One of the main tenets of the Roman Catholic Church (and numerous other churches) is “Outside of the Church there is no salvation.” Entering into discussion of matters of salvation is a challenging matter, and one that often leads to a great degree of controversy without a great deal of profit. That said, I thought I would cautiously enter into this discussion, to discuss the tensions with regards to the obligations of fellowship as well as the personal responsibility of having a personal relationship with God. How to navigate the balance between personal responsibility and collective responsibility is not an easy one, made more difficult by the cultural crosscurrents we have to deal with as well that pull us away from where we want to be.
Let it be stated at the outset that this is a subject I have written about in various ways , but it is at the same time a subject about which my feelings are mixed. Part of this is because most of our religious world tries to pit two extremes against each other in a false dilemma, and as is often the case, my own position is a tortured and complicated and nuanced middle zone between the two extremes. The Roman Catholic Church, and many of its authoritarian imitators, are of the opinion that membership in a rigid hierarchical organization that torturously shifts in response to its social circumstances is the sine qua non of salvation. There are any other number of fellowships and individual spiritual seekers, on the other hand, who see any membership in any sort of larger organization to be an affront to their extremely prickly and oversensitive conscience that eschews any sort of decorum or compromise to get along with others.
Where is the balance to be found between these two extremes? Why is it that organizations need to be reminded about the true nature of the Body of Christ? Why is it that individuals need to be part of a larger body? It is easy for an organized body of believers to believe, falsely, that it contains all genuine believers or that it is privileged to be doing the true work of God, as if God’s work can be captured by any one group of people, however blessed. The Bible is pretty clear that there are “other flocks” that hear God’s ways and that wherever two or three believers are gathered together, there God is (see, for example: John 10:16, Matthew 18:19-20). These verses remind us that God’s work is not always about centralization but is about the small work present in relationships and small congregations.
That said, there is clearly a unity within the diversity of believers. For one, Ephesians 4  points out that all believers are part of the same body with the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same Heavenly Father above. Even where a confessional unity and organizational unity is lacking, there will be a unity of fellowship and identity for genuine believers of God. We are all the brethren of the godly brethren of the past, of those godly here and now, wherever they may be, and with all of those unborn believers yet to come (see Acts 2:39). To deny this unity is to deny our connection to God, which depends in some fundamental way on our bonds of love with others, which is our sign as believers.
Fundamentally, the balance we must strike between the believer and the fellowship involve the same principle of accountability. An awareness of the individual relationship between man and God helps the fellowship and the organized aspects of faith to appreciate that their purpose is not to dominate or lord it over believers, but rather to serve believers and properly equip them for good works in all aspects of life, so that all might develop and mature as believers. Leaders of such accountable fellowships recognize that they are the servants of God and of their brethren, not the lords, as is the way in the kingdoms and institutions of the heathen. All too often, leaders and organizations desperately need to be held accountable for their service, to make sure that they do not forget their proper role.
Yet we need to remember as well that individuals need to be held accountable as well. While individual wisdom can provide a great deal of illumination, it also often needs the balance that others provide. All of us have blind spots, all of us have areas we struggle in, all of us have biases and imbalances that can lead us into heretical ground either through ungodly practice or rhetorical excess, and these tendencies need to be reined in through godly relationships with others who can point out the specks or planks in our eyes, knowing that they do it for our best interests, even as we look out for them. It is not merely our socializing with others (although this is important), but rather the fact that we hold each other accountable that makes it necessary for us to fellowship, because on our own we are all imbalanced and incapable of achieving maturity in all aspects of life.
Let us therefore all struggle to find that balance between the importance of our individual relationship with God as well as our responsibilities and connections to the larger body of Christ. Depending on our circumstances, different elements will be more important at different times in our lives. At times our isolation may be the source of great spiritual growth, but terrible social isolation. At other times, the tensions of social affairs may test the strength of our spiritual character and reveal the fault lines and shortcomings of our own behavior in glaring and embarrassingly public relief. Yet if we persist, if we carry on in spiritual development, in humility towards God and graciousness towards others, we will be the better for it, and so will our churches and institutions, as we all work for the edification of the body of Christ as well as our own individual salvation.
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