A brother sent me an article that came out in 2013 by Kevin DeYoung and Jason Helopoulos trying to answer the question “Does the Bible Require Christians to Attend Church?” This brother asked my opinion on the article, so after my eye twitch from reading the title went away, I came up with this:
One of the points of contention that I have with standard thought on church (attendance) compared to how the NT talks about the church is this: standard thinking centers the gathering around (corporate) worship where the NT centers the gathering around mutuality and edification. This article, strangely enough, seemed to both nail the nature of the church and completely miss it, all at the same time. On the whole, the gross overemphasis on corporate worship as the primary mark of the church makes their attempts to “unpack some of the most common objections” hollow. And since this was the main thrust of their article, I don’t really think they at all answered the question in the article’s title.
Having said that, Stott’s statement at the beginning is spot-on and I couldn’t agree more. There is no such thing as an “unchurched Christian”. DeYoung and Helopoulos get closest to this when arguing that the body metaphor requires that each part of the body needs the other parts to function. That’s impossible to do flying solo or floating around or listening to podcasts or reading great books by ginormous-church pastors.
Furthermore, the word for church (“ekklesia”) specifically means gathering or assembly. While I wouldn’t want to deny that Jesus and the apostles could divest new meaning in the term, we can’t ignore that “church” (better translated “assembly” or “gathering”) is by nature a gathered group of people—without detailing how often or in what contexts or what exactly needs to happen when together. And if assembly is tied up with what it means to be the church, then it has to be a definable set of people, not just generic fellowship with any Christian at any time. This is more obvious when you think about the fact that the one anothers fall apart without some context in which those one anothers can occur. For instance, how can we bear one another’s burdens without some grasp of who these others are that we’re bearing burdens together with? The NT envisions a rather defined group of people with whom we share burdens and confess sins and encourage one another.
Church “discipline” probably gets the closest to helping us see how important this defined group of people is. How can “the majority” cast out anyone without having an idea of who the group is to start with (cf. 2 Cor 2:6)? How can you take it to “the church” if the church isn’t a defined group of people? Should every discipline case be emailed to every Christian in the world so that “the church” can cast him out?
This is all just to say that I agree with the main thrust of the article, though I think they take all the wrong roads to get to the kinda-right conclusion. Because a Jesus-follower isn’t one alone—he’s part of the body with his own role to perform. The Spirit gives gifts to be used for the good of that body. Shoot, most of the New Testament was written to individual churches with instructions on how to relate to one another, a fact that’s impossible to do apart from—you guessed it—the church.
The only exception, scripturally speaking, where people aren’t tied to a particular body of believers are those who have been commissioned by the church as evangelists, missionaries, and/or apostles. Those gifts by their nature exist outside a defined “church”, but each have the goal of seeing distinct churches built through the gospel. So even then, they’re always tied to the church(es) they’re ministering to while with them. Those gifts by nature work that way as the God-appointed means of making more churches. Unless specifically sent out by a church to do the work of an evangelist/missionary/apostle, every Christian—by nature of belonging to Jesus—will be part of a defined assembling/family of Christians (a.k.a. church). How or when they gather and what they do when they gather are beside the point.