Here’s a proposition for the new year. I propose that if church isn’t necessary, we quit. I mean it. If it’s not necessary let’s cancel all of our services, board up the windows, lock the doors, and send everyone on their merry way. Sure, Christians have been gathering together to hear the Word read and preached, to sing with grace in their hearts, and observe the sacraments for over two thousand years. But if it’s not necessary let’s be the first generation to finally end the practice. Let’s silence the pulpit, close up the song books, dry up the baptismal waters, and put away the bread and wine. If church isn’t necessary, let’s quit.
Why? Because I’m convinced if it’s not necessary it’s too difficult and not worth my time. Listening to sermons is hard and it’s not really my learning style. So, let’s quit. Singing is outdated and the thought of someone hearing me slightly off key or out of tune is unbearable. Let’s quit. Praying together is boring and I’m too easily distracted. Let’s quit. I have my own friends and family and people at church can be hard to get along with. Let’s quit. It’s also too time consuming. Saturday nights are too fun and I could function better on Monday if I could get a couple extra hours of sleep. Let’s quit. Besides, my schedule is too demanding with my weekly workload, studying and homework, sports games, and an unending shopping list. Let’s quit. And, to be honest, there’s many times I don’t feel like going. It’s all hustle and bustle from the moment the alarm goes off to getting the kids ready and into the car. So, let’s quit! I really am serious. That’s my proposal for the new year. If church isn’t absolutely necessary, let’s quit.
But is that really an option? Well, no it’s not. Let me explain. There’s a lot of confusion today as to what the “church” is. Often people will say the church is a body to which every believer belongs. That is true. The body metaphor was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite pictures of the church: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27, see also Romans 12:4-5). But the church isn’t simply some undefined or invisible body. Rather, according to the Bible, it has a visible and outward organization. It has rules (1 Timothy 2:8-15, 1 Corinthians 11-14, and Titus 2), it has leadership (Matthew 16:19, Acts 6:1-7, 14:23, Ephesians 4:11, Hebrews 13:17), it has recognized preachers (Romans 10:15, 1 Timothy 5:17), it has a defined membership (Acts 2:41, Romans 16:3-16), it needs to compensate its teachers (1 Timothy 5:18), and it has discipline for those who need correction (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-12). None of that would be possible if the church was only an invisible body and not also an organization.
And it was to this organized or visible church that Jesus gave the ministry of gathering and perfecting the saints. He said to his Apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Later, the Apostle Paul would also write: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). If I can put it this way, this visible church is the seedbed in which we are planted, nourished, rooted, protected, and grown. You cannot flourish without the church. It’s for this reason that the earliest Christians were wholly committed to this church as though their spiritual lives depended on it (see Acts 2:42, 47). It’s for this reason that Cyprian said: “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.” And it’s for this reason the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly says: “[Outside of the visible church] there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” To neglect it, then, is to neglect the very means the Holy Spirit uses to gather and perfect his people.
Have we outgrown the need? I don’t think so. The church is necessary. Preaching is necessary (Romans 10:14-17 and 1 Timothy 4:13), singing Psalms is necessary (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16), discipleship and discipline are necessary (Matthew 28:16-20, 1 Corinthians 5:4-5), public prayer is necessary (1 Timothy 2:1-2), evangelism is necessary (Mark 16:15), and fellowship is necessary (Acts 2:42-47). The ministry of Word and sacrament is not a mere convention of human will and expediency, it is absolutely necessary. So I have another proposal. If the church is necessary, let’s not quit. Let’s devote and commit ourselves to it in the coming year for our good and God’s glory. As the author of Hebrews wrote: “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” (Hebrews 10:24-25).