Monday, September 22, 2008

Can You be a Christian and Not be Part of a Local Church Family? Yes and No

Can you be a Christian and not be part of a local church family?

This is a question that we, as Protestants, usually answer with a hearty "YES!"

The answer I give to the question, however, is "Yes and No." This is how I came to this conclusion:

I believe, as Protestants have historically believed, that salvation is based on God's grace alone. This salvation is confirmed by our faith. Salvation is based on grace alone, not based on works. This may be most clearly stated in Ephesians 2:8-9. If we confess Christ and trust in him, we will be saved (Romans 10:9).

In theory, then, a person can be a Christian without attending any church. He can follow Christ without attachment to a local church body. He can be assured of salvation without being a part of a local gathering.

He can be a part of the universal church of God without being joined with any local manifestation of that church.

This is where it gets difficult. When I look in scripture, I see Christians who want to be with other Christians. I see followers of Jesus Christ sharing life with one another. I read about Christians gathering on a regular basis to build one another up in Christ, to encourage one another during times of trial, to confront one another if one is in sin, and to support each other as they live for Christ as part of the Kingdom of God.

In the bible I do not see Christians who are not part of a local church. There may be instances where a local church does not yet exist (I'm thinking of the Ethiopian eunuch), but that's not what I am discussing. I'm referring to followers of Christ who consciously reject fellowship with a local body. As far as I can see, they do not exist in the bible.

In our day we all know about Christians who have recently moved to a new location and are not yet part of a local body. We also know about those who are too sick to attend anywhere. We are aware to followers of our Lord who have been hurt within church and are a bit "gun shy" of church life. These are not folks I am talking about.

What I am saying is that in the bible we do not see Christians rejecting the church. What we do see is Christians thriving within the church. We see them growing in Christ in part because they are edified by their brothers and sisters in Christ.

So what are we to make of folks who today claim to be followers of Jesus but want no part of church life? We must be careful not to assume anything about their salvation. We ought to try to get to know them and ask to hear their story. If they have no desire to be part of a church, we should love them, serve them, and share the gospel with them. If they continue to reject the church even after we have spent time with them, then we ought to worry about whether or not they know the Lord.

It is normal for Christians to be part of the local church. It is not normal for them to be alone.

So can someone be saved but not be part of a local church? Yes and No.

18 comments:

J. R. Miller said...

I guess it all depends on how you define "Christian"

Yes, a person can be saved outside the local church.

No, a person cannot be a disciple or move into maturity without being a part of the local body.

my 2cents

Aussie John said...

Eric,

Could you define what the Scriptures declare the "local" church to be?

Eric said...

J.R.,

Thanks for commenting.

Mt primary concern is that when a person claims to be a Christian but wants little to nothing to do with the gathering of other Christians, I have to wonder strongly whether or not that person is saved in the first place.

Eric said...

John,

Ahhh. The age old question of local church and universal church.

Scripture makes it clear that there is one church. However, there are clearly local manifestations of that church.

My main concern (expressed in this post) is for folks who claim to be Christians but do not take part in any gathering at all of believers. This rejection of the church as a whole suggests to me that this person probably isn't saved in the first place.

Why wouldn't someone who is in Christ want to gather with others who are part of the same body?

Alan Knox said...

When someone is saved, they are part of the church. As others have pointed out, the problem comes about when we begin to define "local church".

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

I agree that when a person is actually saved he becomes part of the church.

The question I am raising is what it says about a person's claim to salvation if he has little to no desire to gather with other Christians.

This is not a universal vs. local issue. It is an issue of desire of the heart. Can a person desire God but not the church?

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I think that when God changes our heart to love him, he also changes our heart to love others, including other brothers and sisters in Christ. We will WANT to get together with them because we love them and because they help us grow in maturity toward Christ.

The difficulty is that many so-called "local churches" do very little in the sense of loving people and helping them grow toward maturity in Christ. This is why it is difficult to answer your question concerning "local church".

Can someone be saved and not be part of the church? No. Can someone be saved and not love others (including believers)? No, but there could be a process involved where God is changing the person's heart. "So can someone be saved but not be part of a local church?" Depends on what you mean by "local church".

-Alan

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

You could also ask your question this way: Can someone be saved and not be accepted, welcomed, loved, and discipled by a "local church"? Unfortunatley, yes.

-Alan

J. R. Miller said...

Hey Eric, then you will probably enjoy my cartoon and poem entitled, "Blind Foxes and Churchless Faith"

Eric said...

Alan,

You wrote, "I think that when God changes our heart to love him, he also changes our heart to love others, including other brothers and sisters in Christ. We will WANT to get together with them because we love them and because they help us grow in maturity toward Christ."

I agree completely, and this was the point of the post. As part of the change of salvation, a Christian ought to have a desire to be with other Christians. If this desire is not present, then we have to wonder about whether or not the person is saved.

I also agree with you that some people have certainly been hurt within the church by those not looking to edify others.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

Since you agree that some have been hurt by "local churches", then you would probably understand why some believers are confused by this. They want to be with other believers, but everytime they approach a "local church", they do not find what they need and what God is showing them and giving them a desire for - that is, brother and sisters serving one another in order to build one another up toward maturity. Thus, many have decided that they cannot find the church in "local church".

I get emails from people in this predicament all the time.

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

I feel badly for anyone who is hurt by any other Christian. This should simply not happen.

The key for those you describe is that they have a desire to gather with other Christians for times of edification and worship. This seems to me to be evidence of salvation.

The purpose of this post is not to draw some sort of line between local and universal church. The purpose is to express my concern about people who claim to follow Christ, but at the same time have no desire to gather with other believers.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

I'm not talking about the distinction between local and universal church.

You said, "The purpose is to express my concern about people who claim to follow Christ, but at the same time have no desire to gather with other believers." Yes, this should be a concern for anyone. But, that's not the question that you asked.

You asked, "So can someone be saved but not be part of a local church?" Which is why I asked what you meant by "local church". I'm not trying to distinguish between local and universal church. I know many, many, many people who "have a desire to gather with other Christians for times of edification and worship", but they are not "part of a local church".

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

I think we may actually be in agreement, but not using the same wording. When I use the term "local church," I'm not talking about the traditional church here in the USA. I am referring to a gathering of Christians who want to build each other up in Christ. These may or may not even be the same people from week to week.

The key is the desire to be with other followers of Christ.

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

From the times we've talked before, I knew that you and I were in agreement. But, I know that in most Christian circles, the phrase "part of a local church" does not mean "a gathering of Christians who want to build each other up in Christ" whether or not they meet together with the same group from week to week.

This is one of the reasons that I try to be very careful with the words that I use, especially concerning the church. I'm not always successful, because some of these phrases seem to be embedded in me somewhere.

So, yes, I think we are in agreement. I only pushed because I knew that many people would read your post and think of "local church" and think you were "talking about the traditional church here in the USA", which, many times, may not be churches at all - at least, not in the way that you defined it. :)

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

I suppose a better post title may have been, "Can You be a Christian and Not Gather with Other Christians? Yes and No".

Aussie John said...

Eric,

Than you for your reply. I would have continued the conversation along the lines which Alan raised.Thanks Alan.

By the way, the question of "universal" or "local" hadn't entered my mind. I was truly only interested in your definition of "local church" because of the abuses of the term which have been perpetuated in orthodox evangelicalism.

Eric said...

John,

It saddens me to think that there are Christians who want to gather with a local body of believers, but who cannot find one.

I agree that "church" has been given a very narrow definition by many evangelicals.