In my time I've come across a number of Christians who don't attend or belong to a local church. They are not ill. They don't live on a remote island in the middle of the North Sea. They simply don't go to church. Often they will say that they used to belong to a church, or even a series of churches, but could not find a fellowship that would do what they felt was right. These aren't 'nominal Christians' who just can't be bothered to go to church. The people in question are often deeply religious and have a zeal for the truth as they understand it. They don't belong to a church on principle.
Some 'Churchless Christians' are bitterly critical and uncharitable about believers who are involved in church life. What these friends need to realise is no local church is perfect. The church is a gathering of saved sinners. To opt out of church life because you can't find a fellowship that meets your exacting standards is not an option. I am talking about involvement in gospel churches here, not congregations that don't hold to the truth. It is right to have high standards. But any distinctively Christian standard must be motivated and controlled by a love that covers a multitude of sins. "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." (1 Peter 4:8). How can we claim to love God whom we have not seen if we do not love his people?
"If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also." (1 John 4:21 & 21).
I get a bit concerned when I hear someone say that they don't attend church because they have never been able to find a fellowship that will change to suit them. This not a gospel-driven attitude. We are not meant to try to get our own way and leave the church when we don't. Consider what Scripture says:
"Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." (Philippians 2:1-4).
"Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you." (Ephesians 4:31 & 32).
I recently spoke to a 'Churchless Christian' who claimed to be Reformed and Puritan in his theology. He didn't seem to grasp that the Reformation was not about lonely individualism. It was an attempt to reform the church. Puritanism likewise was dedicated to purifying the life of the church. John Calvin had some very harsh things to say about those who cut themselves off from church life,
"when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time the face of the Church appears without deception or ambiguity and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity. For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his Church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion... Wherefore there is the more necessity to beware of a dissent so iniquitous; for seeing by it we aim as far as in us lies at the destruction of God’s truth, we deserve to be crushed by the full thunder of his anger. No crime can be imagined more atrocious than that of sacrilegiously and perfidiously violating the sacred marriage which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to contract with us." Institutes IV:I:10)
The Westminster Directory of Public Worship states,
"When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having prepared theirn hearts thereunto) ought to all come, and join therein; not absenting themselves from public ordinances through negligence, or upon pretence of private meetings."
There is nothing Reformed or Puritan about being a 'Churchless Christian'. A believer who does not belong to a congregation of the saints is an anomaly. Sheep belong in a flock. A concerned minister once told R. B. Jones, principal of Porth Bible School, about a somewhat fractious church in South Wales. The fellowship had suffered division after division and one man had left the church and was meeting on his own. R.B. quipped, "The Lord help him if he has a split!"
Let us go back to first principles and consider why Christians need church:
1. Means of grace
The means of grace are deployed in the context of the church. The Word is preached and read, corporate prayer is offered to God, hymns and psalms are sung in praise of the Lord's name. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are administered. God has ordained all these things to enable his people to grow in grace. Can we really do without them?
2. A community of love
The New Testament is constantly exhorting believers to love one another. This is not always easy, but it is the most basic principle of the Christian life. We develop and grow in maturity as we learn to live with other believers with their foibles and problems and they learn to live with us. This sometimes brings us heartache and pain. But we have no choice but to love God's people. We cannot do this at a distance. Love demands involvement and real fellowship. Some 'Churchless Christians' that I have met have been immature, impatient and argumentative. They cannot cope with others disagreeing with their dictates. Opting out of church life may be the easy option for them, but they are not facing up to their deep rooted spiritual problems.
3. The body of Christ
The church is the body of Christ. In this body there is unity as well as diversity. There are diversities of gifts and backgrounds. Also there will be differing levels of spiritual maturity and understanding. We must not try to obliterate the rich diversity of the church by insisting on drab uniformity. Learning to cope with and even appreciate the diversity of church life is an essential aspect of Christian discipleship. If a person professes to belong to Christ as the head, they should also want to belong to a local church, which is an expression of Christ's body. Our fellowship within the body of Christ is meant to be an anticipation of glory. If we can't get on with Christians in the here and now, do we really want to be with them in heaven?
Now, some Christians may stop going to church because they have been deeply hurt by an uncaring fellowship. The way to find healing and restoration is not to isolate yourself, but to get involved in a church where you will find pastoral care and loving acceptance from the people of God. If you are a 'Churchless Christian' on principle, I urge you to consider your ways. Staying at home and surfing the net is no substitute for belonging to a church. You won't find it easy to fit into a fellowship after years of isolation, but this is what you must attempt to do.