An Impending Danger
Several years ago, I went hiking in the Smokies with a group of friends. This wasn’t a trail I was familiar with, and I wasn’t in the best of shape at the time. I soon began to lag behind the group. They would always return for me to try and encourage me and walk with me. My pride would always reject their help because, “I know what I’m doing. I don’t need your help. I can go at it alone.” Soon they got so far away I could no longer hear them, nor did I know exactly where I was headed. I had no idea of the impending dangers that were awaiting me.
It wasn’t long until I came upon a long stretch of brush and weeds that were waist high. As I hacked my way through as best I could—stubborn and defiant as ever—I was greeted by an unmistakable sound: a rattle. I look up to see a large rattlesnake laying across the trail. Thankfully, my friends were standing-by; they had stayed back in order to guide me past the pain I would have otherwise suffered.
Unfortunately, there are many who are ignorant of the danger that they’ve placed themselves in by trying to make their heavenly pilgrimage apart from the local church. We face a far greater threat than a rattlesnake; we stand against the smooth-talking serpent of Genesis 3, one who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Surely Satan lies in wait for those Christians who think they can go through this life on their own resolve. As George Swinnock once said, “Satan watches for those vessels that sail without a convoy.”
There’s a reason that the writer to the Hebrews sounds the alarm to warn those who are struggling not to forsake “assembling together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:25). Why? Because neglect of the gathering is a step down the slippery slope to apostasy. A Christian who is purposefully isolated from the context of a local church is foreign concept to the New Testament. To do so is to place yourself outside the safety of God’s ark of salvation.
This world, perhaps now more than ever, can break you down and bring you grief and exhaustion. With so much difficulty and strife around us, not to mention a slew of well-known Christians leaving the faith, it becomes tempting to give up.
We need the local church, because it is there that we find the consistent means of grace that nourish our souls. The local church is the place where God lifts up and strengthens weary pilgrims. We need the work of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the word to build us up in our most holy faith; we need baptism to remind us that we have been “washed with the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) having been purified from our former sins (2 Pt. 1:9); we need the Lord’s Supper, through which we share in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16)—what Saint Ignatius once called the “medicine of immortality.”
The local church is where we commune with Christ in means of grace, but it’s also the primary context where the fellowship of the communion of saints takes place. It’s not enough to sit on the sidelines or watch a livestream; we need the community of believers that stirs us up “to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24) and offers encouragement as we await the day of judgement (Heb. 10:25).
This is what we find in the Bible, and it’s what we confess in the creeds when we say, “we believe in the holy catholic church.” That’s not merely a statement about the universal church of all ages—although it is certainly that—but implied in that statement is a necessary prerequisite of being identified with those who have been baptized into the name of the Triune God and placed in His covenant community. When we confess that creed together, we do so as a people united with the saints who have gone before and those all around the world now, including those in our own community.
With all of this in mind, why in the world would we not seek to avail ourselves of these medicines for our various spiritual illnesses? As the pandemic continues, many questions and concerns remain. I don’t pretend to have all the answers; what I do know is that we can no longer afford to stay away due to fear. Many who are not in a high-risk category have begun returning to other activities, some of which have taken the place of Lord’s Day worship. Some have traded in their favorite pew for their couch.
Friends, this must not be so. Habits built are hard to break, and prolonged isolation lulls us into a proud (and false) sense of security. “I’m safe, I’ve been doing alright so far. Why go back now?” That is the sly serpent whispering in your ear. If you’re waiting for a secular and increasing hostile government to tell you “All-clear, it’s completely safe to return to church,” then you’re waiting in vain.
Please don’t wait. Reenter the Lord’s Day gathering. The safety of your soul depends upon it.
Derrick Brite serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aliceville, Alabama. He received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is currently pursuing a ThM in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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 All scripture references from the 1995 NASB