In my ministry context, I have heard many versions of this notion over the years, phrased as both a question and also a declaration: “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, do I?”
More often than not, it’s put this way: “I love Jesus and the Bible, but I don’t love the church.” Some have told me, “I can get my church on the internet. There are lots of great preachers there. I just download sermons and I get fed plenty.”
Yet after years of hearing these 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. 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. And yes, I realize there are many situations that keep true believers out of church for periods of time, so that’s not the person I have in mind. My argument applies only to those who claim to be Christians and intentionally reject participation in any local church.
Window Into the Soul
Why do I make such a statement that finds no straightforward substantiation in divine revelation? Because church membership and faithful attendance/involvement in a local congregation provide crucial evidence that one has experienced the saving grace of God. Your attitude toward Christ’s church functions like a spiritual X-ray machine, exposing the condition of the heart.
The imperative in Hebrews 10:25 is a key text. There, the writer of Hebrews warns against “neglecting meeting together, as is the habit of some” (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 tacitly rejecting the very people Christ “bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). 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, to claim to be a devoted Christian and yet disclaim Christ’s church seems a little 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.”
Deeply Practical Question
Certainly, this is an important theological question, but it also holds massive implications for the Christian life, since what we believe motivates how we live. Such rejection of the church is often founded on a lack of understanding of its practical nature. God, in his infinite wisdom, has given us the church for our good. Indeed, some may embrace Christ but fail to see what they are missing by remaining outside the church.
Perhaps an illustration will provide some light.
On Saturday afternoons as a child, I often watched the television program Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I recall a common occurrance during 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, eyes fixed on the limping wildebeest. You know what happened next.
This is a useful parable for the Christian life. Left alone, believers—like the ailing wildebeest—are easy prey for Satan’s devices. Why? Because avoiding the church leaves us exposed and able to be pulled away from the pack of fellow believers, the place where we receive the support and protection necessary to grow into the mature manhood Ephesians 4:13 demands.
So what are we missing by opting for the virtual church, the golf course, or a late wakeup call on the Lord’s Day? Much indeed. There are at least four elements—each crucial to a Godward life—that are cast aside:
1. Instruction and exhortation.
“But,” you say, “I can virtually gorge myself on internet sermons.” True, but that provides only one element of the well-balanced spiritual diet we need to grow into a healthy Christian. Relying on electronic media to feed your soul is like eating every meal in a restaurant by yourself and never having meals at home with your family. It’s simply not healthy.
Your soul needs more than (even good) information—Satan knows the Bible’s theology and is fully aware it’s true. In a local church, your preacher is also your pastor who presumably knows you. He knows your life, your family, your situation. This positions him to speak God’s Word into your life with authoritative specificity. Not even the best expositor can do that through a downloadable file. You need propositional exposition (teaching) wed to penetrating exhortation (application).
2. Sanctification and orientation.
Sanctification is a community project. To help us wage war on sin, we need the assistance of our entire platoon. Immature saints need mature saints. Younger saints need older saints, and vice versa. And on it goes. Titus 2 is often—and rightly so—marshaled to undergird women’s ministry, but it applies to the entire body. There are so many “one anothers” that require, well, one another to faithfully live out.
3. Accountability and discipline.
In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul exhorted the young pastor Timothy to set a guard over his life and doctrine. Likewise, the church functions as a watchman on the walls of Christian lives. 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, I want you to come after me, to love me enough to expose my blind spots, and to lead me back on the path toward the Celestial City.”
Loving, redemptive church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18:15–18 is a vital part of watchfulness. Should you stray, 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. 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 the savvy predator Scripture depicts as “a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
4. Encouragement and fellowship.
God’s Word 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 increasingly enslaved to sin, and as the Day of the Lord draws near, encouragement and fellowship within the body of Christ will grow increasingly indispensable as a means of perseverance.
There is much within the news cycle over which we might wring our hands. No wonder it’s easy to fall prey to discouragement. The encouragement of and fellowship with fellow saints, then, has perhaps never been more important.
We must be in regular conversation with those positioned to remind us that we are aliens and strangers in this land, that we are not yet home, that there is a greater Lion who is also a Lamb who will triumph in the end. 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.
Better Question Still
I’m not sure the proper question is “Do I have to join a church to be a Christian?” Rather, a better question 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 perhaps a better diagnostic question, since it penetrates to the heart and lays bare our thoughts and attitudes toward the bride for whom Christ died.