A Website for Basic Christian Doctrine

Is the Church necessary?

By Jeremy Cagle

Is the church still needed today or is there a better way to live the Christian life?  Several decades ago, that question would have been unwarranted as Christians understood that the primary place where they should worship is the church.1  But, today, with the amazing rise of parachurch ministries and other Christian organizations,2 the question does need to be asked: “Is the church necessary?”  Or is it outdated?  Did it serve its purpose in the past or is there still a call for it today?

After all, there are plenty of good ministries today that have no connection with a local church.  There are great Christian resources on the Internet and on Television.  There are plenty of good Christian books to read.  So why can’t we just read good books, listen to sermons on-line, and meet a Christian friend once a week to talk?  Why can’t we do that instead of attending a local church?

Some believers today are doing that.3  There are hundreds, if not thousands of Christians, who show up weekly at coffee shops to talk about the things of God but would not be caught dead going through the doors of a church.  Is that okay?  Is Coffee-Shop Christianity as good as Church-Going Christianity?

I would say that it is not.

Meeting weekly with other believers for fellowship is a great thing.  So is reading doctrinally sound books and listening to good sermons.  Involvement in Biblically-based parachurch ministries can also bring many blessings.  But none of these things should take the place of the local church.  They should not be used as a substitute for the assembling of the saints in the household of God.  The church is necessary and here are four reasons why.

1. The Church is Necessary because You are a Member of the Church Whether You Realize It or Not.

If you are a Christian, then you belong to the church.  And, therefore, the church is necessary for you.

First Corinthians 12:12-13 says,

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

There is a lot to unpackage here but, to just point out a few things, when Paul says that “we were all baptized into one body,” he means that we were all immersed into one body.  We were all dunked or submerged into it.4  When someone is baptized, it symbolically demonstrates that they have gone down into the grave to die and they have come up out of the grave to be born again.  They die to their old way of life as they go down into the water and they rise to a new way of life as they come up out of it.5  Baptism does not save you; it just represents what has already happened to you now that you have been saved.

Paul says that, when someone is saved, they are “baptized into one body.”  This is known as the universal church.  There is the local church, which meets at certain locations every week.  There are local churches in Chicago and New York and Memphis and Los Angeles.  But First Corinthians 12:13 is talking about something bigger than that; it is talking about the universal church.6  This is the church that is all over the world.  This is the church that meets in Africa and the church that meets in Asia.  This is the church that meets in Thailand and the church that meets in Tibet.  This is the church that meets in the United States and the church that meets in the Federated States of Micronesia.  It is the church everywhere.

And, comparing our baptism to the universal church, Paul writes this as strongly as he can in verse 13: “For by one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  “Jews or Greeks . . . slaves or free . . .” is a reference to the biggest barriers that anyone knew at the time this book was written.

In the First Century, most Jews hated the “Greeks” or the non-Jews.  And most Greeks hated the Jews.  The Jews thought that the non-Jews were unclean and the non-Jews thought that the Jews were religious fanatics.  And, consequently, they despised each other.  The relationship between slaves and masters was much the same way.  There were exceptions but, for the most part, slaves did not appreciate their slavery.7

But Paul says that, when someone is saved, that is all broken down.  There are no Jews or Greeks in the church.  There is no white or black.  And there are no slaves or freemen.  There is no rich or poor.  We are all bankrupt and colorblind at the cross.8  And, because of that, we are all one in Christ Jesus.  We are all one body.  We are all one bride.9

That is why the church is necessary and that is why every Christian needs to join a local church.  The church matters because believers already belong to the church.  They are already a part of it and they need to confirm that with their lives.

It is schizophrenic to call yourself a Christian and not attend a local church.  That is like calling yourself a scholar and never studying or calling yourself a runner and never running.  You study because you are a scholar.  You run because you are a runner.  And you go to church because you are already a part of the church.  It is where you belong.  If you have bowed your heart to God and trusted in His Son for salvation, then do what has already been done in you: join a church.

There may be times when you cannot find a sound Gospel-preaching church, especially in countries outside of the United States.  But, in America, that is a pretty rare occurrence.  There are plenty of churches in this country that get salvation right.10  There are plenty that teach grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone.  And it should be the duty of every professing Christian to be part of a church like that.

2. The Church is Necessary because You are Not Supposed to Go Through the Christian Life Alone.

Christians need one another.  They are not supposed to live out their faith by themselves.

Galatians 6:1-3 says,

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.  For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

One of the duties of a Christian is to help other Christians.  Here in Galatians, Paul says that one of our jobs as believers in Christ is to gently restore other believers who are in sin.

It is very common in the arena of athletics to see a player get carried off the field.  Due to the violent nature of many sports, athletes hurt themselves to the point that they cannot walk and they have to literally get picked up and escorted to the sidelines.  But imagine that an injured player had no one to carry them off of the field.  They had to crawl away on their hands and knees because no one would help them.  Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?  Now imagine that the player did not have any teammates at all and they broke their neck.  No one was there to pick them up and take them to the doctor.  That sounds even worse.

But the fact is that many Christians live out their faith like that.  They have no teammates.  They have no one to help them when they are hurt.  They read their Bibles.  They listen to preaching on television or on the Internet.  They are well studied in theology.  But no one is in their lives enough to fulfill the commands of Galatians 6.  To restore them when they sin.  To carry their burdens.

Here at www.justthesimpletruth.com, we do not receive many responses to our articles but occasionally someone will write to us with a question or an encouraging word (which we greatly appreciate).  Several years ago, we received an email from a reader that illustrates what I am saying about living the Christian life all alone.  This individual wrote,

At last! I could not believe my eyes when I clicked on the site. All I have ever wanted was “just the simple truth.”

The churches in my area do not offer the basic tenets of the faith or reformation theology. No one wants to dig into Scripture, make us think like the great theologians (Spurgeon, Boenhoeffer, Martin Luther, John Piper, John MacArthur, etc.). Because of pop Christianity and liberal theology, I haven’t been to church in years. I’ve continued reading the Bible, praying, and I often write about my faith, though. Thank you again for your ministry.

While that was intended to be an encouraging email, it actually discouraged us.  Let me help you read it between the lines: “Because the churches in my area don’t teach the truth . . . I haven’t been to church in years.”  “Because of pop Christianity and liberal theology . . . I’ve continued reading the Bible, praying, and I often write about my faith . . . BUT I DO IT ALONE.”

That is what I would call a Maverick Christian.  A Solo Christian.  A Numero Uno Christian.  I do not know the author’s intention in saying all of that and I do not claim to.  What does concern me, however, is the attitude demonstrated in the email which says, “I can do it all by myself.”  “I don’t need anyone but me.”  “I’m fine.  Just leave me alone because all I need is Jesus.”  That might make for a great cowboy movie but that does not honor the Lord.

We are not saved to go through the Christian life alone.  We were not changed into a new creature11 so that we can enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ resurrected life all by ourselves.  We need to be around other Christians.  We need to be with brothers and sisters in Christ.  We need to be a part of the church.

There is strength in numbers and the New Testament says that this is how we are to live: in numbers.  Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”  Hebrews 13:17 says,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

Matthew 18:15-18 says,

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Galatians 6:1-2, which was quoted from earlier, says,

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.

“Rejoice with others.”  “Obey your leaders.”  “Show your brother his fault.”  “Restore him.”  It goes without saying that you cannot fulfill these commands if you are not interacting with other Christians.

According to the authors of Scripture, you cannot live the Christian life by yourself.  If you do, you are sinning because you cannot obey these passages.  You cannot rejoice with others if you are never around others.  You cannot obey your leaders if you do not have any leaders.  You cannot confront a brother who is in sin if you avoid him altogether.  You must be around other Christians and the church provides you with that opportunity.

3. The Church is Necessary because Jesus Christ Came to Save a Multitude, Not Just You.

In His work on the cross, the Lord did not save one or two people, He saved a whole host.  The church exemplifies that.

It is very common to hear Christian leaders today say things like, “If you were the only person on the planet, you are so special that Jesus would have still come to die on the cross for your sins.”  “You are so wonderful that, if you were the only person ever born, Jesus would have been crucified and resurrected just to save you.”12  But that is not true.  The idea is found nowhere in the Bible.

We are special because we have been made in God’s image.13  No other creature on earth has the qualities that we do because we have been created in the likeness of God.  That is true.  The Bible says that.  But the Bible never says that Jesus came to save only you.  It does not say that Jesus died just for you.  It says that Jesus came to save many people.  It says that He came to save a multitude.  Not just one person.

If you read the New Testament, you will see that it does speak of salvation in singular, personal terms.14  But, far more often, it uses plural language to describe what Christ came to accomplish on the cross.  Jesus died for the world.15  He died for His sheep, plural.16

Jesus gave Himself up for His bride which, according to Revelation 19:6, is a “great multitude” that is so big that it sounds like rushing water and peals of thunder when it sings.  It shakes the very ground.  Jesus was crucified for His vine17 and to save for Himself a priesthood.18  Not individual priests but a priesthood.  More than one.  He died to save a kingdom19 and a family made up of many brothers and sisters with one Father.20

My point in bringing all of this up is that Jesus came to save a community, not one individual soul.  And we need to live accordingly.

To balance this out, Jesus Christ did come to save individual people.  After all, the church is composed of individual sinners, each one personally redeemed by the grace of God.  But please do not buy the lie that the whole world revolves around you.  Or that God revolves around you.  Or that the Son of God died just to save you.  If you are saved, then Jesus did die for you but not just for you.  He died for other people as well and you need to recognize that.

First Corinthians 10:11-13 says something similar to this when it says,

Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.  Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

As Paul reminds the Corinthians of some life lessons from Israel’s history (vv. 1-10), he says, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man . . .”  In other words, “Corinthians, don’t be proud of your accomplishments because, if it happened to Israel, it can happen to you.”  “If they saw God’s mighty miracles in the desert but still turned away from God, then you can do the same thing today.”  “You can speak in tongues and you can give prophecies and you can do signs and wonders but you can still sin against the Lord.”  “Be careful,” he says, “because you are not that different from them.”21

And Paul goes on in verse 13 to give an encouraging word,

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

As God was faithful in the past, He will be faithful today.  As God gave men a way out of their sin in Israel’s day, He will give the Corinthians a way out in their day.  They will not be tempted beyond what they can bear.  God will help them to stand firm.

It is encouraging to know that our spiritual temptations are not unique to mankind.  They are not that special because we are not that special.  We are not that original.  Whatever you are going through, I guarantee you, some other Christian has gone through it before you and God has brought them out of it.  In the whole history of the universe, you are not the first human being to face your particular battle with sin.

Jesus did not die just for you and Jesus did not give victory over sin just to you.22  Others have walked where you now walk.  Others have gone through what you are now going through.  And as God was faithful to give them victory, God will be faithful to you.  And the church is necessary because it helps us to remember that.

4. The Church is Necessary because Ministry Happens in the Church and You Want to be a Part of that.

Just like the New Testament says, if you are saved, then you belong to the church.  But the New Testament also says that, if you are saved, then you will serve the church.

You do not go to church simply to attend.  Attendance is not a spiritual gift.  You do not go simply to be seen.  You go to serve.  This is explained in Romans 12:3-8, where the Apostle Paul writes,

For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself then he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Again, we are part of one body.  We have all been baptized or immersed by the Holy Spirit into one group when we were saved.  And we were all baptized into that one group, Romans 12 says, to serve others.  The Holy Spirit baptized us in order that we might get involved with a local assembly of believers and do something to minister to them.  And, as Romans 12 says, if you have the gift to teach, teach.  If you have the gift of encouragement, encourage.  If you have the gift of leadership, lead.

Service to the church is commanded of every child of God.  We have been baptized into one body to serve.  We have been given spiritual gifts to serve.23  We have been bought with the precious blood of the Son of God to serve His people.  To refuse to do so is to sin.

We do not always look at it this way but we will all serve one of two groups of people: others or ourselves.  To serve others is to honor Christ.  To serve ourselves is to dishonor Him.

Despite what some are teaching today,24 Christians are not supposed to be loving themselves, they are supposed to be loving others.  That is the whole idea behind Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:34-40.

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together.  One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.  The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

If you notice, there are two commandments in this passage, not three.  “Love God.”  “Love your neighbor.”  Two commandments.  “Love yourself” is not the third.  Jesus simply assumed that we do that enough already.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Or, “Love your neighbor with as much passion and devotion and care as you already give to your self.”  That is the second commandment.25

Jesus’ point in these commands is that we are to focus on and love and serve other people with the same intensity that we already give to ourselves.  We are not to work harder at serving ourselves but other people.  And that is another reason why the church is necessary because the church is the avenue with which to do that.  You can serve others in parachurch ministries and in home Bible Studies but the primary venue for service is the church.  The main avenue for your obedience to the two greatest commandments is a local assembly of Christians.

CONCLUSION

The church is necessary.  It is important.  As a Christian, you belong to it.  As a sinner, you need it so that you will not be alone.  As a redeemed child of God, you must join it to be reminded of others who have been redeemed.  And, as a servant of the living God, you must use it to prioritize serving others.  All of this occurs within the local church.  All of these things happen as the Body of Christ comes together to worship and hear from the Word of God.

In his book, The Church, Mark Dever presents all of this from another angle:

The doctrine of the church is important because it is tied to the good news itself.  The church is to be the appearance of the gospel.  It is what the gospel looks like when played out in people’s lives.  Take away the church and you take away the visible manifestation of the gospel in the world.26

  1. Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Publishing Group, 2012) x.  Mark Dever believes that this question has been asked by Protestants ever since the Protestant Reformation.  In his own words, “Perhaps the popular disinterest in ecclesiology results from the understanding that the church itself is not necessary for salvation.  Cyprian of Carthage may well have said, ‘No one can have God for his father, who has not the church for his mother,’ but few would agree with this sentiment today. The Church of Rome, in the Second Vatican Council, recognized that a normally competent adult is not required to self-consciously participate in the church for salvation. And evangelical Protestants, who stress salvation by faith alone, seem to have even less use for the church, much less for studying the doctrine of the church.” []
  2. For a brief description of this phenomenon, see David Wells’ God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994) 62, footnote 2. []
  3. For more information about this, see Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).  For an on-line article arguing for this practice, see “Why Believers Should Not Attend Church” at www.ecclesia.org as of 6/11/12. []
  4. W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1996ed.) 50.  The Greek word is baptizo and it means “to baptize, to dip.” []
  5. That is Paul’s meaning of the word when he writes in Romans 6:4, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” []
  6. Gary E. Gilley, This Little Church Went to Market: Is the Modern Church Reaching Out or Selling Out? (Darlington, Del.: Evangelical Press, 2005) 10.  Gary Gilley provides us with a helpful distinction between the local church and the universal church when he writes, “The Bible tells us that the church is the body of Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 12). When we speak of the universal church, we are speaking of an organism consisting of all the redeemed throughout the church age, both living and dead.  But the church does not function in universal fashion; it functions through particular assemblies comprised of true believers, scattered throughout the world. Most references to the church in the New Testament are to local churches (e.g. the seven churches of Asia as found in Rev. 2 and 3).” []
  7. For an excellent book concerning the relationship between slaves and masters in the First Century, see John MacArthur’s Slave: The Hidden Truth about Your Identity in Christ (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2010).  For a detailed explanation, see pages 23-38. []
  8. Gal 3:28. []
  9. Eph 5:31-32; Rev 19:6-9. []
  10. Some great places to find them are www.9marks.org, www.tms.edu, www.biblebb.com, and www.founders.org. []
  11. 2 Cor 5:17. []
  12. Consider these lyrics from Michael W. Smith’s song “Above All:” “Crucified, laid behind a stone.  You lived to die rejected and alone.  Like a rose trampled on the ground, You took the fall and thought of me above all.”  Borrowed from www.sing365.com as of 6/11/12. []
  13. Gen 1:26-27.  For more information about the image of God, see “What is Man?” in the 2012 edition of JTST. []
  14. Rom 7:24; Gal 2:20; 6:14. []
  15. 1 Jn 2:2. []
  16. Jn 10:11-18. []
  17. Jn 15:1-8. []
  18. 1 Per 2:4, 9. []
  19. Matt 13:24-33, 44-46. []
  20. Lk 11:11-13; Rom 14:13-21; Heb 12:7-10. []
  21. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 462.  Gordon Fee sheds light on Paul’s meaning in these verses.  “The final verse of this paragraph helps to put things into perspective. The warning, based on the tragic examples of Israel, is straightforward and powerful. Some sins are so incompatible with life in Christ that sure judgment, meaning loss of salvation, is the inevitable result of persistence in them . . . Such heady disobedience, Paul assures us, is headed for destruction. But on the other side is the faithful God, ready to aid those enduring trial, assuring them that there is a way out, an end to it. And in the meantime he is there to apportion the necessary ability to endure, appropriate to the trial.” []
  22. Notice how Paul words First Corinthians 15:56-57, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The victory is given to us, not just to me. []
  23. 1 Cor 12:7; 1 Pet 4:10. []
  24. A sad example of this is a sermon preached in Duke University Chapel on October 26, 2008 by Dr. Sam Wells entitled, “Loving Yourself.”  The transcript of the sermon can be found at www.chapel.duke.edu as of 6/11/12. []
  25. R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. by Leon Morris (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1985) 320.  “‘As yourself’ assumes, rather than commands, a basically self-centered orientation, which Jesus requires his disciple to overcome.” []
  26. The Church, 165. []