I always have loved the church. For me, it’s a place where hurting and broken and messy people gather together to worship the One who has given their lives hope and meaning and has the power to transform every one of us into a “new creation”.
The problem though, is that we are all on a journey, we are all a work in progress and we often hurt and damage one another. We do the things we shouldn’t do, we say the things we shouldn’t say, we don’t do or say the things we SHOULD do and say, and the church itself becomes a messy, broken place which just doesn’t grasp the calling it has. Like the character “Cinderella” it has forgotten that it is loved and is reduced to less than it was meant to be.
This means that regularly, people who should expect to find love and comfort and community within the walls of a church (and yes I know the church is not the building, but I’m using the term metaphorically) actually get so hurt by it that they leave never to return.
This is a tragedy for the gospel and for the church.
I recently put up a cartoon in my social media profile which made a comment on this, and someone made the following comment:
“you don’t necessarily have to go to church to be a Christian. I know a few people who go to church regularly but are not very Christian in their ways!!!”
This is not the first time I’ve heard this statement. In fact over the years I have heard it in many different forms, I’ve even been guilty of saying it myself in the past.
I just want to engage with this for a moment or two …
- I absolutely agree that it is not necessary to go to a church to respond to the message of the gospel and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.
- I absolutely agree that it is our response to the message of the cross and NOT whether we go to church which determines our position before God.
- I absolutely agree that it is not membership or attendance of a church which defines us as Christians.
- I absolutely agree that there are many people who do go to church who call themselves Christians and behave in a way which is incompatible with the faith they proclaim.
- I absolutely agree that there are many who go to church who are not actually christians.
This is not however, in my opinion an “either/or” scenario but a “both/and” one. In other words, saying you can be a Christian “where you are” does in no way negate the importance of meeting together with the people of God, and likewise, going to church and “being Christian” when we gather does not absolve us of our call to be salt and light, and be witnesses and live as Christ calls us to in every other area of our lives – whether in a church or in any of the other myriad of environments we find ourselves in.
In my experience, many who want the comfort of believing they are “Christian” and therefore by definition have “earned” a place in heaven, are not willing to live out their lives anywhere in the light of Scripture or under the scrutiny of the Lord. Such people find churches uncomfortable places to be in. In other words, whilst there are Christians who act in really “unchristian” ways within churches, people claiming to be Christians and yet not living like Christians are far more numerous outside our churches than in them.
The correct response to misuse is not “non use”, it is correct use. The correct response to a bad example of church is not to abdicate ourselves from church altogether, but to strive to build and work towards showing an example of what a great church should be like.
A bad family environment can result in a fragmented family with some refusing to join in with the family altogether, and no one would agree that it is a healthy state of affairs. Such families are generally described as dysfunctional. They don’t, however, cease to be part of that family.
Hospitals are full of sick people, you go to a hospital for treatment and hopefully what happens there helps you to recover from your injury or illness. Jesus himself said “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17; Matthew 9:12; Luke 5:31), so a church in many respects is a “hospital for the soul”, it will be full of people with a soul sickness none of whom will have it completely together (not even the leaders!). Many who say “I’m too sinful to go to church” have completely missed the point of the gospel (why they’ve missed the point is a subject for another blog!).
Our battle as Christians is very real! We battle against the inner desires (James 4:1 for example). People who go to church will often do things they shouldn’t (read Romans 7:14-20 which is Paul’s description of his struggles in this regard – as a Christian!). So, even those in churches will make mistakes and hurt one another.
The Bible has a lot to say about how we, as Christians should relate to one another, and never once does it say it’s ok to separate ourselves from one another. Instead time and again it says we are important to each other and that we should love each other. For example (and these texts are by no means the only ones):
Jesus says the world will know we are his disciples because of the love we show for one another (John 13:35). This is very difficult to do if we refuse to have contact with other Christians. Likewise, what place does forgiveness (“forgive one another your sins” Colossians 3:13) have in the action of refusing to gather with other believers?
Acts 2:42-47 especially shows a group of believers who were radically committed to one another. They didn’t just meet as church weekly like some do in our society, they actually met daily, and committed EVERYTHING they were to the fellowship of believers (Acts 4:32)
1 Corinthians 12 talks of believers being part of one body, and here Paul says that one part of the body should not say to another “I don’t need you” or “I don’t belong to you”
Romans 12:5 tells us we all BELONG to one another.
Hebrews 10:24,25 may be brought out to guilt people into going to church, but it is in the word of God nevertheless: “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing”
God’s intent is that it is through the church that his wisdom will be made known (Ephesians 3:10)
The church is the “bride of Christ” This is made clear in the Scriptures, Paul likens the marriage between a man and a woman to the relationship between Christ and the church. He even says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). Revelation says that “the bride has made herself ready”. What does Christ think I wonder, when we say “I love you Christ” but I don’t want anything to do with your bride”? If Christ loved the church that much, shouldn’t I?
If I’m going to stand alongside the saints in heaven (Revelation 7:9,10 for example), I want as much practice as I can get here on earth!
Many would argue that the church we have in the 21st century is not the church that the Bible describes or even one that God would want, so there should be no compulsion to go to one. That in my opinion is a red herring as it is not about whether we should actually commit to a church or not, but should be a discussion on what exactly, constitutes church.
If we can agree that being part of a committed fellowship, a believing community is something which while not essential for our salvation is at the very least beneficial for our growth as disciples of Jesus Christ, we can start talking about what should be the characteristics this community to which we are all committed. Then we can all work together to make that vision a reality.