Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
January 20, 2015
Every so often, a student will ask, “Why do I need to attend church? Doesn’t my salvation depend on believing what the church teaches—which should be nothing more and nothing less than what the Bible teaches? If so, couldn’t I eliminate the middle man? Couldn’t I attain saving faith by simply reading and believing the Scriptures, and saying my prayers in the privacy of my own home?” Sometimes the student will formulate this question as a thought experiment. Suppose a person was marooned on a desert island, with only a copy of the Bible and a prayer book. Could he be saved if he faithfully used those two basic Christian resources? The expected answer is, “Of course he could!” And that answer is correct—as far as it goes.
But the inference that is sometimes drawn from that answer—namely that participation in the church is therefore unnecessary for a person’s salvation—is wrong. And to see why it’s wrong, let’s tinker a bit with the thought experiment, using the basic story line from the movie, Cast Away (2000), in which a FedEx airplane, laden with freight, flies into a storm and crashes in the South Pacific. The sole survivor, Chuck Noland, finds himself washed up on an uninhabited desert island, where he fights for survival for four years.
Suppose, for starters, that Chuck was a devout Christian before the crash. And suppose among the flotsam and jetsam, he finds copies of the Bible and, say, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). It would make perfect sense for him to read them each day and to pray to God constantly for strength, resourcefulness, patience, rescue and so forth. He would, in short, be practicing his faith in a situation in which he happened to be alone. But the situation constitutes a test of his faith, not a proof per se that membership in a faith community is not essential for having faith. This is shown by the fact that he is already a person of faith when he reaches the island, presumably because he belonged to some faith community before he got there. He has been trained to know what to do with those books. And his prayers and devotional reading connect him, not only “vertically” with God, who is present with him even there, but also “horizontally” to his faith community back home and across the world. The communion of saints to which he belongs is a reality that abides, despite his terrible solitariness.
Now change the scenario: Suppose Chuck was not a Christian before the plane crash, but finds a Bible and a BCP in the wreckage. Aside from fishing, gathering firewood, and figuring out how to crack open cocoanuts, he’s got lots of time on his hands, and he starts reading. He finds consolation in the books and has a miraculous conversion experience all alone on the beach. What he discovers is that in spite of his solitariness, he turns out to be a member of a faith community. The proof of this is that the books themselves convey the church’s faith by proxy. And had there been no church somewhere, there would have been no Bible or BCP on the plane. That is, his coming to faith depended on the existence of a faith community, even though there was no living member of the community on the island at that time. Amazing grace, indeed! Suppose, further, that Chuck is eventually rescued. We should then expect him to make his way as soon as possible to some Christian congregation, there to testify to the Lord’s providence, to undergo formal catechesis and baptism, and to participate thenceforth in its fellowship and sacramental life. And we should regard the “faith” to which he came on the island as severely defective if he did not do all this.
Now change the scenario again: Suppose Chuck was not a Christian before the crash; suppose, further, that he finds no Bible, no prayer book, no devotional writings at all in the wreckage; and suppose, finally, that he is not the beneficiary of some miraculous divine inspiration during his ordeal. Well, he might come to some sort of “foxhole religion” on his own, and cry out to some “higher power” or vaguely imagined deity to rescue him. Surely we could feel great compassion for him. But we should regard such prayers as expressions of desperation, superstition and magical thinking. We could hardly regard Chuck as a Christian, precisely because he was not, and had no means of becoming, a member of a community that professes the beliefs, performs the rites, recites the prayers, reads the books, practices the disciplines, and acts in accordance with the moral standards that are collectively constitutive of Christian faith.
My point is simply that the very thought experiment that the student used to demonstrate the dispensability of membership in the church for Christian faith actually proves, upon close inspection, the very opposite.