Can We Have Jesus without the Church?

Article by Brett McCracken, senior editor for the Gospel Coalition and the author of Hipster Christianity and Gray Matters. He also writes regularly for Christianity Today and his website, He lives with his wife in Southern California where he serves as an elder at Southlands Church. (original source here)

Do Not Cut Yourself Off from the Body of Christ

Ephesians 5 is often looked to as an instructive passage for marriage, and it is. But I think it is also an instructive passage about the church, especially in an age where many evangelicals have a take-it-or-leave-it ecclesiology somewhere between “I love Jesus but not the church” and “I’ll go to church but only as long as it meets my needs.”

When Paul says “Christ is the head of the church, his body,” it is a statement of union, of one-flesh connectedness. A head is necessarily connected to a body. The head directs the body and has authority over the body but also needs a fully functioning body for effective movement in the world. In a profoundly mysterious way, Christ has humbly attached himself to an imperfect body (those who believe in him) and loved this body, filling it with his sanctifying Spirit so that it will be perfected for that future moment of “without spot or wrinkle” glory. In the meantime the church is still imperfect.

Sadly, the still-imperfect nature of the church proves too challenging for some. They prefer to be “spiritual but not religious.” They embrace Jesus but ditch the church, oblivious to the fact that in so doing they are creepily embracing a decapitated head. Or those who do recognize the importance of the biblical idea of church simply redefine “church” on their terms. These are the people who love saying, “You don’t go to church. You are the church.” This is Donald Miller, who says he connects with God more outside of church and says “the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.”1 This is Rob Bell, who now believes church is simply doing life in a beach community with one’s “little tribe of friends” (“We’re churching all the time”).2

But how much can we really grow when we define church on our terms, within the framework of our preferences and proclivities and with a “tribe” of people who “connect with God” most by surfing and enjoying craft beer together? As R. C. Sproul says, “It is both foolish and wicked to suppose that we will make much progress in sanctification if we isolate ourselves from the visible church.”3

Or listen to Spurgeon, who is (God bless him) characteristically blunt about the matter:

I believe that every Christian ought to be joined to some visible Church—that is his plain duty according to the Scriptures. God’s people are not dogs, otherwise they might go about one by one. They are sheep and, therefore, they should be in flocks.4

Can one “have Jesus but not the church?” Not really. If we are in union with Christ, the head, then we are necessarily also connected to his body, the church. “Christ utterly identifies with his people,” says Sam Allberry. “Neglecting the church is neglecting Jesus.”5

Our real choice is this: Do we want to be plugged into the life-blood and energy of the body, or do we want to cut ourselves off from this body, lying inert somewhere as a severed finger or amputated leg? The upside of being a severed finger is you don’t have to bother with cooperating with the other fingers, annoying as they are. The downside is you can’t really do anything, and you have no biological connection to the neuron signals coming from the head.

1. Donald Miller, “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere,” Storyline (blog), February 3, 2014,
2. Sarah Pulliam Bailey,“Rob Bell, the Pastor Who Questioned Hell, Is Now Surfing, Working with Oprah and Loving Life in L.A.,” The Huffington Post, December 2, 2014, -bell-oprah_n_6256454.html.
3. R. C. Sproul, The Soul’s Quest for God (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1992), 151.
4. C. H. Spurgeon, “The Head and the Body,” No. 2653, delivered Aug. 6, 1882 at Metropolitan Tabernacle, -45/chs2653.pdf.
5. Sam Allberry, Why Bother With Church? (Epsom, UK: The Good Book Company, 2016), 31.

From the ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible:

The Doctrine of the Church in the Bible

Church Life: Unity

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.—1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27

Paul uses the picture of the body to teach the horizontal dimension of union with Christ. He compares the human body, which is unified despite its many members, to the church (v. 12), which also has many members but is one body. Why? Because all members of the church participate in one Holy Spirit when they become part of Christ.

Paul uses images of baptism and drinking to communicate how the Spirit unifies: Christ baptized us “in one Spirit . . . into one body . . . and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (v. 13). The second image tells of believers’ initial reception of the Spirit, the river of living water, of whom believers may drink and never thirst again (cf. John 4:14; 7:38). Likewise, at conversion Christ baptizes all Christians into one body, and the Spirit is the medium of that baptism, the bond of union with Christ and thereby with other believers.

In 1 Corinthians 12:14–26, Paul continues to develop the body metaphor, proving again that a human body is one precisely because it has many parts. No single part can therefore call itself
the whole (vv. 14–20). Moreover, the parts we keep hidden or consider least honorable are actually most necessary, and their honor comes from God (vv. 21–26).

Paul does not keep the metaphor abstract but applies it directly to the Corinthians: the Corinthian church is the body of Christ (v. 27)! His admonitions about the body in the previous verses belong to them, but they also have the honor of being a part of Christ both in the unity of their church and as individual members. Paul implies that the Corinthians must live with the
humility of Christ, recognizing that while they have the honor of being his body on earth, their behavior toward each other and the world could dishonor his name.

Theology for Life

In salvation the Spirit joins us spiritually to Christ. In so doing, he joins us to all other believers too. May God help us to treat them as fellow members of Christ’s body by the Spirit, remembering that both our role and the roles of fellow believers are vital to the flourishing of our Lord’s church.

For more on the church as the body of Christ see:

Rom. 12:4–8
1 Cor. 5:1–5
Gal. 3:25–29
Eph. 4:1–16
For more on church unity see:

John 17:17–23
Rom. 15:5–6
Eph. 4:1–16