Thomas E. Tyson
Most folks in the United States don't go to church. Forty percent never attend church at all, and more people were not in a worship service on the last Lord's day than were. For tens of millions of our countrymen, Sunday is a day to sleep in, have a continental brunch at a restaurant, and then settle in for an afternoon of football and beer. Church services are considered boring, irrelevant, and worth neither the effort nor the cost.
Now, if Christianity were purely an individual matter, if there were no fourth commandment, and if God hadn't given any instruction regarding church attendance, then the behavior described above might be OK. But Christians are not isolated individuals who just happen to share a common destiny. Rather, they are the body of Christ. Furthermore, the Sabbath commandment, which sets apart one day in every seven as a day of rest and worship, is still binding. And, the Bible does have something to say about church attendance:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:25)
One of the chief blessings and duties of Christians, as members of God's church, is corporate worship—going to church. Why, then, is this article entitled "Don't Go to Church?" If there's anything we ought to do, it's go to church, isn't it? Well, there is a sense in which merely going to church misses the point of what we're all about as Christians. We don't help people to understand their privileges and responsibilities as church members merely by hammering away at their lack of attendance at worship services.
The Bible teaches that church members are not so much people who go to church, as people who are the church.
Someone might suggest that such a passage as Psalm 84 seems to encourage, if not command, church attendance. Doesn't it describe the blessedness of being in (vss. 1-4), of going to (vss. 5-8), and of putting first (vss. 9-12), God's temple? Yes, it does. But that is not the same as saying that we are to be in, go to, and put first the church's worship service. The New Testament counterpart of the Old Testament temple is not the church's worship service at all—it is Jesus Christ himself! He is the temple of God among us (cf. John 1:14). Thus, Psalm 84, while not dealing directly with the question of church attendance, does underline for us the importance of our union with Jesus Christ. Use of the phrase "going to church" might betray a view of the church that lacks this biblical perspective. In its primary biblical sense, the church is not a building, or even a worship service within that building, to which one goes.
If the church is not a building or a worship service, what is it? Fundamentally, the church is people in union with God through Jesus Christ.
Consider the apostle Paul's description of the church:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours ... (1 Cor. 1:2)
Notice how, with successive brush strokes, Paul paints a picture of the church, showing its characteristics: the church (unity) of God (owner) in Corinth (visibility); those sanctified in Christ Jesus (blessedness), who are called to be holy (purpose), with all those everywhere (universality).
What does this mean to you? It means that you need to become, if you are not one already, a member of that one church of God by exercising faith in Jesus Christ and by confessing your faith publicly in a local congregation of God's people. You will be baptized, as a sign and seal of God's saving ownership of you. If you were baptized as an infant, you have been a member of the church from your birth. Now that you are old enough to understand these things, it is your responsibility to confess faith in Jesus Christ. When you do that, you will be permitted to partake of the Lord's Supper.
You are a member of Christ's body, the church! So, being a good church member—bringing praise to the church's Head—is important. You don't go to church. You, together with all of God's people, are the church.
One of the chief characteristics of the church is holiness. We read:
Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)
We said that Jesus himself is God's temple. Thus, the church, Jesus' body, is also God's temple, in which he lives by his Holy Spirit. That temple is so dear to God's heart that he warns any would-be destroyers of the church that he will destroy them. That temple is holy because Jesus is holy, and so everyone who is united to him is holy, too. That's why Christians are called "saints," which means "holy ones." In themselves they are not holy, but in Christ they are holy.
The holiness of the church involves members who are spiritually alive—a people in covenant with God, separated from the world for him. That church, bonded to God by a sovereignly administered transaction sealed in the blood of Jesus, is sacred.
It is important that the church's holiness be maintained in the admission of members, in the selection and conduct of church officers, in the mutual admonition of members, and in the official discipline of the church. Why? Because God's honor is at stake. The church is where his Spirit lives, the place where he has caused his name to dwell. Do you remember the third commandment and God's warning to those who take (bear) his name in vain?
Another defining characteristic of the church is fellowship.
While visiting the churches of Macedonia (in northern Greece), the apostle Paul had the privilege of observing church fellowship up close. What happened was that those churches insisted on contributing to a diaconal fund for the relief of persecuted believers in Judea. Later, Paul encouraged the church in Corinth (in southern Greece) to follow the example of the Macedonians:
For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will. (2 Cor. 8:3-5)
When Paul speaks of their "sharing," he uses a word that is often translated "fellowship." Church fellowship is not eating together, or playing together, or feeling oneness. Those things are the fruit of fellowship, not its root. The root of fellowship is God's love, which is reflected in his children as they love their brothers and sisters. Look at the terms that Paul uses to describe the fellowship that characterized the Macedonian church: fellowship gives ("they gave"), fellowship gives gifts ("as much as they were able"), and fellowship is itself a gift (they "pleaded ... for the privilege"). The church is God's creation, to show forth the glory of his grace. God loves the church. That love produces fellowship, in Christ, among all the members of that body. That's why you cannot help but see something of God's love when you see loving, active fellowship in the church.
"But, still, can't I go to church?" you ask. Yes, of course, you may! But remember that if there is to be any going to church, it will have to be, truly, going to God. Remember, therefore, when you do go to church, that it is a privilege you have, by grace, and that there is a purpose for worship. Jesus is the temple, the priest, the sacrifice, and the veil. He is everything. In him, together with all the saints, you are made the church. "Going to church," then, is a family matter. You are not your own family, but God's family.
We're altogether too individualistic in these democratic United States. Do your own thing! The family that prays together, stays together. What church do you attend? But God gathers his elect in Christ, making them his church. Make sure that you are in Christ—if you are, you are the church.
Mr. Tyson is a retired OPC minister. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2000.
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