Thursday, October 04, 2007

Churchless Christians

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.


CH said...

Thank you for this encouraging post.

Anonymous said...

My appreciation of A.W. Pink has always somewhat been tinged with disappointment in that he rarely attached himself to a local congregation (even if he could not with conscience become member)...Heb.10:25.


Guy Davies said...

Thanks for your comments, "littleho"!

I know what you mean about Pink, JP. I think that it was during the last 12 years or so of his life, while living on Stornoway that he didn't attend church. I've not read much of his stuff because of my misgivings about his lack of involvement in church life. But I recently picked up a 2nd hand copy of Murray's biog. Perhaps he will help me to appreciate Pink a little more.

Anonymous said...

While we often disagree, I find myself mostly in agreement on this post. I find the "churchless Christian" phenomenon to be disturbing. I don't think of the church as an optional add on and I worry about excessive individualism.

I worry that this is a spillover from the decline in denominationalism and the rise of the "emergent church" movement, although there seem to be some strengths to that movement, too.

Anonymous said...

It is a grave mistake for a Christian to be unassociated with any and all churches "on principle". One can imagine what our Lord and the Apostles would say about this.

John 17:20-21
"Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me."

Hebrews 10:24-25:
"And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching."

I John 1:7:
"But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin."

I think that I Corinthians 1:10-13 and 3:3-4 may also be related to this deleterious and pernicious practice.

Banner of Truth publish a 16-page booklet that I think can be of help in addressing this error. It is entitled *The Importance of the Local Church*, by Daniel Wray (ISBN#: 9780851513300).

May our compassionate Shepherd bring these wayward sheep back to the fold.

Anonymous said...

Calvin (and we are not confined to follow his word alone) said "if the word be heard with reverence". For this to be true, there must be definitions of what is reverent:

1. This negates heresies.
2. It negates mere formalism
3. It negates casual Calvinism, and neo-reformed "pop" theology, that has no fear of God evident, but worldliness instead.
4. It negates tolerance of church corruptions, whether it be among elders (for sheep require pastors, not hirelings), or a formal church "membership" who make profession with little evidence of true conversion, other than baptism and word.

The apostle Paul, by the holy spirit, writes that "in the last days difficult times will will be (among other things) lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God...who have a form (profession, creed, statement of faith, defined "community" as a church) of religion, but lack the power (experimental salvation, true conversion, fear of God, little difference from the world) thereof. From such (we are commanded) TURN AWAY.

It is noticeable that Calvin and reformers all rejected Christmas and Easter (the Westminister Divinies under Cromwell abolished it and forbid its observance) as Romish and pagan traditions, and rejecting "instruments of music" (Judaizing) in worship. WHAT WOULD CALVIN, KNOX, EVEN SPURGEON THINK OF THE CHURCHES TODAY? WOULD THEY STAY, OR LOOK OTHERWISE?

The OT prophets warned the corrupt Jewish priests of their living off the sheep, not shepherding, and scattering of the flock--a charge and fault laid upon them!

Selective quoting of Calvin, and calling to a false, compromising unity, were the same argument of the Church of England, from which the Pilgrims dissented calling it "Babylon".

Are these few examples worth nothing of consideration, or are those in "churches" (not buildings, nor mere professions and baptisms) just criticizing those who feel "judged" or offended, and want to justify themselves before men for their own regular attendance?

The "emergent church", like all heretical movements, is taking advantage of church corruptions. (All heresies are built on half-truths). It is not logical nor orthodox to believe that all dissent represents heresy, which smacks of Romanism. Some of us wish it were otherwise, but feel "put out" and "hated", more than being willful dissidents.