I organized a weekly Bible study in a local coffee house nearly twenty years ago. The group was relatively small and often diverse. Some leaned Arminian in their soteriology. Some of us landed as far on the opposite end of the Protestant spectrum as possible. We were Hyper-Calvinists. One member was a nominal charismatic, and another was a three or four-point Calvinist, depending on the day. More than a few were altogether unaffiliated. Our Bible study was as close to a religious service as they ever got.
If I could travel back in time to be a fly on the wall, I would probably cringe at many of our earliest discussions. Most of us couldn’t find Habbakuk in our Bibles, let alone have a well-grounded theological conversation. The founding members, myself included, were all young and spiritually immature, but we were trying. While a few may have come only to get out of the house and have something to do, most of us genuinely wanted to learn and grow in our faith.
One young man, an old classmate, attended regularly. Though he sat on a church pew most of his life, he and his family eventually stopped going. I can’t remember if he ever told me the reason. Regardless, he was on the verge of becoming willingly religious and accepted my invitation to the Bible study. He always came equipped with thought-provoking questions, demanding answers be thoroughly proven correct by Scripture. He was what every new believer should be—teachable and submissive to the Word of God.
My favorite example is when I emphatically declared every Christian, without exception, should belong to a local church. My friend was quick to resist the notion and demanded to know why. As interested in reconciliation with God as he’d become, he wasn’t ready to make it official through baptism and faithful church attendance. He believed he could worship God just fine on his own.
“Why do I need to go to church?” he asked.
“Because God says so,” I replied, citing Hebrews 10:25.
That was the end of the conversation. Only later did I learn he was immediately persuaded. God said it. He read it. He was sitting next to me at church the following Sunday. How I wish it were always that easy.
Two decades later, I shouldn’t be surprised to hear a professing Christian claim participation in the local church is optional, but I am. My childhood is partly to blame. Church attendance was non-negotiable in my parents’ house. Unless the roads were impassible or someone was deathly ill, I knew where we’d be every Sunday morning.
More to the point, I can’t understand how anyone could read the Bible and miss the imperative in question. Most of the New Testament is written to or about small assemblies of Christian disciples living and worshiping together (i.e., churches). The command in Hebrews 10:25—one of many—is explicit. Many biblical references to the “body of Christ” imply individuals cannot function alone. When is the last time you’ve seen a finger thrive, or even survive, independent from a hand?
As it happens, my parents were right. Church is non-negotiable. Christ, the head of the church, has not offered us a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We are not ordering salvation at a drive-thru where Jesus asks, “Would you like church membership with that?” The pattern and teachings of Scripture are clear. When the Good Shepherd finds and rescues a lost lamb, he doesn’t pat its head and say, “I’ll be with the rest of the flock if you need me.” No, he carries that lamb back to the sheepfold, where it can receive the protection and provision it needs.
If a sinner shows little interest in belonging to the church, is he or she truly saved? While it may be theoretically possible, the Bible never gives us any reason to make that assumption. Every example in Scripture is to the contrary. When people were saved, they immediately joined themselves to the church. Consider, for instance, the three thousand souls converted on the same day in the book of Acts (Ac 2:41). Though most did not live in Jerusalem, they refused to leave the first and only Christian church. Instead of returning home, the text says:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Notice the last line of that passage. As the Lord continued saving sinners, he simultaneously added them to the church. He added them to the number of people who physically and frequently met together for teaching, fellowship, eating, praying, sharing, supporting, and praising God. No one waited until heaven to join their brothers and sisters in Christ. Why would they? Why would they refuse to do here what they hope to do in heaven for all eternity? Perhaps that is why the apostle John makes love for the brothers a part of his three-fold test for salvation (1Jn 3:14).
Near the end of his first epistle, John says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1Jn 5:13). According to the last-living apostle, assurance of one’s salvation requires positive answers to three simple questions. First, do you love the Lord Jesus Christ? Everyone who believes Jesus is the Christ has been born of God (1Jn 5:1). Second, do you love his Word? Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him (1Jn 3:24). Third, do you love his church? We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers (1Jn 3:14). If we can sincerely affirm all three, we can know that we have eternal life. Doubts need not apply.
As Jonathan Leeman writes in his book, Church Membership, “Once you choose Christ, you must choose His people. It’s a package deal. Choose the Father and the Son, and you have to choose the whole family—which you do through a local church.” The Bible doesn’t allow us to pick one without the other. If we trust Christ for our eternal redemption, why wouldn’t we trust the wisdom he revealed through his commandments? And if we trust his wisdom, we will not neglect to meet together as he commands (Heb 10:25).
Traveling to heaven alone is a dangerous, if not impossible, feat. Every true Christian needs the church. Better yet, every true Christian will feel his or her need for the church. Like my old Bible study companion, he or she will confess, “God said it. I read it. I’ll be with the family of God on Sunday.” Furthermore, he or she will discover that this small yet faithful step of obedience leads to significantly greater assurance and a whole host of other blessings.
Please don’t take my word for it. God said it himself.