“I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to Church.” It’s a fairly common expression to encounter, whether or not you’re a minister like me. It’s a favorite catch-phrase of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, ascribing a certain nobility to those people whose faith has personally transcended the need for outmoded and backwards institutions. The Church, after all, is for hypocrites, and I’m not one of those, and the Church is scuttled by politics, and I’m above that, and the Church is anti-homosexual, and I’m more enlightened than that. And by aligning myself with Jesus as an individual, yet throwing the gathered community of Christians under the bus, I grant myself an elevated spirituality that is unhindered by the difficulties of average (and presumably unthinking) sheeple—er, that is, people. The attitude is similar to the statement, “I love Jesus but not religion,” which has always struck me as deeply and unintentionally ironic. To say I love Jesus but not religion is like saying, “I love food but not eating.” Sure, I can make too much of eating, and I can even rob food of its implicit joys by over-ceremonializing the procedure of eating. I can, indeed, make an idol of “eating.” But as long as eating is the procedure that brings me access to the food I love and need, then it serves its purpose. Religion isn’t bad—it can’t be bad—it’s the things I get to do because I love Jesus. To claim otherwise is to sorely misinterpret the whole of the religious life.
To cultivate a desire to associate with Jesus while spurning his bride, his chosen vehicle to change the world, is to stand on dangerous ground. “You I like, Jeremy. You’re a great guy, I love being with you. But that wife of yours? Liesel? Ugh. What an embarrassment! I’d prefer to just ditch her and hang out with you.” If you said that to me I would begin to gather serious doubts about whether you actually like me, since you feel so free to spit on someone I have committed my life to loving. And when you say essentially the same thing to Jesus I imagine that his response might be similar, and I imagine also that he might begin to think your attitude reflects some further and even graver misunderstandings about what precisely this “Church” thing is all about. And behind all of this I perceive that these attitudes of rejection toward the Church point to a refusal to submit, and this is a refusal that reveals a deep-seated arrogance and pride. There are five ways this shows up in particular.
1) To refuse to submit to the Church is to reject the God-ordained process by which we become Godly persons. It is to say, “I don’t need you.” But you do need the Church. In the Scriptures we are commanded to love, to forgive, to be generous, to serve, and to sacrifice. Where do you first learn these exalted practices if not in the community of God’s people? Where do you practice them? What lie to you ascribe to the power of God if you claim to follow Jesus in his love, forgiveness, generosity, and sacrifice, but refuse to love, forgive, be generous toward, and serve Jesus’ own chosen people? The Church is the gymnasium where we, called out of the world, practice God’s love both as a sign of God’s Kingdom presence and in preparation for our mission as God’s people.
2) To refuse to submit to the Church is to reject the necessary conflict that sharpens and hones us into useful servants for God’s mission. It is to claim, “I will not be hurt by you.” And yet pain, discomfort, and failure, are precisely the mechanisms by which we discover our faults and grow through them. It is easy to be loving when you’re alone—it is far harder when you have to love an actual person sitting across from you. It is easy to be generous when you imagine generosity alone with God in the woods, it is far harder when the brother or sister sitting across from you has tangible needs for which you have practical means. Will you allow yourself to be sharpened, then? Proverbs 27:17 seems to me to be a central verse describing the work of the Church, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” This is not a comfortable and polite process but the rough contact of two intractable pieces of hardness, being brought further and further into sharpness by their persistent grating, one against the other. The purpose of the difficulty is honing, creating and edge which has a purpose and function. Conflict and difficulty in the Church is often precisely the process by which we are brought low from our pride and made useful for God’s Kingdom.
3) To refuse to submit to the Church is to elevate the individual over the community. It is to say, “I am better than you. My judgment of the Church is superior to yours, to even Jesus’ judgment of the Church. I inhabit a privileged position from which I can perceive all of your failures, and I will now distance myself from those failures. Not only am I spiritually superior to you, I will now exhibit that superiority by expressing condemnation of your Church community by means of my withdrawal from it.” This is the arch-hypocrisy. The Church is full of hypocrites, but I’m not one of them. The Church is judgmental, but I am free to judge the Church. The Church is full of hateful people, but I am free to hate the Church. Each of these in turn reflects the elevation of the individual “I,” above the gathered people of God. This is the heart of arrogance, to promote the superiority of self at the expense of others, and it is the essence of pride, to place confidence improperly on my own judgments and thoughts. You are an eye, denying your need for hands or feet, not realizing that it is impossible to live on your own; a coal, thinking it can retain its heat apart from the fire that gives it life.
4) To refuse to submit to the Church is to overlook your own broken participation in God’s people. This is to claim that, “Those people are broken, but I’m not like them.” The Church is indeed broken, because it is made of people, and people are broken. And whenever broken people gather in community their brokenness is present in those communities. The Church has never been a community of perfection, and were it so there would be no place for you or me. Instead, the Church is a community of people who are in the process of finding healing for their brokenness in the Fatherhood of God, at the cross of Christ, and by the power of the Spirit, and that healing is being mediated to them through the gathered community of God’s people serving one another with the gifts of God. Is there a danger of pretence? Of course, because the brokenness extends to every aspect of a community’s identity—and yet, Jesus has not yet given up on loving his Church. What right have you to do so? The only reason would be because your personal perfection has graduated you to a class of post-Church Jesus followers; having discovered perfect personal holiness, you no longer need nor fit in with the gathered community. Funny, isn’t it, how only one person actually qualifies in that way, and how his choice from that perspective of holiness was to give up his life for the Church? Blessed are the poor in spirit! But that’s not you, is it? Because you’re wealthy. Glutted and satiated on your own individualistic spirituality.
5) Lastly, to refuse to submit to the Church is to gravely (and sometimes willfully) misunderstand what the Church is. To say that “I’m a Christian but I don’t go to Church” is to speak an absurdity. There is, in reality, no such thing as “going to Church”—when you believe in Jesus you are Church, you become Church, you are irrevocably Church. To believe in Christ situates you in God’s new people, expressed eternally on earth and in heaven as his Church. Neither you nor I have ever actually gone to Church, but there have been regular times when we have congregated as the Church, coming together in faith to confess our Lord, practice our faith, be encouraged in our identity, and be reminded of the true reality of Heaven which we then take back with us into our workaday lives. Our gathered meetings, Scripture readings, songs, sermons, and ceremonies each serve this edifying purpose—to centre the people of God on the Kingdom of God and the mission of Christ in a fresh and enlivening way. Furthermore, our participation in the gathered community testifies to our unbroken belief that this broken group of people on the way is the great sign and program for God’s Kingdom advance in the world. The Church is no accident, it is God’s sovereign plan for the world. Christ is reigning, even now, through us. That means that this broken house is the only hope for transformation in the world, the only hope for relief from evil, pain, grief, sorrow, and death, and that we members of Christ are sent out weekly as an advance army into enemy territory to seek and save the lost, to bring others into the light of Christ and fellowship with Him, to draw them into the restorative community of people learning to walk with Christ side-by-side.
I believe in the Church because I confess the Church. I believe in the Church because Jesus believes in His Church. And I am weary of the attitude of individuals whose impoverished ecclesiology poisons Christian fellowship with pride. If you believe in Jesus, and yet reject the Church, the word that describes your attitude is disobedience. You are a bad person and you should feel bad.
So, to give the final word to the Scriptures, and in obedience to the command of Hebrews 10:23-25, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Amen and Amen.