One Sunday morning, a wife went to wake her husband to tell him it was time to get ready for church. He replied, “I don’t want to go.” When she asked, “Why not?” he retorted, “I’ll give you two good reasons. First, the people of our church don’t like me, and second, I don’t like them.” His wife replied, “Fair enough. But I’ll give you two good reasons why you should go. First, you’re 39 years old, and second, you’re the pastor!”
Children sometimes dislike going to church, for they fail to understand the importance of regular church attendance. But this should not be the case for mature adult Christians. It’s true that we live in an age when God’s people can access sound Bible teaching by means of radio, television, the internet, and other venues. But none of these avenues of ministry can take the place of the warm, in-person fellowship that is found in the local church.
We know that the Apostle Paul understood the importance of such fellowship, for he wrote,
“Furthermore, when I came to Troas…I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother” (2 Cor. 2:12,13).
Paul speaks here of the serious adverse effect it had on him when he was deprived of the fellowship of a fellow believer who was very dear to him. And he begins these verses with the word “furthermore” because fellowship was also the subject of the preceding context, although this is not readily apparent. So let’s back up to verse 6 to see how the apostle began this discussion:
“Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.”
Here Paul was speaking about the man who had committed unspeakable fornication in Corinth (1 Cor. 5:1), the one he said should be put out of the assembly (v. 2,13) lest sin like that spread like leaven throughout the congregation (v. 6). By the time he wrote his second epistle to the Corinthians, he was delighted to hear that they had followed his instructions and had disfellowshipped that brother. However, he was dismayed to learn that they were then refusing to restore fellowship to the man after he repented! That explains why Paul told them that the punishment they had dutifully inflicted upon the man was “sufficient,” and why he added,
“So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7).
The fornicator had obviously sorrowed unto repentance, or Paul wouldn’t have instructed them to forgive him and readmit him to their fellowship. But if they didn’t follow this second instruction as faithfully as they had followed his first one, there was a strong likelihood that this sorrowful brother would be “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.”
Clearly, Paul understood how much the fornicator needed to be surrounded by the loving fellowship of his church. And whether the members of his church knew it or not, they needed the fellowship of the repentant fornicator! Paul made that clear when he said in verse 12, as it were, “Furthermore, even I Paul need fellowship,” adding that he had “no rest” apart from it. Surely if even the great Apostle Paul needed fellowship, it is certain that the Corinthians needed it too—and so do we!
I say all this because grace believers know that the Apostle Paul never commands us to go to church. Even if you believe that Paul wrote Hebrews, as some do, the exhortation we read in Hebrews 10:25 to assemble with the saints is not in the imperative mood in the Greek text, and it is not an imperative statement in English either. That means it is
not a command.
But while Paul never commands us to go to church, he assumes that we will want to attend church regularly. He prefaced a rebuke that he gave to the Corinthians with the words,
“For first of all, when ye come together in the church…” (1 Cor. 11:18).
Do you see how Paul just assumed that even the carnal Corinthians would want to gather together regularly with other saints to study God’s Word, sing His praises, and fellowship with one another?
If you are thinking, “Pastor, you don’t understand. My church is filled with knotheads, difficult people with whom I find it really hard to get along.” If so, that’s all the more reason to go to church! You see, you can never learn to demonstrate the grace of God in your life without difficult people to be gracious to! There is no better place to learn to reflect the gracious nature of God in your life than the local church.
The church is also a great place to learn how to demonstrate forgiveness, mercy, and longsuffering. I mean, if you never go anywhere where people give you grief, how are you ever going to learn how to display the same forgiveness, mercy, and longsuffering that God extends to us when we grieve Him?
And aren’t we talking about the greatest of God’s attributes? Don’t you want opportunities to display the mercy, longsuffering, and grace of God, and in so doing testify to the depth of the tremendous work that He has done in your life?
If you think about it, these grand attributes are actually the only attributes of God that we can display. Not a single one of us can demonstrate God’s omnipotence, His omnipresence, or His omniscience, but we can all learn to exhibit His grace—but only if we are surrounded by difficult people who test our ability to display these virtues.
When Paul declared that he had no rest in his spirit when denied the fellowship of Titus (v. 13), we know that this was an unrest that he felt deeply, for he prefaced his words by saying,
“Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus…” (v. 12,13).
Here Paul implies that the absence of the fellowship of his coworker affected him so severely that he didn’t enter an open door of opportunity to preach the gospel. It is evident from this that the absence of his fellowsoldier’s fellowship must have shaken him to his very core. We know this to be so, for this is the only time Paul failed to enter an open door. Why do you think God would allow this dark blot on his otherwise unimpeachable record if not to teach us the importance of fellowship?
Take some time to read the stirring list of things that Paul endured in the ministry in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33. As you read each item in this poignant register, remind yourself that the beatings that Paul endured didn’t stop him from entering open doors, the stonings didn’t stop him, the shipwrecks didn’t stop him — NOTHING stopped him. But a simple lack of fellowship stopped him dead in his tracks.
This year it is stopping baseball players dead in their tracks. Sports analysts know that the encouragement of a stadium full of fans gives a team what’s known as “home-field advantage.” But the coronavirus concern that prompted major league baseball to ban fans from the stands has nullified that advantage. Home teams are only winning .505% more of their games than visiting teams, barely an advantage at all. Obviously professional athletes need the encouragement of their fans, and we need the encouragement of one another!
Our need of fellowship is just one of many reasons the Bible emphasizes the importance of the local church over and over again, in many different ways. We know that establishing grace churches is what God sent Paul to do, for he spent his life doing it. He then followed up that church-planting ministry by writing most of his epistles to local churches.
The local church is where the Scriptures are read (Col. 4:16) and taught (1 Cor. 4:17), and spiritual men are ordained to the ministry (Acts 14:23) to feed God’s Word to His people (Acts 20:28). It is where disputes among brethren are settled (1 Cor. 6:4) and the poor are given aid (1 Tim. 5:1-10). It is where the gospel is preached to the lost (1 Cor. 15:1-4) and saints are edified by the teaching of God’s Word (1 Cor. 14:12). It’s where spiritual leaders care for the spiritual needs of God’s people (1 Tim. 3:5), who in turn support God’s work in their area by giving of their finances (1 Cor. 16:1,2; Phil. 4:15). It is also the place where God’s people “show the Lord’s death til He come” by observing a communion service (1 Cor. 11:23-26), and it’s where the Lord’s servants serve Him and His people (Rom. 16:1). The local church is, in short, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
So if you haven’t returned to church after the Covid-19 concern caused such a massive upheaval in the fellowship of God’s local churches, I would encourage you to rejoin your local assembly as soon as you feel comfortable doing so. I say this because I know that once our routine of going to church is broken, it’s sometimes hard to get back on track.
I know that it’s tempting to just sit home and watch grace pastors and teachers expound God’s rightly divided Word in the comfort of your own home. I thank God that these days even smart phones can ensure that the sound teaching of our grace pastors is no longer limited to those who can actually darken the doors of their churches. There are many stranded grace believers who depend on these infinitely valuable extended ministries to grow in the faith. But these avenues of ministry must never be allowed to take the place of participation in a living, breathing group of sanctified saints when it is available.
Many years ago, when contributing Searchlight writer Dave Stewart was pastoring a local church, some grace believers visited his church and explained that they lived nearby but didn’t attend his church, for they could learn the Word from the ministry of grace pastors and teachers who had online ministries. Dave replied (more graciously than this, I’m sure!), “Whatever gave you the idea that the reason to go to church is to see what you can get out of it? The reason to go to church is to see what others can get out of you, as you learn how to give of yourself to them and aid the Lord’s work in every possible way.”
And so it is. Even if you are not among the proverbial movers and shakers in your local church, your very presence there is an encouragement to other congregants—especially to your pastor! Nothing brings more cheer to the heart of a pastor who has spent twenty or thirty hours preparing his message than to look out and see grace believers who hunger to hear the Word taught. So why not make plans right now to return to the warmth of your church’s fellowship this Sunday. You’ll be eternally glad you did!