The Religion of the Local Church
By: Deji Yesufu
At seminary, I was trained to be a pastor and a theologian. Ideally, a pastor should be a theologian, but in many churches, the duties of the pastor are so overwhelming that he hardly has the time to think through the implications of his teachings, God’s dealings with his congregation, repentance, the wants of the time, the providences of God in the nation, and how all these make biblical truths relevant to the time. It is the theologian that does this. The pastor will baptize your infants (or adults as the case may be), he will marry the young adults, will visit the sick and pray for them, he will lead the church’s missions, and he will bury the dead. Some churches become so large that the pastor never gets to the work of theology. I should consider myself lucky that my congregation is not so demanding; because this frees me up to think biblically through the wants of our time.
I will not lie to you but Alistair Begg has occupied my thinking since his “… grandmother should visit a gay wedding…” counsel was made public. I have since written a defense of Begg; taking up the unusual position of opposing many reformed thinkers who feel Begg was wrong. In my article, I explained that I was won over by Begg after listening to his sermon. This is not entirely true. I believe when the story broke, and I saw the avalanche of critics coming after this good pastor, the instinct to defend Begg welled up in me because I am also in the pastoral ministry; and all I have to do is to put myself in that good man’s shoes. Sincerely, whether I stand convinced or not of the position of my critics, the sheer number of people asking me to recant would have made me tilt. I believe that only Jesus Christ could have stood with Begg to help him stand by his conviction. Something else that helped Begg is what I would call “the religion of the local church”.
Begg explained in his sermon that when he gave that counsel, a few things were running up in his mind. First, there was the quote he read from his book – a natural deduction from his sermons on Romans 1. He talked about how the church must find a more practical way of reaching the gay community, beyond sheer condemnation. He then drew from his theological tradition – which he claimed was not American. And, very few people know this but American evangelicalism is one of the least biblical in the world. We enjoy their influence here in the third world because of the funding they provide us and the resources we get from them, but American evangelicalism has long been perverted by the stupendous riches that that country has been blessed with. And, there is no way you can read the New Testament and not see that genuine faith in the heart of men is inversely proportional to riches: God has made the poor to be rich in faith. It means that if we will find some of the best Christian theologies in the world, you will have to go to less affluent nations. Lastly, Begg drew from his heart of being a grandfather. When they say grandparents spoil children, it is not because they wish to; it is because age helps us to appreciate human beings better. It is the soul of a man being debated here and Luke 15:4 shows us that to find the lost, sometimes the seeker goes into the wilderness. What then is the religion of the local church?
The religion of the local church is the practical outworking of God’s truth in the lives of God’s people. The first step is that the congregation is helped to appreciate the laws of God and instructed to keep them. This will naturally result in many failings. It is the pastor, while dealing with his own sins, that comes along the congregants, each of them, and helps them to overcome their sins. It is not something that will happen in a month or a year; it is usually something that takes a lifetime. While the pastor ministers to the church, God uses the sermon to sanctify his people; strengthening their hearts with grace to leave the church each Sunday to go and obey God. The pastor never sets himself up as a superman. He freely repents of his sins when he takes the pastoral prayers and leads the congregation to do the same. This repentance is not frivolous; it is an acknowledgement of our failures and requesting from God renewed strength to obey him in the new week. When I pray this part of the prayer in church, I get the loudest amen. The reason is that the heart of a true Christian wants to please God and sin grieves him. He is pleased to hear his pastor identify his sins, however anonymously, and to hear how the blood of Jesus avails in cleansing him from that sin. A congregation that does not hear this kind of prayer is a congregation that becomes very pharisaical in their worldview. They harp on what they have succeeded at and they never see their sins. They are usually the loudest on social media when a saint has failed.
The religion of the local church also emanates from the personal life of God’s people. Each person’s battle to live the Christian life, along with their success and failures, form the worldview they bring to the local church. This worldview is then corrected or accentuated by godly preaching. The religion of the local church hinges very much on expositional preaching. While topical preaching is fine, expositional preaching helps the congregation see God speaking to them within his providential dealings in their lives. The Sunday before the Begg-Gate, I was teaching John 1:11 which reads in part “… he came to his own, and his own received him not…” I told my congregation in passing that Jesus was rejected by his family, the Jews and even the world he created. I explained to them that following Christ’s warning in Matthew 23:29-35, this generation of Christians also can reject Christ if he were to come to them today – in fact, we would have crucified him long before we know it. Then I said that Jesus is on social media; he has accounts there and that many Christians are today lampooning him and condemning him for his comments. And then Begg happened. The religion of the local church is God’s providential dealing with the church as they work out the implication of the Bible texts they are studying each Sunday. God always makes that text relevant to our lives – to our week. What then is the implication of this religion?
First and foremost, everything in the Christian life must be subordinated to the local church. You are not a serious Christian yet until you are a faithful member of a local church. As a member of a church, you are subordinated spiritually to your pastor. It means you obey your pastors. When obeying your pastor becomes difficult, it might be a sign it is time you leave that church. But leaving a church is an even greater task because there are so few biblical churches around. It then means that you will need to thrash out the problem threatening your stay in the church. Members should have free access to their pastors and speak sincerely and honestly with them; and when matters cannot be resolved; if the minister is high-handed and disobedient to God’s commands, it might be time to leave. Or, you remain but you remain very quiet in church, while waiting for God to deal with the situation.
The second implication is that para-church organizations must be subordinated to the local church. The evangelists and apologists must have a pastor overseeing their work. This is difficult in a clime like ours where there are so few biblical churches but a system of accountability must be put into place for para-church organizations as soon as possible. And the pastor should lead it. The story is told of how Paul Washer, despite his Heart-Cry Ministries being so large and successful, will not take up a preaching engagement without his pastors’ approval. It does not mean that these pastors lord it over Paul; it only means that perhaps Washer can trace the successes of his Christian walk and ministry to the counsel and sacrifices of his pastors. There are many high-handed pastors, even in reformed circles, that make submission difficult. When you however find one, bring your parachurch organization under him. The reason is that the church is the ground and the pillar of truth. The truth the evangelists and apologists espouse should come from the church. We have a dangerous precedence in our hands when it is apologists that are dictating to the church what she should believe and do; rather than the church coming to a settled conviction on truth through their weekly exposition of scriptures and their effort at obeying God. It is instructive to note that the Begg-Gate took up the viral nature it did because of apologists on social media, and they set the tone that everyone now hold on the subject. Such that anyone with a contrary idea is cancelled.
Jesus has promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be. Our Lord is in a biblical church and he is actively working among his people. He is transforming lives; converting the children; helping husbands love their wives, and leading wives to submit to their husbands. He is also adding to the church and helping people to possess a Christian worldview. It is a pastor and a theologian who usually sees what Jesus Christ is doing in the local church. I do not know how many times I have stood at my pulpit and made predictions that come to pass – though I keep reminding God’s people I am not a prophet. But it is clear that when God’s people gather, God will speak to them and he will do this through a mouthpiece – the minister. It is a blessed thing to be part of a local church. Your religion is not complete if all you are learning about Christianity is from Facebook and Twitter. Join a gospel church. Sweep the floor; clean the windows; help the pastor with his bags; care for the children; wash the toilets; serve God’s people; and God will return and bless you. He will give you insight into his word like you never knew. He will bless you with a home and you will raise your children in the church. In a perverse and ungodly nation, the church stands like an ark of safety. The messages taught in church eventually translate to the religion of the local church. The religion that a local church possesses is what the majority of them practice. If love is the natural outworking of a church’s religion, you will see it in the way members serve each other. If self-righteousness is the religion of a local church, you will see it in their Phariseeism.
Deji Yesufu is the pastor of Providence Reformed Baptist Church, situated at the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. He is the author of HUMANITY.