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Can One Be A Christian And Not Belong To The Church?

September 28, 1997 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Ephesians 4:11-16

Lend me your ears, your minds, and your hearts for just a few minutes, and let’s focus on trying to answer the question: Can one be a Christian and not belong to the church?

That’s a serious question asked by a lot of serious people and it deserves a serious answer. There are people today, young and old alike, saying things like this: “I know all about the church. I know how at times in its history it has spilled the blood of innocent people and created misery rather than alleviating it. I know that often it’s ministers are nothing more than ecclesiastical politicians who bend to the whim and caprice of every congregational ‘big shot’. I know that the church often honors people who should not be honored and those who should be honored, it often overlooks. I know that by and large the church pews and even the church pulpits are filled with hypocrites. I can respect and admire Jesus, but as for the church…well, I think I can serve the Lord better outside the church than inside it.” There are a lot of people today saying things like that. I told you about the T-shirt I saw which read: “Jesus? Yes! The Church? No!” That’s the thinking of a lot of people today. Therefore, I think this question is worthy of our attention: Can one be a Christian and not belong to the church?

Now I would like to frame our consideration of that question within the story behind the oldest American hymn still being sung in our churches today. It is the hymn “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord”, written by Timothy Dwight in 1801. The hymn is a magnificent celebration of the life, work, worth and value of the church from the pen of one who loved the church intensely.

Timothy Dwight was born in 1752 and very early in life, he demonstrated a remarkably able mind. By age four, he was reading the Bible; he mastered Latin at age seven; he graduated from Yale University when he was 17. But he was not only a “head” person, he was also a “heart” person. He had a passionate devotion to Jesus Christ and he gave himself to a life of teaching and preaching. In 1795, he was named President of Yale University. Over the 20 years of his presidency, because of his strong preaching and his spiritual power, a great revival swept that campus and spread to other colleges. It was during that time that he wrote “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord”, which has been labeled “one of the imperishable hymns of the Christian Church”. Timothy Dwight’s accomplishments in general and this hymn in particular are amazing in and of themselves—but when you know the whole story, these things become nothing less than miraculous.

You see, when Timothy Dwight was 25 years of age, he was stricken with smallpox. The disease left him almost blind and in intense pain for the next 40 years until his death at age 65. The eye problems rendered him able to read or write only 10 or 15 minutes a day and even that produced violently painful headaches. And yet for 40 years he endured the pain and the disability while pouring his life out in the service of Jesus Christ through the church. Timothy Dwight’s answer to the question “Can one be a Christian and not belong to the church?” was to take a long series of those agonizing 10 or 15 minutes a day and produce one of our loveliest and most powerful hymns. His words are, I believe, a celebration of the Church Individual, the Church Inevitable, and the Church Invincible. Today, I want to borrow his love for the church and I want to borrow those ideas from his hymn…

I love the Church Individual.

We tend to forget that down through the centuries, it is the church which has constantly, consistently, defended and exalted the worth and value of every living, breathing individual. The concept of an inherent dignity of the human personality found its genesis in the church. The equality of and the right to freedom for all people is a truth which arose out of the church of Jesus Christ. Have you ever been to a place where the church is oppressed or even invisible? Have you seen the severity of life in those places, where women are treated like chattel and children are regarded as disposable? Yes, life is not so grand for some in those places where the traditions of the church have not been handed down.

May I also point out to you that the very foundations upon which our form of government and our principles of civilization are built were handed down to us by the church. That is written in all of the history books of our time. It was the mission of the church, not just individuals here and there going out, but the organized church sending out wave after wave of mission servants—that is what brought our ancestors into the beginning of the life that we now know.

In the riveting biography of the great preacher, Phillips Brooks, there is the beautiful story of a street walker who came one night to hear Phillips Brooks preach. She was converted. Her life was completely changed from that point on and she explained it by saying: “You can’t hear Phillips Brooks preach and still live in the cellar.” That’s the church we’ve been given—a church that won’t let us live in the cellar—a church that accepts us as we are, extending God’s amazing grace, but at the same time, lifting the bar and challenging us and helping us to be better.

I remember once asking an elder to write a stewardship letter to the congregation I was serving at the time. I said: “Keep it light.” He didn’t listen. The letter consisted of two sentences: “Never take the church for granted. A lot of people, beginning with Jesus, broke their hearts and lost their lives to give it to you.” Not light, but true. Yes, we can celebrate the fact that it is the church which through the centuries has secured, defended and exalted the worth, value and dignity of every single person. I love the church Personal, the Church Individual.

And I love the Church Inevitable.

Let’s face it, the church is inevitable. It isn’t going to go away. The church is in every nation on the face of the earth. It’s in every state of the Union. It is in every city, every town, every country hamlet. One and a half billion people on the face of this earth belong to the organized institutional church. It is both the largest and the oldest institution in the world.

The church is inevitable. People have always been prophesying that it would die. In 1812, John Keats said: “It’s going out like an old lamp.” A few year later, Voltaire said: “It won’t last 50 years”—and 50 years later the house in which Voltaire spoke that sentence was owned by the church and was being used as a distribution center for Bibles! Hitler said he could crush the church whenever he wanted to because it was “hollow and rotten within”. Yet Albert Einstein, himself a Jew, would say after the war that the only institution in Germany which never fully bowed the knee to Hitler was the Church of Jesus Christ.

So the church is inevitable. Nothing can ever stop it or kill it. It’s unswerving march through human history will continue. Why? Because the church belongs to Jesus Christ. It is “the church our Blessed Redeemer saved with His own precious blood.” It is Christ who banded people together in the church. It is Christ who channeled individual streams into one mighty river of faith. It is Christ who took the warp and woof of different people’s lives—their triumphs and their tragedies and so involved them with one another that they could withstand the shock of crucifixion, the agony of extended persecution, the frailties of many of their own members, and the seemingly unending series of setbacks and discouragements. So it is Christ’s church. It is not your church or mine—it’s His. And because it is His, it will never die. We can count on that. The church will march like a mighty army through human history until the day when Christ returns. Yes, I love the Church Inevitable.

And I love the Church Invincible.

Harry Emerson Fosdick tells about a man riding on a bus in New York City. They passed a church which was being torn down. Two walls had been knocked away. The man looked at that and said: “The first time I’ve seen the inside of a church in 25 years!” Well, I would like to have met that man because there are some things I would like to have asked him—things like: “Do you believe that America’s only hope as a nation is a renewal of her spirit?” I think he probably would have said: “Yes”. And, “Do you believe that the world’s only hope is for people to genuinely love, respect and be concerned about each other?” He probably would have answered: “Yes”. And, “Do you believe that in the face of the immorality which is tearing apart our society and undermining the things we believe in, that the moral standards and the ethical behavior advocated by Jesus hold the key to the future?” He probably would have said “Yes”. And at that point I would have asked: “If you believe those things, then how can you so easily separate yourself from the one institution on the face of the earth which has a real chance of achieving those things?”

Or let me come at this from a different direction. I learned long since that my mind is not wise enough to comprehend the vast ocean of God’s grace, my heart is not big enough to encompass the broad expanse of God’s love. I need people—I need God’s people. I need people who have dramatic conversion experiences to tell me about them. I need people who have spent all of their lives in the arms of the Lord to help me find the way. I need people with a social conscience to say: “As a Christian why aren’t you doing something about this?” I need mystics who will lift me up on the wings of their prayers. I need children and young people who will love me in the Lord and who will be open enough to let me love them in return. I need older people who have lived longer and suffered more to teach me the value of living and the meaning of faith in the face of death. I need people who have my hand in their one hand and the hand of God in their other. For if I am to play my part in making the triumphant dream of Christ for His world come true, then I need the love, the support, and the forgiveness of the people of God—and where shall I find those people but in the church?

Have you ever wondered why dictators always hit out against the church? Other institutions they can tolerate, but not the church. Why? They want to enslave people, but the church is the treasure-house of freedom. They want to dominate and intimidate people, but the church is in the business of making people stand tall. They want to crush the world with armed force, but the church is engaged in winning the world through gracious love. They want to be all over the world and they can’t stand the spectacle of the church which is already all over the world. That’s why dictators so forcefully attack the church. It’s because they not only scorn it, they fear it! I am reminded of what Theodore Beza once said to the King of France. He said: “Sire, it is given to the church to receive blows rather than to give them, but I would remind you that a good anvil wears out many hammers.” I love the Church Invincible.

So…

The question is: Can one be a Christian and not belong to the church? The answer is: Salvation comes not from the church but from Jesus Christ. That’s the right answer, but you see, that’s not the right question. Here is the right question: Can you be a better Christian without belonging to the church? I have never known anyone to answer that question “yes”. So I love the church and if I didn’t have the church I would be like a soldier without an army, a tuba player without an orchestra, an explorer without a base camp, a bird without a nest, a child without a family. I love the church. I echo Timothy Dwight’s thoughts about the church:

For her my tears shall fall.
For her my prayers ascend,
To her my cares and toils be given,
Till toils and cares shall end.

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