But last night I began reading through John Stott's The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor. A dear member of the church gave me an autographed copy after a visit to London and All Souls where Stott served for so many years.
After reading the preface and the first chapter, I'm a little saddened that I've left this book unread for so long. It's vintage Stott--relentlessly clear and biblically centered. In the opening chapter, he spelled out a couple assumptions undergirding the book, assumptions pertinent for recent discussions here on the blog.
First, I am assuming that we are all committed to the church. We are not only Christian people; we are also church people. We are not only committed to Christ, we are also committed to the body of Christ. At least I hope so. I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an unchurched Christian. The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. For the church lies at the very centre of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. It is not an accident of history. On the contrary, the church is God's new community. For his purpose, conceived in a past eternity, being worked out in history, and to be perfected in a future eternity, is not just to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness, but rather to build his church, that is, to call out of the world a people for his own glory. ... So then, the reason we are committed to the church is that God is so committed.
A little later, Stott meditates on Acts 2:47 and the hints there of the early church's commitment to evangelism. Acts 2:47 reads, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." One of the truths Stott directs us to is:
The Lord did two things together. He 'added to their number... those who were being saved.' He didn't add them to the church without saving them, and he didn't save them without adding them to the church. Salvation and church membership went together; they still do.
In our day, we unfortunately have broken apart what the early church seemed to view as a natural, necessary, and seamless chain of events: gospel preaching and evangelism, leading to conversion and baptism, leading to church membership and communion. It's difficult to imagine that Paul or Peter or John could conceive of something called a 'Christian' that was not a baptized, communing member of the church. I think Stott is absolute correct when he refers to such creatures as a "grotesque anomaly." Part of what is critical to healthy community in the church is the conceptual and temporal tightening of the events in this chain. The clearer these things are (the gospel, conversion, the practice and meaning of baptism, church membership and the privilege of communion) and the more joined together they are in practice the stronger will be the ties that bind the church. Loosen these and you unravel the church.