Minimizing Heaven, Absolutizing the Local Church

I love the local church. At the local church in which I regularly fellowship I am recognized as a member of the church universal. I love weekly church services. We sing, we confess, we herald the gospel, we exhort, we pray, we hear the word, we learn about the law and it’s application, we rebuke, we partake in the Lord’s supper and baptize new members into fellowship. It’s wonderful.

All of that said, both now and in heaven, there is much more to do for the kingdom than this. Much, much, much more. In the reformed community, we often hear things like “The best picture of heaven is when the saints gather in a local church for singing in worship on a Sunday morning.”

It is true in so far as it goes that the saints gathering together in worship is mini-snapshot of one aspect of heaven. I cannot tell you how genuinely I LOVE these kinds of worship experiences. Frequently it has brought tears of indescribable joy to my eyes. After all, we do see the saints from many nations in Revelation gathered and singing in worship to Christ. What a beautiful picture!

But when we look at passages in Revelation where this kind of thing is happening, we must remember the greater context. Why are they singing? We must remember that they were singing about a King. A King who had brought forth a conquering kingdom which the gates of hell would not prevail against. A King who conquers by changing hearts through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A King who has a law which citizens and rulers are to obey in all aspects of life.

We must also remember that heaven is not limited to a church service, or only what happens in a local church (though this is an important aspect). It is a kingdom. A kingdom with a civilization. It is the place where God’s will is done. Where Christ’s dominion is observed and obeyed in every realm. Where all the nations obey him. Where the rulers of nations respect his law. Where all of civilization has been transformed having been filled with servants of God who have been redeemed to resume the project of dominion over the earth for which they were created.

This is why we are to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. The most *comprehensive* snapshot of heaven on earth is not a gathering of Christians singing in worship (as truly wonderful as that is) but a civilization devoted to Christ in every sphere of life, including the local church services. A town where the local restaurants, universities, civil courts, businesses, medical clinics and centers of art are filled with redeemed saints and are being run by those redeemed saints according to the principles of God’s law.

This reminds me about how I’ve also heard this saying over and over again: “If you don’t like coming to church on Sunday you won’t like heaven.”  In fact, I’ve said this to others in the past. But while this could be true in some cases, what’s missing in this statement is that a local church service is not synonymous with heaven.

Heaven is a far greater reality having to do with a kingdom and a civilization. It includes what goes on in a local church service but it is not limited to that. There may indeed be sinful reasons why someone doesn’t enjoy a church service. Maybe they have  a selfish mentality.  Maybe they are operating in the flesh. Maybe something else more innocuous. Maybe there are relational barriers that are unresolved. Or maybe the church itself is not a faithful church and there are concerns that worship is not being heard by God. But what we need to understand is that we actually diminish the glory of heaven when we deride those who do not see a comprehensive picture of heaven manifested in what goes on in a typical local church worship service.  Heaven is a far greater than this!

It’s true that few get this kind of comprehensive snapshot this side of eternity, but it is something that we should work towards. As much as I appreciate singing together with the saints in worship to our Savior and King, I still look forward to seeing this Savior and King receive the obedience he is due with his will being done on earth as it is in heaven as the fuller picture of what heaven will look like this side of eternity.

As you survey the culture of your own local church community, consider these diagnostic questions:

  1. How small is the Kingdom of God at your church? Is it taught that the total number of local churches in the world are synonymous with the kingdom of God?
  2. Is the highest form of “spiritual” church activity and service in the Christian life seen as mainly tied up in what “jobs” one has within the local church?
  3. Are these jobs (as crucially important as they are) centered mainly around what happens on a Sunday Service? Jobs such as elders, pastors, preachers, worship leaders, nursery workers, Sunday school teachers, church building maintenance workers, small group leaders, greeter, parking attendant, sound and lighting technician etc. Are you automatically seen as “not serving” if you don’t occupy one of these stations?
  4. Are the exhortations towards service from leadership oriented primarily on serving the local church? Or is the focus on serving and building for the kingdom (which could include serving the local church but is not limited to that).

In a reformed facebook group there was a forum post where someone was recounting the following dilemma in his local church:

“I was in an elders meeting the other day and we were talking about membership. I was pushing back on giving membership to a man who comes to the church and gives his money to the church but he is not involved in a ministry at the church because he is too busy with his career. I wanted to know if you had anything that could help us as elders deal with this topic. Can someone become a member at your church but he/she gives no time (i.e. volunteering time) to a ministry in the church?”

Obviously there may be many details about this specific situation which we don’t know. But in any case, we must be cautious about destructive cultures that creep in which absolutize service to the local church. Maybe this man spoken of above is an executive employed at a business that serves an important function in the kingdom of God which blesses many people, believers and non-believers alike. Would this not be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ  working  in service to the kingdom of Jesus Christ? Unless he is engaged in some kind of unrepentant sin, why would we not receive him into fellowship on this basis?

Now there are more than a few additional problems with this statement. No local church is authorized to give membership to anyone to their local church. Local churches are to recognize membership in the universal church by virtue of Christian baptism and profession of faith. Hence when such a person makes it known they intend to join in fellowship with a local church they should be welcomed and received and recognized as a member of the body of Christ.  It’s an obligation on the church to receive them unless and until such a person is excommunicated. But the main point to grasp in relation to the subject matter of this article is that we can sometimes easily slip into a church culture emphasis that calls for service to the local church and not to the kingdom.  Or the local church and the kingdom are treated as the same thing. This kind of culture only recognizes service to the local church as service worthy of commendation.  Or they recognize other works done outside the church but as a lesser form of service.

Heaven is indeed a place we can earnestly and fully look forward to as a relief from the pains and struggles of this world. At the very same time, as Spirit-filled redeemed servants of God in the kingdom of God, we should should pray, hope and work that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Thy kingdom come!

And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.
Revelation 11:15

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
Genesis 49:10

The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
Psalm 110:1

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Matthew 6:10

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
Matthew 28:18-20

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.
Hebrews 10:12-13

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
1st Corinthians 15:24-25

 

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