Theological Smackdown: Nine things to love about church

Our WCF (Westminster Confession of Faith) study last night was on “The Church”. One of my personal bugbears is when young hippy “Christians” go on about how they love Jesus but hate “the church”. For a Christian “the church” is where it’s at.

Here are nine propositions on church – they are a mix of reflections on last night’s discussions and other bits and pieces.

  1. We were asked how we’d answer the question “do you have to go to church to be a Christian”  – it’s an old chestnut. I say yes. You don’t have to go to church to become a Christian – but once you are a Christian, or in order to continue “being” a Christian, you need to be part of the body of Christ. The 1 Corinthians 12 picture of Christian living involves serving others with your gifts. People throw up bizarre objections like “what if you’re a farmer living in the middle of nowhere?” – my answer is that the farmer should sell his farm and move. There are more important things in life than your farm, or your job.
  2. Church is not so much about learning or teaching – it’s about encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:25) while “meeting together” and you can’t do this by yourself. You can’t do it over the internet. Internet churches are dumb ideas and listening to podcasts is the equivalent of reading a Christian book – not the equivalent of going to church.
  3. Church is quite obviously not the building – but it is a word that has too many functions – it describes the universal body of believers, a local expression of the body of believers meeting in fellowship, and a building. It is not necessarily any group of Christians meeting together. A bible study is not “church” it is an activity that forms part of the broader community of church. The difference between a home group and a home church is intention and outlook.
  4. People who say they don’t love “the church” are completely missing the point of each of the definitions of church – if you truly don’t love the family of believers, chances are you aren’t one. 
  5. There is a bit of a backlash happening against the “we hate the church” club – Kevin DeYoung wrote a book called Why We Love the ChurchBetween Two Worlds has some great insights from the book posted here.
  6. It’s hard to draw a line where the “universal” church ends and apostasy begins – the Confession treads that line pretty carefully before calling the Pope the antichrist.
  7. Part of the anti-church movement sees any “gathering” of Christians as the Church – but as Mark Driscoll pointed out in one of his talks during his time here (and paraphrased) a bunch of Christian guys hanging out at the pub calling themselves  “the church” are more likely alcoholics.
  8. The characteristics of a church gathering are prescribed nicely in 1 Corinthians 11 – 14 these include the proper approach to the sacraments (the Lord’s Supper – 11v17-33), use of gifts (12v4–31), attitude to one another (13v1-13), evangelistic (14v23-24), and the program should include teaching and singing for the purpose of encouragement/strengthening (14v26). 
  9. Some of the issues that people who “don’t like the church” have are related to failings of the church to live like the body of Christ – but to expect perfection from a body of sinners is odd.


queenstuss says:

I think you’ve made some very helpful points.

I once had a good friend who pretty much ditched church, claiming he didn’t need to go. He met with other Christians elsewhere. No idea whether he is going now or not, but his reasons for not going to church was that the Church used too many big words and he thought it should all be much simpler. Big words like ‘justification’. (Actually, I think he’d been badly burnt at his last church, but the theology thing was his excuse.)

Leah says:

You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. But if you’re not going to church (under your own decision) then that’s probably a symptom of you not being a Christian.

I am glad you made the differentiation between what we refer to as ‘church’ and other types of Christian gatherings. It’s become too common these days that people decide they can wiggle through the loophole of “the building is not the church” or “the sunday meeting is not the church” and still claim to be having faith-sustaining Christian fellowship.

daniel skerman says:

hey nathan, this is the first time i’ve actually commented on your site after checking it out every now and then. this might sound like the hick farmer coming out in me but i struggle with the

“what if you’re a farmer living in the middle of nowhere?” – my answer is that the farmer should sell his farm and move. There are more important things in life than your farm, or your job.”

comment. i completely agree with the yes you must go to church if you are a christian, but i know plently of people who live a long way from a church and fellowship with neighbours when they cant make the one or two hour drive to church every week. i dont really have much of an argument, i guess i’m just passionate about the fact that we have to eat, and to eat you need farmers and i believe God gives people gifts and calls them to certain jobs even farmers etc.

Nathan says:

Hey Daniel,

Thanks. I agree that it’s more complex than my suggestion – but I think that we need to be prepared to prioritise our faith over our jobs. As a general principle I’d say that if your vocation interferes with your faith then you should change vocations. This isn’t limited to farmers either. It’d be the advice I’d give to someone who’s told they have to work on a Sunday.

If our relationship with God requires us to be part of the body of Christ, and to serve the body with our gifts, then remoteness is not an excuse.

Hopper gave an example in a sermon up here a couple of weeks ago of his time driving a couple of hundred kilometres to church every weekend. Church is important.

I’m fairly sure there are places where you can be both called to be a farmer and part of a church. I don’t think being in a remote place with no fellowship is helpful for being a Christian.

I’d say that fellowship with neighbours can be a “church” in a way that catching up with your Christian mates at the pub and occasionally talking about God isn’t. I’d also say you can have church in a pub – but that there are specific things that make a gathering “church”…

But I also see the complexity that comes with moving from a farm if it’s the family business and contains a level of emotional attachment to home and history.

Nathan says:

Amy made a comment on a post she just put up on her blog – I don’t think she’ll be coming here to comment because she’s taking a blog break – but it was along the lines of:

“I am concerned that you are all to ready to say Christians who don’t fit in a particular box of your criteria are not Christian. I think that is very unwise. Also, you better hope that there are plenty of atheist farmers because otherwise you might starve to death.”

Does anyone else feel the same way?

My response to her there was a continuation of my response to Daniel here…

I’m prepared to say that Christians who don’t fit into what the Bible says Christians are aren’t Christians.

There are plenty of farmers who manage to go to church. I think if you’re a farmer, in the middle of Australia, and you want to become a Christian then you’re going to have to start defining yourself as a Christian, and not as a farmer – and to do that you might need to move to be closer to other Christians.

I don’t think that’s controversial. Either of those things.

Further, I think the question of what defines us should be more than just “follower of Christ” it should be “part of the body of Christ (the church)” or we’re missing the point. Christianity is about the group, not the individual. It’s not a path to self awareness or development.

Tim says:

Speaking as one who does call themselves a Christian but is not attending a church presently It may not surprise you to find that I disagree entirely. I will still agree there are many benefits and important ones for spiritual growth and encouragement in a supportive church. But a person can still be a follower of Christ and not meet within a church.

Nathan says:

I think that depends how you define “follower”. Jesus seems to be pretty keen for the church to function in a particular way – as are the apostles, and they say it in the Bible.

I know we have some differences of opinion when it comes to how to treat the Bible – but it’s pretty clear that we’re called to be part of the universal “body of Christ” and to express that in certain ways – like the Hebrews verse and the Corinthians verses suggest. At this point your beef isn’t with me, it’s with the Bible.

Sure, you can call yourself a “follower” of Christ and not do what he/his word says, but you can’t “be” a follower of Christ and not do what he/his word says.

Disenchantment with how other people calling themselves followers act is not really grounds for not acting the way we’re told to either.

I’d be interested to hear your response on that – and if you’re willing – the reasons that you’re not attending a church.

queenstuss says:

I’m wondering, Nathan, if you can elaborate a little more on how a homegroup and home church are different?

I’m wondering, also, where you draw the line and not become legalistic about church attendance?

Nathan says:

Stuss – sure.

A home group is normally a sub-set of a church and doesn’t function the same way as a church does. Purely meeting together to learn and encourage isn’t quite the picture Corinthians paints – it’s part of the function of church – but not the whole function.

A home church would be a church that meets in a home – with the intention of being church. So long as it involves the elements the Bible prescribes (teaching, singing, praying, breaking bread together, encouraging and outreach) it’s just a church. That meets in a home. It calls itself a church, a home group doesn’t do that.

“where you draw the line and not become legalistic about church attendance?”

I don’t know that I’m drawing any lines. I think the Bible expects that we’re saved to be part of the body of believers. We should be part of that body – that means meeting with one another, as the church. I wasn’t expecting this post to be controversial…

I think that unless you’re the thief on the cross and you convert then die straight away – there’s a biblical expectation that you exist as part of the church, the people of God, not as an individual. You can’t be part of the people of God if you’re not acting like it. And acting like it pretty clearly includes church.

I’m not suggesting that salvation depends on your attendance of church – I’m suggesting that perseverance does, and that it’s our place, as saved people, to meet with others for the purposes of encouragement and outreach.

I still don’t get what’s wrong with this…

queenstuss says:

I’m not thinking your post is controversial, or even disagree with you on anything. I’m just fleshing out a few things to make sure we are on the same page…

My question about legalism (which was worded rather badly) wasn’t intended to question salvation based on church attendance. But where do you draw the line as to how much ‘church’ you go to? Is it okay if you just go on Sunday mornings, or do you have to go Sunday mornings and attend a Bible Study during the week? If I can’t go to church regularly because I’m unwell, or can’t always get there, am I not participating in the church body well enough?(No, don’t answer those questions, they’re examples.)

There are enough situations that don’t really fit into the neat category of ‘go to church on Sunday or move to somewhere where you can’ so that there has to be a bit of flexibility. Freedom, even. Yes, we should be aiming to be going to church regularly. More than that, to be a part of a church community. But when shouldn’t get hung up on the ‘it’s not possible right now’.

I also don’t think the Bible gives us a a very clear picture of what church gatherings look like. I think it does tell us clearly to meet together, meet often, and it tells us to how act towards fellow believers. (Part of that includes the elements you mentioned.)

That’s just some of my thoughts. Happy for you to argue against any of them.

Nathan says:

Yeah, sorry Stuss, I kind of merged my response to you with my response to everybody else’s feedback (both written and spoken)…

Nathan says:

“There are enough situations that don’t really fit into the neat category of ‘go to church on Sunday or move to somewhere where you can’ so that there has to be a bit of flexibility. Freedom, even. Yes, we should be aiming to be going to church regularly. More than that, to be a part of a church community. But when shouldn’t get hung up on the ‘it’s not possible right now’.”

I disagree on this one.

I’d like some examples of when it’s ok not to go to church that don’t involved being incapacitated and in hospital.

I think if you’re habitually not going to church and thinking that you’re a Christian you need to ask some questions about what Christianity is.

Leah says:

Nathan, I think Hopper drove 130km to church every weekend, not a couple of hundred. 130km is a long way but nothing like 300 or 400. I’m not trying to make excuses for farmers who might live 400km from the nearest town (I’m not taking a stance either way on whether they should/shouldn’t sell up and move), just pointing out that those farmers are in a slightly different position to Hopper. Driving 1.5 hours to church is dedication, driving 4 hours is entirely different.

queenstuss says:

No, I agree that it’s not okay to be habitually not going to church and that you should be aiming to change the situation, but it’s not always that straightforward. I agree that if you’re not going to church regularly that you should be assessing your situation to see how you can change it.

But here’s some examples:

Moving to a new town for a job and finding that there wasn’t a good church to go to. I found myself in that situation when I went to Gympie, and ended up just picking one and was never happy with it. We then had the same issue when we went overseas, only I wussed out and stopped going to church altogether, knowing that I was coming back to Australia soon.

Living somewhere where church isn’t easy to get to for whatever reason, we could use the farmer example, or someone in mining, or someone else living in a remote area for a myriad of reasons, and not being able to move because they have a contract to finish out, or are doing remote service for their job, or have family commitments, or because finding a job somewhere else is not that easy.

Or a wife who has become a Christian and her husband isn’t keen on her going to church EVERY Sunday.

I think also there are also some times during people’s lives where going to church is emotionally challenging. Those times hopefully will pass, so I don’t think it is a long term excuse.

In all these situations, I would think that meeting with other Christians whatever way you can is adequate, in the short term at least. We should be wanting to meet with other Christians, and we should be linked in with a church community, absolutely.