We will devote ourselves fully to this church, knowing well that no member can effectively serve in this church, and at the same time be actively and regularly involved in the activities of another church or organisation (Acts 1:14; 2:1; James 1:8)
In this post, I would just like to briefly analyze a statement with regards to the importance of the local church, which I have gotten from a document which I will not reveal from a church which will not be named. This statement is supposed to state a position taken by that church on this issue, of which the members are supposed to believe in. It is my contention that such a statement is unbiblical and liable to serious abuse of the sheep of our Lord. And by so doing, I would also like to pose a serious corrective to at least some churches who place a disproportionate emphasis on members being in and serving in the local church assembly, under threat of their salvaton being questioned and their membership revoked.
This statement seems correct on the surface, as it is true that being devoted to a local church implies that to effectively do so, members should not serve in other areas outside the church. Also, there is nothing wrong with members who would so desire to to serve with such devotion in their local church assembly, to the exclusion of all others. However, is that all there is to this statement?
We must of course realize that this statement is something which members are to subscribe to. Since those who are born again, true regenerate believers, are supposed to join a local church, this would mean that such a statement would imply that all who are Christians and would join such a church must embrace this statement and act accordingly. Although that church is not the only true visible church of our Lord Jesus Christ, the fact that believers are to join a local church means that whatever the requirements placed on believers to join any local church assembly must of neccessity reflect the church's position of the duties and responsibilites of all who would call themselves Christians. This can be especially seen to be the case in a hypothetical scenario whereby this church alone is the only church in an area, and therefore all Christians would join it. As such, the facts and implications of such a statement is not "a matter of taste", but a reflection of what that particular church thinks about what the duties and responsibilities of Christians are in general.
Of course, by saying so, I am in no wise insinuating that the church can or will or has attempted to impose their beliefs as stated in this statement onto other Christians. Regardless of whether this is so, such a statement of theirs reflects their view of what Christians should be like in the context of ministry and the local church, and thus is not just a 'my church prefers to do things this way' issue.
A reading of the statement would immediately shows that this statement excludes the participation of members from any outside ministry; ministry outside church, which thus definitely excludes any form of para-church organizations. It would also exclude any form of lay outreach attempts which would include Christians from other churches. In fact, a strict reading would mean also that no initiative for ministry could be done even between members of that same church without the pastor's or elders' approval, including workplace evangelism which includes Evangelistic Bible Study. As to whether such a strict reading of the statement is required, that is not for me to decide. However, it can be seen that the strict reading of the statement is for all purposes ridiculous, and would blatently contradict the Reformed teaching of the Priesthood of all believers.
The less strict reading of the statement does not look too good also, insofar as they seem to promote autocracy in the church, not to mention ignoring the unity of the Body of Christ. Practically, this would mean committing the sin of separatism, and subconsciously practising an "only-true-church" mentality, although that would be theoretically denied. This is especially so if this would be used to for example prohibit a gathering of Reformed Christians for lunchtime prayer, which it could be used to do so since obviously not all Reformed Christians are members of that church. Not to mention that the statement would only sanction any formal evangelism activity under the aspices and oversight of the leadership. Members can also forget about doing any outreach ministry, be it apologetics or teaching outside Christians, unless the leadership sanctions it.
The most important thing to look at with regards to this issue is what the Scriptures say about it, and it is to Scripture that we now look. We would thus examine the verses used as prooftexts for this statement and see if they support it. As to other possible texts, it is my contention that there isn't any other text that does so, therefore the onus is on the affirmative to come up with any texts they deem to support such a statement.
The first two verses used to support the statement are Acts 1:14 and 2:1. The two verses were used to describe the unity of the believers before Pentecost in their devotion and meetings together. Knowing that there was only one church then, I do not see how these two verses are supposed to support the statement of not being involved in ministry outside the church, unless it is insinuated that this is the only true church around. Also, these verses are stated in the situation of the church before Pentecost and the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit on believers, and therefore the focus was inward (or rather upward) rather than outward. After Pentecost, all this changed, as we read in Acts 8:4 that ALL believers who were at that time scattered because of the first outbreak of persecution preached the word to whosoever they encounter, which shows their relative autonomy from the church leadership in ministry. Of course, with regards to not being involved in the activities of another church, the Apostles and others like Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) didn't seem to have such reservation with being actively involved with more than one local church assembly. Speaking of which, the Apostle Paul wrote an epistle (the book of Romans) to the Church in Rome even before he has arrived there.
Using James 1:8 as a prooftext is even worse, as the subject matter is entirely different. Yes, Jas. 1:8 tells us not to be double-minded and thus unstable in all that we do. However, the subject matter here is with regards to faith, or more specifically faith in God's provision through the means of prayer. To just rip it out like that and apply it to ministry in a local church setting is pure eisegesis.
Therefore, we can see that this statement is not supported by its purported prooftexts at all. In fact, by using the verses from Acts, they are dangerously close to claiming that the church which uses this statement is the only true church, at least in their geographical area. Such a statement in actual fact confuses between the Church Universal and the Church Local, and unwittingly foster an unhealthy subconscous separatist, schismatic attitude among those who embrace it.
The practical outworking in a church which embrace this statement is frightening indeed. It firstly helps to foster autocracy within the church, even though the official polity of any church which embraces it may be Congregationalist or Presbyterian, as the leaders have control over any ministry that the members desire to do. Outreach suffers, and those who have a heart for outreach will feel stifled in their calling also, unless they somehow are or will become part of the leadership. The subtle subconscious "one-true-church" mentality, although it may even be vehemently denied and preached against by members and the leaders, will have a chilling effect in interactions with other Christians from other churches. This is due to the fact that we are complex, emotional and spiritual beings, and thus although we can somehow hold a logical contradiction within our heads, the implications of even the denied but practised proposition will subconsciously work its way into our actions and relationships. (We don't always function logically nor rationally).
This will lead to even worse problems later on, especially if Christians who have a heart for outreach would consider settling down in such a church, which is why it is mentioned earlier that such outward-focused people will feel stifled and even frowned upon, since they will be seen as a threat to the church's established status quo. Meanwhile, the world languishes outside with not much of a light, since typically churches who embraced such a statement would not have leaders who are outward-focused, otherwise they would never have embraced such a statement in the first place (Outward-focused people tend to want and disciple others to be outward-focused too, and the multiplication continues).
Before I end this analysis, I would like to claify that I am not saying that we should therefore abandon serving in the Local Church; that is a strawman position. What I am saying is that to enforce or state that service and ministry should be rightly found only or preferably within the Local Church is unbiblical. The leaders of the church should be more concerned about the Glory of God and the magnification of His name, rather than whether the members are contributing to whatever project or event the church is organizing. Look, if God wants you as a pastor/elder/ church leader to do this project, He will definitely provide the manpower and all that you will need to see it through. To be fearful of having not enough manpower for the project or event betrays a lack of faith on their part in the God who can move the hearts of Man. For example, if a pastor were to prohibit any member from serving in a parachurch organization that distributes Bibles to restricted access places whereby there is a shortage of Bibles and Bible teaching, because they require a church accountant, shame on that pastor who make such a decision! Are we serving God, or building our own little empires? When church leaders can learn to yield control of their people to God in service anyway the Lord leads, for the great magnifcation of His glory rather than our own, then I think we just might have some hope (humanly speaking) left for the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.