Does church attendance signal true faith?
My boyfriend moved to the Caribbean over a year ago and has been struggling to find a church community that feels comfortable. During Lent, he tried to focus on His relationship with God, and he is doing well.
At the beginning of Lent, I asked him how many times he had missed church since being in the Caribbean, and he told me three times. A week ago, I confessed to him something, and in turn he confessed that he had lied. He actually missed going to church for the first two semesters. Now I don’t know what to do. I find it hard to believe that he has faith, and I’m wondering what else he has lied about. Faith is the most important thing to me, so now I’m confused. He keeps telling me that he struggled, but now he has rekindled his relationship [with Christ].
I love going to church and have missed church probably three times in my whole life. I just don’t know what to do. I love this man. He is hardworking, compassionate, goal-orientated and has a servant’s heart. I am wondering what about forgiveness? Am I being judgmental?
Thank you for your writing. I think you’re asking several questions: Does church attendance signal true faith? Is lying a forgivable sin? Finally, is your love for your boyfriend and his good traits enough to move forward in this relationship?
To the first question, does church attendance signal true faith, I’d say yes and no. Many true believers live in countries where church attendance as we’d define it in the West isn’t an option. They risk arrest to meet secretly at irregular times in cramped and hidden places. They’re not “going to church” the way we think of it, but as you can imagine, they are sold out for Christ and risking everything to worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).
Contrast those believers with self-identified western Christians who sleep in on Sunday rather than gather with slightly annoying other Christians to sing old hymns and listen to God’s Word preached. Every church is imperfect because every person is fallen (and at our best, we’re all slightly annoying). It’s God’s work of grace that He gives us one another, warts and all, to help and be helped on our journey to heaven. To reject outright the body of Christ, especially when it costs us nothing other than our comfort and sleep to gather together, is to call into question our commitment to Christ. We are rejecting the very ones He died for: His bride, the church. We reject the object of His affection at our own peril.
Where does this leave your boyfriend? It’s possible there aren’t many church options where he lives, but doubtful there aren’t any. Scripture is clear that we’re supposed to be in fellowship with other believers for the purpose of hearing the Word preached and participating in the sacraments on a regular basis (Hebrews 10:25). If this isn’t a priority for him, demonstrated either by a fervent effort to find a body of believers to worship with on a regular basis, or a willingness to ask you to pray for his efforts and be honest with you about his failures and frustrations when things don’t go well, then I think you have reason to be concerned.
You are right to recognize that your faith is something you were blessed with; it is a gift. But we are not passive blobs. We must respond to the truth we hear preached. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” We must seek him. Is your boyfriend seeking God?
It isn’t enough to feel like you have faith or to say that it’s “rekindled.” Emotions are no certain guarantee or evidence of faith in Christ. What does your boyfriend’s beliefs prompt him to do? Does he love Christ? In his classic book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,
…can you honestly say that you love Christ? It is no answer to tell me that you believe the truth of Christianity, and hold the articles of the Christian faith. Such relation as this will never save your soul. The devils believe in a certain way, and tremble (James 2:19). True, saving Christianity is not the mere believing a certain set of opinions, and holding a certain set of notions. Its essence is knowing, trusting, and loving a certain living Person who died for us—even Christ the Lord (241-242).
Church membership isn’t something we do to earn God’s favor. But it is necessary to regularly hear the Word of Christ preached. And good, biblical preaching is essential to faith (Romans 10:13-17). Is it a concern that your boyfriend lied to you about his church attendance? I believe it is. On its face, dishonesty is a character flaw that makes it impossible to trust someone. And trust is necessary for a healthy marriage. But my concern goes deeper. The absence of longing to be with fellow saints and members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19b), of recognizing his need to be in regular fellowship with other believers (Hebrews 10:24-25), to have the benefit of accountability (2 Timothy 2:22, James 5:16), as well as the opportunity to serve (John 13:14) all while being built up in the fear and admonition of the Lord is evidence that his faith may not be genuine.
In What Is a Healthy Church? pastor Mark Dever says, “And never does the New Testament conceive of the Christian existing on a prolonged basis outside the fellowship of the church. The church is not really a place. It’s a people—God’s people in Christ” (26). Throughout the New Testament, the church is central to a Christian’s growth in faith and maturity, to his understanding of who God is and what He requires of us.
Where does this leave you? If he has repented for his deception and asked for your forgiveness, you should forgive him (Matthew 15:22). That’s the first step toward restoration. But much more must be done. I believe you need the help of the very church body you love. Ask your pastor and you parents or other, wise believers to help you discern this man’s character. Ask them to pray with you for wisdom and to talk with you about if you should move forward with the relationship. Finally, ask those who know you best if they believe, based on the evidence of his life, if he is a believer. These are critical conversations to have now, before you go further.
May God guide you.
P.S. You may be greatly helped by Mike McKinely’s short book, Am I Really a Christian? Also, for more about the importance of church membership and what you should be looking for in a church, listen to this interview with Mark Dever on The Boundless Show.
Copyright 2013 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Candice Watters is a wife, mom, and Bible teacher. She is the author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen, co-founder with her husband, Steve, of Boundless.org and co-author of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. They have four children and blog at FamilyMaking.com.