This week's question is one of the most prevalent queries I've received. It's been asked by avid golfers, fishermen (and women), and a number of others who weren't really "into" attending church. "Can't I be a Christian without going to church?"
Once upon a time, I used to believe, "Yes indeed, you can be a Christian without going to church." My understanding of Christianity was you only had to believe and "voila!" you were a Christian. But as I studied to make an appropriate answer to this question, my thoughts began to change. Now, my answer is generally no, one isn't really a Christian without the church. And this is why:
To begin with, there would be no Christianity without the church. When Christ finished his physical ministry on earth, he departed and left the dispensation of the good news, the gospel, in the hands of a small band of Christians. These Christians did not act alone. As written in Acts, from the very beginning the apostles and the other believers gathered together for regular worship, prayer, and fellowship. "The apostles were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers" (Acts 1.14). "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2.42). Thus, the early Christians immediately formed churches and met together as a matter of course.
Further, New Testament scripture would not exist except for the church. Indeed, the church produced the New Testament. It was written by church leaders for instruction, encouragement, and reproof. The earliest writings of the New Testament were written no earlier than 45 CE, more than a decade after the organizing of First Church in Jerusalem. These writings were not the gospels, but letters of Paul written to churches in Asia Minor and Europe. The earliest gospel was written around 65 when Mark put pen to papyrus. In any event, the Christian Bible is only extant because of the church, and its creation was to instruct and perpetuate the institutional church.
So, it is clear that the early church is responsible for the establishment of the existing church today. So what? Why does the church's early creation necessitate modern participation? For one, because the Church=Christians. By definition, the Church is the confederation/assoc- iation of Christians all Christians are a part of the Church. To use Paul's analogy of the Church as the body of Christ in 1st Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, every Christian has a unique role to play in the body (the church). If any one member of the body refuses to be included, there is some doubt whether it is actually a part of the body, i.e., whether he or she is a actually a Christian by definition. And this begs the question, just what is a Christian?
A Christian is more than just someone who believes Jesus is the Christ. It is even more than one who has accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. Either of these can certainly be called believers, but a Christian is more than simply a believer, much as a scientist is more than just one who believes in the atom. Originally, the term Christian literally meant Christ follower. One who follows Christ is one making an attempt to live their life in the likeness and manner of Jesus. It is clear Jesus attended worship regularly and participated at whatever local synagogue he happened to find himself near on the Sabbath. Indeed, we read, "When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom" (Luke 4.16) [highlight added]. Certainly there are myriad other habits, manners, and deeds Christ accomplished that are paradigms for our own lives, but certainly worship attendance is expected as well.
Doubtless a believer can worship God on the golf course (though I am doubtful many actually worship God on the golf course). A believer can worship on the lake while "drowning worms" (though again, I am doubtful . . .). But a Christian worships regularly with a local church, a gathering of others making strides at truly being followers of Christ.