How important is the church in the life of the believer in Christ? How important is the church in the plan & purpose of God? Many professing believers in our day have a rather low view of the church – they either think poorly of the church, or they just don’t think much about her at all. Far too many no longer see the church as necessary, much less as a vital part of the Christian life.
But what does the Bible have to say about the church? Even a cursory examination of the word ekklesia (which is most commonly translated as “church”) in a Greek concordance is instructive. It occurs no less than 114 times in the New Testament. In the epistles of Paul it occurs at least 58 times. This, of course, should come as no surprise, as the vast majority of his epistles were written to churches (e.g. Romans, 1 Corinthians, etc.) or to pastors of churches (e.g. 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus), not just to individual Christians. In fact, even the book of Philemon was addressed not only to Philemon (v.1), Apphia, and Archippus (v.2), but also to “the church in your [i.e. Philemon's] house” (v.2). So basically all of Paul’s epistles were in some way church-related. All of them.
But do we think of the church when we read or study the epistles of Paul? Or do we read those letters through the foggy lenses of our individualistic spectacles? Do we jump right to asking, “How does this passage of Scripture apply to me?” without ever bothering to ask how it applies to us (i.e. as the church)?
In commenting on Ephesians 3:1-13, John Stott writes,
The major lesson taught by this first half of Ephesians 3 is the biblical centrality of the church. Some people construct a Christianity which consists entirely of a personal relationship to Jesus Christ and has virtually nothing to do with the church. Others make a grudging concession to the need for church membership, but add that they have given up the ecclesiastical institution as hopeless. Now it is understandable, even inevitable, that we are critical of many of the church’s inherited structures and traditions. Every church in every place at every time is in need or reform and renewal. But we need to beware lest we despise the church of God, and are blind to his work in history. We may safely say that God has not abandoned his church, however displeased with it he may be. He is still building and refining it. And if God has not abandoned it, how can we? It has a central place in his plan. (The Message of Ephesians, p.126)
Even the very best churches (as Stott notes above) are “in need of reform and renewal.” But even so the church is still very much central to God’s plan – it is still “through the church” that “the manifold wisdom of God” is to be made known to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10, ESV). And as Paul says later in the very same chapter, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:21, emphasis mine). The glory of God is to be manifested in and through His church, and that is to be the case “throughout all generations.”
We have not, nor will we ever in this life, outgrow the church or our need for the church. And we should not expect to do so – it really does have a central place in God’s plan.