Organized Religion and the Church

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Still without much time to write new stuff, I'm posting something I wrote for an off-topic list created by those on a music discussion list who wanted to discuss things not about the music the list was designed to discuss. The subject of organized religion came up, and some people defended the idea of being Christian while avoiding organized religion, which I've heard others describe as being Christian but avoiding church. I think this is a clear example of heteropraxy, so it's always amazed me that anyone could be taken in by this kind of thinking. (Orthodoxy and heterodoxy are about whether someone has views fitting with genuine Christian belief, and orthopraxy and heteropraxy are about whether someone's life is aligned with or radically different from the model given by Christ, passed on by the apostles, and recorded in scripture.) Still, the reasons are worth setting out, and I did so at that time (9 January 2003). Here's an adaptation of what I wrote. I hope to write a new post soon based on some themes that have come up in the current sermon schedule in my congregation (which is studying Ephesians 4-6 between July 18 and Oct 24). That post will rely on some of this, which is why I'm posting this rather than anything else.

What I say is addressed to those who hold to biblical Christianity (i.e. Christianity grounded on scripture as God's unique, authoritative message to us, with the gospel taught by the apostles as the most fundamental center of our doctrine, etc.). Anyone describing something else by 'the church' is speaking a different language. By the church I mean those people.

If you accept the scriptures' teaching about the church (lit. gathering, i.e. of gospel-believing and gospel-transformed people), you can see a few things. There are a number of metaphors used for the church in scripture, including the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the new Jerusalem, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the vine in God's vineyard. What's very interesting to me is that the church in scripture is not a building, an organization, a collection of congregations, or even a collection of individuals at any time on earth. The church is a heavenly entity, something God is doing among people. He has initiated his kingdom rule in the time of salvation, and the church is the manifestation of that. It manifests itself in every local gathering of believers, regardless of their problems (Corinth had plenty, as the Corinthian letters show, but Paul calls them the church, since they are indeed a manifestation of the church, the heavenly entity).

God is doing something. He is spreading his good news throughout the world, and his way of doing it is through the church. God's transformative power expresses itself through people, all people who are transformed by it. That's one incredibly exciting thing about the good news of the new covenant. This entity that is the church expresses itself in history across the ages and across geographical distances. That's what being part of the church is. It's being a part of the moving of God's hand in the hearts of people throughout this day of salvation in the time of the new covenant. Anyone in isolation from that movement of God, expressed through the people of God, is apart from the people God has gathered for working his will among the nations. That's not to say that God can't work through individuals. But it's ignoring the incredible thing that is the church, this invasion of a fallen world by something that in its nature is holy and divinely purposed. This is what the church is. This is what Christianity is, as the early church would have used the term.

Now local manifestations of the church (i.e. local congregations) necessarily will contain imperfect people and no others, this side of Christ's return. You won't find a perfect church, in our contemporary terminology. Some have serious problems. I've seen my share of them, and I've even been hurt through them. But this isn't new. To return to the Corinthian example, we can see heresy, incest (and pride in it), use of prostitutes, insensitivity to those of lower income, insensitivity to those who are wrong on non-central issues, disregard for Paul's apostolic authority, lawsuits among believers, disrespect for the good differences God created between men and women, abuse of the Lord's supper (which back then was a shared meal) in ways that didn't take into account the poor, pride in outward aspects such as how entertaining a speaker is, how miraculous someone's ministry is, or how much money a minister makes, ranking people according to a (skewed) hierarchy of spiritual gifts, illegitimate identification with one leader or sect within the body of Christ, condemning of people for a "sin" that isn't really wrong, insisting on use of one's freedom in Christ to do something not wrong but at a fellow believer's expense, etc.

You get the picture. These are all very old problems, and almost all of the problems people have in mind about the "organized church" are included in this list or very close to some of them, or else they have the same sorts of issues at root.

What's the point? Well, Paul addresses the people with all those problems as the church, meaning that they are a manifestation of God's transforming rule among the nations and across time. They are God's people, despite all their problems, and it's interesting to see where his heart is. As the more mature believer does, he refuses to abandon them after realizing that they've got problems. He goes to them. His concern is for them. Now he's also an apostle, and an ordinary person isn't in a position to correct churches nowadays, but I wonder how much better the churches would be if the people who saw the problems stayed in them rather than abandoning them to the people who don't see the problems. People often wonder why there are so many denominations and so many churches with problems. I expect this is by far the biggest cause.

Being captured by God's purpose in the church, as I've described it above has led me to be captured by a concern for a unity in the church and therefore not to be a detractor despite all the problems I see (though I'm happy to say that I'm currently involve with a local congregation that doesn't manifest most of my pet peeves). Paul's response means we can have a tendency to underestimate quite seriously who counts as a brother or sister. If a brother or sister can be a part of a community doing ALL those things (which even individually would be pretty bad) and still be a brother or sister, that's significant. As John emphasized repeatedly in his epistles, you can't love God without loving
your brothers and sisters. I'm not sure how we can even live the Christian life without being tied in to the church in some significant way. I'm not sure how that would even be Christian, given what the church is.

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I am dealing with this delima right now. I see the church as a whole-spritual being. Christ is the head and we are the body. Meeting in a building does not mean that this is when the church is "together"....when is the church separate in God's eyes? It is One because He has made us in Union with the father. For the temple of the old testament was a shadow of the real! We as the church and Him as the head of all that we are and in all that we do.

Anyways, I have many of my friends harping on me that I need to go to church on sundays...yet I'm around the body of believers constantly at my school...and that is church to me...I just feel very judged and looked down upon b/c I dont' attend that service. It's my heart that He is after not my attendence.

I'd say that it's not just being with other believers. It's gathering for worship, which is partly a communal expression of our unity before God in devotion to him and partly a time to affirm to each other the truths that God has revealed to us, both of which are part of Paul's description in Ephesians 5 of what being filled by the Holy Spirit looks like (and the parallel passage in Colossians has a slightly different emphasis that adds to this). I also think it's a shame to miss out on sitting under the teaching of those whom God has gifted to speak his word to us and who have the experience and maturity to speak into our lives.

I don't intend either of these reasons to say that you're sinning by not wanting to be in a particular gathering at a particular time, but they are arguments that you're missing out on a wonderful thing, something declared wonderful by God even if the ideal picture of it is never lived out perfectly. Indeed, even once it's clear that the church isn't a building, an organization, or a meeting, I think it can be said that you're missing out on the full and perhaps even primary purpose of what the church is if you're not involved in the life of the church, including its times for public worship and teaching.

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