“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25 NRSV).
Time and life have a way of proving the faith of those who profess it. I’ve seen many sad things in my long life as a Christian, and one of these is the growing number of professing Christians who refuse to attend or be part of a church. One of the main reasons for their doing this, but not the only one, is that they’ve been hurt by Christians in the church they’ve been part of and consequently have stopped their attendance there or any other church.
The Parable of the Sower describes those who started well but gave up when the going got tough: “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mk 4:16-17). The note for this passage in the NKJV Study Bible says: “The shallow soil overlaying the stony ground represents those who seem eager to receive Christ’s message but whose commitment is superficial”.
I’m not saying, of course, that salvation depends on church attendance; salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ alone (Jn 5:24; Rom 4:3; 10:9). However, faith has to be seen by its actions that it is real. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead….Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…..For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (Jas 2:17, 21, 24, 26).
Solo Christians and self-centredness
The New Testament rejects the idea of solo Christians (Heb 10:25). This is a Western phenomenon, I suspect, because of our individualistic culture. We value the rights of the individual above all, and we insist on our right to do as we please. But while there is a place for the rights of the individual, it does not, and must not, come at the expense of our neighbour’s rights. For example, a person has the right to play music loudly in their own home; but at the same time, they need to respect the rights of their next-door neighbour to enjoy peace and quiet in their own home.
Unfortunately, there are too many selfish and self-centred people who care little for their neighbour’s feelings, desires, and rights. And they carry this attitude into the churches that they attend and expect everything to go their way. These self-centred Christians can often manipulate scripture to make their case, very often in combination with and propped up by their church’s constitution, to enforce their worldview. But their interpretation of such scriptures as they may look to is forced and opposes the truth.
Solo Christians: an endangered species
I once heard a preacher say that the Church is like a fire of burning coals which burn and glow and enable the surrounding coals to also burn and glow and give out heat. If one of these coals falls out of the fire, it soon grows cold until it has no heat or light whatsoever. Coals don’t burn alone, they need to be in touch with each other in order for them to maintain and give out heat. Thus, a solo Christian is likened to a coal which has fallen out of the fire, subsequently losing their passion and commitment; and they won’t even realise it is happening to them. It reminds me of Samson when the Philistines overpowered him by deceit after finding out that his hair was the source of his strength. “Then she [Delilah]said, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ When he awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘I will go out as at other times, and shake myself free.’ But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Jud 16:20).
Solo Christians can also be likened to the prey of carnivorous predators. When they hunt, predators first of all assess the herd they’re watching to find the most vulnerable animal. If that animal is too close to the herd, they’ll corral and separate it and then move in for the kill. Satan’s tactics are the same. The apostle Peter warns: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). One of his tactics is to separate the Christian from the support and protective base of other Christians i.e. the church, and then they are easy prey. He can deceive them more easily when they are separate from their Christian brothers and sisters and he can leisurely confuse and convince them. Away from the support of the church, he takes away their confidence in the bible, either by undermining the victim’s trust in it; or they become hardened in their spirit and stop reading it because it makes them feel guilty; and now they are totally vulnerable, naked, and exposed. He is then free to spiritually rip them limb from limb as and when he chooses.
And God is under no obligation to rescue any sheep which has run away from the flock. If they reject the means he has given for their protection and usefulness, and they think they know better than he does, he can justly allow them to suffer the consequences of their stupidity and vanity. He may or may not eventually come to their rescue, but that is his sovereign choice and they can’t expect or demand it of him. The only grounds on which a solo Christian can expect help from God is by repenting of their sin and returning to God and to the church. Solo Christians should keep in mind that they are not favoured by God above other Christians, but are under the same commands and obligations as them. “Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him,’ but does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist” (1 Jn 2:3-4).
The Church glorifies God to the universe
Jesus said to his disciples, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Christians have not been saved and set free from the guilt, power, and penalty for sin just so they can indulge themselves for the rest of their lives. Jesus built his Church to glorify God in all his beauty to the universe; it was God’s plan from before the foundation of the earth. “and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places….to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:9-10, 21).
The Church is the body of Christ
Christ is the head of the body, which is the Church (Col 1:18; also Eph 1:23; 5:23; 1 Cor 12:12-31). And Christians do not have the right to absent themselves from the Church and live apart from it. That is living apart from the body of Christ. Paul graphically describes the relationship of the human body to its parts, and likens it to the spiritual body, the body of Christ, and its human members i.e. Christians. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor 12:21). And Christians cannot say to other Christians, “I don’t need you”! “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:27). So close is the Church to Christ that it is called his body, and he is its head. It is described as one body consisting of a conglomeration of individuals: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ….But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose….that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor 12:12, 18, 25).
It is to be expected that there will be problems in such a group – how could there not be given that we’re all sinners and come from (often) wildly different backgrounds? Does anyone think that Jesus didn’t realise this; that he hadn’t taken this into consideration when he said, “I will build my church”; and when he commanded all Christians to gather together? Does anyone think that when God planned the Church before the foundation of the earth that it didn’t occur to him that there could be problems between individuals? God knew exactly what he was doing when he invented a group consisting of fallen human beings to bring praise, honour, and glory to himself.
The onerous choice laid before Esther
When Mordecai, a Jew, learned of Haman’s plot to destroy every Jew in the vast Persian Empire, he went to Esther, the daughter of his uncle, whom he had raised from childhood (Esther 2:7). Esther was now the Queen, and Mordecai went to her with a copy of the writ for the Jews extermination, to request that she intercede before the King on behalf of the Jews. Esther told Mordecai that to approach the King uninvited was to risk death. But Mordecai insisted, saying, “Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this’” (Est 4:13-14).
Mordecai reminded Esther, and in so doing he reminds us today, that no-one is indispensable to God. If he commands and we disobey, he’ll find somebody faithful to the task, while we suffer punishment and/or loss, and miss out on the blessing he would have given us.
If we withdraw from the body, for which Christ gave his life, we simultaneously withdraw from the head, who is Jesus! And we will not have the incredible privilege of being part of that which brings much glory to God (Eph 3:10, 21). Not to mention that it is sin and rebellion. “…rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam 15:23).
Christians who withdraw themselves from the Church are not able to do any of the things that the NT says Christians should be doing. For example, to name just a few:
- Christians are to gather together for worship (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 14:4, 16-19, 23-25; Col 3:16).
- Christians are to gather together for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20).
- Christians are to gather together for baptism (Acts 2:41).
- Christians are to gather together to exercise their spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:1-31).
- Christians are to serve one another (Heb 10:24; Phil 2:4; Col 3:12-15; Heb 3:13; 1 Pet 4:10).
- Christians should read the bible together and hear it being preached (2 Tim 4:2; Heb 4:12).
- To be a light to the community (Matt 5:13-16; Jn 13:34-35).
It should also be noted that:
- The NT epistles were sent to churches (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:3, Rev 2:1; 8:12, etc.). Most of these letters were written to resolve problems in the church to which each letter was addressed. Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude never even suggested, let alone instructed or commanded, that the members should separate from the church because of the problems in it. They just told them to fix the problems and how to do that.
- The only letters addressed to individuals were for specific purposes to certain bishops or elders. And one was sent to Philemon, who was a member of a church, to ensure unity was maintained in that church.
- The only solo Christians mentioned in the NT were apostates and/or false teachers (1 Jn 2:18-19; 2 Jn 10-11; Jude 19; 1 Tim 1:19-20; 2 Tim 2:17-18; 4:10).
An attitude of love
The Christian’s attitude to the Church should be one of love because it is the body of Christ, the assembly of his people. In the Psalms, King David wrote: “LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides” (Ps 26:8). “One thing I have asked of the LORD, that will I seek after; to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” (Ps 27:4). “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness” (Ps 84:10). And the NT temple of God is the Church (1 Cor 2:16-17).
But don’t say that it was OK for David because he was the king and didn’t have to rub shoulders with difficult people like we “ordinary” Christians do in our meetings; and therefore he could focus on being with the people of God without distraction. Bear in mind that he did clash with various people in his own circles e.g. Joab, Absalom, Shimei, Doeg the Edomite, who were very dangerous men and a serious threat to David. And David had to deal with them in the same way that Christians have to deal with difficult Christians – trust in God and obey him. If not for this we would not have the Psalms, and the Church would be much poorer for it.
The Christian who abandons involvement with a church should be worried, and should question whether they really love God. John ties love for God with love for the people of God. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35). This is a visible mark that declares your relationship to God. How can you love Christians as Jesus loves them if you refuse to associate with them?
Christian couch potatoes
And let it be said that watching some kind of church meeting on TV with a big name minister preaching, or any kind of TV ministry, is no substitute for a real, living, physical assembly of believers. Television ministries are not real churches. They can never provide the viewer with any of the items I’ve listed above – corporate worship, the sacraments, and fellowship with other believers, etc. There is no communication with other believers while watching a televised sermon – it is insular and withdrawn from reality. And those who run these big TV ministries, often with huge international audiences, require nothing of their members and viewers except that they send money – lots of money!
However, there can be times when an Internet or TV ministry can be useful. For example, elderly Christians in nursing homes or in hospitals, or Christians in remote areas, can be blessed and encouraged through such ministries. But they are not to be a substitute for a real relationship with real people where such is accessible. They can never fill the role of a body of believers gathered to worship God, serve one another, and take the gospel to the ends of the earth – or even simply to their neighbours and community.
In the light of all this, how can any person who claims to be a Christian think that being part of a church is optional? Christians in the New Testament are always associated with a church. There were no solo Christians in the NT – such a thing was inconceivable.
Difficulties are the soil for growth
Jesus is continually building and guiding his church. Each person he saves is guided to join a visible church and to serve him and his people. The Church is God’s primary means for our development as Christians. Much of our preparation for facing a hostile world, or for evangelism, or for godly living, or learning to love others, forgiving the wrongs they do to us, is accomplished in the Church. When a brother or sister is suffering or in need, we have the opportunity and responsibility to minister to them (Acts 2:44-47; James 1:27; 2:14-16); pray for them (Acts 4:23-31; Gal 6:1; Jas 5:13-15, 19-20; 1 Jn 5:16); challenge them and hold them accountable (Matt 18:15-17); encourage them to action (Heb 10:24); and so on.
Facing reality – there is no such thing as a perfect church
It’s a lamentable and shameful fact that Christians cause so much pain and distress for other Christians in their churches. This is contrary to Jesus’ command that Christians love one another and that this love will make them recognisable to the world (Jn 13:34). Instead of love, forbearance, gentleness and regarding each other as dearer than themselves (Phil 2:3), too many Christians in too many churches are proud, arrogant, cruel, self-serving, and condescending. There are far too many – even one is too many – who try to use the church as a means to power, and many a church has been destroyed as it is sacrificed on the altar of one man’s lust for power, who vainly thinks he’s better than the current pastor, and who seeks, by various underhanded means, to seduce the church members to his side (as Absalom did – 2 Sam 15:1-6). And when he thinks he has as many as he’s going to get, he takes them out of the church to form another, with him as its head. Or a small group of deacons who seek to control the church by controlling the pastor, and running him out of the church if he doesn’t submit to their wishes.
There are so many mean, self-important, little people in churches, with their own ideas of what the bible teaches and who seek to impose their view on anyone they can; so many domineering individuals who throw their weight around and use every opportunity to express their view and rail against any and all who dare to differ with them; so many spiteful individuals who carp and criticise everyone from the pastor to the cleaner; so many church families for whom Sunday lunch is roast pastor. The possibilities for nasty people to make their presence felt in the churches are endless and, it seems, so is the number of such people. These people leave a trail of blood behind them as they promote and put themselves forward, always in the face of the other church members, and are a thorn in the side of the pastor and elders. The damage done to churches and members in the churches, not to mention the damage to Christ’s reputation, by these small people is incalculable, and we won’t know the extent of the damage until the Judgment.
And there are too many in the churches who are judgmental, proud, harsh, and too quick to put other Christians down; who make others unhappy and hurt them through nasty comments and attitudes. Too many Christians who feel sidelined or ignored and overlooked for any number of reasons and made to feel invisible; too many who have been hurt by other people in the congregation, again, for any number of reasons.
And because of all this, rather than Christians and churches loving each other to the extent that the world knows they are Jesus’ disciples, they are a stench in the nostrils of the world and bring disrepute upon Jesus and Christians in general. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, is said to have observed: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ”.
NKJV Study Bible 2014, Gen ed. Earl D. Radmacher, NY ed. H. Wayne House, “The Gospel According to Mark”, pub. Thomas Neslon Inc., Nashville, TN
“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright, 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”