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What IS the Church?
16 September 2010
Today's article is a continuation of the one I wrote four days ago called Consequences of Not Going To Church — be sure to read that one first if you have not done so already.
Yesterday afternoon I was honored to have a LONG phone conversation with the president and founder of Samaritan Ministries, Ted Pittenger. It was very kind of him to spend the time and effort to exchange points of view on my situation. Unfortunately our conversation did not result in much — except this article!
In reference to my refusal to participate in the current non-Biblical version of modern, man-made, institutional Western Christianity (which I refer to as Pagan Christianity), Mr. Pittenger said to me something along these lines (I'm quoting from my memory of the conversation, so it's not a direct quote):
Brian, rather than abandoning, boycotting and rejecting the church, you should be fully participating IN the church, being a positive influence to help bring the changes you so long to see. You can only love the church by attending church regularly. Jesus loves His church, and HE is the one who is building it (see Matthew 16:18). So if you reject His church, then you are criticizing HIS work, and if I may be so bold, it's like you are slapping Jesus in the face!Wow! Those are pretty strong words! Well, I replied that perhaps he had a point, and I would have to consider it further. Later, as I pondered what he had said, wondering if I was indeed slapping the face of Yeshua (Jesus), it became very clear to me that the crux of our debate is the word "church" itself. The whole argument revolves around this one vital question: What IS the Church?
If by "church" one means all of the various external denominational expressions of the Christian religion, such as the Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Foursquare, Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, and all of the other thousands of denominations, then yes, IF that is the Church of Yeshua, then by rejecting these institutional organizations, I would be slapping Yeshua in the face.
But that is a big IF. Are all of these various external denominational expressions of the Christian religion really what the New Testament is referring to when it talks about the Church? Or does the New Testament — and therefore God, the ultimate author and source of the New Testament — have something different in view?
If you read the New Testament with any attention at all, I think it is very obvious that it has something totally different in mind when it talks about the Church. Let's spend a few moments to take a deeper look.
In six places, the New Testament authors refer to the Church as the Temple (or House) of God. In four of the passages (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 1 Corinthians 6:19, Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:5) the word "you" is always plural, which is not evident at first glance, since the second person singular and the second person plural in English are the exact same word: "you". In the other two passages (2 Corinthians 6:16, Hebrews 3:6), the word "we" is used. All six passages clearly state that the entire Church of Yeshua as a whole constitutes the Temple of God.
When the New Testament refers to the Church as a body, temple and bride, it is not just using a analogy or a simile: the Church is LIKE a body, or LIKE a temple, or LIKE a bride. No, it's something far more literal and real than a mere figure of speech. The New Testament unfolds the mystery that the Church actually IS a body, the Body of Yeshua; actually IS a temple, the Temple of God; actually IS a bride, the Bride of Messiah!
Now, even though the Church literally IS a body, temple and bride, it is incredibly obvious that it is NOT a PHYSICAL body, temple and bride. That would be simply ridiculous and impossible. What is clear is that the New Testament teaches that the Church is a SPIRITUAL body, a SPIRITUAL temple, and a SPIRITUAL bride. This distinction is very, VERY important to understand.
The Church of Yeshua is a SPIRITUAL entity, because our individual relationship with God is SPIRITUAL — as it is written: "He who unites himself with the Lord is one with Him in SPIRIT" (1 Corinthians 6:17). Each individual follower of Yeshua — each "living stone" — is placed by God into His SPIRITUAL Temple (1 Peter 2:5a). Likewise, each individual follower of Yeshua — each "part of the body" — God has arranged in the SPIRITUAL Body just as He wants them to be (1 Corinthians 12:18).
Because the Church of Yeshua is a SPIRITUAL entity, it would be a serious error to think of the man-made, external denominational expressions of the Christian religion as the Biblical Body of Messiah. True, individual followers of Yeshua who are part of the SPIRITUAL Church do participate in these man-made, institutional organizations of Christianity, but that in no way makes those man-made, institutional organizations of Christianity the Body of Messiah itself.
At the risk of being repetitious, I must quote once again what Pastor Boyd wrote in The Myth of a Christian Religion, because what he communicates is so refreshing, as well as so vital to our discussion:
This may surprise or even offend you, but Jesus is not the founder of the Christian religion. True, a religion arose centuries after He lived that was called "Christian," but in many respects this religion was antithetical to what Jesus was about. In fact, the very concept of a "Christian religion" is something of a myth when understood in the light of what Jesus was about. What Jesus was about had nothing to do with being religious.... What Jesus was about was starting a revolution. He called this revolution "the Kingdom of God."This is so, So, SO vitally important to understand: God's Kingdom, of which His Church is an integral part, CANNOT be identified with ANY human institution, church denomination, or organized religion (including Christianity). As I've said before, the Church of Yeshua is a SPIRITUAL entity! The Church of Yeshua may PARTICIPATE in these human institutions and religions, but these human institutions and religions ARE NOT the Church of Yeshua.
This revolution isn't centered on getting people to believe particular religious beliefs and engage in particular religious behaviors, though these may be important, true, and helpful.... the Kingdom has nothing to do with religion — "Christian" or otherwise.... the Kingdom of God can't be equated with any human institution, including the church, or any organized religion, including Christianity.... This insight saved my spiritual life and reignited my passion to be a follower of Jesus. My hope and prayer is that it will do the same for all who read this book.
Nor is following Yeshua primarily a matter of engaging in particular religious behaviors — like going to church — though that may be important and helpful. Pagan Christianity is in many respects antithetical to what Yeshua is about. Trying to live up to someone else's religious expectations brings death, not life. I find that these insights are saving MY spiritual life too, and inflaming my passion to be a follower of Yeshua.
Even though it is a common misconception, there is one thing the Church is definitely NOT: a BUILDING — as in "I'm going to church". You have most likely heard it said before that the Church is not buildings, but people. Neither is it organizations, denominations, institutions, or anything else man-made — the Church is people, and specifically, people who are followers of Yeshua.
This understanding exposes the false premises upon which arguments like Mr. Pittenger's are based. Because the Church of Yeshua is a SPIRITUAL entity, my rejection of the man-made religious institutions commonly thought of as "Christian" (which I refer to as Pagan Christianity) is in NO WAY a rejection of the true, SPIRITUAL Church of Yeshua, of which I am an immutable and eternal member.
Just because I don't participate in one of the man-made "Christian" denominations — like the Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Foursquare, Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, or any of the other thousands of denominations — doesn't mean that I'm any less a part of the SPIRITUAL Church of Yeshua. Just because the "Christian" organization called The ElijahList kicks me out, I'm not any less a part of the SPIRITUAL Church of Yeshua. Just because the "Christian" organization called Samaritan Ministries denies me membership because I'm not "Christian" enough, doesn't mean that I'm any less a part of the SPIRITUAL Church of Yeshua.
This is what the Apostle Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 12. Because I am a follower of Yeshua, I AM a part of His Body, whether I like it or not, and whether others like it or not. But again, let's not confuse the man-made church with the SPIRITUAL Church of Yeshua. Just because I don't participate in Pagan Christianity does not make me any less a part of the SPIRITUAL Church of Yeshua. I AM a part of His Church, and I am very glad that I am. And I am very grateful that my membership in Yeshua's Church does not depend on anyone else's opinion of me. I don't need three good character references to get in!
You may wonder why I call "Christian" denominations "man-made", when a significant number of them were birthed out of genuine movements of the Holy Spirit. I have two reasons for doing so. First, the Apostle Paul sternly rebuked the followers of Yeshua in Corinth for such sectarian attitudes (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 and 1 Corinthians 3:3-5,21-22). In our day, this sectarian spirit is manifested by denominations that say: "I follow the Pope", or "I follow Martin Luther", or "I follow John Wesley", or "I follow Sister Aimee", or "I follow John Wimber", or "I follow Chuck Smith", or a myriad of other religious leaders who have arisen over the centuries.
Second, in one of the few recorded prayers of Yeshua in the New Testament, He specifically prays that His followers would be ONE — just as Yeshua and Father God are one — so that the world would believe that Yeshua is the Messiah (see John 17:20-23). The blatant lack of unity inherent in denominational divisions is obviously NOT God's will, but a result of man's sinfulness and Satan's scheming.
I don't know if he invented this statement, but I always remember Keith Green saying that going to church doesn't make you a Christian, just like going to McDonald's doesn't make you a hamburger. I think that the converse is also true: NOT going to church doesn't suddenly make you NOT a Christian, just like you can get a hamburger elsewhere besides McDonald's. OK, neither statement is a perfect analogy, but they are definitely worth pondering.
Speaking of "Christian" — that's a word that I would prefer NOT to identify myself with. Because of the huge amount of negative historical and cultural baggage associated with that term, I think it is actually a liability these days. Many of those who have identified themselves as "Christians" have been such horrid, UN-Christ-like examples to the world for the past 1,700 years that the original meaning of "belonging to Christ (Messiah)" has been TOTALLY lost. So in that sense, I'm very glad that I'm not "Christian" enough to conform to the requirements of Pagan Christianity. In order to distance myself from that system, I much prefer a term like "follower of Yeshua (Jesus)", or something along that line.
If you read the New Testament with any attention at all, it is very clear that Biblical Christianity is all about RELATIONSHIP — with God and with fellow believers. The Church as described in the New Testament is all about COMMUNITY. This reality creates a two-fold quandary for me.
First, I find myself unable to participate in the non-Biblical system of Pagan Christianity, the structure of which actually HINDERS relationship, community, and other Biblical Church practices. I would like to find a local expression of what some call Organic Church, but I have yet to come across such a community in the Albany area.
Second, I have deep and strong character issues which make intimate relationships and close community very, very difficult for me. Because of my personality type, I thrive on solitude and silence. I am not social at all, I can't endure superficial, banal chit-chat, and being around people very much totally drains my inner energy. I really don't even feel the need to be around other people; I don't really miss it; I don't even have the desire to pursue it. Even if I did find some sort of "Organic Church" gathering to be a part of, I would still have a very hard time plugging in.
So, not only do I need to overcome the external obstacle of Pagan Christianity, which is a formidable barrier in and of itself, but I also need to overcome the interior obstacle of my current deep-seated personality and character. Or, because I was raised in the church since I was born, perhaps this would be a better way of describing the situation: it's one thing to take ME out of Pagan Christianity, but it's a totally different, and much more difficult, matter to take Pagan Christianity out of ME! In light of all this, maybe it's not too hard to understand why I haven't been participating in ANY kind of religious gatherings for a good seven years now.
Returning to Mr. Pittenger's exhortation that I should be participating IN the church to bring change from the inside — if that's what he and other Christians feel called to do, then I wish them the best of luck. Personally, I feel no such call. Besides, the 1,700-year-old edifice of Pagan Christianity is in such an advanced state of dilapidation that I don't think there is any hope of restoring it. It would be much better to demolish it and start from scratch.
I believe that a demolition job is exactly what God has in mind. Worldwide catastrophic upheaval will become more and more common. We are so set in our Pagan Christianity ways that it's going to take some extreme discipline from God — the refining fire of intense and widespread persecution and martyrdom — to bring us to the place we need to be as the Church of Yeshua.
Why do I think major worldwide catastrophic upheaval, persecution and martyrdom of followers of Yeshua are coming? Easy, just read the book of Revelation — it's all written down there in black and white. And if you look at Church history, you will clearly see that persecution and martyrdom were THE secret to their spectacular success. Only when the persecution ended with Constantine 1,700 years ago did the Church start to go downhill fast.
Regarding what Samaritan Ministries told me about loving the church by attending church regularly — well, I'm sorry, but I don't feel under any obligation to love the man-made, external denominational expressions of the Christian religion, because they are NOT the Biblical Church of Yeshua, as we have already discussed at length. I DO love the SPIRITUAL Church of Yeshua — the individual "living stones" who as followers of Yeshua comprise the SPIRITUAL Temple of God. Anything other than that is not worth wasting my love on. The New Testament teaches us to love ALL PEOPLE, even our enemies. Nowhere does it say to love an organization, institution or denomination.
I have nothing against the SPIRITUAL Church of Yeshua — how could I, when I'm part of it and it's the very Body of Yeshua, which He loves and cherishes? But I do have everything against man-made Pagan Christianity, which keeps God's children in bondage, and prevents God's will from being done on earth as it is in Heaven. How COULD one love such a system?
I HAVE been feeling kind of down these days, because this rejection by Samaritan Ministries hurts. You may say to me: "Well, what do you expect? You have rejected the church, and now the church is rejecting you! You're simply reaping what you have sown! So don't go crying about it!"
Well, that may be true. I don't think I'm crying about it, but the rejection still hurts. I, a follower of Yeshua the Messiah (Christ), am not "Christian" enough to belong to a "Christian" organization! Gosh! Every time I think of it, I just shake my head in amazement — and pain. But fortunately the pain will fade away. And as I shared in yesterday's article, I need to stand by my convictions, even if it costs me.
Following Yeshua is not a one-time event where you get every problem in your life worked out all at once. No, following Yeshua is a journey, an adventure. I'm not at the destination yet; I'm still in progress. I'm continuing to work out my salvation (see Philippians 2:12), and it often takes longer than I — or other people — might like. Apparently Yeshua is not in such a hurry.
Two of the most popular Christian books ever printed are Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan and Hinds Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. Both of them are allegories of the Christian life, and both depict that life as a long and arduous journey which takes many unexpected twists and turns.
While neither allegory is perfect nor necessarily one-hundred-percent Biblically accurate, I believe that they both paint a remarkably accurate picture of the spiritual journey experienced by followers of Yeshua. Like the main characters in the two stories, my journey and adventure with Yeshua has definitely turned out much different than I imagined it would when I started about 35 years ago. As the Grateful Dead sang so famously: "Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me; Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it's been." How TRUE!
This article is 9th a series of articles on this Web site related to Modern Christianity and the Church which also includes (scroll to see the entire list):
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