.
The Bible is not a product of Western culture. It was written in the Middle East. Eastern culture and thought differs from Western culture and thought in many ways. One difference is in the way the two cultures view the individual versus the group. People in Western culture are generally more concerned about the welfare of the individual than are people in Eastern culture; people in Eastern culture are generally more concerned about the welfare of the group than are people in Western culture. This difference is apparent in the hiring methods at a Japanese-owned company near my home. This company not only interviews applicants as individuals, but also puts each applicant into a small group with other applicants. The group is then given a problem and told to work together as a group to solve the problem. Each potential employee is then observed to see how well he works in a group.
Having a corporate mentality and being able to work well in a group is important to people in Eastern cultures. It is important to our Heavenly Father, too, for He views His people as a body, not as a mere bunch of independent individuals who are not attached to one another. “And whether one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” the Bible says, “or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with if (1 Cor. 12:26).
Our very real connection to the other members in a congregational body is not just a New Testament concept. Centuries before the New Testament, one man, Achan, took some of the forbidden spoils of Jericho, and the entire congregation suffered for it. Although Achan acted alone, the Bible declares that “the children of Israel committed a trespass… the anger of Yahweh was kindled against the children of Israel… Israel hath sinned… Therefore the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies.” (See Joshua ch. 7.)
Yahweh views a congregation as one body, and if one member sins, the whole body suffers for it. This may not seem fair, but it is the way life works. If I kick an officer of the law, he will not just arrest my foot; he will put my whole body under arrest. Or if I am convicted in court for shoplifting, the judge will not imprison my hand which stole the merchandise; he will imprison my whole body. It will do me no good to tell the judge that it was only my hand, one small member, which committed the crime. My whole body will suffer for the sin committed by just one member. And so it is in a congregational body of believers.
This may frighten or discourage some people from joining themselves to a local body. It’s risky! However, the alternative, being totally detached from any body, is far more dangerous. Those who are content to be “cut off” from God’s people will weaken, wither away, and rot, just like a hand that is not attached to a living body.
Some people say, “I’m deeply committed to God, but I want nothing to do with being a part of a body of believers!” The Apostle John wrote, “He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20). By the same token, to those who are not committed to a local body, yet claim to be committed to Messiah, the Head of the body, I would ask, “How can you say you are committed to the Head, whom you cannot see, if you refuse to be committed to the body, which you can see?”
Commitment to the body is not the only proof of commitment to the Head, but lack of commitment to the body is a sure indication of a shallow commitment to the Head.
If a person truly loves Yeshua, the Head of the body, he will also love the body. And when I speak of loving the body, I do not mean just loving the theological concept of “the body.” It is not some impersonal, faceless, nameless “universal invisible Church” we are to love; it is real flesh and blood people in our local congregation.
I realize that many people have great difficulty finding a local body where they feel comfortable. However, we have not been called to comfort, we have been called to obedience. Some people who refuse to be part of a congregation are just too picky. On the other hand, there truly are many lone believers who do want to be part of a congregation, but simply do not know of anyplace they can go that will not drag them down rather than build them up. This is especially true among Sabbathkeepers. Let me offer a few suggestions to those who are in this type of situation.
1. Make more of an effort to locate a congregation within driving distance from your home. Go to the library and check the yellow pages of every city within driving distance. Make inquiries. Religious organizations often publish directories which can be useful. The Directory of Sabbath Observing Groups, for example, lists hundreds of congregations, many of which may not be in the yellow pages. Messianic organizations also publish directories. By making many inquiries of many sources, you might be surprised what you will find. I have had readers phone me and ask if I had any contacts in their area.
2. Consider starting a congregation in your area. Not everyone is called to do this, of course. Leadership, especially in a new work, requires both the call and the capability. But even if you are not called to leadership, this does not mean that you cannot be instrumental in helping to get things off the ground. Maybe you can encourage someone else who does have leadership potential to establish a new congregation. If you know of no one locally, you might be able to recruit someone from outside your area to come and establish a congregation.
3. Relocate to a city that has a congregation you can join. This may sound extreme, but it is exactly what I did a number of years ago. My wife and children and I were living in a small town in western Illinois, and could not find good fellowship. Housing and job-related difficulties also seemed to be pushing us out of Illinois. I obtained a directory of Messianic congregations, wrote a letter explaining our beliefs and background, and sent copies of the letter to all fifty congregations listed in the directory. After receiving phone calls or letters from about half the congregations I had contacted, we ended up moving to New York, where we stayed for two and a half years. Our years with the congregation there helped prepare me for the leadership role which I now fill at the Gates of Eden congregation that we established nearly two years ago.
Finding a congregation that you can join may not be easy, but it is necessary if you want to be all that God intends you to be. It may require some sacrifice on your part, but “whosoever does not bear his cross, and come after Me,” Yeshua said, “he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27). The choices we make reveal where our deepest loyalties lie.