A Reader Asks: I’m confused. Why are there so many churches, all with different labels such as, Denominational. Non-denominational, Catholic, Independent, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Charismatic, Baptist, Orthodox, on and on? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there such a thing as one true church?
What did Jesus intend for his church? If we can get a hold of this single idea, we may be able to untangle this web. When Jesus declared to Peter, “I will build my church,” did he have a non-profit institution in mind or was his intent to build a community of faithful, active disciples? Well, let’s look at what a non-profit requires: (1) A name (label); (2) By-laws (Polity–how it’s run); (3) Articles of Incorporation (Statements of Faith); (4) Money; (tithes and offerings); (5) Leadership (professional clergy to run it) and a Constituency (laity). Does this sound like the community of faith Jesus had in mind? In other words…
Is the church an institution? A wag once said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to be in an institution?” Indeed! We realize marriage isn’t an institution, but a committed relationship between two individuals—a “we” not an “it.” Is the church more like marriage or more like a non profit?
Did Jesus love and die for a people or an institution? What does the Bible say? When we gather or dispersed, are we called to be a living community or an organization? Notice how biblical synonyms for Christ’s church stress the personal over the impersonal.
- Bride of Christ, ”Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved [agape] the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of the word, to present her to himself as a radiant church. Eph. 5:25- 26 (FYI: NIV accurately uses “her.” Many translations mistakenly refer to the bride as “it.”
- Eklesia, the Greek word Jesus uses for church, means “a gathering of people.” Certainly a community not an “it.” (BTW: Synagogue has exactly the same meaning.)
- Body of Christ. …”so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one of us members of one another. (Romans 5: 12). (BTW: When Jesus asked Paul, “Why are you persecuting me, he meant, his church body. Is this where Paul arrived at the revelation of the church being Christ’s body on earth?)
- God’s Temple isn’t a thing either, as Paul explains, ”Don’t you know you all (plural) are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (Romans 3:16)
These are the Questions we must ask: Is God’s house a building or the people inside? Does He live in things or believers? Does He inhabit institutions or does he dwell and empower the believing community within [and sometimes without] those institutions?
How did the living Church become Institutional? In the third century, church leaders began to assume special titles of rank and position for themselves. Today we call them “clergy.” Over time they expanded their role to one of authority and learning above and apart from rank and file believers— called “laity.” (BTW: The terms laity and clergy are not found in the Bible)
Today many so called laity find they are relegated to the role of pew sitters. Like fans at a football game, they are spectators who support the team, but unlike clergy professionals, are not active participants. Was this Jesus’ dream for his church? Was this how early Christians were regarded?
Just the Opposite: Paul stressed, ”faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other.” (Col. 3: 11. See also Eph. 4) Ironically Peter, who was promoted to a Roman pope posthumously, wrote that all believers are “royal, holy priests“ (1 Peter 2: 5, 9). Moreover, in the Bible. we find every member had an important function in the body. (I Cor 12 and Romans 12) True, certain individuals were gifted by the Spirit to lead as prophets, apostles, pastors, episcopoi (bishops), and presbyteroi (elders). But these gifts were not seen in any way as creating a superior class of Christian.
Over the years the church became more and more identified with her leaders not the people. An extensive hierarchy developed. To accommodate elaborate and often extravagant systems, measures were required to organize into complex and well-funded institutions. Massive building projects followed. Today tourists are wowed by these hundreds of spectacular cathedrals all over Europe, but with hardly any worshippers.
The Reformation was supposed to cure this, but sadly did not. The same division between “clergy” and “laity” prevailed. Moreover, there was a strong emphasis on the doctrine of “freedom of conscience.” This justified various leaders who had differing ideas, often about Communion and Baptism, to form denominations and sects, following their own doctrines and ethnicity. In America, those division have multiplied exponentially far beyond anything we find in Europe.
Our next post will address the difficult question” What can we do about it?
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