Opinion

The body of Christ: why you need the church

There is a theological trend I see among evangelicals broadly, but more specifically in JBU students.
It ranges from students who really don’t go to church at all and just read their Bible, to students who
go maybe once a month but place things like sports as a higher priority, to students who go every
week but don’t go to one church consistently. This isn’t just a freshman phenomenon. I’ve met
juniors and seniors who haven’t gone to the same church for longer than six weeks. These groups of
people, in different ways, are communicating the same thing: “I don’t need the church.” However,
the church isn’t necessary for just your spiritual health but your salvation as well.
St. Cyprian, third-century theologian and Bishop of Carthage, wrote the famous phrase, “Extra
Ecclesiam nulla salus,” which means “No salvation outside the church.” While one does not need to
be a visible member of the church to be saved—nor is your salvation guaranteed if you are a visible
member of the church—the salvific grace of Christ only comes through the church. While you are
saved by grace, that grace is filtered through the visible and universal body of Christ. As St. Cyprian
also wrote, “No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.”
This quote stems from two theological principles: a) Christ came to establish the Church, b) The
Church is the means by which Christ saves people.
The first point, I think, will be the least controversial for most Christians. Christ commissioned the
12 apostles as leaders in the church and “gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal
every disease and sickness” (Matt. 10:1). After his resurrection, he sent them out to “go and make
disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy
Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). He didn’t
just have them serve as his assistants while he was here on earth. He trusted them to spread the
gospel and teach his message.
More than that, however, he conferred on them special authority. He calls St. Peter the rock and
said he’ll build his church on him. In addition to being an important disciple in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus
grants him special powers, saying, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you
bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”
(Matt. 16:19). This isn’t exclusive to Peter. Christ grants similar authority to the other apostles,
saying, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not
forgiven” (Jn. 20:23).
So not only do the apostles have teaching authority, but they have the authority to act in place of
Christ in some sense. Put another way, if Christ is the shepherd and we the sheep, then the apostles
are the sheepdogs, still under the authority of the shepherd but separate from the sheep in some sense
as they help the shepherd tend the flock.
This leads to the more controversial point about the church being the means by which we receive
salvific grace. In reference to the sacrament of baptism, Christ says, “No one can enter the kingdom
of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:5). In preaching after Pentecost, St. Peter
echoes Christ in saying to the crowd, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of
Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). St. Paul makes a connection between
baptism and circumcision by writing, “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not
performed by human hands” but instead “by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in
which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God” (Col 2:11-12). Thus,
as circumcision was the sign of the old covenant, baptism is the sign of the new. You can’t baptize
yourself. Even our Lord, in setting an example for us, went to his cousin to be baptized.

While there’s obvious outliers (such as the penitent thief), it would seem the church is generally
necessary for salvation. I’m not trying to call anybody out. College is a time of transition, and it can
be hard to find firm footing. I’m a bad Christian in a lot of ways: I don’t pay attention during chapel,
and I do homework up in the balcony. Half the time I get up on Sunday mornings out of a sense of
obligation more than any actual desire. But I still go and have been going consistently to the same
church for the past two years.
So my question is, if I, a mediocre believer by all accounts, can find a way to get involved at a
local Christian community, what’s the excuse of those who are truly “on fire for the Lord” but who
go to a different church every week?