It has become popular today in increasingly large numbers for people to say “I want a personal relationship with God through Jesus, but I’m not a member of any church. Can you be a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, and not be a church member? On the other hand, can you be a church member and not be a disciple of Jesus, a Christian? Good questions begging for answers in our current times! Can you be a “Lone Ranger” Disciple of Jesus?
I begin to seek answers in pointing out that, according to the Gospels, Jesus never founded a church called “The First Church of Jesus the Christ”. The Gospels do seem to assume the existence of the church and we know the church existed from the earliest writings in the New Testament, those of the Apostle Paul, who wrote many years before the Gospels were written and his letters were to “the church” at different locations. But what Jesus did was to call people to discipleship many different times and in many different ways in order to carry out the ministry that he felt called by God to do. It has become popular today in increasingly large numbers for people to say “I want a personal relationship with God through Jesus, but I’m not a member of any church. A personal relationships with God through Jesus is good—but is that what Jesus calls his disciples to do—just be God’s individual friend through Jesus? Perhaps we need to examine what that “discipleship” is that Jesus calls us to. Jesus view of what he was called by God to do in his ministry is found in his first sermon after his temptations in the wilderness, given at the synagogue in Nazareth. Luke records it this way: He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring goood news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke4:16b-21) This scripture is Jesus’ statement of his ministry and mission. If we are his disciples it is our ministry and mission also.
To carry out this mission and ministry Jesus called a special group of 12 disciples to follow him and help him. He realized, even with his relationship with God, that he could not accomplish his ministry and mission alone. Neither can we as inidividuals alone do so today!
Throughout the New Testament—there is an underlying assumption that if you are a follower of Jesus you are a member of a group, whether it is called a “church” or not. The earliest writings of the New Testament, the Pauline Epistles (written long before the Gospels were written) are to the church. And Paul describes that church unequivocably as the “Body of Christ” with all believers and followers of Christ being members of that body, working together to bring about the Kingdom of God and carry out the mission Jesus was given as captured by Luke in the synagogue at Nazareth. Paul writes: For just as the body is one and has many members and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—-and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed the body does not consist of one member but of many. ….If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
There is not a great deal of support in the Bible for the popular saying now—I want a personal relationship with God through Jesus, but I’m not a church member.
Perhaps the problem is how we define “church“. The Greek word eklesia has the literal meaning of “those called out”. Note that there is no mention in the New Testament of denominations that we ordinarily refer to as “church” today. There are no Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Disciples of Christ (Christian Churrch), Presybyterian, etc. named. The church, in the writings of Paul, is “The Body of Christ” —one body with many members. When we confess Jesus as Lord we become a member of that body according to Paul—-certainly not just a member of a denomination or megachurch—-we become part of, (a member of) the earthly body of Christ. We individually answer the call to follow Jesus as Lord, but that following what we are called by Jesus to do is carried out as a member of the body of Christ. In doing so we inidivdually answer to call to follow Jesus as his disciple, but we carry out that call as one of many members of the body of Christ. As Paul writes to the churches in Ephesus: But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s grow in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16).
It appears to me that the followers of Jesus have failed to grasp the full meaning of this concept of the church. When they do so, they will follow Jesus’ calling to his disciples more fully and will seek not just a personal relationship but a call to do ministry and carry out his mission as the Body of Christ. It’s the mission he outlined in the synagogue in Nazareth many years ago—to “bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” In Matthew 24:34-40 Jesus puts his mission in these words and says to his disciples who carry it out these words: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
It appears to me that when the followers of Jesus finally grasp the full meaning of this concept then “the church” will follow its calling as Jesus disciples more fully. Right now we have much to do that we are doing in carrying out his mission and ministry.
I don’t think there are any “Lone Rangers” in the ranks of Jesus’ effective disciples.
What do you think?