More and more the press is reporting how Christians are leaving churches. The ones leaving cite a variety of reasons; many of them are valid. This raises the big question, “Must a Christian be in church to be a Christian?” To which I raise the question, “What do you mean by church?”
Some people tie church to a particular building or campus. This isn’t Biblical. After all, the Israelites began worshiping God with no structure at all. Abraham and Jacob built their own makeshift altars, for instance. Then, during Moses’ time, God directed them to build the Tabernacle, which was a portable structure. During David’s time, David brought the tabernacle to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6) after he took the city and fought at least one campaign against the Philistines. The Temple proper wasn’t built until David’s son, Solomon, builds it. However, it wasn’t the Temple of Jesus’ time. That was Herod’s Temple, a refursbished and expanded second Temple. The second Temple was the one built by Ezra, Zerubbabel, and Nehemiah. So church doesn’t mean a specific location.
Church means a body of believers. When we understand church to mean that, then the Biblical instruction is clear: if it is possible, we must be in church, we must gather together. For instance, it’s difficult to do the following when we don’t make a habit of gathering together:
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:11, ESV
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews used stronger language, telling us not to neglect meeting together. This is the authority of Scripture proclaiming that we should be gathering together. We should be in “church.”
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, ESV
If that wasn’t enough emphasis, we just need to read on further in Hebrews:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. – Hebrews 13:7, ESV
Think about the disciples gathering together in the Upper Room. Or how they went together to Galilee. Then there’s the day of Pentecost when the believers gathered together at the Temple. In fact, if we read the book of Acts we constantly see Christians gathering together. We see in Paul’s pastoral letters (to Timothy, primarily) rules for church government. Our leaders, the ones from the early Church, where in the habit of gathering together. They “went to church.”
There isn’t guidance on a particular day. The Jewish Sabbath is from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. That’s when the Jewish believers were used to gathering together in worship. However, Christ rose on Sunday, which is why so many congregations meet on Sundays. There is no Biblical guidance on when. Just as there is no Biblical guidance on where. The Bible just tells us to meet together.
But what about all those valid reasons why people are leaving churches? They’ve always been there. We see squabbling in the early Church. Read Paul’s two letters to the Corinthian church. We see those issues even before that, such as what Jeremiah faced. We are sinful and sometimes that sin is going to come to the forefront. This is true wherever we are. Even if we’re all alone, sin can get the better of us and dissatisfy us and cause us to want to quit whatever it is we are doing. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when we sometimes have the same feelings within a group of people.
Those reasons aren’t excuses to stop going to church. They are problems every congregation should be working on. Those problems don’t glorify God. Therefore, they need to be dealt with and overcome. However, they will only be dealt with when the people who recognize them as issues are willing to serve God to solve them. That can only happen if we are in church.