Is Church Attendance Required?

Is Church Attendance Required?

The following is an essay by Aaron Sabie, an elder at Sovereign King Church.  It was written for a class at New Geneva Academy, a pastor's college associated with Evangel Presbtery.  I thought it was timely in light of several people considering skipping the Lord's Day gathering because of Christmas falling on a Sunday.  I have said that skipping church on Christmas day is like skipping out on a friend's birthday part so that you can stay home and celebrate his birthday without him.  This essay of course deals with more than just missing one Sunday but details the importance of being committed to attending and participating in the local church.  I commend it to you for your edification and exhort you to attend your church's Lord's day gathering not only only Christmas but every Sunday.  
Pastor Joseph Spurgeon
      Living as a Christian in America during the last decade has taught me that there are a wide range of opinions which shape what it means culturally, to be a Christian. Historic theological and doctrinal debates notwithstanding, one particular opinion stands out from the rest as being of a kind which clearly removes one from the camp of orthodoxy and even from Christendom altogether. Challenging its practitioners is difficult, as much of modern evangelicalism seems to offer an emboldening wink and nod to this practice, with swollen membership roles standing in stark contrast to dwindling Lord's day attendance[1].

      The issue at hand is the idea that one can identify with the Church, declaring "I am a Christian", while simultaneously removing oneself from the life of the Church, e.g. Lord's Day worship, the preaching of the word, the sacraments, fellowship of the saints, corporate prayer and other practices which are highlighted in Holy writ as being vital to both the individual Christian, and the entire Body of believers.

Regarding the idea of separating oneself from the Church, former Pastor Tim Bayly of Trinity Reformed Church Says:
I'm not denying that Jesus loves individual members of the Church and gave Himself up for them. But He redeemed them individually from their sins to incorporate them in His Bride. Because Jesus gave Himself up for the Church, no individual ever has safety outside the Church.[2]

Unfortunately for these churchless Christians, neither God's Holy Word nor Church history supports this schismatic practice. In fact, as will be shown in what follows, the habit of forsaking the gathering together with the saints is one which has damaging effects on the Church, the individual churchless Christian, and the society at large. Though exceptions to the rule exist, those will not be the focus of this study.

Matters to be considered will include the following:
Biblical Mandate for Church membership, attendance, and participation
Historical Precedent regarding Church membership, attendance, and participation
Consequences of neglecting the gathering together with the Saints

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
— Hebrews 10:23-25[3]

      The search for answers regarding the issue of Church membership, attendance, and participation must begin where the Church is first conceptualized, and that is within the pages of God's Holy Word.

The preceding passage of Scripture from Hebrews chapter ten highlights a presupposition found all throughout the pages of the Bible: there is a gathering of the saints which one identified with Christ must not neglect. It seems that proponents of a "Church-optional" Christianity have obliterated the necessary, vital existence of the visible church (made up of all who profess faith, their families, and all gatherings of Christians united under a confession of faith in Jesus Christ, which includes both wheat and tares as described by Christ in Matthew 13:24-30) in the false belief that  one's inclusion in the invisible church (made up of all God's elect past, present, and future) is all that really matters. While it is true, as Matthew Henry suggests in his Commentary on the whole Bible[4], that there are times for both private and public gatherings: one cannot be favored or neglected over the other, as both have much to offer to the life of a Christian, and are issues of obedience to Christ (John 14:15) rather than preference.

      In Hebrews 10 we see the hope of Christians (vs 23), the love of Christians (vs 24), and the good works which flow from that love (vs 24), connected to the practice of not forsaking the gathering together (vs 25). This gathering together spoken of in verse 25 is not some incidental encounter. The substance of this word does not allow for chance meetings akin to passing your Chiristian wife in the hallway to qualify as the gathering together spoken of in Hebrews 10.

     The english word "gathering", translated from the greek word episunagoge, literally means "a gathering in one place; the (religious) assembly (of Christians)”[5]. Episunagoge would have been a very familiar term understood by Jewish converts in the first century, as it has at its core the idea of the Synagogue (sunagoge), a physical place where Jews would gather for worship (see Matthew 5:6, Mark 1:29, Luke 4:15, John 18:20). The idea that Jews would have conducted "synagogue" in the privacy of their own home, separated from the rest of the congregation, is an absurd notion foreign to Scripture. A physical gathering is clearly in view, but there is another dimension to consider.

John Calvin when commenting on the word episunagoge says:
Epi signifies an addition, and therefore episunagoge has the force of a congregation increased by new additions. By pulling down the barrier (Eph 2:14), God added to His children (those who gathered at the synagogue, emphasis mine) those who had been aliens from the Church; thus the gentiles were a new and unaccustomed addition to the Church.[6]

      This addition which Calvin refers to, the inclusion of the Gentiles in worship at the synagogue, would have been an offense to the Jews, hence the need for the admonition to not neglect gathering together. An objection to this may be “This ‘gathering’ is addressing the issue of harmony between the Jewish converts and Gentiles. No such situation exists today, therefore we can conclude that this was a culturally specific mandate, and has no bearing in 2022.” This is an untenable position given some of the reasons which unchurched Christians cite for not gathering together such as: “too many hypocrites in the Church”, “I don’t like the song selection”, “no youth programs”, and “I don’t see eye to eye with so and so”. If the author of Hebrews under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit recognized that the importance of gathering together overrode any ethnic or historical conflicts between Jew and Gentile, surely petty reasons like the aforementioned have no credibility.

      Christians gather, because they hope. The hope of Christians flows from our faith (Hebrews 11:1) and is firmly rooted in the finished work of Jesus Christ. To understand how hope relates to membership, attendance and participation in the visible Church, one must come to grips with what it is that Christ did for the Church. Romans 5:8-11 tells us that Christ died for us (the Church), justified us (the Church) by His shed blood, reconciled us (the Church) by His death to God though we were enemies, and saved us (the Church) by His resurrection. These truths serve as the basis for the hope that is within us (the Church), and are what connects all believers together in Christ, all being a part of what Scripture refers to as the Body of Christ, which consists of many members (Romans 12:4, 5). Christ our hope suffered, bled, and died for us. A proper response is one of praise, adoration, worship, and obedience.

      The New Testament is full of language which alludes to the idea of believers being united together in a "body". One such text is found in 1 Corinthians 12. Here we see that the many members of this body are united together through baptism (vs 12) with anatomical language used to underscore how interconnected and reliant upon one another we ought to be, which is the substance of Christian love. As one Baptist preacher put it, "Love is an action, taken on behalf of an object (person), which is sometimes accompanied by emotion, that is meant for the good of the object."[7] This definition of love which is firmly rooted in God's Word (see story of the Good Samaritan[8]), removes the possibility of being disconnected from the gathering together of the saints.

      The foolishness of a foot, hand, ear, or eye (1 Corinthians 12:14-17) claiming to not be a part of the body because they are not one of the other parts is given as an example. This notion is recognized as foolish because we know intuitively that for the body to function in a healthy manner as it should, all the parts must fulfill their design and function, working together. We know that a finger not attached to the hand is virtually useless and dies, yet some Christians believe this is a viable way to live. Applied to people, who are individually a part of the whole "body", one can easily see how severing oneself from this spiritual body by neglecting to physically gather is not in keeping with the ideas of holding fast, love, and performing good works we see in Hebrews 10.

      F.F Bruce in his commentary[9] on the Epistle to the Hebrews suggests that the author's use of the greek word paroxysmos in verse 24, which is translated as "stimulate" or "provoke", serves a function that would be impossible to fulfill apart from the body of Christ. He goes on to say in regards to paroxysmos:

"This (paroxysmos) will never happen, however, if they keep one another at a distance."[10]

      To be totally absent from either the corporate gathering or private meetings, makes much of the New Testament irrelevant to the professing Christian.

Passages like the aforementioned 1 Corinthians 12, and Hebrews 10, as well as others like Hebrews 13, Matthew 25, James 2, Ephesians 4, 1 John 1 and 2, and many more all express the same sentiment: because of their profession of faith, and having been baptized into the same body, believers have a duty to be intimately, physically connected to one another. Christian love cannot be achieved without this connection.

 The edification ( 1 Cor 14: 3, 12, 26), service (Romans 12:1-7), bearing of burdens (Galatians 6:2), preaching of the gospel (1 Timothy 5:17), receiving of the sacraments (1 Corinthians 11:28, Romans 6:4), teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), providing for the needs of the saints (2 Corinthians 9:12, Romans 12:13), etc. are virtually impossible for the one not faithfully united with the visible Church, and would render much of the New Testament moot and impracticable to the severed Christian.

 Regarding the issue of receiving the sacraments (the administration of which is the sole responsibility of the Ministers of the Church), John Calvin says this:
First, we must understand what a sacrament is. It is an outward sign by which our Lord represents and testifies His goodwill toward us, in order to sustain and strengthen the weakness of our faith. Alternatively, it may also be defined as a testimony to God's grace, made visible by an outward sign. Here we see that the sacrament never exists without the Word of God preceding it, but that it is added to it as an appendix, designed to seal, confirm and more effectively certify it to us, since the Lord knows how much the ignorance of our mind and the infirmity of our flesh require it.[11]

      We see that the sacraments bolster our hope and faith, and from that flows Christian love and good works, shared with all in the body. The thoughtful and honest reader can easily conclude that it is clear from New Testament evidence alone that a Christian cannot live on a spiritual, religious island separated from the lives of other Christians.

      When conducting door to door evangelism or conversing with a coworker or family member regarding the issue of Church membership, attendance, and participation, something that is frequently cited as a reason for why they don't currently attend, have never attended, or don't need to attend, is the sentiment captured by the statement: "Church might work for you, that's fine. As for me, I don't need to go to Church in order to be a Christian."

      An article[12] in the Federalist suggests that as many as two-thirds of U.S Christians believe they do not need to attend Church.

The article goes on to suggest things like consumerism and American individualism as being factors in this, and I do not disagree.

The question is, has this always been an accepted, widespread practice among professing Christians? What might a cursory examination of Church history reveal?

Three examples from Church history will be cited to provide evidence which shows that a view which allows for a fragmented, broken, divided body of believers has not held a place of prominence in Christ's Church.

Example One: Eda and Ekklesia
      The O.T use of the Hebrew word Eda, translated into English as "congregation", means gathering, to appoint, or "to meet or come together at an appointed place."[13] Used 140 times in the O.T, Eda as found in its various contexts leaves little doubt that all of the O.T. Church were gathered. Consider the following examples which when taken in context show that rather than trying to worship at a distance or in isolation, congregations had the practice of gathering and assembling when:
The Passover was instituted (Exodus 12:3),
the Lord spoke to His people (Exodus 16:9),
Holiness was commanded (Leviticus 19:2), and Sabbath violators were to be punished (Numbers 15:35).

      Regarding the N.T. use of the Greek word Ekklesia, used 111 times, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament[14] defines it as "an assembly of citizens regularly convened", "the assembly, congregation, community of Israel ", and "an assembly or company of Christians". Jesus first used the word Ekklesia in Matthew 16:18 and applied it to those gathered around Him, who recognized Him as Lord, and affirmed His Kingdom principles[15]

      The manner in which these two words from the Old and New Testaments are used and their frequency of use, leave little room for doubt regarding the nature of the Church. We see in Scripture that one dimension of this  term refers to the invisible Church in all ages and places, the "whole body of the faithful"[16], all the elect past, present, and future: yet this truth cannot crowd out the more narrow principle that to be a member of the Church, a Christian, means to gather with other Christians in the context of a local church[17].

Example Two: The Creeds
      The Nicene Creed, penned around 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicea, was a document written primarily to rebut the error of Arianism, a direct assault upon the deity of Christ[18].  It was broader in its scope however, as we see God identified as the Creator, the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ along with His Kingdom reign, and we find within this document the following lines: "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church."

      This Creed was written by a gathering of Bishops: Pastors of local churches at the behest of Constantine I⁷. The significance of this cannot be overstated. These men gathered and articulated what the scriptures principally taught: the Church universal is made up of local churches, with local Pastors, and local members, all united under the teaching of the prophets and apostles found in the Old and New Testament canon (identification of already recognized NT texts was an additional priority of the Council of Nicea). Those doing so would be identified with the Catholic (universal) Church.

      Given the relatively close proximity to first century Christianity and its roots in Jewish culture (corporate worship at the synagogue and other OT Covenantal realities), it would have been highly unlikely to find many early Christians suggesting a Churchless, non-participatory , "no gathering required" form of Christianity.

Example Three: Confessions
      Statements which detail with more specificity what Christians believe in, confessions more thoroughly define the Christian's obligation of Church membership, attendance, and participation.

      Take for example the Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England. We read:
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.[19]

      Statements speaking about the "pure word of God being preached" and the administration of the sacraments are critical to this discussion and should not be passed by without examination.

Who was doing the preaching but ministers ordained by God?
Who was being preached to but those gathered for worship?
What sacraments? For what purpose were they administered, if not for the strengthening and edification of the gathered Church?

      When one is forced to answer these basic questions, the silly notion that Church membership, attendance, and participation are optional, falls quickly by the wayside.

      Let's turn to the preeminent confession of the Church, The Westminster Confession of Faith. Handed down in 1646 by an assembly of "Divines" (Puritan Ministers)[20]: this God-glorifying document gives an equally clear picture of the Church, its nature and purpose. In it we see language which likens the Church to Christ's spouse [21], the house and family of God[22], that it (the Church) is for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life[23], and involves the administration of the sacraments and public worship[24]. Nowhere in this document built upon a foundation of Scripture, a document held in high esteem by orthodox Christians for nearly 400 years, do we find even an inkling of a suggestion that Church membership, attendance, and participation are optional in nature.

      Consider the biblical language of the Church being likened to Christ's bride. What bride, with a husband who loved her, would find it acceptable to forsake her relationship with her husband and all the benefits of it? Only a harlot, a foolish woman would do this.

What husband would allow the wife whom he laid down his life for, who was "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh" (Gen 2:23), to abandon him in favor of her own counsel and other lovers?

Only a cuck.
Christ is no cuck, and the Church, His bride, is no whore.

      What we have seen thus far are the biblical and historical evidence which decisively refute the grave error of optional Church membership, attendance, and participation.

      What we will look at now are three consequences which naturally follow when this heretical practice flourishes:
Weakened Churches
Weakened Homes
Weakened Society

      Looking back to all the reasons previously cited, one need not look far to see how an "optional" view of membership, attendance, and participation as relates to the Church can seriously weaken the witness of the Church. One area of Church life which suffers when people separate from the Church is in how our sins are exposed and dealt with.

      Scripture tells us to "bear one another's burdens and thereby fulfill the Law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). We are told in James 5:20 to "let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins."

Regarding how Christ has mandated that His Church handle issues of sin, we see in Matthew 18 a string of principles, from the offended person going to the offender (Matt 18:15), the bringing of witnesses (Matt 18:16), and ultimately excommunication from the Church being an option exercised by the Pastors and Elders of (you got it) a Church (Matt 18:17) meant to 1) bring the unrepentant sinner to repentance, knowing that Godly sorrow leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10),  2) serve as a warning for others tempted to unrepentant sin (1 Timothy 5:20) and 3) For God's Glory[25] (1 Corinthians 10:31).

      One clear function of the Church which is rendered impossible apart from the regular gathering of the saints is how sin is dealt with in the Church among brothers and sisters individually, and the Church corporately.

       Solo Christians do not have the benefit of equally sinful yet loving, caring Christians knowing them intimately so as to call them to repentance when sin is present in their lives. This reality leaves the solo Christian in isolation, trapped in their own minds, and led by their own hearts, which Jerimiah 17:9 says is desperately sick and wicked. Romans 10:14 asks "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?" It is impossible to be loved by fellow Christians and to hear the preaching of God's Word from a Pastor who knows your sins and loves you, while sitting on the couch at home watching the 700 club. This serves to weaken the Church because it sows rebellion against the authority of the Church in the area of preaching and church discipline, and introduces potentially more rebellion, as weaker, younger Christians ask "Why can't I do that?" Additionally, a Pastor fearful of losing members may soften the preaching from the pulpit, rounding the sharp corners of God's Word so as to not offend people in the Church. This Pastor falls into the trap of merely tickling itching ears, which greatly diminishes the gospel witness of the Church in the world.

      Weakened Churches contribute directly to the reality of weakened homes. One way this may be displayed is in the role of men and women, husbands and wives in the home. That Pastor who was fearful of losing members stops preaching that husbands are the head of the home. Gone from his teaching is anything pertaining to the submission of a wife to her husband. Discipline of the children? No way, that may make the wife angry. So, as a result, that Pastor who softened his preaching because he lost some people and is now afraid to offend the ones that remain, who is the undershepherd of a now weakened Church, has contributed directly to the erosion of a father's authority in the home, making that home susceptible to collapse. An egalitarian husband, a modern feminist wife, and very independent,  strong willed children, despite all the accolades of the world, is a weak family incapable of fulfilling God's mandate for the family: Be fruitful, multiply, and take dominion (Genesis 1:28).

When the Church loses it's witness and the home is not on mission, these problems quickly make their way into culture.
Which leads us to our third example of the ramifications of solo, churchless Christians: a weakened society.

       Proverbs 29:18 tells us that "Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, But happy is he who keeps the law." Perhaps nowhere is this seen more clearly than when one turns their gaze upon the multitudes who have rejected their Creator. Unrestrained indeed.

      In a world void of faithful preaching and obedient men and women, seeking God's glory in all of life is replaced by consumerism, pleasure seeking, an endless appetite for entertainment, and other worldly desires prohibited by scripture (Titus 2:12). As Proverbs 29:18 warns us, and the nightly news shows us, the supplanting of God which takes place when one abandons the Church, in favor of the "lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life" (1 John 2:16) leads to an increase in divorce, abortion, STDs, violence, murder, and crime across the board[26]. For an illustration to bolster this point, consider the issue of out of wedlock births resulting in fatherless homes.

      A 2016 study[27] conducted by Yale University states that among 140,000,000 births worldwide, 20,000,000 were born out of wedlock (15%). The article goes on to say that this percentage varies wildly across "countries and regions", with some percentages of out of wedlock births as high as 60% in places like Mexico and other Latin American countries. In some European countries, like Sweden,  a "majority" of births are said to occur out of wedlock.

      The horrible effect this has on children is well documented, with one article[28] suggesting that "children who live without their biological fathers are, on average, at least two- to three-times more likely to be poor; to use drugs; to experience educational, health, emotional, and behavioral problems; to be victims of child abuse; and to engage in criminal behavior, than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents."

      When confronted by statistics and raw data such as this, it is easy to see how vital is the faithful preaching of Pastors, the faith and obedience of husbands and wives, and the impact that sin in these spheres of life has on the culture around us. "Alone, every man is picked off by Satan and devoured."[29]
   As has been shown, the idea of a Christian being separated from the Church by neglecting membership, attendance, and participation is a concept foreign to Scripture, absent from Church History, and has disastrous effects on society at large.

      While the world may allow for the practice of referring to anyone who makes any claim of allegiance to Christ a "Christian" who is a part of Christ's bride, God's Word is clear: there is no such category of Christian. Far from biblical, without any grounding in history, and having disastrous effects upon Church, home, and society, this practice can safely be categorized as a heretical teaching which was conceived in the minds of sinful, rebellious men as they do the work of their father the devil, and has never been taught by a single faithful Pastor in 2000 years of the N.T.  Church.

      "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." (Revelation 3:6)
Abbott-Smith. A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. Sourced from Tyndale House, Cambridge.
Bates, Josiah. Time, U.S. Crime, U.S. crime is still dramatically higher than before the pandemic,  July 29, 2022.
Bayly, Tim. Church Reformed. Warlord Media, 2019.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition. Eerdmans Publishing Co,  1996
Blog, ZA. Zondervan Academic blog, The Nicene Creed: where it came from and why it still matters,  March 9, 2018.
 Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews, Eerdmans Publishing Co
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin's own 'essentials ' Edition, Banner of Truth, 2014
Calvin, John. Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, Hebrews and 1 and 2 Peter, Eerdmans Publishing Co 1963.
Carter, Joe. The Gospel Coalition, 9 things you should know about out of wedlock births, November 3, 2018.
Chamie, Joseph. Yale Global,, Out of wedlock births rise worldwide, March 16, 2017.
Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the whole Bible, Complete and unabridged, Hendrickson Publishing, sixteenth printing 2006
Morris, Shane. The Federalist, Two-thirds of Americans think they don't need to attend Church- wrong, August 28, 2019.
NASB. The Lockman Foundation, 1995.
Thayer and Smith. "Greek Lexicon entry for Episunagoge". "The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon". . 1999.
The Thirty-nine articles of Religion as adopted by the Church of England
Westminster Confession of Faith. Published by The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005.
Wang, Wendy. Institute for Family Studies,The Decline in Church Attendance in COVID America, January 20, 2022.

End Notes
  [1] The Decline in Church Attendance in COVID America, article from Institute For Family Studies,
[2] Church Reformed, Tim Bayly p.15
[3] All Bible references are cited from the NASB 1995
[4] Matthew Henry's Commentary on the whole Bible Complete and Unabridged, Hendrickson publishers pp 2396
[5] Thayer and Smith. "Greek Lexicon entry for Episunagoge". "The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon". 1999.
[6] Calvin, John. Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, Hebrews and 1 and 2 Peter, Eerdmans Publishing Co 1963 p143.
[7] Voddie Bauchum
[8] Luke 10: 30-37
[9] Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews, Eerdmans Publishing Co, pp 256, 257.
[10]  Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews, Eerdmans Publishing Co, p 257.
[11] Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin's own 'essentials' edition, Banner of Truth 2014, p 561
[12] Morris, Shane. The Federalist, Two-thirds of Americans think they don't need to attend Church- wrong, August 28, 2019.
[13] Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition Louis Berkhof p.555
[14] Abbott-Smith. A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. Sourced from Tyndale House, Cambridge.
[15] Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition Louis Berkhof p.556
[16] Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition Louis Berkhof p.557
[17] Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition Louis Berkhof p.556
[19] Thirty-nine articles of Religion, Article 19
[20] Preface to The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms w/proof texts, PCA
[21] WCF Chapter 25 section 1
[22] WCF Chapter 25 section 2
[23] WCF Chapter 25 section 3
[24] WCF Chapter 25 section 4
[25] WCF Chapter 30 Of Church Censures
[29] Church Reformed, Tim Bayly p.17