The New Testament describes a Spiritually communal approach to developing and incarnating a sound biblical theology. The Bereans didn’t care how famous the dynamic duo Paul and Silas were (Acts 17.10-11). They were as eager in their scrutiny of the apostolic witness as they were in receiving it. The Corinthians themselves would be responsible for validating prophecy shared in their assembly (1 Cor 14.26-33). They wouldn’t write down all the prophecies and overnight them to Paul before passing judgment. They had to do the hard work themselves.
We consistently find that the local church is responsible for its own theological maturity and expression. It would not be apostolic succession but apostolic confession that would sustain the church long after the apostles died. It’s the local church’s responsibility to maintain that confession (Heb 3.12-14; 10.23-25).
In what way does the local church provide the best context for developing a sound biblical theology? (By “local church” I mean the gospel-forged relationships with those with whom I live out and before whom I am accountable to the Christian faith.) I’ll approach an answer by way of an illustrative detour. Bob attends Main Street Baptist Church in Smalltown, USA. He sits weekly with his family and other church members under the authoritative preaching of God’s word. He appreciates his preacher and enjoys the church’s fellowship. But his real consideration of Scripture comes from John MacArthur’s study notes and listening to John Piper’s sermon from last Sunday. Then he can tweet and chat with other anonymous folks about it. He enters a pseudo-community where you know everybody and nobody at the same time. He really isn’t concerned with how his MSBC brothers and sisters benefited from their preacher’s exposition. He sees little need in consulting his pastor when he can easily Ask Pastor John. He really has no idea if his brothers and sisters are holding fast the confession of faith.
In no way minimizing the gift these pastoral and theological giants are to the church, the primary field in which our soul’s graze is our local church. It is to our local brothers and sisters we owe primary attention. It is with them we must work out God’s word and share common convictions and confession. What Piper, MacArthur, Driscoll, Sproul or you-name-him thinks about an issue is important, but not nearly as important as what our local church thinks about it. Unless we’re members of Bethlehem Baptist Church John Piper is not commanded to keep my brothers and sisters from evil, unbelieving hearts that fall away from the living God, nor we him (Heb 3.12). We as members of our local church are commanded to do so for our brothers and sisters with whom we’re covenantally committed.
Rather than immediately wonder what Piper might think, we would benefit far more by asking what our brothers and sisters might think. If I’m commanded to help my brother hold fast his confession then I’d better know what he confesses! How will Bill work out this week’s text in his marriage? In what way did Bonnie see Christ in the text this week? How do we as a church work through Jesus’ teaching on divorce or Paul’s teaching on communion? Do we insist on independence and autonomous self-study (hyper-priesthood of the believer) or do we want to work out and share convictions within the biblical community?
It matters what “those” guys think in the big picture scheme of things, but not nearly as much what “these” guys in my life think. These guys with whom I share the same cup and loaf. These guys who know my children and cry when we’re hurting. These guys who see me sin and fumble the faith. These guys who know the right ways to encourage and confront me. These guys are the theologians from and about whom I should most want to learn.
In what way does the local church provide the best context for incarnating a sound biblical theology? Back to Bob. Bob listens to Piper’s sermon and assumes the proper application of the text is to do what Piper and Bethlehem do. Start a worldwide adoption fund. Plant six new churches among unreached people groups. Multiply campuses. Bob gets quickly frustrated because his church does none of those things. His church only cares about a little clothes closet and sewing blankets for foster kids. He then becomes critical that his church is not faithful and that maybe he should lead his family elsewhere, where the people are “serious.”
The best application of Scripture is however your local church attempts to obey Jesus. John Piper does not live in our community. John MacArthur has no idea about our local gospel soil. What they do in their contexts is what they should do. The church is far better and healthier for their efforts. However, what we do by faith in our contexts is what we should do. Discerning what that is demands a deep commitment to working out our salvation within our community of faith.
Do I care more how John Piper handles his cancer or how Mrs. Smith, who sits three rows behind me, is handling hers? Did I even know she has cancer? Do I spend more time parsing MacArthur’s view on suicide than I do encouraging Penny who sits across from me and nurses suicidal thoughts? Am I caught up in the Manhattan Declaration fuss or caught up in my brother who considers divorce or sister who suffers post-abortion guilt? Do I care more about what Mark Driscoll thinks about sex than I do what my pornography-addicted brother thinks about it? Am I jealous of the celebrity ministries or jealous for my church to be faithful in worship, love and service? The best context in which I can incarnate a biblical theology is to invest in the brothers and sisters in my local church. It is among them I learn how to confront sin, encourage biblically and counsel wisely.
How will we live out the Christian faith together in our local community? Maybe applying last week’s sermon in your local church is not launching a global missions initiative. Maybe it’s writing an encouraging note to a sister who wonders if anyone cares about her. Maybe it’s buying a year’s supply of thread for those blankets. Maybe it’s visiting a brother at the job he hates and just wants some light to shine during the week. Maybe it’s paying attention to the folks no one else pays attention to. Maybe it’s praying for and encouraging the church down the road everyone in town gossips about. Whatever it is, work it out in your local church and embody the biblical theology you confess together.
I don’t suggest ignoring the large-scale, public affects of uniquely-gifted pastors and churches. I am suggesting that we not substitute them for Jesus’ prescribed means of loving and obeying him: the local church. But then again, a small town, small church pastor would say that, wouldn’t he?