I have heard many versions of this notion over the years, phrased as both a statement and a declaration. “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian—do I?”
More often than not, it’s been put this way: “I love Jesus and the Bible, but I don’t love the church.” Or those more inclined toward a naïve spiritualism have spun it as, “I can spend time with the Lord out in the woods. I don’t need the distraction of other people. Just me and nature and God.”
Yet, after years of hearing these pithy aphorisms and being asked this question (with the “no” answer often strongly implied), I remain unconvinced that one can be a Christian and intentionally remain outside the visible, local church. Granted, the grounds of a sinner’s salvation in Scripture are clear: Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. True, the Bible never adds “church membership” as a condition of salvation. But note the qualifier “intentionally” in my thesis—it is the key pillar in my argument. I am here assuming the individual making this query is intentionally seeking to avoid church membership and church attendance while claiming to be a follower of Christ.
A Window into the Soul
Why do I make such a statement that finds no straight-forward substantiation in divine revelation? Because church membership and faithful attendance/involvement in a local congregation provide crucial evidence that one has in fact experienced the effectual grace of the living God. One’s attitude toward Christ’s church functions like a spiritual X-ray machine, exposing the condition of the heart.
How can I make this assertion with such confidence? The imperative in Hebrews 10:25 may be marshaled here as strong evidence for my claim. There, the writer of Hebrews warns us about “neglecting meeting together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:25). What is “meeting together” but the writer’s assumption that God’s people are to be regularly gathered in worship? Gathering together as a body is the command of Scripture. And to openly reject and repudiate such a command provides a critical window in the heart of an ostensible believer. After all, did not our Lord say “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)?
Not only are we disobeying the command of Scripture when we say church membership/attendance is optional, we are also showing open contempt for the very people “which Christ bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Thus, it is very important to ask: Is it possible for a genuine Christian to reject the very thing Christ loves? Paul draws a parallel between Christ’s sacrificial love for the church and marriage in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” If Christ loved the church enough to lay down his life for her, how can we then say gathering with other believers as commanded is tertiary to the redeemed life?
On the evidence of Scripture, we must conclude that for one to claim to be a devoted Christian and yet disclaim Christ’s church is an oxymoron. It’s like saying, “I want to drive a nice car, but I’d rather not have an engine.” Or, “I love to eat, but I despise food.”
A Deeply Practical Question
Certainly, this is an important theological question, but it also has massive implications for the Christian life, for what we believe determines how we live. Often, I think such rejections of the church are founded on a lack of understanding of the practical nature of the church. God, in his infinite wisdom, has given us the church for our good. Indeed, I think some may embrace Christ, but fail to see what they are missing by remaining outside the church.
Perhaps an illustration will provide some needed light.
On Saturday afternoons as a child, I often watched the weekly television program, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. As I reflect back on that show, I recall something that emerged from the zoologists’ study of animal herds; the camera would show one crippled, weak animal (usually a wildebeest) falling behind the rest of the pack and ultimately left behind as the other animals fled across the plain. Another camera would show a pride of lions observing the herd, scouting for an easy meal. Their eyes suddenly fixated on the limping wildebeest. And you know what happened next.
This is a useful parable for the Christian life. Left alone, like the ailing wildebeest, Christians are easy prey for Satan’s devices. Why? Because avoiding the church leaves the alleged Christian to be pulled away from the pack of fellow believers, the place where he or she will receive vital support and protection, through God’s means of grace, support and protection necessary to grow into the mature manhood Ephesians 4:13 demands.
So what are we missing by taking opting for the woods, the golf course or a late wakeup call on the Lord’s Day? Much indeed. Here are a few few elements—all of them crucial to a god-ward life—that are cast aside:
Biblical instruction and exhortation.
“But,” you say, “I can virtually gorge myself on preaching today through the Internet.” True enough, but that provides only one element of the well-balanced spiritual diet you need to grow into a healthy Christian. Relying on electronic media (alone) to feed your soul is like eating every meal in a restaurant by yourself and not taking meals at home with your family. It’s simply not healthy.
Your soul needs more than (even good) information—even Satan knows the Bible’s theology and is fully aware that it is true. In a local church, your preacher is also your pastor who presumably knows you. He knows your life, your family, your overall situation, because a faithful pastor knows his congregation. This positions him to speak God’s Word authoritatively and uniquely into your life. Not even the best expositor can do that comprehensively through a downloadable file. You need propositional exposition (teaching) wed to penetrating exhortation (application).
“You need propositional exposition (teaching) wed to penetrating exhortation (application).”
Additionally, your pastor or pastors will supply you with biblical instruction and exhortation systematically every Lord’s Day and at other times when the body gathers. God has ordained preaching as the means to both save and sanctify his people. The Word and His Spirit conspire as his chosen means of illumination so we come to know God and ourselves more accurately (as Calvin put it). But it is also God’s chosen means of conviction so that we see our sins more clearly, flee from them, and pour focused prayer on specific areas of persistent sin so that those sins will be mortified. Remove both instruction and exhortation and you lose vital means of sanctifying grace.
Sanctification and orientation.
As Paul David Tripp so memorably puts it, sanctification is a community project. To help us wage war on sin, we need the assistance of our entire platoon. If we are immature saints, we need to be under influence of mature saints. If we are younger saints, we benefit from spending time with older saints. And on it goes. Titus 2 is often—and rightly so—marshaled to undergird women’s ministry, but I think in principle it applies to all Christians. We need each other to grow in grace to receive the final two benefits of body life.
Accountability and discipline.
In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul exhorted young pastor Timothy to set a guard about his life and doctrine. Likewise, the church functions as a watchman on the walls of the lives of all Christians. By participating in the body, you are submitting to the authority of your elders and fellow church members, granting them access to your life and doctrine. You are saying to church leaders and fellow parishioners, “In the day you see me flirting with unbiblical doctrines or slouching toward worldliness or ungodliness, I want you to come after me, love me enough to expose my blind spots, and lead me back to the path toward the Celestial City.”
Loving, corrective, redemptive church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18:15-18 is a vital part of such watchfulness. A faithful church body will love you enough to employ this means of grace as a way of pointing you back to Christ, our ark of safety, should you stray. Without this, it is virtually certain that you will become wounded, weak, and wary, and you will meet the same fate as the wildebeest, torn asunder by a savvy predator whom Scripture depicts as “a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
Encouragement and fellowship.
The Word of God builds up and encourages God’s people, and God’s people build up and encourage God’s people. That’s the second part of Hebrews 10:25, “encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” As the world becomes more and more enslaved to sin and unrighteousness, and as the Day of the Lord draws near, encouragement and fellowship within the body of Christ will surely grow increasingly indispensable as a means perseverance.
“The Word of God builds up and encourages God’s people, and God’s people build up and encourage God’s people.”
There is much within the news cycle over which we might wring our hands. We live in a world of bad news, as the streets declare the sinfulness of man. In our own country, a moral revolution is well underway and Christianity is being pushed further and further toward the periphery of our society. Thus, it is easy to fall prey to discouragement.
The encouragement of and fellowship with fellow saints has never been more important. We need to be regularly in conversation with those who are positioned to remind us that we are aliens and strangers in this land, that we are not home yet, that there is a greater Lion who is also a Lamb who will triumph in the end, present appearances notwithstanding. Without such gospel encouragement and fellowship, surely we would soon find ourselves shackled in the dark and dank dungeon of Doubting Castle under the baleful eye of the Giant Despair. We desperately need Hopeful and Faithful as our companions on our dangerous journey away from the City of Destruction.
A Better Question Still
I’m not sure the proper question is “Do I have to join a church to be a Christian?” Rather, a more penetrating and diagnostic query might be, “What is my attitude toward the local church and what does that say about my commitment to Christ?” It’s more a question of “ought” than “must.”
This is a better diagnostic question because it penetrates to the heart and lays bare our thoughts and attitudes toward the church for whom Christ died.