The other night at Waffle House a friend of mine and I were discussing this particular phrase. I’ve heard it in several different contexts. You’ve also probably heard it used as well, perhaps as a way to excuse someones lack of church membership or attendance. I’d like to here offer a brief critique of this catchphrase.
First of all, let us dispense with any notion that we ought not attend church — that is, the public gathering of believers around the Word and Sacraments. We are admonished to exactly the opposite of that by the author of Hebrews: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24,25). In other words, we ought to come together and meet precisely in order that we can encourage one another in the Gospel, with a view toward the day of judgement, so that we walk in the fruit of our faith, namely good works and love toward our neighbors. This means that we come together as the church so that we can “be the church” in our lives.
Let us further examine what it means to “be the church.” In this particular context people generally seem that rather than merely going to a particular building on Sunday mornings we ought to go out into the world and practice good works. But if civil righteousness is our primary measure of what the church is, we ought not exclude Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons from the final article of the Creed — “One Holy Christian Church” — though they deny the first two. That is, if “being the church” means good works, we ought to include in our church even the most rank heretics, provided they feed the homeless often enough. But this is clearly wrongheaded, as one cannot belong to the Trinitarian faith if they deny the Trinitarian faith in the first place. If T. D. Jakes was the most righteous man in all the world, even still he could not be called “Christian,” for he does not believe that Christ is the second Person of the Holy Trinity.
Does this reasoning follow Scripture, then? What do the apostles say it means to “be the church?” Paul indicates in Ephesians that it is by faith in Christ that one is marked out as part of the church: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13,14). I suggest you read the whole passage. Paul explains that God’s will gave rise to the church, by ordaining that His people would come to faith and have their sins forgiven through the blood of Christ, who made His people, the church, holy through “the washing with water through the word” (Ephesians 5:26).
So we see that a biblical understanding of the church, when applied to people, means that to “be the church” is to trust in Christ — to believe Him when He says “your sins are forgiven.” So where does one hear Christ speaking this forgiveness? In the church! In the Word preached and believed; in Baptism; in the Lord’s Supper; in all these ways we hear Christ speak His forgiveness of our sins. Again we see that we ought to go to church to be the church: We go to church to hear Christ’s promises and receive His benefits.
Does this mean that we ought not bear good fruit? Of course not. Go do good works: They’re called good for a reason. But do not think that our good works are what makes us the church. The fruit of good works is a mark and product of the church, in the same way that good works are a mark and product of faith. But the fruit is a secondary mark; the primary marks of the church are Christ’s forgiveness proclaimed and received. In fact, if you cut people off from the proclamation and reception of Christ’s forgiveness, they cease to be the church: You cannot belong to Christ if you do not believe in Him. Thus to tell people “don’t go to church, be the church” is to kill the church entirely.
So let us not give up meeting together, but let us continue to be the church by gathering around Christ’s forgiveness.