Thursday, November 13, 2014

Can You Be a Christian If You Don't or Can't Live Near a Local Orthodox Congregation?

Some people have told me recently that, in their view, a person has no right to be considered a Christian if he cannot live nearby a local church that he can be a member of.  One person has told me, more specifically, that the qualification is that one must be able to attend each week.

There are a lot of people in the world who have just been un-Christianized by this idea.  If you get kidnapped, and you can't get to church every week, that's it for you--you're out of the visible church.  If you should be so unfortunate as to become a Christian in a land where no local churches have been established and you can't move right away, too bad for you--you're out of the visible church.  We mustn't have any missionaries go to any distant places where there aren't local churches, for that would remove their right to be considered Christians.  If you live in a city and your local church folds, and there are no other local churches you can in good conscience join, and you can't move in the near future, too bad for you--you no longer have a right to be considered a Christian.  Woe to all those Reformed people who live in lands dominated by Roman Catholicism and where there are often no nearby orthodox Reformed churches or other churches one can in good conscience join!  Woe to those Reformed people who live in nations dominated by other religions where there are nearly no Reformed Christians or perhaps any Reformed churches at all!  Woe to those who have any calling at all that takes them away from a local orthodox congregation!  Make sure you don't live in too rural an area, or your Christianity might be endangered!  And so on, and so on.

Of course, this view is not a biblical view, for there is no biblical basis for it.  Nor is it the historic Reformed view.  But, since some have asserted it (though I've only heard four people so far assert it), I thought I'd make some responses to it.

UPDATE 12/10/14:  Or what about a person who has become a Christian in prison, or who has committed a crime and gone to prison and repented, or a person wrongfully accused of a crime and in prison who can't maintain very regular contact with a local session, attend church, receive the sacraments, etc.?  What if someone is imprisoned in a foreign nation, or is a prisoner of war, and not allowed to have any contact with the Christian church or Christian elders?  According to the four, these have no right to be considered Christians.

Or what if a person has a spouse who has been imprisoned in a foreign country, or exiled, and he/she decides to go with the spouse, thus voluntarily following the spouse into such a situation where regular contact or possibly any significant contact or any contact at all can be maintained with a local session?  According to the four, he/she has relinquished all rights to be considered a Christian.


Navigator said...

Joh 4:21 Jesus *said to her, "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
Joh 4:22 "You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
Joh 4:23 "But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.
Joh 4:24 "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."
---It's not where or when that's important in worship, it is Whom!

Mark Hausam said...

Agreed, Pete!

Of course, the concern of the four people who have made the argument I am responding to is that a Christian is obligated to be under the oversight of elders and to remain in the fellowship of the church. And these things are quite true. The problem is the assumption that the essence of these things cannot be maintained without a particular degree of locality. Oversight and fellowship can be managed at some distance, though it is true that the ideal, all other things being equal, is local oversight and fellowship. But there are circumstances beyond the control of people, or even some circumstances within control, which can warrant a more distant oversight and fellowship in certain circumstances. Or at least there is no biblical reason to conclude that this cannot be the case.

The argument also fails in that it assumes that when a Christian, for some reason or another, cannot reasonably attain a status of being under ideal oversight, this removes him from having a right to be considered a Christian. But there can be situations, such as when a person is lost on a desert island, where literally NO oversight can be managed, and yet that does not remove the person from the visible church or from having a right to be considered Christian, for lack of oversight is through no fault of his own but through circumstances outside his control. Having elders is a requirement normally, but there is no basis for thinking it is of the essence of being a Christian in all conceivable circumstances. How much more does this apply when there is oversight and fellowship, but simply at a greater distance!