Recently, I’ve encountered several posts on Xanga and Revelife regarding Christians leaving the Church. Some, from Brant Hansen, who often blogs about his experiences leaving the “typical American 501-c-3 church structure”. Some, from various bloggers who talk about their experiences “opting out” of church attendance, some saying that they feel closer to God when not “going to church” regularly. One blogger encouraged her readers to “skip church” this Easter, to feed the homeless or help a neighbor instead, because “You’ll be doing more good than you would sitting on a wooden bench and listening to a story.” And I already referenced Harold Camping in this blog, the owner of Family Radio, who teaches that all true Christians must leave their local churches, that every local church and every denomination is currently “under the rule of Satan.”
It’s not my intention to lump these people together–they’re all coming from different places and have different reasons for saying what they’re saying. Some are questioning the core of what the church is, some only questioning the trappings. But collectively they’re all asking one question. Why should people “go to church?” What does it mean to “go to church?” What good does it do? What’s it for?
The English word “church” comes to us from the Greek–it’s derived from the word kuriakon, which means “The Lord’s House” or “The Master’s House.” But did you know that kuriakon is not the word used for “church” in the Bible?
In the Bible, the Greek word we translate as “church” is ekklesia. That literally means, “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” It’s the same word used to refer to the angry crowd in Acts 19. In other words, originally the “church” was the people, not the house.
Jesus himself used the word ekklesia twice. One was in reference to attempted reconciliation between two feuding brothers, and probably is not relevant; in the other, Jesus says to Peter, “Thou art Peter (petros), and upon this rock (petra) I will build my ekklesia; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus specifically refers to his ekklesia, his Church, as something he himself will build.
The next time we encounter the word is in Acts. Jesus has already died, resurrected, and ascended. The Holy Spirit just came down on the followers of Jesus. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, just preached an ubersermon–summarizing Jesus’ ministry and mission, and essentially acting as the foundation for what was coming next–and a whole bunch of random people joined them because of it. And then we are told this. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord daily added to the ekklesia those who were being saved.”
You could think of this passage in Acts 2 as the birth of the church. This was its founding.
So. What do we know so far, from looking at the church’s origins? What was the church, originally?
–the church was an assembly of people, consisting of all the followers of Jesus (and thus dedicated, as all things the followers of Jesus do should be, to the glorification of God)
–Jesus claimed that he would build the church
–Jesus claimed that hell would not be able to defeat the church
–The church was devoted to the teaching of the apostles
–The church was devoted to the “breaking of bread” (Communion/fellowship)
–The church was devoted to prayer
–The members of the church held their possessions communally, and gave to anyone who had need
–They met in the temple daily, not just weekly. It’s not until Acts 20 that we see them slowing down to once-a-week meetings.
–They met in each others’ houses
–They ate together
I’m not necessarily saying this is exactly how the church must look like in the modern day (for one thing there’s no temple anymore), but I do want to look at this as seeing where the church began.
“Church isn’t where you meet. Church isn’t a building. Church is what you do. Church is who you are. Church is the human outworking of the person of Jesus Christ. Let’s not go to Church, let’s be the Church.”
2) The Modern Church
If the early church was a family-like communal assembly who lived and ate together, who gave to anyone who had need, and who were devoted to fellowship with one another… well, many modern churches have strayed far from their roots. (Don’t get me wrong, oftentimes the individuals contribute to the problem too, as I’ve blogged about before, but equally often the churches are at fault.)
If you want proof, you can ask those Christians who have stopped attending regularly. Ask them what bothered them so. You may hear things like, “Questions weren’t tolerated–I was told to just shut up and accept whatever they were teaching.” Or things like “Everyone was so cold and unfriendly, and no-one would ever talk to me because I was different.” Perhaps it was an obsession with programs–with VBSes, Outreach Breakfasts, Coffeehouses, Youth Concerts, Over-55-Ministries, Drama Teams, and so many other Good-Things-To-Do-For-Jesus that its members became like the busy priest in the Good Samaritan story. Perhaps it was a judging attitude, a spirit of gossip within the assembly that would tear someone to shreds at the first scent of rumor. Perhaps it was something more serious, like abuse.
I can offer up many examples of my own. I’ve encountered the dark slimy underbelly of the Church. I’ve lived through two church splits, five scandals (three sexual, two financial), various rebellions, vitriolic church meetings where the words being thrown around would blister the paint off the steeple… I’ve had nasty rumors spread about me, ministries I was working in undermined, I’ve been shunned and ostracized, and once had my ministry disbanded while I was away on vacation and nobody would tell me why…
Finding a local assembly that actually tries to live out the familial communion described in Acts 2 is like finding a four-leafed clover. It’s far rarer than it should be. And so many of us have been hurt badly in the name of the Church.
Sometimes it amazes me that I’m still a Christian at all. Sometimes, what with all I’ve seen Christians do, I’m surprised I haven’t kicked the Church to the curb and said, “Heck with you.” Really, it’s the person of Jesus that keeps me coming back. I find myself like Peter in John 6, when Jesus asked if the disciples wanted to leave, and Peter said, “Where else should we go? You’re the one who has the words of life.”
But sometimes it’s hard. And I find myself, like so many other Christians I know, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier to just head off on my own, to follow God without the Church.
3) Reasons for Staying
But I can’t leave. I find myself unable to. The One whom I follow doesn’t let me. I mean, sure, I play hooky every now and then–I’ve cut church to go on vacation or to go hiking or to propose marriage to a girl, and I don’t think I’m a bad Christian or that God’s ticked at me because of that. If I did skip church on Easter to go feed the homeless, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. But I find myself unable to just stop regularly attending a local ekklesia. I haven’t been given permission to do so.
As I look at Scripture, and listen to my Master, I notice a few applicable principles arising.
–Christians need community.
Jesus himself built the ekklesia, the assembly. And he built it for our benefit. We have God, but we need other people too–Adam had a closer walk with God than I’ll ever have, and yet God said of Adam, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Paul expounds on this in 1 Corinthians 12. He uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ–that all the members of the assembly are like body parts. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!'” Our complementary gifts and talents enable us to do more together than we can do individually. We can support each other and assist each other.
So when the author of Hebrews warns us to not forsake “the assembling of ourselves together… but exhorting one another…” I have to take it seriously. Because I believe it’s for my benefit to assemble with others somehow, to meet with other Christians. This doesn’t necessarily have to be in a stereotypical “church” setting, but it does have to be with other Christians who can hold me accountable and help me out.
(I’ve noticed that Brant Hansen, though he talks about “leaving the church,” still meets with several other believers in a home setting. This, I believe, is still an ekklesia. So though Brant has left the “501-c-3 church structure,” I don’t believe he has quite left the church–a group of Christians meeting in someone’s house is just as much the Church as the congregation of a megachurch. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.”)
–Jesus established the ekklesia
I already cited how Jesus claimed he would “build his church” on Peter, and how I believe that came to pass in Acts 2. I think he did more than just establish the assembly itself, though. I think Jesus has a hand in basic church structure.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that “…And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” God appointed. These gifts are God-appointed, including teachers and apostles. I believe that the concept of church leadership is set up by God. In other passages, Paul talks about the qualifications of “overseer” and “deacon”–these positions are biblical. I don’t believe we can just ignore such things.
So if my only ekklesia is meeting with some Christians at Denny’s on Friday nights, but nobody’s really in charge, there’s no pastoral or mentoring role, there’s nobody I’m submitting to, and I’m not accountable to anyone’s authority… I don’t think I’m fully in a Scriptural role. I’ve made a start–I’m in an ekklesia, and that’s good. But God ordained the leadership structure too. How can I ignore that without being in disobedience? Now, if my meeting at Denny’s is led by one or more facilitators/mentors/pastors, if they are responsible for making sure our doctrine doesn’t get screwy, and if I am accountable to them, I think that’s more like the biblical model.
God establishes leaders over us within the ekklesia. I believe that this is right and proper, and that we cannot correctly walk the Christian faith while we are under the leadership of no-one but God. While I believe that leaders themselves must be held accountable to someone else, that no doctrine should be swallowed without question, that abusive leaders should not be heeded… nevertheless, we cannot throw out the concept of church leadership because of the failings of some.
–The Church doesn’t end
In Revelations, we see the Bride of Christ–an archetypal metaphor for the Church herself. She is radiant, glorious. And earlier, Jesus said that hell would not prevail against his church.
There is no Scriptural justification to say that Jesus has abolished the assembly, nor that he ever will.
“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her: spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.
4) In Summation
I’ve struggled with the concept of church. So many modern churches have failed to live up to our Master’s standards. Churches have hurt rather than helped, and have abused the sheep rather than pastoring them.
But in the end, I cannot leave. Because my Master himself established the assembly for my benefit. And if I am to follow in his footsteps, and am to call myself obedient to him, I must be in an ekklesia. I cannot invite Jesus to my home but leave his Bride at the door–if I invite him, his wife comes too.
This does not mean the assembly I’m in must look like a traditional church. There doesn’t need to be a steeple. It doesn’t have to have tax-exempt status. It doesn’t have to have stained glass windows, a baptistery, or even a building. It doesn’t have to have programs, age-categorized ministries, building funds or VBS. But it must have Christians glorifying God through fellowship, communion, teaching, leadership, prayer, and helping those who need help.