Some people joke about the “Bedside Baptists” who attend the “Chapel of the Tube” on Sunday mornings. But it’s more than a joke. Many people refuse to get near a church unless their nephew is playing the role of a sheep in the Christmas pageant! They claim they can get more out of a walk in the woods than from the typical sermon.
Can a Christian survive apart from a church? Some Christians have no choice. They are trapped in a hospital bed, or working in an isolated area where no church exists. God is certainly sufficient to care for their needs. You can still get to heaven if you can’t go to church. But, even though it’s technically possible to live the Christian life in isolation, it’s certainly not the norm.
When you become a Christian, you are called into a relationship with God (1 Corinthians 1:9). However, I John 1:3 makes it clear that we enter a fellowship that goes two ways: with God and with other Christians.
The New Testament never divides Christians into the church members and the non-church members. All the way through, it assumes that everybody participates in their local assembly. It gives no samples of Christians who belong to the “universal church” but have no link with a local church. One scholar has said that “any idea…of enjoying salvation or being a Christian in isolation is foreign to the New Testament writings” (Alan Stibbs, God’s Church, p. 92). Wherever Christians are within range of each other in the New Testament, they meet. Every time the apostle Paul comes to a town in the book of Acts where there are no Christians, he wins a few converts and immediately organizes them into a small group – a little church.
Acts 20:7 reveals the practice of the early church: “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached to them.” For Christians in every location, regular gathering was a part of life.
It’s illogical to say that you are merely part of the worldwide, universal church, yet refuse to gather with the segment of that universal church that exists in your geographical area. It would be like claiming you have a car, when the right fender is in Phoenix, the engine is in Tucson, and the wheels are in Paradise Valley! You don’t have a car; you have the beginning of the inventory for a junkyard. It just won’t function until the pieces are put together.
The church must be together to carry out many of its purposes.
Here are some irreplaceable pieces of the Christian that cannot happen when you live in isolation from the church:
1. THE USE OF SPIRITUAL GIFTS – I Corinthians 12 makes it clear that God has given spiritual gifts to every Christian. And verse 7 states unmistakably that these abilities are not provided to make you feel good; they are abilities to minister that should be used for the common good! I Peter 4:10 commands us to use spiritual gifts to help each other.
The same passage makes it clear that we meet with other Christians so they can use their gifts to strengthen us. God’s gift of a preacher or teacher is wasted if no one comes to hear them speak.
2. MUTUAL MINISTRY – The church is pictured as a body in I Corinthians 12, and Paul explains that each part of the body exists to meet the needs of other body parts. In the same way, God intends each of us to meet the needs of other believers, using our strengths to help in their areas of weakness. I Corinthians 12:21 expresses it this way: “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you.” Neither can a Christian claim to be self-sufficient today.
The New Testament is full of “one another” commands. We are to comfort one another (I Thessalonians 4:18), build up one another (I Thessalonians 5:11), confess our sins to one another (James 5:16), pray for one another (James 5:16), and many more. How can we obey these directives if we stay away from the gathering of believers?
3. ACCOUNTABILITY – God designed the church as a place where spiritual leaders could watch out for our welfare, as a shepherd guards the sheep (I Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:17). A Christian who answers only to himself can easily rationalize sinful attitudes or actions; regular contact with other Christians can keep us sharp.
A single verse should actually be sufficient answer for this question: Hebrews 10:25 warns its readers against “forsaking the assembly of yourselves together, as the manner of some is.”