Can I be a Christian but not a Churchgoer?
I recently read an article by a Christian blogger, Wendy van Eyck, explaining why she identifies as a Christian but not a churchgoer. This is not the first time I have encountered this statement and others like it. Despite the linked author’s voiced anxieties over insensitive responses, I felt I had to write this post as more and more Christians are viewing the local church as an optional extra for the Christian life. I fear for Christians belonging to the subculture that self-labels itself ‘post-church’ and I believe that this shift reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel and God’s purposes in the world today. The church is a display of God’s wisdom (Ephesians 3:10), to bring him glory (3:21), but this is only accomplished when people are united by the gospel and their pursuit of a mature faith. So in this post I will offer a few caveats, interacting with the linked post, before arguing that Christians must belong to a local body, for their own Christian walk and the health of the church.
A few caveats
Wendy writes, “Jesus is still the most dear and precious thing in my life.” This is a wonderful assertion, and all Christians should resolve to adore Jesus and consider him more valuable than anything we possess or desire. Unfortunately, while the author professes that Jesus is most dear to her, I think she has failed to recognise what is most dear to Jesus, namely, the church he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Wendy also writes “Jesus plus nothing is the only math I need.” This too is a delightful, if not a little misleading, statement. Tullian Tchividjian recently wrote Jesus + Nothing = Everything, picking up Paul’s mantle in Galatians to remind us that Christ’s work is sufficient for salvation. But I would like to point out another sum in Paul’s writing: the blood of Christ has brought those who were far off near and in the gospel God has made two into one (Ephesians 2:13-14). Towards the close of her article, Wendy writes, “I just want you to feel free to live in such a way that daily you find yourself being pulled into an embrace by God, that you find yourself so close to him surgeons would have a hard time cutting you apart.” Once again, the picture painted is evocative, a great thing to pray for others – indeed, Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1) – “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13), “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, especially those who are of the household of God” (6:10). It is a grave mistakes to detach individual salvation from God’s work in the world, reducing it to something private and unrelated to God’s people. And I hope to convince you of that below.
1. God saves us to belong to a local church
Peter writes, in 1 Peter 2:4-5, ‘As we come to Christ we are built together as living stones into a spiritual house,’ with the language of priesthood (2:5, 9) being implicit of ministering to each other. Mark Dever, who has written extensively on the church, argues this point convincingly in What is a Healthy Church?, “Never does the New Testament conceive of the Christian existing on a prolonged basis outside the fellowship of the church.” Dever adds, drawing on Ephesians 2:11-22, that being committed to a local body is the most natural outcome of being a Christian because it confirms what Christ has done. I would add that committing to the lives of other Christians is also indicative of how Christ has treated us. Dever claims, with even more force, that in respecting the New Testament it is impossible to answer the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ without ending up in a conversation about the church. The pattern reflected in Scripture is of God drawing people to himself and in doing so establishing new and unlooked for relationships amongst his people. This result is not arbitrary, but purposed by God so that we will minister to each other and receive the ministry of others. Without other Christians in your life, many whom who would not have chosen, but God has, you will bury the gifts (or “talents”, Matthew 25:28) that God has given you and cut yourself off from the abundant blessings of belonging to a local church.
2. Christians need the church
In his short, must read, The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller writes, “Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.” He admits that churches can be unpleasant – indeed essential to his work is the critique of judgmental, inhospitable, and self-righteous Christians, or “elder brothers” – but Keller firmly states, “There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place…Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.” Not only is the Christian life incomplete without the community of a local church, it is also dangerously lacking in accountability, loving correction, and challenging aspects of our faith raised by those who are different to us. I am sure that Gentile Christians were tempted to quit the predominantly Jewish churches of the 1st century, yet Paul wrote, ‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, a holy temple’ (Ephesians 2:19-21). Whichever analogy from the New Testament you favour regarding the church – from body to family to building – God unequivocally states that we are joined together as local churches, and that our growth and faith will be stunted outside of the church.
3. The church needs Christians
One of the grey tops in my church recently said to me, ‘If everyone came forward with their gifts in local church we would have all we need.’ Now, you may partly disagree with that wise saint, and I am not sure the church will be fully functioning and healthy this side of heaven, but her point is worth considering. In Ephesians 4:11-12, we read that God gifts the local church with speaking and teaching offices so that the whole church is equipped for ministry, to serve each other. When I decide that I can no longer be part of a local church for fear of not fitting in or further hurt I make the conscious decision to withhold my gifts, ministry and service from other Christians; basically, I am putting my comfort ahead of others. This seems contrary to the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Commenting on both the Pauline epistles and Hebrews (see 3:12-15; 10:24-25), David Peterson writes in Engaging God, “There is an emphasis on gathering for the benefit of the believing community…The giving and receiving of exhortation is undoubtedly a key factor…of the Christian assembly.” He goes on to argue the obvious: we cannot forsake the local gathering of believers, as many professing Christians do. Christians exist for the benefit of other Christians and the growth of the local church. Peterson then concludes, “Christians ought to gather together regularly to give in ministry, and not simply to receive.” Those cruising as comfortable passengers within the church along with those who have already jumped ship need to be reminded that the church needs them and their service if it is to make headway.
Presbyterian pastor, Philip Ryken asks in The Church, “How could anyone be ambivalent about the church? Its sin notwithstanding, and in spite of all the people we find hard to love, the church is the holy people of God.” Surely there is nothing more important for us to give ourselves in service of, even in suffering for, than the church that Christ purchased with his own blood. Our decision to belong to a local church cannot be dependant on what it does for us and how safe we feel, rather we should model our lives on Christ who made himself nothing and became a servant (Philippians 2:6-8). Self-preservation over the wellbeing of the local church is not how Jesus lived, in fact the cross demonstrates the polar opposite, therefore it is not something I imagine he would endorse.