Literally No One Argues the Church is a Physical Building

Literally No One Argues the Church is a Physical Building March 30, 2022

Over the years, we have published several posts dealing with the importance of the local church. They’ve generated their fair share of controversy, despite the fact that what I and others have argued is nothing groundbreaking within the Christian faith. When we boil things down in the modern era of church and church attendance, there is a remarkably noticeable difference in our practices and that of the church for millennia. Rather than simply meet once a week to hear the Word of God, the saints of old darkened the doors of the church multiple times a week.

It was plainly understood, in other words, that participation in the local church was the lifeblood of the Christian. As such, it remained a non-negotiable in the minds of those who took their faith seriously. For many today though, the local church is seen as something you should not only flee from, but actively speak against. The reasons for this are many, but at the heart of anti-church sentiments today is the heavy emphasis on self-reliance. Even in how many a person approaches evangelism—it is all about personal reconciliation to God rather than what the Scriptures teach.

In reality, we are both individually reconciled to God, and corporately reconciled to one another under the common banner of the faith. Many pay lip service to this reality by acknowledging the universal church, that is, all those spanning space and time that have been saved in Christ, yet they subsequently deny the need to be part of a local church. In essence, they divorce themselves from being attached to any particular geographical church body in favor of believing they share in some sort of mystical bond with the global church. While there is certainly a bond between all believers that transcends all earthly limitations, you find no Biblical evidence that such a bond supersedes the call to not forsake the actual assembly of believers (Heb. 10:24-25).

What you find instead are several aspects that are impossible to fulfill outside of the local church. You cannot be in submission to elders if you refuse to be part of a biblical church. You cannot partake in the various “one-anothers” the Scriptures call us to if you forsake the assembling of the brethren. Likewise, you cannot experience the unique blessings of God as He presides through the preaching of the Word, the taking of the ordinances, the public reading of Scripture, public prayer, praise, and more—all of which we are corporately called to obey in the Christian community called “the church.” We cannot “build one another up in our most holy faith” by ourselves, nor even in a group of like-minded Christians who do not make up a biblically constituted church.

Common objections rise every time these kinds of arguments are made:

  1. If you advocate for regular attendance, even making room for providential hindrance and works of necessity—you’re a legalist or Pharisee.
  2. If you say even those wounded in the past should still not forsake the assembly, you’re unloving, judgmental, and lacking empathy.
  3. If you claim the existence of bad churches and hypocrites doesn’t revoke the call upon Christians to gather, you’re delusional.
  4. If you tell parents they are crippling their kids if they make church optional, you’re a manipulative fear-monger.
  5. If you’re bold enough to say that if you claim to love Jesus, yet hate His church, you cannot be a Christian—oddly enough, you’re considered anathema.

According to these same people, you can thrive outside of the community of the faith and embrace that rugged American individualism that is part and parcel to the fabric of your identity. You need not be part of a local church, in submission to elders who know you personally, because you and perhaps a few like-minded folks are all you need to flourish and hold you accountable. You don’t need faithful expositors who can pastorally apply the Scriptures, as there are many “better” preachers available to you through venues such as YouTube. In other words, you can have your proverbial, spiritual cake and eat it too.

One of the common proof-texts to support this notion is the oft-quoted, “Where two or more are gathered” (Matt. 18:20). The problem with using this particular verse is that it is being subjected to blatant misuse due to lifting it from its fuller context (Matt. 18:15-20). As I’ve argued in the past, the verse is not making a statement about the nature of the church, but rather, one of the functions. More clearly: Christ is not speaking towards the structure or make up of a church, in that when you happen to have two or more Christians in any space together, they make up a bonafide church.

Rather, the context speaks directly toward the practice of church discipline. This is vitally important to this discussion simply because it unravels the use of Matt. 18:20 towards this popular, but exegetically unfounded end. In other words, you can’t use this verse to argue this is what constitutes a biblically defined church because that isn’t what the text means. Two or three people don’t make a church, no more than an arm, a leg, and a spleen somehow constitute an entire body. Yet one of the more subtle arguments that is often made with this text (and others) in mind is that the church isn’t a building.

Anyone with half a brain would naturally assent to this on the surface, as it is quite clear from even a general reading of Scripture that the church is not seen as the literal brick and mortar building that we might occupy on a Sunday morning for service. Yet what often gets relegated to the sidelines is that this group of people that Scripture calls “the church” in fact does meet in time and space. In more clear speech: part of what makes a church a “church” is that they actually do meet in some location at a given time.

The universal, or global church, becomes manifest in local churches. This should be a fairly self-evident truth when we consider that every single epistle to the church was written to an actual church, or group of churches, that met in a particular geographical location. The letter to the Romans was written to the church at Rome. The letter to the Philippians was written to those saints in Philippi, and so on and so forth. These letters then were broadly circulated amongst the churches of other particular geographical locations. This is just common knowledge.

Yet more to the point: the global church is an inseparable reality from the local church, which simply means the global church is actually made up of flesh and blood people that do, in fact, meet together. Whether that “meeting together” so happens to be in a building, underground, in a home, or elsewhere the bare essentials of what makes a church a “church” must still be present. There are certain irreducible qualities, in other words, that inform what a church is and does.

As Gregg Allison puts it in his excellent work on Ecclesiology, these bare essentials that characterize a true church are that they are, “…doxological, logocentric, pneumadynamic, covenantal, confessional, missional, and spatio-temporal/eschatological. Local churches are led by pastors (also called elders) and served by deacons, possess and pursue purity and unity, exercise church discipline, develop strong connections with other churches, and celebrate the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Equipped by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts for ministry, these communities regularly gather to worship the triune God, proclaim His Word, engage non-Christians with the gospel, disciple their members, care for people through prayer and giving, and stand both for and against the world.”

While such qualities that make up a genuine church may give way to exceptions to the rule (e.g., the church is in the process of raising up deacons, finding a replacement for their recently deceased pastor, or they simply lack biblically qualified men in order to become a plurality of elders, etc.), they are, by no means, the rule itself. If these qualities are entirely lacking though, it must be stated: while it may be a gathering that perhaps some Christians are part of, it is not a church. You can’t have a “church,” in other words, that fails to live up to the biblical criteria of what the church actually is—part of which is that they are spatio-temporal, meaning they actually meet in time and space.

It is important to note that no one is pretending as if the broader church is bereft of any problems. We all know of plenty churches that are no churches at all, at least when we consider the biblical criteria for what a church is to be. I believe it to be paramount to our walk with Christ though that we be part of a local church body where the gospel is present. I will take a church that is faithful to the gospel, yet differs on important matters of doctrine, over cloistering off to myself any day of the week. The reason for this is relatively simple: as wonderful as we all may believe ourselves to be, we’re not. If Christ can bear patiently with you, you can bear patiently with others who are legitimately within the household of the faith.

The reality is that we were not saved unto ourselves, we were saved unto a body, and a particular local body at that. God has not made it so that we will flourish outside of the community of the faith. More than this, He has graciously given us parameters in His Word that shows precisely what this community of the faith is to look like and how that informs their practice. While it is a general truism that the church isn’t the building, the church, more often than not, actually occupies a building. In the end, no one argues that the church is the physical building when they refer to “the church.” They do, however, refer to that body of sinners that Christ has saved and fitted together, which Scripture requires we meet with.

So, meet with them. In the end, if you still refuse to go to church, at least stop using bad arguments that literally no one believes.

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