In my Introduction to this series on Disbelieving Church, I offered this disclaimer about the meaning of the word “church”:
“I am well aware that the word “church” in many people’s minds should refer to a community of believers/Jesus followers, not an institution or a building. Unfortunately church as it exists today, at least in my experience, is firmly grounded in institutions and buildings, and the communities of believers that occupy these structures are shaped by these buildings and the larger institutions of which they are a part. With the culture of church we have inherited, the connection and resultant influence is inevitable.”
In this post I wish to reflect on the structures and assumptions around which the popular “Western” construct of “church” is built. My thoughts are clearly coloured by my Baptist background, but I suspect some of these reflections will have wider applications.
In various forums, but usually on Facebook, I have occasionally posted or participated in threads that seek to critique church and challenge some of the basic thinking associated with the way churches operate. In these forums, generally inhabited by those who are deeply invested in church, I always attempt to measure my words and speak sense, with the hope that those who are participating in the thread will be not feel threatened and so be able to engage with the critiques and other ideas being discussed. Inevitably, this care does not always have the desired effect. There is invariably someone who automatically reacts badly to any comment about church that is not overtly positive. One comment that I have heard more than once is some variation on the question “how can you criticise church, Jesus himself established it?”
Once the conversation reaches this point, I tend to bow out. It’s fairly clear that my comments and point of view are not going to be heard or understood. However, in this post, I want to take this opportunity to address this particular objection. As reflected in the image I found to illustrate this post, I assume this comment is based on the famous passage Matthew 16:18 “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (NIV). In fact the only times I can find the word “church” (ekklesia) attributed to Jesus is in Matthew’s gospel, three times in two verses. It is also worth noting that before the Christian movement established itself in structures ekklesia was a gathering or assembly of people without a necessarily religious connotation or structure, not the “Christian Church” as we know it today.
When these church-o-philes in their arrogant incredulity ask how anyone can possibly critque the church that Jesus established, they are missing the fact that they are reading their understanding and experience of “church” back into the two verses where Jesus mentions “church,” an understanding that has resulted from nearly two millenia of growth and change in both structures and beliefs among those who call themselves Christians. What such people call “church” now likely bears little or no resemblance to the believers gathered in early Antioch, where they were first called Christians; or Nero’s Rome, where they were persecuted; or fourth century Constantinople, where church was about beauty and power; or Medieval Europe, where the language of church was Latin and the walls were covered in illustrations; or sixteenth century Moscow, which thought of itself as the seat of the true Church and the “third Rome.”
It’s arguable whether Jesus meant to found a new religion or even a “movement,” and we have no recorded guidance directly from him about church structure or organisation. In the beginning Christianity was just a sect within Judaism. As it grew into a separate faith, the apostles and other key leaders of the Christian sect began to give instructions about how to function in communities together. Some of these have been canonised in scripture, as they were deemed highly useful by the early churches. All this has led, by degrees, to what we have today: a global, diverse movement that has splintered into countless sects many of which would (or indeed, sometimes do) disagree violently about the particulars of Christian faith. Even if Jesus founded the church, which church? and if only one of them is the true church, how could Jesus allow such confusion to grow?
As a child I remember being taught to be sceptical of those Christians who believed they could be followers of Jesus without coming to church every week. Even those who came occasionally were questionable in their allegiance to their faith. Yet I don’t remember ever reading that Jesus said “if you truly believe in me you will attend church every Sunday.” Jesus seemed more concerned that his followers demonstrate love – for God, self and others – stay close to him in spirit, work for liberation, demonstrate patience, live in humility, and practice peace.
It is possible to build a case from the epistles for the importance of church attendance. “Do not forsake the assembly” (Heb 10:25), or “speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16) could apply here among others. There is certainly an argument to make that community and sharing is an important part of being a Christ-follower. Again, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean “church” as we know it today.
In her song Deliver Us From Evil, Grace Petrie lampoons “church” as not in keeping with the message of Jesus. In the caustic bridge she parodies a popular praise song with the lyric “It’s ‘hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah,’ but when the chips are down, you can count on us to screw ya!” When I first heard this song, I was slightly offended by this bridge and its extreme impiety, but I tried to take her point regardless. Recently, I have begun to see a deeper truth in the words.
At its most basic, church is an institution (yes, even independent, congregational, free churches). As is typical with institutions, church believes in the absolute importance, even necessity, of its own existence. This remains true whether it is applied to a local congregation, a cooperative denominational body, or a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure. Since the continued existence of church is a vital presumption, “when the chips are down,” when the church is forced to choose between acting like Jesus (i.e. showing love a love that requires sacrifice) and ensuring its own survival, it, almost without exception, will choose the latter. The closer a given congregation or ecclesiastical structure is to decay, decline or death, the less likely they are to put the needs of those outside their walls (real or metaphorical) ahead of their own urgent need and desire to survive.
History shows us the rise and fall of empires and civilizations across many millenia of human existence. No great power survives forever. No world religion survives unchanged. The great temple in Jerusalem was, in time, replaced by a mosque. The great church, the Hagia Sophia, the glory and beauty of Byzantium, became, in time, the central mosque of Istanbul and is now a cultural landmark with no regular religious use. Ages pass and new ages come, but humanity continues with all its fears and loves and hates and beliefs. Followers of Jesus are found around the world, each with his or her own understanding of what that means. The message of Jesus will continue to be heard and live on with or without any given church structure or congregation.
When Christians value the preservation of their ecclesiastical structures above the embodiment of the values of Jesus, they have sold their souls to perpetuate their bodies. Any number of Jesus’ references to the Pharisees comes to mind. If our religious structures become more important than imitating Jesus and loving our neighbours, perhaps it is time to let those structures die and look for other ways to serve, love and follow.