“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.

The Deepest Reason We Obey

Calvin had a way of cutting to the heart of things when he wanted to. In chapter 6 of Book 3 of the Institutes he discusses the Christian life, the object of God’s regenerating (life-giving) work in our hearts by the Spirit, a life lived in obedient harmony with God’s righteousness. He points out that, over the years, various moral philosophers have given capable enough accounts of what we ought to do and why we ought to do it. (3.6.1) Now, they’re good as far as they go, but, of course, scripture gives far better reasons, rooting our motive for righteousness more securely, among other reasons, in God’s own holiness, our desire to be in communion him, and a desire to be numbered among those inhabitants of the holy city. (3.6.2) But Calvin goes further and says that, as great as these are, scripture gives us a deeper reason still:

And to wake us more effectively, Scripture shows that God the Father, as he has reconciled us to himself in his Christ [cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18], has in him stamped for us the likeness [Hebrews 1:3] to which he would have us conform. Now, let these persons who think that moral philosophy is duly and systematically set forth solely among philosophers find me among the philosophers a more excellent dispensation. They, while they wish particularly to exhort us to virtue, announce merely that we should live in accordance with nature. But Scripture draws its exhortation from the true fountain. It not only enjoins us to refer our life to God, its author, to whom it is bound; but after it has taught that we have degenerated from the true origin and condition of our creation, it also adds that Christ, through whom we return into favor with God, has been set before us as an example, whose pattern we ought to express in our life. What more effective thing can you require than this one thing? Nay, what can you require beyond this one thing? For we have been adopted as sons by the Lord with this one condition: that our life express Christ, the bond of our adoption. Accordingly, unless we give and devote ourselves to righteousness, we not only revolt from our Creator with wicked perfidy but we also abjure our Savior himself.

Then the Scripture finds occasion for exhortation in all the benefits of God that it lists for us, and in the individual parts of our salvation. Ever since God revealed himself Father to us, we must prove our ungratefulness to him if we did not in turn show ourselves his sons [Malachi 1:6; Ephesians 5:1; 1 John 3:1]. Ever since Christ cleansed us with the washing of his blood, and imparted this cleansing through baptism, it would be unfitting to befoul ourselves with new pollutions [Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 10:10; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 1 Peter 1:15,19]. Ever since he engrafted us into his body, we must take especial care not to disfigure ourselves, who are his members, with any spot or blemish [Ephesians 5:23-33; 1 Corinthians 6:15; John 15:3-6]. Ever since Christ himself, who is our Head, ascended into heaven, it behooves us, having laid aside love of earthly things, wholeheartedly to aspire heavenward [Colossians 3:1 ff.]. Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to God, we must take care that God’s glory shine through us, and must not commit anything to defile ourselves with the filthiness of sin [1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16]. Ever since both our souls and bodies were destined for heavenly incorruption and an unfading crown [1 Peter 5:4], we ought to strive manfully to keep them pure and uncorrupted until the Day of the Lord [1 Thessalonians 5:23; cf. Philippians 1:10]. These, I say, are the most auspicious foundations upon which to establish one’s life. One would look in vain for the like of these among the philosophers, who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise above the natural dignity of man.

-John Calvin, Institutes 3.6.3

To sum up: Why does Calvin say we obey? Because God has saved us in Christ.