Forgive me for the controversial headline, but I used to say, “Going to church does not make you a Christian, any more than sleeping in a garage makes you a motor-car.”
I used to say that, but I have modified my view.
Going to church does show that you are a Christian, and not going to church certainly does show that you are not a Christian. (And yes, you do go to church!)
When you come to Christ you are included in the “universal” church, made up of the living and the dead, gathered spiritually around the throne of God (Ephesians 2:6, Hebrews 12:22-24). This is true whether you like it or not.
How this truth works out practically is that you also belong to a local church.
The New Testament does not know of the possibility of Christians not belonging to a local church. Most of the New Testament letters are addressed to churches. The New Testament authors presumed that Christians were members of their local church.
Even the letters written to individuals (e.g. 1-2 Timothy, Philemon) assumes that those individual Christians are members of the local church. Cf. 1 Timothy 3:15, Philemon 1:2 The more general letter of James (addressed to the scattered Christians), and the letters of John, assume that believers are in local churches cf. James 5:14, 3 John 6-10.
I’m not naïve. I know that people have been hurt by churches, church leadership teams, and by some Christians in churches. I know that people have been abused and hurt by those in church leadership. For that I’m truly sorry.
I know that there are bad churches that are seeking to build their own empires and their own kingdoms. Sadly, many churches fleece the flock of God, rather than shepherd them. For that I’m truly sorry and God will certainly hold them accountable.
I know all this.
However, because there are bad doctors and doctors that don’t really care for their patients, that does not mean that I dismiss the entire medical profession. I leave the bad doctor and I find a good doctor. The same principle applies to churches.
Some may say, “I’ve been hurt by a church and will not be part of any church every again.” This is a thoroughly unchristian attitude. Jesus taught, in the Lord’s prayer and elsewhere, that a consistent, maintained attitude of unforgiveness demonstrates that we are not forgiven.
The Christian response to being harmed* by another Christian or a church is to forgive and, if possible, to be reconciled. And, if reconciliation is not possible or even preferable, to find another church where you may be loved, cared for, and fed the Word of God.
Not belonging to a church demonstrates to the world and to other Christians that you do not value the church for whom Christ died (Acts 20:28); you are filled with pride as you are unwilling to submit yourself to pastoral oversight (Hebrews 13:7); you are unwilling to extend forgiveness (Colossians 3;13); you are unwilling to use your abilities for the strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians 12: 7); and you are unwilling to submit to the Word of God that says you should belong to a church (Hebrews 10:25).
Not belonging to a church certainly shows that you are not a Christian**.
Obviously, there are many unbelievers who go to church for a variety of reasons, but that does not negate my point.
Dear Christian: you belong to Christ’s universal church, make sure you belong to a local church.
* If you were abused, you must lay charges at your police station.
** The above does not apply to Christians who physically cannot attend a church because they are sick or infirmed.