“Do I Have To Go To Church to Be a Christian?” A Few Rough Thoughts

church“Do I really have to go to church to be a Christian?”

I think just about every Christian has either asked or been asked that question at some point in their time in the faith. For reasons too numerous to list right now, we live in a non-committal age about these things. We’re busy with our work lives, schedules, amusements, children’s sports, video games, sleep, and so forth. What’s more, generally speaking, religion is generally a private matter for Americans, and so when we hear that we have a “personal relationship with Jesus”, we tell ourselves that means “private” and nobody else’s business, certainly not that bunch of strangers up the street at church.

On top of that, Evangelicals with a youth-group level understanding of justification by faith tend to think that to require something like church attendance is a denial of grace itself. The question of whether or not salvation is riding on church attendance turns into the idea that it’s sort of an optional add-on.

As the issue’s been on my mind a lot lately, yet without any real, over-arching thesis, I thought I’d simply offer up an assortment of rough-shot answers sort of cobbled together in order to deal with the initial question. So here goes.

Obedience 

The other day, someone asked Tim Keller in a Twitter Q&A, “Can a person be a Christian without being a member of a church?” to which he responded:

The text in question reads:

 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Heb. 13:17)

The point is very simple. In the Bible, Christians are commanded to submit and listen to the elders and deacons (pastors, etc) whose job it is to guide, guard, and love them. Well, if you’re not a member of a church that has those leaders, you can’t very well submit to them now can you? The implication is that everyone who has professed faith in Christ is also simultaneously a part of a local body of believers. (For 11 more reasons membership matters, see here.)

The same point could be made with respect to attendance in the local body:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25)

The, seemingly, clear command of Scripture is that believers are supposed to be regularly gathering together for the express purpose of encouraging on another, stirring each other up to love and good works in the Lord. Sounds a lot like going to church, doesn’t it? If you read the rest of the New Testament, the assumption seems to be the same. There’s no contingencies imagined where a Christian would be profitably separated off from the body for a time. Indeed, simply asking the question, “What would Paul or John say about the necessity of gathering with believers in worship?” makes the whole thing rather obvious.

Still, yes, theoretically, I’d agree you can be a Christian, be regenerate, and so forth, and not currently be in regular attendance in church. But, and this is Keller’s point, there is no way you can claim to be a Christian who is actually trying to obey Jesus and grow in godliness without it. What’s more, you can’t say you’re striving to love Jesus either. Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), which include those delivered by his apostles in the NT.

And here’s the kicker, the point where my “yes, but you’re not obedient” turns into a “maybe not.” John tells us that those who are born of God don’t “make a practice of sinning” (1 John 3:9), or disobeying God’s commands. In other words, while we may struggle with sin, believers will not set themselves in long-term hostility to God’s commands. Yet if we continue to look at God’s commands to gather with other believers and say, “You know, I see what it says, but I don’t agree, and I’m not going to obey because I don’t think it’s necessary”, there’s a real chance that disobedience is evidence of a lack of saving faith. If you’re a believer who is no longer hostile to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), the commands of God exert a force that, in the long-term. leads to greater obedience. In which case, one way or another, your butt’s gonna end up back in the pew.

4 More Reasons

The other day I wrote a piece on “dating advice” for Christians. Essentially I said that one of the key markers of a godly relationship was your commitment to the other person’s involvement in the local body. I then listed four reasons why you want your significant other seated in the pews weekly. It turns out they’re just good reasons to go to church in general, so here they are in an abridged form:

  1. Sit under Real Preaching. I don’t have the kind of space necessary to speak of the manifold benefits of sitting under regular preaching, but I’ll list a few.
    1. First, it convicts of sin and humbles us before Christ. A heart that doesn’t submit to listening to the law will be hardened against any call to repentance…
    2. Second, it reminds us of the gospel. Unless regularly reminded of the grace of Christ, the heart will begin to sink into sin, go into hiding, and find its deepest affirmation in things other than Christ…
    3. Third, the Word of God truly preached brings us by the power of the Spirit into the presence of Christ.
    4. Finally, we need to hear an outside word that we can’t quickly rationalize, twist, distort, or ignore.
  2. Meet with Other Believers…
  3. Receive the Lord’s Supper. Whether you’re a Baptist, Anglican, or Presbyterian, you want to be regularly reminded that Christ alone is the source of spiritual life—he died, rose again, and our union with him is the only true food for your soul. We need to feast on this truth regularly, or we will be tempted to draw strength from other, lesser sources… (Additional note: this one, more than any other, simply cannot take place outside the regular gathering. Scripture expects we will be celebrating the Lord’s Supper with other believers in a community that knows your confession.)
  4. Worship God Alone. Our souls need worship. Yes, everything we do under the sun is worship. Work is worship. Play is worship. Sleep is worship. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the corporate gathering of the people of God, in receiving the supper and lifting our voices in song, prepares and shapes the desires of our hearts to focus on God throughout the whole week.

Can’t v. Won’t 

At this point an objection should be noted: “What if you can’t get to church? What if you live in a country that doesn’t have any churches?”

Well, then I’d say we’re dealing with a very special case. I think there is a very real difference between “can’t” and “won’t”, though. Sometimes we think we can’t, when the real issue is that we won’t. For many of us, we “can’t”, not because there are no churches around, but because there are no churches that we like around. We either don’t like the vibe (too big, too small, too old), or maybe something more valid such as issues with the theology (too Reformed, too Wesleyan, too Dispensationalist.) Still, going by the state of the churches Paul was writing to in the New Testament (debauchery, random heretics running around, etc.) the gathering of the body is so important that even some (very) serious flaws, let alone preference issues, shouldn’t be an obstacle to meeting together.

Now, if you’re actually in an area with literally no churches and no possibility of getting to one, then, that’s a different story. I also think there are some tragic situations, where after spiritual abuse, some time in therapy and a little space to heal, including a temporary break from more formal attendance, can be appropriate*. That said, according to the New Testament, this is far from ideal or normative. The person in the US looking for a reason to not have to go to Church can’t really build a theological argument based on that one guy on an island somewhere who doesn’t have an option. Really, the more that I think about it, unless you manage to move into an area with no churches as a missionary, it’s unlikely you’re going to come to faith without at least one or two other believers around that you can meet up with regularly.

On that point, my buddy Gavin Ortlund had a stunning point in his review of a book that’s actually entitled How to Be a Christian Without Going to Church:

The fact that cultural trends function with theological authority for Bean may explain why some of the reasons she provides for abstaining from church feel self-indulgent (not to mention rather Western and suburban). At one point she observes, “The effort it takes for over-committed, overextended people to get to a 90-minute service or give time to programs and church events can be too much. Sometimes staying home on a Sunday morning seems like the best way to remain sane” (57). In earlier times in Christian history, and in other places of the world today, believers risk their very blood in order to worship together. This is the mandate of Hebrews 10:25, where in a time of persecution “not neglecting to meet together” is part and parcel with holding fast to the faith.

I feel grieved and embarrassed wondering how Christians outside the contemporary West—Christians who walk a dozen miles to meet with their church, or who meet underground for a 10-hour service—would feel about the idea that sitting in an air-conditioned sanctuary for 90 minutes is just too difficult.

Gavin’s right on the money. There are believers around the world who risk their lives to meet in secret with 4 or 5 other believers in an apartment to read the Scriptures and sing to Jesus no louder than a whisper, while we complain that Sunday morning is “the only day I get to sleep in, you know?” This is hardly “take up your Cross and follow me” stuff we’re talking about.

Inertia and Magic Neutral Time

Make no mistake, this is an urgent matter. This is not the kind of thing where you can say, “You know, I know it’s important, but I just can’t get to it right now. When things calm down, then I’ll make time to gather.” When you do this, you’re operating on the “magic neutral time” principle:

…that faith is unchanging, timeless, and perennial. Your walk with Jesus is something you can leave alone for a while and, once you’ve done your own thing for a bit, pick up again. “Neutral time” is like calling timeout so you can go the restroom or take a break in the middle of the game; when you come back the score, time, and possession is just like where you left off last.

I call this explanation “magic” because basically nothing else in life works this way. If I decided, “You know, for the next few months, I’m not going to watch my diet or work out or take vitamins or anything. Then I’ll just pick it up again and be right back where I am now.” If I think that’s how it will work, I’d be sorely deluded.

See, when it comes to the spiritual life, inertia is a real thing. It’s kind of like the gym. One week off here and there is fine. It happens. But when one week off becomes two, two becomes a month, a month becomes a year, and so on. The less you go, the more you become accustomed to the time, or fill it in with other things, or things like guilt and shame start weighing in and make thing the thought of going even more oppressive. This is not an exaggeration; I’ve seen this many, many times, and it has long-term, wide-spread effects throughout your life, beginning with your relationship with Jesus.

Conclusion

I suppose this post has served more of a negative purpose. Not in the sense that my tone was super negative, but that I didn’t spend quite as much time making a positive case for the beauty, goodness, and blessings of membership and regular worship, so much as ruling out a number of unhelpful ways of thinking about the issue. Ah well. While the positive case should be given priority (and, indeed, forms most of the bulk of the New Testament’s witness about the necessity of the Church), planting the seed, so to speak, sometimes you need to clear the brush too.

While we could go on for a few more pages here, you get the point. “Can you be a Christian and not go to church?” I suppose the better question is, “What kind of Christian are you trying to be?”

Soli Deo Gloria

*To those who have been harmed in church, I know your pain is real. My sister is an MFT who loves to give care to those who have been wounded in the church. Let me put it this way, though, if you’ve ever been harmed by medical malpractice, eventually you have to go back to the doctor to have him fix what the first one damaged, right? There are healthy churches out there, ones that can deal compassionately and graciously with the wounded and bring the healing words of Jesus to bear on your life.

12 Reasons Membership in a Local Church Matters

Leeman-Church-MembershipIronically enough, I don’t think I knew what church membership was until I went to a a big mega-church that told people on a regular basis that they didn’t need to become one. I had grown up with parents who functioned as committed members of their churches, but conceptually the idea of formal membership in a local body was foreign to me until a few years ago.

At the risk of over-generalizing, I think that’s about where your average American Christian (evangelical) is nowadays. Insofar as we’ve actually given any thought to the issue, we go to church, maybe plug in to a church, or at most commit to a church. But, formally belong to one? Like on a list? With like a signature and stuff? In our individualistic, consumeristic, anti-authoritarian society, that sounds too rigid, too formal, and just bizarre. The church is a family, a community where I go to get fed and built up in my faith, not some organization or institution I belong to.

For a while now I’ve been getting over that kind of knee-jerk, anti-institutional way of thinking. I mean, I’m at a Presbyterian church for crying out loud. Still, at the suggestion of a friend I finally picked up Jonathan Leeman’s couple of books on church membership and discipline (The Church and the Surprising Offense of the Love of God, Church Membership), and found his arguments challenging and largely persuasive. The issue is a big deal, and membership in the local body is far more central to being a Christian than most of us are used to thinking.

In one little section Leeman helpful summarizes a key section of his argument into 12 reasons membership in a local body matters:

  1. It’s biblical. Jesus established the local church and all the apostles did their ministry through it. The Christian life in the New Testament is church life. Christians today should expect and desire the same.
  2. The church is its members. To be a church in the New Testament is to be one of its members (read through Acts). And you want to be part of the church because that’s who Jesus came to rescue and reconcile to himself.
  3. It’s a prerequisite for the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a meal for the gathered church, that is, for members (see 1 Cor. 11:20-33). And you want to take the Lord’s Supper. It’s the team flag that makes the church team visible to the nations.
  4. It’s how you officially represent Jesus. Membership is the church’s affirmation that you are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and therefore a pass-port carrying Jesus representative before the nations. And you want your representation to be authorized. Closely related to this…
  5. It’s how you declare your highest allegiance. Your membership on the team, which becomes visible when you wave the flag of the Lord’s Supper, is a public testimony belongs to Jesus. Trials and persecution may come, but your only words are, “I am a Christian.”
  6. It’s how you embody and experience biblical images. It’s within the accountability structures of the local church that Christians live and experience the interconnectivity of the body, the spiritual fullness of his temple, and the safety and intimacy and shared identity of his family.
  7. It’s how you serve other Christians. Membership helps you know which Christians on planet Earth you are specifically responsible to love, serve, warn, and encourage. It enables you to fulfill your biblical responsibilities to Christ’s body (for example, see Eph. 4:11-16; 25-32).
  8. It’s how you follow Christian leaders. Membership helps you know which Christian leaders on planet Earth you are called to obey and follow. Again, it allows you to fulfill your biblical responsibility to them (see Heb. 13:7, 17).
  9. It helps Christian leaders lead. Membership lets Christian leaders know which Christians on planet Earth they will “give an account” for (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).
  10. It enables church discipline. It gives you the biblically prescribed place to participate in the work of church discipline responsibly, wisely, and lovingly (1 Cor. 5).
  11. It gives structure to your Christian life. It places an individual Christian’s claim to obey and follow Jesus into a real-life setting where authority is actually exercised over us (see John 14:15; 1 John 2:19; 4:20-21). It’s God’s discipling program. 
  12. It builds a witness and invites the nations. Membership puts the alternative rule of Christ on display for the watching universe (see Matt. 5:11; John 12:34-35; Eph. 3:10; 1 Pet. 2:9-12). The very boundaries, which are drawn around the membership of a church, yield a society of people that invites the nations to something better. It’s God’s evangelism program. 

-Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, pg. 79-81

Membership matters then–a whole lot more than most of us are used to acknowledging. The local body is key to mission. It’s key to discipleship. It’s key to actually following Jesus instead of just claiming to.

For the unconvinced, I’d recommend picking up Leeman’s little, and I mean very little book, and examining the biblical arguments for yourself. (If you’re up to it, I highly recommend his bigger book.) Even if you don’t come away convinced of every point, you’ll be challenged to take a deeper view of what it means to be a part of the body, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Church Failed Millennials, Just Not in the Way You Think (CaPC)

churchIf you hadn’t already heard, millennials are leaving the church in droves leaving many church leaders scratching their heads as to what to do about it. Rachel Held Evans came out with a piece on CNN.com stepping into the gap to explain why they are leaving Apparently it struck a nerve; it was shared over 170,000 times. Speaking as the voice of a generation, she raised issues like our exhaustion with the culture wars, poor handling of teaching on sexuality, gay marriage, science and religion, and putative weakness on social justice. Instead, millennials want, and need, a deeper encounter with Jesus.

Of course, as the college and young adult guy at my church, as well as a millennial myself (freshly 27), I read her piece and the follow-up with great interest. I saw a number of those 170,000 shares in my Facebook feed, with loud cries of “Amen!” and some disgruntled nay-saying. I probably uttered both as I read it. While there were a number of insightfulreassuringly critical, and helpful interactions with her piece, addressed to the churches and readers in general, I wanted to briefly address myself more directly to my fellow millennials here.

You can read the rest of my piece at Christ and Pop Culture.

Barna Shock Poll: Christians Still Need Jesus

phariseesThe Barna Group released a new poll last week in which the proposed question was: “Are Christians more like Jesus or the Pharisees?” Christians get accused of hypocrisy all the time, so why not see if there’s some statistical evidence to back up the claim?

According to the Christian Post:

The findings were derived from 1,008 telephone interviews of which 718 respondents self-identified as Christian from Nov. 11 until Nov. 18, 2012. Respondents who identified themselves as Christian were asked 20 questions, ten of which compared their responses to Jesus’ actions and attitudes and ten of which compared their responses to the Pharisees of the New Testament.

You can go read my article about why this really isn’t a big deal over at Christ and Pop Culture.

Could Constantine Have Been James Madison?

Definitely not a 4th Century Emperor.

Definitely not a 4th Century Emperor.

So after a few months of having it stare at me from my book shelf, I was able to start reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine:The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.  Admittedly I’m only about half-way through the work, but to me this is a tour de force of historiography and theological polemic re-examining the life and times of the first Christian Emperor, as well as the theological critique of “Constantinian” relations between church and state a la John Howard Yoder. Given that I’ve just arrived in Orlando for the Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference I can’t take time for a truly substantial post about it yet. Still, one section in particular stuck me as worth briefly sharing and commenting on.

In reviewing his involvement in the internal affairs of the Church such as the Arian controversy and conflict between the Catholics and the Donatists, Leithart addresses the criticism Constantine receives as an un-baptized Emperor with no particular religious authority mucking about in such matters. For us moderns, it seems so obvious that there ought to be a separation between Church and State. Constantine should have taken a hands-off approach and left it bishops to handle their “spiritual” business while he took care of the affairs of state. Leithart calls this suggestion “implausible” and comments:

As we saw in the last chapter, Constantine did in fact follow a policy of tolerant concord. Beyond that, no one in the fourth century would have thought that a political regime could function without religious sanction, and it is naive to think that Constantine’s conversion  would have instantly turned him into James Madison…The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century? What were the constraints on his action? What, perhaps more important, were the limits of his imagination? Only when we have considered those questions are we capable of doing justice to Constantine’s interventions in church politics.

Defending Constantine, -pg. 132

The point is, when dealing with Constantine’s political legacy, we need to consider our historical distance and the limits of the subject’s own political horizon. Constantine wasn’t ruling his Empire after the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the various historico-political developments that have shaped Western thought on religion and politics. Indeed, the separation between the two would have been an entirely foreign one, and so would the idea of an Emperor who kept a distance from the cultus. While admittedly not the biblical ideal, Leithart gives us good historical reason to think that Constantine’s foray into a constructive relationship between the State and the Church isn’t the sheer, unmitigated disaster that popular polemics would have us believe.

Soli Deo Gloria

Checking Out Churches? Don’t Forget the ‘Jesus Drinking Game’ Test

Well, now that I have your attention, some of you may be wondering what the Jesus Drinking Game Test is and why is a college minister talking about it? (Also, whether I’m going to be fired in about two sentences.)

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. (Acts 2:14-15)

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.” (Acts 2:14-15)

It all came up in a chat with my buddy, Andrew–a fiery, young, Welsh intellectual on the rise–when discussing church standards. Although staunchly Reformed, he keeps getting invited by his more liberal friends to their liberal mainline churches. Recounting one such experience he recalled: “I got drug to a new-agey Episcopal bible study where we did ‘centering prayer’ on ‘what God means to you, or however you perceive the Life Force.'” That did it for him. Now whenever he’s asked to check out one of his friends’ churches, “I tell them my rule: if I were to be drinking in church and take a sip every time Christ or the Gospel is mentioned, would I get tipsy? If not, I’d rather stay home.”

Now, make sure to note the hypothetical character of this test. Nowhere on this blog are you reading an exhortation to take flasks with you to church or play drinking games. For the record, drunkenness is a sin. (Eph. 5:18) Also, for my students, if you’re under 21 you shouldn’t even be touching the stuff.

The principle, however, is quite sound. As a baseline minimum, if you wouldn’t get drunk if you had to sip every time they mention Jesus or the Gospel in a church service, then it’s probably not a church you want to be going to. It might be a nice place, full of decent, moral people trying very hard to be good, have lovely children’s programs, lively social events, and a very nice pastor who is a great public speaker with a good amount of practical wisdom about your finances or dealing with conflict. All that taken into account, if this is not a place where Jesus’ Name is lifted up as the only one that saves, and the Gospel as the message that sustains, you should walk out and find another. Any church worth its salt will be drenched in Jesus and the Gospel.

Of course, merely dropping Jesus’ name and saying the word “gospel” in front of every other phrase is no guarantee of fidelity. This is probably another good reason not to be drinking in church–you want to pay attention to what they actually say about Jesus and the Gospel, measuring it against the word. (Acts 17:11) Still, for those considering a congregation to worship at, keeping the ‘Jesus Drinking Game’ principle in mind isn’t a bad place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ben Affleck is Human! And Married! (CaPC Piece)

affleckLike a lot of Americans, I sat down the other night to watch the Oscars for the first time in years with some friends. When I witnessed Seth MacFarlane’s talented-but-crude, sexist, I-love-myself-so-much performance, I was reminded why. At the end of the night though, when my hope for humanity was at its lowest, Ben Affleck injected this wonderful, impromptu moment of redemptive decency. In the middle of his breathless acceptance speech he thanked his wife, Jennifer Garner, but it wasn’t the typical air-brushed gratitude we’re used to:

I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good, it is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.

You can go read the rest of my piece over at Christ and Pop Culture. Thanks.

Soli Deo Gloria