Saying you’re a part of the Church (universal) without being a member of a specific local church is like saying you’re in the NFL without actually being on the roster of any of the NFL’s teams.
The NFL is made up of its 32 teams. The Church — the universal body of believers from across space and time — is manifested through the multitude of concrete, local churches.
Some may point to exceptions: “But what about…?” “But if you say this, doesn’t that mean…?” But there’s a reason these are exceptions — they are exceptional; they are not the norm.
The Bible both states and assumes that those who are identified with Christ by trusting in him are also those who are identified with him in baptism and identified with his community of believers — the church — through inclusion/membership among their ranks.
To abstain from regularly assembling with and committing oneself to a church community, placing oneself under its leadership and discipline, is to break away from the Biblical pattern of the Christian life — a life lived out in community, with mutual-accountability and encouragement.
To speak of “regular attenders” as some secondary class of pseudo-members is to blur these lines. We are better off to speak of such folks in truer terms, of what they are — perpetual visitors.
During the process of taking a class on the gospels this semester, I have been thinking afresh about what it means to be a Christian.
To be a Christian is to be a ‘little Christ,’ as it is said, a Christ imitator or follower. Defined this way, being a Christian is not primarily about remaining loyal to a set of ideas, adhering to a set of principles, or believing certain doctrines. It certainly involves those things (don’t hear me wrongly). But what it is primarily is a claim to follow a person, the real historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, not a person in the abstract (e.g., Jesus merely a means to an end that is my salvation), but an actual human being.
If this is central to what it means to be a Christian, this pushes against many contemporary forms of Christianity that have lost sight of the centrality of this person in favor of making other good but not central things central.
To illustrate, I will use evangelicalism’s infatuation with Paul.