“You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” This is something I saw posted on Facebook (go figure).
Most of us have heard this statement before. You may have responded with hearty agreement, or perhaps you frowned and scratched your head.
Is this true? Can one be a Christian without going to church?
Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, believing the simple truth of the gospel—that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day—does not require “church attendance” per se (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). However, Scripture undeniably affirms that Christian community is an essential aspect of living the life of faith.
Before jumping to conclusions based on our own ideas and experiences, let us consult how Scripture handles the topic of Christian community.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
These acts of devotion immediately followed each new believer’s faith and subsequent baptism. They heard the gospel message (many from Peter, vv. 14–41), “accepted his message,” and “were baptized” (v. 41). The verse directly following this belief and baptism describes their devotion to various practices within Christian community.
Both “the fellowship” and “the breaking of bread” necessarily imply community. Moreover, while being devoted to “the apostles’ teaching” and “the prayers” could and may have been done in an individual manner, these acts of devotion likely took place primarily in a communal setting.
The fellowship—tē koinōnia: In the ESV, koinōnia is translated most often as “fellowship.” Other renderings include “participation,” “communion,” “sharing,” and “contribution.” Additionally, this community is something to which the new believers devoted themselves—it was not a mere passing fancy. In the Greek, this concept of devotion implies persistence, endurance, constancy, and faithfulness.
The breaking of bread: First, the very act of breaking bread symbolizes eating together (therefore, the gathering of Christian community). Second, this communal action held rich significance in that it was done in remembrance of Jesus (according to his command at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me,” Luke 22:19). Such a connection was also immediately evident to the disciples Jesus met on the road to Emmaus: “Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread” (Luke 24:35, NIV).
Just a few verses later, it says,
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
In continuation of verse 42, Luke adds that these believers 1) attended the temple (i.e., “church”) together, 2) broke bread together, and 3) praised God, having (or “enjoying,” NIV) favor “with all the people.”
Another interesting aspect of this passage is the last part of verse 47: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The logical and chronological result of the belief, baptism, and communal participation of these new believers is that such activity served to bring about a harvest of more believers.
In his Great Commission, Jesus commanded his disciples to “Go…and make disciples…baptizing them…[and] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Acts 2 suggests the key role that participation in Christian community plays in obeying this command (as well as its effectiveness in bringing converts to the faith, seen above).
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
This passage, while encouraging perseverance in the faith in its fuller context (vv. 19–39), notes the essential nature that community plays in such perseverance. Verse 24 calls believers to “stir one another up” or “spur one another on” (NIV) to “love and good works”—something that an individual cannot do by and for him/herself.
This passage also suggests that there were groups of believers who were not committed to gathering together regularly: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (v. 25, emphasis added).
Contrary to some habits evident within the audience’s immediate context, the author of Hebrews highlights the importance of Christian community (moreover, “all the more as you see the Day drawing near”).
The remainder of Hebrews 10 emphasizes the need for perseverance by setting it against the backdrop of a warning against failing to persevere in the faith. Thus, while one may become a believer outside of the Christian community, the fellowship of believers plays a key role in encouraging believers to persevere.
Belief Apart from Christian Community
So, does one have to “go to church” to be a Christian? The above discussion only scratches the surface by examining a few key passages of Scripture. We should also consider the importance and benefit of attending church for the encouragement and growth in knowledge through the proclamation of truth, the participation in corporate worship, the Lord’s Supper, and many other aspects of Christian life.
Lastly, it is worth noting the thief on the cross (Luke 23:40–43). Though he had no opportunity to be part of ongoing Christian community, his faith saved him (literally in his final hour). He was indeed saved, but not living past that afternoon, he did not see the birth of the Church and had no opportunity to participate in such community.
For those of us with the ability to partake of, participate in, and contribute to Christian community, we ought to consider how vital it may be in fostering the genuine, enduring life of faith to which we are called by our Lord.