Must You Belong To A Church As A Christian?

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There appears to be a growing number of people who believe you can be a Christian and not be a member of a church. The title of this article is a question posed by an online friend on facebook that elicited a wide range of responses. There were those whose answers undermined the necessity of ‘belonging’ to a church and those who were emphatic about the need to belong to a church. Again, recently, Rex Omar, a popular Ghanaian musician granted an interview where he is recorded to have said “he stopped going to church since 1997 because his body is the temple of God and he has direct contact to his Maker.” [1]

Observing our present religious landscape with all the abuses in the name of Christianity, a shadow of darkness has indeed been cast upon the church and people do have genuine concerns of the trajectory of the church. So, sentiments as these may be understood, at least superficially, albeit, they are not legitimate concerns. I want to argue that a churchless Christian is alien to the New Testament and all of Christian history. A Christian must necessarily belong to a church. The word church —Ekklesia— primarily means an assembly of the called out ones. A believer has been called out of the world of darkness into the kingdom of God’s glorious light (Colossians 1:13). And the church is the visible representation of this glorious kingdom.

In speaking of the church, we may speak more specifically of the Universal or invisible church which comprises all saints across the world and those who have passed into glory to be with the Lord. And we can also speak of the Local or visible church which comprises various churches in our communities including our own assembly we belong to.

Hypocrisy In Church

Perhaps one of the leading reason people reject the church is because of its open weaknesses and sins. For example, Rex Omar in his interview charged the church of hypocrisy: “There is hypocrisy in the church. People go to church for different reasons and I don’t like the fact that Christians are being brainwashed. The church makes you narrow minded in thinking.” [2] Of course though an institution of God, the church comprises of sinners and if we miss that we miss the main reason for which the church exists.

The church exists for sinners—including hypocrites. Jesus indicated he didn’t come for those who are whole but for those sick. He came for sinners (Luke 5:32). So this charge of hypocrites in the church is always a charge that itself is grounded in hypocrisy. Are those who lay this charge always truthful in their dealings? Don’t they have sins in their life? Are they perfect? The church is for sinners to be helped out of their sins and hypocrites are sinners who need help. And the only place they can get help is in the church.

Christ Is The Head Of The Church

Irrespective of its weakness and sins, first and foremost, the church is an institution of God. The church is Christ’s and he is the head: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt.16:18), Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior (Eph 5:23).

According to Charles C. Ryrie in Basic Theology, “The Church stands unique in the purposes of God. Although God has related Himself to other groups, His activity with the church remains distinct. “I will build my church,” the Lord said, and that is special work today.” [3] Now if Christ is the head of the church, Christians are members of that body which stands out so clearly in Ephesians 5:23: “Christ is the head of the church, his body.” Other places in the NT do testify of this fact (1 Cor 12:12–14; 27; Eph 4:1–16).

We cannot claim to belong to Christ and at the same time claim not to belong to his body–the church.

Discipleship And Corporate Worship

When Christ mandated his disciples with the great commission, they were to go “make disciples”, “baptise them”, and teach them to observe Christ’s commandments. These things are to take place in the context of a church. It is in the context of the church that discipleship takes place and we are indeed commanded to belong to the church.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 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 10:23-25).

Anyone who is a Christian would take corporate worship serious because it has benefits for the believer. Let us ponder what Hebrews 10:23-25 is teaching. Note that in verse 23 there is a call for believers to persevere in the faith. And this call to perseverance is a call linked to our fellowship with other believers: “hold fast the confession of our faith without wavering…AND … stir up one another to love and good works”. We are not lone rangers trying to navigate our way to heaven. It is a corporate journey. In the midst of fellow believers, we are encouraged and in turn encourage others.

One cannot be a believer and not love the company of believers. It is an irony. We must belong to a church to be able to experience this mutual encouragement of building up one another. We may not like what we see of the church. But that doesn’t negate the necessity of belonging to a church as a Christian. We can obviously discuss a true church and a false church. But that discussion doesn’t affect the necessity of belonging to a church.

The New Testament Precedent Of Belonging To A Church

Concerning fellowshipping together, in the facebook post referenced earlier, my friend noted that “believers can fellowship with an assembly of believers.” And a strange question followed: “What church did Paul belong to?”

It is true, believers can meet and fellowship together but that doesn’t constitute a church in the sense of the New Testament description of a church. Every gathering of believers doesn’t necessarily constitute a church. A church by description must have certain things present. There must be an overseer — a pastor and other NT approved officials, regular meetings, preaching of the word, administering of sacraments among other things. Paul told Titus; “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). What would those elders do? They will be in charge of churches.

To the question “What church did Paul belong to?”, we must not lose sight of the fact that Paul as an Apostle was also a missionary. He is on record to have undertaken three missionary journeys (Acts 13–14; 15:36–18:22; 18:23). And in those missionary journeys, Paul planted churches. So though Scripture doesn’t explicitly tell us of what church Paul belonged to, at least he would be a member of the churches he planted. Moreover what’s the need of planting churches when it is not necessary for a believer to belong to the church?

Again, as a missionary, Paul was commissioned and sent out by the Holy Spirit in the context of a church: “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers…While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting , the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.(Acts 13:1-3).

From here also we can also legitimately conclude Paul belonged to the church in Antioch. Paul was commissioned for his missionary journey through the church in Antioch. If you study Acts closely, there was a church in Jerusalem and there was the Gentile church in Antioch. Acts 12 records a persecution of the church in Jerusalem: “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church.” (Acts 12:1). “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church (Ibid).

Believers in the first century church belonged to a church. They met together to pray as a church. Missionaries were sent out by a church. The church is a central part of God’s plan and anyone who identifies with Christ must indeed be a member of a church—the local church.

Notes

1: https://mobile.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/entertainment/Why-Rex-Omar-has-refused-to-step-foot-in-church-in-more-than-20-years-742337

2. https://mobile.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/entertainment/Why-Rex-Omar-has-refused-to-step-foot-in-church-in-more-than-20-years-742337

3. Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide To Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL 60610: Moody Publishers, 1999), kindle edition.

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