As a future pastor, this question bugs me. I come across Christians from all different walks of life who somehow 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 Christian! If you’re not Christian, obviously church isn’t required. After all, why would an unbeliever go to church since he doesn’t believe in God? It doesn’t make sense that an unbeliever goes to church just as it doesn’t make sense that a Christian doesn’t go to church. The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The early Christians were a religious people. They gathered together “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, [and] 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 “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. We should consider ourselves extremely blessed that we have designated buildings to go to church. The early church didn’t know what this is like; they had to gather secretly in their homes and secret areas underground because of the persecution they faced in 1st century Rome. And there are still Christians in persecuted countries today who have no idea what it’s like to go to a safe place to have fellowship with one another and hear God’s Word without fearing for their lives just for being Christian.
People question all the time why the early church was so much better than the church is today. Well, it’s because we’re not hardly as devoted to one another in fellowship and the Word today as the early Christians were. In biblical times, Christians met together frequently, even during weekdays, and even in their own homes. Today, some Christians are too lazy to go to church with excuses like, “I’m too tired” or, “I worked late last night.” 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. 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, then you can make the time to go to church and worship your God.
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. (Sabbath, after all, means “rest.”) An explanation is, “I had to work on Sunday and my boss wouldn’t give me the day off,” or, “I had to work a midnight shift.” Those are legitimate explanations, 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 such excuses that you can’t go to church.
Another excuse I hear often is, “I can have personal devotion time in the privacy of my own home, so I don’t need to go to church.” Again, there’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation. A personal devotion once a week is not enough. The issue of not attending church is nothing new. 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 greatest commandment, then we’ll talk about the first.
To Love & Encourage One Another
1 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 verse 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? Oh I know: by going to church!
Going to church and having fellowship with one another is a place where we can love each other, which is also how we see God—His love in His people. 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—or should be for those that are not—where we go to one another for encouragement and love. 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 supposed to keep to ourselves. God’s will for His people is that we share this comfort with our brothers and sisters in Christ. One of the greatest ways in which God comforts His people is through people. So how can we comfort one another through love and encouragement if we refuse to go to church and be with one another?
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 going to be truly honest with ourselves. One of the hardest things to do is to receive criticism. We give criticisms all the time, but it’s something else entire when people suddenly criticise us. I think it’s because we fool ourselves into thinking we have nothing to be criticised.
We think we have it all together, and when somebody comes along and tells us otherwise, we’re immediately offended and become defensive and accuse the person of self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and being judgemental. If he or she is doing it correctly, the Christian is supposed to judge. People quote all the time, “Do not judge” while they ignore the rest of the context. Jesus was teaching about hypocritical judgement and how to judge properly, which is also in the context of His words, “Judge not by appearance, but judge with right judgement” (John 7:24). What is right 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 seek 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 equally guilty of something similar, then you’ll be judged in return and the person will have no reason to listen to you. Instead, Jesus says to examine yourself before you expose someone else’s sin. Suppose you approach a brother in Christ who’s cheating on his wife, and while judging the sin of it you confront him, as you should. Let’s also 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 sexual sin you have refused to repent from. In this case, recognise you are also guilty of a sin and are in need of repentance and actually repent, then you will be in the right position to judge your brother’s sin and bring him to repentance.
So, righteous judgement is a necessary part of the Christian life. As the writer of Hebrews says above, we are to exhort one another so that we may not be deceived by sin. This is precisely why Christians expose homosexuality and transgenderism as sins, for they have hardened peoples’ hearts and are thus deceived. Unfortunately, many don’t listen to us because they know a lot of Christians are also guilty of divorce and premarital sex. Our guilt is evident, and we all ought to come before our Lord and repent of our ways, so that we may properly discern the Lord’s will and bring people to Christ.
Jesus also gives us steps to take when a brother or sister indefatigably refuses to repent of their 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 to you, 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 brother or sister is in unrepentant sin, approach him or her privately. If they refuse to repent after several exhortations, bring two or three others with you. If they still refuse to repent, then bring it to the church with the witnesses you brought to confront your brother or sister. If they still refuse after this, then it’s grounds for excommunication—removal from the Church. Why? Because sin is infectious. It is not spiritually healthy to have such a person in the body of Christ who can easily infect its other members. Also because they have rejected the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness and sanctification He offers.
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, and it’s difficult to see things for how they are when all we have is a first person view without a third person view. That’s why it is necessary for an objective view of how others see us so they can call us out on our sin when we fail to see it or refuse to acknowledge it before God. Sin is a serious thing, even as a believer. Christians are not exempt from sin. If anything, Satan paints a giant target on our backs when we become Christian, so he tries to attack us with sins even more. But when we have brothers and sisters in Christ who love us and don’t want to see us give in to sin and the Devil, 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 I’ve talked about so far 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 is people all 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 education. Since I’m attending a private university, this 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 for public universities whether it’s a community college or something as prestigious as Harvard. 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, but I couldn’t get the remaining $965 before the deadline. During Bible study at my church, 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 paid the remaining balance for me, which they preferred to remain anonymous. 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 in order that I may continue my education. That is what the church community is like. In my small church alone, the members are always helping one another, no matter how serious it may be.
Service to one another in Christ doesn’t have to be monetary value; it could be anything. Help someone change a tire. Pray with someone. Be there for someone as merely a listener of their problems. There are so many ways in which we can serve one another. All we need to do is just think of ways we can serve another brother or sister in Christ.
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 greatest commandment: loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). We don’t obey God because it brings salvation; we obey God because it is how we show our love for Him. Think of how you obeyed your own parents as a child, and perhaps even now. Why did you obey your parents? Seriously, consider that for a moment. Did you obey your parents out of fear for your life, because you’re a mindless robot, or did you obey them out of love? As children, because we love our parents we obeyed their commands (most of the time). In the same way, we show our love for God by obeying His commandments (most of the time). Sure, we fail every now and then because we’re sinners, yet as God’s children we can always come before Him to repent and remember we are forgiven. Thus, God commands we come together to receive Word and Sacrament, and so we gather together out of love for Him, each other, and to receive forgiveness.
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, 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 these things often. But there have been plenty of times in the past when I never read my Bible or a devotion and I still forget or neglect to do 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. People may honestly do these things, but how long does it last?
There’s a significant difference between reading the Bible in your own home and listening to a pastor’s sermon. A pastor is a trained theologian; you are not. Interpreting Scripture is a trained discipline called hermeneutics; interpretation of Scripture is not whatever your mind happens to think it means in the heat of the moment. Such interpretation is precisely what leads to heresy and false doctrine.
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 his own home. For example, when the rich ruler asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life and Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and distribute the proceeds to the poor, he will inherit eternal life (Luke 18:18-27). While it may not necessarily always be the case, a lot of Christians and non-Christians think this means we need to sell everything we have and be poor in order to live a good Christian life and have assurance of salvation, which inevitably leads to a works righteousness theology. This has actually happened in the past with Peter Waldo, Francis of Assisi, and Augustine. Yet this is not what Jesus is saying at all. Instead, Jesus is challenging the man’s heart. He’s challenging the man to choose between his materialism and relationship with Christ, for it is in relationship with Christ in which one inherits salvation, not doing good works. This is because salvation comes from Christ alone, not the Law, and it is Christ who fulfilled the Law for us. For some, such an interpretation of Scripture is difficult to come to without a pastor’s hermeneutical and exegetical training.
So, it is clear we need to go to church to hear God’s Word taught with accuracy for our own edification—to hear that 1) we are sinners whose concupiscence is to rebel against God and we lack the ability to save ourselves, and 2) Jesus Christ took our sins and God’s wrath upon Himself on the cross and by faith through grace alone we receive forgiveness of sins. The other reason is the sacraments: Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution. The sacraments come with a command and a promise. Each sacrament has been commanded—or instituted—by Christ and each comes with the promise of forgiveness of sins. Yet one might say, “Why should I receive a sacrament for forgiveness when I can just ask for it in prayer?” True, you can ask for forgiveness when you pray. However, one’s conscience is often left uncertain of this forgiveness. God knows this, so He has blessed us with physical elements to give us assurance of forgiveness, which is made efficacious by the proclamation of His Word with the physical elements. In Baptism we feel the assurance of being adopted into God’s family in the waters (Ephesians 1:5) as it cleans us from sin for salvation (Ephesians 5:26; 1 Peter 3:21; see also Romans 6:1-11). 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 partake of the sacraments because we are commanded to.
Besides loving our brothers and sisters in Christ in encouragement, admonishment, and service, church is the place in which we receive God’s love for us in Word and Sacrament. God loves us through our Christian neighbours. He also desires to love us through the proclamation of His Word that brings us the Gospel and the receiving of 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. As Thomas Merton once said, “The Church is not a museum for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners.” We are simultaneously saint and sinner. God declares us saints, but we still struggle with sin. Therefore, church is the place where we not only receive forgiveness of sins, but also a myriad of services to love our brothers and sisters in Christ with the purpose of God’s love to shine upon the world. Church is the place not for God’s saints to boast in their works and for self-exaltation; church is the place for God’s saints to come before Christ as sinners to receive His grace and mercy, and thus exalt Him with praise, and boast in the works of Christ.