Let me explain.
Normally when you hear this question, the answer goes something like this:
“Yes you can be a Christian and not go to church because being a Christian is not about religion but about having a relationship with Jesus. You don’t have to earn your relationship with Jesus, he gives it to you as a free gift. So technically you can be a Christian but you really should go to church.”
This explanation is usually followed up by an illustration of how lumps of coal, when plucked from the fire, grow cool or how sticks, when bundles together, are stronger.
These sentiments, although a bit cliché, are nevertheless true. However, they can also distort our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?
First of all, the phrase “relationship with Jesus” is misleading because everyone has a relationship with Jesus. Not all relationships are healthy or positive. Some people may have a relationship with Jesus Christ as their enemy but they still have a relationship with him, and even a personal one.
The question we need to ask isn’t so much whether or not we have a relationship with Jesus but what kind of relationship with Him is unique to the Christian?”
The briefest summary I can think of is that a Christian is someone who relates to Jesus Christ as their King, Saviour, and Treasure.
If Jesus is our King, who commands us and leads us, then that would show itself in our lives through and attitude of obedience. If we truly understand that Jesus has saved us from our sins then gratitude and repentance will be present. If we have come to see that knowing Christ renders all else rubbish in comparison then we will long to walk closely with him and grow in our knowledge of him.
Putting aside for a moment the handful of exceptional circumstances where joining a church is simply not possible (such as being stranded alone on a desert island), let us look at what makes it so difficult to reconcile “churchless Christianity” with the Bible.
It begins with the way we think of our churches.
WHAT IS A LOCAL CHURCH?
A local church is not simply the collective noun for a group of Christians: A swarm of bees, a school of fish, a church of Christians…
If two or three Christians go play golf together they are not a church.
Rather, a church is the gathering together of Christians in Jesus’ name in order to worship God and encourage one another through the ministry of the Word.
There is more to say on this about elders, discipline and the sacraments, but for now, I merely want to point out that by “church” the Bible does not mean a trip to the local coffee shop, cinema or football game with another Christian.
So how does this definition of church affect our claim to follow Jesus?
OBEDIENCE TO OUR KING
Can we really claim to have sworn obedience to our King and yet disobey his clear instruction that we should not give up meeting together?
All of us fail in our obedience and trust in his grace to forgive us. That is a very different to constantly and deliberately ignoring his explicit commands without repentance.
This is not to mention the many implicit problems churchlessness creates for our claims of obedience. The commands to love one another, submit to the elders, participate in the Lord’s Supper together are all placed in jeopardy by our simple refusal to commit to a local church family.
TRUST IN OUR SAVIOUR
Likewise, can we really claim to have put our trust in Jesus to save us if we do not love to join together with the church?
Jesus not only reconciled us to God but to one another as well. To be saved is to be brought into the Body of Christ by the blood of Christ. Ignoring the local Body of believers, and yet claiming to believe that Jesus saved you, makes little sense when one considers that the church is what we have been saved for.
LOVE FOR OUR TREASURE
Jesus told his disciples that whenever two or more gathered in his name (local church), he would be with them. Jesus is especially present with his people when they are gathered together, just as he is present among the lampstands in Revelation.
If I claim to love Jesus why on earth would I not want to be where he is? If I love Jesus then my place is with his people who gather in his name. If I have no interest in being in His presence with His people…well, it doesn’t sound right does it.