After 12½ years at Northbridge, my final service as rector was on Christmas morning, 2022. I cried for most of Christmas Day. And I cried on and off through January. And though the shape of my grief has changed as time has gone on, it’s nevertheless been my constant companion throughout this year.
I suspect it will continue to be for some time. And that’s because I absolutely loved being a pastor in the local church at Northbridge. It has always seemed to me to be a spectacular privilege to be set apart for service as a shepherd of Christ’s flock.
Of course, the work of leading a church is often hard, stressful and emotionally taxing. But it’s also full of encouragement and joy and, even on the toughest days, it remains an immense honour to serve the Lord Jesus in that way. On many occasions through the course of this year people have asked me whether I miss pastoral ministry now I work in a very different role. And the answer is always the same: you bet I do. I miss it terribly.
The importance of the local church in the purposes of God
So, to begin, let’s talk about the importance of the local church in God’s purposes.
a.The fruit of his saving work
All of us were at one time dead in our sins, yet in his loving mercy God sent the Lord Jesus to save us. But he didn’t just rescue us to be individually right with him. Rather, his gift is our adoption into his family (Ephesians 2:1-10, 1:5).
God’s purpose, according to Ephesians 2, is the creation of one new humanity in which every hostility, and especially the hostility between Jew and Gentile, is put to death by the cross. Paul describes this new humanity as a “household” (2:19), and the chapter climaxes this way: “in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (v22).
This is the end towards which the saving work of Christ is directed – the unification of all under Christ, particularly the unification of his people in his house. This is why when Paul speaks of headship in chapter 5, he points husbands to the model of Christ who is “the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour” (v23). You notice that he’s not simply the Saviour of individual believers but the Saviour of his church.
The church, then, is the fruit of God’s saving work through Christ and becomes a demonstration of just how wise God is. This is God’s eternal purpose in Christ (3:11). Yet people in our circles often speak as if the local church has a primarily missional value. The kind of input that often seems to come from church consultants also has this flavour.
This thinking troubles me. Of course, the gospel of Jesus that forms the church also enlivens it and propels the people of God to be zealous for the work of his gospel in the world. And the local church proclaims the gospel and expects outsiders to come into her midst and to be exposed by the gospel and so fall down and worship God (1 Cor 14:25).
Yet the idea that the local church has a primarily missional purpose is hard to find in the pages of the New Testament. When we speak as if this is its purpose, I worry that we confuse church and gospel. Because it’s the gospel that is the primary agent of God’s mission in the world, not the local church. And I worry, too, that when we think and speak like this, we become foggy in our thinking about church in ways that might have a number of unhelpful implications. Church is not merely a means to an end, but a glorious end itself.
b. A heavenly reality
Because the local church is the fruit of God’s saving work, we also need to say it is an earthly manifestation of a future and present heavenly reality (Eph 2:6-7). In the coming ages the members of the heavenly church will taste even more of God’s grace. This is our future hope but also our blessing right now because of our union with Christ. We have been raised with Christ and are seated in the heavenly realms in him. A present reality. In Christ, we’ve come to the heavenly Jerusalem. We’re there.
So, our local churches are visible manifestations of that invisible heavenly reality. This is a wonderfully profound double truth: that as we meet physically, week by week, Christ is spiritually present with us where we are, and we are present spiritually where Christ is.
c. For the sustenance of his people
The local church is not only a signpost to the wisdom of God and the heavenly gathering all God’s people enjoy, it’s also his provision for the sustenance of his people.
The church in heaven is singular and continuous. The churches on earth take many forms and only gather intermittently. And yet in every place where the Lord’s people gather, the risen Jesus empowers them to serve one another in love as his word works within them. So, by our nearness to one another we comfort, encourage, teach and correct each other for our maturing in the likeness of Jesus.
Not only is God’s church an earthly expression of the eternal unification of all the saints under Christ, it is the chief locus of his sanctifying work in his people – the arena in which we taste his love in the love of others, and in which we bless others just as we have been blessed. May God be praised!
The local church in the life of the Diocese
In a sense, we’re all united to Christ and thereby each other, yet the language of “unity” in the New Testament is primarily reserved for the oneness experienced in the local congregation. But it’s the language of fellowship that the Bible usually uses when it speaks of the relationships between different churches. This fellowship is characterised chiefly by generosity, expressed in prayer for other Christians and churches, financial provision for one another, the sharing of leaders and occasionally leaders meeting together. This is the New Testament’s vision for generous fellowship in the mission of God.
A Diocese like ours can rightly be seen as one expression of this kind of biblical fellowship, yet the distinction between the Diocese and the churches remains important. The local church is God-ordained and entails God-ordained responsibilities for its members and leaders. A diocese, on the other hand, at least as we experience it, is not ordained by God since it is not envisaged by the New Testament writers, and so its responsibilities are determined simply by godly wisdom.
Of course, in our Diocese the fellowship includes organisations and schools with whom we work to make disciples for Jesus. They’re not churches. And, like the Diocese, these organisations and schools are not God-ordained, though they are, by virtue of history and providence, a gift from God in our gospel collaboration.
Our diocesan fellowship is a wise way for us to organise ourselves in the last days, and it’s an endeavour filled with promise and possibility as we seek to see the gospel grow together. The New Testament invites us to creativity and imagination as we think about how this kind of fellowship might flourish between us, with a generosity that really does cause the gospel to grow. But the Diocese will always be, at its core, the wisdom of people in service of the churches – which are the wisdom of God.
The importance of the local church for every believer
It is God’s gift to belong a Diocese that honours Christ and his word – which seeks to preserve the gospel for future generations and seeks the fruitfulness of the gospel in this generation. But is it not an even greater gift to belong to a local church where the deep riches of God’s wisdom and grace are seen and experienced like nowhere else?
The local church is where God’s people benefit from the gift of the Spirit in the life of others, not just their own. It’s where we hear the truth of God spoken by others in words we would not have chosen ourselves. Where we taste Christ’s love in bread and wine, in the same moment as those who taste it with us. Where the word of God is not just discussed but preached so that at least once each week we listen with the humble silence of those who hear their Father’s voice.
The local church is where we confess our sins in the company of fellow sinners and learn that we are not alone in our failures, nor in our forgiveness. Where we pray together for those things we often fail to pray for on our own, and where we intercede for others and they for us. Where we find older saints who’ve walked our road before us, and younger saints who remind us of how wide our eyes were when we first believed.
The local church is where we laugh with some in their delight and mourn with others in their grief, and where we find the precious comfort of people rejoicing and weeping with us amid our darkest trials. Where we find brothers and sisters, familial affection, even among those we barely know. Where we come into conflict with each other and learn forbearance, repentance and reconciliation, by which the Lord refines us. Where we are rebuked in love for our maturing.
It is where people find salvation, truth, hope, joy. Where the word of Christ dwells richly. Where people who would never rub shoulders but for the precious mercy of Jesus learn to love each other deeply from the heart; and where that love covers over a multitude of sins. It is both painful and sweet, at once turbulent and a place of peace, simultaneously full of brokenness and a stunning foretaste of what’s to come – precisely because it is the very wisdom of God.
I said before that when people have asked me whether I miss pastoral ministry, the answer is always that I miss it terribly. But what I usually add is that it’s not so much the work of pastoral ministry I miss. It’s not so much the role I had and its blessings. What I really miss are the Lord’s people – the precious brothers and sisters who were for so long my family in the Lord, those who were as much a gift to me as I ever was to them.
This is the importance of the local church. So much so that “important” doesn’t feel like quite the right word. This is the glory of the local church. The astounding beauty of the local church. The wisdom of God.
The Ven Simon Flinders is Archdeacon to the Archbishop of Sydney. This is an edited version of a talk he gave at the September ACL dinner.