During my Romans Bible study last week, I stepped up on my soapbox and waxed eloquently about the importance of the visible church. It is a much overlooked and yet incredibly important aspect of Christian theology. It was Paul’s imagery of the church as the Body of Christ in Romans 12 that got me going last Wednesday, but really, the importance of the church is seen all over Paul’s letters (and John’s, and Peter’s and the Gospels).
For example, look at 1 Corinthians 5. Here Paul instructs the church regarding a sexually immoral member of the church – a man was boasting about having his father’s wife! Paul tells the church that the man is to “be removed from among you,” that the church is to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved,” and that they should not associate with the sexually immoral person (in the church, not the world).
This chapter shows how precious the church is in three ways. First, the church as the body of Christ is so valuable it is to be protected from defilement. Paul says that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” just as a little immorality that is allowed to persist will pollute the whole body. The church was to protect itself from despoilment, much like one would want to protect a clean well. If the well gets polluted it is no longer useful and life-giving.
Second, the church is shown to be precious in that being put out of the church constitutes the greatest form of discipline. In the OT, the height of discipline in Israel was the death penalty. Excommunication is the NT equivalent in the New Israel, the church. In our house, electronics are precious and one of the greatest punishments we hand down is banishment from all screens. We wouldn’t take away, say, vegetables, because they aren’t precious to our kids. The church banishes the immoral brother from something that is important, something that ought to be precious. (Bizarre isn’t it, how many self-excommunicate by neglecting the body and failing to participate in the life of the church).
Third, the church is shown to be precious in that it is a safe haven from Satan. To kick someone out of the church is to remove them from the safe haven of the Kingdom’s embassy and throw them out into the world, which is Satan’s domain.
I’ve been given some lousy gifts through the years – white elephant gifts or gifts that just missed the mark. But the church? The church, despite how we evangelicals treat it, isn’t a white elephant gift, but a costly gift from Jesus because he knew we needed it. It is to be cherished and protected.