For my final post in “the importance of the church” series, I would like to approach the subject from a somewhat different angle. I thought I would take something of an apophatic approach to the subject via the question, “Who does not go to church?” Perhaps in answering this question, we will also discover the New Testament expectation of who does go to church.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. James 5:14
The New Testament does not expect those who are physically unable to attend the normal meetings of the church. This is making an assumption based on James 5:14, but I think it is a pretty safe one. The apostle James instructs those who are sick to call for the elders. This seems to indicate that they sick person is not able to attend the church meetings. The picture this verse clearly presents is elders going to the location of a sick person; not a sick person going to the location of the elders. The Lord is tender and gracious; he remembers our frame, that we are dust. When a case is made for faithful church attendance by Christians, the old and infirm are often put forth as exceptions that are meant to destroy the argument. But those who are legitimately physically unable to attend are not expected to do so.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:1-2, 7
A second person who is not expected to go to church is the professing believer who is living in open, flagrant, abhorrent, unconfessed sin. In fact, the apostle Paul goes so far as to command the church at Corinth to not allow such a person to worship with them. The church is given an explicit command to exclude so-called brothers and sisters who are living in open sin. People who call themselves Christians, but continue to live a life dominated by sin do not go to church. In fact, they are not even to be allowed in the church meeting unless it is to repent.
In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul is teaching us that we cannot expect unbelievers to live like Christians, but we must expect Christians to live like Christians. A “Christian” who lives like an unbeliever dishonors the Lord and His church. It is the responsibility of the church to show to the surrounding community that such a person is not accepted as being a true believer.
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 1 Corinthians 5:11-12
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all… 1 Corinthians 14:23-24
1 Corinthians 5 also offers a third person who does not attend the church assembly: the unbeliever. As he offers his counsel to have nothing to do with so-called believers living in sin, Paul reminds the believers that this does not mean they should not have any contact with unbelievers. Sinning “believers” should be shunned and removed from the church, but sinning unbelievers should be evangelized and brought into the church. Later on in the same book, Paul again indicates that unbelievers are not expected to attend the assembly of the church. Paul’s repeated use of “if” in 1 Cor. 14:23-24 indicate that an unbeliever might come to the church meeting, but it should not be expected.
So from the negative perspective, these people do not go to church: the unable, the unfaithful, and the unbeliever. According to the New Testament, these are three kinds of people who are not expected to be in church on Sunday morning. So, turning this teaching around and looking at it from the opposite perspective; who is expected to be in church every Sunday morning? The able, the faithful, the believer. If “your” church is meeting and you are not there, one of these things must be true about you: you are unable (something in the circumstances of your life has physically prevented you from attending); you are unfaithful; you are an unbeliever.
In this entire series of posts my design has been to show that true Christians are faithful to attend and serve their local church. It has not been my intention to say that going to church makes someone a Christian. Such a statement has the matter exactly backwards. If I have ever said that going to church makes someone a Christian I repent in sackcloth and ashes. My point is that Christians go to church. This is the only reality the New Testament recognizes. The New Testament simply does not speak of someone who professes to be saved, is physically able to go to church, yet does not do so, and is still on “good terms” with God. For all intents and purposes we might as well speak of unicorns and centaurs.
Perhaps an illustration is in order. Summer is drawing to a close; autumn is approaching. For many people this can only mean one thing: football. Whether high school on Friday night, college on Saturday, or professional on Sunday; the next 5 months will be marked by football. Millions of people will attend football games. Millions of people will spend millions of dollars to do so. They will cheer, scream, and cry for their team. But they are not football players. Likewise, there are many people who go to church. There are many people who give their money and time to serve the church, but they are not Christians. Not everyone at a game is a football player. Not everyone at church is a Christian.
But let us suppose you were out for a drive some fine fall night when your school was playing and you saw some students who are not at the game. You would know this: they are not football players. Let us suppose you were out shopping some Sunday afternoon when your team was playing and saw a man 6’4” and 320 pounds. You might not know him, but you would know this: he is not a football player. How could you make this judgment? Because a football player would be at the game with his team. Going to a football game does not get you on the team, but if you are on the team you go to the game.
Going to church does not get you into heaven, but if you are going to heaven you will be with everyone else who is going.
For previous posts in this series see:
 The apophatic method, also known as the via negativa, asserts that positive statements of God’s identity cannot be made. Because God is incomprehensible and beyond our understanding, we cannot say what God is but only what God is not. While such a method is ultimately insufficient, it is a helpful reminder that things that are so can be discovered by knowing things that are not so.
 By “physically” I am speaking of the health of the body. But physically could also be applied in the related way of “providentially.” Obviously, it does not have to be sickness that prevents a person from attending the church meeting. I doubt the Lord expects the woman in labor to stop what she is doing so she can sing in the choir. Nor does it necessarily have to involve the health of the body at all. When believers are imprisoned for their faith, whether in Acts or today, they should not expect their captors to release them so that they might go to church. Sometimes, occasionally, things happen that truly prevent us from going to church. The Lord knows.
 In 2 Corinthians 2 Paul seems to be addressing this same situation, but after the man in question has repented of sin. Paul commands the church to welcome the man back into the assembly.