Can You Be a Christian Without the Church?
Q. Do you really need to belong to a church to be a Christian? Faith is a personal thing, so why can't you just have an individual relationship with God?
A. Lots of people wonder about that, usually after a bad experience with Christians. The best answer I know is in the story of a fourth-century Egyptian soldier named Pachomius.
Determined to grow in his faith, Pachomius did what many serious believers did in those days. He became a hermit: living by himself in the desert, fasting, praying and having visions.
But after a while, Pachomius began to question this approach:
How can you learn to love if no one else is around?
Can you learn humility living alone?
Is it possible to learn patience, kindness or gentleness in isolation?
He realized that developing spiritual fruit requires being around people. Pachomius quit the hermit life and formed one of the first monasteries. "To save souls," he said, "you must bring them together."
Let me take it a step further. Building spiritual strength requires other people, but not just people you choose to hang with. God's kind of love is best learned when we have to be around people we haven't specifically chosen as friends. Living around people we like is fairly easy. Doing life with just anybody is more challenging and forces us to grow. We have no choice about who our parents or brothers or sisters will be; yet we are expected to love them. Neither can we choose who will or will not be in our spiritual family. Anyone who professes "Jesus is Lord" is to be welcomed in the church, where we encourage and challenge each other to grow in the faith. Living in this challenging but rewarding environment helps us grow and learn about love, humility and the very fruits the Lord calls us to produce (Galatians 5:22-23).
The Bible says Christians are each a different member of a body (Romans 12:4-8). Can you be an eye without a neck, or a foot without a knee? I suppose it's possible to be a disconnected member without a body, but that's hardly what God had in mind for you (Hebrews 10:24-25). You won't function right. Being a Christian means contributing to the body, letting it contribute to your life, and submitting to the teaching and correction of others.
Can you be a Christian without the church? I suppose so. But what kind of Christian would you be?
Marshall, a former pastor, is editor of Leadership, a magazine for pastors.