“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.

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

      • I have been a Christian for over thirty years. Spent decades in the academy and in the pastorate and I have wrestled with this very subject for a very long time now.. This argument as to whether or not a person can be a Christian without going to church is based on a deeply flawed presupposition as well as an anemic biblical theology ( the predictable Hebrews proof text provided without any reference to the grand polemic of that amazing letter, namely, the identity of Jesus Christ) .

        There is a certain habit of thought, which functions as a “reality distortion field.” It is the all too common error in our view of causation, one where the imperative preceeds the indicative. With all due respect to yourself and to Tim Keller, who I deeply admire, the argument presented here, the unassailable, “biblical an obedient” is overreaching on so many levels. This abstract argument for “church attendance” reads like a grasp at control, controlling outcomes through coercion. It is this “clerical” instinct, which creates the “distortion” where we fail to consider what is lost when we continue to sacrifice the indicative (you are) on the altar of the imperative (you ought)!

        Might I suggest that we consider this issue in light of your recent, wonderful post? “What to call a Christian”, which is quite literally one of the very best things that I have ever read in any blog post! What you have there is not one important issue among many, but rather, the fountain and foundation of our faith. This is the only hermeneutic by which we ought to be evaluating every one of our doctrinal concerns! Thanks!

    • I think this is very true, and you’re right about much of Church as building or cultural-establishment are reaping the rotten fruits of many leaving. Paul is pretty clear that the Church is the whole of believers.

      Yet Paul also talks of ‘officers’ (lack of a better word) who lead the church, in the role of deacons/deaconesses and elders (and/or) bishops. These are also a part of the organic conception of the Church as the People of God. And besides thing belongs the meeting together for the sake of the eucharist, prayer, friendship, and hearing the Word. This is our corporate worship. And as Derek put it, if we’re not worshiping in this way, we’re worshiping something else.

      Derek:

      I guess my biggest beef roots itself in the turn-of-phrase ‘butts back in the pew’. I know you’re not weighing your post on this phrase, or mean much by it besides getting people back together. But it reinforces, typified in ‘pew’, the culture-establishment form of church. It will form the same rotted structure.

      We ought to be able to say, with Cyprian, that there is no salvation outside of the Church, or, with Augustine, one cannot have God as Father without Church as Mother. But these don’t mean the clericalism of Rome or any kind of denominational sectarianism. Church ought to be a living term, the exiled people of God, an alternative ‘polis’.

      Eyes might open up if Christians realized, in gathering, they are heralding the Lord of lords, the Head of His people, and the Judge of the world.

      • I keep working with the distinction between church as “non-for profit institution” and Church as the people of God surrounded around the Word and Sacraments. When churches are dying or when we want more people at church, it feels like it is the non-for profit institution we are clinging too and not what it means to be church. The rest of the stuff, from buildings committee, programs, etc are all the outward manifestations of how the Church decides to be church. But what if we simplify, like those christians that can only meet underground. What if we lose some of the trappings of church and go to the heart of making disciples who are around the word and sacraments, what would that look like today in our Western culture?

  1. As a (newish) Episcopalian, I love that you included the Lord’s Supper. 🙂 Sometimes it’s a struggle for me to do church, but the sacraments – more than anything – remind me that I can’t be Christian on my own.

  2. Thanks for this post. As a Reformed Christian who has made my confession according to the Three Forms of Unity, it is against my own confession (Belgic Confession, Article 28) to argue that I can live a godly life separate from the church. The Belgic Confession reminds us that we are ‘duty bound’ to attend church because we are members of the same body and we ought to be serving one another. It’s really tough to serve each other if we are consistently absent. This seems to be basic to the summary of the second table of the Law–to love my neighbor as myself.

    Another way to put it would be that my absence at my church is unloving and hurtful to my closest neighbors–the household of God. The problem is that the idea of ‘duty bound’ isn’t well understood in a Christian culture of cheap grace.

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  4. As a PK I’ve heard my dad talk about people who believe in Christianity life without church quite a bit. His questin is always , “So what if you *can* be a Christian without the church? Why would you want to?” For him lack of desire to be with God’s people said much more than lack of conviction .

  5. Good post, I would love to see you write one on the beauty of the church because…well I love my church so much and being a part of it has made me a much stronger Christian than I ever could have been on my own or even just showing up for 90 minutes on Sunday morning.
    I hated the idea of being involved in a small group. I don’t like people. I don’t like being open with them. I hate praying publicly. Hate it so much. Small groups sounded like my version of hell. But I have a lot of respect for my pastors and they were so gung-ho about the groups that I joined one anyway and seriously – it has made all the difference.

    But, I also appreciated that you did make a small allowance for circumstances. My fiance has a ridiculous job that makes it impossible for him to attend church in any sort of regular fashion. He’s working towards a solution, but for now it’s a rough situation and not one he’s pleased to find himself in. I think an earlier version of myself wouldn’t have had any patience with that, but I see it a little differently at this point.

  6. I like your posts – they confront “cultural christianity” (as if a person can conform to the demands of today’s American culture and still be a follower of Christ).

    I have one further point I think is vital to your argument: If we are not genuinely involved with a local body of believers (warts and all) it’s impossible to be a part of fulfilling loving one another (John 13:34 and 35) let alone be included in Jesus’ high priestly prayer.

  7. Nice piece of work, but I question the assumption: ‘going to church’. I think you too easily combine the Biblical verses with the reality of today. It is really questionable if Scripture tells us something about ‘going to church’. It tells us a lot about ‘being a church’. Is is absolutelly true that we are called to community and obedience. But this cab happen in all kinds of contexts. Personally, we try to live it out in a living community, to be church for 168 hours a week and not just during ‘attendance hours’.
    In this era of individualism we probably have to dig deeper to solve the undeniable problems of individualism and self-centeredness.
    Blessings, Jan

    • Jan,
      Thanks for reading and your comments.

      One quick thing. I get that there is a modern context issue. Still, the New Testament texts do talk about gathering together for the specific acts of worship, teaching, sharing the Lord’s Supper. We know historically that was something that happened in the early church/churches in the New Testament era on Sundays in celebration of the resurrection and so forth. There’s nothing I’m saying that denies the reality of all of life worship, or the principle that we are the church. But the fact that we are the church doesn’t mean for an instant that we are not also to “gather as the church.” Now, of course, that doesn’t have to happen in a special building or something. Houses can work too. Still, the same basic activity is something that is prescribed.

      I guess what I’m doing is pushing back on the extreme that the “we are the church, we don’t just go to church” theology has been pushed to.

      Again, thanks for swinging by!

      D

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  9. Reblogged this on thewaythetruthandthelife and commented:
    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?

  10. The church is meant to glorify God and encourage believers because it is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. Too often, “church” is an excuse, by the leadership, to deceive and abuse those who innocently just love the Savior Jesus Christ and love other believers, and are seeking to be obedient to His Word to assemble with other believers and be under the guidance of godly leadership. There are so many churches here in America, but that doesn’t mean that they are faithful to God and to the Scriptures and are there for the sole purpose of glorifying the Savior Jesus Christ and building up His body by the sound preaching and teaching of His Word, the Bible. Too often they are there to promote man-made doctrines and make merchandise of God’s people, bringing swift judgment upon themselves. God’s Word commands us to turn away from those who are such. If people are too busy, or tired to attend “church” maybe this is God’s judgment upon a disloyal “Christian leadership” who are more interested in promoting themselves and their brand of “Christianity” than in just loving Jesus Christ, loving God’s Word and loving believers.

    http://holdingforthhisword.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/charge-some/

  11. Derek- my question was sorta but not fully answered in your conclusion….that you didn’t deal with membership but more the value of the local church.

    Why cant the things you mentioned be accomplished outside of formal membership? Connected to a small group, actively connected to the worship gathering, hearing from the word serving in the church….taking communion, being baptized… submit to leaders, challenging other people who treasure christ to pursue him more through appropriate church discipline. I didnt hear the argument for the existence of formal church membership rather for the local church and I love the local church….I click the other article you wrote and wasn’t quite convinced either…it seemed like those can exist without formal membership as well.

    outside of voting on the budget what is the good of formal church membership? And don’t get me wrong….there is a budget that needs to get affirmed, but anything else seems to be a stretch.

  12. I think the benefits of church membership are important for some but what people have experienced will vary. I have been in one church or another most of my life and my experiences have primarily been negative, especially with so-called leaders. Descriptions that come to mind include sexual misconduct, liars, financial mismanagement, power-hungry, judgmental, manipulative, condescending, lazy, greedy – you name it, I have seen it in a number of churches. Unfortunately, I all too often found virtually no spiritual discernment among church leaders and submitting to their authority was not in the cards for me. In short, I did not see God in so many of the churches attended. Paul wrote in a time critical for the church, a time when the church was fighting to survive. Under those conditions, perhaps it was important to gather despite “serious flaws.” But to say one is not an obedient Christian, a sinner and one not striving to love Jesus if they are not a member of a church fails to recognize the many worship options that exist in today’s world and smacks of organized religion trying to perpetuate itself and survive. The gathering of believers is important and religious instruction is important, but it does not have to happen in the context of church membership. To use a situation described above, I am much more likely to find God in an underground gathering of Christians than in an air-conditioned sanctuary filled with people going through the motions.

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