You Can’t Grow without the Church

How do you grow as a Christian?

Few questions are as important for a follower of Christ. I’ve encountered many theories over the years. I’ve met people who rely on emotional experiences, hoping that the Spirit will come down in a Pentecost-type way and elevate them to a higher spiritual realm. I’ve known others who emphasize the need to yield as if growing is the fruit of passivity. In my circles, the most common theory I’ve encountered is the view that we grow through acquiring more knowledge. If we really want to grow, we need to attend Bible studies and hear Bible preaching. Then, the knowledge we acquire will sink into us and change us.

This view sounds right. You certainly can’t grow without the Bible. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth: your word is truth” (John 17:17). We see the early church devoting themselves to the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42). If you google how to grow, any respectable list is going to instruct you to study your Bible more. I would never contradict this advice. However, I believe it leaves something essential out.

Here’s the problem. I’ve known many Bible students over the years, some of whom possess truly impressive knowledge of the Bible’s teachings, who are complete jerks in real life. I know from experience that Bible knowledge does not automatically lead to spiritual growth. Paul must have met some folks like this in Corinth, for he warned that church, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). What good does it do to acquire all the Bible knowledge in the world, if that knowledge doesn’t help you become a more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, kinder, better, more faithful, gentler, and more self-controlled person (Galatians 5:23)?

Bible knowledge alone does not achieve spiritual growth. A Spirit-indwelt Christian will not grow on an individualistic island. Locking yourself up in your basement and studying the Bible all day will not sanctify you. To be a hearer of the Bible or a reader of the Bible or a studier of the Bible alone, without practicing the Bible, is to deceive yourself (James 1:22). Intake of Bible knowledge, while necessary, is not sufficient.

We don’t grow without the church. It’s in the church where we learn what it means to love people. It’s there, in community with other sinners, that we learn to bear with one another and put our own preferences to the side to prioritize those of our brothers and sisters in Christ. If you’re not in the church, you’re not learning what it means to humbly “count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

The church is so essential for growth that Paul describes growth as something that takes place communally. In other words, for Paul, we all grow together. He writes, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). His word is essential, but the test of obedience to his word is disciples who love one another. You can memorize the whole Bible, but without love, you’re not fulfilling the purpose for which it was written. We learn to love in community, committing our lives to others in Christ. We learn to love when we’re still there after the storm, when we refuse to bail after another failure, when annoyances and quirks don’t make us run away. We learn to love by reciprocating Christ’s love to us toward one another. You can’t learn love without the church.

Last night, my small group went around in a circle and shared how God has been growing each of us. Each person who shared mentioned the role of the church in his or her testimony. Unprompted, each person recognized that they wouldn’t be where they were without the fellowship of other Christians in the local church. Do you want to grow? Immerse yourself into the church.

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