It’s not uncommon today for someone to claim to be a Christian and yet have little or no desire to be a member of a local church. This is particularly true in areas where being a Christian still carries a certain sense of cultural respectability. However, detaching your faith from the church is not limited to these remaining pockets of “cultural Christianity.” In our anti-institutional age, many people see the church as a hindrance to “authentic” faith.
So if someone asked me, “Do I have to go to church in order to be a Christian?” the first thing I would want to know is what’s behind the question. Is the person asking whether attending church somehow merits God’s favor? Are they asking if, in addition to repenting and believing, they must attend church in order to receive the grace that God offers in the gospel? That’s typically not what’s being asked, but if that was the question, then the answer would be no. Repentance and faith are the only means by which we receive God’s grace in the gospel (Acts 16:31; Mark 1:15; Romans 10:9).
On the other hand, and this would be my concern, if the person is asking the question in order to avoid any kind of commitment to a local church, then I would probe a little further. The idea that someone would consider themselves a Christian apart from committing to the church and regularly gathering with God’s people makes no sense, biblically speaking.1 Perhaps the person had a bad experience with the church in the past, or it may be that they don’t understand Scripture’s teaching about the church. Regardless of the reason, the desire to identify with Christ while remaining distant from His people is unbiblical and, to be frank, flat-out dangerous.
Despite the fact that no local church is perfect, consider several of the reasons why every Christian should not merely feel obligated but more importantly should want to be committed to a local church.
The church is the body and bride of Christ.
Scripture uses a number of metaphors to describe the relationship between Christ and the church. To use two prominent examples, we are the body (1 Corinthians 12:27) and bride (John 3:29) of Christ. To claim to love Christ while neglecting His body or rejecting His bride is a contradiction. Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Christ is intimately and inseparably bound to His people, so we cannot have one without the other. To belong to Christ is to belong to His church.
The church is what Christ is building.
Yes, absolutely, Jesus cares about us as individuals. But His purpose is not merely to build up isolated individuals. He declared to Peter and the other disciples that He would build His church and that nothing, not even death itself, would stop Him (Matthew 16:18). How can we claim to believe in Jesus and remain indifferent to that which He was (and is) so intent on building?
The church proclaims and guards the gospel.
This point is closely related to the previous point. The gospel that Christians believe and by which they are saved is the very gospel that Christ gave to His church to proclaim (Matthew 16:18; Luke 24:44–48). The church is also responsible for guarding this gospel, as there are many who seek to distort and twist the truth (1 Timothy 3:15; 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14). Do we think we are wise enough to avoid Satan’s subtle deceptions on our own? We put ourselves in harm’s way when we refuse the guardrails God has given us through His people.
The church affirms the genuineness of our faith.
A church doesn’t “make” anyone a Christian, but, by God’s design, it does serve to affirm who is a Christian. By baptizing someone, the church is publicly affirming that this person belongs to Jesus Christ by faith. And by continuing to treat that person as a member, the church is saying, “As far as we can tell, this person is a genuine follower of Christ.” Claiming to be a Christian apart from this kind of affirmation is dangerous—it’s like saying, “Regardless of what others who have the Spirit of God think, I feel like I’m ok spiritually.” With eternity at stake, why would you want to make that kind of assumption?
The church is the biblical context for our spiritual growth, accountability, and perseverance.
A Christian seeking to grow, or even survive, spiritually without committing to a local church is like a fish trying to flourish outside of water. The church is the God-given context for carrying out the “one another” commands of Scripture—love one another, serve one another, forgive one another, etc. The church also holds us accountable by urging us to turn from sin and stay on the narrow way (Matthew 18:15–20). The Christian life is a marathon, and we need people to run with us so that we don’t quit, take a wrong turn, or get spiritually dehydrated. Gratefully, God gives us the encouragement, instruction, and warnings of other believers so that we will persevere to the end (Hebrews 3:12–14; 10:23–25). Many people claim to belong to Jesus, and they may even start off strong, but as Jesus teaches us, “. . . the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13).
For these and other reasons, I think I would refuse to give a simple answer to the question, “Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?” The real question is why anyone would think that being a Christian apart from the church is a good idea.