Can Church Attendance Ever Be Wrong?
by Dr. Joseph Chavady
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy
nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light" (1 Peter 2:9).
Believers without a Genuine Church
All over Europe and North America we see the same trend: true believers, disciples of Christ, are not attending church on Sunday, because they say they cannot find a church that is worthy of the name. Are they just grumblers and criticizers for whom nothing is good enough? Are they misguided and in danger of falling away from the faith? They are often seen as dangerous by those who attend church, as people to avoid so they cannot 'infect' the faithful with their questionable views. The Bible is crystal clear, so it is taught from the pulpit: "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb 10:25). This verse certainly seems to call us to church, so could there ever be good reason to stay away from the churches in your town? Worse, could attending church in certain situations even be wrong? How can we understand the Bible's teaching on this critical issue for our time?
True Church and False Religion
That many churches are not all they should be is no secret. Many denominations have simply gone religious, preaching a salvation that can be attained through membership, man-made rules and rituals, financial giving and helping out humanity in need. In the time of Jesus, it was the Pharisees and Sadducees who represented 'religion', in Luther's time it was the corrupted Catholic church, and in the end times religion will flourish like never before as the antichrist establishes his blasphemous global 'faith' (Rev 13). But even in the worst of times, God's church will survive, preaching salvation through the blood of Christ alone. Both the true church and false religion will exist side by side until the very day that Christ returns.
This means that in your town there may be a church, or even several churches that may not represent the true church, the beloved Bride of Christ. In fact, it is quite possible that none of them do, and this is when we have to face the question: should I attend church or not? If we read the verse above again carefully, we see that we should not "give up meeting together." We do not see the command here to go to a specific church building. In fact, the Word makes clear that God does not dwell in houses made by hands (Acts 7:48), but rather that He dwells inside those who have given their life over to Him and that He is there where two or three gather in His name (1 Cor 6:19; Mt 18:20). The verse also is an appeal to the brothers, those who have truly surrendered to Christ. Are there other verses then that command us to do more than meet regularly with true brothers and sisters in the Lord? To find the answer, let us look at how it all started.
The Character of the Early Church
The church of Jesus Christ was born on Pentecost. Jesus had risen from the dead, and had told the disciples to wait till they would "receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses" (Acts 18). It was on that day that they were radically born again by God's Spirit and within minutes Peter stepped out and started preaching the gospel. His Spirit-filled preaching brought thousands to
repentance and this is where the "meeting together" began. The new converts needed teaching and all needed the strengthening of fellowship and prayer together, both in their own homes and in the temple courts, a convenient meeting point for larger groups. This meeting together was not a duty or tradition, but a deep desire to know and serve Christ more and more. We read that there was great power and awe and fear of the Lord, and that their number grew day by day (Acts 2:43, 47).
Driven to Reach Lost
We see that this church was not inwardly focused, serving only its own members. They actively proclaimed the Good News to the lost, and even when threatened and jailed they told their captors: "We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20). When full-blown persecution broke out, this newborn church was dispersed and in effect multiplied, but its drive and purpose remained the same. The great church planter Paul was driven by the call to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, and the churches he started were infused with the same passion. Christians were disciples of Christ (Acts 11:26), called out of the world to proclaim His salvation to the lost
(Eph 1:23, 2 Cor 5:20).
Pursuing Radical Holiness
Another feature of the church, one that emerges with growing clarity from the epistles, is the call to radical holiness. In Acts we already saw that the church was filled with fear and awe (Acts 2:43). This lesson was further engraved upon the hearts by what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. Caught in the sin of lying they simply dropped dead right as they spoke, and "great fear came upon the whole church." Then, in his later letters, Paul reminds us that, "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other
blemish, but holy and blameless" (Eph 5:25-27).
Recognizing God-given Authority
So far, then, we have seen no reason to believe that a simple coming together of
believers at one person's home is not enough. House churches were probably the norm in the early years (Rom 16:5, Ph 1:2, Col 4:15, 1 Cor 16:19). But Paul also teaches us about the structure of the church. All believers worldwide form the Body of Christ, a unified organism with many different parts, of which Christ Himself is the Head (Col 1:18). The same is true of every local church. It consists of believers who all have a different role to play. Moreover, these roles are not all equal. The gifts and callings of some believers put them in positions of authority over others: "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare Gods people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Eph 4:11-12). It is clear that a gathering of believers should also have such leaders, those who are called by God to build up the body and make sure all parts "grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (Eph 4:15). In India, when a new church is planted in an area with few believers, a mature believer from another area often takes the overall leadership for a while. As the local disciples grow, their God-given gifts and callings are carefully discerned and further developed, and soon this simple new gathering has its own leaders in place.
The Character of Today's Church
If a genuine church is characterized by a passion for the lost and for holiness, and by a structure like that of a body, with diversity and hierarchy but a unity that flows from the Head, Christ Himself, then we should look for the same features in the churches in our own locale. Doing so, we find that the authority structure seems to be well taken care of; with pastors and elders, youth pastors and worship leaders all in place. However, theut their appointment seems rarely based on a seeking of God's guidance and sometimes even their connection with the true Head of the church can be questioned (Col 2:19). Instead, candidates are selected as for a worldly position and appointments are made on the basis of degrees and diploma's of Bible or Christian colleges. As for the pursuit of holiness and a passion for souls, these characteristics of the genuine church seem even harder to find, even in churches that call themselves "evangelical". Rather than sharing the gospel with the lost through missions or evangelism, the focus is on building more buildings, developing more programs and hiring more salaried staff to service their own. Rather than calling believers to radical holiness, worldliness is tolerated to make everyone more comfortable and to secure the church's numerical growth. New believers remain undiscipled and existing members are comforted with ever lowering standards and soothing sermons that help them "not to be too hard on themselves, for Jesus still loves you." The saying has become popular that the church is a "hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." But if a hospital is not offering treatment for the sick, is it then still a hospital? Rather, it makes a mockery of true hospitals and leads the sick astray with the false hope of finding healing.
In fact, the issue of how people are selected to lead our churches exposes one of the main causes of their spiritual decline. We saw that most appointments are based on Bible or Christian college degrees. Many such colleges have become enamoured with the academic wisdom of the world. They are now teaching the ideas of fallen men, not just in addition to the Bible, but as a standard by which to measure God's Word. They have become so skilled in mixing truth and falsehood that it takes great discernment to see through their deception. With sophisticated language, genteel manners and polished mission statements they lure innocent young people who are simply seeking God into their money-making machine, effectively "peddling the word of God for profit"
(2 Cor 2:17). After an initial period of confusion, the great majority of students at such
compromised institutions become themselves infected by the lies. Once they attain their degree they take their place as "shepherds" and leaders of our churches, but they are not called nor appointed by God. As they themselves start to peddle the word of God, holiness and a passion for souls are the furthest thing from their mind. And as they lead the believers in the pew, true hunger for God is gradually stifled and lukewarmness becomes the norm. No wonder the church in the West is severely compromised!
Being a light in a dark place
So, are such churches really part of the Church, the beloved Bride of Christ? And if these churches are the only ones available, should we then join them or is it actually wrong to attend? Aware of a church's true situation, many believers still choose to keep attending. Often they reason that they must be a light in a dark place, doing what they can to minister to the needy in their fellowship. But in joining a gathering that makes a mockery of the church, do they not become participants in its rebellion, even leading newcomers astray by their presence and its implied approval? We are not talking about churches here that have sound leadership but wayward members. Such churches know how to deal with immaturity and sin. Even when leaders themselves need correction, if they are willing to repent, the church can survive and continue to be a genuine church. But when the leadership is simply not from God and when leaders may even be unregenerated, such a church is the wrong place for a believer to be. Remaining in such a church is participating in its blasphemy. Moreover, it leads young and immature believers astray. They may sense there is something not right, but when they note the presence of a few true believers, they conclude that their intimations must be wrong.
Are We Called to an Institution God Has Rejected?
When Saul became the first king of Israel he made a good beginning, but soon his
obedience to God proved flawed (1 Sam 15). Shortly afterwards, David was secretly anointed king and entered Saul's service. But while Saul continued in his wayward walk, David was led out by God's hand to the cave of Adullam (1 Sam 22). Just like David, disciples of Christ are not called to an institution that God has rejected. The church consists of those who are 'called-out', those who are IN the world but by no means part OF it. As Paul teaches so clearly "Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world" (Rom 12:2), and, "Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers... We are the temple of the living God; as God said, 'I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people'. Therefore, come out from them and be separate, says the Lord" (2 Cor 6:14-17).
A True Local Church
A true church is the Body of Christ, made up of His genuine disciples, who pursue
holiness and are passionate about reaching the lost. They have tasted who the Lord is, and therefore gladly deny themselves and pick up the cross to follow Him. Yes, disciples of Christ will trust and obey Him and will daily live a life of victory over sin, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, they will represent Christ, men and women sent from God to proclaim the Good News to the lost world around them. They will devote themselves to apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). They will walk each day in obedience and in the great joy of knowing Him. So, look diligently for such a church in your community, and if you cannot find one, gather as a small group of believers and form a house church. As you seek out the leaders among you, pray for discernment and trust in His provision.
Is there ever good reason not to attend any of the churches in your locale? If the churches are wayward, yes there is. Can church attendance even be wrong in some cases? If the church makes a mockery of the true church, yes, it can be. If this is your situation, you are definitely not alone. May the Lord bless you and grant you discernment as you choose how to be a church together with genuine disciples of Christ and not to "give up meeting together."
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon