Ecclesiology, Theology

What’s the Big Deal About Going to Church

What’s the big deal about church attendance? Does church membership even really matter? That appears to be the as we witness a seeming rapid decline in recent years.

Some of it is, perhaps, not surprising. One might expect a sharp decline in attendance in recent years, like the 6% drop that occurred between 2019 and 2021. In the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic churches were closed, some struggled to go digital having never expected to leave the analog world. Roadblocks were placed in front of in person worship, even when social distancing was observed, and as things began to slowly open up again, there were many who just didn’t necessarily come back.

It’s not simply COVID though. The decline has been years in the making. For example, Gallup, which has been tracking church membership in the United States since 1937, noted last year that for the first-time membership has dropped below 50%. Up until roughly the beginning of the 21st century this number hovered somewhere around 70%. Then it began its decline, now sitting at around 47%.

The truth is that there are any number of reasons for those dropping numbers, each a discussion in and of themselves. Some of them are incredibly valid reasons bore out of a place of hurt, and pain, or out of the loss of a sense of community in the church. Churches, bodies comprised of flawed humans prone to mistakes, miscalculations, and poor judgment, can cause pain and sorrow that chase people away. Though this is not the case in every instance, we can’t discount the effect that this has had on church memberships. People, hurt people, leave, and vow they will never come back.

But the reason why people leave is a broader topic, another discussion for another day. The question is can we ignore, even forsake fellowship? Is church attendance and membership no real big deal when it comes right down to it? These are particularly relevant questions in our present day and age where we can stream our services, listening to sermons on the go. No longer constrained to geographic boundaries we can listen to a pastor we particularly enjoy anywhere in the country or the world whenever we want without disrupting our life. Suddenly we can sleep in or take the kids to travel games on Sunday and still feel like we are, on some level, still doing church.

Yet, this is an incredibly dangerous practice, an incredibly dangerous mindset for the Christian to slip into. The reality is that the church, as a fellowship, is incredibly important to the believer for their spiritual growth, maturity, development, and safety. Church is one of those absolute necessities for the disciple of Christ, not only that they may properly worship God in communion with other believers, which is the most important reason, but for their own security.

The Danger of Being One:

What we have to recognize is that the dangers, they are plenty. This world, it is filled with threats which we, often times, can’t even really see. They surround us, and detached, distant from the flock of Christ, they become even more prevalent even if we don’t recognize their apparent presence in our lives. Slowly, and surely, they chip away at us, and our faith, when we are determined to live the solitary existence, or believe that we can exist apart from the flock of Christ, as if it were somehow a mere suggestion more than anything else.

As I think about this my mind goes to one of the most often recited parables of Christ. This is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. (Matt. 18:12-14; Lk. 15:3-7) In this story Jesus tells of the shepherd who, in noticing one of his sheep has wandered away, leaves his flock of ninety-nine remaining to find the lost. It’s a beautiful tale of the love that the shepherd has, rejoicing as he carries the one who has strayed home on his shoulders.

We look at this story as one of redemption and restoration, the answer of our Savior, the Good Shephard, to the Pharisees and religious leaders who would question why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners, the unclean who rejected by righteous society, the subject of their scorn. Yet, there is another element to this story as well, one that we must rightly consider. This is namely why the shepherd leaves the flock of ninety-nine to seek out and bring back the one who is lost.

There is a danger to be out in the world alone, away from the flock. The apostle Peter describes this danger in his first epistle, reminding the reader that our adversary the devil is out there, walking about, prowling as he seeks those whom he can devour. (1 Pet. 5:8) Any who watches the nature channel or has seen a documentary about lions recognize that the lion prefers to hunt the one who has wandered away from the flock or the herd, lurking in the grass, hidden away until the perfect time to pounce, and capture his prey.

The lone Christian, separated from the flock, the church, makes easy prey for the devil. They aren’t receiving the nourishment and the protection of the shepherd who cares for them. Instead, they are isolated without the defenses that they need in a hard, harsh world filled with hazards and perils, risks and threats. They are subjected to the elements around them that would subject them to harm and hurt as they find that there is little shelter or comfort to protect them.

We are told of the importance of fellowship, of the edify, nourishing, uplifting nature of fellowship, of the accountability and care that it brings because it is important. Left alone we are weak and vulnerable, even if we refuse to recognize it. It is why the Parable of the Lost Sheep is a parable of restoration, because if the lost sheep could go it alone there would be no need for the shepherd to go after him and return him to safety.

But God is Everywhere:

But we aren’t really going it alone. After all, God is everywhere, so He is always with us. We don’t really need church for fellowship because we can have fellowship with God anywhere.

This is an argument I’ve heard used many times over the years. The truth is that we are exceptionally blessed because we can practice the presence of God wherever we are, in whatever we are doing. We have the Scriptures readily available in any translation we want. We can hold a physical bible in our hands, or we can download an app to our phone or tablet and carry it wherever we want.

More than that, God is, indeed, everywhere. His qualities, His presence, His divine nature, and eternal power, they are shown in all that He has created. (Rom. 1:19-20) The glory of God is declared from the heavens. (Ps. 19:1-4) Yet, as Paul reminds us, these are invisible attributes. In that, we are reminded of the words of Augustine of Hippo who wrote in his letters, “Invisible things are seen in a special and appropriate way. When they are seen they are much more certain than the objects of the bodily sense, but they are said to be invisible because they cannot be seen by mortal eyes.”

God is everywhere, but He chooses to reveal Himself in certain ways and certain places. One of the key ways He does this is through His Word, and where His Word is preached in truth and purity.

In Hebrews we are given the admonition not to forsake the assembly, not to neglect meeting together. (Heb. 10:25) Why? Because to we are to gather in order that we may, communally, receive what God has, ultimately given us. Here, we see the visible presence of the invisible that surrounds us, our eyes open to the heavenly in faith and hope, as God unveils for us. By forsaking, or abandoning the assembly, by removing ourselves from it, we not only neglect the Gospel, we close our eyes to it, finding it easier to slowly move away from it, drifting from a life with God.

To claim then that we do not need church because we God is everywhere, is to claim the presence of God in one area, but to miss, and neglect God in another. It is to step away from that place where He has chosen to clearly reveal Himself in the blessed communion that He offers through the bride of Christ. One cannot legitimately say that they desire to worship God where He reveals Himself if they are not willing to come to the place where He does truly reveal Himself. They cannot forsake the visible presence, saying that the invisible will be enough without some measure of a cost to themselves.

Love for God and Love for Your Neighbor:

What’s more is that church, and how we worship in church, represents two fundamental directions, namely the vertical and the horizontal. The horizontal is how we honor God. As we direct our praise upwards we are seeking those things which are above. (Col. 3:1-2) In this sense, what we are pursuing what Christ himself refers to as the greatest commandment, namely that we love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. (Matt. 22:37)

There is another element of the greatest commandment though. This is, namely, that we love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matt. 22:39) Our membership and our participation in the body of Christ is one of the ways in which we fulfil this commandment, living together in community with one another, blessing tone another, praying with one another, joined together in one heart joined together horizontally, but directed upwards vertically.

How? Well, the simple answer is multifold. It is reflected in what we are doing together, and how we are doing it. This is namely edifying and uplifting each other, (1 Cor. 14:12) holding each other to account, restoring them in a spirit of gentleness and love, (Gal. 6:1) giving witness to the larger community, including the unbeliever (1 Cor. 14:16) and offering instruction in righteousness and pure doctrine. (1 Tim. 4:11-14) In this sense, each believer, in worship, as a part and a portion of the church, represents a part of God’s temple which, then, comes together in order to glorify Him, and magnify His Spirit to others.

This horizontal element which is essential to our relationship with our neighbor is reflected throughout the Scripture as well. Consider Paul in his writing to the church in Ephesus. He tells them that they are to be filled with the Spirit. One of the ways in which this is manifested in how they address one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Eph. 5:18-19) This, in turn, shows us how our faith is not simply an individual expression, but one which exists as part of a larger community, reminding us that to love God is to love one another, to worship God is to worship with one another, and to live in communion with God is to live in community with one another.

Now, none of this is to say that we must join a church, or we must attend a church regardless of what that church says and does. The truth is that we need to show discernment and wisdom, and we must prayerfully consider what that church does, what it believes and how it honors God. The reason why is because there are a number of churches out there that have false teachers, or toxic cultures that can hinder our spiritual growth. There are a number of churches out there that offer up false doctrine and false teaching which can confuse us.

Yet, this reality does not free us from the obligation that we have to find a true, Bible-believing, Christ preaching, God honoring community that will help us grow spiritually as we seek to praise and glorify our God. We are building blocks, built together on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ as our chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:10-22) We find our completion when we are part of the greater whole. It is when we are joined together in unity, bound together in love for the glory of God that our purpose is ultimately fulfilled. We must live like this, recognizing that we are no longer strangers, but rather a family in the household of God, who we are the adopted children of through the atoning work of Christ Jesus.

So yes, church attendance is important, as is church membership. It is essential to who we are in Christ. Nothing in this world, or of this world can replace that fact. The sooner we recognize that the sooner we can center our priorities and recognize that our churches must be the focal point of our understanding of what community must be and must look like, recapturing a deeper peace which comes through living in communion with one another.

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Apologetics

Is There a Biblical Case for Abortion?

How should the Christian view abortion? That seems to be a question that’s asked more and more in our society today, particularly as Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood dominate the news cycle. There are a lot of competing voices out there, and, in many instances, it can sow considerable confusion.

 

Yet this isn’t one of those issues where there is room for confusion, nor is it one of those topics which are up for debate. It is not an issue that exists somewhere in the grey area in between black and white, a maybe in the grander question of right or wrong. It is a sin regardless of the dominant assumptions or the present secular worldview that seems to take hold of the world around us. 

 

Now, even as I write this, I realize that there are some out there who will vehemently disagree with me. What’s more, is that they will point to some of the so-called mainstream “Christian” denominations, church bodies that have not only adopted a pro-abortion stance but that go as far as to bless abortion clinics as their examples. These are, after all, large groups which, while professing faith in Christ, have brought themselves to the forefront of the discourse, and, in doing so, have sought to add legitimacy to those advocating for the murder of unborn children.

 

Scripture, after all, is silent on this issue, they will argue, nor does it say that life begins at conception, or that the child in the womb should be considered a human. They will present carefully crafted statements that confirm their bias before outright dismissing anyone who disagrees with them as embracing an oppressive, patriarchal theology that seeks to rob women of their dignity and bodily autonomy. This, they say, is contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

 

What perhaps adds more confusion is the fact that there are many Pastors who have chosen to keep silent on this issue in the name of unity. When pressed on whether pro-life positions should be pushed, or pro-abortion candidates should be rejected, they will say it’s not as simple as that. Why? Because, though they embrace a pro-life position, they have come to accept the idea that it can peacefully co-exist beside a pro-abortion one without any inherent tension. Thus they are willing to compromise on the matter, never quite understanding that each compromise pushes the discussion further to the extreme as ideas such as “safe, legal, and rare” are cast aside and the post is moved to abortion on demand without limits until the moment of birth.

 

 All of this points to the fact that we need to have a better understanding of what Scripture says, and what it, ultimately, teaches us on the matter of life and abortion. There are, after all, any number of misconceptions and misrepresentations that are presented as, somehow, someway being fact.

 

Scripture Life Begins with the First Breath:

 

The idea that “Life begins with the first breath” is a common argument that is used as of late. It stems from the creation account as it is told in Genesis. In chapter 2, verse 7 the reader is told, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” That portion of the passage, where it states that “God… breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” is central to their argument because it is precisely at that moment that we are told that man becomes a living creature.

 

Here is the inherent problem with this argument: it’s based on a poor understanding of Scripture, and an even worse understanding of what is actually happening in this portion of the creation narrative. In other words, it’s wrong, and it’s wrong on many levels.

 

First, even from a cursory glance at the text, one notices a key problem. This is, namely, that the text itself speaks of God breathing into the nostrils of Adam. It makes absolutely no mention of Adam, himself, drawing breath himself. As such, what is recognized is the fact that life, it is not determined by when man acts. Rather, life is determined when God acts. Thus, it is for God Himself, and no one else, to determine when and where life begins.

 

The second problem is the fact that this text is what would be considered descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Let me explain: when we consider the Bible, we can divide the text into two general categories. The first is descriptive, this is the act of describing something that happened. The second is prescriptive, this teaches how something should happen. The creation narrative is telling the story of how everything came into being, not how everything will continue to come into being after the fact. It is a singular event, unique in its nature and its scope.

 

To say Genesis 2:7 is somehow prescriptive is to venture onto the stage of the theater of the absurd because it means that the entirety of the creation account is prescriptive as well. Children are not born to their mothers. Rather, they are formed out of the dust of the ground as fully grown adult males. Women, likewise, to be considered a woman, must be taken from the rib of a man while he is caused to sleep, otherwise, she is not considered to be a woman.

 

This, of course, leads to the next problem, which is the question of what this breath of life is. There is serious Old Testament scholarship that argues that the breath of life itself, that which God breathed into the nostrils of Adam, must be considered the soul. The word in Hebrew that concludes the passage, לְנֶפֶשׁ, does not need to be translated as “creature”, as it is in the English Standard Version. It could just as easily be translated as “Soul.” That was how the Early Church viewed it as well. Gregory of Nazianzus, in his Dogmatic Hymns, would express it like this, “The soul is the breath of God, a substance of heaven mixed with the lowest earth”, while Tertullian, in his treatises On the Soul would state that the souls origin would come from the breath of God.

 

To understand Genesis 2:7 as, somehow, someway, an argument that life only begins outside the womb is to grossly misread and misunderstand the passage. It is to rip it out of context and apply to it a meaning that was never intended for it.

 

The Only Mention the Bible Makes of Abortion is How to Perform One:

 

This is another argument that has gained enormous popularity as of late. It is based on a reading again from the Pentateuch. This time the passage is found in the fourth book of Moses, which we more commonly refer to as Numbers. In Chapter 5, from verses 11 through to 31, there is a test that is given for women who are caught in adultery. The passage itself is a long one, but the gest of it is that if a husband suspects his wife of adultery but has no proof, he is to bring her to the priest with a grain offering. The Priest will then take holy water in an earthenware vessel, place dust from the floor in it, and set the woman before the Lord, unbinding her hair as she holds the offering. At that point, she will make an oath before drinking the water.

 

The eventual effect, we read, is one of two things will happen. If she was unfaithful, her womb will swell and her thighs will fall, and she will become cursed. If she was not, then she will be considered clean and will be free to conceive a child.

 

This passage, unlike the previous, was, in fact, prescriptive, rather than descriptive, at least for the children of Israel. A law, it was something that was lived out. Yet, to understand this passage as a description of how to perform an abortion is, again, a gross misreading of it.

 

What is apparent to the reader of this text is that there are other forces at work than simply the Priest. These forces extend beyond simple nature. This is reflected in the fact that all the woman must drink is holy water with dust from the ground in it. It was not a special concoction or a special brew. That, in and of itself, is telling. The reason why is because, coming out of Egypt, there would be little question that they would have known what an abortion was and how to perform it. It was, after all, something that was described in the Ebers Papyrus.

 

The writings on that ancient Egyptian document laid out herbal drinks that would be swallowed and certain cleansing activities that would have to be performed. Nowhere did it describe drinking dirt water and unbinding one’s hair. Containing any number of different medical treatments that were prevalent for the period, its writings on abortion laid out herbal beverages that had to be drank and activities related to female anatomy. This vastly differed from the idea of drinking dirt water and unbinding one’s hair.

 

The language doesn’t lend itself to the idea of an abortion. Rather it references a curse, to divine action. If the woman is guilty then there will be an effect, and she will become cursed among her people. If she is innocent then nothing will happen to her, she will be free to conceive. God judges if a secret sin is committed and God acts according to His statutes.

 

The Scriptures are Silent on When Life Begins:

 

This represents perhaps one of the most longstanding, and pervasive myths that is used to justify the idea of a Christian pro-abortion opinion. Simply put, it states that Christians are reading into the text the belief that life begins in the womb when there is nothing to support it. One may point to Psalm 139, which states, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Ps. 139:13-14) That, though, the abortion advocate will argue, is purely symbolic, poetic language.

 

This is a common technique that is used to discredit. It’s a game that’s played in order to move the target as it were. It doesn’t matter that the Christian faith has, historically, recognized this as being an expression of how God fashioned us. Ambrose of Milan, for example, described it as the Lord God supporting us from the moment that He fashioned us, and decreed that we would be born, pointing then to Jeremiah 1:5 to support this concept. Despite the fact that Psalm 139 reflects an incredibly personal reflection of existence, reflecting God’s knowledge, and power, His presence in the life of the individual, it is said not to count, and should be discarded out of hand.

 

At any rate, that doesn’t account for Jesus, and the fact that he never mentioned when it was that life began, they would go on to argue. Never mind the simple fact that Jesus would have a deeper understanding of the Old Testament, the deepest understanding of it, being the Word made flesh, present with God as the only begotten son before time began. (Jn. 1:1-18) If it is not directly mentioned in the New Testament, and, in particular, the Gospels, which account for the life of Christ, it doesn’t matter.

 

Yet, what doesn’t seem to be accounted for is the accounts that are found in the earliest chapters of the Gospels. In Matthew 1:18, for example, it states that Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. The text here makes no distinction between a life in the womb and a life outside of it, recognizing that it is indeed a child. Luke’s account of the nativity narrative, likewise, uses similar language, not just for Mary, the mother of Jesus, but for Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, as well.

 

Luke’s account will go further though. It’s in the first chapter that the reader finds an interesting account of when Mary went to visit her cousin. There, as she entered the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, we read that the child that Elizabeth was carrying leaped in the womb even as she was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Lk. 1:39-40) Her natural response was then to recognize the blessing that was bestowed on Mary and to praise the child that was in her womb. (Lk. 1:42)

 

The presence of Jesus is what is most apparent in this portion of the text. It is all a fundamental reaction and response to nothing less than the full presence of God made flesh. God made flesh, the Word made flesh is not some distant presence that will come forth only after Mary gives birth, and he draws his first breath, somehow, someway, something different while in the womb than he will be outside of it. God made flesh is, indeed, the child who is in the womb.

 

To argue then that this child in the womb was somehow not human, or somehow simply a parasite feeding off the mother, which is often the argument being presented by those advocating for abortion in order to justify the killing of the child, is to argue that there was a point when Christ was not fully human or fully God, which, in turn, rejects one of the fundamental, foundational tenants of the Christian faith.

 

Yet, if we properly understand that Jesus was fully human at the point of His conception then we recognize that all children, from the point of conception forward, are indeed fully human as well. This is due to the fact that Christ came to live the full scope of the human experience with absolutely no exception. He would be born as man was, live as he lived, be tempted as he was tempted, before dying as the great propitiation for our sins. The only core differences would be in how he would be conceived, the sinless life he would live and his eventual resurrection, conquering sin, death, and the devil, and, even that resurrection would pave the way for our blameless life, redeemed by His blood, and our own eventual resurrection.

 

Christianity is, by its nature, a pro-life, anti-abortion religion. Any attempt to cast it differently is not only an attempt to re-write and recast the Scriptures but also a rejection and repudiation of them. It is that simple.

 

Yes, there will always be those who seek to reframe the Scripture, just as there always have been. They are those who seek to confirm their own biases by taking the clear teachings which are found in the Word, tearing them out of context, and reshaping them, whittling away at passages and verses until they can fit the square peg into the round hole. The problem is that, at that moment, it ceases to be the Word of God anymore, and becomes the teaching of men cloaked in biblical language, manipulating, and deceiving the believer as they find that they are led down a heretical path.

 

Lord, we pray that You protect us from such a dangerous direction, keeping us then steadfast in Your Word. Amen.

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