Can You Be a Christian Without Joining a Church?

by Spiros Zodhiates

"Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2).

You have probably heard it said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," and it is true that many churches have been founded as a result of persecution. When Paul, Crispus, and Sosthenes were excommunicated from the synagogue in Corinth because they believed that the historical Jesus was the Messiah, they moved next door to the house of Justus, thus establishing the first assembly of saints in Corinth (Acts 18:7). This was a cohesive group of believers who held a common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the eternally Anointed One, the Redeemer of the world.

This seems to be a universal pattern. Those who believe in Christ as He is revealed to us in God's Word are almost always ejected from the fellowship of those who do not acknowledge the same faith. The believers then form a band of saints who witness as a group and as individuals. If you are a believer in Christ, and thus a saint, you most certainly ought to belong to a group of saints, a church. Paul addresses his Corinthian epistle first to the church as a whole (te ekklesía), thus showing its importance for the fellowship of the saints, and then to the sanctified ones, the individuals constituting the church.

You hear people say, "Can't I be a Christian without joining the church?" Yes, it is possible, but it is something like being a student who will not go to school, a soldier who will not go to battle, a citizen who refuses to pay taxes or vote, a football player without a team, a scientist who does not share his findings, or a bee without a hive.

Saint of God, do not look down on the local church. Imperfect as it may be, it is still God's primary organizational unit for the benefit of all saints. Seek a local church where there are other saints of God. But just one word of warning: Only saints-that is, those who are in Christ-should be admitted to a Bible-believing church. They are the ones who constitute the church universal.

But lest anyone think that the saints have earned the right to that title by their own efforts, or have been so constituted by their fellow members, Paul adds two words, kletoís hagíois, "called to be saints." This actually qualifies "the church" at the beginning of the verse, "to the church of God which is at Corinth, to the sanctified ones in Christ Jesus, to the called saints." It is in the same dative case as "the church" and "the sanctified ones." It refers to the same people.

Throughout the New Testament, the believers in Christ are referred to as "the called ones," those who have received the invitation of Christ to repent and believe, and have obeyed Him. Paul is a "called" Apostle, and they are "called" saints. It is the same word in both instances. It refers among other things to their having experienced a radical change. Paul could not have become an Apostle without first having believed in Christ; and these saints could not have belonged to the church as saints without first of all becoming believers.

Since the word kletoís, "called ones," appears with the word hagíois, "saint," it must qualify it. As you read the English translation in the King James Version, you find that the emphasis is placed on "saints," while it should actually be upon "called." (See Kittel, Vol. 1, p. 107.) Romans 1:6 makes this more apparent: "Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ." This is the same word.

Because of Christ, we are not only believers, but also saints. Holy life is not achieved by human effort but by the indwelling Christ. As He lives in us, we die unto self. We are not saints by human effort any more than Paul became an Apostle by anything he did, but by divine grace in Christ. Our position in the church of God is not due to merit but to submission to Christ. The emphasis is on the One who effectively calls and shapes us to conform to His will.

This One who called Corinthian sinners to be saints is the same Lord today. What He did for them He can do for us. If the name "saint" applied to them, should it not apply to us? The church in Corinth was in no way superior to the average congregation today. They were saints, not angels. They were distinctly human. They had their failings. They quarreled and split up into factions, and were very fond of having their own way. They had the same passions as we do. And yet they were sanctified in Christ Jesus and "called saints." God called them. And if you believe substantially and fundamentally as they did, you also are His "called saints."

From A Richer Life for You in Christ (First Corinthians 1).