On the importance of public worship
There are many today who are critical of “organized religion.” (Whenever I hear someone criticize organized religion, I am tempted in my snarkier moments to reply, “So, you prefer disorganized religion, do you?” But then my polite side thankfully gets the best of me and I zip my lip.) Many would describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” As I recently heard someone comment to me in passing, “the church is in our hearts” (the implication being that gathering with others for corporate worship is optional). One will sometimes hear the assertion that “I can worship God just as easily on a golf course (or a ski resort, or at a family gathering, or reading the Sunday paper, or attending a sporting event, or whatever other alternative to church attendance one might prefer) as I can at a church gathering.” Furthermore, those who are critical of the church and of organized religion often seem to have a legitimate gripe against the church when they state, “The church is full of hypocrites.” (To which I am tempted to reply — again, in my snarkier moments — “There’s always room for one more.”)
It is, of course, true that the church is full of imperfect and flawed people. (The one who writes this being one of them.) But isn’t that the point of the Christian Church? To be a hospital for sinners who need the medicine of God’s grace and forgiveness, not an exclusive club for people who supposedly have it all together; a support network for believers in their ongoing struggle against sin and striving (albeit imperfectly and often inconsistently) after holiness; a community of light and hope in the midst of a dark and hopeless world?
For those who might be tempted to dismiss the importance of corporate gatherings of worship in the church, I would encourage you to consider these words of the late Rev. J.C. Ryle, the evangelical Church of England Bishop of Liverpool from 1880-1900, in which he discusses the situation in England in his own day (a situation not all that different, spiritually-speaking, from our own 21st century American context):
“If you turn now to the pages of Church history, what will you find? You will find that from the days of the Apostles down to this hour, public worship has always been one of God’s great instruments in doing good to souls. Where is it that sleeping souls are generally awakened, dark souls enlightened, dead souls quickened, doubting souls brought to decision, mourning souls cheered, heavy-laden souls relieved? Where, as a general rule, but in the public assembly of Christian worshippers, and during the preaching of God’s Word? Take away public worship from a land, shut up the churches and chapels, forbid people to meet together for religious services, prohibit any kind of religion except that which is private, – do this, and see what the result would be. You would inflict the greatest spiritual injury on the country which was so treated.(1) You could do nothing so likely to help the devil and stop the progress of Christ’s cause, except the taking away of the Bible. Next to the Word of God there is nothing which does so much good to mankind as public worship. “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. x. 7). There is a special presence of Christ in religious assemblies.
“I grant freely that public worship may become a mere act of formality. Thousands of so-called Christians, no doubt, are continually going to churches and chapels, and getting no benefit from their attendance. Like Pharoah’s lean kine, they are nothing bettered, but rather worse, more impenitent, and more hardened. No wonder that the ignorant Sabbath-breaker defends himself by saying, – “For anything I can see, those who go nowhere on Sundays are just as good people as church-goers and chapel-goers.” But we must never forget that the misuse of a good thing is no argument against the use of it. Once begin to refuse everything that is misused in this sinful world, and there is hardly anything left for you that is good.(2) Take a broader view of the question before you. Look at any district you like in England, and divide people into two great parties, – worshippers and non-worshippers. I will engage you will find that there is far more good among those that worship than among those that do not. It does make a difference, whatever men may say. It is not true that worshippers and non-worshippers are all alike.
“We ought never to forget the solemn words of St. Paul: “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhort one another” (Heb. x. 25). Let us not care for the bad example of many around us who rob God of His Day, and never go up to His House from one end of the year to the other. Let us go on worshipping in spite of every discouragement, and let us not doubt that in the long run of life it does us good. Let us prove our own meetness for heaven by our feelings toward the earthly assemblies of God’s people. Happy is that man who can say with David, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”” (pp. 214-215, Knots Untied: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion from an Evangelical Standpoint by John Charles Ryle, D.D.; London: Chas. J. Thynne & Jarvis, LTD.; May, 1927)
(1) It is my recollection that not too long ago a prominent megachurch pastor made it known that he had come to the conclusion that really mature believers can become “self-feeders” who do not really need the corporate gatherings of the church. The implication seems to be that corporate gatherings of the church are only for “seekers” and immature believers. However well intentioned this pastor may be, his position is deeply unbiblical, radically hyper-individualistic, conducive to promoting spiritual arrogance in the hearts of those looking for ways to justify their absence from church attendance (who may come to look upon themselves as spiritually superior to those who still feel a need to attend church), and dangerous to the spiritual well-being of those who buy into it.
As Ryle quoted above from Hebrews 10:25, church attendance is a Divine command that applies to all professing Christians, not just to new converts and immature believers. It is spiritually dangerous to willfully violate a clear command of God.
Furthermore, this pastor’s “self-feeder” philosophy runs directly contrary to God’s Word, which teaches that the primary means by which God feeds the souls of His elect people is the public ministry of Word and Sacrament, not private spiritual disciplines (as helpful and edifying and commendable as those private disciplines might be).
In addition, the “self-feeder” position ignores the fact that when a sinner is united to Christ by faith he is also united to the Body of Christ, the church, and he is made a vital part of that corporate Body (see First Corinthians 12-14). A “self-feeder” philosophy destroys the reality of the church as the Body of Christ, as it severs the members of the Body from each other (and, by implication, from the Head of the Body, Christ).
Finally, the “self-feeder” philosophy ignores the biblical truth that there is ordinarily no possibility of salvation outside of the visible church and the ordinary means of grace (Word and Sacraments) that Christ has entrusted to His visible church. To put it sharply, the “self-feeder” philosophy caters to extreme spiritual narcissism, will lead to the eternal damnation of souls who cut themselves off from the public ministry of the Word by means of which true faith is created and sustained, and would tend toward the destruction of genuine Christianity in our nation if the majority of professing Christians in our nation were to adopt it.
(2) Ryle’s point here deserves to be emphasized. Indeed, the abuse or misuse of a good thing (like church attendance) does not thereby negate the legitimate use of that thing. Obvious hypocrisy and scandalous sin in the church ought to be dealt with through loving but firm church discipline, as Christ Himself commanded (Matthew 18:15-20; see also First Corinthians 5:3-5; Second Thessalonians 3:13-15). If the visible, organized church were more consistent in maintaining biblical standards of belief and behavior amongst it ministers and members, and in exercising loving but firm church discipline in the case of those who fall into heresy or into open, scandalous sin, then the frequent charge of hypocrisy in the church would carry much less weight. Sadly, lax discipline and a pragmatic permissiveness aimed at keeping warm bodies in the pews but negligent in actually shepherding souls to heaven is widely the norm today, even among otherwise sound and orthodox churches. But, again, the very real (and inexcusable) faults and shortcomings and sins of Christ’s visible church do not thereby negate the validity of the faithful ministry of Word and Sacrament wherever that ministry is found, nor do such faults negate the believer’s responsibility to attend upon the public means of grace in the corporate gathering of the church.