The Bible’s simple but unequivocal response to the idea that the church is nothing more than a spiritual version of the Rotary Club, Boys Scouts or any other voluntary organisation is captured in Paul’s words to the Corinthians. “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). For the apostle it is fundamentally a question of spiritual ontology.
There is a certain view of church that regards it (especially as expressed in the local congregation) as a ‘voluntary association’. The idea has been notably prevalent among Christians in the United States, but has been embraced more widely in other parts of the world. Interestingly this perception of church only began to increase in popularity in post-colonial America with the growth of Non-Conformist churches.
For a variety of reasons this notion of church has become the norm for the majority of churches in the Western world generally, but more widely as well. So much so, that it is basically assumed rather than justified in light of biblical teaching – even by pastors. The very fact that it has become the unquestioned norm surely demands that we revisit it and probe it in the light of Scripture.
One of the main catalysts towards this view of church was the emergence of a more congregational understanding of church polity over against the Establishment view that had prevailed in Roman Catholicism and then in the various branches of mainstream Protestant churches during and after the Reformation. In this understanding, the church local was always understood in light of the church universal, as confessed in the Creeds. When the shift towards congregationalism began to gather momentum, there was a corresponding shift towards a reversal of this emphasis.
It was only with the spread of Enlightenment philosophy that the emphasis, not only on the local church’s having precedence over the universal church, but also on the personal freedom of its individuals over their responsibility to the body to which they belonged, spread as well. All this came of age in the aftermath of the cultural revolution that began in the 1960’s. The focus on the individual mutated into ‘individualism’ and has become de rigeur ever since, not just in the world, but also within the church. It is now rampant in popular evangelicalism as well as increasingly so among the Reformed.
How does it express itself? At the most basic level in church attendance. Even though many churches, when they admit new members, will ask those being received to be faithful in their attendance at the stated services of the church, what is promised is all too often not followed through in practice. At another level, this new perspective on the nature of the church impacts the willingness of members to actually play a meaningful part in the life of the church. (A problem that is exacerbated in churches that can afford to have a leadership team or staff – on the premise, ‘If we’re paying people to do the work, let them get on with it!’)