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“For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

MANY THINGS ARE NOW SEEN AS UNNECESSARY (AND EVEN HARMFUL) THAT USED TO BE VIEWED AS ESSENTIAL. One of these is marriage. Chelsea Sullivan, a friend who used to manage a Starbucks in Vermont, said that when customers would hear that she was married, they would express shock and disbelief. “Yes, a committed relationship is okay, but at this date why in the world would a seemingly normal person like you want to be married?”

Another now-seen-as-unnecessary concept is “church.” When “organized religion” is spoken of today, it is usually not with admiration. As with marriage, many argue that the benefits can be enjoyed without the traditional obligations. “Yes, be a believer if you wish, but why would a spiritual person want to go to church? Nowadays, being spiritual doesn’t require you to be religious.”

First of all, I agree that the “institutional” concept of salvation is wrong. The church does not stand between us and God or dispense salvation on His behalf. But on the other side of the road is an equally dangerous ditch: the notion that there is no collective or “together” aspect of Christianity at all. Our vertical relationship with God is primary, but that doesn’t mean that a horizontal relationship with other Christians is merely optional. So let’s break this issue into two questions, the answer to both of which is “Yes.”

(1) Does it matter if I “go to church” at all? You can’t read what happened in Antioch in Acts 11:19–26 and imagine those people downplaying their duties to the Lord’s church in their locality. And this is not an isolated text. The entire New Testament assumes that Christians will be members of local groups of disciples.

(2) If I go, does it matter where I go? In the first century, it wasn’t long before people began departing from the apostles’ teaching (1 John 2:18,19; 2 John 7–11). Today, the problem is even worse. So we need to be careful. Not every church we might check out is one the Lord would recognize as being true to Him. And studying the Scriptures is the only way to know what markers we ought to be looking for.

“The New Testament does not envisage solitary religion; some kind of regular assembly for worship and instruction is everywhere taken for granted in the Epistles” (C. S. Lewis).

Gary Henry — +

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