Time for Candor

Time for Candor: I’m a Church Planter and I Don’t Believe in the Church!

Tower of Babel

I’ve said it quietly to friends. I’ve suggested it in small groups. I have hinted at it from the pulpit and in my blog postings. It is time forcomplete candor. I don’t believe in the church any longer. At least not what most of us have experienced as church in the western world, specifically the American scene. For more than a decade I have been fond of quoting the poet laureate Robert Southey when he said, “I could believe in this Jesus if it weren’t for that leprous bride the church he drags behind him.” I believe deeply in Jesus. But not the leprous bride. Not any longer! And while I will love her people, I will not invest an iota of energy in her ever again.

Recently, the writings of Paul Zahl and others (Willard, Stott, James Bryan Smith and Addison) have allowed me to articulate theologically what I have believed in a pedestrian way all along: church as institution and/or business is an obstacle to if not an enemy of a grace that saves and sanctifies. Church organized in a way that allows tradition and/or money to control its destiny hinders the Kingdom and advancing the life of Jesus in His followers.

“Emil Brunner’s little-read book The Misunderstanding of the Church (1953) is a devastating critique of the idea of church. Brunner can find almost no evidence in the New Testament for anything like what many Christians consider to be the church. For Brunner, The New Testament describes a fluid and Holy Spirit-filled movement of people gathered together within an experience of God that involves massive individual changes of plan. There is a collective dimension to this: all the early Christians experienced the same thing. Like alien abductees, the first Christians had a shattering experience in common. This brought them together. But this experience was not an institution.”[1]

Not an institution! The church is overly organized. So much so that it often quenches enthusiasm if not the Holy Spirit Himself. I think it was Tozer who said something like that if you take the Holy Spirit out of the church today, 95% of what we do would continue. If you took the Holy Spirit out of the first century church 95% of what they did would come to an end.  Too often the church is consumed with perpetuating itself rather than advancing the Kingdom.

What makes us Anglican? Our liturgy? Our theology? Our English history? Shouldn’t “saved and transformed lives” be always and forever at the top of the list? In fact, the question is wrong. It should be “what makes us Christian?” I am happily Anglican. I am thoroughly Anglican. However, I would like to think I am a saved sinner walking in the footsteps of Jesus, by grace and grace alone. And that is what should make any Christian a Christian.

Institutions, including the church, require allegiance and some times that challenges our higher allegiance to the King and His Kingdom. We have heritage to protect and perhaps inadvertently but consistent with our depravity we are consumed by that (protecting heritage) instead of witnessing and disciple making. Or we have a place in the community to maintain. Our choral program is second to none. It is to be maintained to the detriment of missions. Or building is ages old and must be maintained consistent with best principles of architecture and standards of the beautification board. Dare we ask if the building investment will have an ROI for Jesus? Will it advance the Kingdom?

I knew a pastor in England who couldn’t permission from building preservation commission to install modern loo in his 800 year old church at Heathersett. And his overseers wondered why young people wouldn’t come to the church. Again and again, elements of the institution or the institution itself Kingdom work demand our allegiance and divert our attention and resources. The church advances while the Kingdom hobbles along.

Listen to Dallas Willard’s criticism in The Great Omission. We have exceled in baptizing members into church membership (Church) but failed
miserably at making disciples of Jesus (ekklesia).

In my own Anglican stream of Christian life, we place much emphasis on the liturgical seasons of the church year and church history. I’ve
sat through enough membership classes to know. Meanwhile, we fail to communicate what our best, in Whitefield (for whom our second boy is named) and Wesley (for whom our third boy is about to be named) preached so loudly and clearly, that left to our own devices and desires we are hopelessly bound by sin and we are released from our bondage by the meritorious sacrifice of Jesus and that alone.

I am reminded of a quip. Ushers found a man quite exuberant in the local church one Sunday morning. The ushers told the man he would have to calm down or be escorted out. He said, “But you don’t understand, I foun Jesus.” To which the chief usher responded, “Well, you didn’t find him here.”

It is as if the core of what we believe is embarrassing to the established or institutional church. We hooted down Wesley for preaching in mines and open fields. It is vulgar. It is undignified. Unlike King David, we Anglicans (and often Christians in general) don’t dance.

Case in point, in the early 80’s at the ATO house, we swayed. Dancing was for non-Greeks. All the new boys fell in line. The fraternity had a reputation to uphold. Most institutions do.

And when you organize with hope of not becoming an institution, there remains in our way of church life the question of who will be in charge. Even if keenly aware of and committed to a more organic existence, far too much church life is controlled by money or controlling people or the deadly combination of controlling people who have the ability to control with their money. Controlling people have their agenda. We want to fill the church with people like us. Or we want the best choral program. Or we want to defeat the Episcopal Church. We want to be large. We want to be small (easier to control). You name it. Lots of things compete for the space, the chief value, which should be occupied by “saved and transformed lives.”

This should be no surprise. “The observation of churches, from Orthodox to Roman Catholic to mainline Protestant to evangelical and Pentecostal protestant, always ends in disappointment. I repeat: the observation of churches always ends in disappointment.[2]

Why? To state the utterly obvious again – the church is at best led by justified sinners, saved but not fully sanctified people. At best. I believe it is at times led by unjustified people, folks who know church life well but have not a saving relationship with Jesus. It is both easy and hard to make that statement. Hard because it is not my place to judge someone’s heart. Easy because knowing depravity as I do, best in myself, it is impossible to imagine the church has escaped the sin of the unredeemed and suffers only and always at the hands of its own.

Always end in disappointment? I take exception to Zahl’s universal statement here. I think many are rarely disappointed and for reasons not directly associated with a low anthropology that makes sense of it in the end. Some have abandoned any expectations of the church lest it be in conflict with all other expectations. If you don’t believe in anything you cannot be disappointed. Denial precludes disappointment.

OK. I talked myself out of it. I take it back. Zahl is correct. Every examination of “the church” ends in disappointment.

A neighbor once told me of his father’s last straw with the church. It was over a Habitat for Humanity home. He was sickened by the politics involved. For me, it was one of those aha moments. A light went on. An alarm went off. His father’s frustration came at the point of trying to organize Christians as opposed liberating Christians to be Christian. I suggested his father would find great fulfillment in keeping his tool belt handy and simply stopping at homes as the Holy Spirit led. No target. No rules. Just Spirit inspired love and service.

Here is the thing. If we are to disappoint, let’s disappoint in being what Jesus started and not what evolved from those early days. So let us move beyond a critique of what has shaped us, the Church, to an affirmation of that which we want to be a part, the ekklesia.

Let us first affirm the church of which Jesus spoke, the ekklesia or called out community of faith that was realized at Pentecost. The church was a fellowship of believers (Acts 2:42-47), a Body of those led to by the Holy Spirit to deem Christ as head, head of everything that matters (Col. 1:15-20).

It resisted regulations. See the minimalist approach of Acts 15. No circumcision! Even here one wonders if they did not go too far in standard setting in an effort to reconcile Christianity to Judaism. Here we yield to the Holy Spirit as inspirer of the Scriptures and trust the apostolic leaders got it right.

It resisted institutional authority (Acts 3:1-10). The New Testament church, ekklesia or called out community “was an astonishingly well-ordered whole without such a formal hierarchy, without such delimitation of competence and regulation of rank. And not only a well-ordered but also a coherent whole. The unity of the Christian fellowship flowed from the living Word and Spirit of Christ dwelling within it.”[3]

The church or community of faith in Jesus sought unity among believers (1 Cor. 1:10-17, Romans 12:16) but with an unsurpassed awareness that depravity would be a perennial challenge to it. Think about Romans 12. Our individual response to the Gospel is be transformed and offer ourselves as sacrifices. First words that follow when Paul turns (at verse 3) to the communal experience of saving faith? “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” So necessary to be the church is the absence of any abiding distinctions. See also Romans 12:16 and 1 Cor. 12.

Consequently, the ekklesia or NT church resisted formal hierarchy. While most demurred to the apostles, the apostles “never claimed this ascendancy as formal right accruing to them through their institution as apostles, but rather in everything they strive to gain the assent of the communion and submitted themselves to the test of authentication by signs and wonders in the power of the Holy Ghost.”[4] See 2 Cor. 12:12.

Rather, the community of faith lives inspired by the Holy Spirit in an environment where no one person, regardless of role, is of greater value than another. Being a Benjaminite or Pharisee elevates no one. Nor does being a Mellon or published theologian! Think of the implications within. Think of the implications without. No more reserved parking spaces for the rector or headmaster. The beloved of God who is coming is FINALLY as critical to the equation as to the beloved already here.

And here is where a return to the beginning yields a more favorable result in the end. No founders and latecomers. Jesus is the only founder worthy of a privileged position. And those subsequent founders real and perceived, henceforth preserve primarily their own life in Jesus, loving as He first loved us.

We have so far to go to return to the original vision. We have been almost irreversibly shaped by something that Jesus didn’t start. We
are loathed to sacrifice what we believe church to be. Here is where grace serves. Grace, and grace alone, has the power to transform us into the likeness of the Son. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to cause us first to relinquish our image of church in order to make room for the image to come. This image emptied himself and died that others might live fully and to boot, he never bothered counting the cost. A church shaped by that image would be worthy of our devotion and allegiance, always, of course, subordinated to the King and Kingdom.

[1] Paul
F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology
of Everyday Life
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 226-27.

[2] Paul
F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology
of Everyday Life
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 228.

Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, (Cambridge: The Lutterworth
Press, 1952), 32.

[4] Emil
Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press,
1952), 32.

9 Responses to “Time for Candor”

  • Holly P Says:

    Well said, John. You put my thoughts into words.

  • John Richardson Says:

    Related to this blog post my dear brother Jon Shuler posted the following elsewhere:

    Well John, now that you got that off your chest, I hope you hold on to the great mystery that there is NO church without sinful men, but there is a Bride (even leprous until cleansed) being perfected unto that Great Day. She has flesh and blood, as well as Spirit, by God’s immutable plan.

    The New Testament can not be used to separate the incarnate church from the mystical church. It is not Biblical, nor Anglican.

    Again, glad you got it off your chest. Now build Her up with the authority you have been given.It comes to you from Her Lord.

    Pax Christi.

    Thank you Jon for calling me out. It is cathartic to put it all on paper. I am about done. I think I have ecclesiology in perspective.

    Please know that I had no desire to separate the mystical church from the incarnate one. Indeed, the New Testament one is already incarnate. I am simply saying that the one we’ve inherited is in many ways far afield from the community Jesus started. Under the principle of “forever reforming” we would do well to look to it as we lead into the future. There is a true longing in the hearts of believers (indeed even unbelievers) for a church or community of faith that empties itself for the welfare of others.

  • Doug Warren Says:

    John: I too have been similarly disillusioned in the Church (capital C) but never the church. When I find myself in a state of frothy and abject annoyance with some inane stance of the leadership I remind myself of thewords of Edward Roland Sill; “Earth bears no balsam for mistakes, men crown the knave and
    scourge the tool that did his will, but thou O Lord, be merciful to me a fool”

  • Robert Says:

    An incredible call to action. How dare you go against the norm, John. Thank you for doing so. An incredible church you are building.

  • John Richardson Says:

    Love the quote Doug. Of course we too often elevate the unworthy and dismiss the faithful and often simultaneously. It is the humility of the fool that we need to do church well. We are all in the same boat. Brunner points out in a variety of ways that the hierarchy within the New Testament does not obliterate the great leveler, sin. We all are equally in need of a savior daily. We vacillate between knave and tool. Sometimes the church forgets that and pronounces from too lofty of a position.

    In the end, I am concerned the overly organized and less organic church that has a payroll to meet or building campaign to fund is more susceptible to the mistake highlighted in the Sill quote.

  • John Richardson Says:

    Good to hear from you always Robert. I don’t feel particularly daring perhaps because the Gospel always rubs against the grain of “norm.” Unless, of course, the goal has been achieved and we are all Christlike, individually and collectively? Somewhat unlikely, huh?

  • John Richardson Says:

    Borrowed from the Mockingbird Fall Conference site:

    The great theologian Robert Capon once wrote, “Grace cannot prevail until law is dead, until moralizing is out of the game…, until our fatal love affair with the law is over — until, finally and for good, our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”

    A bold sentiment, perhaps, but also a true one. Keeping score is what we do, either consciously or not: in our work, in our friendships, in our marriages, yes, even in our spiritual lives. Who’s winning and who’s losing? Who’s pulling ahead? Who’s falling behind? Who owes us and to whom are we indebted? Where does it all end?! Scorekeeping in life is as exhausting as it is prevalent. But the Gospel is Good News to people who aren’t measuring up, a word of relief for those in need of one.

    This capture one of the concerns about organizing. We keep score. Conversions, baptisms, attendance, giving. You name it, we count it. We measure on the world’s terms. If we stopped there that might be OK. But then we compare. And it is possible that none of these stats communicate the one thing we were placed here to do – communicate grace/share love.

  • Greg Evans Says:

    Thanks for your restlessness and zeal, my brother.

    One thing that I long for in church is some consistency between the gospel of grace proclaimed in liturgy, word, and sacrament, and the gospel proclaimed silently through the life of the church, including its ecclesiology.

    I have a dream… that one day our ecclesiology would be flexible enough and humble enough to not succumb to the allure of life-killing law.

    I have a story… a dear friend, an ordained pastor, was attending another church from another mainline Protestant tradition. He and his family, decided that they would like to settle in that church for at least a time. The church was happy to have them, and soon they began speaking to him about serving in a leadership capacity. He asked me what I thought. I replied, “I think it would be a picture of grace, for them to welcome you into leadership, and at the same time not require you to ‘jump through ecclesiological hoops’. But I can’t imagine that happening.”

    Sure enough, over time, it became clear that his participation in the life of the church would be hindered significantly unless he “joined the fraternity” and became ordained within that tradition. He declined. Not because he was so married to his tradition, but because he and I alike are weary and bored with ecclesiology that focuses mainly on minor distinctions and refuses to acknowledge the unity the unity that the Spirit creates and affirms.

    So to any of you clergy out there… When was the last time you had someone from another tradition preach for you? How often do you invite the priesthood of believers to teach and preach? When was the last time you sat in the pews or slept in on a Sunday morning?

    As a priest and control freak in recovery, I have been in the pews for some three years now, and the view is refreshing! I find that the controlling nature of most pastors and clergy is one of the greatest hindrances to the fullness of the Body of Christ. It is great to be partially free from the illusion that I defend the faith and protect the Body by guarding my own myopic paradigm of what the church should be. So why don’t we just let go of our controlling grip, just a little, and see what happens?

  • John Richardson Says:

    Brunner himself on the New Testament Ecclesia being the Incarnate church:

    “The Ecclesia of which the apostles speak was thus not simply a theory or ideal springing from the vision of Christ; it was also the sphere of the new life grounded in the historical fact of redemption through Jesus Christ, and in His effective presence and power as living Head of the body. When this is recognized it can be clearly seen how baseless is the reproach so often levelled against the view here put forward, that it does not take seriously the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in His Church. The opinion that the institutional Church is the Incarnation, that is, the concretely historical form, the form of a servant in which Jesus Christ is historically manifest, amounts to nothing more less than a denial of that the apostolic Ecclesia is real fact of history. The New Testament writings with their picture of Ecclesia show that the Lord created for himself a body which was certainly not a Church, but a spiritual communion of person. The opinion that to take seriously the Incarnation requires that one should vindicate ecclesiasticism and allow the historical Church to be the necessary embodiment of the exalted Lord overlooks the fact that He was truly embodied in the Ecclesia, but that this embodiment, the Ecclesia, had not the character which it later assumed: the character of an institution. It is to make a considerable petitio principii to postulate that the continued incarnation of the exalted Lord could only happen in the form of ecclesiastical institutional development, and it would be an assertion to which the assertion to which the New Testament itself gives the lie, and which can only be made by those who regard Church history as of greater importance than the New Testament witness.”

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