One of the things that I have often heard people say regarding Christian faith is this:
“I do not need church to be a Christian.”
Upon reflection I think it is fair to say that there is a lot going on behind the scenes such a statement.
Firstly, a person who says such a thing is proclaiming a theological understanding about the nature of Christian faith, which states that by self defining as a Christian (through believing what the individual perceives to be the right things and behaving in a way which the individual perceives a Christian should behave) they are indeed Christian. Attendance, fellowship, worship and membership of a local church is not perceived as a requirement for this individual to identify as a Christian. Of course, there are a wealth of verses in the Bible that can be used to justify such an individualized theological statement (e.g. Romans 10:9, 1 John 1:9, John 3:16). Such Scriptural references are read by the individual and internalized into the context of his or her own life. It is understood by this individual that other individuals might read similar words and verses in the bible, or hear a sermon by a TV preacher on such verses and make a decision to also become a Christian and that would be that – nothing else matters or is required to become a Christian except the individual’s personal acceptance of the truth of the gospel. Church does not have to become a part of the “transaction of salvation.”
However to read these verses in a way which understands that they are spoken directly from God to the individual is to make a mistake. To assume that the Bible, understood as God’s living word, was written 2000 years ago solely for the individual reading it 2000 years later is quite absurd. Scripture consists of books and letters and poems and songs that were written as sources of teaching, rebuke, correction, and inspiration to and for whole communities of people. In the Old Testament, the prophets wrote their prophecies for a whole nation of people. For sure, individuals were going to be impacted by their words, but those individuals were part of a much bigger group for whom the words had been written and proclaimed. They would have been hearing these words in the context of such a group because at the time the oral tradition was the prevailing tradition (meaning that the words of the prophets were read in the context of the gathered group of people in order to pass along to the ‘masses’ God’s word through the prophets.) The poems and songs of the Psalms were written by poets and songsters who were expressing their experience of God for those who would listen – just like modern poets, songsters and bloggers. The gospel writers of the New Testament were writing so that many would hear about Jesus and the establishment of God’s kingdom. The writers of the New Testament epistles were writing to communities of people that had formed around the good news of the gospel i.e. churches. The Bible was written for whole communities and is to be read in community. Perhaps the greatest mistake of modern Christianity has been to individualize the faith so much that the rejection of the community/church has become a serious problem, and to the extent that individuals are happy to identify as Christians by belief only with no hint of association to other believers.
Secondly, there is profound arrogance in the statement. To say that one can do anything “alone” in this world, and that one does not need company or help in a situation, lifestyle or task is arrogant. John Donne nailed it when he said that “no man is an island…” Human beings do not do “alone,” and in my opinion were not designed for “alone.” To the contrary, human beings flourish in community when there is a sense of togetherness and common direction. To illustrate this point, take a look at the prison systems across the world. When an incarcerated individual steps out of line in prison, ‘solitary confinement’ is used as a form of correction and punishment. The individual is placed in a small room with no human contact (aside of the delivery of meals) for a period of time. Human beings need other human beings. This is no different in the Christian faith where Christian human beings need other Christian human beings. Christian fellowship is a means of grace; a means by which humans encounter God. To qualify this statement, it is important to understand what Christian fellowship is and what it is not. Christian fellowship is not a polite conversation about the weather before or after church on a Sunday. Christian fellowship is not a pot-luck meal on 5th Sunday’s through the year. These are both bland and anti-climactic expressions of an understanding of fellowship. Christian fellowship is Christian people engaging in holy conversation. Christian fellowship happens when one brother or sister enquires as to the state of another’s life with God. Christian fellowship happens when one Christian stands with another in support and love. Christian fellowship happens when God’s love is specifically and intentionally manifested among Christian people. Christian fellowship nurtures growth and development in the faith and is the place where transformation takes place. Christian fellowship cannot happen alone. To say that one does not need this, and that the faith is possible without this is to write one’s own rules for the faith. Scripture points to the vital role of the Christian community in the lives of believers and, I would argue, makes it impossible for someone to be a “Christian” outside of it. For a person to think that they do not need church/fellowship/other Christians around them in the walk of faith in the Christian tradition is a profoundly arrogant, and quite foolish statement.
Simply put, to be a Christian, one must belong to a community of other believers. To be a Christian, one must belong to a church.
Of course this is more complicated because church comes in all shapes and sizes: big, small, right wing, left wing, conservative, liberal, progressive, evangelical, older, younger, contemporary, traditional…the list could go on. Individual’s have stories of how the church has let down, hurt, not listened, crushed creativity, put down, excluded, not embraced diversity…again the list could go on. There is no doubting the fact that the church is flawed and imperfect (in many cases extremely flawed and imperfect) and has been guilty of getting it wrong in the lives of many people. But to see the church as something which should be perfect is just as flawed. The church is made up of imperfect people who make right decisions and wrong ones; who take left turns when they should have gone right; who have regrets and successes in their lives. The church does get it wrong, but so do all the individuals who make up the church. To say that one will not be a part of a church, and will do faith alone because the church is getting it wrong, or that it is full of hypocrites is thoroughly ridiculous. No individual will ever find that perfect church where all people get it all right all the time. It just will not happen. But does that mean that the individual should try to go it alone in the journey of faith? Certainly not!
Christians: get in to church and be the church. Stop moaning and complaining and bitching about minutia; stop thinking that you can do it better on your own – you can’t; accept that the people who make up your neighborhood churches are just as flawed as you are, and need as much grace and mercy as you do. Stop robbing God’s church of all that God has placed in you. Stop being so bloody selfish and arrogant. Find a church, go to church and be the church. Actually attend church frequently and put it up there with your top priorities. God established the church as a central means of expressing God’s grace and love and mercy to the world. The church doesn’t always get that right, but individual Christians standing back and pointing the finger at the church does NO good. Get in there and be the church and make the difference in your church. If you see a flaw, don’t just shout about it – be the solution.
Christians can not do faith alone. It is not part of the design. Lone Ranger christianity is not an option, and if you are trying to make it an option then you are making a grave error for your experience of Christian faith.