“Do we have to go to church?”* said most everyone of us at some point in our life. I’ve asked that question before and I’m sure other minister have done so as well.
I get the question. People are asking if attending a Sunday church assembly is necessary. Part of me wants to whip out Hebrews 10:25 as a prooftext, where the writer of Hebrews warns against forsaking the assembly. If were looking for a law, which a question like this often assumes, then the instruction in Hebrews appears sufficient. Having said all that, something else has already gone afoul when we have to ask the question of whether it is necessary to assemble with our church… on Sunday or any other time when the church assembles.
What Are We Asking, Saying, and Doing?
The question of whether we have to go to church also assumes a view of church that is widely accepted but still wrong. The assumption is that church is where we go and what we do rather than who we are as a community of disciples. Hence, we speak of church in the third-person singular rather than the first-person plural voice. Church is no longer thought of in terms of who we are − our identity as a community of disciples − but as an independent part of our life.
The problem is deeper though. As I pointed to earlier, the question assumes a legalistic approach to the Christian faith. This legalism holds that there are certain laws that must be kept in order to remain a faithful Christian and the question wants to know if going to church is necessary to remain a faithful Christian. However, most of the time it seems as though the person asking is looking for an out… a legal loophole, so to speak. Perhaps the person wants to justify sleeping in on Sunday morning, heading out to the golf course, the deer stand, etc… Because church is already regarded as just a part of life, something the person goes to do rather their way of live, church is now becoming even a lesser part of life.
In reality, the question of whether or not we have do go to church says much about our relationship with God. Since church is only a part of our life and is becoming a lesser part of life, God is no longer first. God is replace with something else, which is now more important and that is a deeper issue.
A Spiritual Disease?
As I think about the deeper issue, I am reminded of the story in the Gospel of Luke about the rich ruler (Lk 18:18-29). The man’s problem is not his wealth, it’s putting his wealth before God! Trying to justify himself he comes to Jesus inquiring about what is necessary for eternal life, so Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. Of course, this wealthy man is already keeping the commandments. There’s still one problem and Jesus calls him on it… This man loves his riches more than he loves God and so his riches, rather than God, are his top priority. So he left, unable to follow Jesus into the kingdom because he loved his riches more than he loved God.
We can’t and don’t go to church because we are the church! Yet as the church, we gather together as an assembly in various formats and these gatherings are important. There are times when we cannot assemble and have legitimate reasons for not being able to do so. But when we begin to see the assembly as the church and separate that into just one part of our life, we inevitably do the same with God. For our relationship with God is bound within the community (church) of God’s people which God has made us a part of. When we relegate this relationship into one part among other parts of our life like family, work, hobbies, and so on, those other parts have the potential of becoming more important.
When this happens we end up asking questions like “Do we really have to go to church?” It’s a spiritual disease because what we really seem to be asking is “Do we really have to put God first?”
* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 1, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.