Perhaps you have heard this one a few times. ‘I love Jesus’, they say, ‘I just don’t love the church’. Some argue that they can be a perfectly good Christian without the church. I believe in Jesus, they reckon, my faith is not in the church.
Now, it bears saying, you can be a Christian outside of the church. The dying thief on the cross was a believer and he went nowhere near a church. The Ethiopian eunuch who chatted with Philip became a Christian and there was no church in sight. If we really believe that the gospel is a message of faith alone, in Christ alone (and it is) then it is possible to be a believer outside of the church.
Unfortunately, what it is not possible to be is an obedient believer and purposefully remain outside of the church. Nor is it possible to be a healthy believer outside of the church. Whilst we have to accept the possibility that someone, somewhere may well be a genuine believer who does not join a local church, it is fair to say that those who continue in open disobedience to the commands of Christ do not love him like they claim. Wasn’t it Jesus who said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’? Similarly, didn’t John tell us, ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen’ (1 John 4:20). Pretty hard to claim we love our brothers and sisters whilst insisting we don’t actually want anything to do with them.
And so to ask whether it is possible to be a Christian and not in a church is the wrong question. It is possible, but the circumstances under which it is possible necessitate them not constituting open and flagrant disobedience of Jesus commands. So, the thief on the cross, for example, was being put to death the very moment he also believed in Jesus. There wasn’t any church for him to join – and even if there were, he was in no position to join it – and so it wasn’t knowing, unrepentant disobedience on his part that he wasn’t in one. Similarly, the Ethiopian eunuch had no church to belong to either at the point he believed. But a church in Ethiopia did spring up after he returned there, suggesting he shared the gospel he believed with others and then formed a church (which he presumably joined). It wasn’t unrepentant, wilful disobedience on his part either.
But most of us are not in either situation in the UK. For most who claim they can be Christians apart from the church, they are making an active choice not to belong. And so the discussion must then rest on whether Jesus commands his people to belong to the church. If he does, and we ignore it, Jesus words about those who keep his commands cut back. The implication is that those who love him will keep his commandments and, therefore, those that don’t keep his command don’t love him. In other words, they are not actually Christians.
So, does Jesus expect his people to belong to a church? Certainly, the implications of John’s comments quoted earlier suggest we should. But there are more explicit comments too. Hebrews 10:25 encourages us not to neglect meeting together with fellow believers. If we never go to church, how are we obeying this command to gather with God’s people? Paul’s repeated metaphor of a body implies a connectedness between the members. Arms are not much good to you when they are detached from the body and they are certainly not healthy limbs, but will eventually rot and die. The implication is that we ought to belong to the church. It equally cannot be ignored that the vast majority of New Testament letters are written specifically to churches. There was an expectation that believers would belong to a particular local body. There are many other individual verses and sections that we could point at that suggest we ought to belong to the church.
But perhaps most compellingly of all is how Jesus talks about the church. She is his bride. He calls the church the apple of his eye. How many of your friends would you have the guts to tell, as you sat in their house enjoying their hospitality, that you happened to hate their wife? You love them, you think they’re great, but man you can’t stand that hag they married! Just imagine the shoe was on the other foot and somebody dared to say that to you, as they sat in your house, enjoying your hospitality? I struggle to believe your friendship would last. Imagine them doing the same but about your children. ‘I love you’, they say, ‘and thanks for having me over, but your kids are so annoying, I can’t stand them man. In fact, I don’t think I’m going to come over any more because I just hate them so much.’ How long is that friendship going to survive?
When we say we love God, but hate the church and don’t want anything to do with it, we’re saying that we like God but we hate his kids. When we say we love Jesus, but hate the church, we’re saying we’re alright with him but we hate his bride. As John rightly points out, ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen’ (1 John 4:20). If we say we love God, but not his church, then we don’t love him at all. If we say we love Jesus, but not his church, then we don’t belong to him. You cannot love God and hate his church.
Now, you might say, I don’t hate the church, I just don’t see any need to go or be part of it. Alas, John won’t so easily let us off the hook:
God’s love was revealed among us[b] in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice[c] for our sins. 11 Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.1 John 4:9-11
Did you notice what John said there? God loved us by sending his son to us as the sacrifice for our sins. He goes on, ‘if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.’ It is not enough merely not to hate the church, we must love it. And we are to love it in the way God showed his loved to us. His love consisted to sending Jesus who came to be with us. Not only to be with us, but to sacrificially give himself up for us. We are to love God’s people that same way. We are to be with them and then sacrificially serve them. We simply cannot do that whilst maintaining a ‘I love God but don’t bother with church’ attitude.
There are many other bits of the Bible we could look at to answer this question. But the bottom line is this, whilst it is possible to be a Christian outside of the church, it is not possible to be an obedient believer who wilfully rejects the church. And if we are not being obedient to Jesus in rejecting his church, Jesus himself says that we don’t actually love him like we claim. Whilst the church is not the grounds of our salvation, it remains the case that outside of it, our salvation is much less sure than we might think.