Q: Got another question. I know a Christian married couple (with 5 kids) that has stopped going to church because they feel that the fellowship they are getting at bible studies is all they need. Can you give me scripture references that shows why they need to go to actual church?
A: This is a really great and complicated question. You'll notice the emphasis is on complicated.
There is a lot of discussion in the Christian world today about the state of the church, the nature of the church, and proper models for church.
There are groups that want to reform the church from within and groups that want to blow-up the whole model of "organized" churches and move towards home groups. There are those who simply think everything is fine ... so what's all the talk about?
Sometimes, the way that we talk about "church" gets us in trouble because we confuse ourselves by mistake. "Church" isn't a place that we go, it's a thing that we are. "The Church" is wherever believers are gathered in the name of Jesus.
It doesn't matter if these believers are gathered outside or inside, or whether these believers are wearing 3-piece suits or bathing suits. The Church is wherever believers are gathered in the name of Jesus.
And Jesus is there, too.
For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst. (Matthew 18:20, NASB)
You'll notice that Jesus doesn't say, "Where two or three have gathered together in My name on a Sunday morning in a large building with stained glass windows, I am there in their midst."
Instead, Jesus' statement is unqualified. Where believers are gathered in the name of Jesus -- anywhere -- that's "church."
I'm often saddened by this mentality that "we go to church to visit Jesus" or that we go "to the house of God." This is a tragic misunderstanding of part of what Jesus did at the cross and what happened at our conversion.
We no longer worship at this mountain or that mountain, in this place or that place, but we have the opportunity to experience unbroken fellowship with the Living God through the indwelling Spirit as His Temple.
The same way the glory and Spirit of God dwelt in the tabernacle and temple of old is the promise of the indwelling of the glory and Spirit of the Living God in his new temple -- the church.
Do you remember when God was leading His people out of Egypt and through the wilderness, that Moses recognized that the people are nothing without the presence of God (Exodus 33:12-16)? The book of Exodus climaxes at the end when the glory of the Lord descends and dwells in the tabernacle that had been so painstakingly constructed to the exact specifications of God (Exodus 40:34-38).
All of this points to what Jesus did by fulfilling in every detail the righteous requirements of the law so that all who repent and place their faith in Him alone can trade their sin and failure for His perfect righteousness (Romans 8:3-4). As a result of this perfect fulfillment, we are given the privilege and right to receive the Spirit of God into our body as the new temple (John 1:12; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19).
If you're perceptive, you've probably already noticed that there are two different things being talked about: 1) the presence of God in the individual believer, and 2) the presence of God in the assembly of believers.
As an individual, I have wonderful promises regarding the presence of God in my life (and so do you, if you've believed). But what Jesus described above in Matthew 18:20 is something beyond this individual promise. There is something special and unique about the assembly of believers in the Name above all names ... a special promise of the presence of Jesus in their midst.
Therefore, we should desire this "assembling" of believers on a regular basis. We should want to "go to church." And not because we're checking something off our Christian to-do list, but because of the expectation that something special happens when believers gather in His name. Church is awesome.
Or, at least it should be.
Unfortunately, what often happens is that people forget this incredible promise and gift and begin gathering simply for the sake of gathering. Sure, we say it's "in Jesus' name" but that's not a stamp we can use to authorize our activities or make God answer our prayers. What's worse, is that if our mentality is so focused on "going to church" and not simply assembling in the Name of Jesus (which is very different), then we can find ourselves gathered with Jesus left outside.
This is what Jesus describes in Revelation 3:20. Although this passage has tragically been appropriated by evangelists to apply to the individual, asking them to invite Jesus into their heart, it's important to notice that Jesus is talking to a "church" (the collective believers in Laodicea) and asking them to invite Him into their assembly!
At this point, you might be asking what any of this has to do with the question that was asked...
What was asked above was for Scriptures that teach we need to go to actual church, but was prefaced by the qualification that the intended recipient of these verses has stopped going to a building on Sunday morning and has substituted Bible studies in their place. The point of all the above discussion is that "actual church" cannot be defined by the time, place, location, or number of people (beyond 2 or 3 anyway) as anything else than believers gathered in the Name of Jesus!
It must be noted that we have to be very careful to not define church to be something that it is not, and therefore start judging any other assembly of believers that doesn't fit our model as something less than "church" as defined by the Head of the Church (e.g. Colossians 1:18).
Now, understanding the above truth about what "church" really is, it will help us not try and take a passage like Hebrews 10:25 and use it as a weapon against those who don't "gather together" in the same way that we do.
However, there is really much more here than just this. (Remember, I told you it was complicated!)
Since I'm not in conversations with the Questioner's friends, I can only take the question at face value and attempt to address the attitudes and feelings expressed from the Questioner's perspective. Based on the the question above, however, there are still some pretty serious errors about substituting Bible studies for "church" attendance/membership, even if both could be defined biblically as "gathering in the Name of Jesus."
First, church is about much more than simply "fellowship." The church is about worship of the Living God. It's about accountability. It's about community and family. It's about correction, reproof, exhortation and encouragement.
There is a reason that Jesus gave gifts to the church in the offices of Pastors and teachers (see Ephesians 4:7-16). We tend to resist authority, but Jesus has raised up Pastors and teachers for the benefit of the church. It's not likely that an individual who has forsaken a more traditional form of "church" membership (meaning, what we typically think of as the Sunday morning gathering -- even if it happens on Saturday night or whenever else!) for more informal Bible studies or small mid-week gatherings has an authority over them in the form of Pastors or Elders.
This is dangerous for the spiritual health of believers.
And before you think I'm saying this simply because I'm a Pastor, you need to understand that I, too, am under authority.
Genuine men of God who are called to be Pastors of the church are a gift from God. If you have issue with this, you must understand that your issue isn't with me, it's with the Head! (re-read Ephesians 4). If someone does have a genuine pastoral authority over them in a smaller, non-traditional setting (for example, in a house church) then I wouldn't try and convince them that they should transfer membership to a larger, more traditional church necessarily. However, most Bible studies are filled with brothers and sisters and lacks a God-ordained authority in the form of a Pastor. And no, a small group leader is not the same as a Pastor.
Don't misunderstand me -- Bible studies and small groups are good things. But these assemblies of believers are only part of the church. If these members of the body have cut themselves off from God ordained authority in the office of Pastors and Elders, then they have withdrawn from the larger church by forsaking meeting with those whom God has put in place for their benefit and spiritual edification.
Secondly, we must be careful to resist the urge to commodify Jesus and "church" and turn ourselves into consumers instead of worshippers. The question notes an attitude that these Bible studies are "all they need." But what about what the larger community of believers and even non-believers needs?
We must resist the lusts of the flesh for convenience, comfort and self-gratification to the expense of others. By the grace of God and the leading of the Spirit, He can set us free from such selfish designs.
Simply put, the "church" isn't about what you need and want. It's about the glory of God.
He has brought us together into ONE body. When we criticize those in authority or our brothers and sisters, we are not really criticizing them ... we are criticizing God. We think we can do better than He can in organizing His people and gifting them for the works of service that He ordained in advance for them to do (Ephesians 2:10).
This doesn't mean that we can't agree with God about the standards He's set in His word. But nowhere does He tell us to consume whatever form of church we like best or are most comfortable with.
Instead, He tells us to gather together regularly and to submit to the authorities that He has placed over us. Regular meetings can (and probably should) mean more than once a week. Part of the authorities in the Church are definitely Pastors.
When we withdraw from the larger gathering of believers -- and unfortunately even attendance in the largest church in the area is still a failure for all of the believers in that area to meet together since we've so separated ourselves by denominational distinctives that even the largest gatherings are still lacking members -- we are telling God that we don't care about the body, we just care about ourselves.
Our faith is not simply an individual faith (although it certainly is that!). It's a communal faith. We glorify God by recognizing that His church is bigger and better than what I want it to be or what I make it out to be.
And since it's communal, and since individual believers are all gifted and created by God so differently, church is hard and messy.
This is why the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write this just before explaining the power of unity and the authoritative offices and gifts given by Christ:
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3, NASB)
Do you get that?
Paul commands us, as believers to walk in a manner worthy of our calling as Christians. He links this to being humble and gentle and being patient ... showing tolerance for one another! And, he continues to tell us to be diligent to preserve the unity of the believers.
If you think "church" is going to be easy and not messy you've missed what Paul is telling us. But, the difficulty is worth it. The devil seeks to stir up dissension and factions because he knows the result of a unified church (see John 17 and Ephesians 4:13-17).
This consumeristic attitude is heart-breaking to me because so many believers find "all that they need" and don't long for more or go further to ask if they are giving everything that Christ desires from them for the benefit of the body and those who are outside of the faith and without hope in the world.
Failure to understand that the gospel is the central and most glorious truth of the faith and that "our denominational distinctives" simply don't matter has led to there being so much disunity in the church (particularly in America) that the church has lost much of its impact and power in the world.
I'm probably an extremist, but I think that we should meet in smaller gatherings as brothers and sisters and in as large of groups as we can because both are valuable. In fact, I wish we could figure out a way to gather all of the believers in an area together at once to worship our God in unity.
Pending a move of God, this won't happen because of our own consumer mind-set. How could we possibly accommodate both "traditional" and "contemporary" tastes? Won't people be offended that some believers are wearing suits and others are wearing shorts?
One day we will worship God forever in an assembly so large that it cannot be counted, comprised of believers from every tribe, tongue, people and nation. We'll all be dressed in the same white robes, washed by the blood of the lamb. And we'll all be so consumed by the glory of our God and Savior that our consumer tendencies will be dissolved forever.
When we gather in the larger assembly, we have the opportunity to get a small taste of that coming and glorious day.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.