As a future pastor, this question bugs me. I get Christians from all different walks of life who get it in their heads that since they’re Christian, church isn’t required. Actually, the opposite is true. Church is required because you’re a Christian! If you’re not Christian, obviously church isn’t required. The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). These early Christians “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). Wherever God’s people meet is where the Church is.
Church is not the building; the Church is God’s people. The word for “church” comes from the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklesía), which in its literal translation means, “entire body of believers.” So, church is not the building you go to, but the people with whom you have fellowship and worship God. We should consider ourselves extremely blessed that we have designated buildings to go to church, because for a time the early church was heavily persecuted by the Roman Empire.
Christians often question why the early church was so much better than the church is today. I propose it may be because we’re not hardly as devoted to one another in fellowship today as the early Christians were. In biblical times, Christians met together regularly, even during weekdays, and even in their own homes. Today, some Christians are too lazy to go to church with pathetic excuses like, “I’m too tired” or, “It’s the only day I have to sleep in.” So what? The early Christians were being persecuted to death, and yet they still found the time to meet together even in their own homes. Imagine how tired they were!
The excuse that irks me the most is, “I don’t have time.” Yes you do. You just have to make the time. If you can make the time to watch (i.e. worship) football on Sundays or whatever sport you idolise, then you can make the time to go to church and worship your God for 60-90 minutes. I always say this, but I’ll keep on saying it: There’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation. An excuse is, “I’m too tired. I worked late last night.” So? You can still go to church and rest for the remainder of the day. An explanation is, “I have to work on Sundays and my boss won’t give me Sundays off.” That’s legitimate, but being too tired is not. I couldn’t get away with being too tired as an excuse not to do my homework when I was a kid, so grow up and stop using infantile excuses that you can’t go to church. (I will say, though, that there are some extenuating circumstances, such as working a midnight shift going into Sunday morning. In that case, go home and sleep, obviously.)
I hear the following excuse often as well, “I can have personal devotion time in the privacy of my own home, so I don’t need to go to church.” What laziness! And again, there’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation. A personal devotion once a week is not enough, and it is not church. The issue of not attending church is not a new issue; the Scriptures address it. “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” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Church attendance is not a suggestion; it is God’s will for His people. Why does He demand we go to church? Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39). Those commandments are why. First, let’s talk about the second great commandment, then let’s talk about the first.
To Love & Encourage One Another
First John 4:12, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.” The above Hebrews passage says we need to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.” So, let’s consider it.
How can we “stir up” one another in love? It should be palpable that church be one of those ways, but if it were I would not be writing this. Going to church and having fellowship with one another is a place where we can love each other in fellowship. Who do you go to when you have a problem? It might be your significant other, your spouse, your parents, your best friend, whomever it is. Church is a place where we go to one another for encouragement, love, and support.
This type of comfort is also God’s will for His people. “[God] comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). God comforts us in amazing ways, and this comfort we receive isn’t something we’re meant to keep to ourselves. This is one way in which we see God—His love in His people. Christianity is often labeled as a personal faith. This is true in some ways, but it is not completely true. It is true that we each develop personal relationships with God, but that’s not all Christianity is about. We also share in this faith with one another as a community at church. It isn’t about becoming a Christian and then isolating yourself in your faith. Rather, it’s about coming together to worship and glorify God and learn of His lovingkindness and work together to share Him with the world.
God’s will for His people is that we share this comfort with our brothers and sisters in Christ. So how can we comfort one another if we refuse to see each other by going to church to be with one another? Church is home. Home is not a place where you’re judged; it’s a place where you’re loved and embraced. If a church judges you, it is not home. Judgement does occur through the Law, but if that’s all a church preaches without giving the Gospel, then it is not home.
To Call Out Each Other’s Sins (Admonishment)
Hebrews 3:13, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Underneath all our excuses, this is probably the biggest reason why we don’t go to church if we’re being truly honest with ourselves. One of the hardest things to do is to receive admonishment, which means to “reprimand” or “advise earnestly.” We love to admonish people, but it’s something else entirely when people dare to admonish us. We think we have it all together, and when somebody comes along and tells us otherwise, we’re offended and immediately become defensive and accuse the person of self-righteousness and being judgemental. People hardly enjoy receiving constructive criticism, so being admonished for being sinful becomes extremely personal and offensive to us.
If he or she is doing it correctly, the Christian is supposed to judge. People often misquote “Do not judge,” ignoring the rest of the context. The context of this brief quote from Jesus is a guide on how we are to judge without hypocrisy, which is also in the wider context of Jesus’ words, “Do not judge by appearance, but judge with righteous judgement” (John 7:24). What is this righteous judgement? Well, He already answered that in Matthew 7:1-5, which people take out of context all the time:
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
That is righteous judgement. If you judge someone when you are just as equally guilty of something similar, then you’ll be judged in return and the person will have no reason to listen to you by any means. Instead, Jesus says to examine yourself before you expose someone else’s sin, for only by removing your blindness to your own sin will you see clearly how to help your brother remove his sin.
Suppose you approach a brother in Christ who’s cheating on his wife, and while rightfully judging him of adultery you confront him. Let’s suppose he’s aware of your sin in habitual premarital sex. He has no reason to listen to you since you, too, are guilty of a sin you refuse to repent from. Or suppose your two sins are not similar at all. Suppose you tell your friend it’s a sin to commit premarital sex, and he refuses to listen to you because you go to parties and get drunk and engage in obscene dancing. In such cases, recognise you are also guilty of a sin and are in need of repentance while acknowledging that to your brother, while telling them they are in need of repentance just as much as you are, for they are both equally perversions of God’s will.
So, righteous judgement is a necessary part of the Christian life. Jesus also gives us steps to take when a brother or sister is living in unrepentant sin. It comes from Matthew 18:15-17:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
This is where excommunication comes from. If a sister is living in unrepentant sin, approach her privately. If she refuses to repent after several exhortations, bring two or three others with you of whom are trustworthy confidants. If she still refuses to repent, then bring it to the church with the witnesses you brought to confront your sister. If she still refuses after this, then it’s grounds for excommunication. Why? Because she is rejecting the Holy Spirit, which is the gravest of all sins.
So, church is a great place to have accountability in our lives—to have people who love us dearly and because they love us as Christ does, they aren’t afraid to call us out on our rubbish. All we see is our subjective view, which can become easily scanted and corrupt in manifold ways; it’s difficult to see things for how they are when all we see is what we see. That’s why it is necessary for an objective view of how others see us so they can call us out in our sin when we can’t see it. Sin is a serious thing, even as a believer. Christians are not exempt from sin. If anything, Satan paints a giant target on our back when we become Christian, so he attacks us with even more temptations. But when we have brothers and sisters in Christ who love us and don’t want to see us give in to the Devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, they can help us see our sin and help us forsake it through Christ our Lord.
To Serve One Another
Galatians 5:13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” All these ways in which we relate to our brethren in Christ can be summed up in the greatest second commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Of course, your neighbour includes all people around you. Somehow, though, we forget these neighbours include our brothers and sisters in Christ. Other Christians need just as much love as non-Christians. We can serve one another in numerous ways.
For example, as a veteran I’m using the Post-9/11 GI Bill for my undergrad. Since I’m attending a private university, that particular GI Bill has a stupid rule in that it only pays a certain amount of money for private universities while it pays 100% of tuition at public universities no matter what. There was one semester where the VA wouldn’t pay the full year’s tuition, and the school told me I had to pay the remaining $3,300 by a certain date or they would cancel my classes for the upcoming semester, which was money I didn’t have. I was able to pay $2,335 in two months by dipping out of my savings, but I couldn’t get the remaining $965 before the deadline.
During Bible study at my church one morning, I asked that they pray I somehow come up with the money. The next weekend, my pastor calls me and tells me someone from the church anonymously paid the remaining balance for me. I still have no idea who did this for me, and I wish I could tell them how extremely grateful I am. Whomever this person is, he or she did their Christian duty by serving me. They didn’t have to do it by any means, but out of their love for me in Christ, they spent their own money to help me in a tight spot.
Service to one another in Christ does not have to be in monetary value; it could be anything. Help someone change a tire or jump start their car. Pray for someone. Be there for someone as merely a listener of their problems and troubles. There are so many ways in which we can serve one another. All we need to do is just think of ways in which we can serve another brother or sister in Christ and be on the lookout for their needs.
For Word and Sacrament
Until now, all the reasons to go to church have been to love your neighbour as yourself. Now, let’s talk about the first great commandment: loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Since this is the great first commandment, Word and Sacrament are the greatest reasons to go to church. If that’s so, why am I talking about it last? To save the best for last, of course.
Church is where we go to hear God’s Word. Sure, you can read the Bible in your own home and read a private devotion and those are great, but let’s be honest here: How many of us actually do that? I admit, I’m going to be a pastor, so I do those things often. Yet there have been plenty of times in the past when I never read my Bible or a devotion even as I knew I was going to be a pastor. I try my hardest to read my Bible every day as well as a devotion, but in my sin I go plenty of days without doing this.
People give the excuse that they can read a private devotion instead of going to church, but I doubt they’re being honest. They say they can do it; they don’t say they actually do. Perhaps I’m just being cynical, or perhaps I just know human nature. Besides, reading a devotion on Sundays is not church! There are different purposes for reading the Bible in your own home and listening to a pastor’s sermon based on the Word. Reading our Bibles at home is for additional relationship building with Christ outside the Church. We don’t go to church and that’s it; church continues outside the doors.
There’s also a significant difference between reading the Bible at home and learning from a pastor’s sermon. A pastor is a trained theologian; you’re not. A theologian is an individual who is carefully trained in hermeneutics—the discipline of interpreting Scripture set to specific principles (which I will not delineate here for the sake of brevity). Theologians are certainly fallible and capable of misinterpretation (just look at John Calvin and his view on the sacraments), but the untrained theologian (i.e. the congregant) is heavily prone to misinterpretation. For example, the Christian undisciplined in biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) often misinterprets Jeremiah 29:11 as God speaking to them and all Christians, when in fact God was speaking specifically to Jeremiah and the words have nothing to do with them. Yet it is often misinterpreted this way! a pastor as a trained theologian can correct such misinterpretations, which cannot be learnt when one refuses to go to church. All Christians are free to read God’s Word, but this does not mean all Christians are theologians.
There are also certain things in Scripture that are hard for us to understand without the pastor’s edification. These are usually things that have to do with context. For example, it is hard to understand why it was necessary for Jesus to fulfil the Law without the pastor’s teaching. This essential teaching of the Christian faith is not something a reader typically sees when they read the Bible at home without prior teaching in the matter. For this particular teaching, understanding it comes from a lot of Old Testament reading in the Law, such as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which are often dry and boring books for average Christians to read, so they hardly read them, if ever. The pastor, however, has read them and studied them thoroughly and shows how Christ is the fulfilment of these laws and thus why we are no longer under law and don’t need to keep it.
The pastor also teaches the congregation how to apply Scripture to their lives. Some of Jesus’ words might be confusing to someone reading them in the privacy of their own homes. For example, when the lawyer asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him that if he obeys the two greatest commandments, he will inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25-28). Without the guidance of a pastor, it is easy for one to think we need to fulfil the Law ourselves in order to inherit eternal life (i.e. works righteousness).
However, that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. Instead, the pastor may teach that Jesus answers His question correctly. If you do those things you will inherit eternal life, but the lawyer, knowing he hasn’t fulfilled this part of the Law, desired to justify himself (v. 29) by challenging Jesus with the question, “Who is my neighbour?” The lawyer thought He trapped Jesus in defining his neighbour as a specific group of people to say, “See, I did do that.” But Jesus changes the definition of neighbour. In the parable of the Good Samaritan that follows, Jesus asks the lawyer who the neighbour was, and he correctly identifies it as the Samaritan—that person whom the Jews despise so much. Then He tells him, “You go, and do likewise” (v. 37).
You are the Samaritan—the neighbour to be neighbourly to all. Even more, Jesus is that Samaritan—that hated and discarded outcast who fulfilled that Law on our behalf—who humbled Himself and tended our wounds in sin. Therefore, as He came to be neighbourly to us all ultimately in the gift of salvation by faith, He commands we go and do likewise to others, for He first did it to us. Can you learn this without church? Doubtful.
It is clear, then, we need to go to church to hear God’s Word taught with accuracy for our own edification. The other reason is the sacraments: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution, all of which offer the forgiveness of sins. One might say, “Why should I receive a sacrament for forgiveness when I can just ask for it in prayer?” It is true that you can ask for forgiveness when you pray. However, one’s conscience is often left unsure of this forgiveness. God knows this, so He blessed us with physical elements in which He gives us tangible assurance of our forgiveness. In Baptism we feel the assurance of being adopted into God’s family in the waters (Ephesians 1:5) as it cleanses us from sin for salvation (Ephesians 5:26; 1 Peter 3:21). In the Lord’s Supper we taste the sweetness of God’s forgiveness (Matthew 26:28). And in Absolution we hear the words of forgiveness from the pastor as if Jesus is speaking them Himself (John 20:23). We also receive the Sacraments because Christ instituted and commanded all of them, so if you truly want to obey Christ, go to church and receive His grace in the sacraments.
Besides our brothers and sisters in Christ loving us in encouragement, admonishment, and service, church is the place in which we can receive God’s grace and mercy in Word and Sacrament. God loves us through our Christian neighbours. He also desires to love us through the preaching of His Word and impart His grace through His sacraments for the forgiveness of sins. Living outside the Church is no place for a Christian; the Church is meant specifically for the Christian. Salvation comes from Christ, not the church as an institution. However, the individual won’t last long.
Scripture speaks of Christians as being members of one body: the Church, which is Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31, esp. v. 27). When a Christian is outside the Church, they are like a branch that’s cut off and eventually dies. A branch separated from the vine cannot survive, and Jesus is the Vine, and we are the branches (John 15:1-5). Since Christ is the Church and we are His members, if we separate ourselves from His Church, our faith will eventually decay and die. Salvation can be received outside the Church as an institution, but without the Church (Christ), faith cannot be strengthened and sustained.
As Thomas Merton once said, “The Church is not a museum for saints; it is a hospital for sinners.” We are simultaneously saint and sinner. God declares us as saints, but we still struggle with sin in this life. Therefore, church is the place where we not only receive forgiveness of sins, but also a myriad of services from our brothers and sisters in Christ for encouragement and endurance with the purpose of God’s love to shine upon us until the Day of the Lord and forevermore.