Do I Have to Go to Church to be a Christian?

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Since the Reformation, Christians have believed that the Bible teaches more than personal salvation. It speaks authoritatively, showing us God’s will in every area of life, including the church. Without this understanding, one idea about church is as good as another. There is no plumb line, no standard. We are left with “Well, I think…” or, “It seems to me…” or, “We have always…” We are adrift on the stormy sea of personal opinion. 

My blog posts assume the Bible as our plumb line, giving us God’s revelation about every aspect of the church. Interestingly, even the most direct descendants of the Reformation–those who self-consciously follow the Reformers in theology and church polity–often have not applied the plumb line of Scripture to the church itself, though they may proclaim to do so.

Well-intentioned people can certainly interpret passages of Scripture differently. I don’t pretend to have the final word, or the only infallible interpretation of the passages referenced in these postings. I have, however, done my best to interpret them as accurately as possible, taking into account the whole testimony of Scripture, as I know it.

I suspect that often we haven’t even considered the biblical definition of the church and its functions. We have just continued to do things the way our church or our denomination always has, or the way that we like or are comfortable with. If the Bible is indeed our standard of faith and practice, should we not look to it for our pattern of the church?

The word translated “church” in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia, which stems from two words; ek, means “out of,” and kaleo, means “to call.”  In ancient Greece, the ekklesia referred to the convened assembly of all Greek citizens who had not lost their civic rights.  In this assembly, they: 1. Elected and dismissed magistrates. 2. Directed the policy of the city. 3. Declared war, made peace, contracted treaties and arranged alliances. 4. Elected generals and other military officers. 5. Raised and allocated funds [Kevin J. Connor, The Church in the New Testament, (Blackburn, Victoria, Australia: Acacia Press, 1982) pp. 23,24].

Thus, for the secular Greek society, the word ekklesia came to mean “the assembly of free citizens who were called out of their homes and/or places of business to assemble together and give consideration to matters of public interest.” In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in New Testament times, the word is used twice in Deuteronomy 4:10 to mean, as translated in the New King James, “stood before the Lord,” and “gather the people.” This same meaning, that of assembling together, is given to the ekklesia in Acts 19:32, 39, 41. This represents one of the few times in the New Testament that ekklesia is not translated church (110 out of 114 times church is the translation). Consequently, this idea of assembling together is definitely a part of the meaning of ekklesia. 

Putting these ideas together, the church, then, is a body of people whom God has called out of the world, not to remain “out,” but to now assemble together unto God. These “called out ones” are to come “in” to Him, to hear His voice together, and to carry out His will. which is to rule over the earth. The Apostle John says that His ekklesia have been made a kingdom and priests unto our God. They come from every nation, tribe and tongue, and they shall reign together on the earth (Revelation 5:9)!

Notice that the ekklesia do not come together because of choice, because they feel a need to be religious, or because they think they should. They come together because they have heard a summons that they cannot resist. No “ought to,” ”need to,” or “should!” As I often say, “Don’t go to church until you can’t stay away!”

God has taken the initiative. He has sent out a clarion call through His Son Jesus Christ, that great Shepherd of the Sheep, by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, the Hound of Heaven, that cannot be denied. The call goes forth to all His sheep, wherever they are. He knows who they are, because He chose them before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). They will hear His call, and they all will follow Him (John 10:27). He will not lose a single one! They represent the church universal, with which God has made His New Covenant, written in the blood of Jesus Christ.

If you have heard the Holy Spirit’s call, then you are a part of the ekklesia, the universal church. There is a desire in your heart to respond to His corporate call–not just to be “called out,” but also to be “gathered in.” If there is no desire to be “gathered in,” can one have yet been “called out?” Can one be satisfied to just worship God alone on Sunday morning while hiking in the wilderness? Is it possible to have only a “private” faith–believing that “the forest is my church?” That’s where church goes from the esoteric abstract to the practical. There is a desire in all true believer’s hearts, who have had an experience with the living God, to be “gathered in” to the church, with like-minded believers.

The word “church” is mentioned in the Gospels only twice, both times in the book of Matthew, and each time in a different sense. First, as we have already seen, the church is made up of all those everywhere who have had an experience with Jesus Christ. This is the universal church, irrespective of time or geographical location. It is that church to which Jesus makes reference in Matthew 16:18: “…and on this rock I will build My church…;” “My church,” singular, not “My churches,” plural. The church of Jesus Christ is one church, down through the ages, made up of those from every nation, tribe and tongue.

However, two chapters later, when giving instructions to His disciples about how to handle sin between brothers, Jesus tells them, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). Obviously, a conflict between two brothers could not be brought before the universal church. Jesus’ reference here is to the local church, a gathering of believers in a locality that is representative of the church universal.

It is physically impossible for all believers everywhere to gather together to hear from God; but those in a local area can. The New Testament refers to “churches (plural) throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” Acts 9:31). It makes mention of “…the church that was at Antioch…”(Acts 13:1), and Acts 14:23 refers to Paul and Barnabus as those who “…appointed elders in every church.” 

These verses are representative of a vast body of Scripture that illustrates that a local church sprouted up wherever the proclamation of the Gospel bore fruit. As a matter of fact, the ekklesia was the fruit! A Christian not involved in the local church was unthinkable in the New Testament.

So, we are always “called out” from the world by God to be “gathered in” to His church.  What did this early “gathered in” church look like? There are four metaphors commonly used in the Bible to describe the church. We will look at them next week.


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