In Confessions, Augustine tells the conversion story of Marius Victorinus, an honored philosopher in ancient Rome whose statue stood in the Roman forum. Before his baptism as a Christian, he had vigorously defended the idolatrous Roman cults. After his study of the Scriptures, Victorinus was converted, though he did not immediately pursue membership in the Christian church. "He was afraid to offend his friends, proud devil-worshippers," Augustine concluded.
Victorinus did, however, privately announce his conversion to Simplicianus, a church leader. "Did you know that I am already a Christian?" he asked eagerly.
"I shall not believe that," said Simplicianus, "or count you among the Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ."
This is a strange story for evangelical ears. Today we can hardly imagine refusing recognition of someone's sincere confession of faith or making salvation conditional upon church membership. Yet 1600 years ago, this was an agreed-upon formulation of obedient Christian faith: if a person wanted to follow Jesus, he or she belonged to the church.
Seismic shifts in thinking have occurred between Augustine's day and ours, not least of which is the emphasis on the individual rather than the collective. Today we're tempted to privatize our faith. Church membership is presented as one of many appealing choices in the spiritual growth cafeteria line, participation in a local church as optional as pie. Spiritually, there's no real sense of need for church, only preference.
How did something, understood 1600 years ago as so critically important, become so ancillary? Maybe it's less important that we understand how that happened and more important to recover our commitment to the church. Is she not the one whom Jesus loved enough to die for (Ephesians 5:25)?
Perhaps we should begin by saying that although church is important, it is never easy. "How wonderful and pleasant it is," wrote the psalmist, "when brothers live together in harmony" (Psalm 133:1). He may as well have added, "How nearly impossible!" Unfortunately, there is no vestiary for vice at church. We don't check our sins at the door on Sunday morning. Instead we drag rivalry, selfish ambition, pride, and ingratitude behind us, making room for them in the pew.
No, we don't go to church (and keep going) because it's easy. We go because it's necessary–because, as Eugene Peterson has written, "No Christian is an only child." When we declared our allegiance to Jesus Christ, like it or not, we became a part of his family, binding ourselves to the domestic responsibilities to love and to serve our spiritual fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. The Apostle Paul said church is like marriage, and in my estimation, that means there's a lot of ordinariness to it (and not too few fights). And yet, as in marriage, there is great promise of transformation in church. When we dare the difficulty of abiding the promise to love unlovable people in the everyday, we are being formed into the image of Christ.
Church is exactly the kind of apprenticeship we need for our spiritual transformation. We can't practice self-sacrifice in the solitary comfort of our bedrooms. In fact, we can only place ourselves under the rigorous demands of the gospel in relationship. Even Jesus himself affirmed this when, identifying the two greatest commands, he made sure we understood that love for God would necessitate love for neighbor. The two are inextricably linked, and in stories like the Good Samaritan, Jesus preached the gospel, not simply as a truth to contemplate, but as an ethic to live–in community.
To be formed in both the truth and ethic of the gospel, spiritual disciplines are necessary. Here, too, church is needed. Though we may be tempted to view our spiritual disciplines like the training exercises of the lonely marathon runner, prayer and study like hills we climb alone, this is a more modern understanding of the means of grace. We haven't always been so individualistic in our assumptions.
As James K. A. Smith points out in Desiring the Kingdom, there are no private practices, no practices without institutions.
"The letters and documents that came to be the New Testament (in addition to the psalms prayed and sung by the early church) functioned primarily in a liturgical context of worship, not the private context of individual study," Smith writes. "And when the Scriptures are heard and read in the context of worship, they function differently. Rather than being approached as a "storehouse of facts" (Charles Hodge), the Scriptures are read and encountered as a site of divine action, as a means of grace, as a conduit of the Spirit's transformative power, as part of a pedagogy of desire." The church, as the site of corporate worship, mediates our spiritual practices of prayer and Bible reading–and those practices form our most holy desires.
We may think we want keenly to be like Christ. But this desire is tested and proved in our participation in a local church. Do we want the glory of Christ–without the humiliation of washing dirty feet (John 13)? Do we want the honor of Christ–without the pain of human betrayals (Matthew 26)? Are we longing for a heavenly kingdom–without the muddle of humanity? I hardly think that biblical evidence proves we can have Christ without his church. There can be no avoiding that God humbled himself to become a man and rescue for himself a people; that central to our story of salvation is the church, the bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2).
We don't love church because she is always lovely. We don't attend church because she meets our immediate needs. We go in the promise Scripture holds out, that the goodness of God's people gathered and unified is "as precious as the anointing oil that was poured over Aaron's head…as refreshing as the dew from Mount Hermon that falls on the mountains of Zion. And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing, even life everlasting" (Psalm 133:2-3).
"I shall not count you among the Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ."
Jen Pollock Michel is a writer and author ofTeach Us to Want(InterVarsity Press). She's also a wife and a mother of five, and she serves on staff at Grace Toronto Church.