I sat in a classroom with sixty or so saints preparing to offer their lives as living sacrifices to Jesus on the mission field (Romans 12:1). The professor leading the training session was teaching on “a balanced and biblical understanding of contextualization.” A very necessary lesson for future missionaries. As I sat with my fellow trainees, I found myself nodding in agreement and offering up “amens” in my heart. But then, right as the class was coming to a close, the teacher took a random stab at congregationalism.
“You know,” said the teacher, “congregationalism is just American Christians trying to map democracy onto the Bible.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In the mind of this professor, congregationalism was democracy, and democracy was American.
On another occasion, I was sharing the gospel with a co-worker who told me that he could never believe in Jesus because Christianity was “a white man’s religion.” I was taken aback by his claim, considering the fact that neither Jesus nor anyone else in the Bible was white, and that the vast majority of early Christianity flourished and was developed in non-European contexts.
Suspicions of a Western Commission
There is a sneaking suspicion among western Christians that anything practiced in western Christianity must be unique to western Christianity. Said another way, many western Christians falsely assume that much of the way Christianity is practiced in the west must have originated in the west. And this sneaking suspicion is having a real impact on the way we do missions.
Many western Christians are afraid of a “new-wave colonialism,” wherein western missionaries, workers, and organizations trying to reach the nations with the gospel end up—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not—colonizing the nations with uniquely western expressions of Christianity. Sadly, we must recognize the tragic tales of western missions efforts where just that sort of thing has happened.
We should certainly lament and learn from the mistakes of some of our missionary forebearers. And yet, we may be in danger of overcorrecting. It’s entirely possible that we are so afraid of colonizing the nations with western conceptions of Christianity that we begin to falsely lump in many ancient, non-western, biblical concepts into the category of “western.” Said more simply, we may be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Much of what these western- wary Christians consider to be “western Christianity” is in fact pre-western and therefore non-western.
Evidence for a Church Commission
One example of this “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” is that some who talk about missions try to downplay the importance of the local church. Like the teacher who thinks that congregationalism is unique to the United States, or the co-worker who thinks that Christianity is a product of white European culture, many western-wary Christians falsely assume that a strong emphasis on the local church in missions is a particularly western or American idea. They couldn’t be more wrong.
The local church was not invented by congregationalists, or any other tradition or denomination. It was instituted by Jesus. The command to plant churches is not a western missions strategy; it is what the apostles understood the final marching orders of Jesus to be.
What Does the Bible Say About the Church?
Consider the following:
- Jesus assumes that his followers will assemble themselves as a church. (Matthew 18:17, 20)
- In the book of Acts, whenever the gospel spread and people would get saved, they would naturally form themselves into churches. (See: the entire book of Acts.)
- Paul did not consider his mission complete in a city or region until there was a well-ordered local church there. (Titus 1:5)
- There are 34 local churches listed by name in the New Testament.
- Much of Paul’s missionary labors were spent strengthening churches planted earlier in his missionary endeavors. (Acts 18:23)
- Almost all the ethical and theological instruction in the New Testament epistles is intended to be understood in the context of the local church. (1 Corinthians 11:20, 14:26; Colossians 3:16, etc.)
- The apostle Paul assumes that the authority of the ascended Jesus is now exercised through the local church. (1 Corinthians 5:4–5)
Do you see? Jesus does not save people into a vacuum-sealed tube running directly up to heaven. Rather, he saves us into a body (1 Corinthians 12:13). A family. (Ephesians 2:19) An assembly (Hebrews 12:23). Otherwise known as a church (Philippians 1:2; 4:15; James 5:14; etc.).
I’ve tried to show you, from Scripture, that an emphasis on the local church is not a western concept. It’s a biblical concept. But I assume you already intuitively understand that on one level. In order to show you what I mean, I’d like to invite you to do a little thought experiment with me.
Let’s say that one day you go to the mission field and preach the gospel among the unreached. You spend, say, twenty years laboring faithfully for Jesus through the ups and downs, the highs and lows of life on the field. And let’s say that after 20 years of grinding labor, the Lord begins to bless your work with conversions. Maybe twenty people profess faith in Christ and receive baptism in the village where you’ve been preaching. What would you do with those twenty Christians?
Would you tell them to follow Jesus independently? To just read their Bibles alone in the morning? Pray privately throughout the day? Sing songs to God in their hearts as they walk along the roads? Of course not.
Saved Into a Family
You would tell them that they have been saved into a family. A community. A body. You would encourage them to follow Jesus together (1 Thessalonians 5:11). To spur one another on to good works (Hebrews 10:24). To fellowship on Sundays and taking the Lord’s Supper together (Acts 2:42). And to weep together and rejoice together (Romans 12:15). You would tell them to teach one another, speaking the truth to one another in love, and so build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15).
You would call them to submit to one another, bear with one another, and love one another. And you would probably encourage them to exercise their gifts for each other’s good (1 Corinthians 12:7). You would tell them that God commands them to worship together for their own endurance in the faith (Hebrews 10:25). You would tell them that they need good gifts like pastors and deacons to teach them how to glorify Jesus as one body with one mind (1 Timothy 3:1–18). And you would tell them that they should worship the Lord with their whole hearts, together with the congregation of God (Psalm 111:1).
You would, in short, call them to be a local church.
And you would be right to do so, because it is in the local church that “the manifold wisdom of God” is being “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3:10). That’s not a western thing.