The following is a guest post by J.K. Wall who is a writer in Indianapolis. His modernized abridgment of William Symington’s work, Messiah the Prince Revisited, was published in 2014 by Crown & Covenant Publications. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
During a chat at a restaurant last month a dear friend, who hasn’t attended church regularly for years, claimed that church is unnecessary for true Christian faith.
In other words, Who even needs the church? What’s the point?
This is a burning question for many today, especially Millennials. They find Christians a group of people they don’t want to associate with. They are turned off by pervasive hypocrisy and legalism among modern American Christians—at least in the conservative circles in which this friend and I have moved. They especially don’t like the overt politicization of many evangelical churches by the Religious Right movement. And they don’t see why going to a building with a bunch of people once a week has any effect on what they believe.
I didn’t have a great answer for my friend’s question that night. But here is what I should have said:
You can’t be anything individually without having a relationship with others.”
You can’t be a writer without readers. You can’t be a chef without diners. You can’t be a manager without workers. You can’t be an engineer without users. In the same way, you can’t be a Christian without Christ and other Christians.
That’s the answer, essentially, that Abraham Kuyper gave in his key theological writings on the church. Recently translated into English, these writings were published in November under the title On the Church by the Acton Institute and Lexham Press.
This book shows us the roots of Kuyper’s famous distinction between the church as institution and the church as spiritual organism. Kuyper grew from a young man who saw little need for the institutional church to a mature man who viewed it as indispensable. Yet the older Kuyper always emphasized that the institution of the church is necessary only to help the spiritual organism of Christians carry out the mission of Christ on earth.
“Two elements always lie at the root of our ability to believe: first, the discovery and acknowledgment that there is a body of the Lord, and second, the awareness of assurance of our personal belonging to that body,” Kuyper wrote.
Belief in a Relationship
Kuyper understood that Christian faith is not merely belief in a set of concepts, but belief in a relationship: that Christ has joined us to Him and to other believers in such a close bond that we are now part of one, living organism.
“A believer may feel disconnected from an organized church for various reasons,” Kuyper added. “But it immediately, automatically, and without hesitation directs itself to the invisible church. Faith in Christ that at the same time is not faith toward his body is unthinkable and does not exist.”
Jesus Himself summarized the entire Bible in these two statements: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)
You cannot love God if you never talk with Him and spend time with Him. And where is God found? At church, where God’s Word—that is, Jesus—is made understandable by the pastor and made tangible by the rituals of communion and baptism.
You cannot love your neighbor unless you are receiving love from Jesus to give to your neighbor. Do many non-Christians act lovingly toward their neighbors? Absolutely. But their kindness and service also come from Christ, as part of the common grace with which He rules and blesses the whole world.
If you want to see more love in the world, then the only sensible thing to do is to keep going back to the source of that love. That source is the church, where Christ week after week makes Himself available to strengthen His followers.
Selfishness vs. Selflessness
Without Christ giving out His love in the world, all of human society would be marked by utter selfishness. In short, there would be no relationships at all among humans. According to Kuyper, all people would seek their own benefit at the expense of those around them.
Do you suppose that if God did not restrain our sinful heart, did not cast a ray of light into our darkness, and did not come to our aid with restraining compassion, there would be any fidelity and integrity, any virtue and dedication, any art or learning, or any human organization or sense of justice on earth?” Kuyper wrote. “No, I tell you, if the Lord Almighty had left us to our own devices, all virtue would have turned into brutishness, all order into chaos, and all humanity would have descended in the dense smoke of hell.”
This all-encompassing selfishness is the kingdom of Satan. Beating back this kingdom is the reason Christ established and still works through the church as an institution.
“Therefore, the institution of the visible church requires a threefold destination,” Kuyper wrote. “It serves, first, to reclaim people from Satan; second, to repel Satan in the organism of our entire human life; and third, to have the people of the Lord living under their King and maturing for the kingdom of his glory.”
Put more simply: the church is an army for good and a community for growth.
The church is the army of God fighting to bring more people into the kingdom of God and to repel the kingdom of Satan in every area of life. At the same time, the church is a community of the people of God who even now enjoy and exemplify a bit of the new selfless life under Jesus.
What about the Hypocrites?
But what about those who claim to be righteous but are callous and cold? What about those that claim to love others but vote for politicians promoting pernicious policies?
Kuyper had an answer for those questions too.
First, he noted, when Christ brings a person to faith in Him, He never sanctifies that person all at once. If that were the case, then the church would be filled with only true believers and only those who were completely righteous.
But instead, Christ has chosen to grow His followers in their faith, gradually teaching them to rely less on themselves and more on Him.
The inevitable result is that the church is filled with a mix of people: some are true believers and some are not. Even the true believers have large amounts of growing to do. And everyone in church acts, fairly regularly, in ways that are contrary to Christ’s righteousness.
“Because of these realities,” Kuyper wrote, “it is sadly and painfully inevitable that the institution of the visible church can manifest itself only in an imperfect condition. … While the real church of Christ is pure, perfect, and unmixed, this institution of the visible church is impure, very imperfect, and mixed with various unholy parts. Not only is this so, but it must be so as well.”
The fact that so many Christians are hypocrites is a cause for sadness and even criticism. But it’s also a reason to thank God for his mercy and grace.
Mercy, because He is longsuffering with all of us. Because we are covered in Christ’s righteousness, He does not demand that we be immediately perfect. Rather, He works through Christ and His Spirit to grow us bit by bit throughout our lives. And He uses the church to do that.
Grace, because the imperfections of the church are God’s invitation to use our gifts to serve the needy in the church. Many times, the needy lack money and shelter. But just as often, especially in America, what the needy truly lack is love, peace and deep relationships.
God promises to make us who we truly are individually, by giving us others—tragically, imperfect others—to love and serve. As we do so, He smooths out some of our imperfections too.
So what is the point of church? Here is how I should have answered my friend in the restaurant:
It is to roll back selfishness and cruelty in our hearts and in the world. It is to expand selflessness—in the forms of love, justice, goodness, peace, kindness and service—among Christians and everyone around us.”
If you want less selfishness and more selflessness in the world, then you should be in church.
 Abraham Kuyper, “Lord’s Day 21,” in On the Church, edited by John Halsey Wood Jr. and Andrew M. McGinnis, translated by Harry Van Dyke, Nelson D. Kloosterman, Todd M. Rester and Arjen Vreugdenhil (Lexham Press: Bellingham, Wash., 2016), 361.
 Ibid., 362
 Kuyper, “Twofold Fatherland,” in On the Church, 288
 Kuyper, “Lord’s Day 21,” in On the Church, 354
 Ibid., 352.