I find it puzzling that this topic is still up for debate, yet the sentiments of many Western Christians is that you can love Jesus without loving the church. Verbose arguments abound on the church not being confined to a building – that all spaces are sacred and therefore, filled with divine presence. The well-worn argument that the church does not consist of the physical space you occupy while worshipping God, but instead the body of believers, contains just enough truth to lure readers to their inevitable conclusion:
Church attendance is optional. Serving the brethren, again, is optional. Loving the brethren? Still optional. Feeling guilty about not wanting to go to church? Don’t worry about it; that’s the fault of institutionalized religion.
They then do a follow up post called The Real Reason Evangelicals and Millennials [insert people group] are Leaving the Church, where again, they pander to what people want to hear. So long as you subject the Scriptures to tokenism and appeal to sentimentalism, people will eat it up. Soon enough they’ll be in the woods celebrating “communion” with Coca Cola and cookies.
I’m not denying that some churches simply aren’t churches per the definition of Scripture; what I am speaking against is the underwhelming opinion that you can somehow be part of the universal church and reject the local church, or that the local church is made up of you and your family on a Sunday morning as you lay in bed and reject communion with the saints and sitting under the proclamation of the Scriptures.
The reality is that the entire New Testament presupposes you are going to be part of an institutionalized, local church. People wish to delve into semantics and separate the location from the body of believers, but that isn’t the point of defining what the local church is. Yes, the building could be demolished overnight and the church would still exist – however, that local church still meets in time and space. That local church still has a designated structure made up of elders, teachers, deacons, evangelists, etc., for the edification of the whole man until the saints reach unity in the faith and the knowledge of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16). The church is made up of living stones that are being built up as a spiritual house into a holy priesthood for service to Christ (1 Pt. 2:5) and they are members of one another (Rom. 12:5; Eph. 4:25, 1 Cor. 12:12-27), and are present within a local community.
Even still, the author of Hebrews indicates that we are to not forsake gathering with God’s people because of the hope we have in Christ, so that we might encourage one another to perseverance in the faith (Heb. 10:19-25). The idea being presented is that the confidence we have to enter the presence of God through Christ, being able to hold to the hope we profess without wavering, and drawing near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance, is directly related to the notion that we are intimately connected to this local body.
What’s more than all of this is that a local church is not a church without some semblance of this God-given functionality and structure. A group of three people without the headship of elders and teachers is not the church. They are part of the global church – but they are not a substitute for the local church. There are always exceptions to the rule, yet the exception does not prove the rule; special provisions do not institute a normative ecclesiology. The text never presupposes the rugged individualism indicative of American Evangelicalism.
We know Paul was prohibited from communing with the saints whilst in chains. We also know that many churches are confined to secret rendezvous, have gone without official teachers/elders for a period, etc. No one is speaking of things literally barring another from being able to be among the saints and sit under the Word, or a temporary, ecclesial detriment; it is the willful forsaking of the brethren and the eschewing of God’s good gifts.
While there are things worthy of introspection from the church – I don’t believe this to be one of them. There aren’t a host of reasons why people are fleeing from the church in droves. There aren’t many reasons why professing Christians are leaving the church. There may be healthy reasons why one leaves a particular local church, but when it comes to reasons why one leaves the church entirely, there’s really only one: they don’t love the church. Synonymously, they don’t love Christ.
The apostle John is about as straightforward as one can get in saying that the way children of God and children of the devil can be distinguished is that children of the devil are those who eschew righteousness and the love of the brethren (1 Jn. 3:10). This isn’t some strange new teaching – it is what they (and we) have heard from the beginning (v. 11-13). If that’s not clear enough, he then says that anyone who hates his brother remains in death and is a murderer (vv. 14-15). Furthermore, he condemns mere tokenism toward brotherly love; one must demonstrate this love in action and truth (v. 18). Much like the author of Hebrews, John maintains that by these things we will not only have knowledge that we are children of God, but assurance of our salvation (vv. 19-20).
The modern notion that you can worship God just as much by yourself as you can within the confines of the church is patently false and anti-biblical. It flies in the face of the Scripture’s teaching on the importance of the body of Christ, the proper structure of the church, and the goodness of the spiritual gifts that God has bestowed for the benefit of His people.
I sense that if one were to have a conversation with the apostle John on this, it would go similarly:
Objector: But what if the church damaged me?
John: Go to church.
O: But what if people hurt me at one point?
J: Go to church.
O: But what if I feel like I connect more with God in nature than with people in the church?
J: Go to church.
O: But what if I…
J: [interjects] Are you dying?
J: Are you imprisoned?
J: Is there anything prohibiting you from going to church?
O: Well, I feel like…
J: [interjects again] You can’t love God without loving His people and loving His people means that you die to self, bear with one another in love, and obey the commands of Scripture for your personal and corporate edification, in order that God might be glorified. Go. To. Church.
While the church can often be a motley group, Christ has enduring patience with His bride. His death accomplished her redemption, yet we live in this eschatological tension wherein we still sin against one another. In the love of the brethren, sin can be properly dealt with through a biblical, disciplinary process, or simply in overlooking the offense of a brother or sister whose actions are not indicative of normal behavior. In similar character to our Savior, we must be willing to bear with one another, in love and patience, as we are all progressively sanctified. I understand deep wounds can be caused – yet the Scriptures give us no option to withhold forgiveness from an individual, or forsake the assembling of God’s people. Summarily stated, loving God is inseparable from loving those within the household of faith. You cannot demonstrate a love for the brethren by abdicating from fellowship with and participation in service to one another.