Can We Have Jesus without the Church?

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.

If we are in union with Christ, the head, then we are necessarily also connected to his body, the church.

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


Brett McCracken

Uncomfortable makes a compelling case that following Jesus calls us to embrace the more difficult aspects of Christianity in the context of the local church.

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.

This article is adapted from Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community by Brett McCracken.

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