Recently in a conversation a friend expressed extreme irritation at the pettiness of some of his co-workers. “I fear I’m going to unload the next time someone complains that the barista messed up his latte. I read about the suffering of God’s people around the world, and I am sick and tired of people thinking that their first-world problems are real problems.”
I have a similar concern having to do with some I've met who profess to be Christians. It’s not about latte, however. The story goes like this: “I’d like to go to church, and I've tried several, but there are just no churches that suit me.”
Throughout most of the church’s history people didn't get to choose their church. From the time of the apostles to a century after the Reformation, the church you went to was the one you could walk to. You didn't have choices.
For all the benefits of the Reformation, one of its downsides has been denominational division.
The result of that fact, however, coupled with religious freedom in the US and the prevalence of the automobile means that people have more church choice than there ever was in the history of the world.
So when someone says to me, “I don’t attend church because I just can’t find a good one,” they’re telling me the spiritual equivalent of “the barista messed up my latte.” What they are saying is that they can’t quite find the right flavor to suit them (the excuses are multitude; the service has too much levity; the service is too serious; the music is too old; the music is too contemporary). Worse than that, by staying away from church, they have likely lost any true understanding of the Christian faith that they may have once had, and have substituted some made-up religion in their head for the historic Christian faith. Then they use the fact that no church shares their made-up faith as an excuse for not going to church.
Several years ago my brother lived in a place that was pretty spiritually dead. My family went to visit him, and as we were preparing for church on Sunday, I asked him about the church he was going to. He said, “It’s the best church within a day’s driving distance.” I was delighted with that statement, and said, “So it’s a pretty good church then?” He said, “I didn’t say that. I said it’s the best church around within a day’s driving distance.”
There were many things about the church that he wasn’t crazy about, but those were first-world issues, and he knew it. There was a place to go to gather with the saints, to worship God, and to hear the Scriptures preached (even if the preaching was somewhat difficult to follow). Belonging to no church because the barista got the cream wrong was not an option.
When the writer to the Hebrews says, “let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (10:24-25), he’s not making a mere suggestion. The drawing-near day he refers to is the Day of Judgment. He wants them not to forsake the assembling of themselves for reasons having to do with the judgment.
Sometimes people will tell me that they are sure that God is fine with them because they have orthodox opinions on things (or they think they do) and will say, “I belong to the invisible church.” If ever there was an example of a little bit of knowledge being dangerous, this is it. The doctrine of the invisible church is a description of the church as God sees her. It is made up of all of those for whom Jesus died, and who will be saved. It is invisible to us because it includes people who long ago passed from this earth and were forgotten here. It includes those who have not yet been born. Not all who are members of the visible church are a part of the invisible church (as becomes sadly clear when someone is excommunicated). But make no mistake about it: without extreme circumstances, no one is a part of the invisible church who is not also a member of the visible church. To put it bluntly, people who claim to be Christians but belong to no church deceive themselves.
Cyprian was the first to articulate the doctrine succinctly: extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside of the church there is no salvation). Thirteen-hundred years later, the Westminster divines affirmed the truth of it: “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25:2).
This statement implies that there may be extraordinary circumstances that preclude one from becoming a member of a church. What kind of extraordinary circumstances? Things such as turning to Christ in the execution chamber, or hearing a radio broadcast and placing one’s faith in Christ in a country where there is no church; these are the kinds of circumstances that qualify. Forsaking the assembly for the spiritual equivalent of not liking how the barista prepares your latte doesn’t qualify.
A quick perusal of the New Testament will show God’s great love and concern for the church. Unless one reads it through an artificial filter, it is hard to understand how anyone could think that he or she could deprecate or ignore the church and still muster the vain confidence of being right with God. The Psalmist wrote, “Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in you. I said to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good besides you.’” And yet the Psalmist is not advocating some kind of Gnosticism in which it’s “just me and God.” He continues, “As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight” (Ps 16:1-3).
I’m quite certain that there are a lot of people in hell with orthodox opinions. Paul wrote, “But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him”(Rom 8:9), and “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit”(1 Cor 12:13). The body spoken of here is the visible church (just as Christ’s body was visible in his incarnation, the church as the body of Christ is always the visible church), and we were all baptized by one Spirit into that body. Anyone who has not been, should not think he has the Spirit, and has no good reason to believe he belongs to Christ.