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It’s a disturbing trend that’s spreading like the plague among evangelicals who claim to be Believers:
“I’m a Christian but I refuse to attend church.”
These aren’t people who can’t attend church due to health reasons, caring for an ill or disabled loved one, who have no other choice but to work some Sundays, or who live in an area with no reasonably doctrinally sound church to attend. They’re people who could get plugged in to a decent local church, but intentionally shun the body of Christ.
Usually, the decision to opt out of church boils down to one of two scenarios: a) a Believer who was hurt by a previous church and yet isn’t ready to risk being hurt again or b) someone (often a false convert) who doesn’t grasp the concept that being joyfully joined to a local body of believers is part of what defines someone as a Christian.
I can tell some of y’all have already fired up your e-mail programs or mentally formulated a corrective comment. Hang on, and please read what I’m about to say so we’re all on the same page here. I am not saying, have never said, and will never say that attending church, joining a church, serving at a church, or being baptized into a church is what saves a person, even in part. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian. Everybody with me? Scripture is clear that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and that good works, such as church attendance, play zero part in a person’s salvation.
What I am saying is that one of the signs, or fruits, that someone is already saved is that she has a heartfelt love and affection for the things of God, which includes the gathering of the saints for fellowship, worship, encouragement, and edification. For a Believer, love for the bride of Christ is a natural extension of loving Christ, Himself. A Believer doesn’t have to be talked into attending church; there’s no place on earth he or she would rather be.
We’ve all been in difficult situations with difficult people at church that can hurt, sometimes deeply – believe me, I’ve been there – and can leave us in need of taking a few Sundays off to recover, or possibly the need to change to a healthier church. But if you’ve harbored antipathy toward the church, as a whole, for years, have never taken joy in fellowshipping and worshiping with fellow believers, don’t see any particular need for gathering with the Body, or are generally apathetic in your attitude toward church, you’re in a very dangerous place, spiritually, and you need to question your salvation. Those are symptoms of being lost, not fruit of being saved.
For Christians, being joined to a local church is not optional and non-negotiable. Why?
1. God Says So
Just in case the entirety of the Bible isn’t clear enough that God wants His people meeting together for fellowship, worship, and the Word, He says so very bluntly in Hebrews 10:24-25:
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.
The HCSB puts it this way: “not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do,” and NASB says: “not forsaking our own assembling together.” God says we are not to neglect, stay away from, or forsake, the meeting of the church body. For anyone who claims to be a Christian, that reason alone ought to be good enough. When God tells us to do something, we do it. Period.
2. The Church is God’s Plan for Christians
God doesn’t need or want your help devising the best methodology for your life and growth as a Christian. He already has a plan. He already established that plan. That plan is the church. There’s no plan B nor any cafeteria-style options. If you’re a Christian, God’s plan for you is to be a faithful part of a local body of Believers. The Bible never suggests that it’s OK for you to be a “Lone Ranger Christian.” There are no explicit statements to this effect, nor even one example of a New Testament Christian who lived life apart from the church. The New Testament assumes Christians will be part of a church. If not, the majority of Matthew through Revelation would be moot. If you reject membership in the local church, you’re rejecting God’s Word and His way in favor of your own way.
3. Jesus Values the Church
You claim to love and follow Jesus, right? Well, Jesus founded the church. Jesus is the head of the church. Jesus loves the church. Jesus died for the church. Jesus is the Savior of the church. Jesus nourishes, cherishes, and sanctifies the church. How could anyone claim to love and follow Jesus and yet cavalierly toss aside something He values so much that He laid His life down for it? If you really love Jesus, you’ll value the things He values, and, clearly, He values the church.
4. Being Joined to the Church Is an Indicator of Salvation
First John 2:18-19 makes no bones about it. Forsaking the church is an indicator that you’re not saved:
…now many antichrists have come…They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
Want to make it plain that you’re not of Christ? Step one is to leave the church.
5. The Church is the Dispensary for the Word and the Ordinances
The preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In order to preserve their purity and sanctity, God established a hierarchical structure of ecclesiastical authority and placed the responsibility for administering Scripture and the ordinances with the church, not isolated individuals. Do we have women’s Bible studies and Sunday School classes? Of course. But only under the oversight of our pastors and elders, as an outflow of, and in keeping with, the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. Do we share the gospel with the lost we encounter during the week? You bet! Our churches enable us to do so by training us in the Word, and we bring new Believers back to our churches so that they may be discipled.
6. The “One Anothers”
Love one another. Comfort one another. Forgive one another. Serve one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. Have you ever stopped to think which people “one another” is referring to? It’s easy to see when you look at these verses in context. It’s our brothers and sisters in Christ. All of the New Testament “one anothers” are written to the church. You need brothers and sisters to minister the “one anothers” to you, and your brothers and sisters need you to minister the “one anothers” to them. We cannot properly carry out the “one anothers” outside the church because they were meant to be practiced first and foremost within the church.
7. Sheep Need Shepherds
The Bible often uses sheep as a metaphor for God’s people. And since we know that God is the author of Scripture, we know God handpicked that metaphor to describe us. Ever notice that God never describes a sheep wandering off on its own as though that were a good thing?
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way;
I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant,
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?
Sheep who leave the flock to make their own way in the world are in danger from wolves, the pitfalls of sin, and any number of other perils, especially the trials and tragedies of life. I can’t tell you how many e-mails I’ve received from distraught Christian women in dire personal circumstances who desperately need pastoral counsel. Sadly, when I tell them I’m not equipped to help them with such a complicated problem from so far away and that they need to make an appointment with their pastor for one on one, face to face counseling, the response is often, “I haven’t been going to church. I don’t have a pastor.”
We need the protection of the sheep pen, the brotherhood of the flock, and the leadership of our shepherds, our pastors, to help guide us. God knew we needed those things. That is one reason He established the church and created the position of pastor. Christ is our Good Shepherd, but until He returns, He has appointed godly men to watch over and protect the flock in His absence:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
And he gave…the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
So I exhort the elders among you…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
1 Peter 5:1-4
You can’t shepherd yourself. That internet pastor you listen to – even the most doctrinally sound one – can’t shepherd you. You need to be part of a flock led by a shepherd who knows you and cares for your soul.
Do you take joy in gathering regularly with your brothers and sisters in Christ for worship, the Word, the ordinances, building one another up, and serving one another? If not, the solution is not to leave the church altogether. The solution is to examine your heart against Scripture to discover whether or not you’re truly saved, and then to find a healthy church you can pour yourself into. Christ has given believers the local church as a blessing and a benefit, not a burden and a bore. Love and embrace this precious gift He has lavished on you.
Searching for a new church?
What the Bible Says About Church Membership
Six Ways Not to Forsake the Assembly
7 reasons worshipers need the church at The Cripplegate
Mailbag #49: Home Groups Over Church at 9Marks
My Jesus, I Love You; Your Bride I Despise! at Reformation21
Why You May Be Tempted To Neglect Your Church by Tim Challies
Five Essential Reasons for Christians to Gather in Public Worship at Ligonier
Prioritize Your Church by Tim Challies
Is a “Churchless Christian” an Oxymoron? at Ligonier
The Plight of Churchless Christians at The Cripplegate
40 reasons to be part of a local church at The Cripplegate
Church Attendance Is Not Optional on the G3 Podcast