Guy Davies writes:
In my time I’ve come across a number of Christians who don’t attend or belong to a local church. They are not ill. They don’t live on a remote island in the middle of the North Sea. They simply don’t go to church. Often they will say that they used to belong to a church, or even a series of churches, but could not find a fellowship that would do what they felt was right. These are not “nominal Christians” who are too apathetic about God to be bothered to go to church. The people in question are often deeply religious and have a zeal for the truth as they understand it. They don’t belong to a church on principle.
Some “Churchless Christians” are bitterly critical and uncharitable about believers who are involved in church life. What these friends need to realize is no local church is perfect. The church is a gathering of saved sinners. To opt out of church life because you can’t find a fellowship that meets your exacting standards is not an option.
I am talking about involvement in gospel churches here, not congregations that don’t hold to the truth. It is right to have high standards. But any distinctively Christian standard must be motivated and controlled by a love that covers a multitude of sins.
“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
How can we claim to love God whom we have not seen if we do not love his people?
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:21–22).
I get a bit concerned when I hear someone say that they don’t attend church because they have never been able to find a fellowship that will change to suit them. This not a gospel-driven attitude. We are not meant to try to get our own way and leave the church if we don’t. Consider what God’s Word says:
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1–4).
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31–32).
I recently spoke to a “Churchless Christian” who claimed to be Reformed and Puritan in his theology. He didn’t seem to grasp that the Reformation was never about isolated individualism. It was about the re-formation of the church. Puritanism likewise was a movement dedicated to the purifying of the church. Accordingly, John Calvin gave a very stern warning to those who cut themselves off from church life,
“We have said that the symbols by which the church is discerned are the preaching of the Word and the observance of the sacraments, for these cannot anywhere exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God. I say not that wherever the Word is preached fruit immediately appears; but that in every place where it is received, and has a fixed abode, it uniformly displays its efficacy.
“Be this as it may, when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time the face of the church appears without deception or ambiguity and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity (see Chap. 2 sec. 1, 10, and Chap. 8 sec. 12).
“For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his Word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion.
“So highly does he recommend her authority, that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired. For there is no small weight in the designation given to her, “the house of God,” “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). By these words Paul intimates, that to prevent the truth from perishing in the world, the church is its faithful guardian, because God has been pleased to preserve the pure preaching of his word by her instrumentality, and to exhibit himself to us as a parent while he feeds us with spiritual nourishment, and provides whatever is conducive to our salvation.
“Moreover, no mean praise is conferred on the church when she is said to have been chosen and set apart by Christ as his bride, “not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27), as “his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23).
“Whence it follows, that revolt from the church is denial of God and Christ. Wherefore there is the more necessity to beware of a dissent so iniquitous; for seeing by it we aim as far as in us lies at the destruction of God’s truth, we deserve to be crushed by the full thunder of his anger. No crime can be imagined more atrocious than that of sacrilegiously and perfidiously violating the sacred marriage which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to contract with us.” (Institutes IV.1.10).
The Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Publick Worship of God states,
“When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having prepared their hearts thereunto) ought to all come, and join therein; not absenting themselves from public ordinances through negligence, or upon pretence of private meetings.”
There is nothing Reformed or Puritan about being a “Churchless Christian.” A believer who does not belong to a congregation of the saints is an anomaly. Sheep belong in a flock.
A concerned minister once told R. B. Jones, principal of Porth Bible School, about a somewhat fractious church in South Wales. The fellowship had suffered division after division and one man had left the church and was meeting on his own. R. B. quipped, “The Lord help him if he has a split!”
Let us go back to first principles and consider why Christians need church:
- Means of grace
The means of grace are deployed in the context of the church. The Word is preached and read; corporate prayer is offered to God; hymns and psalms are sung in praise of the Lord’s Name. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered. God has ordained all these things to create faith, to confirm faith, to feed his people, and to enable them to grow in grace. Can we really do without them?
- A community of love
The New Testament constantly exhorts believers to love one another. This is often not easy, but it is the most basic principle of the Christian life.
We develop and grow in maturity as we learn to live with other believers with their foibles and problems and they learn to live with us. This sometimes brings us heartache and pain. But we have no choice but to love God’s people.
We cannot do this at a distance. Love demands involvement and real fellowship. Some “Churchless Christians” that I have met have been immature, impatient, and argumentative. They cannot cope with others disagreeing with their dictates. Opting out of church life may be the easy option for them, but they are not facing up to their deep rooted spiritual problems.
- The body of Christ
The church is the body of Christ. In this body there is unity as well as diversity. There are diversities of gifts and backgrounds. Also there will be differing levels of spiritual maturity and understanding.
We must not try to obliterate the rich diversity of the church by insisting on drab uniformity. Learning to cope with and even appreciate the diversity of church life is an essential aspect of Christian discipleship.
If a person professes to belong to Christ as the head, then he should also want to belong to a local church, which is a visible expression of Christ’s body.
Our fellowship within the body of Christ is meant to be an anticipation of glory. If we can’t get on with Christians in the here and now, do we really want to be with them in heaven?
Now, some Christians may stop going to church because they have been deeply hurt by an uncaring fellowship. The way to find healing and restoration, however, is not to isolate yourself, but rather to get involved in a church where you will find pastoral care and loving acceptance from the people of God.
If you are a “Churchless Christian” on principle, then I beseech you to consider your ways. Staying at home and surfing the net is no substitute for belonging to a church. You won’t find it easy to fit into a fellowship after years of isolation, but this is what God calls you to attempt to do.
Reprinted with permission from