Summary: More and more Christians are coming to believe that Christ didn’t establish an organized church but instead, they say the “church” is merely “a body of believers.” They say that the Bible teaches that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” as evidence of this belief, but is this true? This article examines this claim in light of what the Bible says is the purpose of the church.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
People are aware that there are many different Christian churches in the world today, such as the Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, and others, but more and more Christians are coming to believe that Christ didn’t establish an organized church. Instead, they say the Bible teaches that the “church” is merely “a body of believers” (1 Corinthians 12:27). What that means to them is that “the church” consists of an yone who believes in Jesus Christ rather than it being some structured religious organization.
To support this idea, people point to Matthew 18:20 which says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Many Christians understand this to mean that the “church” is defined as being anywhere two or three people who believe in Christ are gathered together. According to this belief, the position of pastors, ministers, priests, or other types of teachers are there only to help facilitate spiritual growth but are not necessary for Christian worship.
As this trend towards a decentralized, less organized community of believers increases, it ultimately leads people to conclude that they don’t need to belong to a formal church in order to be a believer in Christ. With the advent of television, more and more preachers (known as televangelists) have begun using this medium to spread the good news of Christ which allows people to stay at home while still hearing a sermon. However, over the years the number of people who listen to any kind of a spiritual message, or who even read the Bible has been continually declining.
One of the major factors leading to this trend is the idea that we go to one of two places when we die – either heaven or hell. The Christian message is that only those who believe in Christ go to heaven, while everyone else goes to hell. Therefore, it’s easy for someone to think that as long as they believe in Jesus, then they’re assured of going to heaven. Furthermore, they point out that since the Bible doesn’t say a person has to go to church to be saved, it decreases the necessity of attending one.
But there’s another major factor that causes people to stay away from church.
The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches people how to live a Christian life, which includes loving your neighbor, doing good to others, being honest, chaste, and living by other moral standards. From this perspective, most people believe that as long as someone lives a good, decent life, God will allow them into heaven. In other words, heaven is where good people go when they die. On the other hand, it’s believed that if someone is a “bad” person, then they go to hell when they die.
With this understanding, since most people consider themselves to be “good,” they just assume they’ll go to heaven when they die even if they don’t go to church, or even believe in God. To justify this attitude, they tell themselves that going to church can’t teach them anything they don’t already know about how to be “good.”. In other words, since they know what is right and what is wrong, then there’s nothing new they can learn in this regard by going to church.
But is this true? To discover the answer to this question, it might be helpful to look at some of the reasons why we should attend church.
Paul tells us that one of the purposes of the church is for the perfecting of the saints, but how does the church do that?
We’ve all heard the saying, “Use it or lose it.” The secret to learning is repetition because without being continually remined of something, the less likely we are to remember what we once knew. In the same way, when we don’t go to church, we gradually begin to lose what we once knew, and when that happens, we gradually begin to drift away from doing what we know we should. This applies to everyone because this is how the human mind works.
For example, we all know we shouldn’t lie, but unless we’re continually remined of what a lie is, it’s easy to tell a lie and then make an excuse for why we did it. When that happens, we tell ourselves we’re not a liar because we had a good reason to lie, therefore we convince ourselves that telling a particular lie doesn’t count as lying.
The same applies to stealing. Stealing is defined as taking something that doesn’t belong to us, therefore, if we take something that belongs to our employer, such as a pen, a ream of paper, or other “small” items without asking permission, we convince ourselves that’s not stealing. For this reason, most people don’t think that such behavior is wrong. To most people, stealing means taking something of great value, and since they only take small items, they don’t consider themselves as being a thief.
We know we’re supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, and people will remember the times when they did something nice for someone, but it’s easy to forget the other times when they were less than kind to those we didn’t like. Therefore, in their mind, they consider themselves as being a loving and kind person.
Going to church reminds us what it means not to lie, not to steal, and how to love people who are not easy to get along with. It’s not comfortable being reminded of our faults, but unless we are, rather than become a better person, we can slowly slip into bad habits without even realizing it.
To further illustrate this, many people make a New Year’s resolution to exercise every day in order to be healthy and fit, and for the first couple of weeks they diligently stay on a strict routine, but then they start missing a day here and there and before long they’re not doing any exercising at all. And this same principle applies to our spiritual growth. Attending church reminds us of how we should behave, and studies have shown that people who attend church have higher morals standards that they live by than those who don’t.
Someone may wonder what difference does that make if we’re going to heaven anyway, especially if we’ve accepted Jesus as our Savior?
Jesus taught, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11,12). Jesus also taught us to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Matthew 16:20).
Those who lived godly lives here on earth have laid up for themselves a great treasure in heaven and will therefore receive a great reward once they get there. On the other hand, those whose lives weren’t as good will receive a lesser reward. To put this in perspective, compared to a third-world country, America seems like paradise, but we can find people in America living a very wealthy lifestyle, or living in a middle-class neighborhood, or living in squalid conditions.
In the same way, compared to our life here on earth, heaven will certainly seem like paradise, but those who don’t treasure the things of God, and who feel they don’t need to do anything except to say they believe in Jesus, might find themselves living in heaven after they die, but their lifestyle there will be far less glorious than what they could have had.
We know that God is the epitome of fairness and justice, and it would be totally unfair and unjust to give the same reward to those who didn’t want to spend much time serving God as those who dedicated their lives to him. Those who at least made the effort to regularly attend church and took the time to hear a spiritual message once a week, are doing more than someone who thought it wasn’t worth their time to do even that much. Even if we say that our salvation doesn’t depend on what we do, but a just and fair God still has to reward each person for what they’ve done. If there are no eternal consequences for our behavior that would not be fair.
If we say that God lets us into heaven because we’re good, the question we need to ask ourselves is, what is God’s definition of being “good?” The purpose of the church is to help us “all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Unity doesn’t mean everyone deciding for themselves what they think it means to be good Therefore, to know what God says is “good” takes gaining a knowledge of the Son of God, because it’s his teachings that defines what is good and what isn’t.
It could be argued that people can do that at home by reading the Bible themselves, but very few people do that on a regular basis. And like with New Year’s resolutions, people may start out with good intentions, but it doesn’t take long before they’re not reading the Bible at all. At least if they attend church, if only once a week, they’re being taught more about the gospel of Jesus Christ than they would staying home.
But belonging to a church does more than give us knowledge: it edifies us. To edify can mean “to instruct or inform,” but it more fully means “to improve.” It’s not enough to know what to do. Knowledge doesn’t do us much good unless we’re able to apply it, and one of the purposes of the church is to help us learn how to do that.
We’ve heard the saying that there’s strength in numbers, and we’ve also heard the saying that birds of a feather flock together. As humans, our thinking is shaped to a large degree by those whom we choose to associate with, and when we attend church, we mingle with others who have similar beliefs, which helps strengthen us in our resolve to do better, which helps us to improve in our spiritual growth. This is what Paul means when he says that the purpose of the church is to edify us. On the other hand, when we don’t attend church, then we tend to associate with those who likewise don’t go to church, and before long our morals will naturally begin to conform to theirs.
But this edifying effect goes far beyond benefiting us. Jesus taught, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). We don’t live in isolation. Everything we do has an effect on others, either for good or for ill, and the higher our morals are, the more positive effect we have on those around us.
There are countless stories of people who’ve had their lives changed for the good all because of the influence of someone who took the time to help them become a better person, and there are just as many stories of people whose life became worse because of the bad influence someone had on them. Being friendly, kind, courteous, thoughtful, and helpful has a positive influence on people, while those who are grumpy, complaining, selfish, rude, or mean have a negative influence on people.
One of the reasons why Christ established a church was to help us become a happier, kinder, and thoughtful person, and when that happens, then we become like leaven that helps raise the moral level of our society (Luke 13:21). On the other hand, when we no longer attend church, we can easily become like salt that has lost its flavor (Matthew 5:13).
As we’ve already seen, when we get into heaven, we’re going to be rewarded according to how much treasure we’ve accumulated there, but how to we lay up treasure for ourselves in heaven? The answer is, by doing good to others. The more good we do, the more treasure we’re building in our heavenly bank account. The more people we can help to ease their burdens, lift their spirits, care about their needs and give comfort and assistance to those in need, the more like Christ we become, and it’s in this way that we’re building our treasure in heaven.
Jesus loved the world so much that gave his life with the intent of saving all mankind. Paul said that another purpose of the church is “for the work of the ministry.” If salvation comes from having faith in Christ, then there’s no greater work we can do than to help bring people to accept Christ as their Savior. The “work of the ministry” is usually interpreted as meaning, preaching the gospel and helping bring people to accept Christ into their life, but to make that happens requires an organized effort.
For missionary work to be effective it takes a lot of planning and people putting forth a lot of physical and mental exertion. Many churches depend on the support of their members to help make their missionary efforts succeed, either in the form of financial contributions, donated time, or in physical energy helping the organization accomplish the many things that need to be done. But that can’t happen unless people belong to a church and become an active member of it.
However, the work of the ministry includes more than just doing missionary work. It’s also a big part of perfecting the saints. A church needs people to teach children Sunday School lessons and help with providing aid for both the youth and adults programs that are meant to help increase a person’s faith in Christ.
But church attendance also has an effect on the children of parents. Studies have shown that if parents don’t go to church, then their children most generally will grow up not going to church either, and when that happens their morals are usually not as high as their parents. And when that happens, then the morals of society as a whole decreases.
In the 1700s a large percentage of Americans attended church and it is a recorded fact of history that as fewer people began attending church, the morals of society as a whole also declined. Although there are always going to be people in any society who are corrupt or evil, it’s the percentage of righteous people compared to the unrighteous that determines the moral strength of any nation. When we compare that ratio today to that of the 1700s, we see much more wickedness happening in our day than we did back then.
For example, in the 1950s it was a scandal if a young, unmarried girl became pregnant, but today that situation is such a common occurrence that nobody gives it any thought. The television shows we saw in the 50s and 60s were all wholesome family entertainment where there was nothing unusual about hearing the mention of God, but today’s television shows try to press the boundaries of how much graphic immorality they can display, and the name of God is now considered to be vboffensive unless it’s used in a vulgar way.
The reason why Jesus established a church was for our benefit, not his. It’s in his church that he’s prepared experiences designed to help us become better people, help us to find more genuine happiness, and help us better cope with the trials of life. The purpose of Christ’s church is to bless our lives, and by extension, have a beneficial impact on the lives of others. But when we choose to distance ourselves from Christ’s church, we’re only denying ourselves the blessings that God has designed to give us.
A common complaint people give for not going to church is because of the behavior of others. They say that the people there are hypocrites, or perhaps someone said something that offended them, or they don’t like the pastor, or the way he delivered his sermon. There are many reasons people give for why they don’t want to attend church, but the purpose of the church isn’t to be a social club. The primary reason we go there is to worship God, and that is a personal experience that doesn’t depend on what others may say or do.
It’s said that people can worship God at home, or in the woods, or in the mountains as easily as they can at church, but true worship involves singing praises to God (Psalm 92:1; 95;1,2), being willing to be taught and learn from God’s word and serving him by serving others. However very few people who claim to worship God at home, in the woods, or in the mountains do any of those things. Instead, they do many other things that has no relationship to spending quality time actually and genuinely worshiping God.
The real reason we go to church is to show God how much we love him, and the way we show that love is by keeping his commandments. It was Jesus who said, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).
It’s in the church where we learn what God’s commandments are and it’s in the church where we are taught how to keep them more fully. God doesn’t allow us into heaven because we’re good people. He lets us live with him because we love him, and we show him that love by how much we want to learn about him and do those things that please him. It’s when we love God, that God then loves us and wants to be with us. If spending only a few hours worshiping God just one day a week is too much effort for us, then why would we want to live with God throughout all of eternity? For that matter, why would God have someone who doesn’t love him come and spend eternity living with him?
Therefore, in the final analysis, it’s to find out who really loves him with all their heart is why God established his church.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Scripture