Can you be a true Christian and not be involved with God's Church? Millions may think so, but what does the Bible say?
Will Rogers once said, "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat." Leaving aside the accuracy of the famed humorist's witticism about the political situation of the early thirties, you often hear the same kind of statement, albeit seriously, about religion. Sometimes even with an air of self-righteousness someone will say in almost the same breath: I) "I am a Christian," and 2) "I belong to no organized religion." The point that he 's making, of course, is that he doesn't need what he would scornfully call the cozy comfort of a church, like other lesser mortals. "Just you and me, Lord!" is his rallying cry. Ah, but in reality it's not just "you and me, Lord." Simply put, if you want to be on good terms with your Creator, you must love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:39). And, since the ultimate destiny of man is to become God, as God is God, you must become like God now by trying to emulate God's love of mankind (I John 4:11). Now comes the hard part: the best way to do all this is through an organized church.
The Lone-Ranger Christian
Many people ask, legitimately: If Christianity is having God's Spirit (Romans 8:9) and becoming like God, why mess around with an organized, visible church at all? Any organized religion can have a certain social stigma attached to it. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in the Screw-tape Letters, being part of a church doesn't do a lot for your vanity — all your nonmember friends can assume a sort of superior, I-don't-need-a-church attitude which makes you feel that you're not quite bright enough to transcend all that organized folderol. But mostly, many people find that being part of an organized religious effort simply sticks in the craw. They have a hard time accepting the idea that religion can be something other than a hidden, deep-down, strictly personal exercise in spirituality. It means investing more effort, energy and money than otherwise is the case when religion is confined to "Just you and me, Lord." Also any church, be it God's own or a false one, is made up of human beings. Fallible human beings. Individuals who don't always live up to the high ideals which they profess to believe. And this gap between what the church teaches and what people who call themselves Christians actually perform is often used as an excuse to go the "Lone-Ranger route." If you go that well-trodden path, however, you will end up doing less for your fellowman than if you had stayed with a group, in spite of its members not being the embodiment of millennial ideals. God's Church is the best way for you as an individual to show love for others — many more than you could ever help by yourself. The power of collective love is mighty. A follower of Christ will want to obey Christ's injunction (Matt. 28:19, 20) to take His message of God's soon-coming government to his fellowman. It is, after all, good news. How much do you think one can do as an individual? Confront a few people on street corners? Ring a few doorbells? In the process of reaching relatively few people, he is likely to make a rather obnoxious nuisance of himself. It is ultimately a matter of efficiency. One person, alone, can only confront the few people with whom he comes in personal contact. Several persons, however, might be able to pool enough of their contacts and resources in order to rent a hall and invite many people to hear a message. Many persons can pool their resources and purchase time on radio to air their message to an even greater audience. By organizing, Christians can share their knowledge with more people, and, by using mass media, each individual reaches far more people. Organization increases the power of the Church to make a genuine impact upon the world.
Division of Labor
One of the most elementary principles of economic science is involved here: the division of labor. If each person who wants to see a job get done does that part of it which he does best, the job will be done better, sooner, at less total cost. The division of labor was heavily stressed in the New Testament Christian Church. When Paul, for example, was explaining to the church at Rome just how you go about being a "living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God," he applied this concept. He said: "For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and everyone members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation; he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness" (Rom. 12:4-8). Elsewhere, Paul develops the point that organized specialization is needed for the "body of Christ" all those who are true Christians — to do the most good for the rest of the world. "There are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all" (I Cor. 12:6), he writes, noting in effect that if every Christian were off by himself, each doing his own little bit, there would be a tremendous duplication of effort and, most importantly, not as much of the gospel would be disseminated, or good done for others, as there can be when there is a "diversity of operations." "If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?" he asks in verse 17. The whole of the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians is, in fact, devoted to Paul's exposition that not every Christian can do everything and that therefore there must be a specialization or division of labor; a division which logically implies — as we see in the last few verses — some sort of organization.
Doing Good for Fellowman
The metaphor of the human body which Paul uses is particularly apt: each Christian does that for which he is best suited, which means he is more likely to be happy (most of us enjoy doing those things in which we get to use our natural talents and abilities, and usually don't enjoy doing something for which we don't have any ability), and the whole of Christianity does its work most efficiently. But the Church is not only the most efficient means of reaching the world with the good news of Christ's government, it is also the best means of doing good for our fellowman. Let's take a simple case. In modern society we all have only limited contact with others of different social and economic strata. Specifically, there are a lot of poor, needy people whom we never see. Often people will complain that giving to some central organization seems awfully bureacratic and impersonal — it would be so much "nicer" to be able to leave a bag of groceries on someone's doorstep yourself than to go through some organized "middleman." But they miss the point. The point is, it isn't primarily for our benefit that we give someone something — it is for the receiver's benefit. Christ said that it is better to give anonymously (Matt. 6:1-4), so we won't be doing it "to be seen of men." If we really want to help out some person, the important thing is that he is helped, not that we get the credit for it. By pooling their efforts, Christians can have their resources go to needy people, often geographically far removed, people whom they might never get the chance to know. Furthermore, the process can be done without the poor person who is being helped ever knowing who is the one doing the helping. This principle was practiced by the early Church (Acts 4:34-35).
Transcending the Existential Muck
The apostle Paul, exhorting the spiritually flagging, tired old Church of God at Jerusalem in the book of Hebrews, told them not to forsake the "assembling of [themselves) together" (Heb. 10:25). Most of us never stop to consider the real reason Paul said this: we have to make a special effort to keep religious truths before our minds. The only things we ever see are physical, mundane things. But there is a different reality, a full-blown spiritual world in which dwell God, Christ and a host of angels and demons. But we never see that world. Our eyes are continually blind to a major portion of reality. We never see the whole of reality in which God is manifestly evident, and therefore we have to remind ourselves of it by other means. This is the reason why individual Christians should come together to worship God on the day God specified for such activity. (Read our free booklet Which Day Is The Christian Sabbath?) Unless they "go to church" (to use the common phrase), they are not likely to transcend the daily, ordinary, existential muck and consider the fact that there really is a God who has a purpose for man. Another reason for Christians to become organized is the various specialized services God's Church can provide for its members. This means simply that Christians can make the best use of each other's special talents and skills. It is the reason why the Bible provides for a ministry to service the body of Christ. Obviously, we can't all be experts in everything. For example, the Bible is a book which is often difficult to understand. We frequently need some expertise in trying to gain an understanding of its contents, a fact which the Ethiopian eunuch recognized when he asked Philip to help him understand the book of Isaiah (Acts 8:30-31). A minister can specialize in understanding God's Word and can make his knowledge available to other Christians. Consequently, Paul puts heavy emphasis on a minister knowing the Word of God (II Tim. 2:15). Furthermore, in the very process of getting God's message to the world, specialized skills are often needed and only an organized "work" of God has enough resources to employ those skills in a coherent, rational effort of evangelism. Finally, there is the fact that a real follower of Christ will naturally want to associate (at least some of the time) with other followers. It gives him a sense of community, and the presence of other Christians can reinforce the mutual desire to remain a Christian and follow the sometimes difficult way which Christ laid down for His followers. When Paul exhorted his brethren to "do good... especially unto them who are of the household of faith," he was, after all, implying that there is a coherent, identifiable "household of faith" to which you can go. But how are we going to do this if we never even associate with those who share our common faith? Our human hunger for community, our need for solidarity, and our desire to be with like-minded individuals are fulfilled by an organized group which meets regularly.
A Holy Convocation
One final reason for the Church is that it provides a forum for the worship of God in a way which no individual or any other institution does. Certainly God does want us to worship Him (John 4:24; Phil. 3:3). While it is true that the way you conduct yourself in your private life can be a kind of worship, it is also true that God Himself set down a precedent for organized worship, both in ancient Israel and in the New Testament Church. The book of Leviticus details the pattern of worship which God ordained for ancient Israel, and the fourteenth chapter of I Corinthians gives us an idea of how the apostolic church worshiped (or should have, in this case). In both cases, there is the common denominator of assembly — a group of people who come together for a religious purpose, a "holy convocation," if you please. Moreover, the principles of Christian living are more readily applied in the context of an organized group than in the faster-paced society at large. For example, in many parts of the country it is just plain bad manners to go around greeting total strangers on the street, introducing yourself and striking up a conversation. One who did that would be looked upon as some sort of busybody, if not a downright kook. But in God's Church, it is a different story. There we can meet strangers much more easily and enjoy the company of new acquaintances much more readily than we ever could in normal urban or suburban society.
"Warts and All"
Social critics and literary intellectuals from Dante to Voltaire to Dostoevski have regularly excoriated organizations which called themselves Christian because they could see so many glaring faults with those organizations and, just as often, with the people who constituted them. Organized religion has, in many circles, a bad name. This really is very unfortunate. People can become alienated from the true Church of God because of what they see in other human beings, persons like themselves who are fallible, subject to "like passions" as themselves, and altogether too prone to sin. But — and here's the catch — just because there is a gap between theory and practice, between what a person believes and the way he acts, doesn't necessarily mean that his beliefs are wrong or that the organized body which teaches those beliefs is wrong. The reasons why God instituted His Church are independent of the people in that Church. It is, in other words, an illogical cop-out to use whatever real or imagined flaws there are in any Church member to attack the Church itself. We will all make mistakes until we are no longer physical. On the other hand, the reasons why we need to be a part of the Church are eternal, rooted in the necessity of sharing love for your neighbor by giving him the good news of God's Kingdom. The Worldwide Church of God is busily engaged in a host of organized activities: primarily, spreading the good news of Christ's coming government, as well as ministering to those in need, helping Christians to become more like Christ, and providing a "forum" for His followers to worship God and become friends with each other. Simple logic compels anyone who considers himself a follower of Christ to want to be a part of that body.
RECOMMENDED READING We've just shown you why a person can't call himself a Christian and not wish to be a part of an organized effort to spread the gospel. But which gospel? What church? These vital questions — the next logical ones to ask once the need for the church has been established — are answered in the booklets Where Is God's True Church Today? and What Is the True Gospel?