Here's a quote:
I have always contended that anyone can be a Christian without the necessity of membership in any particular denomination. This statement horrifies some seminarians I know; one even told me I would go to hell if I didn't go to church. But what God requires of us is our faith and belief in him, that we try to follow the tenets of the faith He has given us, and that we earnestly ask for his forgiveness and eternal love.
The question about the necessity of "church" is always out there. When I taught a New Testament class for 7th graders in a parish school, it meant, "Does God expect me to do someting so BORING?" When asked by adults, the question usually comes from being burned by hypocrisy, corruption or some other sin of the institutional church.
Anyway, I would say "Yes" - that we do have to "go to church." Not as a check mark on some list of religious rules, but as part of living by and maturing in all that the New Testament teaches.
But what is "church" and what does it mean "to go"?
Let me start with a concise Anglican definition, and then flesh out the Biblical teachings from which that bit of tradition is reasonably drawn.
The Thrity Nine Articles of Religion came from the English Reformation and were adopted by American Anglicans (Episcopalians) in 1801. They contain this definition of "church":
XIX. Of the Church.The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
Let's break this down, with an eye to answering our question about whether or not one must "go to church"
- The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men - OK, it is "visible," not just a nice spiritual sentiment. And it is a "congregation," an actual gathering of people. The Hebrew and Greek Biblical words for "congregation" or "church" mean a group of people, called together by God. This leads to "faithful" - as Still on Patrol affirms, the people must be about the cause of Jesus Christ, not just a human club with some by laws. The importance of the visible gathering of purposeful people is emphasized in numerous New Testament verses, perhaps best in Hebrews 10:25: Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. The people are urged to meet together as the church, as this is essential to prepare for "the Day" of Christ's return and His final judgement.
- in which the pure Word of God is preached - people might get a sense of God via a beautiful sunset or "on the golf course," but they will never get the Good News of Jesus Christ that way. Christians need to be taught from the Holy Bible. This might take the form of a sermon from a pulpit, or it might be a group of folks around a coffee table. At any rate, the Apostle Paul wonders out loud, How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14) Faced with all kinds of demands, the first leaders of the church prioritized: So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables." (Acts 6:2) One defining mark of the early church was that people devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship (Acts 2:42). Being there with others was essential to learning the message of Christ and applying it.
- and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. Sacraments are, by definition, communal events. There might be just "two or three" together, but that's all the visible congregation that Christ requires for his presence. In Anglicanism, the two Sacraments of "Christ's ordinance" are Holy Baptism (Matthew 28:19) and Holy Communion (I Corinthians 11:23-26; also the narratives in Matthew, Mark and Luke; John 6:51). Both of these require a gathering of people, and both are given to unite us and transform us as part of a visible congregation. Baptism establishes Paul's great teaching of the church as Christ's visible body on earth: The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (I Corinthians 12:12-13). In I Corinthians 11, Paul warns that we drink judgment upon ourselves if we take Holy Communion without understanding the presence of Christ and the requisite equality and unity we are to have with others in a congregation that proclaims Him. Acts 2:42 tells us that the first Christians devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers - Sacramental, liturgical worship of Christ. That requires a gathering of people - the church.
- As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith. Still on Patrol emphasizes this aspect of "church." He says, rightly, that there is no such thing as the one, true, perfect denomination. Anglicans used to assert that all Christian fellowships (including Anglicans!) make their share of errors and don't live up to Christ's expectations. (The Episcopal Church is now claiming to be above such mere human foibles, but that's another story well documented in other posts). But notice that nothing in this very realistic explanation exempts any person from finding a church - a visible congregation in which the Word of God and the Sacraments are shared to forward the cause of Christ.
So, yeah, man, you gotta go to Church. May you be blessed to find one where Christ himself runs things.