Soon after I got married, I had the privilege of traveling with my wife Becca to Knoxville, TN to watch her play Alto Sax in the University of Tennessee Alumni Marching Band. As I was standing outside of Neyland Stadium waiting for the band to go by, I couldn’t help but notice several tall banners scattered throughout the crowd with some rather interesting messages on them. “I love Jesus but not the church,” was emblazoned across the front of one such banner. As shocking as it was, it wasn’t the first time I had encountered this sentiment.
There seems to be an increasing number of people who claim to follow Jesus but who disavow any form of institutionalized Christianity.1 In some ways, I sympathize with them. Many people have been exposed to so-called churches where the love of Christ is not shown and the message of the gospel is not faithfully preached. These institutions should rightly be abandoned, but to go from having a bad experience with a church to completely giving up on church altogether is to go too far. One could call it throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but this would be a vast understatement.
Jesus Loves the Church
Claiming to be a disciple of Christ while simultaneously disowning the church is an oxymoron. It’s a paradox. Biblically speaking, it’s impossible. “The church” isn’t some foreign entity that has imposed itself on the Christian faith and that needs to be purged in order to recover the true and pure spirituality of following Jesus. The church just is the biblical means by which we follow Jesus. It is found all throughout Scripture and is a crucial part of the Christian life.
It was Jesus himself who promised that he would build his church (Matt. 16:18), and it is the church that is represented metaphorically as a bride whom Jesus loves and for whom he died (Eph. 5:25). The association of Christ with the church is so intimate that Scripture even describes it as his own body (Col. 1:24). In fact, the Bible teaches that Christ will one day return for the church and that he will judge its persecutors. Writing to the church of the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul spoke of Jesus returning “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” on those who have afflicted them (2 Thess. 1:5-10).
There is much confusion surrounding this important topic that clearly deserves our attention, but all of this begs the question…
What is the Church?
The first thing we must do is define our terms. Although the word gets thrown around a lot, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly the church (or, indeed, a church) even is. For instance, a lot of us are in the habit of using the word “church” to refer to the building where people go to worship together. Whatever else “church” may mean, this is certainly not it.
Some of those who advocate for shedding the institutional baggage of Christianity argue that the word “church,” as it is found in Scripture, does not really have anything to do with the churches that we see today, complete with their buildings, preachers, offerings, and music. Instead, the church, so they say, just refers to all of those who believe in Jesus. It is true that Scripture often uses the word “church” to refer to all of those who trust in Christ. Many refer to this concept as “the universal church.” Still, we must not ignore the fact that the word is also used in a number of other ways. For instance, there are numerous places where the word “churches” is used in the plural to refer to various local groups (1 Cor. 7:17, 2 Cor. 8:1, Gal. 1:2, 2 Thess. 1:4, Rev. 1:4).
The English word “church” is commonly used to translate the Greek word “ekklesia”, which literally just means “assembly.” Despite what those who would consider themselves to be “anti-institutional” Christians would say, to conceive of a church that does not assemble is to miss the point entirely. A church, strictly speaking, is an assembly. This fact is not incidental. It’s no coincidence that the early Christians reacted to the preaching of the gospel by forming local assemblies of believers all over the Roman Empire. They understood this.
Additionally, much of what Scripture has to say about living the Christian life is unintelligible apart from the concept of regular local gatherings of believers. Many of the commands given in the New Testament to followers of Christ assume that they will have consistent interaction with other believers. And while there may not be much in the Bible about “church attendance,” as such, the author of Hebrews explicitly warned his readers against failing to gather:
It’s not just worship gatherings and certain spiritual disciplines that are missing from the anti-institutional movement within Christianity. Many of the formal components themselves are actually central elements of the biblical teaching concerning Christ’s church. For instance, the Bible has a lot to say about the leadership of local churches. Scripture describes two offices of the local church. There are “elders” who oversee, teach, and shepherd the church, and there are “deacons” who serve the church.2
That these are important official roles in the church is seen by the fact that Scripture includes lists of qualifications that must be met by any who would aspire to serve in such an office (1 Tim. 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9). It is also clearly seen in the Scriptures that describe the accountability of the pastors to God for the souls of those who are under their charge, such as the following passage from the book of Hebrews:
In addition to this, Scripture contains many injunctions to local churches on a wide variety of topics, including the preaching of the gospel, partaking in the “Lord’s Supper,” giving, and even carrying out discipline on church members, among other things. All of these instructions find clear relevance to the operation of local organized gatherings of believers, and this should not surprise us. A significant portion of the New Testament was written to local churches, after all. It stands to reason, then, that much of what Scripture has to say would be directly relevant to local gatherings of believers. To ignore all of this or to attempt to collapse it down into simple self-help guidance for personal spirituality is to fundamentally deny the clear teaching of scripture.
Join a Local Church
The local church is important. In fact, were it not for local assemblies, there would be no “assembly.” While Scripture does speak of the church universally, in the sense of referring to all believers, the assembly of this group will not be fully realized until we are all with Christ at his return. So, the only manifestation of that assembly that we can see here and now is that of a local group of believers.
So, what is a local church? I would say that it is a group of believers with an established leadership who regularly meet together for worship, the preaching of God’s Word, and the observance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If you are a member of a group of believers that does these things, you’re in a church, whether you like calling it that or not. But equally importantly, if you’re not doing these things, whatever it is that you are doing is not the biblical vision of what it means to follow Christ.3 And no, “communing with God in nature” by going out on the lake is actually not a suitable substitute for gathering with God’s people to worship him together. You can’t an assembly without the assembling.
The reason I used the word “probably” in the title of this article is because I understand that there are some people out there who may genuinely love Jesus and desire Christian fellowship but who have been burned by a bad experience in a church. If that’s you, I’m here to encourage you not to let poor experiences and examples keep you from following Christ and being a part of his church. If you’re a believer, I’m sure that you won’t be able to stay away from the gathering for long. But if this is not you, I’m here to warn you. The stark reality is that if you have no desire to be a part of Christ’s church or to have communion with other believers, the Jesus you think you love may not be the Jesus of Scripture at all.
Jesus loves the church. He died for the church. He is building the church. He is coming back for the church. If you love Jesus, you should want to be a part of that. You don’t need a huge building, a big budget, or fancy programs to have a church. The early Christians frequently met together in homes. But don’t kid yourself by thinking that you can live a fulfilling Christian life by going about it on your own and neglecting the assembly. Not only would this be an impossible feat, it would be to go against Jesus’ plan for his people. If you do truly love Jesus and are not currently a member of a church where you are under godly leadership, where the Word is preached, where there is true worship, where you can serve and fellowship with other believers, where you can partake in the Lord’s Supper, and where there is genuine love and community, then I encourage you to seek that. You’re missing out.
- Source, Barna Group: Meet Those Who “Love Jesus but Not the Church”.
- The New Testament authors use the terms “elder” (presbuteros), “overseer” (episkopos), “pastor” (poimen), and “steward” (oikonomos) interchangeably to refer to different aspects of the same office (Acts 20:17, 28, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Pet. 5:1-3). The English word “deacon” is a transliteration of the Greek word “diakonos” which literally means “servant.”
- I qualify this statement by pointing out that there are some for whom being a member of a church may look quite different than for others. Some people may have circumstances that make it difficult or indeed impossible to regularly gather, such as being homebound or in a physical locale where there just is no regular assembly of believers. There are many complexities regarding these individual scenarios, but that’s not what this article is about. I am addressing those who are perfectly capable of being a part of a local gathering of believers but who are intentionally neglecting to assemble with other Christians.
Last modified: June 3, 2021