Can I Be A Christian Without Going to Church? No.

After a podcast interview with Gabe Lawson today, I couldn’t help but process his question about why I continue to go to church–what’s the point? Can’t a Christian be a Christian without the Church? And isn’t the Church the people, not the building? I think I answered in a more palatable way in the interview, but what follows is something of a response to the notion that we can exist individually as Christians apart the Christian community, so screw the building and the godless institution that the church has become! The short of it: no. No Christian is an island. The long of it…
Of all the things Southerners get wrong about the English language, we do get one thing right. For some reason, we seem to be the only ones who take seriously the problem of not distinguishing between the second person singular and plural pronouns. Y’all, for a Southerner, is a necessary word. I have no real hard evidence to support the following theory, but let the reader examine himself.
Whenever I heard Paul’s words growing up—“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you” (1 Cor. 3:16); and, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, whom you have from God” (1 Cor. 6:18)—I always heard him speaking directly to me, solo. I always heard the pronouns as singular. I am a temple of God, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, solo. This notion compounded with the convenient myth about accepting Jesus into our hearts, which together constitute the role of the Son and the Spirit in the economy of salvation, has led me to believe that the role of the Son and Spirit in the economy of salvation is commonly misunderstood. It’s just a hunch. But I think it would be alarming to tell most Christians that Jesus does not live in their heart, nor is a holy spirit possessing them within the confines of their epidermal boundaries, as though we are all individual temples with individual mini-christs who, when we come together constitute a collection of temples, with a collection of lords.
My theory is that y’all heard Paul in this way too, such that Christian gatherings have only quantitative, not qualitative, value. My theory, moreover, is that, when read in this way, these texts lose their essential meaning, which is that God dwells in his people corporately, so that preserving unity and fellowship with the body of Christ is to preserve unity and fellowship with Christ himself—“one Lord” in whom we all share “one faith” and into who we all share “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5), And as those “joined to the Lord” we have become one spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17), and hence: “Don’t you know that the body of you [re: y’all—it is plural] is a temple of the Holy Spirit (singular) within you [re: y’all—plural], whom you [y’all—plural] have from God?” (1 Cor. 6:17-19). And hence, “in one Spirit were all baptized into one body…and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13), so that “Christ is the Head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18; cf. 1 Cor. 10:15, 12:12; Eph. 5:23; Rom. 12:5).
This has an obvious negative corollary. If Christians believe that we are many bodies with many members, that we are many temples of one God, not only will that “one god” become suspiciously accommodating to the personalized “décor” of each “temple”, but also we will almost inevitably assume that we can depart from the body without losing our Head. Every Christian can become an island, every Christian—a Church. However, we need to be clear that Paul never once refers to the temple of the Spirit or the body of Christ as existing or even potentially existing in an individual without reference to the community of faith. In fact, in those very temple passages, Paul is saying precisely the opposite of what “you” have likely heard if you have heard him speaking to “you” and not “y’all.” To paraphrase, “Do you not know that your status as God’s temple, as Christ’s body, is based solely on your corporate being, so if you truly desire to remove yourself from the body, the only appropriate instrument for such a procedure is a guillotine?” Any amputation of the body of Christ is tantamount to a decapitation.
This reading offers a weighty critique to Western individualism but also to a functional ecclesiology, which assumes that each individual Christian is, as Jesus was, the whole microcosmic package of the temple. If that were the case, then getting individuals saved, transformed, and sent would be the appropriate function of the Church, for all the fullness of God would dwell in each of you. Right? Errrrrr! Wrong. Both passages where this is asserted (Eph. 3:19; cf. Col. 2:10)—also plural, also “y’all!” We are never told that. Paul is suggesting that individuals are not fully Christians without reference to other Christians. This is why the emerging popular definition of a Christian as a follower of Christ, an individual who believes in and lives like Jesus, is misleading. There is no one-on-one analogy between Jesus and an individual believer. We are not called many bodies with many members. We are one body, together, a plurality that constitutes a unity. Why?

Necessary Aside:
One aspect of Christ’s godness that is often missed is that he was not simply divine as an individual, that is why there is both a hesitation in Scripture to flatly called Jesus “God” and an insistence that he belongs within the divine category. His status as divine neither does nor ever has existed from all eternity without reference to the godhead. The Son is not God without reference to the Father, just as the Father is not God without reference to the Son, just as neither are God without reference to the Spirit. God is from all eternity himself a unity of plurality, the perfect union of divine personhood, indeed, the very image that the first human community was given and expected to reflect to the world, having been given dominion over it. God is the community who created a community that would create community: “Let us make man in our image. In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them…And he blessed them, saying, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over [it]” (Gen. 1:26-28). Dominion over the earth in the hands of a self-giving, other-loving, mutually defining community, is the kind of dominion that rules without the need of self-preservation, without the fear of the “other” that fuels every divorce and every war.
So in when Genesis 2 rewinds and retells the Genesis 1 story from a worm’s-eye-view, God looks at the pitiful man standing in the buff and says: nope… “It is not good for man to be alone,” which of course makes it impossible to think that man in his aloneness constitutes the image of God, since in his aloneness his constitution is “not good.” So God tears out the stuff of Adam’s person to make two persons, one substance, two persons, who are then expected to make more persons, which can only happen in their coming together in mutual self-giving intimacy, wherein they are paradoxically most fulfilled. Now the man stands there in the buff with a big stupid grin on his face, looks at his wife and sees…himself but another, in the most important way: perfect complementarity. She was for him “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” indeed they were “one flesh” (Gen. 2:23-24), something like the way Christ regards himself as “one flesh” (1 Cor. 6:16) with his Bride (Eph. 5:22-23).
But the unthinkable happened. Rebellion from God had the most unexpected consequence. The shameless naked couple now scrambled to hide from one another. The discomfort of nakedness is of course only experienced in the presence of an “other.” The shell had cracked and two apparently unequal yokes were exposed. They are uncomfortable in front of one another, uncomfortable as a community. They had exchanged their constitution as the image-bearing community in order to become “as gods” according to a different criteria, an individual pursuit. But it was not good for any man or any woman to be alone. They just weren’t created that way. Each were created incomplete apart from the other but given the gift of the other. The individual person valued the other as subject just as much as they valued themselves as subjects, because they were only the human subject together. But now the other would become the object of blame, separation becoming the necessary strategy in the name of self-preservation. “It was the woman, whom you gave me,” says the shameful man, referring to his wife whom he treated now like any other beast of the field, a suitable helper only now as a scapegoat.
And so as the image bearing community, rebelling against God was an inadvertent rebellion against the community, and it was first felt as such. The experience of separation from God is always first felt as separation from other, the need to compete with others, blame others, conquer others. They sew fig leaves together. They ratify their separation. What God had joined together, the couple had separated. It was the first divorce. A His section and Her section is created in the Garden. The trees that brought the community together to the table now become instruments of division. They cover themselves with fig leaves. The one body becomes two. The Garden community becomes island individuals. So God kills an innocent beast and uses it to clothe the couple—they would not be able to cover their own guilt, and perhaps too they needed different garments. Leaves just look too complete on their own. They need something that had to be torn in two, like two halves of one animal, two pieces of one curtain, two pieces of one loaf, like something looked broken unless it was held together closely like a hug.

And thus Christ came to reconcile the world to Himself and to entrust his name-bearers with the ministry of reconciliation, coming together in Christ and thereby becoming again human, the self-giving, other-loving, mutually defining image-bearing community. So Christ, we should not be surprised, cannot refer to himself without referring to the Father; to see one is to see the other. He and the Father are one. And thus the Spirit that indwelt him as an individual is not a picture of how the Spirit indwells us. Christ individual is always Christ the community. The indwelling Spirit we see in the form of a dove at his Baptism in conjunction with the Father’s loving endorsement is a mere glimpse into the eternal being of the natural mode of the godhead’s Being. As such, Christ alone bears the status of God’s temple without reference to others.
We, however, do exist in isolation, outside communion with the Father and one another in our sin and self-preserving, other-fearing pride. In ourselves, we have nothing to enjoin us with heavenly and earthly others. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he formed a community around himself, a community he would eventually send into the world precisely as a community formed around him. He enjoined heaven and earth in himself and therefore also in the community enjoined to him. He then sent his community, as his community, to do the same. Hence the so-called High Priestly prayer in John 17 describes Christians being sent into the world in Christ’s name to put their unity on display, implying that the clearest witness to Christ would be the witness of a perfectly united community: “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23). The witness of the Church is not just to a man, such that each person can adequately bear witness alone, but to the holy Trinity, such that the community is the most appropriate witness of God. A commitment to Christian witness thus begins with a commitment to Church unity. This is perhaps the primary work of the Spirit, to enjoin heavenly and earthly others, and why the effect of the Spirit in the New Testament writings most often finds expression in bringing the body of Christ together.
Furthermore, this reading of the Corinthian temple passages is congruent with the Ephesians 2 and 1 Peter 2 temple passages, where the image is of separate stones coming together to build one house in which God dwells. It is also congruent with Jesus’ promise in Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst,” which suggests that Christ is uniquely present in Christian fellowship in a way that he is not in isolation. There is thus a qualitative difference between an island Christian and urban Christians. Christian fellowship cannot be an optional part of Church life. Fellowship has more than a ceremonial and sentimental quality. Forsaking fellowship with believers is tantamount to forsaking fellowship with Christ.
Suppose, therefore, we take seriously Paul, Peter, Jesus, and the rest of Scripture which is concerned to bring God and people into the same space, concerned to bring heaven and earth into the same space. Suppose we truly believe that the mystery of God’s will is to unite all things together in Christ (Eph. 1:10), and suppose this process begins in the coming together of people who are being joined together around the cornerstone, growing into a holy temple in the Lord (Eph. 2:20-21). If we start there, what we will end up with is not a functional ecclesiology but a sacramental ecclesiology. The Church’s mission will not begin by what we do “out there” but first “who we are in here.” It will concern itself first with quality of its own community before it goes out hollering this and that in Christ’s name. And thus, the gathering of believers will not be peripheral but central. Incarnation will not be what happens primarily on the streets but what happens in our fellowship, a fellowship that is then taken to the streets for all the people to see. The celebrations we have will not be primarily about personal transformation and equipping us for mission, not about appointing priests for service, but about feasting before the Lord. The Lord’s Table will not be an afterthought, but the foundation of thought, where we come as close together as a hug to partake of the elements that become closer to us than the breath in our lungs.
Can you be the church without going to church? No. Yes, the Church consists of the people of God, not the building, but don’t throw out the Body with the baptismal water! And let’s not decry the building all that much. I mean, I like the idea of a purified, buildingless church, but it’s raining right now, winter is coming, and August in Kentucky sucks. So, for my part, I’m thankful for a building where I can gather together with others who are for me more than others and celebrate the Other who became for us more than an Other.

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