Last week the internet, or at least certain parts of it, were ablaze at the comments of Sylvia Allen’s offhand remark about mandatory church attendance. With the righteous indignation directed against the remark, I guess some people thought it was a serious attempt to pass a bill or law to make it a reality? Regardless, my point here isn’t to add to chorus of people demeaning that comment, but rather to think about the idea under her suggestion. Does going to church make you moral?
My short answer is no, there is no guarantee of it. Simply going to church or getting a friend or relative to go to church isn’t a guarantee that you or they will be shaped by the morality of the Bible. While it might be nice to assume that going to church makes people moral, it isn’t that simple.
Part of the problem is how do we even measure morality? We are all flawed in our interpretations of Scripture. We all have parts that we hit accurately, and other parts that we may not have down. We may even ignore some parts or Scripture rather willingly.
Let’s give a rather simplified example. Imagine a church that had a great reputation of caring for the poor. They had a food pantry, supported a local homeless shelter, and even helped the unemployed find jobs if they could. Yet at this church, there was gossip and division among the church members. There was rampant pride, backstabbing, and pettiness among members despite their great presence in the community.
Now imagine a church that got along great. There was little division and gossip. Everyone felt like part of the church family and knew each other well. Yet this church did very poorly at reaching out to anyone new. They weren’t involved in their community very much. While they’d take care of needs for those in the church, their outreach was nonexistent either in physical or spiritual ways.
Now between these two churches which has a better morality? How do we measure and order it? They both have flaws, but which is greater or which is lesser? It’s really hard to say and the answer will depend on who we ask. Yet this is the kind of issue we face when we think about morality in the church.
Even if we were able to agree with what a Christian morality would look like and we were right, the reality is that going to church is not going to guarantee a shift. Not everyone who heard the teaching of Jesus accepted those teachings with open arms. In fact some of the religious leaders were so against it that they sought to kill Jesus. While this may not compare directly to modern day church, it does show that simply listening and being in proximity to something does not always cause change in the direction we want.
What ultimately bugs me about the idea that going to church is the way to make people more moral is that the church isn’t really about making people moral. It is about making people followers of Christ. While there will be intersection between these two ideas, they are not the same. Learning how to follow Christ involves a realization that we can’t live up to any kind of moral perfection and that we have the need to rely on God’s grace. And even with that goal, simply going to a church once a week isn’t necessarily going to cause that to happen.
The early church often endured accusations of immorality in their earliest gatherings. From my understanding they were viewed as atheists (because they worshiped without the statues and idols used in Roman religion), accused of being cannibals (due the language surrounding communion/Lord’s Supper), and accused of incest (because of the language of fellow believers as brother and sister) among other complaints. Being a part of the church wasn’t necessarily considered to be the moral thing to do from a Roman point of view. It was ultimately about following Christ not about being considered moral.
So this is why any dream of church attendance being the answer to morality is flawed, in my view. Christianity isn’t primarily focused on being considered moral, it is to be focused on following Christ. Even if that focus is correct, it is no guarantee that attendance will make any lasting impact. The whole picture of our faith, life, and how people come to God is more complex than that.