Widespread restrictions against large gatherings have forced the closure of many churches and have made church attendance nearly impossible at this time. The government requests that churches not hold services have also generated much discussion about whether or not it is sinful for a Christian to miss church. On one side of the conversation are those who say it is always wrong to miss a church service and they refuse to cancel services no matter what. On the other side of the conversation are those who think church attendance is entirely optional and rarely, if ever, attend.
The first question to answer is if the Bible commands Christians to attend church. Yes it does, in the clearest possible terms. The words of Hebrews 10:25 carry the force of a command, “Not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another.” This verse is a command to Christians to regularly attend church. The New Testament is also full of instructions that are dependent on faithful church attendance. Fundamentally, the New Testament word for church means an assembly. If Christians do not assemble together they are not a church.
Can Christians assemble online together? Hebrews 10:25 says Christians assemble together to exhort one another. Christians go to church to interact with other Christians. While online interaction can serve a useful role, it cannot replace the relationship that can only be developed face to face. Christians need the kind of relationship that sits across the table from you, shares a meal with you, looks you in the eye, holds your hand or gives you a hug.
Virtual church may supplement church attendance, or serve as a temporary substitute when circumstances make church attendance impossible. But listening to a sermon online, singing hymns with your family or watching a church service on television can never replace face to face church attendance. Only gathering with other believers as the body of Christ is “the assembling of yourselves together.
However, the Bible does not command perfect church attendance. The command of Hebrews 10:25 is that believers “not forsake” the assembling. Christians are not to be deserters from the assembly. When the church assembles Christians should be there, but missing a church service or two is not necessarily forsaking the assembling. The Christian’s desire and priority should be to gather with other believers. The Christian who disregards church attendance, only attends when it is convenient or always has an excuse for why they cannot attend this Sunday is breaking the command to not forsake the assembly. If you go to church and the regulars greet you with surprise, or someone hands you a visitors card, that is a pretty good hint you might be forsaking the assembly.
The Christian who misses a service because of illness or weather is not sinning. The church that cancels Sunday services for a week or two because of factors outside their control is not sinning. The church is God’s great gift to the Christian. It is a wonderful gathering of the members of the body of Christ who are joined together in Jesus to worship their Savior, to serve one another, to be encouraged in Christlikeness and to be equipped to take the hope of Jesus to the unsaved. Why would you not want to be a regular part of that?
People have many different reasons for searching out a new church to attend. Moving into a new area, returning to church after many years of not going or dissatisfaction with the current church all lead people to look for a new church home. The things people desire in a church are even more varied than the reasons they search in the first place. Every one has a different opinion about what is important in a church. Some look for a good kids ministry, others for a music program they like. Some look for vibrant ministries for singles, others for an active seniors group. Some look for a place to serve, others for a place to blend in. Some look for a dynamic preacher, others for friends. The list could go on and on.
The Bible teaches several things that are essential to a healthy church. These are the kinds of things Christians should make most important in their search criteria. The following things are in no particular order, but each are essential for a Biblical church.
Look for a church that holds to true, Biblical doctrine. The Bible places a high priority on proper doctrine. From the very beginning of the church the believers continued in “the apostles doctrine.” (Acts 2:42) Many of the letters in the New Testament were written to correct doctrinal errors in churches. The pastor of the church in Ephesus, Timothy, was instructed to give careful attention to doctrine. A church that teaches contrary to the Bible, especially about salvation, should never be a Christian’s church home.
Jesus gave two rituals to the church: baptism and communion. These two things are not optional. The timing or frequency of the Lord’s Supper is never addressed in the Bible. Jesus commanded “this do in remembrance of Me.” Jesus commissioned His disciples to “teach all nations, baptizing them.” A church which never has communion or does not practice baptism is not being obedient to the clear commands of Jesus.
The church that continued in the apostles doctrine also continued in prayer. Prayer is a major theme running throughout the Bible. Prayer was modeled, taught and commanded by Jesus. Nearly every book in the New Testament addresses prayer. Prayer is commanded for the individual and for the church body. A church that will not pray together is unhealthy and as substantial as a movie set.
God has also given clear guidelines regarding the character of those who will lead in the church. The Christian must look for a church whose pastors reflect the Biblical character, morals and doctrine described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The Christian must look for a church whose deacons are the kind of men described in 1 Timothy 3 and Acts 6. While no leader will be perfect, the leadership of the church should meet the New Testament qualifications for leaders.
A church that does not teach the Word is not a church. The New Testament church placed a priority on preaching. Believers gathered together to hear the preaching of the Word. The pastor is required to have the ability to teach and preach. Pastors are commanded to preach the Word when it is well received and to preach the Word when it is rejected. New Testament preaching is not motivational speaking, political campaigning, opinionated tirades or how-to speeches. The New Testament defines Biblical preaching as reading Scripture, explaining Scripture and applying Scripture to life (1 Timothy 4:13). Believers ought to seek for a church which preaches the Word.
Singing is also a necessary part of the gathering of the church. Though music style is a concern and of great importance to many, the style of music is not most important. What is most important is that the music ministry function in a way that praises God (Ephesians 5:19) and that teaches and encourages believers (Colossians 3:16). Congregational singing can never replace preaching, but when the church gathers it must teach itself through song. Christians ought to look for a church that sings together, that sings praises to God and that sings songs which teach Biblical truth.
The fellowship of the church is essential for a healthy church and for healthy Christians. This fellowship goes deeper than mere friendliness, though it seems hard to imagine how an unfriendly church can have genuine fellowship. Fellowship among believers is a joining together in harmony and humility for the purpose of promoting individual and corporate growth in Christlikeness. Christians ought to look for a church which will help them be more like Jesus (Ephesians 4:15).
The Great Commission commands every believer, including church leaders, to teach the gospel to the unsaved. The New Testament reveals that the preaching of the gospel was a regular part of the gathering of the church. A church that refuses to give the gospel can not legitimately claim to be a church. Christians must be part of a church which teaches the gospel, preaches the gospel and challenges every believer to proclaim the gospel to others.
Additional, important prioriteis could be mentioned, but what these criteria have in common is submission to the authority of the Bible. More than anything else, Christians must be a part of a church that submits to the Bible as the sole authority for its teaching, its practice, and its thinking. Christians need to seek a church that is clearly built on the Word of God.
Many other personal preferences weigh on people’s minds when they are evaluating a church. Many things seem important at the time, but care must be taken to ensure the Biblical things remain most important. A church can survive with a weak children’s ministry, but it is no church if it is not obedient to the Bible. Christians can be edified with a less than exciting music ministry, but a Christian will be malnourished if he attends a church which does not teach and follow the Bible.
Several years ago a large church in Texas was sued by a former member because they disciplined her out of the church. The church claimed it was following Scripture and their own by-laws. She claimed they were slandering her and treating her unfairly. This instance is far from the only example of a church being sued for libel, slander or defamation of character after removing a member from the church. The practice of punishing a church member by removing them from the membership is known by different names. Many call it excommunication (but this is not to be confused with the form of excommunication practiced by the Catholic church), a lot of churches call it church discipline and some down South refer to it as being “churched.”
Church discipline is a difficult and painful subject. Many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, see church discipline as judgmental and cruel. Far too many church goers can tell stories of church discipline gone wrong. Pastors or other church leaders have wielded church discipline as a means to consolidate or maintain power. Churches have disciplined members because they were an embarrassment to the congregation. Discipline has been accompanied by personal attacks, gossip or slander. Opposite from abusive church discipline is the equally serious problem of no discipline at all.
Despite the challenges accompanying church discipline, the Bible repeatedly commands it to be practiced by the church. Jesus Himself was the first to describe the formal process of church discipline. The process is described in Matthew 18 and begins with a private conversation between two people that is based upon a deep understanding of how much Jesus loves His children. When one Christian falls into sin another is to lovingly step in to help bring the sinning Christian back to obedience. If the sinning Christian refuses to turn from his sin the other then brings two or three from the church into the conversation. This is small group goes to intervene in the life of the sinning Christian and call him back to obedience to Christ. The task of the group is to help maintain Biblical compassion and integrity throughout the conversation. If the sinning Christian refuses to repent, the small group is to bring the matter to the church body. All the church members are then to go to the sinning believer and implore him to repent of his sin. If he refuses to repent after the call of the church then the membership is to formally remove the sinning believer from the church.
Jesus’ instructions emphasize that Church discipline is not an unkind act on the part of the church. The church discipline defined in the Bible is an act of love that seeks to bring the wandering sheep back into the fold. A key element of church discipline are the words of Jesus, “if he shall hear thee; thou hast gained thy brother.” The purpose of church discipline is to restore a sinning brother to a right relationship with God and his fellow Christians.
Church discipline never threatens the salvation of the person. The church has no authority to revoke someone’s salvation. Nor is church discipline Intended to shame the person into compliance with the desires of the church. Biblical church discipline is not the same as shunning. The relationship between the church and the sinning believer changes, but Christians do not avoid the unrepentant. Though they can no longer interact together as brothers and sisters in Christ, CHristians still lovingly seek to win the person back to obedience to Christ. Though fellowship is now hindered by the sin that has come between them, conversation is not cut off by the church. Instead, Christians will compassionately call their sinning brethren to repentance and restoration.
Because sin always destroys the believers relationship with God and men, those who truly love one another will “pursue holiness with all men.” Loving Christians will consider each other to “rovoke one another to love and good works. Sometimes the church body must engage in the painful process of amputating a sinning member, but it always does so that the sinner’s “soul may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:5)
If Christians all love God, and if every believer has the Holy Spirit living within him to give understanding of the Word of God, then why are there so many different churches that believe so many different things? Most communities have Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist and Baptist Churches. Add to this the Congregational churches, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentacostal, Church of God, Church of Christ, Wesleyan, Nazarene, Assemblies of God and non-denominational churches of all stripes and flavors. If God’s truth never changes, why is the list of different kinds of churches is so long and bewildering.
Not all who claim to love God truly love Him. Men have always used religion for their own selfish purposes. The Epistle of Jude warns against those who “ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward.” Selfish men will use the Bible to justify their false teachings so they can get rich. Besides the willful distortion of the Bible for selfish gains there is the inability of the unsaved to understand Scripture. The things of God cannot be understood by the natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14), thus those who have rejected God can not rightly understand God’s Word.
On top of this, Satan is actively working to confuse and distort the truth of the Bible. Since the beginning of the church there have been false teachers masquerading as men of God and traveling around teaching things they ought not (2 Corinthians 11:12-15). The Bible also warns that as we get closer to the return of Jesus more preachers of false doctrines will spring up. Satan has always and will continue to have men in the church who promote demonic doctrines.
Aside from the distortion of truth by the enemies of God, believers face a couple challenges in rightly understanding the Bible. Sin has affected our ability to comprehend the truths of God. The effects of sin upon mankind are more than just moral. Everyone has brain damage. The consequences of sin prevent the minds of men from working as they ought. Salvation does not entirely change this reality. After salvation the Christian still battles the hindrances of the flesh. Even when the Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding we do not fully know as we ought. Now we know in part. Now we see dimly. Our limited knowledge hampers our understanding of Divine truth which causes good Christians to reach different conclusions.
Every person is also a product of his time. As we read the Bible we cannot help but read it in light of our own presuppositions and assumptions. Our understanding of God’s Word is shaped by our culture. The most careful student of the Word can not fully put aside his own culture and background. Everyone has his own ways of thinking. Some people are more logical and some are more emotional. Some prefer facts while others prefer experiences. The variations in each person and personality shapes how we understand, and misunderstand, truth.
From the earliest days of the church there have been competing ideas within the church about key truths. In the beginning the transition out of Judaism and the influence of false teachers caused the church many troubles. The apostles had to confront false ideas that had already begun to infiltrate the church. Small wonder that when the apostles passed off the scene churches began to develop different ideas. Many different churches exist because Satan is active in hindering the truth and because we do not yet know God’s truth perfectly.
One of the most common complaints that I hear about churches is that they are always asking for money. The implication is that the pastor or the church is just trying to get rich by taking money from the hard working people people who attend. This accusation has an elelment of truth. Throughout church history there have been those who used the church as a means to get rich. Today there are a number of high profile pastors and evangelists who make millions off their congregations. One recently made the headlines by asking his followers to donate $54 million so he could purchase a private jet. Far too many church leaders follow the “the way of Balaam” because they love money more than God or man. (2 Peter 2:15)
Despite the high profile abuse of greedy false teachers, most churches and pastors are not trying to get rich off their parishioners. For every greedy pastor there are many more who labor long hours for little or no salary. The average pastor is not trying to live the easy life by sponging off his church members. So why do churches collect money every week? Why do churches teach that Christians should be give a part of their income to the church?
The most obvious answer is that churches have to pay the bills. The gospel is freely extended to everyone, but gospel ministry is rarely cheap. The work of the ministry comes with many costs. Heating, cooling and maintaining a building involves substantial monthly expenses. Any effort to provide physical help in the community or to reach out to the community with the gospel requires money be spent. Materials and resources all cost something. Many churches send monthly payments to help those doing gospel work in foreign countries. The basic operational costs of a church can reach a substantial figure every month, even before including salaries for the pastor and any staff members.
Every church has an obligation to pay its pastor. The New Testament specifically commands this. (1 Timohy 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 9:4-11) Consider how much a church needs to collect each week just to pay the pastor the average salary of your community? If you add health insurance and a retirement plan, things most American workers expect, how much more will the church need to bring in each week? Churches collect an offering to help Christians obey God’s command to partner financially with the ministry and pastor that teaches them. (Galatians 6:6)
All these expenses add up so that even small churches in America often operate on annual budgets reaching six figures. This means an average sized church in America needs to bring in at least $2,000 a week to meet their ministry obligations. Taking up an offering every week helps the church meet their expenses. Since God requires Christians to financially support their church, churches give their members an opportunity to obey by passing the offering plate every Sunday. On top of all this, God promises rich blessings to those who give generously to the work of the church. The weekly collection is just one more chance for you to be blessed.
A church is a gathering of believers, the assembly of Christians in one place under Biblical authority for Biblical purposes. Millions of churches gather together all across the world. Most communities in America are home to many different churches. Though there are millions of local churches in the world, all true churches are part of one single church. Every Christian is a member of the body of Christ and a part of the universal church. Often this idea is expressed in a statement like, “We are all part of the church.”
Hebrews 12:22-23 is the clearest text about the universal church, “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.” The universal church is the assembly of all those whose names are written in heaven in the Lamb’s book of life.
Other Bible passages point to a universal church. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promised to build His church. His promise is can not be the promise of building a single church in Jerusalem or Palestine. The promise of Jesus is of a universal that cannot be overthrown. His church consists of many local churches scattered across the world and stretching through history. In Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 1:22 Paul says that Jesus is the head of the body, the church. Colossians and Ephesians are clearly referring to the authority of Jesus over the entire church everywhere at all times. The church universal is under the governance of Jesus.
No church or denomination can claim to be the universal church. The universal church is not the conglomeration of all churches and denominations, or is it made up of all people who belong to a church. Many who are members of churches on earth are not part of the universal church. Instead, the universal church is the entire population of all genuine believers who have lived, are living and will live. All the redeemed make up the universal church and only the redeemed are members of the universal church.
The universal church will not be gathered in one place until eternity when all the saved will be assembled together in the presence of God. The universal church is a reality which can not yet be experienced. In the meantime, Christians recognize that they have a connection in Christ with all believers past, present and future. All genuine Christians alive today share a great fellowship together as brothers and sisters in Christ and as members together of the body of Christ.
The universal church includes all believers now living. The universal church is the future assembly of all Christians who ever lived. The universal church is the entire body of Christ, seen now only in part but one day will be seen in full.
Why does the church meet on Sunday? In the Old Testament Saturday was the day set apart for the Lord. The Christian church was initially made up of Jews but within a few decades the majority of the church was Gentile. The Jewish way of thinking and living faded away, including the observance a Saturday Sabbath. The church met together on the first day of the week and treated Sunday as the Lord’s Day. Why did the church start to worship on Sunday instead of Saturday?
The New Testament indicates that the early church began meeting on Sunday from day one. The church began on a Sunday. The day of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and thousands of Jews believed the gospel, was a Sunday. Pentecost Sunday was the beginning of the New Testament church.
Other New Testament passages indicate they church was in the habit of meeting on Sunday. In Acts 20:7 Paul met with the church in Ephesus. The meeting took place on the first day of the week, “when the disciples came together to break bread.” The custom of the church seems to have been to meet together on Sunday. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 Paul instructed the church in Corinth to be taking up a collection “upon the first day of the week.” This instruction makes the most sense if the church was in the habit of meeting on Sunday.
Church and Roman history reveal that the church was in the habit of meeting on Sunday very soon after the death of the apostles. Pliny was a governor in the Roman Empire in the early 100’s. He wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan asking what to do about the Christians. In that letter he describes their meetings. “They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.” The early Christians met early in the morning on a certain day each week. Pliny does not say what day that was, but other historical references make clear that day was Sunday. In 150 AD Justin Martyr wrote in “Dialogue with Trypho a Jew”, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read.” “Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly.
The Didache, a series of teachings written to the churches late in the first century, says, “And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks.” Though this day is not specified in the letter, the church obviously knew what day was “the Lord’s day.” The epistle of Barnabas, a letter to Christians written around 100 AD, says, “Wherefore also we keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead.” In the gospel of Peter, written sometime in the early second century (100-150AD), Sunday is called the Lord’s Day. “And at dawn upon the Lord’s day Mary Magdalen . . . took with her friends and came to the sepulchre where he was laid.”
The change of worship from Saturday to Sunday was something that began very early in the church. The New Testament does not give a definite command to worship on Sunday, but the pattern that unfolds in Scripture and the earliest church history is of the church observing Sunday to gather together in worship and instruction.
Many professing Christians do not attend church. Researchers have identified a significant and growing part of the American population that professes to be religious but has no church affiliation. This is somewhat understandable given the many abuses, scandals, fights and problems in churches. On the other hand, longheld tradition and the teaching of most churches is that Christians should attend church on a regular basis. Does the Bible teach church attendance is an obligation for the child of God?
Yes, the child of God is commanded by God to regularly attend church. God specifically commands Christians to make it a habit to go to church. “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” (Hebrews 10:25) This instruction carries the weight of an imperative, it is a command. Christians are to be a regular part of the church gathering. The problems of our world and within churches does not justify a lack of attendance. Hebrews 10 says church attendance becomes more, not less, important the closer we get to Jesus retunr.
Besides the specific command to attend church the New Testament also gives commands that a Christian can only obey by participating in the regular assembly of the believers. The Lord’s Supper is an obligation for every Christian to observe on a regular basis. The ordinance of communion is so important it was given to the twelve disciples by Jesus and later Paul was instructed by Jesus Himself concerning its keeping. (1 Corinthians 11:23) The Lord’s Supper is always a corporate event to be observed in the church gathering. For the Christian to be obedient by celebrating Communion on a regular basis he must also be be a regular part of the church gathering.
The Christian is to be active in a wide range of Christian virtues that can only be accomplished by faithful church attendance. For example, Colossians 3 commands Christians to be patient, forgiving, loving and peaceful. In that passage the commands are not given to individuals to be obeyed in isolation. They are commands given to Christians gathered together. Christians are called to have those virtues as part of a body of believers. (Colossians 3:15) Christian virtue must be exercised in the public gathering. The very next verse in Colossians continues in this corporate focus by directing the gathered church to sing together. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16) For the Christian to practice Christian virtues in the church he must be a regular participant in the gathering of believers.
Church attendance does not save a person. Salvation is only received through faith in Jesus without any work on the part of the Christian. To conclude that because a person’s salvation is not dependent on church attendance then a Christian does not have to go to church is to completely miss the point. The Bible is full of commands that have nothing to do with salvation but are nevertheless required for the believer. God expects His children to gather together as part of a church.
Walking in the woods and worshiping God is not the same as attending church. Private prayer and personal Bible study are not the same as going to church. Watching a preacher online is not the same as being in church. Private worship, listening, study and prayer are essential, but the Bible commands the Christian to assemble. Yes, Christians must regularly assemble together as the church.