This last Lord’s Day at our church was a typical, ordinary worship service. We had the preaching of God’s Word, and we took communion. As I waited for the elements of communion to come to where I was sitting, I pondered briefly how depressing and distressing it would be to have them pass me by and not be able to partake of them. What would be the tax to my soul? What spiritual benefits would be withheld from me? Is it of any consequence?
This brought to mind a recent essay I had to write on the importance of the local church in a student’s life. Though, of course, it can be applied to anyone, anywhere, and not just to a student of theology.
A student of theology that is involved in the local church can avail himself of many spiritual benefits he couldn’t attain anywhere else. While training to be a minister, a neglect his own religious duties and spiritual fitness will lead to his moral disqualification from that ministry. A minister must be educated, yes, else he would be unfit for his duties. However, the Apostle Paul’s requirements for a minister in 2 Timothy 2 demonstrate that education is not the only requirement. In fact, it is one in a long list of requirements for those aspiring the office of a minister of the gospel. Above all, the minister must be a godly man.
It is precisely that requirement that then necessitates students being involved in a local church during their tenure at seminary. His most important concern is the cultivation of his spiritual life, and it is impossible to do so outside of the community of a local church. Whether serving in a particular office or attending the formal gatherings as a lay-person, no one can withdraw himself from the community of a local church and expect mature growth in godliness.
The local church provides many things that are necessary for godliness. Firstly, it is God’s design for worship. God is more pleased with our public displays of worship, when all his people gather together in His name. A student involved in a local church identifies himself with the church of God. Psalm 87:2 reads “the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob” (ESV). Charles Spurgeon, commenting on the verse, says it best: “God delights in the prayers and praises of Christian families and individuals, but he has a special eye to the assemblies of the faithful, and he has a special delight in their devotions in their church capacity.” God delights in public expressions of worship more so than he does in private ones. Furthermore, Christ and Paul, as documented by Luke, were regularly numbered among God’s people on the Sabbath. Luke 4:16 tells of Jesus going to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, “as was his custom” (ESV). The same was said of Paul in Acts 17:2- “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (ESV). If it was the custom of Jesus and Paul to attend the regular, formal gatherings of the people of God, how much more important is it for our spiritual growth?
Secondly, the local church is where the student can avail himself of God’s ordained, ordinary means of grace. These “means” are ways by which God strengthens our faith. They include: prayer, the preaching of God’s Holy Word, and the sacraments. These three, working in tandem, work to seal Christ’s benefits on our hearts. Public prayers of confession and pardon are prayed aloud and the Spirit of God testifies in one’s heart either of pardon or judgment. The preaching of God’s Word is the primary means God uses to call his people to himself, and confirm his promises to them. The preacher, using God’s Word, is then able to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak…” (1 Thess. 5:14, ESV), all the while exalting the glorious Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper, are ordinances where we spiritually participate in Christ. It is a spiritual connection, whereby Christ seals his benefits on our hearts.
Finally, the public gathering of God’s people is where God has promised to be, and the place where we will find His Son, if we but come on His terms. The student of theology, who makes it his daily devotion to study God, and isn’t involved in the local community of believers, will not grow in the mandatory godliness that a minister of God must have. For the sake of others, he needs to give of himself to the community, and draw out of the community the support and inspiration he so desperately needs for his own spiritual health.