Is Church Optional for Christians?

I remember hustling out of my little dorm room one Sunday morning. I was terribly late (per usual) for church, and it was always a touch embarrassing to show up late as a Bible school student. As I slipped on one shoe, I reached under the bed with a thrashing hand, hoping it would find the other (thankfully, that hand found a matching set and put those on instead). When I finally made it to the elevator, still pulling on my coat while holding my keys between my teeth, a girl on my hall was just climbing into a chair in the lounge, wrapped in a bathrobe, coffee in hand. “Are you feeling okay,” I asked. “Oh, yes,” she said confidently. “I just decided that I’m going to do Church right here this morning.”

I’m sure I smiled one of those awkward smiles that is one part confused and another part social pleasantry; thankfully, the elevator doors opened and I got on.

I have carried her words with me for years since. The image has haunted me in a way: a woman sitting alone in an empty room “doing Church” by herself. It is an oxymoron, a contradiction, because you cannot “do Church” on your own. Here are three reasons why:

1. Church attendance is a visible expression of an invisible reality: that you are a member of Christ’s Body.

In early church writings you’ll find the Latin phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus scattered throughout. This phrase, translated “outside of the Church there is no salvation,” makes us Protestants rather nervous. We get a bit uneasy when we start tying the Church to salvation. But what this phrase means is this: you cannot become a member of Christ without also becoming a member of His Body, the Church. This phrase doesn’t mean that salvation only comes from a priest, pastor, or the pope, but that no one is joined to Christ in salvation without also being joined to the people of God.

To be a part of the Church is precisely to be one member of a much larger people; no one believer can be the Church on their own (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). The Body of Christ is a universal, physical reality; Christ looms through Creation by His Spirit that inhabits believers across the globe. And if you claim to be a member of that Body then we will find you within the Body, doing the things that the Body is doing, going the places the Body is going (Ephesians 4:16). If you claim to participate in Christ, it would very naturally follow that you would also be participating in His Body.

2. Church attendance is a physical practice that forms us.

We live in a culture that preaches “you are what you do.” That’s why when you go hiking you take your picture and post it on Instagram; as you build your online identity, you document what you are doing, because that is how we define ourselves as a culture. If a girlfriend really like to run, we say, “She’s a runner,” because what she does embodies who she is. Also consider that, the more she runs, the more her life is shaped by her running habits. She’ll buy the clothes, change her schedule, and her body will literally change as she grows more and more into a “runner.”

Ironically, as Westerners we have bought into this idea in all kinds of social media areas, but when it comes to church attendance, we change our tune. “No, really, I am a Christian, I just don’t go to church.” But identity and practice are too intrinsically linked for that. Like our friend who runs, we, too, develop our identity and are formed by what we do; what we do in our bodies matters (1 Corinthians 6:15-20). As Christians go to church we embody the identity with the Body of Christ that we claim. As we sit in the pews we are taught to wait patiently for the coming of the King, as we kneel for confession we remind ourselves that our God is greater than we are, as we listen to the sermon we are reminded that His Words are our authority, and as we rub shoulders with other believers we are reminded that we are not in this journey of faith alone. For Christians, church attendance is a physical practice that forms us into the identity that we claim.

3. Church attendance is Christian obedience.

In the West, we have adopted a church culture that is heavily based on preference. If I don’t like the worship style at the church, I’ll attend another; if our congregation doesn’t agree on worship style, we’ll offer two different styles of worship services. And while this is not entirely bad, it certainly isn’t a foundation we want to build our theology or our churches on. Because, like it or not, I have yet to find a church that meets my preference of staying in bed on Sunday mornings in my PJs. Preference can (and will) only carry us so far.

Participation in the Body of Christ is not optional for believers, but is a matter of obedience. The Word of God makes it imperative that we don’t neglect the gathering of believers (Hebrews 10:24-25), and reminds us that faith festers in community, in the gathering together of believers (Colossians 3:16).

While verses serve as an encouragement to believers, I recognize that they do not adopt the tone of command or a call to obedience. But Christ does adopt an authoritative tone when He calls believers to the sacraments. Regarding the Lord’s Supper, He commands that, when believers meet together (the Text assumes that they do) they receive the elements of communion. Jesus goes so far to say that those who do not participate in the Supper, those who do not receive His body and blood through communion have no life in them (John 6:53-58). Likewise, the Word of God commands believers to be baptized and to baptize (Matthew 28:19, Galatians 3:27, Acts 2:41, Acts 22:16). The grace that is extended in the Supper and baptism cannot be received in isolation. You cannot give yourself communion or baptize yourself; they are primarily and fundamentally acts of community. Commanded to participate in these means of grace, believers must participate in the local church as a matter of obedience.

 

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