The question of why we need the church is an understandable question. It is also a helpful question. There are many of us who attend church multiple times every week and have done so for most, if not all, of our Christian lives. But why do we do so? What makes going to church and “the church” so important? Is it one of those “we’ve always done it this way” type of issues? I am asking not only what are the reasons we need the church but also what is the church. To take a step back and consider what we are doing is a good thing to do now and again.
This question drives to what our theology of the church (ecclesiology) is. What we believe about the nature, function, and purpose of the church will weigh heavily upon our answer. Obviously, a proper understanding of ecclesiology is important here. Likewise, a defective ecclesiology will provide poor reasoning to our answer. I purposefully did not ask: “do we need the church?” To ask that question limits our discussion to positive reasons why we need the church. I would also like to discuss a couple negative or poor reasons that someone may explicitly or implicitly give for why we attend or need the church.
This short essay is by no means a comprehensive answer to the proposed question. It is rather intended to provoke reflection for how our theology influences our practice in this area.
Some reasons why we need the church:
The church is important because of where the church fits in God’s plan.
The church occupies a distinct place within the overall historical plan of God.1 There are many distinct institutions which are part of God’s plan. These institutions are all important and they all have their place within that plan of God. The church is one institution. The family, the millennial kingdom, and Israel are some of the others. While there is some overlap among these, they must not be confused or confounded.
As a traditional dispensationalist, I accept the view that the church began at Pentecost and will be completed (but not finished) at the time when Christ will rapture it to himself.2 Partly because of its unique time frame, the church is not to be equated with Israel. They also have different purposes, future destinies, and entrance requirements. Israel is both an ethnic group and a political group. God’s plan for Israel centers around several covenants (Gen. 12; Deut. 29:1-21; 2 Sam. 7:12-16; Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-38). I will show in the next point the makeup of the church. For now, it is enough to see that the church is primarily a spiritual group made up of people from every nation as “a people for his name” (Acts 15:14).
The church is also not to be equated with the kingdom of God. The kingdom promises given to Israel throughout the Bible are yet to be completely fulfilled (e.g., Zech. 12-14; Is. 60; and Jer. 31:27-40). This future for Israel is the millennial kingdom of God (Rev. 20:1-10). This kingdom is not the church. They are distinct concepts.3
The church is also not the family. Identity with the church is vastly different than identifying with a family. There are different criteria for joining, there are different purposes, and there is different leadership in both. No doubt the church needs strong families, but the church is not defined or determined by the family. The church is made up of individuals. And, identification with Christ itself supersedes familial identity (Matt. 12:48-50).
Based on the fact that God has a distinct place within his overall plan for the church during the time that we are now living argues that the church is important. We ought to pay attention to what the church is to be doing for the glory of God. After the apostle Paul had spent nearly three chapters presenting the mystery of the church within the plan of God, he concludes in a doxology of praise: “to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:21).
I have argued that the church is a distinct piece of God’s overall program because of what the church is as distinguished from what the other pieces are. This fact that God has a place for the church in this age which is distinct from those others argues that we need the church. Let me now present more fully what the church is and what it does and why this shows that we need the church.
The church is important because of whom the church is made up.
Those who are followers of the God-Man Jesus Christ enjoy a special bond together centered on that common head, Jesus Christ. The New Testament tells us that this bond is found specifically within the church.
There is an important distinction to be made between the universal church and the local church. The universal church refers to all those who have been saved in this age of grace and put into the body of Christ through Spirit Baptism (1 Cor. 12:13) and are now united with Christ (Gal. 3:27). The local church is a reference to a specific group of believers at a specific historical time in a specific geographical place who join together for specific reasons, namely, to administrate the ordinances, government, and administration of the church, to proclaim the word of God, to worship God, and to carry out the purpose of the church.
Though it is possible that the local church may have among its numbers someone who is not a true believer, the local and universal church are both made up of those individuals who are “in Christ.” This short but immensely rich phrase carries the idea that believers are no longer under the old realm of sin (1 Cor. 15:22; Rom. 5:12-21) but are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17) in a new realm of which Christ is the head (Col. 1:13, 27) and so we therefore completely reorient ourselves to follow after him (Col. 2:6-15). This common bond is what draws together believers no matter their country, tongue, heritage, social status, economic status, intelligence, appearance, or any artificial divider one may come up with.
We need the church (in its universal and local forms) because this is where we are told we find others who are co-members of this same body. “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many” (1 Cor. 12:12-14).
The church is important because of what the church does.
As the body of Christ, the local church has several purposes which were mentioned above. To remain obedient to the New Testament these purposes are to be followed and this is accomplished only within the local church.
Church leadership is prescribed in the New Testament and it is the responsibility of the church to follow. Baptist churches have typically recognized two biblical offices, pastor and deacon (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-13). Submitting to these two offices as the leadership of the church is a matter of obedience but it is also recognizing the spiritual benefit of such submission. If the leadership of the church truly does exhibit the spiritual qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, then there is spiritual benefit to submit to such godly leadership (Heb. 13:17).
The ordinances of the church is a similar situation. It is a matter of obedience to be baptized and to regularly participate in communion (Acts 2:41-42). It is also a matter of practical spiritual benefit. Observing the two ordinances continually teaches the gospel and reminds us of our Triune God. These are at the center of our identity as Christians and ought to be vital realities in our Christian walk.
There are also various functions that the church is to be fulfilling. The church is given a Great Commission that it is to carry out. The church is also described as a place of teaching of the faith (Acts 2:42; Jude 3). The regular assembling together is also mentioned (Heb. 10:25). Church discipline is likewise a biblical function of the church. Again, discipline is a command but it also helps us (perhaps more than any other single function) in a practical way. If Christians truly are to be growing and becoming more like Christ, then discipline is necessary. Mark Dever suggests at least five reasons why discipline is practiced: “(1) For the good of the person disciplined, (2) for the good of other Christians, as they see the danger of sin, (3) for the health of the church as a whole, (4) for the corporate witness of the church, (5) for the glory of God, as we reflect his holiness.”4
The church is also an important place where we worship God. Worship of God is essentially a spiritual response to the truth about God (John 4:21-24). Congregational worship is important as we see it used as an example in the New Testament church (Acts 2:42-47; 13:1-2; Col. 3:16).5
Because of what the church is supposed to do, we find that going to church and functioning properly within the church is a matter of obedience and also of practical Christian benefit. Local church membership becomes the avenue by which we submit ourselves to such a dynamic and necessary body. When the church is successfully performing its biblical functions, then it is a powerful witness, to those who are outside, of the redeeming power of Christ to form a body with a new life, a common head, and a common purpose. 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the local church “the house of God” and “the church of the living God” because the church is what God works in and through. Thus, the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” In other words, it is the main support of the truth.
We need the church because it is a command of God for Christians today. But also, it is a vital part of the plan of God for this age to preserve and proclaim truth and to help produce healthy, growing Christian
Some reasons why we don’t need the church:
Or, poor reasons for why we do need the church. The reasons that could be listed here are surely not limited to what I give. These are chosen partly because they are generic (broad) categories and partly because they appear often.
We don’t need the church if it functions as a social club.
For many, church becomes a social club as meaningful to them as joining a country club or the YMCA. This is almost never explicitly stated to be the reason why someone needs the church or why they go to church. But, in too many cases this reason is implicitly shown to be the actual reason why many need the church or why they go to church.
For this person, understanding the biblical explanations of the church, fulfilling the various biblical functions of the church, or simply attending church with the practical goal of edification and growth are never the real reasons why many go to church. The real reasons are varied and include: “I have always gone to church,” “my kids need to go to church,” “my parents or grand-parents want me to go to church,” “my friends are at church,” or “church is just a good place to be.” These are either truncated reasons or poor reasons for going to church.
Social club Christianity uses the church for purely social means and thereby neglects the biblical reasons for the church. This can be seen in attending church for all the wrong reasons mentioned above, neglecting to attend church or participate in its functions because you can find no good reason to go, or feeling no sorrow (or, maybe even joy) at the prospect of missing church and its functions. It can also be seen in the person who attends church merely so that their membership won’t run out. They use the church for their own arbitrary needs as they come up, but have no intention of contributing to the church or to the spiritual welfare of their fellow Christians. A healthy Christian will not have such shallow reasons to need the church, and a healthy church will not play the accomplice in such a scam.
We don’t need the church if it falters in its purpose.
This could be a neglect, a confusion, or a change of its purpose. A neglect of its purpose is when the church lets itself become what I talked about above. It has essentially degenerated into a social club and nothing more.
A confusion or change of purpose is when the church tries to see itself as some of the things which it is not. The church is not the family, nor a family of families, though the church needs and is the place for families. Neither is the church the kingdom or Israel. The church has its definition and purposes presented in the New Testament. Other problems here could be letting social causes inhabit an improper place in church activity (such as in the social gospel), or letting the church be defined and determined by “seekers.” We do well to let the church be the church.6
The necessity of the church
To the person, and the church, with a proper understanding of the reasons for the church, being part of a local church means more than just attending an hour or two on Sunday morning. It means utilizing as many of the church functions as is possible in order to fulfill the purpose of the church. It means worshipping and fellowshipping with believers with (at the least) the goals of obedience and Christian growth. It is seeing the church as the place where Christians come together in order to follow what Christ has given us to do.
Perhaps the most rudimentary reason why we need the church is because of who we are and what God is doing now. The Christian believes that salvation is only through Christ. This salvation means that we are no longer under the wrath of God but are now children of God. This salvation has fundamentally changed all that we are. And because of that truth we follow after him who has made this change in us. As Colossians 2:6-7 says: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.”
Why do we need the church? The answer is found when we understand that the church is part of God’s plan for the present age. As we have seen in 1 Timothy 3:15, it is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” If we are followers of Christ and if we see the church as God’s current program, then we can readily see the reason why we need the church. For the sake of obedience and love toward Christ, let us understand what we are, what the church is, what the church is to be doing, and then seek to embody that truth.
1. God’s plan within history is centered on the idea of the universal kingdom of God (Ps. 145:13). On this idea, see: Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1974, 22-36; and, George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 3 Volumes (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1972), 1:29-33. 2. Cf., Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3 (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 213-7. 3. For fuller discussions on why the church should be understood differently than Israel and the kingdom, see: McCune, Systematic Theology, Volume 3, 201-5; and especially, John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity , ed. by John S. Feinberg (Wheaton: Crossway, 1988), 79-86. 4. Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, New Expanded Edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 188-92. Dever’s entire chapter on church discipline is helpful. See Rick Shrader’s review of Dever’s book in the March 2012 issue of Aletheia, or online at our website: 5. For a helpful discussion of worship in the church and elsewhere, see the appropriate sections in: Scott Aniol, Worship in Song (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 2009). 6. See Rick Shrader’s February and March 2009 Aletheia articles entitled: “Let the Church be the Church,” on the Aletheia archives tab of our website: www.aletheiabaptistministries.org