The Church: Who Needs It?
This is an article about being a member of a particular church. Does that strike you as odd? Old-fashioned? Irrelevant? A waste of time and money? After all, there may be a lot of stuff on the market about the church and even more stuff about being a Christian, but just how much attention is paid to church membership?
Church and Christian divorced
Let's face it, the tendency over the last number of decades has been to divorce the two. The church is one thing and being a Christian is quite another. At least that is how it comes across in the talk of many people. When they hear the word "church," they think of a building. Their minds conjure up the image of a stuffy, old edifice, filled with people dressed in fancy dresses and neat suits. They connect it with old fashioned hymns, a man on the pulpit who drones on and on, and an organ that alternately blares and blasts.
On the other hand, when many of these same people consider the word "Christian" (a real one, that is) they see something quite different. They picture before them a person who is vibrant, alive, and dynamic. They consider such a person alive because he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Flowing out of that union are such activities as prayer, Scripture reading, meditation, and witnessing.
What we are thus left with is a set of conflicting impressions. In one corner we have the church which is more dead than alive. In the opposite corner we have Christians who are filled with energy. At least that seems to be the prevailing picture in the minds of many.
Yet we need to look beyond the picture and ask "Is it a true picture? Is this really the way that we are supposed to think about the church and the Christian?" Not if we go by what the Bible teaches. It does not pit the one against the other. It does not denigrate the one and elevate the other. Rather it holds both in very high esteem. It sees them as intimately connected. It asserts that the church cannot be without Christians and Christians cannot be without the church. They belong together.
The truth of the matter is that we are not so far out when we speak of "church membership" or of the church being composed of member Christians. Strictly speaking, as we shall see in due time, the Bible even urges us to view church membership as a great privilege and a rich blessing.
Before we turn to that, however, we need to pay some more attention to the church. Why does it receive so much bad press today? Why do so many scorn it and others ignore it? Why is it treated with about as much loyalty as the local department store?
It has not always been that way. As a matter of fact, much of this negativism about the church is of relatively recent origin. More than one analyst sees it as a trend that began in the 1970s. Prior to that those who considered themselves Christians, were still fairly church-minded. If they needed to be hospitalized and were asked for their denominational affiliation, they would invariably state: "Protestant" or "Roman Catholic." In the case of the former, they would be even more descriptive and volunteer without hesitation that they considered themselves to be either "Anglican," "United," "Presbyterian," "Baptist," "Pentecostal," or "Reformed." At the same time those who viewed themselves as "atheist" made that admission with a certain degree of hesitation, even embarrassment.
No longer! The world has changed! Today people play down the matter of church affiliation. In some cases they are even ashamed to admit that they belong to a particular federation or denomination. As proof of this consider only the modern trend of naming churches. Many use the word "community" and declare in big, bold letters that they are "The Community Church." If you want to know which denomination they belong to you have to read the fine print or ask the pastor. Only he knows and can give you the complete goods on this church.
What all of this testifies to is that we are living in a world of shifting paradigms. What kind of shifts am I referring to?
From denominationalism to trans-denominationalism
The first shift which is readily apparent is that over the last number of decades we have moved away from considering ourselves part of a certain denomination to part of the world-wide church of God. A number of factors have paved the way for this trend. In the first place, there is the impact of the ecumenical movement which gained steam after World War II. By bringing different churches together from all over the world and stressing their unity, it fostered the idea that Christians need to look beyond the local or national situation and develop an eye for the international one.
Secondly, theological instruction and literature supported and buttressed this drive towards organizational unity by teaching that your membership in the local church could not in any way compare with your membership in the universal church. Together with all true believers you needed to concentrate on being part of "the body of Christ," a biblical expression that was said to point to the larger, greater, and higher invisible church.
Thirdly, the rise of modern means of communication and transportation has aided and abetted this tendency to think in terms of the bigger picture. People used to read about people in other parts of the world. Now they step on a plane and visit them. Letters used to be the main means of communication and they took weeks and months. Now, by means of e-mail, you send a letter one minute and wait a few more and receive a reply, or else you can pick up the telephone and have instant contact. The world has shrunk, barriers have come down, and our thinking is done in more global terms.
Hence, we are left with a way of thinking that is very broad in terms of geography and theology. In and of itself that need not be all bad. The people of God have a calling to be truly ecumenical. They should have an eye for the big picture. There is also no reason for them to shun the modern means of transportation and communication. The problem is, however, that they are fixating on the big picture and no longer have an eye for the smaller picture. They take pride in thinking about the church in universal terms but become uncomfortable and self-conscious when they consider the church local. They are in a position of fundamental imbalance.
From the institutional to the subjective
A second shift that is discernible has to do with a shift away from the institutional to the subjective. What do I mean by that? It has reference to the fact that many Christians no longer deem their membership in a particular local church to be of much importance. What counts is personal fulfillment.
After all, ours is predominantly a subjective age. We do not think so much in terms of labels, structures, or historic identities. Our thinking is governed by feelings, emotions, and relationships. People do not so much ask "what is the truth?" as "what can this truth do for me?" Whether worship conforms in all respects to the will of God as revealed in the Bible does not so much matter as whether or not it grips you, moves you, and thrills you. The fact that you may be Roman Catholic, Presbyterian Baptist, or Pentecostal is of little importance as long as you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Saviour. This age stresses heart over mind.
Once again, as we noted with the first shift, this is not all bad news. It has to be admitted that the past was not perfect either. Then people all too often placed their hope and confidence in the church of which they were a member instead of in the church's Lord. They placed more emphasis on having an organized system of doctrine then on living it out on a daily basis. Their minds were busy but their hearts often remained cold, their emotions untouched, and their attitudes unchanged.
Perhaps these developments are best described in terms of pendulum swings. We move back and forth stressing institutions then persons, knowledge then feelings, mind then heart, the cerebral then the subjective. There are times when we see only the one and have no eye for the other with the result that we find ourselves in a position of one-sidedness. We are quick to adopt an either-or mentality. Yet what we really need to do is aim for balance and equilibrium. Our commitment should be both institutional and personal, rational and relational.
From loyalty to consumerism
The third shift that needs our attention is one away from a mentality of loyalty to existing institutions to one that is consumer oriented and market driven. Again, to understand this it may be helpful to think of the past when people not only identified themselves with a certain church but also considered themselves very tied to it. They were proud of the fact that for decades, in some cases even centuries, their family had been Anglican or Reformed. To have your children baptized in the village church, to profess your faith there or be confirmed there, to be married there, and to be laid to rest in the cemetery behind it represented a way of life. It spoke of roots and love and loyalty. It said a great deal about you and your family.
Is that still the way it is? Perhaps in some of the rural places of this world, but for most people living as they do in the cities, it represents the picture of a bygone age. Loyalty, especially to the church, is viewed by most as little more than a quaint relic. It has long been replaced. But by what? Why by the consuming, shopping mentality of the late twentieth century. Just like people draw up a shopping list, check the flyers for the best bargains and head for the nearest sales outlets, so many Christians identify their spiritual needs and then go looking for the church that can best meet them. There is very little of the old attitude, wherein you stuck with your church through thick and thin. There are not many who will fight for the traditions of the past or champion what they consider to be the necessary changes to meet the future. Most people just walk. They do not want the hassle of having to defend something they hold dear or of pushing for improvements. No wonder a leading Canadian sociologist has said that the growth of evangelical Christianity, at least in Canada, is largely due to the "procreation and circulation of the saints."
Yes, and how the saints do circulate. I was made mindful of this on annual basis. Every summer our family used to spend at least a few weeks at a favourite vacation spot in the interior of British Columbia, and there for about four or five years in a row we would meet the same family. The first year that we met they belonged to a Lutheran church. The second year they were Baptist because they liked the Sunday School program there better. The third year they were Alliance because that appealed more to their teenage children. The fourth year they were something else because they found the Alliance pastor too bossy.
Was this family odd or exceptional? Hardly! If I look at the area where our family lives it seems to be a normal feature of church life. Evangelical Christians are shopping here, there, and everywhere. For a while they are in this church because the worship is fun, then they move to another because the pastor is so nice, then it is on to a church with a really good youth program, then they opt for a church that is into healing. They are constantly on the move. The result is that many never grow any roots. They do not stay in one church long enough. In one respect at least they seem intent on imitating their great forefather Abraham. He was a wandering Aramean, and they are doing the same. Only what he did to places, they are doing to churches.
Of course, in making these comments I may be creating the impression that I am all for the status quo, that Christians should never rock the boat and sever ties. But that is not so. There can be circumstances that force one to move on. That can vary from a church that tolerates corrupt leadership, to a church that no longer adheres to the truth of the gospel, to a church that fails to hold its members accountable for their beliefs and behaviours, to a church that tolerates all manner of deviant sexual lifestyles. Sometimes people are forced out, at other times they have to leave for the sake of their spiritual survival. I do not question the legitimacy of such actions.
I do, however, question the conduct of those who call themselves Christians and have a consumer mentality towards the church. Why? Because I am convinced that this represent, an unbiblical approach.
Some of you may be of the opinion that it makes little sense to turn to the Bible and expect it to be able to give an answer to the issue before us. After all, the Bible does not know about the phenomenon of different churches. In the days of the OT there was one church and it was identified with the nation of Israel. In the NT there was still one church even though Gentiles were later received into it. As a result such situations can hardly be compared to our times and it would be unrealistic for us to expect the Bible to utter the final word on this matter.
Before we buy into such an easy dismissal of the Bible's role, we would do well to plumb a little deeper. For while it is true that our times cannot be equated with biblical times, it would be an oversimplification, to think that the Bible has nothing to say on the issue at hand.
For starters, we need to realize that the biblical world was not the world of the rugged individualist. It may tell us about an Esau who loved the outdoors and was adept at hunting, but he is hardly proof that individualism was the accepted and admired approach to life. Anyone who is familiar with the world of the Middle East knows that individualism was not the norm. The norm was the family, the clan, the tribe, and the nation. The norm was the village and the town. Corporate solidarity was an accepted feature of life. Indeed, it is still that way in many parts of the world.
Indeed, have you ever asked yourself, "Why is it that people in the Western world are so disturbed about those stories in the Bible that refer to a whole family dying for the sins of one man?" We read about an Achan (Josh 7) who was stoned together with his sons and daughters, even his livestock, and we think it grossly unfair. We read in the Third Commandment about God punishing the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations, and we want to cry "Foul!" Why do we react in this manner? By and large because we take a very individualistic approach to our humanity and to human conduct; whereas, in the world of the Bible there was much more of a stress on the social unit. People were never viewed in isolation. Why, their very names tied them to their fathers and clans. You were "Jacob, son of..." or "Elisabeth, daughter of..." You were "a member of the tribe of..." In a way these relationships defined you as a human being.
What all of this means is that the lone ranger kind of Christian that is often presented as the model today in North America would have been viewed as a very strange species indeed by believers in Bible times. The idea that as a child of God you owe no loyalty or are not responsible for your fellow believers would have been considered absurd.
Personal faith and communal responsibility
So where does that leave us? Does the biblical rejection of individualism mean that faith is solely a group thing? Not at all, for what we need to realize is that while the Bible does not know of a faith that is individual, private, and flighty, it does know of a faith that is personal. Indeed, it speaks of a faith that is personal but which operates in a communal context.
What do I mean by that? Well, turn to the Book of Psalms and ask yourself, "What kind of faith does it reflect?" In part it reveals a faith that is deeply personal. It is replete with "I" – "I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart" (9:1), "I love you, O LORD, my strength" (18:1), "I have trusted in the LORD without wavering" (26:1), "I trust in God's unfailing love forever and ever" (52:8), "I will extol the LORD with all my heart" (111:1), "I will praise the LORD all LORD life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live" (146:2).
At the same time, however, the same Book of Psalms reminds us time and again that this personal faith functions within a community of believers. Psalm 14 expresses the wish "that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!" (v. 7) Psalm 16 refers to "the saints who are in the land" (v. 3). In Psalm 22 David says, "I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you" (v. 22). Psalm 48 makes it very plain that this God is not anyone's private property when it says "For this God is our God forever and ever" (v. 14). Turn to Psalm 90 and you cannot help see that it is filled with the pronoun "us" – "teach us," "satisfy us," "make us glad," "may the favour of the LORD our God rest upon us."
What these passages, and many others, show us is that in the Old Testament part of the Bible the faith of believers lives and flourishes in the wider framework of the people of Israel. Believers have a living relationship with God and at the same time see themselves as belonging to and being part of the broader faith community. They do not consider themselves to be loners. They do not talk as if their faith is a purely private thing between them and God. No, they realize that their personal faith in God cannot be divorced from membership in the covenant nation.
What about the New Testament?
Now some may be inclined to dismiss this as "the OT picture" and insist that "the NT picture" is different. Yet a contrast here between OT and NT cannot be maintained. If anything the NT presents us with this same stress on personal faith and its communal connections. In Matthew 1:21 we are told that Mary's son will be called Jesus "because he will save his people from their sins." Elsewhere in the NT we are repeatedly reminded too that Jesus has not come to save loose, unconnected people. No, he has come to save "his people," "his flock," "his body," "his sheep," "his disciples."
A cursory look at the epistles in the NT reveals that most of Paul's are addressed to churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica. If they are not addressed to churches, they are addressed to groups of believers scattered throughout Asia Minor (cf. Hebrews, James, Peter, Jude). The only letters that can be said to have an individual address are the ones that Paul wrote to Timothy; however, even those were not meant purely for his private consumption. Suffice it to say, therefore, that the NT is consistent with the OT when it comes to viewing faith as having a communal dimension to it.
At the same time the NT also makes it abundantly clear that faith is personal. Only those who believe in the Son will not perish but receive the gift of eternal life (John 3:16). Only those who share the faith of Abraham are the true children of Abraham (Rom 4:16). Only those who persevere in faith will receive what has been promised (Heb 10:36). In short, personal faith in the Saviour Jesus is a fundamental necessity if one is to be saved.
Yet such a faith does not operate in a vacuum. It is not something purely vertical. In other words, faith is not something private. It is not simply and only a word that defines a relationship that exists between you and God. No, faith grows, matures, functions, and becomes evident within the context of the church community.
So what about the church?
In the final analysis what this means is that it is not possible to play Christians off against the church. It is not biblical to assert that as a Christian you do not really need the church. Neither can you defend biblically the view that faith is purely a matter between you and God. If you consider yourself a Christian then you have a duty to join the church, to promote its fellowship, and to be part of its ministry to the world.