02 December 2008

"Deep Rooted" Follow-Up 4: My only relationships?

QUESTION: Are you saying that the local church is the only place for me to develop relationships?

M.M. No. The Scripture does not prescribe that believers cloister themselves but there is a certain kind of relationship that exists ideally in the local church. Describing the errors at the extremes is helpful in developing a biblically-balanced answer.

Error #1 - The Cloister
:::Contrary to the Great Commission:::
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:9-11 ESV)

And he said to them, “
Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16 ESV)
To "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel..." is to go and associate with all walks of life. Jesus' command betrays our tendency to stay with like-minded people and not go to those who need the gospel. Christ's call to the world requires relationships outside the church. Paul reiterates this idea when qualifying his statement in 1 Corinthians 5:9. He specifies that we should not associate with sexually immoral people who bear the name of brother because to not associate with all who are sexually immoral would require going out of the world - disobeying the Great Commission in Mark 16:15.

:::Unnecessary Isolation from the Experience of Other Believers:::
Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22 ESV)
The Scripture is not prohibitive regarding relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world as long as those relationships do not destroy the transparency and authority required in the local church (see "Error #2 below). In fact, throughout his epistles, Paul reminds the churches of the sufferings, joys and gospel glories of other believers (Col. 2:1-5 and 2 Cor. 8:1-15 for example). Peter calls us to remember persecuted brothers and sisters throughout the world when we suffer (1 Peter 5:9). The church in Antioch appealed to the leaders in Jerusalem for their wisdom regarding the circumcision of Gentiles (Acts 15). Relationships with other members of the universal church give us access stimulating examples of faith and wisdom wrought in experience (and study) different from our own.

That being said, conspicuously absent from the text is a passage
requiring believers get advice, leadership and daily support beyond their local church. Relationships beyond the local church seem to exist for the purpose of example and encouragement not leadership and accountability. The example of the church in Antioch may be considered somewhat unique as confusion resulting from the teaching of members of the church in Jerusalem drew the Jerusalem elders specifically into the decision.

Error #2 - "A man of many companions..." and “'I follow Paul,' or 'I follow Apollos,' or 'I follow Cephas,'”
A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24 ESV)

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15 ESV)

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. (1 Corinthians 3:4-10 ESV)
:::Many Companions:::
A man of many companions may come to ruin because maintaining many companions requires a certain shallow character in our relationships that leaves us vulnerable to the power of hidden sin and discouragement. Proverbs 18:24 gives us some important sideboards in the age of high-speed social networking. We need a few friends that stick closer than brothers to:

These things happen regularly in the close, committed community of the local church.

:::Take Me to Your Leader:::
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses another potential pitfall in relationships outside our local church. We can begin to lose site of the leaders we are commissioned to follow (
Hebrews 13:7,17). This especially easy today when we can regularly sit under the teaching of leaders from all over the world. Eventually, that distant pastor, with whom we have no real relationship, can become the source of our vision and leadership to the detriment of unity in our local church. Paul addresses that specific issue in 1 Corinthians 1 and 3. Paul, Apollos and Cephas all have their specific roles in the lives of these believers. Disunity results when these roles are confused and the church no longer looks to its elders for consistent, united leadership.

The full description of a New Testament elder includes more than teaching and vision-casting. So your favorite teacher from the other side of the country can
never be your leader biblically. Elders are called to the flesh-on-flesh ministry of prayer for the sick (James 5:14), peace keeping (Matthew 18:17), shepherding the flock among them (1 Peter 5:2), being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3) and hospitality (Titus 1:8).

So listen to those great messages. Read good books. They are a means of grace. For the sake of Christ-exalting unity, get
your leadership from the elders among you.

Freedom and Constraint
Relationships with those outside the local church are not only allowed but encouraged when the roles and limitations of these relationships conform to the biblical pattern.  Christ followers in a consumer, overly-social-networked culture must understand the wisdom of this pattern and faithfully cling to it.  The world is watching our relationships to find something conspicuous and real.


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